12 June 2018
The screensaver on my laptop shows the old Venetian harbour in Rethymnon in the rain. It is an image I see every day as I open my laptop and begin to work.
But, no matter how familiar and comfortable I am with this photograph for many years, I have seldom seen the Venetian harbour of Rethymnon in the rain.
While visitors to Venice are often warned to be prepared to get their feet wet and to use ‘duck walks’ as the rains fall and the water levels rise, the old Venetian town and harbour remain safe places for those who want to keep their feet dry.
On a few evenings this week, I have walked around the old harbour in Rethymnon, enjoying the changing lights as dusk descended on the scene.
Although archaeological finds show that the Rethymnon was already a prosperous town in the Minoan era and continued to trade in the Byzantine period, the harbour dates from the arrival of the Venetians in Crete.
The 13th-century Venetian mole was built to protect the harbour. Since 1300, the harbour has constantly changed and been rebuilt to make it safer and to hold more boats. But, due to the prevailing currents along this stretch of the north coast of Crete, the natural harbour has a narrow basin and a tendency to silt up quickly.
In 1582, the Venetians started work on expanding and fortifying the harbour, and some of the vaulted ground floor areas of the buildings may have been used as Venetian boat sheds.
The seabed was dredged frequently and a harbour wall was built on the north-east. But the silting problems continued and for a while Venetian engineers considered moving the harbour further west, closer to the Fortezza. However, the projected cost put an end to this project.
These unsuccessful efforts mean the harbour in Rethymnon has retained its charming and picturesque character to this day.
Most of the harbour buildings were also built in the Turkish period. The Egyptian lighthouse at the end of the mole, overlooking the entrance to the harbour, was built during the Ottoman Turkish era, but several repairs in the 19th century have altered some of its original features.
The old harbour is now used by just a few fishing and pleasure boats and the floats of the coast guard service also dock here, as well as an old ‘pirate ship’ that offers day and evening trips along the coast.
There is a much larger breakwater outside the old harbour, with a new ferry port for ships to Piraeus and Santorini.
The quayside is now lined with restaurants, cafés and fish tavernas, many of them in the vaulted or arched Venetian boat workshops.
The Venetian and Turkish buildings, with tables lining the waterside and tourists in the evening promenade stepping lightly between waiters and diners, form an attractive summer scene.
But when winter comes, the restaurants and tavernas will be closed, the tourists will have gone, and only one café will remain open in the evenings at the old Venetian harbour in Rethymnon.
Cheimárras Street is a colourful and peaceful place in among the warren of narrow streets in Rethymnon on a summer evening. This winding street twists and turns as it makes its way from the old Venetian Fortezza that crowns the heart of the town down past the Museum of Contemporary Art, to Melissinou Street, where the icon writer Alexandra Kaouki has her studios.
As I start walking down Cheimárras Street, the houses are pretty and charming, the steps in the side alleys are painted colourfully, and even old doorways that seem to have fallen into disrepair are draped in bougainvillea or decorated with old watering cans that have been filled with flowers.
Each house is pretty and charming in its own self-contained way. On the corner where the street takes a sharp turn two-thirds of the way down, there is a house with pretty colours and potted flowers that I have photographed on many occasions.
These colourful houses and painted steps on the slopes of Cheimárras Street are street art in their own way, a struggle to bring out the innate beauty of an old part of this town, and to make people understand the soul of this city.
As I strolled through the town during the past week, I come across other forms of street art and sculpture that have appeared in Rethymnon more recently.
On the sea front, at the north end of Plateia Agnostou Stratioti (Πλατεια Αγνωστου Στρατιωτη, the Square of the Unknown Solider), a new sundial has a noticeboard nearby explaining how a sundial works and how calculate the time in Greece.
Further west, on Arkadiou Street, some tree stumps have been carved to represent three chairs at a table in a Greek café.
But street art comes in other forms too:
… the lyras and other musical instruments on sale in a shop …
… or the angry graffiti in the side-streets where the voiceless and the unheard can express their anger at the suffering created by the collapse of the Greek economy and the austerity measures that have left high rates of unemployment among the young, brought swingeing cuts to public services, and that have made small businesses and workers should the costs of past mistakes.
But graffiti can also be a blight on a city and when it becomes infectious it can be hard to stop it spreading.
In recent years, Mikrasiaton Square (Πλατεία Μικρασιατών) in the centre of the old town, has been transformed into an attractive plaza, with open spaces for concerts, park benches and sculptures. Architecturally, it is hemmed by the Nerantzes Mosque with its minaret and three domes and the Archaeological Musuem, recently moved into the former Venetian Church of Saint Francis, and surrounded by good restaurants.
Some abandoned buildings might have blighted this square in the past, and become typical recipients of graffiti and painted scrawls. But instead, an imaginative initiative has attracted the talents of street artists, adding to the attractions of this square in central Rethymnon on a summer evening: