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Impressions from my Rhodes Diary: the MGS Spring Excursion, 1-7 April 2006

by Kathryn Bradley-Hole

We are in Rhodes with members of The Cyclamen Society. What a wonderfully eccentric and English thing, to have a society entirely devoted to the somewhat compact genus of Cyclamen, I had thought. (As it turns out, the society spreads its wings far and wide, and two CS members from Israel have joined the trip, including Dan Eisikowitch, who enlightens us all one evening with a talk on the latest findings in cyclamen pollination.) Our hosts are George and Chrysanthi Sfikas and they welcome everybody with beaming smiles, a name badge and a feast.

On the first excursion our large coach (there are three dozen of us) trundles into the interior, coughing and harrumphing as it lurches round the hairpin bends ascending Mt Profitis Ilias. Blossoms of wild pear and cydonia dress the roadsides in bridal white and our first stop is beside a little church en route, where we marvel at both the great and small in the plant world. Here are ancient cypress trees built like transatlantic liners and, even greater excitement, our first cyclamens: the Rhodes endemic Cyclamen rhodium, with large marbled leaves and typically dainty flowers. Further on, our first orchids – Orchis anatolica among the pine needles, and a peony, Paeonia rhodia; just one creamy-coloured chalice, but a fine one, which everybody jostles to photograph.

Paeonia rhodia

On the summit is the welcoming Elafos Hotel, newly opened after years of abandonment. Elafos and Elafina (the stag and doe) are architectural curiosites in Rhodes, being alpine lodges built in the early 20th century when Rhodes was under Italian rule. Though they crown the mount dedicated to the Prophet Elijah, their jaunty woodcarvings and painted fascias suggest alpenhorns and The Sound of Music. Doe, a deer, indeed, but appropriate nevertheless, since these animals are emblematic of the island; a pair of bronze deer stand at the entrance to the Mandraki harbour just at the point where, legend has it, the mighty Colossus of Rhodes stood until the earthquakes of 225 BC caused its vast bronze bulk to tumble into the sea.
At Epta Piyes, the Seven Springs, we earn our huge lunch under the unfolding canopies of plane trees by walking a mule track up the shady gorge towards shrieking peacocks. It is a pretty streamside route, lined with Platanus orientalis and figs bursting into leaf and, sheltering among them, lots more Cyclamen rhodense. The journey home is memorable for a pause to admire a truly gigantic oak, Quercus aucheri, on the east road between Afandou and Kolimbia. Lawrence Durrell wrote that in Rhodes ‘the days drop as softly as fruit from trees’ (in Reflections on a Marine Venus, his recollection of two years’ sojourn on the island from 1945-47). And the sunset on this evening reveals exactly what he meant.

Contorted cypresses, characterful pines and cheerful mounds of cistus are constants in these ancient landscapes where the air is also redolent with thyme and sage. Along waysides the dainty pheasant’s eye, Adonis aestivalis, casts its tiny vermilion buttons among white daisies of chamomile and the ubiquitous, ever-cheerful Chrysanthemum carinatum. Pretty Adonis, like the Flanders poppy, is unfortunately associated with bloodshed, for it is named after the wounded Adonis of Greek mythology, the drops of whose blood were turned into this flower by Aphrodite. More apparent on some waysides is the deep scarlet form of Ranunculus asiaticus, the ravishing wild parent of those colourful rosetted ranunculus you can always find in European florists’ shops through the spring months.

Ranunculus asiaticus

Next morning, we stop just past Masari on the east coast road and stroll down a track through a coastal plain of scrubby farmland to the beach – Ormos Reni. Butterflies are scarce, this being early in the season, but two swallowtails dance to the trilling of skylarks and there are plenty of flowers in varied habitats, from the fertile olive orchards to the stony steppe of the seaside. Mounds of wind-flattened alkanet – Alkanna tinctoria – compete with the Aegean to be the most blue of all blues, upstaging the wiry stock, Matthiola longipetala ssp. pumila (another Rhodes endemic) and Verbascum syriacum. The latter, in its unflowered state, resembles a stachys with felty leaves in a dense rosette. Heading inland, we dine at Laerma under an umbrella of mimosa in full flower and feed titbits to a sweet little boxer puppy tethered nearby, lonely and bored under its eucalyptus tree. Homewards, the interior route is beguiling – like Tuscany but without the pointy cypresses, though the valleys are in carnival dress, hung with cascades of fragrant mimosa. Brian Mathew, the eminent botanist, laces his excellent evening talk on bulbs for Mediterranean gardens with witty asides, and the gems of wisdom that are only achieved by absolute familiarity with the subject over many years.

Tuesday starts with a silvery sky and silver sea. Later it turns to lead. Then back to Aegean blue. Trilling larks shelter in the protection of hummocks of juniper dotted along the beach of Apolakkia. This beach is now protected, being the last relict coastal ecosystem on Rhodes. It is also a vital barrier against sea erosion, but not immune to litter, particularly odd sandals and flip-flops. Why do people always lose their footwear? I note its plants as: Otanthus maritimus ‘silver stuff by the sea – lots of it’. Rumex bucephalophorus. Lagurus ovatus, the ubiquitous but lovely hare’s tail grass. Feathery stock: Erucaria hispanica. We clamber back into the coach and marvel at a twister tornado out at sea, the first that many of us have ever seen.

One morning our early stop is just west of Rhodes town on a wind-battered hill known as Monte Smith, named after the skilled and tenacious Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, 1764-1840, who kept an eye on the French fleet from here during the Mediterranean campaigns (though it is most unlikely he ever shook hands with Napoleon). The ruins of a temple of Apollo rise out of a flowery meadow, but we are up on the blowy Monte mainly to study the foliage of autumn-flowering Cyclamen graecum. And, as it turns out, to be interviewed by Greek television news.

Local TV has arrived to interview George Sfikas and Alisdair Aird on the importance of conserving local flora. John Fielding also manages to show them his marvellous book of Cretan flora, and the camera lingers over its cover – a good plug for the book and the prestige of Greek wild flowers as a whole, we hope.

A walk in the mixed relict woods of Mt Philerimos is rewarded with the sight of a small forest of giant fennel, Ferula communis, fluttering in dappled light under the pines. Ferula is not to be confused with the more palatable herb fennel – Foeniculum vulgare – of our kitchen gardens. But to see its garden potential you only need to wander among the ruins of Ialysos, one of the three ancient cities of Rhodes, on the crown of the mount. There, the unmanicured gardens around the mediaeval church of Our Lady of Philerimos seem to fulfil all the requirements of Man’s earliest gardens – the genius loci or sacred grove of natural beauty and atmosphere, watered by springs.

Ferula communis

We walk through the monastery’s cool and shady cloister, among the felled ruins of Hellenistic Ialysos and along umbrageous cypress avenues; the serenity of the place is tangible, even when it suddenly swarms with excitable Greek teenagers on their school outing. Especially alluring is a tucked-away flowery mead screened by old pines and cypresses. There, you can hardly see any grass or greenery for all the flowers springing out of the ground; consequently, the hum of bees is intense.

Rhodes, like the rest of Greece, is not rich in country gardens, but the ancient tradition of the patio courtyard thrives in its towns. The high-walled Old Town of Rhodes is not unlike Malta’s ancient city of Mdina. Both have in common a history entwined with the Knights of St John. When the knights were finally driven out of Rhodes by the Turkish troops of Suleiman I in 1523 they went to Malta, but left behind them a city of muscular, elegant buildings fashioned in grainy tufa, apparently the only rock quarried on Rhodes. Walk up Odhós Ippotón – the Street of the Knights – before breakfast, and you can peer through heavy doors into countless fountain courtyards reminiscent of the patios of Córdoba. It is a tightly-packed community but there are plenty of trees and early one morning I hear a nightingale among them.

Fountain courtyard in the Old Town of Rhodes

A fascinating guided tour through the key sights of the Old Town (including the Knights’ hospital, Roman mosaics in the Grand Master’s palace and the famous Marine Venus) is followed by a visit to the recently made garden of the Marc de Montalembert charitable foundation (described in TMG 34, October 2003). Removed from the traffic and bustle, this garden is a haven of orange trees, cool water, huge cypresses and fragrant climbers in an extraordinary location, beside an excavated Hellenic road and an unaltered Byzantine church.

The inevitable honey, olive oil, maps, guides, and other paraphernalia I have accumulated during this week go into my suitcase but I find I have forgotten to buy any umbrellas, though Rhodes is clearly the place to get them. I can only think of one dedicated umbrella shop in the whole of rainy London, yet in just one street in parched Rhodes town I spied no less than seven shops all in a row, entirely devoted to the parapluie – and an eighth just across the road from them! Yet another mystery in this island of enigma. However, I do pack into my suitcase a very special book: Flowers of Greece, by George Sfikas. It features 112 Greek wild flowers described and exquisitely illustrated by the author. Mr Sfikas has been a fount of botanical knowledge all week but his talent for painting flowers and their associated butterflies he has kept hidden, with typical modesty. Along with his ever cheerful and resourceful wife, Chrysanthi, we could not have wished for more engaging and knowledgeable guides and hosts, and the group unanimously hopes that another tour with them will be forthcoming sometime in the future.

Photographs by Kathryn Bradley-Hole, Davina Michaelides and Alisdair Aird
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