We arrive at the bus station, beneath the Sabboniera Bastion of the old fortification, on Sunday morning. The city of Iraklio is very quiet. This seems rather odd, since the museums usually attract a big crowd – and they are only closed on Monday. We soon discover our error.
Climbing the stone stairs to the top of the bastion, we stop first at the archaeological museum (closed until August for remodeling), and then go to the ‘Battle of Crete’ museum (closed without explanation). Rather than give up altogether, we decide to explore parts of the city we have not seen during previous visits.
When the Venetians took over 400 years later, they kept Kandak (or Candia, as they renamed it) as Crete’s capital and built massive fortress walls that held against all enemies. Even after Crete fell to the Ottoman Turks in the mid-17th century, Candia held out for another 21 years. After Cretans won their freedom from the Turks, the classical name of Iraklio was revived and the city has been the capital of Crete ever since.
We leave a nearly deserted Platia Eleftherias (Freedom Square) and walk along Daedalus street to Platia Venizelou. This is the old town center, where shops and cafes gather around the Morosini fountain. The fountain, built in 1638 by the Venetian governor Francesco Morosini, is a beautiful piece of sculpture with its four Venetian lions spouting water. Originally, a colossal statue of the sea god Poseidon stood above the lions, but it was destroyed by the Ottoman ruler.
Across the square is Palazzo Ducale, center of the Venetian government, and the Loggia where Venetian nobles met. Beneath the building are dungeons, where Cretan rebels spent their last days before they were executed.
We want to see more of the fortress that surrounds the old city, and one of its bastions in particular. From Platia Venizelou we walk along Odos 1866, named for the Cretan uprising of that year. It is a narrow street that hosts the city market six days a week (not today). The last time we shopped here it was difficult to move through the throng of shoppers. Today we have the street to ourselves because most of the shops are closed. A few merchants are either thinking about opening or just shelving stock for the next day.
At the top of the market street in Platia Kornarou, sitting just behind the old Turkish pumphouse (built in 1669 and now restored as a coffeehouse), we find the Bembo fountain. This odd assembly of ancient marble fragments, including a headless Roman torso from Ierapetra, was built in 1588 by Ioannis Bembo. It was the town’s first source of running water.
We cross the street at the next intersection and walk up Evans Street (named for the famous archaeologist) until we reach the Jesus Bastion, where the road passes through a tunnel in the fortress wall to the outer city. Turning to the right, we climb the fortification wall and follow a trail to the Martinengo Bastion at the southernmost corner of the fortress.
At Martinengo Bastion, we find a small park, in the center of which is the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, author of “Zorba the Greek” and other famous novels. He was unconventional, and his his writings sometimes angered in the Orthodox Church, but his fame secured a unique burial site. Upon his tomb is the epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.“
Looking northward from the top of the bastion, we can see the entire city of Iraklio all the way to the harbor. To the south is the mountainous backbone of Crete. We have been told the bastion is also a favorite of football (soccer) fans because, not far from the tomb, one can look down onto the city’s old stadium (free seats for those who cannot afford tickets).
On our route back to Platia Venizelou, we see more of Iraklio than we could on a normal, busy day – more than most visitors ever see. The city became more comfortable than I had expected. Sometimes an “off day” has more to offer than one can imagine. We take 25 Avgoustou (25th of August Street) down to the Venetian harbor and bus station, marveling at the beauty of the old neoclassical buildings that line the street.
This has always been the main thoroughfare of Iraklio, linking the town center to the harbor, but it has special meaning for Crete. Its modern name comes from a tragedy that occurred here on August 25, 1898, during the feast of Saint Titus. A Turkish mob attacked and killed 17 British soldiers and the newly arrived British Consul, as well as hundreds of Cretans, then looted and burned many stores. The British (who had been reluctant to interfere with Ottoman rule on the island) reacted immediately. Ringleaders of the massacre were captured and many other troublemakers were thrown out of the city. The British fleet sailed into Iraklio and forced the Ottoman army leave Crete immediately. By the first week of November the last Turkish soldier left the island. Crete was free for the first time in thousands of years.