Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The charming Venetian backstreets of Réthhymnon

Réthymnon’s charming Venetian harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2010)

Patrick Comerford

The road from Iraklion to Réthymnon is one of my favourite all-time journeys, and Réthymnon is my favourite town in Greece. This town provided my first introduction to Greece, and I stayed in Réthymnon for weeks on end throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. I brought my two sons back there about ten years ago, when we stayed in old Acheillion Hotel, which has since closed but which was then the oldest hotel in town.

I was back in Rethymnon this week, and it is as charming as ever. I spent most of Monday strolling through its maze of narrow streets and laneways, gazing up at its overhanging Ottoman balconies, many bedecked with floral baskets, staring at its Turkish minarets, enjoying its Venetian and Turkish fountains,peeping into its hidden palaces with their ornate wooden doors and secret courtayrds, stepping through the tables of the restaurants encircling its elegant harbour, withs its lighthouse, the harbour, and admiring the fortezza with its Venetian and Ottoman ruins, jutting out and up above the town. And there was time too to stop in some of the churches in the old town and to pray and give thanks for being back in Crete again.

Réthymnon (Ρέθυμνο) is a city of about 30,000 people on the north coast of Crete. It has its origins in antiquity but was never an important Minoan centre. Its modern history begins in the Venetian period (1210-1646): today’s old town (paliapoli) is almost entirely Venetian in its origins and is one of the best-preserved old towns in Crete, with many buildings dating back to the 16th century, with their arched doorways, stone staircases, incorporating Byzantine, Ottoman and sometimes even Hellenic-Roman remains.

The Rimondi Fountain, with its spouting lion heads and Corinthian columns, in the heart of old Venetian Réthymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Venetians renamed the town Castel Vecchio (Old Castle) and built the harbour. The commercial and strategic importance of the town then increased because of its location mid-way between Iraklion and Chania.

The Fortezza, a large Venetian castle, is one of the best preserved castles in Crete. The Venetian Loggia housed the archaeological museum when I first stayed in Réthymnon, but it now houses an expensive souvenir shop and an centre information run by the Ministry of Culture. Other Venetian remains include the Great Gate (megali porta, Porta Guora), the Piazza Rimóndi (Rimóndi Square) and the Venetian Loggia.

After a 22-day siege, the town was captured by Turks in 1646 and it remained under Ottoman rule for two and a half centuries until 1897. The town’s Turkish architectural heritage includes the Nerandzés Mosque, which had been a Franciscan church until 1657, and is now the Hellenic Conservatory; the Veli Pasha Mosque, with its fine minaret, south-east of Platía Martíron; and the former Kara Pasha Mosque.

In literature, the town was cast by Pandelis Prevelakis as the setting for Το χρονικό μιας πολιτείας, The Chronicle of a Town (1938), a nostalgic depiction of Réthymnon from the establishment of the Cretan state in 1898 to the expulsion of the Cretan Turks in 1924). But in the bookshops in the old town yesterday, I could only find copies of this book in the original Greek and in German translations ... no English version remains in print.

Today, the town’s principal income comes from tourism, but there is a lively student life during the rest of the year and the Réthymnon campus of the University of Crete hosts the School of Philosophy, the School of Social and Political Sciences and the University Library, as well as the Academic Institute of Mediterranean Studies.

The long sandy beach stretches for miles to the east of Réthymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In the afternoon, it was a pleasure to swim at the long, lengthy, sandy beach ... the old town beach, where I learned to swim in the 1980s, is still a long stretch of sand but is no longer a good place to swim because of the construction of the new marina.

Later, I tried to pick out the four or five different places I had stayed in Réthymnon, but most of them have changed beyond recognition over the decades: there was the small apartment over a tiny bar or the rented rooms nearby, the cheap hotel room that was available for weeks, all provided views over the old town beach on one side, and the charming Venetian houses and the shops of Arkadiou Street on the other side. They have faded or been transformed, but still have a happy place in my memory of those first summers in Greece.

In the evening, the harbour provides an elegant setting for the restaurants that cluster around it. The sun was setting behind the Fortezza as I headed back on the bus to Iraklion.