Around Mount Prophitis Elias
The curious, semi-abandoned hill-top village of Eleousa (37.5km from Rhodes ), created by the Italians as the ‘Campochiaro Agricultural Settlement’ in 1935, at the eastern end of Mount Prophiis Elias can be reached either from the west coast at Soroni (25km from Rhodes ) via the monastery chapel and spring of Aghios Soulas, or from the junction (22km) on the main east-coast road south of Afandou, via Archipolis. Either approach leads through particularly rich agricultural lands.
By a series of scarcely-veiled laws of expropriation passed between 1924 and 1929, the Italians systematically transferred the island’s agricultural production from the local Greek population to Italian settlers, and brand-new settlements were created here and at other points on the island.
‘Campochiaro’, as it was called then, was designed from scratch by Rodolfo Petracco and Armando Bernabiti in 1935/6, with less felicitous outcome than the project for Porto Lago on Leros on which they also worked together. Roads wind up to the main hippodrome-shaped piazza which stretches between the Church and the School at opposite ends. To either side are the settlement’s administration buildings with their characteristic ‘submerged’ arcades and, at times capricious, architectural juxtapositions. These are not unattractive creations, and they use the same design vocabulary as the architects’ other buildings in the city; but they remain fundamentally divorced from the rural land scape around. After the Italians left, the Greeks re-named the settlement after an attribute of the Virgin, ‘eleousa’— ‘compassionate’: they returned to the cultivation of the land and abandoned the ostentatious buildings to the ruin of time. An unreal atmosphere prevails, relieved and rendered elegiac by the shade of the now mature umbrella pines and palm trees.
The road west along the mountain ridge passes at the edge of the settlement of Eleousa an unexpectedly large fountain pool (originally also used for swimming) designed by the Italian architects for a rising spring of water. Its simple, low circularity is of considerable elegance.
Two kilometres to the west, beside another *spring of remarkably soft water, is the characterful *church of Aghios Nikolaos ‘Foundoukli’ (‘of the hazelnut’), beautiful both in itself and in its panoramic and bucolic site.
This is a domed 14th century votive chapel built on a Greek cross plan which has been extended with apses to give the impression of a quatrefoil. It measures no more than 8 m x 8 m and is surmounted by an attractively arcaded cupola decorated with knotted pilasters and a belfry above the west door. Unusually, there are doors also to north and south, as though the building were a baptistery. Its design makes it a rural cousin of St George in the Old City—with rough er masonry and less gracious proportions, but with great charm nonetheless. The space created within and the form from without are both captivating. Unlike St George it preserves, almost complete, the cycle of wall-paintings of its interior which were executed perhaps a century or more after the church’s construction: an earlier layer may lie beneath. The dome, which was rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th century, no longer has its Pantocrator figure; but virtually every other surface is covered—from the Evangelists in the squinches, down through the Scenes of the Life and Passion of Christ, to the row of saints who stand at ground-level here and with whom one has the pleasing sensation of mixing at ease in the small space. The narrative scenes are conceived with clarity and liveliness and show slight Italian influence. Beside the west door is the dedicatory scene with the donors and their family presenting a model of the church to Christ.
The continuation of the beautifully wooded road to the west (right hand branch after 1.5km) leads towards the summit of Prophiis Elias. At 6km from Aghios Nikolaos, are two more unexpected curiosities of the Italian occupation: in a Tyrolean chalet-style of architecture, are two hotel buildings—the main, Elafos (‘Stag’) Hotel (1928) and the Elafina (‘Doe’) (1930) designed by Rodolfo Petracco to provide a place of recreation, or ‘villeggiatura’, for the Italian settlers who were far from, and nostalgic for, a week-end in Cortina d’Ampezzo. Other buildings in similar style are to be found on the mountain further to the west. Just to the east of the Elafos Hotel is the small, whitewashed monastery of the Prophet Elijah. Of all the island’s mountains, Prophiis Elias has per haps the richest flora. Its mature woods of pine and cy press are favoured by drifts of wild flowers in the clears—large quantities of cyclamen, in particular—an endemic, Rhodian Cyclamen repandum rhodense, and Cyclamen persicum. This area is also home to the beautiful wild peony with wide, enamel-white flowers formed of few petals, and with gold-yellow stamens, often touched with scarlet at the very centre. This is a Rhodian subspecies (rhodia) of the Paeonia clusii found otherwise only on Crete and Karpathos. The flower (March/April) has a light cinnamon perfume. Wild orchids of many varieties are also prolific. Much rarer and harder to see is the endemic, delicate yellow, Rhodian fritillary. Both common and long-legged buzzard (the latter, distinguished by its ruddier hue and a tail with no markings on the under side) are resident year round and are often seen hunting from the sky. To north and south, respectively, of the ridge are the two attractive villages of Salakos (31km)—where there are abundant springs, two Byzantine churches of the 14th and 15th centuries and the remains of a fortress—and Apollona (44km), reached by a panoramic descent of the south side of the mountain. There is a small museum in the centre of the latter, exhibiting domestic artefacts, folk art and a selection of ancient pieces—sarcophagi and al tars decorated with garlands and bucrania. A section of Byzantine wall stands in the forecourt, which was part of a destroyed church. A long and deeply rural road (18km, un-surfaced) leads through uninhabited valleys, densely wooded with Calabrian pine, due south from Apollona to Laerma (63km). Both villages, as well as the monastery of Artamii to the west of their mid-point, and the town of Asklipieio to the south, have names probably relating to the cults of the ancient gods: Apollo, Hermes, Artemis and Asklepios. ‘Laerma’ (‘Ladarma’) is thought to represent a corruption of ‘laos Ermis’ (‘people of Hermes’). Empty though this landscape has always been, the tutelary deities watched over it from all sides.
Rhodes Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.