From the map below it can be seen that the route along the coast from Heraklion to Chania is reasonably straightforward. We were distracted by the sights of Heraklion on the morning of this leg of our Cretan travels and so, late departure meant that we decided we should skip Rethymno and go straight on to Charnia. This was a shame as this ancient city had a link with Australia during World War 2 (20–30 May 1941), when the Second Imperial Force combined with the Greek Army to resist the forces of German paratroopers that were attacking Crete. Apart from that connection it was a shame to skip another place with great views of the Mediterranean and a history that goes back to the Minoans.
One of the things I generally don’t do when travelling overseas is to buy tourist ‘nicknackery’, but for some reason I changed my mind about this principle in Chania. The Chania jug to the right is still attached to our fridge, showing the paved shoreline that stretches along the front of the town, looking out to the Venetian Harbour wall and the lighthouse. We stayed three nights in this lovely place and an hour or two each late afternoon was spent having a drink on the edge of the harbour watching the sun set and the world stroll by.
Our accommodation for the three nights was at the Casa Delfino on Theofanous St. This was originally a mansion built in Venetian times and so was a gorgeous place to stay at as well as being perfectly placed for us to come and go on our way out to visit specific sites around town or just to stroll along the ever fascinating harbour
Crete is an island that is regularly seen as a place that is on the road to so many of the cities that were the powerhouses of their period, in the spotlights of current world power struggles. Travel south east from Crete, sailors come to Egypt. North east was Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul and directly north was Athens. Travelling North West was Rome. It was the centre of Middle Earth (“Mediterranean“). If you were just worried about trading opportunities, being on the route to everywhere is great. If you are a stopping off point to everywhere, being a convenient anchorage for the navies of world powers is not so good for your citizens just trying to live a settled life. The list on the left illustrates the timeline of which trading empire wanted a piece of Crete.
The first significant settlement on this site on the north west coast of Crete was by the Minoans who called their town Kydonia. The first phase of control by the Byzantine Empire saw the name change to Al Hanim. When the Byzantines returned in the 10th century, they renamed the town Chania. This name stuck despite the significant battles between world powers that continued to desire control over Chania.
On the map of Chania above, the star marks the site of our hotel and like all tourists visiting this town, we had taken advantage of our situation on the first afternoon to go for a the stroll along foreshore of the Venetian Harbour. Of course the name of the Harbour indicates one of the occupiers who left behind major infrastructure that is still evident over 300 years later. The photo to the left was taken from a café restaurant directly across from the lighthouse. The original lighthouse was built by the Venetians and one of its features involved a chain that could be strung across to the Fortress of Firkas to stop enemy shipping entering the harbour. It was rebuilt by the Turks in the 19th century and was restored again in 2005.
Checking the map above, if you are walking further along the foreshore, make a right hand turn uphill near the impressive two storey stone building called the ‘Great Arsenal’ (Built by the Venetians in 1585) and you will come to the area of Chania known as Kastelli. It is here that the major evidence is found for the Minoan town that was the first settlement on this section of the coast of Crete. Given that this settlement goes back 5000 years, it puts it towards the top of the list of the oldest cities in the world. Given the number of times that Chania has been invaded by foreign powers, it is still surprising that the bombing of Chania by the Luftwaffe in the 20th century did the most damage of any invader to the buildings on Kastelli Hill. However, the bizarre ‘positive’ of bombing a residential district like this is that it clears away layers of building programs on the site, allowing ancient history to be revealed. After the war when clearing the rubble began, it was noticed that Minoan pottery and other artifacts were being found amongst the rubble. The clay seal below right is one of these artifacts, illustrating what looks like a Minoan palace with a statue of its God towering over it.
The Roman period of control over Crete began around 67 BCE when the Roman Consul Caecilius Metellus conquered the Cretans, starting with Kydonia which was the first Cretan city to resent overlordship by the Romans. Overwhelming force on one side of such a war convinced the Cretans that ‘resistance was futile’ and so settled down to a little over two and a half centuries of Roman occupation. The Romans had little impact on local culture or language but their presence in terms of their art was left behind for 20th century archaeologists to uncover. The Charnia Archaeological Museum has a significant section on the Roman period in Charnia. The sign near the care-worn and well-worn marble head here reads “The head of a statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 ad). Found at the Dictynnaion Sanctuary in 1913.”
The Venetians stayed in Chania for over four and a half centuries and left a lot of their influence behind. On our second day in town we decided to go and spend some time in the Archaeological Museum which meant taking a walk away from the harbour and up the hill towards the town’s major market square. Checking the old city map above, after leaving our hotel and walking along the harbour side, rather than making the left turn and heading towards the Kioutsouk Hasan Mosque (late 17th century), we turned right into Chalidon Street and walked up the hill and spent a lovely hour or more wandering around the Museum. The museum is housed in a very old Venetian building that was the Monastery of St Francis and it is known to have survived the ‘Great Earthquake’ of 1595.
It is a curious habit of conquerors of other nations that local religious houses cannot be allowed to continue; respect for local religious worship may reflect badly on the conquerors. Islamic conquerors tend to convert churches in Christian countries to Mosques but this isn’t what happened to this Franciscan monastery. It wasn’t converted into a mosque and it was never re-sanctified; it came to house the town’s archaeological collections in 1962.
Our walk after finishing our wander around the Archaeological Museum took us up the hill further to the Cathedral of the Presentation of Mary. This block of land already had an old church on the site when this building was erected in the 14th century. It wasn’t as lucky as the Monastery Church of St Francis down the hill in 1669, this cathedral was converted to a soap factory and it continued functioning as such during the more than two centuries of Ottoman Rule. It was rebuilt as a Cathedral in 1860.
If you check back to the earlier map above of Chania, you will see that I have suggested a right turn here, a diversion to go and take in the view from the San Dimitri Bastion. This is one of the corner bastions of the town during the Venetian period of rule in Crete. In those centuries of continuous competition to control trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, controlling Crete was a strategic advantage for the wayfaring Venetians but right from the start of the 13th century, they not only had to ensure the Cretans didn’t successfully rebel, they had to ensure that trading enemies were not able to invade and take over the facilities of Chania. Right from the beginnings of the settlement on this coastline, fortifications were necessary. The Venetians simply had to add to or replace the original ones. To understand the growth of Chania, it is great that maps from the 17th century have survived. The one below of Chania is one of a series of beautiful maps that the Italian Cartographer, Francesco Basilicata, completed of places in Crete. It shows the outline of Castel Vechio (old Castle) where the suburb of Kastelli sits today which was built by the Byzantine Empire which controlled the town from 961-1204. After the Venetians took over, they decided that they needed broader fortress walls to include areas of the town that had built over the previous centuries.
The second map was drawn up in 1645 when Venice’s Colony was under siege from the Ottoman Empire; this was the so called Cretan War that went on for 24 years. The Ottoman Turks took over much of the island early in the war over Crete but Chania itself held out as it was well defended and well provisioned. This map appears to show a dynamic view of the town at war with canons blasting from the ships outside the harbour and from the fortress walls. The cartographer has also drawn in the chain over the harbour entrance to ensure the enemy ships can’t get any closer.
I have drawn in the 3 red arrows on the previous map to indicate destinations on our tourist journey. The arrow on the right of the map points to the San Dimitri Bastion which visitors can stroll up and get a view of the harbour and the city spread out before them. The middle arrow points to the site of the Cathedral of the Presentation of Mary. The last destination for our afternoon stroll up the hill of Kastelli was to the Municipal Market of Chania. The third arrow on the map points to where the market building is today and illustrates that three and a half centuries ago, this part of town was a large bastion, a section of the wall that defended the citizens from the invading Turks. It also illustrates that the town was surrounded by the canons of Ottoman troops as by the end of the Cretan War, Chania was the ‘last’ bastion of defence against the new conquerors of Crete.
This was the end of our second day in Crete so of course we headed back down the hill to have a last drink and a meal at our favourite café and watch the sun go down over the venetian Wall enclosing the harbour. Tomorrow we would be taking a long drive over the mountains to Agios Nikolaos, almost two thirds of the island away from Chania. The long drive would be interrupted by a visit to Phaistos, one of the great Minoan sites on the Island of Crete.