Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean, and is equidistant to Europe, Africa and Asia. Some 256 kms long, and between 15 and 30 kms wide, majestic mountains rise in its centre with their plateaus split by deep ravines ending up in fertile valleys and sandy beaches. It is the most significant of the Greek islands since European culture first developed here over 4000 years with the Minoan civilisation.. Chania, also known as Hania, is Crete’s second largest city and was the capital until 1972. It’s history is particularly interesting as in the past invaders always focussed in this area. You’ll find traces of Byzantine, Venetian, Turkish and Germans times here and Linear B tablets discovered indicate that Chania was the site of the Minoan city of Kydonia.
The climate provides for the cultivation of olives, grapes, carobs, miniature bananas, melons, peaches, avocados, oranges, tomatoes and numerous kinds of mountain greens (horta) to name a few. The most important, the olive tree, has grown on Crete since Mycenaean times and you will see trees everywhere in the countryside of Chania. Crete is where the olive tree was first cultivated as a source of olive oil for food and fuel. An olive tree will flower in April with its first fruit visible by May. In October nets are spread out under the trees and from the beginning of November onwards the ripe olives fall. Since the oil here is so plentiful and of such good quality it is used extensively in cooking throughout Greece. The best grade oil is from the first pressing. In the past oil presses were huge vats in which a round stone was turned manually. Nowadays this is done by machine and the oil is extracted by hydraulic presses. Lesser grade oil is used for soap, creams and fuel.
Tourism has brought more prosperity to the island and whilst the east of Crete has more concentrated tourism the west is drawing more and more visitors and nowadays Chania has quite a cosmopolitan air. The north coast is more developed with its airport, sea port and easy road access but the south west also has its fair share of visitors these days.
A number of internationally famous people were born here. Domenikos Theotokopoulos in 1541, in the village of Fodele, better known as El Greco he lived most of his life in Toledo, Spain. A 16th century artist, he studied under Titian in Venice. Nikos Kazantzakis, author, thinker, poet and philosopher, was born in 1883 in Varvari. He wrote a series of critical travel books. Then came lyrics, stories, novels and tragic plays with mostly historical or religious themes, in addition to philosophical essays and epic poems. International fame came with his Zorba the Greek, also Report to El Greco, Freedom or Death and The Last Temptation of Christ. He died in 1957. Vinzentsos Kornaros was born in Crete in 1600. His Erotokritos is one of the most significant national poems of Greece. Pantelis Prevalakis was born in 1909 in Rethymnon and although he travelled extensively he remained in close contact with his birthplace all his life. His novels, including Chronicle of a City, were based on historical interpretation and mythological impressions. Eleftherios Venizelos was Crete’s most celebrated Cretan statesman who, in 1913, finally succeeded in joining Crete with the rest of Greece. He was born in Mournies and is buried with his son on the Akrotiri peninsular, just outside Chania.
Chania is a beautiful and picturesque city with reminders of the past at every corner. Chania is the main town in the west of Crete, with the second largest population after Heraklion. It is divided into two parts – the New Town which is where the day to day business of the Chania goes on, with its shops and offices, the post office and banks, the renowned indoor market and the bus station - and the Old Town, built around the Venetian harbour with numerous picturesque narrow streets and architecture showing the influence of decades of foreign domination. Recent excavations have established that the ancient city of Kydonia was located here also. The city dates back to the Neolithic period and recent archaeological digs on the acropolis of Kasteli have uncovered remains of a significant Minoan community. Known as Kydonia in the past it was one of the most important cities of Crete right up to the Arabian seizure in 824 AD. The Venetians purchased Crete in about 1204 but lost it to the Genoese between 1267 and 1290. The city of Chania was rebuilt on the site of the Byzantine acropolis in 1252 and after improving the fortifications at Kastelli the Venetians built their own cathedral plus many palaces and houses in the surrounding area for their people. In 1645, after a two month siege with terrible losses, the Turks overwhelmed the whole island. Chania became the Turkish island capital. Its churches were converted to mosques. The Turks were finally expelled in 1898 following a bloody uprising by the Cretans and Prince George became the High Commissioner of Crete, through the actions of the Great Powers of Britain, France and Russia. His regency was brief as Crete soon, finally, became part of the Greek state. In World War Two, Chania suffered severe bombardment. Nearly everything was obliterated apart from the area around the harbour. Chania will enchant almost everyone and richly rewards exploration with its web of side-streets, crumbling masonry and magnificent harbour.
LIGHTHOUSE: Follow the sea wall round as far as the minaret style lighthouse for an excellent view of the city.
VENETIAN-ARSENALS: These 16C arched buildings designed for shipbuilding and repairs are on to the quietest part of the harbour where you’ll find the moored fishing boats and therefore the tavernas with the best fish. Of the 17 shipyards, 7 are still standing and have been adapted for contemporary use.
MOSQUE OF THE JANISSERIES: A curious dome shaped building at the end of the inner harbour. Restored and now houses special exhibitions.
EXCAVATED SITES: There are relics of the Minoan town on Kasteli hill as well as ruins in Kanevaro street and Katre street. An outstanding complex has been dug up in the square of St Catherine in a joint Greek/Swedish project.
HALIDON STREET: Perhaps the most commercially touristic street in Chania, this street leads down to the harbour front. In a square on the right you will find Chania’s cathedral church of the Three Martyrs. It was built on the site of a soap factory, whose owner, the Mustapha Nily Pasha, when he became prime Minister of the Ottoman Empire, donated the soap factory and money to construct a church for the Christians of Chania. A little further down the road a Turkish hamam survives. Across from the cathedral is the catholic church in whose courtyard is the entrance to the Cretan Folk Museum. Right next door is the renovated church of St Francis, the most impressive Venetian church on Crete, consisting of a temple and two closed courtyards, and probably dates back to the 14C. Nowadays it houses Chania’s archaeological museum, well worth a visit to see the ceramics, inscribed tablets, glassware and mosaics recovered from local excavation work.
STIVANADIKA (LEATHER STREET): Just off the top of Halidon street this road is popular with the visitor for its huge array of leather goods and articles of Cretan folk art. You may find some of the craftsmen at work fashioning items such as the traditional Cretan boots.
FIRKAS: At the far end of the harbour is the Firkas fort which today houses the Naval Museum. The Firkas was a fortress residence and barracks in the times of Venetian occupation and later when the Turks invaded barracks and prison. On 1st December 1913 the Greek flag was raised there in celebration of the reunification of Crete with Greece.
THEOTOKOPOULOU STREET: An attractive street leading down to the harbour where you’ll find Venetian mansions with strong oriental configurations from the times of Turkish occupation in addition to Neo-classical buildings. Look for the wooden balconies and latticed windows. This area has been called Tophanas since Turkish times when guns were stored in the area. It was a prosperous part of town and had been a neighbourhood for the Christian aristocrats. At the bottom, just before you reach the harbour you’ll see the temple of San Salvadore. This was formerly a monastery for Franciscan monks and now holds a collection of Byzantine art.
ZAMBELIOU STREET AND ENVIRONS: A picturesque narrow street hosting examples of superb Venetian architecture. It twists and climbs parallel to the harbour with tiny lanes and steps taking you off into the past. One such alleyway leads to the Renier mansion and elegant gateway dated 1608. Inside is the private chapel of Renier. On the corner of Zambeliou/Portou is a Turkish hamam, now a taverna. Behind Zambeliou street is the former Jewish area. The Venetians forced them to live in one confined area. The central road is Kondilaki with its houses of famous Jews and former synagogue.
THE MUNICIPAL MARKET: An imposing and rather fine cross shaped building with doors on all four sides. It houses butchers and fishmongers, fruit and vegetable sellers and purveyers of a multitude of herbs and spices, as well as general wares. It is considered one of the finest indoor markets in Europe. To build it the central bastion of the city walls was demolished. It was inaugurated in 1913 as part of the celebrations of the unification of Crete with Greece.
PUBLIC GARDENS: Situated between Papandreou and Tzanakaki streets the public gardens were designed by the Turks in 1870 to a European design. The clock was added between 1924 and 1927 with an unusual tripartite design. The gardens have a cafe, open air auditorium, small animal enclosure and a children's library.
1866 SQUARE AND ENVIRONS: Surrounding this garden square you will find taxi ranks, also buses for short journeys west of Chania. A few minutes walk north along Kydonias street and you will come across the KTEL bus station with its distinctive turquoise coloured buses. Buses leave fairly promptly on the half hour and the hour for destinations all over Crete. The surrounding streets have an old fashioned commercialism and are full of general stores.