A Sociological Autobiography: 26 – The Greek Islands

The sun and sea of Marbella was the precursor to several family trips to the Greek Islands. In 1985 it was Rhodes, in 1986 Kos, and in 1987 Santorini. Moreover these package-holiday excursions were swiftly succeeded by visits to Crete, Cyprus and Aegina. Most of these were eked out of the opening week or two of autumn terms, a necessary expedient since they were funded out of my fee for organizing the six-week Emory University summer programme on ‘comparative health care’ and neither the Middlesex nor UCL were inclined to pay up promptly. Nowadays, it seems, we would risk a fine at the hands of a head teacher with a retributive bent. What nonsense: what in a few days in school could stand comparison with the experiential return on travelling and sampling other sights, cultures and ways of doing things? But the switch in emphasis from education to the inculcation of workforce skills was only beginning in the 1980s.

My memories of the Greek Islands are a mix of general and particular. Overriding all others is the sense of sun, sand and the abiding pleasure of young Scamblers at play. The blue-and-white Greek world of beaches, cafes, tavernas and ruins was our playground for these fortnights away from Epsom. For the girls especially these were exotic adventures; and like many parents before and since we were happy if they were.

Lindos on Rhodes, first inhabited around 3000 BC, was the first port of call in 1985 and the primary focus of this brief account. We traipsed with our luggage to a small bare apartment possessed of its own courtyard some way up from the village. No space painted blue and white and permanently bathed in sunshine can be austere, but it was down to us to claim, colonize and make it into a home. And we did, notwithstanding the unrelieved heat and humidity at night. During the day we mixed wandering, chilling, coffees, cocktails and taking the girls swimming off the main beach, Megalios Gialos, with a donkey-assisted haul up the cobbled steps to an acropolis 125 metres above the village that was – allegedly – visited by Alexander the Great, Helen of Troy and Herakles.

The view from the acropolis was extraordinary. ‘One of those traditions’ that characterize all such wonderful tourist loci is that St Paul, on his way from Miletus to Syria, landed at the little harbour below the southern slope of the acropolis. An annual festival is held here in remembrance. In the 1951 celebration in commemoration of the 1900th anniversary of St Paul a small church was consecrated to the apostle. It was here that my second daughter, Sasha, returned to be married, so it is a site with very special significance and memories.

Inevitably one drive out of Lindos was to Rhodes Town. Rhodes Town, capital of the Dodecanese, came into its own as a vital centre from the 5th to the 3rd century BC. It was a significant location for the Roman and Byzantine Empires and, significantly for us tourists, was conquered by the Knights of St John who occupied Rhodes from 1306 to 1522.

What do I recall of this historic town? Three things stand out. First is the mediaeval Street of the Knights stretching between the harbour and the Palace of the Grand Masters. Lined by the Inns of the Tongues (or nationalities) of the Order of St John and dating back to the 14th century, it is Gothic and imposing in a slightly daunting way. The history of the Knights is well documented. Founded in the 11th century by merchants from Amalfi, the Order of Hospitallers of the Knights of St John guarded the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They transposed into a military order after the First Crusade (1096-9), but had to take refuge in Cyprus when Jerusalem fell in 1291. They purchased Rhodes from Genoese pirate, Admiral Vignoli, in 1306; conquered the citizens of Rhodes in 1309; and made themselves very much at home thereafter. A Grand Master was elected for life to govern the Order, which was divided into seven Tongues. Each Tongue protected an area of the city wall, known as the Curtain. The Knights fortified the Dodecanese with around 30 castles during their sojourn in Rhodes Town.

The second memory is of a pointless search for the site of Colossus of Rhodes. This statue of Helios reportedly rose up 30-40 metres. It was sculptured in 305 BC by Chares from Lindos to celebrate Rhodes’ victory over Demetrius from Macedonia. It took 12 years to build and is ‘traditionally’ pictured straddling Mandraki harbour. Its likely site, it seems, is now occupied by the Palace of the Grand Masters; but who knows? I looked this way, then that.

The final impression scarring my brain a generation later is of menu-waving waiters skipping out of their tavernas from, say, 6pm onwards, inviting, begging, pulling potential customers to their tables: all very un-British.

But Lindos epitomized our family-oriented experience of the Greek Islands, and it was joyous. What the previous year’s excursion to Spain and this one to Rhodes did was open our collective eyes, mine belatedly perhaps, to the glaring light, colour, heat oozo – which I still like, if not retsina – and charm of a different culture. We loved it not least because the girls loved it. We were ok being tourists and it would not have been possible without the concept of a package holiday! Meanwhile, back at the ranch …

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