10 July 2017

Artists, minarets and icons on
shaded corners in Rethymnon

A colourful, shaded corner on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Despite the long stretch of tourist hotels that runs for miles along the coast east of Rethymnon, the old mediaeval town can be quiet place on a Sunday afternoon. Strolling through the backstreets, the narrow alleys and the hidden corners, it feels like everyone has stayed in bed, or that Sunday afternoon is the day most tourists have to pack their bags and leave.

On the beaches and in the resort restaurants and night spots, it may be difficult to understand that Rethymnon is such a cultural delight, with bookshops, museums, art galleries, artists’ studios, and other hidden delights waiting to be discovered by the discerning visitor.

On one backstreet near the Fortezza, one door after another of seemingly empty houses has been freshly painted, each in a bright blue but with a different pattern.

In a hidden square, a tumbling down Venetian mansion is up for sale with a telephone number papered across the crumbling but bolted doors. It would be tempting, but floors are already falling in, and the roof is almost gone. Anyone with dreams of a boutique hotel is going to need plenty of capital, and that is hard for any business to find in Greece today.

Domes, minarets and spires frame each other … the scene from a balcony near the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

And yet new cafés and shops can spring up in surprising places. After climbing to the Fortezza, and catching vistas right across the town, with the domes of a church bookended by two minarets that have survived since Ottoman days, two of us sat sipping coffees on a shaded terrace outside Geppetto Co-operative (Συνεταιρισμός Τζεπέτο), a café and space for the performing arts.

Inside, posters and leaflets call for support for refugees and action against racism and fascism.

The studio and workshops of Alexandra Kaouki on Melissinou Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Down the hill from the Fortezza, on Melissinou Street, we received a warm welcome from Vangelis Melidonis at the studio and workshop of Alexandra Kaouki.

I wanted to find a small icon as a present for a baptism later this week, but of course, as an icon writer, Alexandra never works on Sunday. But we ended up in a long conversation with Vangelis about the success of a week-long icon-writing course last April and plans for another one in October.

Last week, I had visited the Museum of Christ Art in Itraklion, with its exhibitions of traditional Cretan icons, mainly from the 16th century, including the work of Mikhail Damaskinos. Sunday’s visit was a very different experience. Alexandra Kaouki works in the Byzantine tradition, but this is not a solid, fixed tradition that has been frozen in some mediaeval or Byzantine equivalent of aspic. It is a live and living tradition, and she uses vibrant colours and clear lines to bring her works to life.

On her six-day intensive courses, students learn to write their own icon, with intensive instruction, help, teaching and supervision from Alexandra. The courses are limited to six students, and last for 40 hours over the seven days.

The next course from 8 to 14 October is already booked out. But for anyone thinking of beginning to work in icon-writing, future courses are worth planning ahead for.

A few short steps away, on a street corner near the Rimondi Fountain, I bought a painting of the old Venetian Harbour of Rethymnon by Brkac Franco, who works on the corner of Arabatsoglou Street and Trikoupi Street in the old town.

Franko was born in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and has been part of life in Rethymnon since 1991, painting street scenes and monuments in Indian ink with aquarelle.

We stood and chatted for a while on the street corner as he told me how he had moved to Crete, and of the commissions we received.

The minaret of the former Nerantze Mosque frame between the houses on Trikoupi Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Framed between the houses on Trikoupi Street, the minaret of the former Nerantze Mosque stood against the blue sky at the other end of the long alley. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, a stroll through the streets of Rethymnon opens up many new vistas.

There were shaded corners everywhere, including along Epimenidou Street, the philosopher I was writing about last week who is associated with both the writings of Saint Paul and the ‘liar’s paradox,’ and in the Municipal Gardens, once the site of the main Muslim cemetery in Rethymnon.

A shaded corner on Epimenidou Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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