RHODES – If you are planning a short vacation, not too far away from home but still with access to duty-free shopping, Rhodes, one of the Greek Islands in the Aegian Sea, might be the perfect answer.

It is close – merely an hour of flight from Ben Gurion Airport – and has lots of sea and sun, a great choice of historical and archeological locations, lots of Greek music and even a Jewish and Israeli angle. In the framework of Greece’s efforts to rehabilitate its economy, the Greek government is focusing on tourism and many facilities, such as brand new luxurious hotels and leisure resorts, have been developed recently, offering a wide variety of all-inclusive packages as well as plenty of activities outside the hotels.

For the average Israel, a visit to Rhodes begins at the airport. The somewhat old-fashioned charm of the place is welcoming.

There is no trace of the usual noisy, packed international airports that lack a human touch. On the contrary – the atmosphere is cozy, warm, relaxed and charming right from the beginning – allowing visitors to feel at home right away.

In Rhodes you are definitely in a Mediterranean environment, albeit with a slight European touch, which can make many things easier. To the average Israeli tourist, who has become accustomed to our larger neighbor, Turkey, Rhodes might initially seem similar but it isn’t. Apart from the grilled lamb meat offered at almost every corner, Greece, and especially Rhodes, is far from being more of the same Turkish delight that Israelis have found themselves renouncing recently.

Once outside the airport, there is no ignoring the bright sunshine of the region or the heat, and the kind of easy-going, leisurely atmosphere around is enough to make an Israeli feel right at home.

From the airport there are various ways to reach your hotel via a shuttle that may be included in your package deal or a taxi, which is cheaper than in Israel and easy to hail, always clean and comfortable with a very polite driver at the helm.

In the last few years, a series of modern luxury hotels have been built on the island, most of them in the northern part near the capital city of Rhodes and some near the most popular tourist sites, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the preserved village of Lindos.

If spending all day in your hotel facility is not your idea of a vacation, Rhodes has a lot to offer, and it didn’t take long for the people of Rhodes to find out that Israelis might just be the best tourists they could wish for.

“Israelis don’t remain in the hotel,” the Governor of the South Aegian Region Giannis Mecheridis said recently to a group of Israeli journalists. “They travel across the island, for sight-seeing and spend their money equally among us – at restaurants, taverns, music clubs and shopping; That’s why we love them.”

In terms of attractions especially of interest to Jews and Israelis, Rhodes had a large and active Jewish community prior to World War II, which was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis, and only about 40 Jews remain there today. The synagogue, which has been classified as a world heritage site by UNESCO, is more of a museum than a synagogue, as there are not enough members in attendance to make up a minyan every Shabbat.

During the high holidays, Jews from Athens join the small local community in order to conduct full religious services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The synagogue, which is situated in the Old City, which is in itself a World Heritage Site, is beautifully ornamented and definitely deserves a visit.

The old city of Rhodes is built with heavy dark basalt stones, and is a jewel of medieval architecture, with its small and narrow lanes surrounded by ancient walls. Cleaning teams working throughout the day keep the venue amazingly spotless, considering the large number of tourists.

In the square close to the little alley leading to the synagogue, stands a commemorative stone to the Jewish victims of the Nazis, displaying the date they were arrested and deported.

The major square of the city is full of restaurants, taverns blasting inviting Greek music, and lots of ice cream shops, which the local youth frequent.

Tourists and souvenirs shops abound, but surprisingly, their prices are much more reasonable than in the small traditional villages along the coast. Jewelry, alcohol (the famous Ouzo in a large variety of sizes of bottles), shoes (including very nice goat fur slippers, beautifully embroidered with local Greek design) ethnic clothes, most of them embroidered, and paintings of local scenes and sights. The shopkeepers welcome you from the threshold of the shops, and they keep smiling at you even if you don’t come in.

On the Rhodes City coast facing the unbelievably blue Aegian Sea stands the stunning Roses Hotel. Today it’s the official casino of the island, but 64 years ago, it played an important role in the history of Israel. Inside, the cease-fire agreements between the newly born Jewish State and its Arab neighbors were signed to end the 1948 war.

Outside the hotel, two statues of deer crowned with doves are displayed, each on a high pillar. They stand on each side of the harbor of the city, where, according to tradition, stood the feet of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the antique seven wonders of the world.

Once outside of the city of Rhodes, the island offers everything a tourist could hope for. And despite the temptation to remain at the hotel and its high level of comfort, it’s worth it to make the effort to explore. The landscape is often breathtaking – especially where the mountains and the sea meet along the winding roads. The beaches are clean, though they have no sand and you must walk on little black basalt stones to reach the water.

The UNESCO-recognized village of Lindos, an hour and a half northeast to the city of Rhodes, is a must. Its little white houses are kept in the same manner as they were built centuries ago. The village is built on a mountain side, and its narrow lanes paved with the typical local little basalt stones, climb upwards leading to the Acropolis, and a wonderful view. You can choose to ride a donkey – or walk your way to the top, passing through archeological excavations and past old women selling embroidered tablecloths.

Food? Surprisingly, the restaurant situated on the main plaza at the entrance to the village – the place where all the tourist start their visit – is the cheapest around. And the food – plenty of salads, cheese, garlic bread, fish and lamb – is very tasty.

But Lindos is not the only village worth a visit on Rhodes. Embona, for example, doesn’t even need UNESCO’s attention to remain faithful to its ancient traditions. Except for a small part of the village, where the young generation has finally introduced modernity, most of the villages’ houses look exactly as they did centuries ago.

They’re all painted in white (or sometimes in light blue, as if reflecting the sky) and most are surrounded by little gardens where the residents grow the herbs they use in their cuisine. In Embona, there are some vineyards, where you can buy local wine, or liquors, at discount prices. In the main square, a large restaurant serves the usual huge amount of salads and cheese (before the main course), while a small group of local musicians warm the atmosphere with traditional music. Three young locals dance traditional dances dressed in native outfits.

One last recommendation – the Piliramos Holy Mountain, also known as the acropolis of the city of Yalissos. The local story tells of a young, desperate man who climbed the mountain to commit suicide, but, happily, met the Virgin Mary, changed his mind and remained on the mountain to help others.

At the monastery’s shop you can buy their famous 7 herbs liquor (30% alcohol) and, of course, enjoy the beautiful view.

Don’t leave Rhodes without spending an evening at a tavern, drinking and listening to Greek music. At Cafe Chantant, the main tavern in Rhodes City, most of the singers recognize Israeli tourists, and will immediately add some Israeli tunes to the mix. While some tavern still let you reenact the movies scenes of smashing plates on the ground, in Rhodes, they prefer to place baskets of flowers on your table, which you can toss gently to the singers if you like them. Like most everything else in Rhode, it’s much more civilized that way.

The writer stayed at the Atrium Platinum Hotel. A stay of three nights at the hotel over a weekend costs $644, and three nights at the Grand Hotel over a weekend costs $474. He was a guest of Kishrey Teufa and the Greek Tourism Office.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger