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Rethymnon (Rethimno)

 

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).

Rethymnon or Rethimno

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 harbour are 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.

Fortezza in Rethymnon

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

Nerantze Mosque

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 and

Rimondi Fountain

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.

Rethymnon

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 faithful.

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!

History

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 period.

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 well preserved.
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.


THE ROUTES THE ROUTES

Routes starting from Hania

Hania
1. Hania - Akrotiri
2. Hania - Paleochora
3. Hania - Sameria
4. Hania - Hora Sfakion (Sfakia)
5. Hania - Kissamos (Kasteli)

Routes starting from Kissamos
Kissamos (Kasteli)
6. Kissamos - Gramvoussa
7. Kissamos - Elafonissos
8. Kissamos - Paleochora (through the Topolian Gorge)
9. Kissamos - Paleochora (through Episkopi)
10. Kissamos - Sirikari

Routes starting from Hora Sfakion (Sfakia)
11. Hora Sfakion - Rethimno (Rethymnon) (travelling inland)
12. Hora Sfakion - Rethimno (Rethymnon) (following the coast)

Routes starting from Rethimno (Rethymnon)
Rethimno (Rethymnon)
13. Rethimno - Ierapetra (following the south coast)
14. Rethimno - Ierapetra (travelling inland)

Routes starting from Ierapetra
Ierapetra
15. Ierapetra - Zakros (coastal road)
16. Ierapetra - Zakros (inland route)

Routes starting from Iraklio (Heraklion)
Iraklio (Heraklion)
17. Heraklion - Rethymnon (coastal road)
18. Heraklion - Rethymnon (travelling inland)
19.Heraklioon - Agios Nikolaos (coastal road)
20. Heraklioon - Agios Nikolaos (travelling inland)

Routes starting from Agios Nikolaos
Agios Nikolaos
21. Agios Nikolaos - Zakros


Source of the information on this page : “Unexplored Crete”, Road Editions. For more guidebooks and maps of Greece, click here.

 

Tip of the day

Ios means “flower”. Did you know that?
Íos or Niós, as the locals call it, is one of the most beautiful islands of the Cyclades, like a flower, as its name “Ion” denotes. According to the ancient tradition, Íos was the homeland of Homer’s mother and the final resting place of the great epic poet. Upon reaching the island, the view before you is enchanting: as pretty as a picture, Hóra lies very close to the harbour in Ormos and greets the travellers, built in an amphitheatre-like manner on the slope of a hill, on the top of which there are ruins of a mediaeval castle. This is a listed traditional village, one of the finest examples of Cycladic architecture. Snow-white little houses, picturesque arcade-covered alleys (“stiyádia”), the twelve windmills, churches with arched belfries and light blue domes create a unique residential area. Hóra’s sheltered alleys is the “stage” where Koúnia, an ancient local custom is performed every May, as follows: young men make swings for young ladies who rock themselves while listening to traditional love songs being sung to them in the form of a dialogue.

 

 

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