Thursday, 5 September 2013

Chania and Heraklion: a mixed heritage.


Chances are that you have never heard of Chania. It is a quaint little town, worth at least a couple of hours of your time if you are in the west of Crete. There are cheap Ryanair flights from many European destinations: I paid mine only 20€! Chania has a harbour built by the Venetians in the 14th century, complete with breakwater, fortresses, bastions now half in ruins, and a pretty lighthouse. You can walk all around the area, and admire the port, then relax and look at the blue sea.

Lighthouse in Chania, Crete
The lighthouse in Chania

Ruins of bastion, Chania
Bastion in Chania

While I was wandering around the harbour area, I noticed a rose-domed construction with several smaller domes at its sides that looked rather incongruous. A free painting exhibition was being held there, but  my guidebook said that the building used to be a mosque, the Mosque of the Janissaries to be precise. Now, if you have been to Istanbul you will maybe remember who the Janissaries were: soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, originally used as bodyguards for the sultan and later stationed in the occupied territories to make sure that the Ottoman laws were enforced. As a matter fact, Crete was under Turkish rule from half of the seventeenth century until 1898.

Chania, waterfront
The waterfront of Chania with the mosque

The streets around the harbour are full of touristy restaurants and shops with the kind of souvenirs that you can find in any seaside resort: shells, model ships, and various other knick-knacks. More interesting, in my opinion, are the streets further away from the harbour, with virtually no tourists in sight. The church of Aghios Nikolaos, tucked in a lateral square, particularly surprised me, because it has both a clock tower and a minaret! Built in 1320 by Dominican monks as part of a monastery, it was converted into the main mosque of the town when the Turks occupied Greece, hence the minaret. Finally, in 1918 it was reconverted and it is now a Greek orthodox church dedicated to the protector of sailors.
Church of Agios Nikolaus, Chania, Crete
Church of Agios Nikolaos

It was also the first time that I entered a Greek orthodox church. They are usually darker than Catholic churches, with golden ornaments and candles in a sandbox (we usually have individual metal sockets in Italian churches).

Candles in a sandbox, Santorini, Greece
Candles in a sandbox, Santorini
As you can see from the pictures, it was cloudy and spitting on and off in Chania the day I visited. I woke up late because I had a late night with some couchsurfers and their friends, plus I stopped for a longish breakfast with a lovely Polish couple I had met. I wished I had checked off more items from my list in Chania, but soon it was time to catch my bus to Heraklion, for the second leg of my trip.


After crossing all the island in length with the bus (€13,80, 2h 45min), I finally arrived in Heraklion (Heracles' city). Guidebooks and Cretans alike will tell you that there is nothing special about this town, the biggest of the island. They will direct you to beaches and other smaller towns in the area, instead. As I wandered around the streets of Heraklion, however, I discovered a pleasant town with a well-groomed seafront, squares with nice cafés and sophisticated restaurants, and some interesting monuments documenting the past of the island.
Harbour, Heraklion
Looking out at the sea from the fortifications

Unfortunately, when I was there both the Archeological Museum and the Historical museum where closed, and the Koulés, which is the square fortress you see at the end of the promenade in the pictures, was under restoration. This fortress, also called Rocca al Mare, was built by the Venetians in the early 13th century to defend the city, then part of the Serenissima. It is built in that kind of architectural style that you can see in other "Venetian" towns in the Adriatic and in the Mediterranean Sea, with the lion of St. Mark clearly visible. In Heraklion there are many other remainders of the Serenissima, for instance the Morosini Fountain, so called after an important  17th-century Captain-General of the Venetian army who during the siege of Candia (the Venetian name of the town) managed to keep the city for 23 years from the Turkish invasion. He later became doge of Venice, and incidentally he is the one who bombed the Parthenon and called it "a good shot".

Morosini Fountain, Heraklion
Morosini Fountain
In spite of past dominations, Heraklion maintains its own cultural identity: it is a very Greek and Cretan town. Here I had the best meal of my Greek trip, and I listened to traditional Cretan music in a local taverna with my couchsurfer and his friends.

The appeal of Heraklion lies nonetheless in the fact that it is so close to the ruins of Knossos palace. Wait for it in my next post!


  1. I've always had a thing for lighthouses and this one looks awesome! Such a cool place. I need to live in Europe again and take advantage of these 20 euro flights!! Great post.

  2. I really like Agios Nikolaos with its clock and minaret - how interesting! I agree with Lauren - I would love to move to Europe to be able to take advantage of such awesome airfares! I'd probably visit someplace new every other weekend!

  3. Yes, it's entirely possible to go somewhere new every other weekend. I was looking at airfares for Paris in November and it'd cost me 36€ for a return flight from Venice! :-o

  4. I've never been to Crete or Greece. My parents went to Greece for their honeymoon over 30 years ago and always said I'd love it there. The more I read about the region, the more I would have to agree!

    1. I'm sure you would love it. It's a wonderful country, full of surprises!

  5. Oh wow...what a pretty town! I am glad I got to know about Chania!

    1. Hello Renuka, welcome to my blog. Yes, more people need to know about Chania, and consider Crete on their Greek itineraries!


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