Iraklio: Crete’s beating heart (article from the ekathimerini newspaper)
The capital city of Greece’s largest island offers the ideal introduction to four millennia of history
The history of Iraklio, capital of Crete and Greece’s fifth-largest city, is telling of its location’s geopolitical importance, as it lies approximately in the middle of the island’s northern coastline.
Even though there is no archaeological evidence, it may have served as a port for nearby Knossos, the island’s largest population center in Minoan times, and as far back as 2000 BC.
The first historical reference to the location as “Herakleion” was by the 2nd century AD astronomer Ptolemy. A fortified Byzantine settlement in the 6th century went by the name of Kastro. Andalusian Arab pirates who invaded in 824 were the first to establish it as a city proper, making it the capital of an emirate and building a strong fort named Rabdh el Khandaq (hence the Greek name Handakas). The Byzantines retook the city after a prolonged siege in 961 and sold it to the Venetians in 1204 as part of a deal that included the restoration by the Crusaders of the deposed Byzantine emperor. The Venetians built huge fortifications with walls up to 40 meters thick. Most are still in place. The city was named Candia and Crete the “Kingdom of Candia.” At the end of the 16th century, as the Venetians’ most important naval base in the east, Candia was known as the “Venice of the East.”
To consolidate their rule, the Venetians resettled families from Venice on the island. The coexistence of two different cultures and the influence of the Italian Renaissance eventually led to a flourishing of the arts and letters on Crete in general and accounts for the considerable number of words of Italian origin in the local dialect.
The artists of the Cretan School, which became the central force in Greek painting during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, developed a particular style under the influence of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions. The most famous product of the school was El Greco, born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Iraklio in 1541.
The Ottomans besieged the city in 1645 but it took them 24 years to conquer it – the longest siege in history. In the final phase of the blockade, which lasted 22 months, an estimated 140,000 attackers, defenders and local population perished. The Ottoman administration ended in 1898 and Crete joined free Greece in 1913.
Today, Iraklio (population 142,000, according to the 2001 census) remains the center of Crete’s economic and cultural life, bearing all the hallmarks of its long history. Its airport is the second busiest in Greece after that of Athens, mainly on account of the charter flights that disgorge hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to the district’s long tourist belt, which takes in almost the entire coastline but is mainly concentrated to the east of the city.
To be sure, except for historical exploration, Iraklio is not a place visitors travel to as a destination in itself. In this respect, it is much like Athens, which it resembles both in the array of monuments, its anarchic postwar development, the congestion and the lack of green spaces – but on a much smaller scale. In recent years, Iraklio has made serious and evidently fruitful efforts to upgrade and highlight its heritage, and large parts of the center are a pleasure to walk around.
Loggia, the city’s most elegant Venetian building, was for centuries the seat of government and today houses City Hall. It acquired its final form in the 17th century and received the top Europa Nostra award in 1987 as the EU’s best-preserved and restored monument.
Perhaps the Cretan capital’s best-known hallmark, however, is the 17th-century fountain with the sculpted lions complex (Liontaria), in the square across from Loggia. It is a pleasant place to sit and enjoy a coffee with a “bougatsa” (cream pie) from Kirkor or Salkintzis, two specialist shops.
The list of sights in Iraklio center is long, requiring the best part of two days. They include the 1239 Basilica of Aghios Markos – now a municipal gallery – and the Monastery of Aghia Ekaterini – the medieval university where many European philosophers, artists and writers studied and which houses a superb collection of Cretan iconography. The highlight of interest is the Archaeological Museum, which requires at least three hours.
Visitors can also admire the sculpted lions of St Mark which adorn the entrance to the Venetian fort and, from the walls, enjoy panoramic views of the sea and coast, the city and perennially snow-capped Mt Psiloritis in the background. Below the Martinengo bastion, on the south side, is the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, perhaps Greece’s most translated 20th-century writer and philosopher. “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free,” reads a quote by him on an inscription.
Where to stay
Area phone code: 2810. Atrion (tel 246.000, www.atrion.gr), modern, elegant and friendly hotel near the old port; Capsis Astoria (tel 343.080, www.capsishotels.gr), comfortable, classic hotel for tourists and professionals, views over the square or the old city; Aquila Atlantis (tel 229.103, www.aquilahotels.com), near the old port and the central square, comfortable rooms with modern decor, three suites with jacuzzi; Lato (tel 228.103, www.lato.gr), modern boutique hotel on a quiet street with views of the Venetian fort.
Where to eat
Kyriakos (53 Dimokratias, tel 224.649), excellent mainstream Greek dishes, considered part of the city’s tradition, closed Sundays; Erganos (5 Georgiadi, Oasi, tel 285.629), old house with veranda, plenty of Cretan specialities; Loukoulos (5 Korai, tel 224.435), in a beautifully restored mansion, one of the best for Mediterranean cuisine; Parasies (History Museum Sq, tel 225.009), Cretan grill on the square, reservations advisable, closed Monday lunchtime; Giakoumis (Agora, Grousouzadika), well known for its lamb chops.
What to see & do
The History Museum of Crete houses numerous treasures dating to early Christian times (tel 283.219); the Cathedral of Aghios Minas; Natural History Museum, with excellent reproductions of natural habitats and photos (tel 324.711); Cretaquarium, Greece’s finest, 14 km east of Iraklio (tel 337.788, www.cretaquarium.gr); the Museum of the Battle of Crete and National Resistance (tel 346.554); the new Nikos Kazantzakis Museum will be inaugurated Saturday, July 3, at 7 p.m. in his native village of Myrtia, 15 km from Iraklio (tel 741.689).
Looking forward to my next visit.