The visitor may be a little surprised by the changes that are taking place in Crete’s capital city; Heraklion is celebrating its rich history and moving forward to a future full of potential. The number of cars once made walking in the city centre difficult but now you will find large spaces free of traffic. You can enjoy your walk in one of the most fascinating Mediterranean cities that combines traditionally friendly people, fine buildings, open public spaces and view to the sea. Listen to the city’s monuments telling stories about the island that gave birth to gods and revolutions and be inspired by the spirit of Crete.
Heraklion today is living between the fast moving currents of regeneration and a deep desire to maintain links with a past. Both these features define its character. In the last hundred years alone, we have seen huge changes in the buildings and the streets that reflect the changing fortune of Crete. The ‘old town’ is of medieval origin and now offer visitors some fantastic walks in the heart of the city.
If you begin a walk around Heraklion, starting at the fishing harbour close to the modern port, what will strike you first is the Venetian fortress at the harbour gate. The fortress was originally built by the Venetians and called Rocca al Mare but now it is known by its Turkish name, Koules. It has a mixed history; for centuries it was used for protection against invaders, like the great walls and ditches of the city did. These are among the longest city walls in Europe.
Looking at the city you will see the strong arches of the arsenal, where boats were kept to be repaired and ammunition was stored. It was believed that the greatest threat to the Venetian stronghold of Heraklion, or Candia, as it was called, could come from the sea, and indeed, many naval skirmishes were fought off this coast. The view northwards includes the uninhabited island of Dia, where evidence of an ancient Minoan settlement (approx. 2700-1450 BC) was found by the diver Jacques Cousteau. Boat trips can be booked from travel bureaus throughout the centre of Heraklion, as well as excursions to other places of interest.
The 25th of August Street
The 25th of August Street is a pedestrian street directly opposite the Old Harbour extending to the Lion Square. It took its name from a massacre that occurred there on August 25th 1898. Many Cretans and some British citizens were killed by the Turks, so the ‘Great Powers’ (Britain, France and Russia) forced the Ottomans to recognize Crete’s struggle. This incident eventually led to the declaration of the Cretan State and, finally, to its unification with Greece in 1913.
Walking past shops and tourist bureaus we reach St. Titus’ Cathedral, an impressive church. Saint Titus, a fellow traveller of Saint Paul, preached the Gospel in Crete during the Roman rule and was sighted in Gortys, where a 7th century basilica stands in his memory. His church in Heraklion was built during the second Byzantine period and at first it served as the city’s cathedral. During the Venetian rule it housed the seat of the Catholic archbishop and was renovated in 1466, only to be destroyed by a fire in 1544. During the Turkish Occupation it served as a mosque called Vizier Tzami, and a minaret was added not it which has now been removed. The present-day structure is the result of further renovations after its almost complete destruction by a strong earthquake in 1856 and later works that took place in 1922. The skull of St Titus was transferred here from Venice in 1956 and since then it has been kept in the church. If the cathedral is open it is well worth entering it.
A little further you will discover the Venetian building of the Loggia which functioned as a Club for the nobility to gather and relax. The Loggia is a wonderful example of Venetian architecture. It was built in the 16th century and was located in the Piazza dei Signori (Square of the Administrative Authorities). Today, the Loggia houses part of the town-hall of Heraklion. The Loggia was awarded the Europa Nostra first prize in 1987 for the best renovated and preserved European monument of the year.
St. Mark’s Basilica, almost next to the Loggia, is now the Municipal Art Gallery and often hosts various exhibitions almost always with free entrance. Built in 1239 in the Piazza delle Biade (Square of Blades), it was once the Cathedral of Crete. The Basilica belonged to the reigning Duke, eventually becoming his burial place. In May 2006 the Basilica hosted the first International Conference on Ethics and Politics with speakers from all over the world.
Liondaria, or the Lions’ Square
This is the heart of Heraklion, where tourists and locals share the small space around the fountain, exchanging glances and perhaps a few words. Business and pleasure are combined here and it is the place to meet for any purpose or no purpose. To give some background, it might also be called the Morosini Fountain or, Liondaria in Greek or, more correctly, ”Plateia Eleftheriou Venizelou”, after Venizelos, Crete’s greatest man of state. The embellished fountain is composed of eight cisterns and decorated with a stone relief, depicting figures of the Greek mythology, Nymphs, Tritons, sea monsters and dolphins, while the main basin is supported by four sitting lions balancing a circular ball on their heads. Francesco Morosini had it built to celebrate the Venetian success of bringing water, through a brilliantly designed system, from Mount Youhtas to the centre of the city. Morosini was still in office when the Ottoman invaded the city. Nowadays the fountain is always interesting, the hub around which Heraklion revolves.
No need to be hungry here. The “bougatsa” (vanilla cream pie) is great for breakfast. There are also plenty of places around where you can have omelette, crepe and souvlaki. You will always be given water when you sit to order something. Near the square, you might prefer the renewed Handakos Street, now without traffic. Handakos, a busy thoroughfare since the old times, is an attractive place to walk, shop or rest.
Walk slowly along the “Agora” or the Market Street, a street that was named 1866 Street, after a Cretan uprising. The local people of Heraklion come to this old Market Street every day to buy socks, shirts, herbs, fish and fresh meat. It is a good place to find thyme honey, raki (the Cretan clear spirit). Here there are shops that sell everything, from Cretan music collections to the finest cheese. This market has a long history and is always a place to meet and make plans. Walk in the side-streets and you will smell good Cretan food and feel the buzz around you. Cafés here do not distinguish much between Greeks and foreigners; neither do the inexpensive eating houses that serve good food to everyone who enters them. At the top end, at the last turn, find the fish market and some great little “ouzo places” (smaller and less formal than a tavern) that fill up at night and provide excellent, simple, seafood.
The “Plateia Kornarou” is situated at the top of the market, with a lovely Venetian fountain, the Bembo Fountain, probably the oldest one, bearing some very good decorations, although it has ceased to dispense water. The Bembo Fountain was built in 1588 by the Venetian architect Zuanne Bembo. It is decorated with columns, Venetian family coats-of-arms and a headless male statue, brought here from Ierapetra. Once it was believed that the statue had supernatural powers and, every May, religious rituals were organised in its honour. The atmospheric kafeneio opposite, still serving Greek coffee and aperitifs from an antique stone pavilion at its centre, is a great reminder of Crete’s Turkish past. The Plateia itself was named after Vitsenzos Kornaros (1553 to approx.1614), who was the author of the epic poem Erotokritos, which is regularly staged in Crete and still evokes pride in every Cretan heart. Here, you are near Saint Minas’ Cathedral or, in the opposite direction, Eleftherias Square.
St. Minas’ Cathedral
The cathedral is dedicated to the Patron Saint of Heraklion and is one of Greece’s largest churches. The church was damaged during the battles for freedom of the city and it took thirty years for it to be rebuilt. In 1896 it was inaugurated with lavish celebrations. A wonderful collection of religious icons is housed inside the strong walls of the much older church of St. Minas and St. Ekaterini (Saint Catherine), built in 1555. It used to be a renowned school of Renaissance painters and writers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Inside the church you can see the work of Michael Damaskinos and other representatives of the Cretan School.
Plateia Eleftherias or Freedom Square
The spacious Plateia Eleftherias is in a crescent shape alongside the Archaeological Museum and close to Heraklion’s local government buildings and the main foreign consulates. The shaded Georgiadis’ Park is a fine place to rest and watch the busiest intersection in Heraklion. On the side of the square that faces the sea is the entrance to St. George’s Gate, used since the Venetian times as a passage between the city and its harbour. Today it often used for art exhibitions. It is all that has remained from an important mediaeval gate to the city. In the square there are also a lot of cafes and restaurants.
The internationally famous Archaeological Museum of Heraklion was built between 1937 and 1940 on a site that had been occupied during the Venetian Times by the imposing catholic monastery of St. Francis, which was destroyed by the earthquake of 1856. The Museum houses archaeological finds from all over Crete. The museum boasts the treasures of the earliest European civilization, the Minoan civilization.
Other Places of Interest
The Historical Museum of Heraklion, in Sofoklis Venizelos Street, facing the sea, represents 2,000 years of history. The Museum was founded in 1952, in a beautiful building the early 20th century. It houses important early Christian artefacts, stonework and decorative objects of Roman, Arab, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish origin. There is a panoramic wooden model of Heraklion in the Middle Ages, or Candia as it was named by the Venetians (after its Arabic name El Khandak), beautifully detailed, with push-button spotlights picking out the locations of many important places regarding worship, defence and government. Some of these buildings still exist and some of them are still in use. The Venetian roads still define the city. The Museum offers a genuine learning experience to visitors.
You will read about and see evidence of the siege of the city that lasted 21 years (1648-1669) and ended with its invasion by Ottoman Turks and the beginning of a desperate period of time. Almost 250 years of strife passed until the island’s final unification with Greece. The more recent exhibits concern the 20th century and the unification (1913) under the leadership of Eleftherios Venizelos. Other rooms host evidence of the island’s most recent warfare and the 10-day Battle of Crete in 1941. Another room, a reconstructed library, is dedicated to Crete’s most famous writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, who expresses the soul of Crete. The restaurants outside the museum offer shade and good food.
The City’s Walls
Heraklion is surrounded by a formidable medieval wall, which used to protect it from enemies. Owing to this, the city enjoyed the reputation of a well-fortified state in the Mediterranean. It resisted the siege of the Ottomans for 21 years, but was finally invaded in 1669, because of a traitor, a Greek-Venetian engineer, who informed the invaders of the walls’ weaknesses in the eastern and the western bastions. It is possible now to walk along the top of these walls and enjoy the view over the city. You may reach the Grave of the Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), where an inscription reads: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing; I am free”.
In its long history Heraklion gave impressive samples of architecture, sculpture and pottery and brought out great painters and writers. The large number of monuments with wall paintings throughout Crete from the 11th until the 15th century is impressive.
With the fall of Constantinople, but also before that, many famous and anonymous artists took refuge in Venetian Crete where the ideas they brought from the great capital were met and artistically developed with the tradition of the island. With the spreading of the Cretan School in the Balkans and the Mediterranean area (1450-1700), a huge artistic movement was created. This movement reaches its peak in the 6th century and gradually fades with the fall of Candia (1669) and the beginning of the Ottoman rule on the island.
The influences of the western European artistic presence in the culture that was developed in Crete in the late Middle Ages and in the dawn of the modern times are very important. Unfortunately the most part of the material does no longer exist, or it is corrupted to an extent that it is hardly recognized. The paintings were taken away from Crete during the withdrawal of the Venetians or they were destroyed. Most of the buildings and their decoration disappeared. Only a small number of works of architecture, which are significantly altered, was preserved and only a part of the architectural sculpture. Today, alongside with the economic development, Heraklion has also developed an intense artistic activity in the field of cultural events and of the periodical exhibitions of local, national and international interest, in cooperation with many bodies in Greece and abroad. All the organizations are framed by parallel events.
After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the production of portable icons still plays an important role in the religious art of the orthodox populations, experiencing a significant development especially in Venetian Crete, in Candia – modern Heraklion. Many painters leave Constantinople and come to stay in Candia. There they teach the secrets of their art to the local painters. The painting patterns of the Paleologue period are often combined with elements from the western art, because of the contact between these Cretan painters with artists from Venice. These factors created the basis of the Cretan painting, which was maintained at a high level until the occupation of Candia by the Ottomans in 1669. After the conquest of Crete, the Cretan cities cease to be leading artistic centers. The reputation of the Cretan painters was maintained in the Orthodox world even after the period of the great prosperity had passed. In the 18th century, there was still some artistic activity in Crete and the Cretan painters continued to travel to other regions. This means that there were regional centers, although of less importance, where the culture of handicraft virtuosity -and perhaps other more essential artistic features- was continued .
Today the tradition of hagiography continues. In parallel with the traditional art, a new generation of artists produces vigorously works of art and characterizes with its work the artistic exploration in Crete. The Municipal Art Gallery of Heraklion – which is housed in the Basilica of Saint Mark – hosts the permanent collections of Cretan painters, while there are periodical exhibitions of local as well as of international interest on a regular basis, in cooperation with many bodies in Greece and abroad.
Cretan School of Hagiography
In the years of the Venetian rule, after the Fall of Constantinople, Heraklion becomes one of the most important artistic centers of the Venetian state. In around 1600, the city had 20.000 residents. This period there were 200 painters working in Heraklion. Their fame was spread far outside the island’s borders and they get to adorn with their work great monastic centers, not only of the rest of Greece, but also of the orthodox East. In this framework the “Cretan School” of painting is gradually formed. Icons and illustrated manuscripts travel throughout the Venetian East and to the major orthodox monastic centers. The Cretan School of Hagiography creates significant works, which are currently found in museums, monasteries, private and public collections, and as an entirety they constitute a very important and unique chapter of the history of art. Unfortunately after two centuries of prosperity (16th & 17th century), , all this spiritual flourishing of the Cretan Renaissance is violently interrupted by the occupation of Heraklion (Candia) by the Turks.
The major representatives of the Cretan School of Hagiography are:Angelos (17th century), Michael Damaskenos (16th century), Domenikos Theotokopoulos (16th century), Theophanes the Cretan (16th century), Georgios Klontzas (17th century) and Ioannis Kornaros (18th century).
Domenikos Theotokopoulos or El Greco
El Greco, one of the most important figures in the history of painting, was born in Venetian Heraklion (Candia), where he took his first painting lessons until the age of 20. Then he left for Italy and at this age he seems to be already distinguished in the art of Byzantine hagiography, as he already appears as a renowned painter in reports of the files of this period. In Venice, which is his first stop, he studies next to Titian and he perfects his knowledge in Western painting. After a short stay in Rome, in 1577 he settles in Toledo, Spain, where he creates his great work. But he never ceases to mention his Cretan roots signing on all his works “Made by Domenikos Theotokopoulos the Cretan”. With a deep knowledge both of the Byzantine scholar tradition and the ancient Greek and Renaissance thought, he manages to capture in his works the secret flame of the orthodox faith and his personal visions. Today, in Heraklion, one of El Greco’s early works, “Mount Sinai”, is exhibited in a specially designed hall of the Historical Museum.
He is probably the most important painter of the Cretan School. He was born in Heraklion (Candia) around 1540 and he was taught the art of painting in the school of the Monastery of Saint Catherine of the Sinaites. His works are characterized by the wondrous coexistence of the Byzantine hagiography with the techniques of the Western painting and the Renaissance art. He has made many works which are currently scattered in collections, from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George in Venice and the Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens, to the Byzantine Collection of the Monastery of Saint Catherine of the Sinaites. Six of his most important icons, which belonged to the Vrontisi Monastery, are exhibited in the Monastery of Saint Catherine. Moreover, it is thought possible that he worked for a long period in the Monastery’s hagiography workshop.