Traveling Classroom Foundation
Wednesday September 20th 2017

Iraklio – City of Hercules

While the early morning breeze from the sea is cool, we drink our coffee, load our backpack with essentials (including two bottles of water), and walk down the hill to the bus station in Hersonisos. The bus arrives only moments after we purchase our tickets, and we are quickly on our way to Iraklio in air conditioned comfort.

Today we want to see the city and visit the archeological museum, which holds the world’s largest collection of Minoan treasures. This is the common motive for most visitors. Because it is a bustling metropolis, Iraklio is sometimes avoided, but it wasn’t always so. In fact, the city has a proud and tumultuous history. It began as the small Minoan port of Katsamba and, many centuries later, was renamed for Irakles (Hercules) by Greek settlers.

In the 9th century, Moorish outcasts from Spain invaded Crete and built a town and fortress near the port. They called the town Kandak (‘deep moat’), after the trench they built around the castle. When Venetian crusaders took over 400 years later, they kept Kandak (or Candia, as they renamed it) as Crete’s capital and built massive castle walls (up to 15 meters thick) around the entire city. After the rest of Crete fell to the expanding Ottoman Empire, Candia held out for 21 years before finally surrendering in 1669. The Turks ruled until Crete won its freedom in the 19th century, and citizens reinstated the classical name of Iraklio.

 

At the bus station, which is just across from the port, we get an idea of how the place might have looked during Venetian times. The harbor entrance is guarded by a 16th century fortress perched on its own stone island. It connects to the shore by a long jetty, along which small fishing boats rock on their moorings. Directly behind the bus station is the great castle wall castle that surrounds the old city.

One of the problems with walled cities is that you have to find a way inside. There is a road that curves up the hill through an opening in the wall, but heavy traffic makes it look like a scary proposition. We walk along the base of the wall, pass through a huge stone arcade, and come to the Venetian arsenal located across from fortress jetty. Here are several routes into the city, and we opt for a long stairway that leads us to Idomeneos Street (named after a king who fought in the Trojan War).

Iraklion_arsenal3.jpg

Inside the castle wall, it is a short walk through narrow roads and pedestrian alleys to Platia Eleftherias (Freedom Square), which we find packed with tour groups disgorged from buses. We check our map and realize that the archeological museum is only a block from the northeast corner of the square – which explains the tour bus crowds milling about. It seems better to delay our museum visit until midday, when the crowds might leave for lunch, so we find a nearby cafe and order coffee frappes.

Iraklio Museum is a big attraction for visitors to Knossos

When we see that many people are leaving the museum, we decide to take a chance. [Note: because the Minoan collection is a story in itself, a separate entry will cover our museum visit.]

Finally emerging from the museum, we start looking for a place to eat. We walk along Dedalou Street (named for the flying man of mythic fame), a narrow pedestrian lane filled with upscale clothing stores and tourist shops, but not much in the way of food. At the other end of Dedalou is Platia Venizelou, a lively buzzing area of shops and cafes surrounding the Morosini fountain, built by the Venetian governor Francesco Morosini in the 17th century. The fountain is missing its statue of Neptune, but it’s still a beautiful piece of sculpture with four Venetian lions spouting water. The square was allegedly built as a kind of miniature version of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, but (having visited Venice) that is difficult to imagine. Still, it is a pleasant place full of cafes with locals chatting over their food, so we find a small eatery and order lunch.

Iraklion_morosini.jpg

Across the square, at the top of 25 Avgoustou Street, are three of Iraklion’s finest buildings. Built in 1628, the Venetian Loggia was a meeting place for the town’s nobility. After being demolished during the Battle of Crete it was reconstructed and is now used as the town hall. Not far away is the Church of San Marco, rebuilt after an earthquake, converted into a mosque then converted back again.

From San Marco, we walk down 25 Avgoustou towards the harbor. We come across what some say is the most beautiful building in Iraklion – the church of Agios Titos (St. Titus). Named for the first Greek saint (whose head was cut off), it was originally a Byzantine church, which Venetian conquerors used as a catholic cathedral, and the Turkish occupiers later converted into a mosque. After several renovations in different architectural styles it acquired a very exotic appearance. It became an orthodox church once again in 1925, and in 1956 the head of St. Titus (which had been removed to Venice) was finally returned. It remains in the church today.

Iraklion_titos.jpg

At the bottom of the hill, we come to the Venetian fortress. We walk out onto the jetty to get a closer look at the port fortifications. It is about a quarter of a mile to the fort, which becomes more impressive as we get closer. There is no access except for the massive doors at the base, guarded by crenelated battlements above.

Iraklion_fort2a.jpg

Entering the fortress, we find it even more impressive. The stone walls are obviously many meters thick. Arched chambers for weaponry and ammunition are lighted only by small skylights, making them seem even larger and darker than they might be with electric lights.

We explore every shadowed corner, including a large chamber where old cannonballs still lie in heaps. We inspect the gun placements, but there are only a few rusted cannons left in the fort. Still, it is easy to imagine the place bristling with huge guns that covered every approach to the harbor.

Iraklion_cannonballs.jpg

Climbing a stone ramp, made slippery by millions of feet, we emerge into the burning sunlight on the top of the fort. The heavy battlements, guard posts and gun placements speak only of war. This fort is designed for one purpose only: to do battle against invaders from the sea.

Iraklion_fort4.jpg

After leaving the fortress, we hike back across the jetty to the waterfront boulevard and then eastward to the bus station. It is time to return to Hersonisos. Fortunately, a bus is waiting for us and we settle gratefully into our seats. Duane is asleep within minutes.

Iraklion_arsenal.jpg
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