Looking down Odhós 25 Avgoústou, the Street of the Martyrs of 25 August, towards the Venetian Harbour of Iráklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Iráklion (Ηράκλειον) is only a short distance west of Hersónisos, but it has none of the brashness of the cheap resorts. Once you get into its everyday streets you realise this is a true and real working Greek city.
As I strolled through Iráklion yesterday, I realised that tourists occasionally end up here, but usually by accident, on their way to somewhere else, or after a visit to Knossos nearby and to the Archaeological Museum. And yet, when you get to know it, this hectic city is delightful, with its Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish treasures, its thriving restaurants and cafés, its pedestrianised streets, its fountains and parks, and its newly-redesigned seafront walks.
For Greeks in the past it was Ἡράκλειον, for the Romans Heraclium, for both of them the city of Heracles. But this is also El Khandak of the Saracens, Candia of the Venetians, the Candy of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Chandax (Χάνδαξ, moat) of later years. For many people here, though, it is simply Κάστρο (Kástro, castle) and the people who live here are known as Καστρινοί (Kastrinoí, “castle dwellers”).
In 1204, the city was bought by the Republic of Venice as part of a complicated political deal that involved the Crusaders óf the Fourth Crusade restoring the deposed Emperor Isaac II Angelos to the Byzantine throne.
Because of the Venetian name for the city, the whole island came to be known as Candia. But the city was besieged by the Ottoman Turks from 1648, and eventually fell in 1669, after the longest siege in history.
In modern Greek literature, Iráklion provides the dramatic backdrop for Freedom and Death (in Greek, Καπετάν Μιχάλης), a part-fictional, part-historical account by Nikos Kazantzakis of his father’s role in the Cretan war of independence at the end of the 19th century. An autonomous Cretan state was created in 1898, the city reverted to its classical Greek name, and Crete eventually became part of the modern Hellenic state in 1913.
Close to the former Venetian Loggia, the former Venetian cathedral is appropriately named San Marco. It stands on the former Saint Mark’s Square, now Platía Venizélou, and is now used for exhibitions and lectures. On the same square, the Morosini Fountain, with its spouting lions, is a reminder of the lingering Venetian legacy of Iráklion.
The Church of Aghios Títos has been an Orthodox Church under the Byzantines, a Catholic Church under the Venetians, a mosque under the Turks, and is a Greek Orthodox church once again (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Behind San Marco is a quieter, sleepier and more pleasant plaza with the Church of Aghios Títos. Through the centuries this has been an Orthodox church under the Byzantines, a Catholic church under the Venetians, and a mosque under the Ottoman Turks. After the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, it was re-consecrated in 1925 as an Orthodox church. Its prized treasure and relic is the head of Saint Titus, who accompanied the Apostle Paul to Crete and who is now hailed as the island’s first bishop.
In the plaza beside Aghios Títos, a great old plane tree provides shelter for a restaurant that is appropriately called Geroplatanos.
El Greco Park, a few paces north of Platía Venizélou, is small and disappointing, and hardly a worthy tribute to the greatest artist born in Crete.
The tiny church of Aghia Ekateríni was at the heart of the Cretan Renaissance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
But Iráklion’s greatest hidden treasure is the Museum of Religious Art, housed in the tiny 16th century Church of Aghia Ekateríni (Saint Catherine of Mount Sinai). It is generally missed by tourists, and is overshadowed by the large and imposing Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Aghios Mínas, in whose shade it seems to sleep.
Tiny Aghia Ekateríni was at the heart of the Cretan Renaissance. The monks and teachers here first came from Mount Sinai and the students at the school here included the poet Vitzentzos Kornaros, author of the epic Erpotokritos, the icon writer Mihailis Dhamaskinós and his contemporary Domenikos Theotokopoulos – better known to the world beyond Crete as El Greco.
The core of the collection is six works by Dhamaskinós, but I was disappointed yesterday afternoon to find the church and museum are closed this summer – the whole collection is on loan to an exhibition in New York while the building is being refurbished, although there are plans to reopen it this autumn.
And so after strolling along the elegant pedestrianised streets of 25 Avgoustou and Handakos, through the backstreets of the former Turkish quarter, which is still waiting and hoping for development proposals to bear fruit, and along the seafront, it was off to a late lunch in O Vrakas, at a junction on Plateia Angelon, looking out onto the sea.