We drove to Rethymnon, a small city of some 35.000 inhabitants, on a rainy day in October. Autumn was rapidly approaching on Crete and it was chilly and wet. There was a lot of traffic in the city streets and we had to drive around for quite a while before we could park our car at the parking lot of a supermarket near the beach. Rethymnon’s beach is very long, stretching out over a distance of some 7 kilometres, and also very narrow. This was not a day for spending time on the beach. The sea was rough, the wind was cold and many of the parasols and deck chairs had already been removed. Clubs were closing up, tourists were packing their bags. This was clearly the end of the tourist season.
History of Rethymnon
Although a lot of history can be found in and around Rethymnon, the city itself does not seem to have played a large role in Cretan history until the Venetians arrived in the early thirteenth century. Rethymnon has a large port with a marina and a small but charming Venetian harbour. On one of the piers is a lighthouse. My travel guide claims it dates back to the thirteenth century, but that is probably not correct. It is in fact a nineteenth century structure dating from the Ottoman period, although an earlier Venetian structure may have been present on the pier. Behind the port is an immense Venetian fortress – the Fortezza of Rethymnon – and that was our destination.
On our way to the fortress, we were surprised by heavy rain and had to run into the local archaeological museum to find shelter. The museum is certainly worth a visit, but looks a bit pale compared to the marvellous archaeological museum at Heraklion. If you have been to Heraklion and have seen the top pieces of the Minoan civilisation on display there, you may be a bit disappointed when you see Rethymnon’s much smaller, much less impressive collection. Still, the museum has an interesting collection of Minoan sarcophagi (larnakes). Unlike the more famous Agia Triada sarcophagus in Heraklion, these sarcophagi are not decorated with scenes showing people. Instead, we see some animals – deer and birds – and more abstract decorations.
The museum is not large and after having inspected all the finds from the Neolithic to the Roman periods, we continued to the Fortezza, the main gate of which is just opposite the museum. It had fortunately stopped raining, but the sky still looked like it could explode any moment. The light was beautiful though.
Fortezza of Rethymnon
The fortress is huge and truly dominates the entire city. It is built on a hill known as the Palaiokastro (‘old fortress’), which was the acropolis of the ancient city of Rithimna. When the Eastern Romans retook Crete from the Arabs in 961, they built a small walled settlement on the hill. The Venetians later began constructing a harbour and stronger fortifications. These fortifications were not strong enough to stop an attack in 1570 by the feared Turkish pirate Uluç Ali Reis, who was actually an Italian born Giovanni Dionigi Galeni. The Venetians had great trouble defending their overextended maritime empire and offered only token resistance to the Turkish invasion. Since they were pirates and not conquerors, the Turks contented themselves with sacking and pillaging the city before withdrawing again.
The Venetians now decided that Rethymnon was important enough to rebuild it. The foundation stone of the new Fortezza was laid on 13 September 1573. In charge of the whole project was the Italian engineer Sforza Pallavicini, who built the new fortress in the shape of a so-called ‘star fort’, although the difficult terrain prevented the construction of a perfectly symmetrical star. Inside the fortress, which covers a huge space, were many public buildings used by the Venetian administration of the city. Not many of these have survived, so the space looks rather empty today. There may have been plans to move the entire city to within the walls of the fortress, but the terrain was too small and the plans were abandoned as they were not realistic. The population could take shelter inside the Fortezza in the case of a Turkish attack, but would otherwise live outside the walls of the fortress.
The Turks returned in 1646 and swiftly took the fortress and city after a brief siege. They did not make significant changes to the Fortezza and continued to use it until the end of the Ottoman period on Crete. The Roman Catholic church of Agios Nikolaos was replaced by the mosque of Sultan Ibrahim Han, named after the sultan who conquered the city. The mosque is quite large and has one of the largest domes in all of Greece. Still, despite its imposing size, the mosque has lost much of its former glory. Its minaret was ruined and only the base of it survives. All exterior decorations seem to be gone. The interior of the building is plain and simple. The mihrab is still there and still bears a text in Arabic, but it is also covered in modern graffiti. The ceiling is covered in brown, beige and white tiles and looks quite monotonous. According to the brochure we received when we bought our tickets, the mosque is now sometimes used for musical events.
Some of the other buildings on the site are the House of the Councillors, The Residence of the Rector (i.e. the governor of the city), a church dedicated to Saint Theodore, an armoury and gunpowder magazines. During the Ottoman period, many residential buildings were constructed inside the fortress. These were largely in ruins by the 1960s and the dilapidated structures were levelled at that time, leaving the terrain open and empty.
Other sites in Rethymnon
Although during the Turkish occupation of Crete the majority of the Cretan population remained loyal to their Orthodox Christian faith, either openly or in private, there has always been a sizeable Muslim community in Rethymnon, as evidenced by the presence of several mosques. Most Turks and other Muslims left the island in the early twentieth century as part of a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. The mosques are now no longer used for religious purposes.
The Sultan Ibrahim Han mosque inside the Fortezza has already been mentioned above. The Nerantzés mosque is a former Venetian church that was converted into a mosque in 1657. It is now used as an auditorium (it was so badly covered with graffiti when I visited Rethymnon, that I refused to take a picture). The Veli Pasha mosque can be found near the city park. A bit closer to the marina is the Kara Musa Pasha mosque, an interesting combination of Venetian and Ottoman architecture. The mosque appeared to be in a sorry state and could not be visited. Even one of the palm trees on the terrain looked quite dead. A sign behind the gates indicated that renovation had recently begun using EU funds (I visited the city in October of 2014). Hopefully this sign of respect for the city’s cultural heritage will lead to the reopening of these gates one day.
Rethymnon also has a few remains from the Venetian period. The sixteenth century Loggia, located near the old Venetian harbour, now houses the Ministry of Culture’s archaeological receipts fund and a museum shop. The Loggia is a splendid building, which closely resembles a similar building in Heraklion. The seventeenth century Rimóndi fountain is nearby. It was named after the Venetian rector (governor) of the city and supplied fresh water to the citizens of Rethymnon. If you are looking for a good place to eat in Rethymnon, try Knossos at the Venetian harbour. As the Lonely Planet guide states:
“Nestled next to the Venetian Harbour, Taverna Knossos stands out from its neighbours for superb food and swift, gracious service. It’s been run by the Stavroulaki family for half a century; pop your head in the kitchen and you’ll likely see grandma whipping up dinner. The menu is simple but authentic with excellent fish. Tables are topped with fresh flowers and close together – it’s like dining with family. You’ll find a kids’ menu too.”
The food and service are excellent indeed. The staff seems proficient in just about every European language and is very friendly. The host is a bit crazy though, and seems to be scaring some customers away with his “Miam miam, glou glou, no bla bla!” (one tourist snidely remarked that he seemed to be full of bla bla himself…). Some of the guests enjoy his eccentricities, his songs and (rather bad) musical performances, while others may find him quite annoying. Nonetheless, I highly recommend Knossos if you are looking for some excellent seafood. The location on the waterfront is quite nice too.
Chapel of Georgioupoli
Some twenty kilometres west of Rethymnon is the small town of Georgioupoli. Formerly a quiet fishing village, it has become a major tourist destination since the 1990s. The main reason to come here is the charming little chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas. It is located some 100 metres into the sea and has to be approached via a mole. Be careful where you set your feet, the mole can be slippery. The location of the chapel is marvellous, and one can easily understand why this is such a popular wedding location.