19:00 on 05-09-2017.
The blue light at dusk, as seen through the windows of the Auberge de France, overlooking Ippoton (Rue des Chevaliers or Street of the Knights), Rhodes Old Town, Greece.
19:00 on 05-09-2017.
The blue light at dusk, as seen through the windows of the Auberge de France, overlooking Ippoton (Rue des Chevaliers or Street of the Knights), Rhodes Old Town, Greece.
Late summer sees the watermelon vendor set up his stall a short walk out of the Amboise Gate, Rhodes Old Town, Greece. He, and his watermelons, come from the village of Apolakkia, about 80 kilometers to the south.
Another summer evening at the Agence Consulaire de France in Rhodes Old Town. (My previous visit – here) This time to view Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, an exhibition of work by Nikos Papadimitriou and Christos Tsoumplekas. I enjoyed the work of both artists, but have to say the tactile humour and empathy of Tsoumplekas’ sculptures won me over. Needless to say, I was also happy to be back at the Agence Consulaire and even happier that I was able to view alone. That done, I spent the rest of the evening sharing a bottle of KirYianni Samaropetra and dinner with friends, before heading home to take the dogs for a walk. All worldly things must pass, after all…
I first visited Rhodes and Symi in May 1990. I had two weeks’ holiday from my work in London and wanted a complete change of pace. I knew I needed fresh air, sunshine, exercise, a laugh and to do some serious thinking – I was plotting a new path. A colleague recommended Symi, she went every year and stayed in the same accommodation and, needless to say, loved it. I took her advice and my diary. Here goes, with a highly edited version of events…
We arrive in Rhodes at 04.15 local time, on a plane packed with people I’d pay good money to avoid back in the UK. A relief then, to disembark. The plane pours us onto the tarmac under a full moon, into a cool breeze and the strong scent of dried herbs and pine trees. My first impressions of Rhodes are taken on the bus, as we travel through unexpectedly green countryside and gardens towards the town. The Old Town appears pretty, the rest (at its best) smart. By 09.00, I’m on the Symi I boat for the two and a half hour journey around the Turkish coast in the sun and cool breeze, to my destination – Pedi. Pedi is pretty, quiet and isolated and my studio is basic, clean and comfortable. All’s well. The window at the back of the studio faces onto terraced hills and a herb garden, the window at the front looks out over the bay to the blue, misty hills of Turkey.
Once I’ve eaten, I go for a walk around the bay and look at the clinker-built craft and watch fish-gutting. I meet a man from Woodbridge (East Anglia is never far away) doing the same. After the walk, I have to break into my accommodation through the window, as the door has jammed. As I’m climbing in, I meet the neighbours who politely ignore my breaking and entering and invite me to walk with them to St Nicholas. I climb back out. An hour later, I’m back to find goats everywhere and the owner fixing my door. He’s a very (too?) friendly, elderly, local teacher. His five surviving siblings all had to leave to find work abroad. He asks to be remembered to my colleague.
Over the next few days my walking takes me to the main town harbour, Gialos, up and over the top through a maze of village streets. The air is thick with the smell of honeysuckle, gardenia and jasmine; bougainvillea pink and lemons colour the air. On the way down the many steps, the views of the harbour below are splendid – often glimpses caught through once-elegant, now derelict, neo-classical houses built during Symi’s better times. Once in the harbour area, it’s obvious that a great deal is geared to day-trippers from Rhodes, shops selling sponges, herbs and oils prevail. On the first day, I head to the town beach to enjoy the fleeting peace where I’m soaked in the sea swell from an incoming ferry and drowned in the noise from a quarrelsome French family. The rest of my days are spent writing, walking, drawing, and reading. From time to time, I stop to chat with strangers and listen to their stories. In the evenings, I often go out to eat at the waterside under a clear sky cut with stars by nightfall.
By day three, I’m finding notes on my (now-functioning) door – the kindness of strangers is both fun and touching. That evening, I go with a small group of tourists and locals to a village celebration (reminiscent of a school play) which is supposed to show young local girls who their future husband will be. During this ritual, our small group becomes larger and we all go to eat together afterwards at a nearby taverna. I leave, so full I can barely move, to roll (mercifully) down hill past singing and screening of the FA Cup Final. There’s a clear night sky, opened up in a blue, blue bowl. I make it to the bottom of the hill when a large jeep full of people pulls up in a cloud of dust – I join them to go back up the hill and down again to a party at a bar in Gialos. By day five, I’ve convinced myself I should swim – the water’s freezing cold, but it constantly laps at the steps below me. What can I say? It’s refreshing! A sudden influx of sailors to the bay changes the rhythm – it’s noisy, alcohol-fuelled, party-time.
It’s the end of week one and the steps from my studio to the sea have become a meeting-point for a group of about eight people – we swim, we drink, we chat. But I still manage to find a quiet spot to finish reading ‘The Magus’ in peace. Most evenings are spent eating dinner at the top of the hill, followed by drinks at the bottom of it, on one side or t’other – with fingers crossed for a lift if it’s in Gialos. For a change of pace, and to see more of the island, one day I take a boat trip to Nanou Bay. By Symi standards, it’s verdant and tranquil. There’s a BBQ on the boat and there’s plenty to drink, too. We all swim from the boat before heading back.
I soon learn that a cooler alternative to walking up and down hill in the searing heat, is to take the Symi I boat from Pedi to the main harbour – it’s free and it’s scenic. One day, sitting in the town square, I’m joined on the bench by a very elderly lady who speaks as much English as I do Greek. She’s pretty, she’s tiny and she carries a silver-handled cane. She lets me know she has a story to tell and does so. At the end of the war she met an English soldier, from London, called Jimmy Baldock – he made an impression, she wants me to know. She gives me a toffee, smiles and leaves. Everyone I meet tries to persuade me to come back in September – there are shooting stars (they say), it’s more tranquil (I’m told), it’s more restful (she confides), there’s more fresh fruit (offers everyone)…
On another day, I take a road trip to Panormitis Monastery. I have a serious hangover. As we bump along the unmade road in an open truck, I just manage to stop myself from vomiting over the crumpled linen suits and Panama hats of my fellow travellers. The lifesaver is our stop at the chapel of St Constantine on the way there, which is being prepared for its name day. We are fed local pastries and coffee in a garden full of tiny pink scented roses. The sugar and caffeine sort me out. I light a couple of candles in thanks for not vomiting. It would have been churlish not to. Several times on the trip, we pull up on the crumbling edge of the road to enjoy the spectacular views of green, tree-filled valleys, those blue Turkish mountains and the misty seas between. Panormitis? The monastery? Municipal offices with a gothic clocktower attached. The museum? Baffling – full of unexplained exhibits. The chapel? Lovely. The way back is via Marathounda, with a 20-minute walk and a swim there before catching the Nireus boat back to the harbour. By the time I’ve walked another hour back to my accommodation, all memory of the hangover is gone.
Of course, by the end of the holiday, there are many on the Symi II to Rhodes in a far worse state, having decided to spend their last night on the island partying. It’s a very quiet boat indeed. In one hour and forty minutes little is said or done. Our group check into one room in a seedy hotel near Mandraki harbour which we take turns to use as we all have different flight times. We leave our bags and go to eat at a taverna in the Old Town. It’s my turn to use the room at midnight. I have it for two hours before leaving for the airport. Once there, I discover that an air trafffic control strike has stranded us all. Our group is reunited in a very crowded departure lounge. Although my flight is only delayed by 20 minutes, the cabin crew decide that a cargo door is open and we’re diverted to Athens, where we stay on the plane for 45 minutes while everything is checked. We land two hours late. I negotiate a dreadful train journey and an awful taxi-driver to make it home and wonder whether the previous two weeks really did happen.
This rock’s been in the news this week, a lot. Of course, it’s been newsworthy in recent years for its tourism; good and bad. Most often found in the foreign press travel supplements and rarely mentioned even in the national press as a bit-player in the ongoing economic crisis – Rhodes has now entered The News. It’s gone all international. It always has been, of course. International, that is. In recent history, it officially became part of the modern Greek State in 1947, and has since taken in visitors, workers and residents from all over the globe – maintaining its international face, while keeping its parochial heart. I am one of those visitors. Rocks are my favourite places to be. I’m an islander by birth and persuasion. I am a citizen of the European Union, a British passport holder and English by birth. I have chosen to live here. I was fortunate enough to have that choice. And I can also choose to leave, to move on elsewhere. A gift from my parents, the choice, by virtue of their British passports and my birth in Colchester, Essex.
So, being here is my decision. And with every decision comes responsibility for the consequences. Here, despite much-heralded promises of reform, those consequences continue to involve eye-watering levels of bureaucracy. Much paper, many offices, many voices, type-stuff. Monday marked the day I finally had my name put on the electricity bill, after two months. The law changed in January this year, you see, and, in any case, clear steers have never been easy to find here. A good accountant found, I was on the home straight as I walked back and forth between his office, the tax office and the Public Power Corporation office. I was done as the security guard closed the doors behind me and the cleaner let me out of the compound. I went to a cool, quiet, dark space, drank a very cold bottle of water and breathed deep.
A short time before, just over the road from the tax office, a wooden boat carrying undocumented migrants had broken up on the rocks. Locals ran down to the beach and pulled the refugees from the sea as quickly as they could even while emergency services arrived. Despite their efforts, three died. The survivors were taken to the port police station or to the local hospital. They had nothing material. People continued to help by donating clothing and other basic necessities, as well as, importantly, care and affection. As news filtered through online, the, by now sadly predictable, voices of intolerance and ignorance seeped out from their pit. Some voices from my rock of origin, ignorant of history and their own mongrel background, poured forth views better suffocated at birth.
In any case, by Thursday, it was clear that survivors were being well cared-for and prepared for their onward journeys. St George’s Day dawned sunny and bright, with a clear, cold wind. I took part in a historical visit to the Old Town, learning more of the story of this island, this land of migrants – touring a building designed to fortify the town and repel the unwanted, which had grown almost organically with the years. We stood on the top of the structure, our group of the allowed, and looked out over hundreds of years of history from our vantage point in that UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we did so, Rhodes stayed in the news – photographs from the rescue effort on the beach had gone viral, and European leaders met to discuss ‘what to do’. In fact, with a General Election close by, the UK PM, suddenly conscious that the electorate saw this not as an immigration issue, but as a humanitarian one, was quick to the table.
On that day, one of the refugees was delivered of a healthy baby boy. His mother named him for the man who pulled her from the sea, and the saint on whose name day he arrived. Today, he’s three days into life on this rock. As he’s held and fed and loved and his mother contemplates the next stage of her journey, a marathon race will pass nearby. Those runners will set out on a mapped path; their progress monitored, their pace in their power. For that baby, his uncertain journey is just beginning. He’s yet to know the state he’s in.
…well, back at least. Recently, I returned from a trip to England which left me feeling deeply unsettled. Realizing that this is nothing new for me, I found the following entry in my diary for January 7-8 1994.
I wake up at 4 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep. What is bothering me? Why am I returning? Just to collect my belongings? By 6 a.m. I abandon the pretence of falling asleep and make myself a coffee (or three) while I watch the news. Take your (ice) pick – it’s frozen everywhere except where there’s flooding and except here in Wivenhoe, where it’s fine. The Man phones at 6.50, so it’s as well I’m up to take the call, we chat very briefly and, though I miss him dearly, I cannot muster any enthusiasm for returning. I draw a deep breath, shower and finish my packing. I despair at the 20kg my suitcase weighs. After a final visit to friends for (yet another) coffee, I can delay no longer and am back just in time to pick up my bags, bid a choked farewell to Grandad (who thrusts a bank note into my hand as I leave), and reach the station. On the train, I doze a little. Luckily, Liverpool Street Station has reopened Left Luggage – what a relief. Keen to pack the time with as many people as possible to avoid facing-letting-go, I head to meet SK in Gower Street. We talk and walk books. For hours we do this. She then comes with me to Liverpool Street and helps me take my baggage as far as Hammersmith, when we go our separate ways after hugging a great deal and a great deal longer than strictly necessary. As a result, I miss two trains. Eventually, make it to Richmond, where I and S collect me at 18.45 and take me back to theirs for a pot of tea plus trips down memory lane via the photo albums. They drive me to LHR Terminal 2, which is strangely quiet. OA 266 is the last flight out at 21.55, delayed by half an hour. They’re getting good at seeing me off, I and S, and I find it oddly reassuring that this is as close as I seem to get to tradition now. My Athens flight is only half-full; mercifully there’s room to stretch out. I hang onto England until OA 266 peels its wheels off the runway. Arriving in the UK, I’d cried over London, playing join-the-dots with the lamps, lights and headlights down below as we taxied in behind flights from Paris and Tashkent. I don’t look forward to Athens; so tedious, the airport no more than a holding-pen, but there’s only an hour and a half wait and my connecting flight is, once again, only half-full. So, the journey to Rhodes is quite smooth. I’m in time for the Nissos Kalymnos ferry to Symi and, when it docks in Gialos, I find a taxi to deliver my suitcase to the door. I am ‘home’ by 11 a.m. I’ve been on the road for 22 hours. The sun’s shining and it’s a beautiful, warm day. I’m flagging. I unpack, eat, shower, sleep, unpack, shower, eat – rinse and repeat. I feel distant, in fact, not here at all. When I was in England, the time passed so quickly but I did so little of what I’d set out to do. The whole experience was unsettling, unnerving and illuminating. I set out with questions left unanswered and returned with yet others. It takes me two days to return to ‘normal’ – wherever that is.
Alex Marshall is the Manager of Spirit of the Knights Boutique Hotel in Rhodes Old Town (more information about the hotel here: http://www.spiritoftheknights.com/). The accommodation remains open all year and is consistently awarded excellent ratings in travel guides and reviews, national and international. In 2013, I went to talk to Alex at the hotel about his relationship with Rhodes and the business itself. Alex first arrived in Rhodes, not unsurprisingly, as a tourist on holiday with a friend in 2001. Yet, for someone who later decided to live and work here, his first impressions weren’t positive. He only spent a short time on the island, mostly along the north-west coast where there were high-rise developments and strip malls. This left him with the feeling that, although this was a great holiday for many, it just wasn’t for him. However, something told him there had to be more to the island and, when he returned with his mother (Felicity) the following year, he discovered there was. The beauty, for Alex, on this second visit, was the quality of time that mother and son were able to enjoy together. Felicity was able to share her love of the place with Alex and he saw, through her eyes, a very different island from the one he’d visited a year earlier. He has not looked back, and since then has made Rhodes his home. By 2002, Felicity had already set in motion the project which was to become Spirit of the Knights. But the family was still a long way, and a great deal of hard work, from opening the business to guests. Alex believes that the lengthy process and great dedication which went into preparing the hotel strengthened his family. The Spirit of the Knights Boutique Hotel accepted its first guests in 2008. Alex certainly learned a great deal in the lead up to that date – about the business and the place itself – yet now, he is learning even more and at a greater rate. In himself, he has gained in confidence, self-awareness and self-respect since becoming so actively involved in this family enterprise. In addition, his respect for the island, and particularly its people and culture, has grown over time. He feels he now has a clearer view and sense of what is happening on the local and national scene, even if long hours of work mean he’s unable to participate as fully as he’d like in cultural events. Alex and his wife Lena (who works alongside him at the hotel) used to live in Koskinou. This is a village about 5 miles south-east of Rhodes town, famed for its distinctive traditional architecture. They spent four years there, before moving to live in Rhodes town, closer to the hotel. Initially wary of living somewhere which had seemed so quiet (he did, after all, grow up in London), they grew to appreciate the traditional community and sense of tranquility there. He and Lena were able to fully relax away from work once home. However, increasing demands from work (and dogs!) meant that a move to Rhodes town, walking distance from the business, made sense. I asked Alex if there was anything he felt he’d missed during the years away from the UK and, specifically, London. While he’s able to keep up with developments there by following social media and online news, and, of course, has friends regularly visiting him here – he does, just sometimes, long for the availability (‘anything at anytime’) and innovation (new, creative, ways of thinking) he feels is present in London. Those constructive, creative approaches he gleans from business and social networking (he has good working relationships with local business, too), he is keen to incorporate into best practice at the hotel – and it shows, but doesn’t intrude. He’s now more engaged than ever with the business and committed to this family affair. He feels more comfortable combining his knowledge, education and experience to enrich his results-oriented focus. The greatest challenge he sees for the business today is to maintain standards at the hotel during this worldwide, harsh economic period. It’s no mean feat to sustain such high status in clients’ personal estimations as well as professional league tables, but ‘Team Spirit’ do, and even make it appear effortless. This all helps to ensure that Alex’s job satisfaction is still there, growing alongside the brand identity of the business. He can always see ways (however small) to improve the stay experience for the guests. The Alex I spoke to is a man who enjoys engaging visitors and assisting them during their stay on the island. Despite being the hotel Manager, he’s most often met first by guests while helping them negotiate their way into the Old Town and down the narrow alleys leading to the hotel – as the ‘trolley boy’ (pushing improbably large suitcases on a luggage trolley and making it all look so easy). He enjoys the ‘cover’ of this role and, as with the rest of the team at the hotel, is not interested in uniforms or badges or status. Growing up in London, in his family, has helped him 100% in this work – it has equipped him to be as adaptable and flexible as he is today in providing the hotel guests with the best possible experience during their stay. A borderless family, a timeless place and an infinite capacity for service. The spirit of place is in this family affair.
(First published on axrhodes: 17/10/2013)