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Lunch time in Apollona, a small village located in the khaki-tinged hinterland of Rhodes, and everything is quiet – except for one terrace located on a small side road above the houses. Here, a mix of locals and visitors sit around wooden tables, on which carafes of half-drunk wine, roast meats and feta-freckled salads are placed next to bowls of homemade bread. Between the tables, a strong man in an apron pushes around, explaining dishes, telling stories and pouring the wine he gets from his friends’ vineyard on the island. This is Giannis, the owner and creator of the taverna, Paraga, and a man consumed by passion for the rich food heritage of Rhodes.
The lunch starts with three types of bread and a thick sesame dip with yogurt. Many of Paraga’s recipes have been handed down through the generations. Our main course, a rich beef stifado, has been cooked in clay since morning, giving Giannis a great theatrical moment when he gently opens the ceramic pot to reveal an unctuous stew, served alongside juicy stock-soaked potatoes. We eat relish, looking out over the lush green hills, the holm oaks and the Italian cypress coming up between the silver-grey olive groves and the spindly vineyard lines.
Apollona is just one of dozens of villages located on the hills and valleys of inland Rhodes, many linked by footpaths and featuring traditional pubs or quiet village bars. These peaceful hamlets are perfect for spring break, when you can spend your days walking and exploring rather than avoiding the heat. This area also gives a glimpse of an island that is very different from the built up coast. One of the first Greek islands to embrace mass-market tourism, Rhodes is known as a family-oriented fly and flop – sun, sea and sand with a good dollop of Greek history on the side. But it is earlier in the season that can be the best time to visit.
Our base for the first few days is the newly opened Hotel Elissa: a slick, minimalist-designed hotel located on the small curved beach at Kallithea, about 10 minutes away from Rhodes town. Like much of Rhodes’ coastal strip, Kallithea itself feels a bit faded, but we follow the advice of the concierge at the Elissa and hop in a taxi for dinner to the small village of Koskinou, a few kilometers inland.
The surprising thing about Rhodes is how it changes within minutes of leaving the coast. We arrive at the picturesque main square of Koskinou, where a small, brightly lit cafe is filled with men sipping mugs of coffee and small boys playing football against the nearest wall. A sign to the Tasos tavern leads us into a black alleyway, where low-slung, white-washed houses are covered in a vast swath of tangerine and plum-hued bougainvillaea. It seems impossible that the bright lights and bustle of the coast are only five minutes away. As we settle for big plates of smoked chicken, garlicky tzatsiki and sumptuous, honeyed baklava, it feels like we’re on another island altogether.
The next day we set out to discover some of the famous sights of the island – the Roman streets of Rhodes old town, the historic fortress and the famous spa at Kallithea Springs. They are all full of visitors, so much so that it’s a relief to go back to Elissa’s relaxing pool.
Later, over a cold Mythos beer, we look over an old-fashioned road map and plot a route for the next day, taking in several inland villages on the way to our second hotel near Lindos.
Fortunately, driving in Rhodes is easy and unchallenging. The roads are quiet and built to accommodate the day tour coaches and Jeep safaris that can be seen in even the quietest backwaters. And there’s plenty to see, including hundreds of religious buildings – mosques, churches, chapels and monasteries – each offering a glimpse into the island’s gruesome history, whether Roman or Byzantine, Ottoman or Italian. We stop at Tsambika, a small Byzantine monastery located at an altitude of 240m. The 350 steps make for a challenge, but the 360 degree view of the island’s crystalline beaches and lush green countryside is worth the effort.
The south of the island proves to be very different from the north, the continuous sprawl of large resort hotels slowly breaking up to reveal the long arc of beach at Vlycha Bay. We settle into our room at the Lindos Blu – an architect’s dream of a hotel, with rooms and terraces that step down the hillside – and look out towards the rugged mountains across the bay, their rocky outlines like giant, half-sleeping alligators. buried at the. sea.
The historic town of Lindos is the main attraction on this side of the island but, when we visit, the cobbled streets are packed with cruise and tour groups, and we quickly escape back up into the hills to visit the village remote Embonas, said to be the most traditional on the island. It’s a little more touristy than we expected, but still has a real charm, with several wine caves, pubs and shops selling locally made baskets, rugs and linens, as well as slippers knitted with pompoms huge on my toes that I can’t resist. . On the way back, we make a short detour to the small resort of Pefkos, for a visit to the crystal-clear waters of Lai Beach.
On our last day, we went in for one last visit to the village with an early lunch at Lardos, just a few minutes drive from our hotel. Like Koskinou, it feels a world away from the bustle of tourist buses and tour groups at Lindos. Instead, it’s full of the slow-paced magic that the Greek islands excel at. We watch the smooth comings and goings of the leafy main street and agree that it’s in the quiet inland villages where the heart of this historic island really is for all its ancient sites and long sandy beaches.
Annabelle Thorpe traveled with the Greek tourist board (visitgreece.gr), staying at
the Elissa (doubles from £193 B&B; ellaresorts.com) and the Lindos Blu
(doubles from £226 B&B; slh.com)