Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Nights Medieval City of Rhodes, Greece

Since the beginning of summer, when I came to Rhodes island, I have spent Sunday evenings exploring the Old Town, the Medieval City of Rhodes. It is my ritual for decompressing and enjoying quiet time. I know what you are thinking. Quiet time in the Old Town? An oxymoron if there ever was one! Yet I am talking about Old Town the neighborhood, not the evening hotspot.

There is another world, a neighborhood where people live peacefully, surrounded by history in Knights’ houses and centuries-old narrow streets, elements that have graciously survived for hundreds of years. The current shape and size of the Medieval City date back to the mid-15th century. The City itself has gone through numerous distinct periods, with a mélange of styles, nations and ethnicities, and as many masters: Byzantines, Knights, Ottomans and Italians, among others. Even though “ethnic” neighborhoods existed, the lines between ethnic and class formations were blurred. Take, for example, the old Jewish neighborhood, spread across the East side of town. Within the Jewish neighborhood alone, Jews, Greeks and Franks coexisted, along with at least five Christian churches.

That such a massive fortress like the one in the Medieval City remained intact since the 16th century, despite four centuries of occupation, is extremely rare. As the island came under Turkish occupation, its geographical significance lessened. As a result, with no serious threats facing it, there was little need to keep modernizing the fortress and it remained relatively unaltered. In turn, building facades in the Medieval City were, for the most part, devoid of ornamentation. At the turn of the 16th century, when Knights’ Town enjoyed special prominence, several buildings were restored. During that time some early Renaissance touches were added to the buildings, especially the ones facing ‘Magna et Communis Platea’, the Grand Square.

In the mid-19th century powerful earthquakes caused severe damages in the Old Town, with further damage ensuing when the city was bombed during WWII. Still, several monuments and the Town’s medieval character remained wonderfully intact. When the Dodecanese Islands were incorporated into Greece, shortly after WWII, the Medieval City was largely in ruins. Several years later, intensive and careful restoration began. Today, the Medieval City of Rhodes is a UNESCO World Heritage City, and one of the biggest and most important groups of monuments in the Aegean.

Inevitably, the Old Town is a visitors’ magnet. As you walk through the gate your senses switch to overdrive: a whirlwind of sights, sounds and smells vie for your attention. Tourist shops, selling everything from olive soap to replicas of medieval armor, compete with tavernas and bars in a decibel-induced feast. If this is not your cup of tea, keep walking until you get to the neighborhood. They say the only way to get past something is through it.

Back to my Sunday ritual, it goes something like this: spend the day reading and swimming in South Rhodes. Start the hour-long drive to Old Town in late afternoon, park by the harbor and walk through the Main Gate. Buy ice cream from the aptly named Medieval, up the street. Walk toward the main square, making way through dense crowds. Arrive to the residential section of Old Town just as ice cream begins to melt. Slow down, inhale evening aromas of jasmine and primrose, and look around. What I see is straight from the pages of an art book, frames of simple domestic life, beautiful: old ladies and men sitting in their courtyards, women hanging clothes to dry, barefoot children playing outside or feeding the cat. All this in the sanctuary of narrow streets and thick, textured walls. Sit on a stoop and rest bare feet on mosaic made of black and white pebbles, a trade nearly extinct. Look at sky above, dark but clear, and the occasional bursts of color from a bougainvillea or a brightly painted wall. Take all this in with voyeuristic joy. End the day feeling grateful for experiencing these Greek moments with history, tradition and modernity, young and old peacefully under one roof.

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