Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Holiday in Rhodes

Last week we had a short holiday in Rhodes. In terms of the landscape and some of the architecture, the island seems similar to Crete. We wouldn't normally choose to go to a destination as hot and humid during the peak season, but this holiday was to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary, so we put up with the weather conditions, to which we were probably better accustomed that most of the European tourists. We stayed in Rhodes town, in the north of the island. Our hotel was within walking distance of the city's main sites.

The Old Town is surrounded by a wall and moat, and on the first day we took the moat walk, around the outside of the walls. According to the map and the signs, there were several entrances and exits to this walk, but we couldn't find one and ended up walking almost the entire circumference of the Old Town before reaching a gate, a distance of about 3 km. The walk itself was pleasant, with alternating sunny and shady stretches, not too many people, and the sound of cicadas in the trees.

Once inside the walls, we found an attractive old town, with buildings of various ages, churches and mosques, many tourist-oriented souvenir shops, cafes, and restaurants. It was always quite crowded with tourists.

One of the most important attractions is the Palace of the Grand Masters, a reconstructed medieval fortress. On the ground floor we saw an exhibition about Medieval Rhodes, but the other exhibition, on Ancient Rhodes, was closed. We then went upstairs and saw the statue of Laocoon and a range of mosaics of different ages brought from the island of Kos. The rooms were decorated with items of furniture, tapestries, and Chinese vases. These items were not provided with signs, as if people would only be interested in the mosaics. The reason for this, I speculated, was that the reconstruction and furnishing of the palace was conducted by the Italians during the 1930s, for Mussolini, and perhaps the locals are embarrassed by the lavish decorations. However, since they are still on display and are part of the building's history, I think they should be exhibited and explained on equal footing with the mosaics, which were also imported at the same time. Another problem with this site was the humidity. There was no air conditioning (which is understandable, considering the volume of the rooms), but also no fans. The result was a sweltering and unpleasant atmosphere in which to view the exhibitions. I expect it would be much better to visit this site at cooler times of the year.

The Archaeological Museum is located in the 13th century hospital of the Knights Hospitaller, on the Street of the Knights. This is an extensive museum, with finds from all over the island and from many periods. We spent a long, hot afternoon there, viewing the various exhibits, including the Aphrodite of Rhodes, ceramics, jewellery, statues, and mosaics. The main hospital ward is an impressive, high-ceilinged hall, with a small chapel apse built into the centre. The museum also contains pleasant courtyards and gardens.

Outside the Old Town we spent some time in the Mandraki harbour, where two statues of deer on pillars mark the harbour entrance, and are traditionally believed to mark the locations of the feet of the ancient Colossus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

We visited the Aquarium, at the northernmost tip of the island, where an underground grotto contains tanks of local marine life - fish, lobsters, crabs, sea stars, and so on. The New Town contains many impressive buildings, shops, parks, and restaurants. However, the signs of the Greek recession were sometimes apparent, in the relatively large number of closed shops and restaurants, and even a closed hotel or two. This was sad to see, and we can only hope that within a few years the town will thrive once more.

The Acropolis of Rhodes is located in an area named Monte Smith. We visited the restored ancient theatre and stadium, the temple of Apollo, and the cave of the Nymphs. This site lacked signs and there were fewer visitors there than in other places. It could benefit from some development. The views from this high ground were worth the climb.

Our one excursion out of the city was to Lindos, on the eastern coast of the island. Here we climbed up to the acropolis overlooking the bay. The acropolis contains a somewhat confusing mixture of fortifications and ruins from various periods, including a temple of Athena, a stoa (colonnade), and a 13th century church. The climb up the hill was sometimes slippery, and as in most places in Greece there were no safety rails. This popular site was crowded, and while we were warned it would be hotter there than on the rest of the island, we enjoyed a pleasant breeze at the top. The entire route through the village and up to the site entrance is lined with souvenir vendors and cafes, creating a colourful market. This site was well worth the visit, and the bus ride of just over an hour in each direction gave us a good impression of the island's landscape and villages. We also witnessed wild goats climbing the steep hillside.

This visit reinforced my love of Greece, its language, people, landscapes, history, food, and music. I don't know if I could live there, but it is one of my favourite places to visit. I hope to return soon!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Judith Flanders - The Victorian House

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House, Harper Perennial, 2003.

This book explores domestic life among urban middle-class families in England during the reign of Queen Victoria.

At first I expected it to focus on the material culture, discussing the social implications of the physical things people had in their homes. But the research here is based largely on various written reports of domestic life - the idealized version presented by those giving advice on how families should live, the realistic accounts in people's diaries and letters, and the fictional descriptions in novels.

The work is divided into chapters based on the various rooms of the house, focusing on the sort of activity that took place there. In some cases the connection is obvious, while in other cases the subject matter seems to have been inserted into the room that seemed most relevant.

One theme that emerges is the Victorian emphasis on keeping different aspects of life separate, as reflected in the functions of different rooms, the distinct activities of the various classes, and of course the clear gender roles.

It is always interesting to compare different cultures. People are all the same, to the extent that we should all be capable of understanding and empathy for each other. At the same time, the differences between people, both as individuals and as members of a specific culture, are what makes life fascinating. This book managed to explain not only the details of everyday life in a particular society, but also the values and social norms these details reflected.

Studying life in the past can make you wonder what your life would have been like had you lived in a different period. I am increasingly grateful for living in the present, and part of being grateful is knowing not to take anything for granted. I suppose a future observer might find our current age equally fascinating, and I can only speculate about the values and norms our domestic arrangements represent.

This would be a useful starting point for writers interested in setting stories in Victorian England, though I believe writers who are serious about their research should also examine source material directly.