I remember hearing about Chania and Crete as a child in Brazil. At our family reunions, my uncle Christos – who was born there and became part of the family when he married 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 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 – to see the ruins of Knossos – I took a regular bus to Chania, my uncle’s hometown (whenever possible I take public transportation, to get to know the people). The bus was crowded with locals going home; the women giggling happily while holding their shopping bags. On the back of the bus, a group of men, probably their husbands, were excitedly talking up a storm in their incomprehensible – to me – language.
The road to Chania follows the coast. As we drove west, the scenery got more rugged. From my window I could see the snowy peaks of the White Mountains on my left, and on my right, the blue Mediterranean – called the Libyan Sea in Crete. Every few miles, another fishing village would appear, probably all thousands of years old.
We arrived in Chania in the late 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 Old Town. He replied saying, “That’s closed to traffic, I’ll drop you off nearby, 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 showed me the way to proceed. The area looked old, medieval, more like the pictures of Chania I had seen. Dragging my suitcase uphill on a cobblestone street, I passed by small, charming houses that looked like they were at least 400 years old, more Italian than Greek in style. They reminded me of the fact 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 called Kalderimi. 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. After leaving my luggage in the hotel, I walked a maze of narrow streets searching for it. It wasn’t far – nothing is really far away in Chania.
A town dear to the hearts 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 many foreign powers since antiquity – Romans, Muslim Ottoman Turks, even Germans – during World War II – to name a few. Each of these occupiers has left their mark in the history and architecture of the town, especially in the harbor area.
Divided by a centuries-old seawall into the 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 for a few minutes to take it all in. My concentration was broken when a crowd carrying Greek flags filled the area, singing loud chants that 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 to gold. Fishing boats were coming back after a day at sea and the many tavernas on the harbor were filling up with tourists that spoke 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 Venetian houses facing pedestrian-only alleyways full of small shops. A food and spice market – there since Venetian days – and a Turkish bazaar were next. Also on my way was a former mosque, a souvenir of 400 years of Muslim Ottoman occupation, which is now an art gallery that was full of tourists. The Old Town looks medieval; it was built in the 14th century for commercial purposes and to protect Chania against raids. Somehow, the mixing of Cretan, Venetian and Ottoman styles worked just fine – the place was beautiful!
My dinner later, at Kalderimi, didn’t disappoint: fresh ingredients and local specialties with names hard to pronounce, all very different from anything I had eaten 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. At the next table was a young woman from New York who told me about the ‘amazing’ Cretan food, explaining that she had been visiting Chania every year. “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. I took notes, feeling heavenly after finishing 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, which was 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 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 it 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 belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, and the relationship between the two people was not always smooth. For that reason, ousting the Turks is a proud page of Greek history; even today it’s still possible to detect some leftover resentment against their neighbors. Turkey is so close geographically, that from some Greek islands it’s possible to see its coast 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 old resentments don’t keep some Turkish habits from staying 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.
I kept the restaurant I had heard about for my last night in Chania. I was lucky to get a table at Tamam, steps from the harbor, in a 600 year old house that was once a Turkish bath. It’s one of the most atmospheric restaurants in town, and the lamb I had for dinner was superb, 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 different, just like the young woman from New York had described; I even took a picture of it. After dinner I strolled the port area, stopping at bars playing live Greek music. The nightlife in Chania is very lively, everything closes late, the fun goes on forever.
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 avenue from Western Crete to catch an increasing number of 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 back home to Florida. Hoping to see the Acropolis once more, I was happy when the pilot made a large detour and flew over the Parthenon, which was shining bright under the morning light. A few weeks earlier, I was there, exploring every corner of that perfect monument to Western culture, the cradle of our civilization. I waved goodbye to it, hoping it would only be 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.