13. RETHYMNON (see Map
All the streets leading to Rethimno (or Rethymnon) take you
to the Four Martyrs Square, just outside of the Porta Guora.
Behind this gate lies the old town, but if you come any time
between May 1 and October 31 you won’t be able to ride
your bike in it. The largest part of the old town is inaccessible
to all vehicles, twenty-four hours a day, due to a strict prohibition
(see the area marked with the dotted blue line on the city map).
Leave the shutters and the windows of your room open so that
you can wake early and enjoy the cool breeze and beautiful colours
of the dawn. The town at this time is wonderfully inviting as
it wakes from its sleep, and the only people at the Venetian
the few fishermen mending their nets and the tavern owners sweeping
their floors. Take a stroll at the harbour and then sit at the
“Venetsianiko” Cafe Bar to enjoy a good breakfast
or a simple cup of coffee in the company of the harbour ducks
that will gather around the crumbs of bread you throw them.
Very little has changed in the harbour since the Venetians built
it in 1300 hoping to protect their galleys. The lighthouse,
the cobbled area along the waterfront where people stroll, and
many of the houses overlooking the harbour are from the time
of the Venetian rule. But the Turkish cannons that once aimed
at the enemy’s ships are today part of the mole, and they
look downwards and are used to tie up the fishing boats.
After the Venetian harbour - and while it’s still early
- go see the Venetian fortress, the famous Fortezza.
It opens at 8:30 a.m., and until 10:00 a.m. there are very few
visitors to break the stillness. After ten, though, and until
the fortress closes at six, it is usually full of crowds that
won’t let you explore it quietly.
Apart from the walls and bastions, which are excellently preserved,
there aren’t too many things to see in the fortress. Still,
it is worth walking along the wall and on the embrasures, and
going back to the past, some 350 years ago, when the raging
Turks attacked the fortress and the Venetians defended it. On
the north side and close to the wall are the remnants of the
old Administration Building, an amazing mansion with 49 doors
and 81 windows. Next to it is what is left of the old storerooms
that were once here, and underneath the storerooms are the cisterns
of the fort that survive in good condition. Somewhere at the
centre you can see the church of Agios Nikolaos, which was later
turned into a mosque with the addition of an impressive dome
(that survives intact) and a minaret (that has tumbled to pieces).
Finally, on the east side there is a small, Russian-built church
dedicated to Aghii Theodori, the only thing that reminds of
the Russian army’s short and friendly stay (1897 - 1909).
Just opposite the Fortezza gate you will see a large building
made of stone. This used to be a Turkish prison, but since 1989
it houses the Archaeological Museum of Rethimno (, open Tuesday
through Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m), probably the most
handsome and well organised museum in Crete. On the outside,
the building has kept its original imposing appearance, but
on the inside it has been very carefully modified so as to highlight
the archaeological treasures exhibited. There are tables with
good explanatory texts
in both Greek and English, photographs, and drawings of the
excavation sites. In this way the exhibits are no longer cold
and incomprehensible, but they become small “windows”
through which the visitor can travel to another place and time
and gain a well rounded perspective of it. Inside the museum’s
modern showcases, as well as outside of them (placed right next
to you), are some unique masterpieces of craftsmen that lived
in times long past: statuettes, jewellery, weapons, tools and
pottery from the Neolithic age; ritual axes, seal stones, golden
jewels, stone coffins and statuettes from the Minoan Kingdom;
and glass vases, pottery, statuettes, coins and statues from
the classical, hellenistic and Roman times.
This small and pleasant museum cannot have tired you very much.
If you wish to continue with more, you have the option of visiting
two very good museums, which are also small and pleasant and
will not tire you.
The Historic and Folklore Museum has collected with great care
sensitivity hundreds of items of folk art, textiles, old photographs,
musical instruments, traditional tools and other objects of everyday
life, all exhibited in a very lively manner. A little further
down the street is the Folklore Collection of the Lykeion Ellinidon
with some very interesting embroideries, woven fabrics, local
costumes, and a variety of household items.
A few steps
further is the Petichaki Square, which is at the very centre
of things. It features the famous Rimondi
Fountain, a Venetian fountain of historic significance with
three lion heads. Water is still running from their mouths,
offering the worn out traveller relief from the heat of the
day. Some of the best coffee bars in town are concentrated here,
and from the break of day till late at night they are never
empty of their young clientele. All around the square, the streets
are full of shops and, more than any place in town, they are
bustling with activity.
East of the Petichaki Square, at the end of Palaiologou street,
is the Venetian Lotzia (40), an elegant building of the end
of the 16th century where the Venetian lords met and had fun
or carried on their business.
South of the Petichaki Square, at the end of Vernardou street,
is the Nerantze Mosque .
The building started out as a Venetian church dedicated to Santa
Maria, but in 1657 it was converted to a mosque and acquired
a roof and three wonderful domes and the highest minaret in
town. (The minaret survives to this day and must certainly offer
the best view in town, but unfortunately you can’t go
up there, because they say it isn’t very stable!) In 1925,
the building was christened “the St. Nickolas church”
- though it was never used as such - and today it houses the
Rethimno conservatory. If you happen to pass by and catch a
few notes from a practising musician, go inside and take a seat.
You will enjoy some fine music at a place designed to create
an out-of this-world sensation.
West of the Petichaki Square, on Nikiforou Foka street, is
the Church of the Mistress of the Angels (47). It was built
by the Venetians in 1609 and was initially dedicated to Mary
Magdalen. When the Turks took over they gave it to the Greeks,
who dedicated it to the Mistress of the Angels. After a while,
though, they changed their mind, took it back, and turned it
into a mosque.
Her Holiness was very displeased with this move, so Shemade
Her icon disappear and did not let the minaret go up. Desperate
of ever seeing it stand, the Turks left the minaret incomplete,
but they still didn’t give the church back. Yet the sacrilege
was continued even after their departure from the scene, only
this time it was committed by the Christians; instead of using
the place as a church they turned it into army quarters! This
time Her Holiness lost Her patience. In 1917, about two hundred
and seventy years after the church was first taken, She appeared
in two soldiers’ dreams and revealed where Her icon was
hidden. The icon was indeed found beneath the floor of the church,
and ever since then this has been the favourite church of the
Whichever street you take in the old town, you
will be taking a walk through History. Dozens of Venetian and
Turkish buildings and monuments and more than seven hundred
Venetian facades are scattered in every alley and corner. Buildings
that have stood the test of Time and today house the restaurant
that you will eat in, the bar where you’ll spend the evening,
and the hotel where you will go to rest.
After all this walking, the well looked after Municipal Garden
(41) will revive you with its cool shade and comfortable benches
(a function very different from its previous use as a Turkish
cemetery). Better still, take your sunscreen lotion and beach
towel and go straight to the municipal beach next to the harbour.
Though it is usually full of people, it is also very clean.
For more quiet, you have twelve kilometres of sand to the east,
and they are all yours to choose where you will lay your towel!
Working slowly for millions of years, Mother Nature made
at this part of Crete one of the most beautiful sandy
beaches of the island that stretches over an area of 12km.
Working feverishly for twenty years, the modern Homo Touristicus
inhabiting the island adorned this beach with countless
hotels, restaurants, bars, discos, Rooms to Let, car rental
offices and other tourist businesses which he planted
alongside the coast.
With such extensive exploitation, it is hard to imagine
what this place must have looked like in 1500 BC, the
time when the first people came to live here and built
their homes - in all likelihood - on the small hill at
the west end of the beach. Who they were, where they came
from, and how they lived are questions that may never
be answered, since the only remnant we have from this
first Minoan settlement is a small grave carved on the
rock. The name of the settlement, though, must have something
to do with the name Rithimna, which was given to the town
that flourished here in the Post-Palace and the historical
Rithimna existed throughout the classical, Roman and
Byzantine period, but it was not an important town and
we have very few references to it. When the Venetians
came in 1204, they felt that the place was suitable for
building a harbour that would protect their ships when
they sailed along the north coast of Crete and would enable
them to swim at a place protected from the winds. So they
built a very simple harbour and quickly fortified their
small town. Life went on without any major problems, until
one day in 1538 the legendary pirate Barbarossa attacked
the town hoping for some loot. The good God and the stubborn
resistance of the guard saved the town, but the Venetians
realised that they needed a stronger wall if they were
to survive similar attacks in the future. In 1540, they
began building a wall, which started from the east end
of town (where the EOT / GNTO offices are located, 26)
and extended to the west end of it (to the main gate,
the Porta Guora, 38, which has survived intact and is
the only remnant we have of that wall). Then they locked
and bolted the gate as well as they could, and they planted
their guards on the bastions.
The building lasted thirty years, and it finished just
in time. Barely had the mud between the stones dried up,
when the enemy appeared... but not where he was expected!
It was a poor Algerian pirate, Oloutz Ali, and his men,
and... like any original pirate he attacked the town from
the side of the sea! The Venetians understood how stupid
they were to leave their town unprotected from that side,
but it was too late. Oloutz Ali landed on the beach, took
the town in a flash, plundered it and burned it.
This time the Venetians became wiser. After licking their
wounds for a couple of years, they got over the shock
and the humiliation and started building a fortress on
the hill that was the largest and strongest ever constructed
on the island. The building lasted only ten years, but
it took the combined work of all the people in the Rethimno
area, who put in a total of 77,000 days of compulsory
labour. The Venetians fortified the wall by adding four
bastions and giving it three sharp edges, and they filled
the fortress with cannons and ammunition. When they were
done, they put Venice’s emblem, the St. Marcus lion,
over the main gate at a prominent position and sat back
to admire their work. The famous Fortezza was now complete.
Today it survives in excellent condition.
The fortress created a feeling of security, even though
there were not enough houses within the walls to accommodate
everyone in case of attack. In the next years the Venetians
constructed many public buildings, and they gave the town
a new splendour. Many of those buildings have been very
But Fate often shakes the foundations of human works and
makes even the strongest forts look like sand castles.
It was only sixty years that the Venetians enjoyed the
safety of their fortress. In 1646, the famous Venice lion
was crushed like an ant under the giant paw of an elephant,
and the Turkish army of Hussein entered the acropolis
after twenty-two days of siege. Power is the most fragile
illusion of man. It is gained with much effort, and it
is lost with a blow of the wind...
The lazy Turks followed their usual practice and they
built almost nothing in the town. They simply repaired
the damages to the wall, made a few fountains to drink
and keep cool, and added a few minarets to the existing
churches, turning them into mosques. They also managed
to reduce the Greek population of Rethimno very quickly.
While during the Venetian rule the town’s population
was predominantly Greek, during the Turkish occupation
it was just the opposite. As Robert Pashley reports, when
he visited the town in 1834, there were 3000 Turks living
in it and only 80 Greek families.
What has always divided the Greeks and the Turks is their
religious convictions. The Turks were outraged by the
resistance they met in matters of religion, much more
than they could be by any war confrontation. Even the
war prisoners had a chance to save their lives, if they
only renounced the Christian religion publicly and became
Muslims. Faced with this dilemma, most people chose to
live as Muslims rather than die a martyr’s death,
although secretly they still worshipped their own God.
But one day four young men from Melambes - Manouil, Nikolaos,
Georgios and Angelis Retzepis - were taken prisoners,
and they chose the path of holiness. Taken to the execution
site outside the Guora gate, with their hands all tied
up, they saw their executioner holding his sword, and
they heard him ask the typical question: “Will you
adopt the Turkish faith?” This, of course, was a
question posed to each and every prisoner, and the standard
answer was a humble “Yes, my Lord.” But instead
of following the standard procedure, the first man in
line surprised everyone with a scornful “No.”
And a few seconds before his head was cut off, he added:
“I was born a Christian and a Christian I will die.”
One by one, the others did the same. After their death
a number of miracles were reported, and the people decided
to build a small church to honour their memory. This was
later replaced with a much bigger one, the Church of the
Four Martyrs which you can see today at the place where
they died (42).
The biggest miracle, however, which happened mainly thanks
to the Great Powers of the time - England, France, Russia
and Italy - but must have surely also been the work of
every saint worshipped on the island, was the final departure
of the Turks from Crete.
of the information on this page : “Unexplored
Crete”, Road Editions. For more
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