In 2013 we were able to escape our family commitments and head off for the holiday of a lifetime, spending six weeks touring Turkey as well as using the last 10 days of our overseas time getting a taste of Greece. Our tour eventually led us to Marmaris on the southern coast of Turkey which enabled us to travel by Ferry out to the closest piece of Greece we could find; Rhodes. We spent two day/nights on Rhodes and then flew on to Heraklion via Athens, arriving in Crete late in the day. We spent a day and two nights in Heraklion before heading west to Chania. At the end of our week in Crete, we spent the last half day strolling around the old town of Heraklion and enjoying a few hours at the famous Archaeological Museum.
The map above of the old town of Heraklion (courtesy http://ontheworldmap.com) also provides a good example of a day’s walking tour around this ancient city (Note Red dashes). Given time constraints, we weren’t able to adhere to this suggested stroll but it gave us the basis of the key places we needed to see while we were here. On the map you will note a red star not far from the Old Venetian Port where our hotel for two nights was located. It was a three-star place, Hotel Lato, and what it didn’t provide in high luxury, it meant we were conveniently close to the port and most of the important sites of Heraklion.
As indicated above, we were located close to the port which generally was redeveloped when the Venetians bought Crete in 1204 and their time in control of the island lasted until 1669. During the Minoan period, the major centre of Crete was Knossos, about 6 Kms up into the hills and Dermatas Bay on the coast was their closest port. Whatever infrastructure was here around 1640 BCE was destroyed by the Tsunami that rolled over the East coast of Crete from the Volcanic Eruption of the island of Thera, 150 Kilometres north. Up until 960 CE it played a minor role in Cretan history until the Byzantine Empire rolled into town and over the top of Heraklion, destroying it and its inhabitants. It was from the last days of Byzantine Empire that they happily sold Crete to the Venetians and so began four centuries of relative peace began; the town had a name change to Candia.
The Port area in Heraklion was very similar to the Venetian port in Chania where we would go the following Day. Trade was everything for the Venetians and a secure fortified port was the way to achieve this. The photo to the right is taken from the inside of the fort and illustrates where the artillery would be secured once the age of gun powder arrived. Along the edge of the harbour can be seen the remains of arsenals and other storage facilities necessary to maintain control over the port from determined international arrivals.
We only had time on this first day to view the port area before we returned to our hotel for breakfast and then to collect our hire car and head out to visit the main target of out visit to Crete, the site of the Palace of Knossos. We were able to return to our tour of Heraklion later in the afternoon and evening of this day as well as the afternoon 9 days later when we flew back to Athens. In the time available to us, we tried to get round to most of the sites contained in the list to the left.
One of the gorgeous, pedestrianized streets in the old town is the 25th August Street that takes the walker from the port area in the direction of El Venizelou Square with the Morosini Fountain. This is one of the key shopping streets in town so if its clothes, souvenirs or pubs you are after, this is a key walk. A street named after a particular date on the calendar is sure to be reminding both locals and visitors of an important historical date for the island. The street name refers to the 25th August 1898, the feast day of St Titus, at a time when the movement away from Turkish control of Heraklion to Cretan control supervised by British troops was taking place. It was a complex time and the event that triggered a massacre (not Mascara as one website put it!) was the hand-over of control of the port to Christian citizens, away from Turkish officials. This process triggered an outbreak of looting and killing which resulted in many buildings around this street being burnt down and around 800 Christian citizens plus 18 British Soldiers killed. Clearly the colonial citizens were attempting to halt the march of time and history towards Crete becoming part of Greece.
A little more than halfway down 25th August Street, the visitor comes to Agios Titou Square where two significant buildings in Heraklion’s history remain standing for the 21st century. The first is Agios Titos, the Church of St Titus; we will come across another Church of St Titus at Gortyn further along in our Crete trip.
The story of this church is said to have started in 962 CE but Crete’s association with Titus and his friend and companion St Paul of Tarsus goes right back to the first century. Titus’s body is meant to be buried in Gortyn but his skull at some point over the centuries was removed for safe-keeping and kept in the Cathedral at this spot in Heraklion. St Titus’s skull survived another 340 years until 1544 CE when this Church was burnt down and the only thing that was rescued was the skull of St Titus. When the Turks conquered Crete in 1669 CE, the skull of St Titus was taken to Venice. Crete does not have a good track record for Churches surviving earthquakes and so the old St Titus Church, now a mosque, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1856. When the Turks eventually left Crete, the mosque that was built here was once again rebuilt as a church and in 1966, the skull of St Titus was returned and today sits in a reliquary in this new version of the Church of St Titus.
On the other side of Agios Titou Square is a building from Venetian times that was built in 1620 CE. It was a gathering place for influential businessmen to meet and discuss local issues. With the arrival of the Turks it became an administrative centre. After the Turks left it fell into disuse and needing repair and it wasn’t until after World War 2 that renovations started, finishing in 1987. It is now the Town Hall of Heraklion. The image on the left below is of a “personification of Crete”. It was built as part of the fountain in this square but was moved to the northern wall of the Loggia during the 20th century renovations.
Walking on from the Loggia, our stroll down 25th August Street arrives at El Venizelou Square (Lions Square), a lovely shaded piazza surrounded with cafes gazing out at the Morosini Lion Fountain. This fountain is getting on for 400 years old having been built in 1628 during Venetian times and its water was being channelled by aqueduct from the mountains around 15kms away.
On one side of the square is one of the earliest and most evocative of Heraklion’s buildings that was erected by the Venetians. At the start of Venetian control of Heraklion and Crete, the Venetians built a church dedicated to their own patron saint, Saint Mark, and of course attached a bell tower to remind them of their own famous bell-tower, still standing today in St Mark’s Square, Venice. When the Island was taken over by the Ottoman Empire, the usual cultural process occurred and the church was converted to a mosque and the bell tower was changed to a minaret. When the Turks left 220 years later, the bitter citizens took their symbolic revenge and removed the minaret. Apart from the symbolic revenge of both invaders and locals alike, the regular earthquakes damaged the building as well over the years but not to the extent of other landmarks in this shaken city. The Basilica of St Mark was restored in 1956 but the only sign of the bell-tower and the minaret are the bases of the original bell-tower and the base of the minaret over the top of this. Today this ancient, traumatised building is home the Municipal Art Gallery.
From Lions Square, the tourist should turn left and head down towards Eleftherias Square and have a close up encounter with the old fortress walls of the city. The Gate here is called St George’s Gate (Agios Georgios) and was built in 1565 and allows citizens through the wall and out to the suburbs on the eastern side of Heraklion. Like so many of Heraklion’s historical structures, it has a checkered past. The gate underwent many changes over the years and at one point in the 19th century was buried. It was dug up and restored in the 20th century and is used today to house art exhibitions.
From Eleftherias Square it is a short walk down to the Archaeological Museum. This institution houses some of the most important archaeological artifacts, not only for Crete but for the history of the development of civilizations in the Mediterranean. Our visit here took place on our last afternoon in Crete before we flew out to Athens. Our visit to the Museum was after we had visited Knossos and after we had toured so many other sites around Crete so the visit here was a fitting climax to our wonderful time in Crete. Details of our visit to Knossos can be found by clicking HERE.
APPENDIX 1: The maps of Francesco Basilicata.
One of the companions on our journey around Crete was the Italian Cartographer, Francesco Basilicata. Above is his image of Heraklion when he was doing his maps to assist the Cretans defend against the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in the 17th century. Any town on the Coast of Crete we visited, there was always a Basilicata map available!