I remember hearing about Chania and Crete as a child. In our family reunions, my uncle Christos – born there and part of the family for marrying my aunt Maria – would tell us about Crete, and Greece, and we children were always fascinated by his stories. Everything about him – the unpronounceable last name, the thick accent – was a mystery to me. In my imagination, Greece was as far away as the Moon.
Crete came back recently onto my radar, this time thanks to friends who travelled there and came back enchanted: ‘The beaches! The food! The history!’ And that’s how my love story with Chania started…
I had been traveling in Greece for two weeks, before I finally got to Crete, the country’s biggest island. After a day in Heraklion, the capital, I took a regular bus to Chania, my uncle’s hometown (whenever possible I take regular transportation, to get to know the people). The bus was crowded with locals going home, the women giggling happily holding their shopping bags. On the back of the bus, a group of men – probably their husbands – were animately talking up a storm in their incomprehensible language, confirming, once again, my impression that in Greece men are always talking to other men, and women to other women.
The road to Chania follows the coast, and, as we drove west, the scene got more rugged. From my window I could see the snowy peaks of the White Mountains, and, on my right, the blue Mediterranean – called Libyan Sea in Crete. Every few miles, a new fishing village, probably in the same spot for thousands of years.
Arriving in Chania at the end of the afternoon, I was surprised by how modern the city was – kind of drab, not at all what I expected. I took a taxi at the bus terminal, and gave the driver the written address of my hotel, Porto Veneziano, in the Old Town. He replied saying ‘that’s closed to traffic, I’ll drop you off near, but you’ll have to walk from there.’
It was a short ride. We soon arrived at an old fortress by the sea, where the driver pointed out the way for me to proceed. The area looked old, medieval, more like the idea I had of Chania. Dragging my suitcase uphill a cobblestone street, I passed by charming low houses looking at least 400 years old, more Italian than Greek in style. That reminded me that Chania was a Venetian port and an Ottoman stronghold for centuries, as were many parts of Greece.
I stopped to ask directions at a quaint taverna – Kalderimi – that looked like a good place to have dinner later. The young man setting tables outside gave me directions and added an invitation: ‘Come back later for dinner, you won’t be disappointed.’
I was eager to see the port area, supposedly the nicest part of Chania, and – after leaving my luggage in the hotel – I walked a maze of narrow streets looking for it. It wasn’t far – nothing is really far away, in Chania.
A town dear to the heart of Greeks
Once I walked the narrow alleyways of the Old Town, it became clear why the Greeks say that Chania is one of their most beautiful cities. For one, it has many layers: it has been occupied by foreign powers since antiquity – Romans, Muslim Ottoman Turks, even Germans, during World War II, just to name a few. Each of these occupiers has left a mark in the history and in the architecture, especially in the harbor area.
Divided by a centuries-old seawall into inner and outer harbors, with a lighthouse at the end of the wall – where in times of peril a chain was connected, to close the harbor to invaders – the harbor is the beating heart of the city. The view was so beautiful that I stopped few minutes to take it all in. That’s when a crowd carrying Greek flags filled the area, singing loud chants I couldn’t understand. ‘Probably a protest,’ I thought. Times are tough in Greece right now, and protests very frequent.
It was the end of the day; the sun was going down and the light was turning everything into a gold color. The fishing boats were coming back, after a day at sea. The many tavernas and bars on the harbor were filling up rapidly with tourists speaking many languages, but I already knew where I was having dinner so I walked away from the water and into the Old Town.
I passed by tall Venetians houses facing pedestrian-only alleys full of small shops, a food and spice market – there since Venetian days – and a Turkish bazaar. A former mosque, souvenir of 400 years of Muslim Ottoman occupation – now an art gallery – was full of tourists buying jewels. The Old Town was built in the 14th century for commercial purposes and to protect Chania against raids. Somehow, the mix of Cretan, Venetian and Ottoman elements worked just fine – the place was beautiful!
My dinner later at Kalderimi was outstanding: fresh ingredients in local specialties with names hard to pronounce, all very different from what I had seen in Greece before. ‘Crete has a special cuisine,’ explained the busy waiter. He was the same guy I had spoken to when I was looking for my hotel, and – as we were ‘old’ friends – I asked to take his picture. When I commented on how tasty the food was, he said ‘it’s cooked with love.’ Gotta love those Greeks…
The next morning I had breakfast near the hotel. Next to my table was a young woman from New York who told me about the ‘amazing’ Cretan food, saying that she came every year to Chania. ‘Don’t forget to take a food tour, you will learn how they produce everything around here, and how they cook the meat,’ she suggested before leaving. I took notes, feeling like heaven after my fresh yogurt with dried local fruits.
A museum like no other
People say that to understand Chania, and the rest of Greece as best we can, we have to learn a bit about its history. And what a history! Chania was the capital of Crete until 1971, when it surrendered its role to Heraklion. It was there that the Greek flag was first raised, in 1913, to mark Crete’s unification with Greece – until then the island was an entity apart. There’s history in every stone in town, most of it is displayed beautifully in the Maritime Museum of Crete, recommended by friends ‘even if you don’t like museums.’ I do.
The museum was housed in what used to be a Turkish prison, and I ended up staying much longer than I expected. It traces Crete’s seafaring history from times before the Minoans of Knossos, thousands of years before Christ. One gigantic panel at the entrance shows drawings of the type of boats used in Crete for the last 6000 years! The museum shows reproductions of Roman boats, Ottoman weaponry and – in the ‘modern’ times area, photos and a movie of the Battle of Crete, in World War II. That’s the famous battle when Allied forces moved across the island and – with the help of the local population – ousted the Germans. Most of the fighting took place in Chania, and parts of the city were destroyed by bombs.
A special part of the museum is dedicated to the Greek War of Independence – also called the Greek Revolution – waged by Greek revolutionaries against the Ottoman Empire, between 1821 and 1830. The Muslim Turks ruled Greece – and the entire Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe – for 400 years, since the fall of Constantinople, in 1453. The majority of Greeks belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, and the relationship between the two people was not always smooth, and ousting the Turks is a proud page of Greek history. Today, it’s still possible to detect some leftover resentment against their neighbors – they’re so close geographically that from some Greek islands it’s possible to see Turkey, in the distance. Even after the Muslims living in Greece were repatriated, and Turkey did the same with Greeks living there, half of the island of Cyprus is still Turkish, a sore point for Greeks who consider Cyprus their territory.
But that doesn’t keep some Turkish habits from still being alive in Chania. Like the Hammams (Turkish baths) near the port, where I recovered from three weeks of walking in Greece. It was my last day in the country, and after a few hours of relaxation and a heavenly massage, I felt like new.
It was my last night in Chania – and in Greece – and I kept the restaurant I had heard a lot about for my goodbye to the island. I was lucky to get a table at Tamam, steps from the harbor and in a 600 years old house that was once a Turkish bath. One of the most atmospheric restaurants in town, the lamb I had for dinner was one of the best meals of my entire Greek trip – despite being next to a table of very loud German tourists. I have no idea how the chef cooked it, but it was perfect, just like the young woman from New York had described. I even took a picture of it.
The next morning I took a taxi to Chania International Airport, to catch my flight to Athens. Eight miles from town, the airport is the getaway to Western Crete for an increasing number of tourists for the non-stop flights to European capitals. The morning was clear and sunny, and when we took off and left Crete behind, I was feeling a bit sad. So much yet to see…
In Athens, I took a connecting flight to go back home in Florida. Hoping to see the Acropolis once more, I was happy when the pilot made a large detour, right after take off, to fly over the Parthenon, shining under the morning light. Few weeks before I was there, exploring every corner of that perfect monument to the Western culture, the cradle of our civilization and our way of thinking. I waved goodbye to it, hoping it would be just a ’till next time.’
As we left Greece behind, I thought of a passage in a book I had finished a few days before, ‘Mermaids and Ikons,’ of Canadian writer Gwendolyn Mac Ewen. She says that ‘Greece holds up a mirror which – if we care to look – contains a reflection of the truest features of our humanity, and the predicament of our mortality’.
Indeed it does.