Traveling Classroom Foundation
Saturday November 18th 2017

Wrong Road Journey

After our visit to the archeological museum in Iraklion, we decided to go to the source of its treasures – the fabulous Palace of Knossos. To beat the traffic and the mid-morning sun, we arose early and drove west towards Iraklion on the new national highway. Arriving at the city limits, we started looking for a sign directing us to Knossos, several kilometers inland from the city center. Finally, we spotted the Knossos antiquities sign pointing straight down the highway – so we continued to look for the exit.

However, road signs in Greece are frequently inadequate or nonexistent. Our sign did not appear and we were quickly approaching the west side of Iraklion. We looked for an exit – any exit – that would enable us to turn around and try again. There was no turnoff. After leaving the city limits, we finally saw a road sign announcing our new destination: Rethymnon, more than 70 kilometers away. Since we intended to visit that city anyway – and there was little chance of reversing our direction soon – we decided to continue westward.

Leaving the port city of Iraklion, and rising quickly into the coastal hills, we were surprised to find a dramatic change in the environment. The seaside resort area between Iraklion and Hersonisos has dry and rocky hills with wandering goats and the occasional olive grove. The hills west of Iraklion rise steeply from the sea, covered with orchards and terraced farm land. Every few kilometers one can see a small farming village inland, or a fishing village far below in a little cove.

Quite by chance, we drive into Rethymnon on the road that takes us directly into the “Old Town” where almost everything of interest can be found. We park near the lush public garden, across the street from Platia Martiron, where a bronze monument to a hero of the rebellion against Turkish occupiers stands juxtaposed with the minaret of a nearby mosque.

"Old Town" across the street from the public garden

Old Town is the original town of Rethymnon, which wraps around the small harbor at the foot of the Fortezza – the largest Venetian castle ever built. Built at enormous expense during the last quarter of the 16th century in response to devastating pirate raids (by Barbarossa in 1538 and Uluch Ali in 1562 and 1571), it was intended to be the most powerful castle ever. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very effective. In 1645, the town fell to the Ottoman Turks in less than 24 hours. They simply bypassed the fortress and attacked the town directly.

The main gate of the "fortezza"

Inside the Fortezza we found a small cafe in what was probably a guardhouse and, on the other side of the road, a large stone building with an art gallery on the ground floor.

Inside the fortress walls

Continuing along the outer fortifications for some distance, we turned towards the center of the citadel, where a large domed building stands. This was once a church and later a mosque, designed to be large enough for the entire population to take shelter inside.

Muslim mosque from the Ottoman occupation

Just north of this are some arched foundations and a stairway down to a gate in the seaward defenses. This was supposed to be used to resupply defenders with ammunition during battle. In fact, the Venetians used it as an escape route during the Turkish assault.

Part of the battlement support armory and cistern

Nearby are the impressive remains of cisterns built to collect rainwater. They are deep and cool, and lit only by shafts to the surface.  Not far away is the main armory, a huge blockhouse with walls thick enough to resist cannonballs.

The main armory of the fortress looks impenetrable

Walking along the outer wall of the fortress, I found several guard houses. Vigilant soldiers would stand guard day and night in these small shelters, always watching for naval invasion forces.

One of the guard posts along the fortress wall

From a guard post at one corner of the battlements, I looked down to the port of Rethymnon. It is quite small and, as the Venetians discovered, tends to fill with sand. Dredging must be done constantly to keep the harbor open even for small fishing boats; larger ships cannot use it under any circumstances. When the city started its own ferry service to mainland Greece, a special dock was constructed outside the harbor so that the ferries could land. You can see a ferry outside the harbor in the photo below.

The harbor of Rethymnon

After hiking around much of the citadel, we went to the small archeological museum outside the castle gate. It was a small museum with a small collection, but it offered a wonderful collection of pottery and funerary larnakes (ceramic coffins), each with unique designs. There were many statues dating Greek to Roman times, but photos were not allowed. The most interesting of these was an unfinished Roman statue of the goddess Aphrodite, which made it possible to appreciate the artist’s carving technique.

Most of the larnakes were wonderfully painted

Leaving the museum, we walked down the hill to Old Town and immersed ourselves in the fascinating mix of architectures from different generations. Venetian buildings are almost indistinguishable from the Turkish, and all have been adapted over the years to meet new needs.

A narrow lane in the "old town" district

The streets are only wide enough to accommodate small motorcycles, and most are left to pedestrians. The maze of lanes is confusing and there is no way to get one’s bearings by looking around, because you can’t see anything beyond the place you are walking.

A mosque under renovation in old town

We stop at a tiny cantina for a late lunch and then find our way past old mosques and churches, back to the edge of Old Town and our car. Finding our way out of Rethymnon was much easier.

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