Rhodes is an island that, like the rest of Greece, has a long, colorful and dramatic past. It not only has a rich seam of history, the island also takes its food very seriously, and is packed with arguably some of the best restaurants in Greece. It’s right on Turkey’s doorstep, with ferries visiting the island from Fethiye, Marmaris and Bodrum every day during the summer months.
By Jane Akatay
The largest of the Dodecanese islands, the twinkling lights of Rhodes can be clearly seen from many parts of the Turkish coast on a clear night. Sailing into Mandraki Harbor from the Turkish mainland is the perfect way to catch your first glimpse of this island, nicknamed the jewel of the Aegean. Ploughing across the aquamarine depths of the sea that separate Turkey and Greece the age-old journey certainly ranks as one of the most awesome ways to get a sense of the island’s history and appreciate how the cultures have been linked over the millennia.
The cultural warp and weft of Turkey’s Aegean coast with the neighboring Greek islands is as complex as their coastlines; a timeless and fascinating tapestry encompassing rich threads of history, faith, culture, cuisine and, on occasion, tragedy and suffering. All these strands combine to create intriguing vignettes that form captivating narratives; tales that reveal brotherhood and close ties, migration, exile and homecomings, while at the same time illustrating the seemingly unbridgeable divide between the two ancient civilizations.
All this becomes clearer as you plunge headlong into the city that is the heart of Rhodes. The skyline is a melee of old and new that illustrates the island’s turbulent history. The medieval city, considered to be one of the finest examples in Europe, was built by Knights Templars (Hospitallers) and later restored by the Italians, under Mussolini. The massive, defensive stone walls, were originally designed to keep people out but since tourism began in the 1950s, modern hotels have been built to attract holidaymakers to the island instead. Inside the walls, you’ll find mosques and a few remaining buildings from the centuries when Rhodes was part of the Ottoman Empire contrasting with Italian architecture from the first decades of the 20th century.
Although it is just about possible to visit the island for a day trip, it is far better to find a hotel to make your base and spend a few days exploring and savoring the island. In the city, a car is not necessary (or advisable due to narrow streets and horrendous parking) but there are plenty of taxis to hop into. If you decide to include a trip along the eastern coast to Lindos, combined with a visit to Kallithea, you can either go by bus, or hire a car or taxi for the day, when the driver will be happy to become your guide and you will be able to enjoy the island’s excellent wines.
Separated by the same coffee
While the island of Rhodes is a cornucopia of civilizations, ancient and modern, the island can also be explored through its people and its cuisine. It must surely come as no surprise to food lovers that the word epicurean originates from the sensual passion that the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, had for fine food and drink.
It is a word that perfectly describes the island today. The people of Rhodes have created a modern vibrant and cultured island, great for pleasurable, relaxed drinking and dining, whether it’s at a simple beachside taverna, a city coffee shop, or one of the island’s many sophisticated restaurants.
The city is separated into two areas: the new town and the old. On the most northern tip of the island, the new town is a profusion of hotels, pensions, restaurants and cafes, all ideal for people watching. If you like to start your day with a coffee, the place to visit is Koykos.
On a pedestrianized side street, away from the buzz of traffic, it is the kind of place that your nose will guide you towards mid-morning, due to the wonderful aroma of roasting coffee beans. Koykos is Greek for cuckoo and this beautifully converted house will remind you of the fact with its range of clocks, each with a carved wooden bird.
Rhodians adore their coffee, and the place is likely to be filled with groups topping up their caffeine levels and a talented barista, busy behind the bar, can turn out a whole range coffees. But of course, coming from the land of fal, where no cup of Turkish coffee goes unturned, you may want to compare its flavor with its Greek counterpart. It arrives with water, small cakes and biscuits and, though it looks the same and is made using the same methods, Greek coffee still tastes a little bit, inexplicably different, in a pleasant way.
For visitors from Turkey, this will sum up much of the Rhodes experience. As one of the young waiters said with a smile, “Greece and Turkey are two countries, separated by the same coffee.”
A city with food at its heart
Adequately caffeinated and, if you’re wise, wearing comfortable shoes, you’re now ready to wander the old city. Take a guidebook if you’d like, but wandering this unique UNESCO site through the network of narrow passageways, many not wide enough for a car (although scooters manage well enough), is a delight.
If you forget your watch, the wafting odors of fragrant kekik (marjoram) and olive oil will remind you of the time. By all means, dive into one of the many tavernas that line the streets of the old town but, if you are a more serious foodie in search of something different, make your way to Ta Kioupia, a restaurant with a reputation for seriously good food.
Opened by Chef Michalis Koumpiadis in 1972, Ta Kioupia has long been rated among the top restaurants on the island. Over the decades Michalis has won international acclaim as well as awards for his food. He says the restaurant was claimed by The Guardian to be one of the top ten in the world, celebrating his modern take on Greek, specifically Rhodian, cuisine. His son Thanasis now runs the kitchen, showing the same love and attention to detail. A delightful location for a relaxed lunch, this venue is a little off the beaten tourist trail, but still inside the walled city.
The charming waiter explains: “I’ve been part of Ta Kioupia for nearly 50 years, always working with the Koumpiadis family.” The people makes this restaurant an archetypal, convivial family establishment, and the food shines accordingly. A lunch of timeless, smoky baba ghanoush, traditional dolmas and souvlaki, rounded off with a rich, sweet mastic dessert, brings all the flavors of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean together into one meal.
Over lunch, while discussing how Greece is coping with the drop in tourism, Michalis tells us: “At one time I had restaurants all over Greece, in Athens too. But, like many other businesses, the [Greek] crisis has taken its toll and Ta Kioupia is the last.” Rhodes, and the patrons of Ta Kioupia, are fortunate.
A big fat Greek dinner: Mavrikos
The inevitable destination for any visitor to Rhodes is the remarkable town of Lindos. More of a village than a town, the small, mainly white houses of Lindos are clustered around a massive jagged sandstone outcrop.
A combination of history, geography and simplicity makes this one of the best panoramas in the Aegean, if not the Mediterranean. Although the town has expanded over the years, it is a tribute to Rhodes’ town planners for not allowing it to lose its charm. In the small, sheltered St. Paul’s Bay, tucked away behind the main town, there’s a small chapel where on most days weddings take place, adding to the feeling of romance. Take time to enjoy the narrow streets and tiny dwellings, between which unexpected panoramas can be glimpsed of the azure sea. As you walk to Mavrikos, an evening breeze will kiss your brow and welcome you towards your ultimate feast.
Mavrikos has occupied the same shady courtyard building in the town’s square since it opened in 1933. Part vaulted, part vine-covered, the courtyard restaurant is a family business begun in 1912, currently owned by Chef Dimitris Mavrikos and his brother, Michalis. Specializing in fish and seafood, many of the dishes cooked by Dimitris and served in Mavrikos today are those that were cooked more than 80 years ago by the brothers’ grandparents but with a modern, cosmopolitan twist.
Chatting with Michalis between courses, he explains their lives: “We left Rhodes for a while, living abroad, but we returned to the island to take over the business from our aging father. That’s how things happen in Greece; it’s all about food and family.” The entire island is imbued with this ethos and, it is with heavy hearts and full bellies, that we make our way back home.
Kallithea: just outside Rhodes city
No trip to Rhodes is complete without a visit to a 20th century Italian masterpiece, just a few kilometers away from Rhodes city. Kallithea means “beautiful view” in Greek and it indeed lives up to its name. Now a very popular wedding venue, the place is a synthesis of black and white pebbled mosaics, buildings with smooth white curved walls and exquisite gardens. Here is the place to walk, enjoy the fresh air and relax. You can also enjoy the small beach and cafe. Don’t let the fact that the springs, the reason why Kallithea was originally built, have disappeared to all but a trickle; this is a truly special place.
Eating in Rhodes
- Koykos – 20-26 Mandilara, Rhodes; T: +30 22410 73022
- Ta Kioupia – Menekleous St, Old Town, Rhodes; T: +30 2241 030192
- Mavrikos –Main Square, Lindos Village; T: +30 2244 031232