Each day has been getting progressively warmer. Now it's downright hot, and the forecast is for a recreation of Dante's Inferno with100-degree-plus temperatures predicted for Izmir, Turkey tomorrow.
We are expected to call at Rhodes at 11 a.m. I've been there before, but amazingly enough, not during daylight hours. My previous visit was an improvised overnight cobbled together because the ship I was on couldn't dock at Kusadasi, Turkey due to high sea conditions. We got off the ship, entered through the gates of the medieval wall, grabbed some gyros in a little Taverna just inside the walls, then found and joined an unbroken circle of dancers, an impromptu street party snaking around the edges of the city, yachties and townies linked hand to hand like an endless Hora or conga line, moving to the loud music pouring out of restaurants and bars as we danced our way completely around the inside perimeter of the walls.
Suffice it to say, Rhodes is a totally different place under the glaring eye of the midday sun. Noon is when we actually disembarked onto a pier, which like most in the Mediterranean, played host to a variety of vessels, from new and middle-aged cruise ships to workaday ferries.
I had two items on my agenda for Rhodes. First, I wanted to do a guided walking tour of the Old, or Medieval, City. Rhodes is very much (in more ways than I originally realized) like the island of Malta, with both holding strategic positions in the Mediterranean shipping and transport lanes, and both having histories -- sometimes interconnected -- extending back nearly to the stone age.
I had also hoped to find something to purchase for my wife, following a tradition of bringing back a gift from exotic destinations when she's unable to join me; guys, you know the drill: a purse, earrings, shoes, dress, 48-inch flat-screen plasma television ... okay, scratch that last one. I knew from my prior visit that at least the leather goods and jewelry could be found within Rhodes' medieval walls, so the quest was on.
I had also hankered a bit for another of those delicious gyros, but the timing of our port call put us off the ship at noon, and delaying lunch till the end of the tour at 4 p.m. didn't ring my chimes (when would a cruise passenger ever delay a meal for four hours?). I also had an early (7 p.m.) reservation in the Sun King, Carnival Freedom's alternative, reservations-only supper club, so a late lunch made even less sense.
I decided to try a station of the Freedom buffet which I don't recall having seen when I sailed Carnival Valor. On the deck map it's listed as "Mongolian," but actually it's a stir fry-to-order station. Passengers fill large soup bowls with a selection of ingredients -- everything from raw beef to seafood, vegetables, herbs, spices, rice, noodles -- and hand it to the wok-meister, who then stir-fries it to your liking, finishing it off with your selection of sauces. Tasty, clever and filling!
The shore excursion catalog listed Rhodes as a walking city and it was literally so; there was no motor vehicle transport at all. The cruise terminal at Rhodes is right up against the public beach (festooned with -- largely ignored -- signs reading "Swimming Forbidden!"), and the entry to the city itself is no more than a hundred yards from the terminal parking lot. It was in that lot we met up with Nektoria, our diminutive guide, who I doubt reached five feet in height. Nektoria had mislaid her "sign on a stick" somewhere, and standing on her tiptoes holding a water bottle over her head, she was still blocked by the men of average height in our group. She did have a loud, but extremely friendly, voice, so getting our attention was hardly a problem.
As we walked through the portal into the Old City, the walls blocked off most of the breeze, and what had already started to become uncomfortable heat crossed over into the terrain of the oppressive. For those who might consider taking this excursion, or doing the same route and points of interest independently -- because none of the places we entered qualified as religious buildings -- it is permissible to dress as comfortably as possible.
As we entered the Old City, Nektoria explained that 6,000 people lived within the walls. That doesn't sound like a lot, but those numbers make Rhodes the most populous medieval city in Europe.
The thick city walls we passed through offered the promise of protection for the pursued and oppressed. Thus, when Queen Isabella evicted all the Jews from Spain they were welcomed into the walled city of Rhodes. The synagogue they built in the city is the oldest still in operation in all of Europe.
But the best-known group to have adopted Rhodes is the Knights of St. John, who splintered off from the older Knights Templar, an organization created to provide protection for Christian pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. As the Knights Templar became more militarized, the Knights of St. John set their goals to include diplomacy and the establishment of hospitals and care for the destitute. I've crossed paths with the Knights on multiple occasions: in France, where I dined at what was the Templars' French base and refuge (now a beautiful hotel), in Malta, where the Knights fled after the Ottoman Turks destroyed the city of Rhodes in 1522, and, of course, in Rhodes itself.
Anyone who has seen the square-blocked sandstone construction in Malta will recognize its roots in the Knights' buildings in Rhodes. The primary edifice built in Rhodes was the hospital, now mostly a huge empty space flanked by columns and a vaulted ceiling. Our guide explained how the space was broken up, with cubicles for those who needed the most care, and a large open ward for those with less life-threatening maladies.
From the site of the hospital we proceeded to Socrates Street, the main public boulevard in Rhodes. All the buildings here are public, and include the headquarters for the knight representing each individual European nation -- a building for France, one for Spain, one for Italy, etc. At the top end of Socrates Street stands the Grand Master's Palace, which we visited. The palace was never fully used as residence for the Grand Master, as the Ottomans laid siege to the city before it reached completion. We were able to wander from room to room viewing the beautiful mosaic floors and the bits and pieces of furniture that were placed to "stage" the rooms. One location we were unable to visit was the bell tower.
During the siege the last Grand Master, while cooperating with the Ottomans, secretly hid a massive amount of gun powder for possible use later on. When the city fell, no one knew the location of the secret cache. As it turned out, the gun powder was secreted in the upper levels of the bell tower, and when the bell tower was struck by lightning ... well, the end should come as no surprise, and the bell tower has never been rebuilt.
Our visit to Rhodes concluded with a stop at the Archeological Museum, which contains antiquities from the Classic Hellenistic era. Here were marble sculptures, funereal artifacts (carved steles, sarcophagi and memorial monuments) and objects buried with the deceased. We also discussed the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Alas, nothing remains of what once was a 120-ft.-tall statue of Apollo situated at the entrance to the harbor at Rhodes. Fashioned in carved marble covered in bronze, it tumbled in an earthquake shortly after completion in 280 B.C., leaving only the base and head. When the Ottomans defeated Rhodes, those two remaining pieces were removed. The reason? To salvage and sell the bronze! This would be like future barbarians dismantling the Statue of Liberty and selling the metal for scrap.
On my way back to the ship I checked out a few of the shops and stalls, and found a remarkable lack of variety or uniqueness. My quest for a gift will have to wait for another day.
Back aboard the ship I cleaned up and made my way to the Sun King Restaurant on Deck 10. I have actually visited the Sun King more than once already to enjoy cocktails before going down to the Chic Restaurant for my normal second seating dinner. I discovered the trick of frequenting the bar at the alternative supper club, even on nights I didn't dine there, while aboard Carnival Valor. In that case the more permissive smoking rules and rowdiness of the aft bars on Promenade Deck made that area less than convivial for a quiet, relaxing pre-dinner drink. The supper clubs on Conquest-class ships also have a dance floor and small combo for dancing with your cocktails. Though conditions have improved since my first Conquest-class experience, I still enjoy having cocktails there, and I split my pre-dinner visits between Sun King and the Bar Nouveau Wine Bar on Promenade Deck.
Sun King continues and extends the over-the-top decor choices mentioned in my previous dispatch. Diners are welcomed by a life-size statue of Louis XIV himself, gilded head to foot in ersatz gold leaf. The ceiling, chairs, walls and tables also carry the gold treatment along with rococo filigree. It's a pastiche of Versailles cum Las Vegas.
There's nothing, however, ersatz or overdone about the food. From the amuse bouche (a small added taste of a bite or two proffered by the chef), in this case a dollop of a delicious pureed asparagus and arugula soup to the perfectly cooked prime meats, competently paired with excellent wine choices, the meal shines, and is well worth the $30 per person surcharge.
After dinner I had planned to make my way to the Victoriana where violinist Claire Gobin was holding forth with a concert of classics and pops, but, walking past the Seaside Theater on Lido Deck I caught sight of the night's film offering: "Jaws." And it seemed so appropriate to watch a giant shark on a giant screen in the middle of the ocean that I detoured to the pool bar to grab a bag of freshly popped popcorn, found a comfy chaise to recline on, and enjoyed the movie to the end.
Carnival Freedom calls at Izmir, Turkey tomorrow; it's a first-ever visit for me!