Chania is the second largest city on Crete, with a population of over 50.000 inhabitants. It is also, in my honest opinion, by far the most relaxed, charming and beautiful city on the island. We drove all the way from Ligaria near Heraklion to Chania, which is about 100 kilometres and a two-hour drive up and down hills on coastal roads. The main reason we went there was that our travel guide mentioned Chania’s archaeological museum as one of the fifteen highlights of Crete. The description of this museum did sound very tempting. The museum is located in the former Venetian Monastery of Saint Francis and our guide said it was “full of atmosphere”. It also claimed the museum was open on Mondays from April to October. Unfortunately, it was not. So we missed this highlight, but had a great time in Chania nonetheless.
Chania was known as Kydonia – ‘quince‘ – in Antiquity. On a hill overlooking the harbour, one can find the Kastelli quarter, which is the oldest part of the city. Here, at Kanevaro Road, archaeologists have begun digging up the old Minoan settlement that was once at this site. There is not much to see, regretfully. This is not Knossos or Phaistos. Expect to find only stones and rubble covered by a simple roof.
Much more impressive is the reconstruction of a Minoan ship, which can be found in one of the former Venetian shipyards at the harbour. This ship was used by Cretans in the middle of the second millennium BCE. The modern copy of the ship is fully seaworthy and navigable. It was tested in the summer of 2004, when rowers used the ship to travel from Chania to Piraeus by sea, a trip of 210 nautical miles. The ship is basically an oversized rowing boat, with a mast and sail added to it. The copy looks sturdy, but it is clear this is the kind of ship that needs to stay close to the shore. The ship’s draft is quite shallow, and there is little room for provisions. If you look at this ship, Sir Arthur Evans’ idea of a Minoan thalassocracy – a naval empire – seems a little out of touch with reality.
Arabs, Venetians and Turks
When the Arabs conquered Crete in the early ninth century, they renamed the city Al Hanim (“the Inn”). When the Eastern Romans retook Crete under their general Nikephoros Phokas in 961, the name was changed to Chania, which became La Canea in Venetian. The Ottoman Turks took the city in 1645 after a brief siege. While cities like Heraklion hardly have any monuments left from the Ottoman period, a few have fortunately survived in Chania. Although no longer in use for religious services, the city still has a mosque near the harbour and one can spot a few minarets here and there as well.
The large mosque at the harbour is called the Yiali Tzami Mosque or the Mosque of the Janissaries, named after the elite troops of the Ottoman sultan. It has not been in use as a mosque for almost a century and it looks like it has been completely stripped of all decorative elements. The minaret has been demolished, but the central dome, supported by arches, is still impressive. The mosque is mainly used for exhibitions. Inside, you can still see the mihrab, i.e. the niche that indicates the direction of Mecca.
A little further to the east in the Splantzia quarter is the Agios Nikolaos church, which is presumably the only church in the world to feature both a bell tower and a minaret. It was built in the early fourteenth century when the Venetians dominated Crete, but it was turned into a mosque under Ottoman rule. The Turks made it the largest mosque in the city. The importance of the building is demonstrated by the fact that it has a minaret with two balconies (most minarets only have one). When the Turks left Crete in the early twentieth century as part of a population exchange between Greece and Turkey, the mosque was converted into an Orthodox Christian church and the bell tower was added. Fortunately, the inhabitants of Chania cherish the cultural heritage of their city – even if it has been produced by a former occupier – and have kept the minaret. It has even recently been restored.
We had lunch at a restaurant called Tamam, which is a little to the south-west of the Mosque of the Janissaries. There used to be a hamam or public bathing house at this location, another souvenir from the Ottoman period. The food was excellent, and so was the atmosphere.
After lunch, we walked further south and climbed the Venetian Schiavo bastion. High up on the bastion, you have a panoramic view of the city. You can clearly see the nineteenth century Panagia Trimartiri cathedral from here. The cathedral is in a square near the folklore museum and the archaeological museum mentioned above. There is also a Roman Catholic church here, one of the few on Crete. In the square is the statue of a man whose name is given as Anagnostis Mantakas and who looks like a fearsome pirate. He was actually one of the first citizens to raise the Greek flag when Crete became part of Greece in 1913. He must have been very elderly at that time, as the statue indicates that he was born in 1817!
The best part of Chania is, in my opinion, the harbour district. It simply has the best atmosphere and the light on the clear blue water is beautiful. The harbour is actually made up of two parts, an older harbour to the east and a new harbour to the west of the old harbour, separated by two breakwaters. Both harbours are closed off by a pier that is some 500 metres long. A centuries old lighthouse guards the entrance to the harbour. The Venetians built it between 1595 and 1601. On the other side of the entrance is the Venetian fortress of Firkas, which now houses the Nautical Museum of Crete.
Chania suffered badly during the German invasion in 1941 which led to the Battle of Crete. Parts of the city were heavily damaged by German bombardments. This is commemorated in three languages on an information board near the harbour. While most signs in Chania are in Greek and English, this one is in German as well. Lest they forget…