At the start of April, after two days at Nikos Takis Hotel in the Old Town, Yiannis and I had another two days to drive around the biggest island in the Dodecanese – from Rhodes town at the northeast tip, down the coast road to Prasonisi at the southwest end, and back again around the other side with a detour into the mountains.
Rhodes to Tsambika
Twenty minutes’ drive south on the Lindos Road is Tsambika monastery perched high on a hill, where women would traditionally climb barefoot to the little church to pray to the Virgin Mary for a child – and then name the resulting child Tsampikos or Tsampika. It’s better known these days for the long sandy beach below, which gets packed in summer. But we turned off the main road to find it utterly quiet, just goats and cats, one shop just opening. It was a sunny but hazy, warm morning and we had swam far out in the pale blue water, looking up at the cliffs and down at the ripples of sand on the sea bed.
Lindos to Prasonisi
We stopped to look out over the white village of Lindos with its acropolis and castle on a hill still green from winter. I’d be coming back here on my own later for a few days, so we continued. The road was quiet. We sped past Lardos with its huge hotel complexes (not my favourite thing) and then a stretch of coast with a mish-mash of architectural villas, and down into South Rhodes, an area I had never explored. The landscape began to show a more rugged beauty – windswept fields, wild beach – and became hillier approaching Kattavia, pretty with green fields and endless spring flowers. We crested the final hill.
Prasonisi is a tiny island attached to the southern tip of Rhodes by an hourglass-shaped stretch of sand. It’s a popular windsurfing site in summer, a ‘Natura Park’ conservation area with just a tight little enclave of rooms and restaurants. Strange, then, that as we drove down towards it we passed the construction site for a new power station for Rhodes. Poor Prasonisi. Those who protested building it here with their ‘Save Prasonisi’ campaign had placed a sign down on the sand, but construction seemed well under way.
The beach didn’t look at its best either. Beaches bear the brunt of our pollution of the seas with plastic and local residents work hard to clear away the rubbish that washes up during winter so that beaches look beautiful in summer. A young British couple who arrived in a rental car looked shocked by the sobering state of the sand, and a couple of weeks later I’d meet an Australian couple who reacted the same way. What a gateway to Prasonisi.
Across the sand the island itself, however, with its gentle hills sweeping down to the sea somehow retained an untouched beauty, a feeling of being removed from that world, simple and unadulterated. People had made little piles of rocks among the scrub and flowers and there were lovely views down to the sand spit and blue bay. And looking back to a beautiful, unspoiled headland with interesting rock formations, I caught a glimpse of the very ancient site of Vroulia.
We walked back to it and as we soon discovered, here up the slope of the headland rose a series of thirty buildings leading to an open-air sanctuary with two altars, a meeting place and a fortress with perhaps an offering table. It’s said to date back to around 700 BC, one of the most important early settlements. I have to admit, in case you visit, that the entrance was fenced off in early April and I had to follow a path around the cliffs to see it (Yiannis waited in the car); but for someone with a passion for ancient sites, it was exciting to see this site I’d never heard of before, in a place that felt to me very powerful, looking out to the tip of the island.
We drove back to sleepy Kattavia, a small village with an enormous church built by those who left to start new lives in America. It was now well into the afternoon. Penelope’s restaurant was open, run by a friendly Russian woman who said they were open all year to cater to the people working on the power station. Yiannis asked her how the people of Kattavia felt.
‘Better they build it! New hotels are opening all the time. In the summer we need seven fridges just for this place. Imagine how much power the big hotels need!’
We ate excellent stuffed cabbage leaves, horta and moussaka, then drove north.Kattavia to Lahania
From the coast we turned inland and up into the hills of south Rhodes, where once-cultivated terraces were now thickly blanketed with pine trees and green bushes and liberally sprinkled with white and pink flowers. Suddenly a wonderful view of the long ridges of Karpathos rose from the mist over a flat-calm sea.
The road long, winding, empty road led all the way to Mesanagros. A lean dog approached and dropped a stone at my feet. When I walked on, the dog picked up the stone in his mouth and dropped it by my feet again, looking up expectantly. Yiannis picked up the stone and threw it; the dog flew to life, retrieved the stone and lolloped back to drop the stone at Yianni’s feet. And thus we made our way around Mesanagros.
It was a pretty village with a lively group of local men in the kafeneion – but no rooms to rent. They told us we’d find rooms in Lahania and so we continued through green hills dotted with chapels.
There are two places to stay in Lahania; one is in the rooms and restaurant run by the priest and his wife Chrissy, where we stayed. The Greek Orthodox Church says that a man can’t become a priest and then marry; but a married man can become a priest. The priest of Lahania had already had a career as a barber in Baltimore and was married with children and a business when he returned home and became a man of the cloth. He swiftly showed me photos of himself in Dutch and German guidebooks.
Lahania (which means ‘the cabbage plant’) was actually a rather handsome and once prosperous village with grand stone doorways to homes hundreds of years old. At dusk, we stood on the balcony of the taverna Platanos by the church, listening to many birds singing in the lush valley below where a path led towards the sea. Swallows flew overhead. Then we returned to the priest’s place for a drink.
Once the village had 800 people who worked the fields all around, with the port of Plimmiri below; by the 1960s it was busy with foreign tourists; now many of the well-restored homes were owned by foreigners. The local folks of Lahania still grew some watermelons and potatoes and wheat, and grapes for wine, and thanks to a dam, they had water. And they were making money from the power station people.
‘We need it, because of the new hotels being built in Plimmiri, for thousands of tourists. It won’t pollute – they know how to do these things these days.’
Chrissy was frying potatoes for the family and gave us a plate to go with the wine. Their little grandson trundled by on a toy truck full of potatoes, and the priest tried to teach him to sell us the potatoes. But the boy refused, close to tears. ‘They’re mine!’
After a night of being woken by the heating unit cranking into life I got up early, scratching my insect bites. Tiptoeing across dirty bits of carpet, I found no hot water the bathroom, a used bar of soap and a clump of hair on the shower cord. I skipped the shower and went straight to the breakfast of a frothless Greek coffee slopped into the saucer, with processed bread, margarine and cheese slices served by Chrissy who, like the priest, had a few little smears and spills on her clothes. We got on the road, laughing about our memorable night in Lahania.
Monolithos to Ayios Isidoros
We drove all the way back through the hills again, passing the dirt track that follows the spine of the island. Back down on the coast were flat wheat fields edged by stark rocks.
On the way from Apolakkia to Monolithos there was a long limestone ridge above a pine-filled valley leading down to blue sea. Monolithos bristled with signs (‘Best View!’) to lure in daytrippers and I was tired, so we drove past the castle built by the Knights of St John on a steep rock poking up from the hillside and then parked and walked down a steep, shingle path to beautiful Ayios Georgios beach, where we swam in clear water then fell asleep on the sand.
Refreshed, we drove on, up to the slopes of Attaviros, the island’s highest mountain.
Since my first visit to the village of Ayios Isidoros a few years back, I’ve wanted to return and we hoped to stay the night; alas, the community guest house was being fixed up for Easter so we couldn’t. But we stopped for lunch at To Aletro, where swallows were building a nest in the wooden beams over the terrace.
I looked out over the hills we’d driven up from. One day, I thought, a walk from Kattavia to here… The owner of To Aletro pointed out a tiny pointed hill far in the distance: Zambika. It felt like ages since we’d stopped there. He said you could walk from here to the top of Attaviros, or down to Profilia.
We ate a good Greek salad, potatoes from the oven, and delicious chickpea fritters (revithokeftedes). The village’s own wine from last year was already finished, he said. ‘The European Union gave farmers here money to pull up their vines, and the small farmers who kept their vines but don’t have their own winery and sell the grapes to CAIR, wait two years for their money.’
Ayios Isidoros to Embona
It’s not far around the mountain to Embona, where we would stay for the night; but we took a long route through the rolling green foothills and past the dammed river, the fragma that’s so important for the water supply.
At one stop, I found the antler of a deer, a couple of feet long: the dama-dama or fallow deer of Rhodes live around here. At another, while Yiannis took photos from a river, I walked up a hill full of flowers – a dozen or more different types. We passed through Apollona, surprisingly lively and with seemingly nothing for tourists, just a little village surrounded by farmland. Thankfully there are still places that way in this middle part of the island.
Arriving at Embona, the wine-making centre of Rhodes, we settled into the lovely Attaviros Hotel where I’ve stayed before, and went up the road to Merkouris winery where Anastasia gave us some to taste; they avoid using chemicals so it’s close to organic. Yiannis was going back to Tilos the next day with the car, so I bought ten litres of white athiri and ten of red amorgiano – it works out much cheaper by the box – plus a litre of stronger semi-dry for something different. It felt good to be back in Embona. We wandered around the mountain village; it has over a thousand inhabitants but since it was Sunday evening most restaurants were closing early, so we went for pizza.
I had a few days before I was expected in Lindos, and hadn’t yet decided where to go. I’d been thinking of going to Karpathos, but decided to wait until I had more time (and now I’m glad I did – stay tuned!). I’d thought of going back to Pserimos and Petroula said her father would take me across from Kalymnos in his boat, but if the weather turned windy I could get stuck there. Why not stay in Embona? Yet I didn’t want to miss the chance to finish our loop of the island.
Embona to Rhodes
And so the next morning we descended the mountain on a winding road, passed the medieval castle at Kritinias and just before Kameiros Skala we turned down to Kopria beach. It’s an unpromising name – kopria is manure – but the tiny cove of white pebbles was sublime. The best yet. I’d drive with Yianni to Rhodes town, then take the bus back to Embona in the afternoon for a few days of writing and walking…