Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017
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I prescribe a trip to... Rhodes, Greece, A colossal visit

A Saskatoon neurologist discovers storybook castles and classical temples on this Greek isle

So where’s the Colossus? What other place is as famous for something that’s not even there? New York has its Statue of Liberty, Paris its Arc de Triomphe, London its Tower but where the heck is the Colossus of Rhodes?

We landed on this Greek island late one November night, too dark to see a Colossus even if there was one to be seen. We were jet-lagged from the flight from Saskatoon and were soon asleep.

The next morning our first priority, having left snowy Saskatchewan, was to find the beach. George at the front desk responded with incredulity. “The beach?!? But it’s winter!”

“Yeah, but we’re from Canada. This is like summer to us.”

Shaking his head, George gave us directions. We knew November might be cool and many places in Greece might be closed. We picked Rhodes, the largest and southernmost island in the Dodecanese, figuring the latitude would keep it warmer and that more things would stay open on a bigger island.

Turkish traces

Still, as we headed for the beach on that sunny morning in shorts and T-shirts, it was hard to believe anyone considered this winter. We passed a mosque dating from the Ottoman Empire. Its minaret still proudly bore the crescent of Islam although the Turks had long since packed up and gone home. A map showed us how close to Turkey the island is and how far from mainland Greece.

As we photographed the building and its cemetery of turban-topped gravestones covered in Arabic script, an old man with a cane and a flowing white moustache stopped to talk. The moustache was particularly impressive. It jutted several inches beyond his face on each side. You could picture him using it for flight. He gave us a detailed account of events of the 16th century as if they had happened last month.

The Turks besieged Rhodes in 1522 with 400 ships under Suleiman the Magnificent. Months of bombardment destroyed the city and the island had no option but surrender. According to this old man, they were defeated because no other European nation sent help and the Rhodians bravely resisted the Turks alone. He clearly didn’t want us thinking we were in a Turkish town.

We thanked him and continued on our way, wondering if he and his moustache waited there daily to set tourists straight on Greco-Turkish history. At the harbour entrance there were statues of deer. It was here that the Colossus once stood — a 30-metre tall brass statue of the sun-god Helios, often depicted straddling the harbour with ships between his legs.

It’s not considered possible that ancient builders could have constructed a statue that high with legs that far apart. Nevertheless, tall as a 15-storey building, he was one of the Ancient World’s Seven Wonders. After 54 years, an earthquake toppled the Colossus and he lay for eight centuries until he was sold for scrap in an early example of recycling. The buyer needed 900 camels to carry him home.

A medieval maze

The walls of Rhodes’ Old Town distracted us from our plans. This World Heritage Site, Europe’s oldest inhabited walled city, was built in the 14th century by the multinational Knights of St. John. It’s a beautiful maze of narrow lanes.

It seemed like we’d travelled back in time, except for the cars struggling through streets barely wider than the vehicles. In places where even the Greeks have decided streets are too narrow for automobiles, motorcycles wove between the pedestrians.

We wandered through the Old Town to a square named for Hippocrates (the most famous Dodecanesian) where we ordered beer served in glass boots. We enjoyed the view from our outdoor café while our septuagenarian waiter entertained us with newspaper clippings of his folk-dancing career. Towering above the buildings were the battlements of the Palace of the Grand Master, where the head Knight of St. John once lived. Now, I’d seen castles before but this was what a castle should look like — picture those you drew as a kid.

We decided we wanted to get to the beach and would save sightseeing for the next day. It took time to make our way back to the New Town through this cobblestoned labyrinth. Eventually we made it to our beach — a golden strand at the island’s pointed tip.

This geography means you can stand on the southeast shore and wave to someone on the northwest coast nearby. It turned out though that there were very few people to wave to. On a shore at least 500 metres long there were seven people, none swimming. Across the strait, deceptively close, were the mountains of Turkey.

A downside to visiting Rhodes in November is that ferries to Marmaris close down in late October. Asia remained just beyond reach. Behind us, big empty-looking resort hotels lined the beach. It was winter after all, despite sunny warm weather.

You call this cold?

After all the doom and gloom we’d been hearing, we were nervous about venturing into the Aegean. Wouldn’t it be cold? Of course, the best way to find out was to send my travelling companion in first. I gallantly offered to watch our belongings while she swam. You never know, one of those seven people might make the five-minute trek over to steal our shoes.

She hesitantly stepped into the surf and was soon neck-deep. “It’s beautiful,” she shouted. I was skeptical but decided our stuff was probably safe after all and joined her. She was right. This “winter” sea was decidedly warmer than any Canadian midsummer lake.

After a relaxing swim, we were ready for dinner. I tried a glass of retsina. Legend has it that after the Roman conquest, Greeks added pine resin to their wine to stop Romans from drinking it. I’m sure it worked. After one sip, my dining companion declared that retsina tasted “like dirt.” The food, fortunately, was much more appetizing.

The following morning, we were up early and asked George at the front desk the way to the bus station. At least this time he didn’t answer, “The bus station? But it’s winter!” Fortunately, buses still run in winter. We were amazed by the driver’s ability to squeeze through spaces that’d give me pause in my little Sunfire.

Our first stop in Lindos was the public washrooms where an elderly woman sold toilet paper — not an occupation you see much in Canada. She was dressed all in black, as most elderly Greek ladies seem to be. She huddled in a sweater. She looked cold although it was sunny and 23°C, like a Saskatchewan summer. She asked, “English?”

“No, Canadian.”

“Cold there.”

“Yes.”

She wrapped her sweater tighter, shivered and gestured toward the sunny sky. “This Greek people’s Canada — katastroph!” She was complaining about the cold on a day few Canadians would mind in July. I didn’t even try to explain that we planned on swimming.

Acropolis now

But first, we’d come to see the Acropolis of Lindos. When you hear “acropolis,” you think Athens and the Parthenon, but it seems just about every Greek town worth its salt has an acropolis. The word means “highest city” and refers to a citadel on elevated ground.

We meandered up a gentle slope through a village of whitewashed shops and homes. At the base of the acropolis, a relief of a trireme was sculpted into the wall. This warship was carved in 180 BCE and, as graffiti goes, it has lasted longer than most.

The acropolis was worth the climb. At the summit is a medieval castle, a 300 BCE temple dedicated to Athena, a Roman Temple to Emperor Diocletian from 300 CE, and a Greek Orthodox church from 1200 — truly, a magnificent accretion of archeology.

Perhaps even better was the view from the top — the lovely white village of Lindos, the rocky coastline, the turquoise bay and its deserted beach. This is the Greek island of the imagination and Lindos must be one of the most beautiful towns in Greece.

We had seen photographs of the beach at Lindos packed with tourists in midsummer. But that day we had the soft sand and preternaturally blue water to ourselves. After all, on this warm sunny day, it was winter. Why would anyone be at the beach? An afternoon spent soaking in the warm Aegean melted away memories of snowy Saskatoon.

The following day we visited the Palace of the Grand Master, the archetypal castle I had admired the day before. I marvelled at how well preserved it was until I learned it had been destroyed in an 1856 explosion and that what we were seeing was mostly a 20th-century reconstruction intended as Mussolini’s summer home during Italian rule. I’m not sure that I like having similar tastes to Mussolini’s.

The castle’s interior was as impressive as the outside — we wandered through rooms decorated with classical mosaics looted from the island of Kos. An elderly English tourist exclaimed, “I say, Kos must be in pretty rough shape!”

The following day, at an ancient stadium, we sat where countless backsides have warmed the stone over two millennia and watched people jog on a track where chariots once raced. Since it’s exactly one stadion long (about 180 metres), you could do the math and figure out how many laps to a kilometre.

All too soon, we bid goodbye to Rhodes and its ex-Colossus and were off to Crete, home of Knossos and the Minotaur. Maybe we’d find them there.

Dr Drew Kirk is a neurologist in Saskatoon. He has travelled extensively in Mediterranean countries, including France, Italy, Spain and Morocco, but this was his first trip to Greece. Next year, he hopes to get to Mississippi (which would be his 47th US state) and to return to western Europe.

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