Butterflies, Castles, and Cities in the Air

Moths at rest

Say “Rhodes” and many people come back with “scholar;” others with a more historical bent may blurt, “The Colossus of Rhodes!” — which, sadly, hasn’t existed for centuries – but at least they know their antiquities. Deeper thinkers may ponder history (or google Wikipedia) before coming up with the Knights of St. John and their critical loss of the island to the Ottomans in 1522; Greek history buffs may offer the ancient city of Kamiros or the acropolis of Lindos.

But I’ll bet that only a fraction of savvy world travelers will confidently say, “The Valley of the Butterflies.” Yet we found that vale with its gorgeous creatures the highlight of our stay in Rhodes.

A flash of orange signifies one of the moths in flight

A flash of orange signifies one of the moths in flight

In reality, these are moths, not butterflies (Callimorpha quadripunctarea if you want to be picky), which is why their wings, when at rest, are folded in flat close to their bodies, rather than held together vertically aloft as a butterfly does. What makes this tiny valley so spectacular is the sheer number of the moths – hundreds of thousands – and their incredible coloration. When the wings are folded their hue is deep brown to black with white markings, yet with their wings opened in flight, a brilliant orange is exposed on the underside which contrasts so brightly against the almost drab coloration of their bodies. Watching them flutter like tiny poppies among the lush green of the valley, I felt transported to a magical world unlike any other I’d seen.

Despite taking literally a hundred or more pictures, I still could not capture as clearly as I’d have liked the moths in flight with the brilliant underside of their wings exposed. An individual moth’s flight would last only seconds before it settled back among the thousands of others clinging to the tree trunks or leaves. At any given moment there could be dozens in the air, yet my camera just wasn’t good or fast enough to capture more than a glimpse of their colorful flight. Even when there were a thousand or more clustered on a tree trunk and a “flight” consisted of 1-2 seconds before resettling on the trunk.

Thousands of moths will cling together on the trunks of the trees.

Thousands of moths will cling together on the trunks of the trees.

In fact, when at rest against a tree trunk, the moths’ coloration blends so well against the bark, it took me a while to realize that this one tree was covered with what seemed like a thousand or more moths.

The moths are tiny, an additional factor in making their brilliant color not more than a blurry flash of orange against the greens and browns in the valley. (The moth I’m holding below was already dead which is the only reason why I picked it up.)

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Unfortunately, as numerous as these moths appeared, their numbers have been in steady decline in recent years as more and more people hear of them. One of their peculiarities is the absence of a stomach, so they can store no food once they’ve emerged from the cocoon. They must live off their residual energy for several months from food consumed as caterpillars. Anything that disturbs the moths  — and they are easily disturbed – causes those short, energy-consuming bursts of flight and depletes their energy supply for mating. Just another example of how delicate the world around us can be.

Rhodes’ Old Town

Modern sculpture graces the  slice ob beach that rims the harbor side of Old Town's fortifications

Modern sculpture graces the slice of beach that rims the harbor side of Old Town’s fortifications

Rhodes Old Town, dominated by its massive 14th c. stone fortifications, is the heart of tourism on the island. Unfortunately for us, our first visit to the old quarter coincided with three cruise ships berthed in the harbor. Needless to say, the cobbled streets were packed with tourists, all competing for pictures and souvenirs. I was more than a bit dismayed by the rows of tschokes stalls packed cheek-to-jowl along the interior of the fortifications, but managed to get some nice pictures.

Famous Avenue of the Kniights, leading from the main square of the Knights' Quarter to the Palace of the Grand Masters

Famous Avenue of the Knights, leading from the main square of the Knights’ Quarter to the Palace of the Grand Masters

The Knights Quarter is the section within the Old Town inhabited by the Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitallers, a Roman Catholic religious order whose primary strongholds for over 200 years were on the islands of Rhodes and Malta. From the massive forts and sheltered harbors of these islands, the knights were able to fend off the advance of the “dreaded infidels” (primarily the Ottomans) for centuries before losing Rhodes to the Turks in 1522. (About 40 years later the knights, with considerable help from the Maltese and a handful of European reinforcements, managed to stave off the Ottoman attack on Malta, which prevented the Turks from putting a stranglehold on European Christian nations’ sea-faring schemes.) Unfortunately, over the centuries, the Knights, in the name of Christendom often acted no better than marauding corsairs, raiding Ottoman and Arabic ships to fill their coffers and maintain their fortifications.

15th c. Knights' Hospital, now the Museum of Archaeology

15th c. Knights’ Hospital, now the Museum of Archaeology

The grand Marina Gate

The grand Marina Gate

D'Amboise gate

D’Amboise gate

Inside the moat between two fo the three walls of fortifications. Note the heavy-duty, stone cannon balls next to an old cannon (clearly not the one intended to hurl those huge missiles)

Inside the moat between the walls of fortifications. Note the heavy-duty, stone cannon balls next to an old cannon (clearly not the one intended to hurl those huge missiles)

Remains of St. Catherine's Basilica

Remains of St. Catherine’s Basilica

View through St. Catherine's gate to the old harbor

View through St. Catherine’s gate to the old harbor

One of the nicer shopping streets, yet the quaintness of grapevines can't diminish the commercial kitsch of much of the Knights' Quarter

One of the nicer shopping streets, yet the quaintness of a canopy of grapevines can’t diminish the commercial kitsch of much of the Knights’ Quarter

However, the Knights of St. John and their conquerors, the Ottomans, were not the only inhabitants of Rhodes over the ages – not by a long shot. The island, so close to Turkey and situated at the top of the island triangle with Crete and Cyprus, served for centuries as a major port and crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa.

Temple of Aphrodite

Greek Temple of Aphrodite

Today, despite the trashy souvenir stalls, there are traces of the Greek, Roman, Jewish, Arab and other cultures that thrived here before the Hospitallers were “granted” the city and island by the Pope in 1309. A few broken columns and scattered stones from the Temple of Aphrodite are the primary reminder of the Greeks in Old Town, and the remains of a temple to Apollo outside Rhodes stand as witness to the Romans. The ancient Colossus, a towering statue of the Greek god of the sun, Helios, was toppled along with most of the ancient city of Rhodes in a massive earthquake in 226 B.C.  Subsequent quakes and invasions leveled much of what was built in the next eight centuries, and most of “Old Town” truly dates back to early medieval times. And thus, its checkered history, combined with a couple of devastating earthquakes, is the reason why Old Town is a time-warp of mostly European Christian-influenced architecture and fortifications with several mosques and a couple of synagogues thrown into the mix. From the opposite side of the harbor, the old city’s sky line is punctured with church spires, minarets and masts, all symbols of past and current riches.

Spires of yachts, churches and mosques

Spires of yachts, churches and mosques

We spent quite a while wandering through the crowded main streets of Old Town, more and more discomfited by the crowds and heat. While taking a break, I noticed we were in the Jewish Quarter, and per the guide book, there was a Jewish museum and a couple of synagogues in the area behind the square we were on, so off we went. And immediately got lost.

ost in Old Town's maze of streets

Lost in Old Town’s maze of streets

Feta cheese and olive oil cans reused for plant containers were in abunedance in Old Town's back streets, adding a bit of visual flavor

Feta cheese and olive oil cans reused for plant containers were in abundance in Old Town’s back streets, adding a bit of visual flavor.

Behind the bustle and commercialism of the old city lurks a maze of narrow, twisting streets not seen since the last time I got lost in Venice. The medieval streets of Rhodes are so empty and eerily quiet after the crush and clash of the crowded plazas. After about 15 minutes of trudging around in the heat  (I will spare everyone our ongoing “conversation”), we gave up and went to find shade, seats and something cold. At that, at least, we were successful.

Heading for an oasis

Heading for an oasis

It's the little touches that count. The elderly proprietor put a yellow straw in my lemon ice tea, and a peach colored straw in Michael's peach ice tea

It’s the little touches that count. The elderly proprietor put a yellow straw in my lemon ice tea, and a peach colored straw in Michael’s peach ice tea

The only other thing we did that afternoon was to hire a car and map out (sort of) a plan for the next day. That was the day we drove around the island of Rhodes, stopping first at the Valley of the Butterflies. But we also saw some interesting sights along the way.

But first, some more photos of Old Town:

A beautiful fountain, in a relatively quiet moment in the Jewish Quarter

A beautiful fountain, in a relatively quiet moment in the Jewish Quarter

Shady promenade along the middle wall of the fortifications, between St. Anthony's and D'Amboise gates

Shady promenade along the wall of  fortifications, between St. Anthony’s and D’Amboise gates

Palace of the Grand Masters, damaged in an explosion in 1856, rebuilt by the Italians in the early 20th c. as a vacation home for their king. The original parts date to its construction in the 14th c.

Palace of the Grand Masters, damaged in an explosion in 1856, rebuilt by the Italians in the early 20th c. as a vacation home for their king. The original parts date to its initial construction in the 14th c.

Muslim Library

Muslim Library

Mosque of Suleiman the Great, whose forces overcame the Hospitallers in 1522 and conquered Rhodes.

Mosque of Suleiman the Great, whose forces overcame the Hospitallers in 1522 and conquered Rhodes.

The Ancient City of Kamiros

The earthquake of 226 B.C. destroyed more than just the old port town of Rhodes. It leveled much of the island’s buildings, including the ancient Dorian city of Kamiros. The city was rebuilt after the first earthquake, only to be demolished once again over 100 years later. After the last one in 146 B.C., it was largely abandoned and left to time and nature to cover.

But what a sight the city must have been. Constructed of three large terraces built into the side of a mountain overlooking the sea, Kamiros was topped once by a large acropolis complete with columned temples. One can truly imagine that returning sailors would envision home as a grand castle in the air.

Lower city of Kamiros

Lower city of Kamiros

We would have liked to have walked around a bit more than we did, but our timing (plus our dawdling at the Valley of the Butterflies) put us at Kamiros in the heat of the day. Yet walking down the same marbled street that was built over 2,000 years ago was pretty impressive.

A contemplative moment in Kamiros

A contemplative moment in Kamiros

Ancient Kamiros - looking down the main street where houses and shops once lined both sides

Ancient Kamiros – looking down the main street where houses and shops once lined both sides

Kritinia, Monolithos and Lindos

Rhodes, like most of the Greek islands, is mountainous, rocky, and tough to wear down, despite the numbers of earthquakes, invaders bringing destruction, and even tourism. Yet is probably, overall, one of the wealthier islands in Greece, but wealth can’t always be measured in euros, dollars or rubles. That its location has been strategic for hundreds of years is noted by the number of castles and fortifications scattered around the island, many of which survive. The castle-fort of the Knights of St. John was built at sea level in Old Town, and most likely, for that reason, the outer walls of the fort are as thick as 12 meters (nearly 40 feet). Around the perimeter of the mountainous island, other castles or forts were constructed on natural promontories overlooking the sea, poised to spot and repel invaders from the best advantage.

Kritinia Castle, in Western Rhodes,built in 1427 to defend against invading Turks. The town below the cliffs was founded by Cretans who escaped after their homeland was taken over by the Otttomans.

Kritinia Castle, in Western Rhodes,built in 1427 to defend against invading Turks. The town below the cliffs was founded by Cretans who escaped after their homeland was taken over by the Ottomans. Eventually the castle adopted the name of the town.

Three of these castle-forts we drove to take a look. The first was the castle of Kritinia, on the upper west coast of Rhodes (the island). Originally just called “the Castle,” it was built in 1472 to ward of invading Ottomans and pirates. At some point later, it began to be known as the Kritinia Castle, taking its new sobriquet from the fishing village below its cliff. From what I’ve later read, I wish we’d actually climbed up to the castle as the views are supposed to be breath-taking, and the sunsets stupendous. Unfortunately, we were still so hot from our time with the moths and Kamiros, we chose to keep driving down the coast.

Castle of Monolithos, Western Rhodes

Castle of Monolithos, Western Rhodes

The castle of Monolithos was next on the agenda, as we drove along the western coast of Rhodes. We’d re-hydrated, and were determined to see this even more famous Rhodes castle, built in 1480 by the Knights of St. John. Until we finally found the path – more like a goat track – that wound its way up the final, incredibly steep, treacherous half-mile or so to the castle, perched on its 263 meter (774 feet), aerie.

That brought us up short. Michael asked if, given my hip/back issues, did I really want to climb that rocky, precipitous path? Given that the actual castle was mostly in ruins, we agreed to take a pass. Disappointed, we headed east over the mountains to the east coast of Rhodes and probably the most famous of its castles, after the one in Old Town Rhodes, the ancient acropolis fortress of Lindos.

And that’s where our castle-questing for the day ended – nearly for good, along with our lives.

A lot of jokes are made about how fearless, fool-hardy, or reckless Greek drivers are. Try this one on for size: passing another car, speeding in the wrong lane on a blind curve of a road built into the side of the mountain, with a sheer, fatal drop to the rocks below. That was the stupid driver who nearly killed us in a head-on collision that afternoon as we steered over the last mountain heading to Lindos.

Call it the blessing of saints, the gods (pick your religion), or serendipity, but it just so happened that one of the very few places that road had a shoulder on the edge of the cliff, was the exact spot where that reckless driver nearly killed us. Michael’s lightning-quick reactions took us out of the path of that driver and onto that sliver of berm, and saved our lives.

Shaken, we continued on to Lindos. As we sat in the parking lot in the late afternoon heat at the base of the acropolis, staring mutely at the 116 meter-high rock with its 2,000+ year old Greek temple ruins and yet another castle built by the Knights Hospitallers, Michael said very quietly, “Sorry to disappoint you, but I really don’t feel like climbing up that rock right now.” I couldn’t disagree.

Acropolis of Lindos

Acropolis of Lindos

So, 0 for 3 on castle-exploring that day, we turned the car north and drove back to Rhodes. It was a very quiet ride.

A couple of hours and a few glasses of wine later, we finally were able to string more than two sentences together and discuss the day. We couldn’t believe that any sane person could take such a terrible chance with his and other people’s lives. We talked about the irony of being around these ancient monuments, the beauty of nature found in something as simple as a moth, and coming face-to-face with nearly being obliterated in an instant by an apparent total idiot.

But you know what? We weren’t going to let it ruin another moment of our day. So we hoisted another glass of good Greek wine and promised the next few days would be better. And they were.

P.S. I also bought a bunch of Greek “worry beads,” used by fidgeters  and as a talisman against evil. My worry beads now hang from my car’s rear view mirror.

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