Our holiday in Rhodes was a relaxing affair: late summer sun, recuperating from a busy year’s work, and catching up on reading by the poolside. Still, there was time to explore, and a little preparatory research on Google Maps brought the Rhodes folklore museum, situated in Kolymbia, the closest town to our resort, to my attention.
On first impressions, Kolymbia looked like the typically modern small town that grows up in close proximity to the sandy beaches and holiday resorts of the Mediterranean. There was nothing emphatically Greek or traditional about it, with its array of small hotels, bars, tavernas, tourist shops, car rental offices and supermarkets. Its gridiron streets were long and straight, and its main stretch, Eucalyptus Street, was lined with uniformly mature eucalyptuses, which offered welcome shade from the heat.
I found the museum easily enough. Inside, I received a warm welcome from the owner’s daughter, who gave me a guided tour of the museum. It’s a small, quiet place, with two rooms of exhibits and a small gift shop. The first room was compact, bright and airy, and contained a display of Rhodes’s flora and fauna. On shelves around the walls, the branches and leaves of trees were displayed. A large collection of seashells was arranged in another corner.
The second, larger room was filled with an eclectic mix of domestic and agricultural tools and objects, alongside historical artefacts, photographs and other ephemera. This room was part museum display and part reconstruction of a traditional Rhodes house; a snapshot of Greek life at an indeterminate period in time, some time around the late-nineteenth or early twentieth century.
The charm of this room lay its eclectic nature. It offered a refreshing alternative to professionally curated displays of domestic life and history usually found in museums. Here, everything and anything was included, the result being that it said as much about the passion and dedication of the museum’s owner, as it did about Rhodes’s history.
Cannonballs from the 1522 Ottoman siege of Rhodes sat alongside ancient pottery fragments and athletics medals. Traps used to illegally trap birds lurked underneath a display case filled with old cameras and sepia-tinted photographs. Antique Continental and Olivetti typewriters sat beside a mounted display of sickles, shepherds’ walking sticks and fishing nets.
Another small display focused on Rhodes’s occupation from various imperial powers throughout history: the Ottoman-Turkish period from 1522 to 1912; the Italian occupation that lasted from 1912 to 1943; the German occupation during the final years of the Second World War; the Allied occupation after the war; and, finally, Rhodes’ freedom and integration into the Greek nation in 1948. The display included the guns and helmets of soldiers of the different Second World War occupying powers. On another wall, my attention was drawn to an Italian title deed for a house, dating from the period of the Italian occupation.
When I left the museum I was satisfied that my walk to get to it had been worthwhile. I loved the displays, and the care and attention that had gone into creating them. I’d also learnt a good deal. The artefacts relating to the Italian occupation of Rhodes drew my attention to one particular subject I hadn’t fully appreciated previously.
The next morning I was back at the poolside, and reading my copy of Laurence Durrell’s The Greek Islands. In his chapter on Rhodes, Durrell, who was posted to the island by the British Government at the end of the Second World War, mentions the Sienese farming families settled on Rhodes by the Italian Government during the years of their occupation. It was these farm workers, writes Durrell, that helped reforest Rhodes, with tree species that included pine and eucalyptus, creating a landscape more akin to Sicily than Rhodes.1 This, I thought, might explain the preponderance of eucalyptus trees in Kolymbia.
It was only later, after I’d returned from holiday, that I learned a little more of the history of Kolymbia. I learned that the entire town, then called San Benedetto2, had been created by the Italian occupying government in the 1930s, as part of a plan to modernise Rhodes:
Among the characteristic features of Italian development was road construction, the establishment of Italian agricultural communities, reforestation programs, and urban development that included the construction of modern housing, electricity, and modern sewerage disposal systems.3
Kolymbia was an entirely Italian creation, inserted into the ancient Rhodes landscape in the interwar years. Studying its location and orientation on Google Maps, its function is clear: it was a link on the road connecting Rhodes Town with Lindos, with Eucalyptus Street intersecting this road, connecting the coast to the interior. On the coast, the new settlement offered an infrastructure designed to nurture tourism. Further inland, where Eucalyptus Street crossed the road to Lindos, a further road leads up into the hills, where large swathes of land have been replanted with more eucalyptus and pine. The Italians also built a water irrigation channel alongside Eucalyptus Street.
With this in mind, the two-kilometre-long Eucalyptus Street has an aesthetic as well as a functional purpose. It is a grandiose gesture, a little incongruous in the Rhodes landscape, and somewhat disproportionate to the small town built around it. In this sense, it reminds us of the fascist urban planning aesthetics that we might more readily associate with Berlin or Rome.
When I made my way back to the hotel from the folklore museum in Kolymbia, I passed a small Greek Orthodox chapel. The chapel looks old but is new. Inside, a looping slideshow shows photographs of its recent construction. It is a beautiful little building, nestled on a small plot amidst a landscaped garden, in the shadow of a block of flats that look out across the Aegean. Its scale is intimate, and the frescoes on its interior walls and vaulted ceiling are lovely. Peeking inside its cool interior, its existence here made sense: a structure celebrating a millennia-old religious tradition, built using time-honoured and traditional techniques, sitting on the edge of a town lacking in that same sense of the past, and borne of a quite different ideology.
All photographs by the author unless indicated otherwise.
- Lawrence Durrell, The Greek Islands (Faber & Faber, 2002), p.129.
- Vassilis Colonas “Planning of a New Town in the Dodecanese Islands. Port Lago (Lakki) in Greece’ in Susanna Bortolotto, Renzo Riboldazzi (eds.) Urbanistica e architettura moderne alla prova della contemporaneità: Sguardi sulle città coloniali e di fondazione (Altralinea Edizioni, 2018), p.109.
- Nicholas Doumanis ‘Italians as “Good” Colonizers: Speaking Subalterns and the Politics of Memory in the Dodecanese’ in R. Ben-Ghiat & M. Fuller (Eds.) Italian Colonialism (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), p.223.