Greece Got Its Groove Back
My unusual trip to Rhodes Island, Greece.
Greece went through one heck of a rough ride in ‘08. The country was on the brink of bankruptcy and tourism plummeted. Thankfully, Greece seems to have gotten its groove back. Tourism has nearly doubled in the last decade and even its economy is beginning to mend. Long known for being one of the best places to visit during the long days of summer, Greece offers beautiful vistas, pristine towns, and loads of history. While most visitors opt for the central islands (Mykonos/Santorini), we wanted to give you a truly unique experience that will take Greece to the next level. Enter, Rhodes.
Rhodes dates back to 16th century BC, making it one of the oldest civilizations in the world. It’s also one of the biggest islands in Greece, so there’s lots to explore during your stay. The best place to start is the city of Rhodes, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. It’s designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it reminded me of Dubrovnik in Croatia (famous for being the set of Game of Thrones). As you enter the walled city and pass through its ancient gates, you feel as if you’ve traveled back in time. The white stoned walls, cobblestone paths, and the incredible Greek architecture… so much to explore!
The Spirit of the Knights
We decided to stay at The Spirit of the Knights Boutique Hotel, and boy o’ boy did we make the right choice. It’s tucked away on the highest point of the medieval town on a quiet cobbled street, just minutes from the ocean. Because it’s a small (only six suites) boutique hotel, it attracts a more sophisticated traveler, and because it’s run by Brits, you can expect to meet at least a few other British tourists, reading or playing board games in the common areas, during your stay.
As you step through the hotel’s archway, you feel totally removed from civilization, having slipped into a zen-like retreat that beams with positive vibes and good energy. This gem was purchased on a whim and re-built in ‘07 by an adventurous British woman that made a career in renovating historic buildings. The hotel houses furniture and artwork that she’s collected many parts of the world including Greece, Morocco, Turkey, Persia and the Far East. In the evenings, before dinner, we loved reading and playing checkers in the large and airy library and lounge room. We spent much of our mornings enjoying breakfast next to a fountain in the enclosed outdoor courtyard garden full of loungers, canapes, palm and banana trees. On hot days, we’d take a dip in their small pool. It’s a wonderfully tranquil and spacious environment to relax in privacy.
Unlike other hotels with cookie-cutter rooms, each of the six Spirit of the Knights suites is architecturally unique. We stayed in the Pasha suite, which has features dating from the Ottoman period. There is a hand-painted ceiling in the lounge and a separate bedroom with king sized bed. The en-suite has a marble basin and marble bath with shower. There is also a stunning private Hammam with a domed ceiling, creating an extra serene environment for sheer indulgence.
One of the things that initially drew me towards this hotel was their commitment to the environment. The hotel even has an ethos: ‘eco-friendliness, less pollution, conservation in all areas of life and nature.’ They used wood from sustainable forests and local stone/pebbles when they constructed the property, in addition to using solar energy for heating water. Even the mattresses, fabrics and carpets are made with natural fibers that are non-allergenic and non-toxic. What a delight!
The City of Rhodes
Ok, so there’s a lot of to love about Rhodes. First, the city has friendly cats everywhere. Chilling out on the street, lounging in stores, even traipsing about on the outdoor patios of restaurants. It makes the city feel so warm and friendly. Apparently the locals know that it’s good for tourism if that cats are healthy and happy, so they make sure to take good care of them. You’ll really start to notice them if you walk down the side streets, which coincidently is the best place to roam in this city, as the main streets can be quite touristy and crowded.
As we explored these wonderful backstreets, we stumbled across a wonderful restaurant called To Marouli, which we fell in love with instantly. This family-owned gem served us some of the most delicious food and desserts in recent memory. They’re open everyday for lunch and dinner and while it’s a casual spot, it’s absolutely one of the best restaurants in all of Greece. People know it; while many restaurants are usually half empty, this place was busy day and night. It’s probably because it’s the only vegetarian restaurant in the city, but folks we talked to say they weren’t vegetarian yet kept coming back because it was just sooooo tasty.
If you decide to walk down the main strip, definitely swing by RuBisCo Juice. It’s a life saver for the hot days of summer. The owner is a really nice guy from Athens. They have ready-made fresh pressed juices or they can customize one for you on the spot. We went there every day, and one day we even went twice! For a snack, have some veggies and hummus on the terrace at Golden Olympiade. At night, be sure to check out Macao. It’s a very chic bar and nightclub on a great square filled with outdoor dining under a giant tree.
If you’re looking for souvenirs, jewelry or gifts, you’ll certainly have a lot of shops to choose from in Rhodes, but most of the shops seem to sell very similar items, almost as if most of the shops in the town are owned by the same single company. We found a shop that is decidedly different than the rest, run by a warm and welcoming woman who feeds the local cats. In fact, we originally entered the shop because of the cats, but I ended up buying several unique pieces of jewelry! The shop is called “Witch & Cat” and you can find via Google Maps. Definitely worth checking out!
The Island of Rhodes
One afternoon, we had the pleasure of meeting the owner of the hotel. She reminded me of Jane Goodall, in that she had this incredible glow and exuded kindness, wisdom, and warmth. After sharing many stories from years past, she recommended that we explore the island a bit. ‘That’s where you’ll find the true gems on this island,’ she said with a smile. She graciously gave us a book about the island that laid out all the places one would want to visit.
After Mike mapped out our route, the hotel offered to arrange a rental car. It was so easy. The rental agency came to the hotel for us to sign paperwork and gave us the keys. No long waits at the car rental, no returning the car to agency. Just sign and get in the car, which was parked on the street outside the city walls, and just leave it there when you return. Yippee!
We chose to head down the western coast of the island, known for being more picturesque than the eastern coast (which we would take on the ride back). After driving along the beautiful ocean-filled coast for about 30 minutes, we turned inland. We drove through Eleousa, a charming town with a beautiful 14th century church and an amazing old Italian settlement that’s been abandoned for ages. As we made our way towards Salakos, we stumbled across this incredible old church alongside the road (the church of St Nicholas Foundoukli). We decided we had to stop, take some pictures, and marvel at the views that sprawled beneath it into the valley.
Feeling resurrected, we hopped back into the car and headed for the Elafos Hotel. Built at the height of the roaring ‘20’s, this hotel looks like it should be in Italy, not Greece. It turns out it was built during the Italian occupation of Rhodes. The hotel boasts 22 Guest Rooms that have hosted important historical and political personalities of Europe through the years.
From there we headed back towards the ocean to visit the Castle of Kastellos. Built by the Knights in the 16th century to protect the western side of the island, it has the best views on the island. Just nearby, there is a strip of road between Kritinia and Siana along the coast famous for views of the surrounding islands. The vistas were simply stunning. The icing on the cake for me was that we kept seeing mountain goats everywhere. Sometimes we’d stop the car and just watch them for a few minutes. We even saw a few baby goats, which melted my heart when I heard them calling out for their mom.
The last stop on this tour was Lindos, arguably the most famous village in all of Rhodes. As was the case in the old town of Rhodes, Lindos has been declared a monument for preservation, and has been able to retain most of it’s original architecture and white coloring. Though this village dates back to 12th century BC, it became famous in the ‘60’s as celebrities began vacationing there (is that how everything becomes popular!?). Boasting an ancient amphitheatre and its famous Acropolis, Lindos overflows with people. To seek refuge, I highly suggest stopping by the Melenos Hotel for a drink in the shade or a lovely dinner overlooking the city.
The highlight of our trip involved an adorable kitten named Junior. Just before one of our many dinners at To Marouli, we went for a stroll down one of the enchanting back streets in the old town of Rhodes. Taking a different route than on our previous saunters, we came across a great shop selling lots of artisanal nic-nacks and bohemian clothing. As I went inside to browse, Mike stayed outside to play with the cats on the patio. When I came back outside, Mike had taken a particular liking to a gorgeous little kitty that reminded us a lot of our rescue cat Shadow. Unbeknownst to us, this little guy was about to have a similar story to Shadow’s.
We could tell right away that he was not your typical street cat. He was super playful, chasing Mike’s finger or anything else he dangled in front of him. He was super comfortable being held and seemed very eager for a home. Despite my urging, Mike suggested we leave him be since he was being fed (along with a number of other cats) by the person who lived next door and seemed to be generally looked after.
All through dinner I kept thinking about him and feeling like we should find him a home. It was such a strong feeling that I couldn’t ignore it. I made Mike promise that if I could find someone to adopt him, we would go back to find him, no matter how long it took. I remember taking with a couple at the hotel who loved animals and I thought they might be interested. So we hustled back to the hotel and thankfully they were still hanging out in the lounge area. After I described the cat and showed a picture of him, they said they’d adopt him!
I was so excited I could barely contain myself. I grabbed Mike by the hand and we ran down the alleyways back to where we spotted him earlier. Miraculously, he was still there, though this time he was curled up on the rock wall just across from the store, nestled inside an old wooden fruit crate. I gently scooped him up in my arms and headed back to the hotel. He was so curious on the walk over, yet he was relaxed and didn’t try to break free. I think he knew intuitively that we were rescuing him. Minutes later we arrived back at the hotel and handed him to his new parents, who promptly named him Junior. It made me feel so good to know that he would have a home and be protected and loved instead of fending for himself during the winter.
Up until this trip, I had a completely different idea of what a vacation in Greece would be like. I wasn’t prepared for how warm the people would be or how charming the towns are. Saying goodbye to Greece felt strange in a way. I was sad to leave, but comforted in knowing that this wonderful place is flourishing once again and will be for a long time to come…