The Greek island of Crete has seen Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman rule but some of the most spectacular traces of Venice have been left in the capital Heraklion. The Venetians ‘conquered’ Crete in 1204, but for once not by way of bloody wars and violence; no, they simply bought it in a complicated deal which involved many power changes in the entire area. And they came to stay – for more than 400 years, until in 1669 they finally lost it to the Ottomans after the longest siege in history which lasted no less than 24 years! The last outpost, the tiny island of Spinalonga, resisted even longer, thanks to the tremendous fortifications which the Venetians built to defend their strategically important island.
Morozini Fountain, Heraklioin
I stayed in the lovely coastal town of Agia Pelagia, approx. 35 km west of Heraklion and decided to make a day trip to do some Heraklion sightseeing. As I like to do, I took the local bus which runs four times a day and costs €3.50 to enjoy a journey for which the expression ‘scenic route’ could have been invented. Downhill it goes through hair pin bents to tight that the bus sometimes had to reverse to manage or to let an oncoming car pass, opening up views of the coastline far below, caves, mountains, castles, chapels, tiny islands floating in the sea, hidden sandy beaches, you name it it’s there.
I never cease to marvel at the skills of the bus drivers, who negotiate these dangerous roads with one hand on the wheel, the other clamping their mobile phone to their ear as if they were cruising along a comfortable 4 lane motor way. I did breathe a silent little sigh of relief when the bus joined the main road which leads into the center of Heraklion. The route at the central bus station which is very conveniently located within a short walking distance from Heraklion’s first, and major, Venetian attraction: the massive Fortress of Koulos which sits along the harbour.
Fortress of Koulos by bazylek
First stop was the lovely Marina Café, which affords a view over the many yachts and the castle beyond. Known as Castella a mare in Venetian times and built in it’s present form between 1523 and 1540 you can walk around at your leisure and admire the thick walls, many carvings and the symbol of the Lion of San Marco everywhere.
Heraklion is at present undergoing a major ‘face lift’ which means that many historical sites and modern building are marred by scaffolding and other construction paraphernalia but even so you can see enough to get an idea of how massive and at the same time graceful the Venetian structures are.
Across the road from the fortress you find huge vaulted buildings which used to be the Venetian shipyards, but as they are being restored it is somewhat difficult to get really close.
Remains of Venetian shipyard in Heraklion by bazylek
Modern (and expensive) apartment buildings are springing up all along the seafront and a long promenade is in the final stages of completion.
Next to the ship yards used to be the red light district and, as a knowledgable local friend pointed out to me, two brothels remain in operation. They are not what you would expect, just two tiny white house, side by side, with no signs whatsoever but, as he told me with wink, a red light comes on at night.
Then I climbed broad stone steps and headed into the old town of Heraklion. Near St. Titus Square you find another fine example of Venetian architecture: the Loggia which housed the town hall and opposite the famous Morozini fountain with four Venetian lions spouting water. Remnants of a Venetian palace are nearby, but the ruins are closed to the public, It is however planned to restore them in the future.
Venetian Loggia near St. Titus Square
The whole area is a pedestrian zone which makes it easy to stroll around, stop at any of the many tiny shops and cafes or visit a covered market which offers fruit and food as well as the ever present Greek sponges.
Enjoying a drink in Heraklion's old town
There is of course the Archaeology museum to visit with its treasures from Knossos and Feistos and, returning to the bus station you can catch a tour bus to Knossos which is only 5 km away. A full day can easily be spent in Heraklion enjoying old and new side by side.
Entrance to Knossos