Edgiger - Rhodes, Greece
Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. I love dressing up. I love carving pumpkins. I love spooky decorations. I love the creativity. I love making something so fun from something historically so dark. I love that it is not only acceptable, but encouraged that you go to every house you can, interacting with strangers and making new friends. It is the one time a year when everyone is open to meeting strangers who will not only greet you, but give you candy. You open your house to the masses and invite them inside. Everyone is on the same page. Fun, hilarity, vulgarity.
Unfortunately for the third year in a row I am missing my favorite week of the year and spending it in a country with exactly zero understanding of my favorite past time. Oh well, at least I’m in a Castle.
As my hydrofoil reaches port I depart via a long steel plank and set my feet firmly on the soil of Greece. I had not intended to see Greece on this trip, but staring at Kos, one of the world-renowned Greek islands, just a few miles off the cost of Bodrum, Turkey, how could I say no?
An ancient seaport of white and blue mud brick buildings, Bodrum clings to the sides of a cove encircling its ancient fortress. Below the built structures are glistening blue waters. In town, an eclectic mix of old and new, of humble and posh, of Turkish and international. Yet the enigmatic islands to the west are irresistible, and another stamp in the passport, an always alluring enticement.
It’s a quick ferry ride to Kos. As soon as I disembark I can tell Greece is going to be different. Thought just 8 miles as the crow flies and with identical climate and topography, it feels a world away from Turkish Bodrum. The streets are straighter, the buildings brighter, the air sweeter, and the flowers more plentiful. White churches with little blue domed tops have replaced the red mosques with their towering minarets and loudspeakers, but that’s not what it's about.
The personality of the environment has changed, it’s ethereal, subjective. The energy that flows through the air is different, fresh, tantalizing. Cars stop when you want to cross the street, buildings are bright and welcoming, flowers, trees, and palms burst from every surface. Archeological sites are everywhere. You quite literally trip over history everywhere you walk. There are no entrance fees, no gates, no closures; the freedom to stroll through antiquity is yours.
A stop at a seaside pub finds new friends, Rich and Becky, on their honeymoon. They invite me to join them for lunch. We exchange travel stories, laughs and snack on straight-from-the-boat seafood.
Back on the boat.
Two hours later, after sailing by magnificent Symi, a tiny outpost of yellow and white pre-colonial structures, hose drawn carriages, and lighthouses, I arrive at Rhodes, the fourth largest of the roughly 1,400 Greek Islands.
Exiting the boat I stand nose to stone with a towering castle wall. Soaring 100 feet above the seaboard it stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions. Double concentric rings create ponderous 50 foot deep moats encircling the inner fortress. A single massive gate lies before. I enter. To my surprise there is no desk, no office, and no line. Rather, a vibrant main street. This is not a museum. This is a living city.
The “Old City”, or “Medieval Town” as it’s called, is a truly wondrous place. For hours I get lost between its labyrinthine walls. Its streets and alleys and caverns seem never ending. Ancient castle walls meet large public spaces. Gardens descend down from rooftops, clinging to walls and depositing themselves into lush courtyards. Inside the fortress walls, all things intermingle. Mosques and churches, restaurants and stores, museums and castles; where one building starts and another ends is irrelevant and unknowable. The walls of a home morph seamlessly into a library or monument, their opposing side a structural wall or a city street. Each and every stone comes together into a huge living, breathing, super-organism. This fortress, this castle, this town, is one interconnected superstructure as each wall or tower or façade an integral part to both the physical structure and the community which resides in it.
Children run and play in the cobblestone streets. Women weave scarves and carpets. Men paint portraits and serve shots of Ozo. Women, men, and children alike hawk products and services. Art galleries invite your eyes, music fills your ears, and bakeries your nose. Mailboxes line private residences and hotels display signs with vacancies.
This is, as I will come to find out, the largest active medieval town in Europe. In all, more people live, work, teach, learn, and play between these walls each day than the whole of Aspen. It is truly behemoth, covering 104 acres. Its walls house 8 towers and 2 castles, seeing the outside world through its 11 gates. Each entrance unique and beautiful, a layered egress of monumental doors, arches, locks, bends, and turns.
This is what ancient sites should be like; living, breathing, visible as they were in antiquity. It is thanks to the Italians that we have this city. Following its fall to the Ottomans, the area was left in disrepair, burnt and crumbling. Under the care of Italy it was restored to its original glory between 1937-1940, and to this day that tradition of kept up as rebuilding continues.
I know there our purists out there who feel that antiquity must be guarded from change, kept in its existing form, safe and untampered with. There is credence to this view. I understand that for some the sanctity and authenticity of a place is irrevocably shattered the moment a modern mason touches a stone or refinishes a fresco.
Yet the purpose of preserving antiquity must be larger than simply safeguarding stones. The stones themselves hold no significance. What we truly treasure in historical sites is the connection to the past; to the people. We want to be able to put ourselves in their shoes. To see as they saw. To internalize who they were, how they lived, and how they perceived and shaped their world. The value in archeological sites is to know what they knew and be as they were. To draw on the experiences of past generations to learn the lessons that help us become better in our time; to glean expertise form their success, to learn from their failures and to find commonality in our limitations, exigencies, and humanity.
There is simply no better way to do this than to stand inside the places they lived, worked, thought. To see first-hand the grandeur of what they built. To understand, innately, instinctively, what it took to create these structures – the social bonds, the friendships, the rivalries, the technology, the expertise, the knowledge – only through touch and sight can we do this. To stand at the base of a small hill with the knowledge that millions of years ago, before erosion and time, there stood the tallest mountains in the world will never be the same as the feeling of absolute awe and amazement you feel at the base of Everest.
We must remember, without upkeep, we can only preside over a site’s deterioration and eventual loss. The laws of geology and thermodynamics guarantee this. We have just two options, mange a site’s demise, or work in its preservation.
Winding the streets until the wee hours of the night I could be living in the 21st or the 16th century. The connection to times and peoples past is palpable, and welcome. Perspective is one travels greatest gifts, and it lives within these walls.
I don’t miss Halloween tonight. Though I’ve not been able to dress up in silly costumes or play with friends, I have been able to transport myself to another time. To inhabit my ancestors being, their mind frame, and station; this just might be the best Halloween costume yet.
As I emerge from the other side of the massive fortress I enter modern Greece. Little mini cars zip about, restaurants dowel out food and wine. People window shop and chat; the streets are clean and tree lined, flowers and vines pour over balconies and rooftops. Music plays. Lights emanate from art galleries and night clubs. The air is alive with the sweet energy of modernity.
I find a hotel and settle in for the night. This Halloween I feel confident in affirming that I was indeed given a treat.