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September 19, 2009

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My trip to the island of Rhodes: A colossal medieval surprise

Greek isles offer surprising getaways. Attracted by a small chapter in the "Lonely Planet" guide, I headed to the Greek island of Rhodes, which is relatively little known in China. Among my friends who have toured Europe, only a few have been to Greece and none of them knows about Rhodes.

Rhodes is famous, however, for one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Colossus of Rhodes, a bronze statue of the Greek sun god Helios that stood at the entrance to the harbor for 50 years at around 290 AD.

However, on the way from the Rhodes airport to the hotel, my heart sank. Where was the beauty and history? As my Turkish-born driver excitedly talking about an upcoming festival on the island, I looked with dismay at the plain houses that flanked the highway.

Several big carnival rides and game vendors of stuffed toys made it even worse. I was shocked that I had flown across half the planet, from Shanghai to Dubai (UAE) to Athens, and then to a European island that reminded me of a Southeast Asian village plus a children's park in Shanghai.

As my dismay increased, the taxi suddenly slid through a yellow arched gate. Then another world emerged -- the old town of Rhodes, an almost fully preserved town where the Knights of St John dwelled in the Middle Ages.

Abruptly, the road turned into a narrow, zigzagging path paved with ancient cobblestones. The quaint buildings here were simple, earth-tone stucco from hundreds of years ago.

The driver maneuvered through the old town to our hotel, a renovated Turkish mansion recommended by "Lonely Planet." It was quiet and cozy. The bedroom was dominated by a high old-fashioned bed that I had to climb onto.

The "private bathroom" was down the hall and I was given an old-fashioned key. Signs on the wall reminded me to close the window to prevent feral cats from coming in. Very early next morning, I was awakened by a rooster crowing and a church bell tolling.

Like an enormous dolphin basking in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Crete, Rhodes had a tumultuous history that reached a peak during the 213 years of the knights' rule since 1309.

Its harbor became one of Western Europe's gateways to the East not only for commodities but also for ideas. According to Elias Kollias' "The Knights of Rhodes," new ideas about society, philosophy and art reached Rhodes from all parts of Europe as a consequence of the multinational membership of the knights' order.

The Order of the Knights of St John was an international organization with members from many countries of Latin Europe, grouped by their different "tongues." In Rhodes the knights were of seven "tongues" -- Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, England and Germany.

Each tongue maintained its own inn in Rhodes, where its members assembled and offered hospitality to eminent visitors from Western Europe.

The island is known for the knights' castles and fortifications.

In the old town are several museums showcasing the knights' life in Rhodes. All are housed in high-ceiling old buildings with gray pigeons flying in and out.

Among them are the 14th-century Palace of the Grand Masters, which stood at the highest point of the town; the archeological museum located in a 15th-century knights' hospital and the Monastery of St Catherine.

Their wide-ranging exhibits include architecture, visual arts, jewelry design, history and politics.

A detailed chart shows the annual salary in gold of the knights' masters and ordinary soldiers in different periods.

Exquisite mosaics on the floors were patterned with fish, wine cups, flowers, horses and the nine muses. The harmonious and complex patterns of different colors were endlessly intriguing.

Apart from museums and nice beaches, the island should be appreciated at night, especially in some quiet corners away from the sea of restaurants and shops in the touristy Turkish Quarter.

In Rhodes the moon changes colors, from bright yellow to light red, glowing on the thick, high medieval walls and castles. The Knights' Street is breathtakingly grand yet very quiet.

Trees around the island have straight trunks with billowing branches that look like a cloud.

Walking at night in the old town was like walking in a medieval fairy tale. My feet were "massaged" by the cobblestones that had been traveled by knights on horseback. Occasionally I passed a family sitting on their doorstep, drinking beer, smoking, chatting and listening to pleasant music from a radio.

The old town is home to a number of expatriates. My Belgian hotel manager said he had been happy every day during the last seven years in Rhodes.

A taxi driver from the UK moved his whole family to the island after a trip three years ago. He traded his house in the UK for a house in the old town and one in Lindos, a nearby historical site.

It seemed Rhodes is still a magnetic, attracting people of different "tongues."

I spent the last afternoon in Rhodes on the terrace of the hotel, offering a beautiful view of the old town.

The sound of the wind blowing through the narrow passages and castle ramparts reminded me of words from the film "My Life in the Ruins" that I watched on the flight to Athens.

The protagonist, an American woman guide, asks visitors to listen to the sound of the wind blowing through the columns of the Parthenon on the Acropolis.

"That's the same sound that mankind has listened for centuries," the guide says. "It's the sound of nature meeting human imagination. To me, that's history."

And on the island of Rhodes, I was fortunate to listen to the same, still-surprising sounds that the knights of seven tongues had listened to for many, many years.


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