12 September 2015

A journey in time to the Venetian
mountain-top village of Maroulas

Wandering through the narrow streets and alleyways of Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I spent Friday morning [11 September 2015] picking my way through the Venetian towers, renaissance ruins, narrow streets and alleys and the churches and chapels of the once-fortified hilltop town of Maroulas (Μαρουλάς).

This quiet, mountainside village in the olive groves above Platanes and Rethymon, is 10 km south-east of Rethymnon, at a height of 240 meters (800 feet). Although it is only 5 km from Platanes, it took half an hour to get there along the twisting, corkscrew road that winds its way up by the mountain valleys and gorges and through some of the oldest olive groves in Greece.

Perched on a lofty position facing down onto the sea, Maroulas is like a time capsule, with ancient tombstones dating back to antiquity, a Byzantine church, two Venetian towers, mediaeval and renaissance houses, old olive oil presses, narrow streets and alleyways, and a hidden church with a double nave that is partly built into a cave.

The Venetians built several tower houses throughout Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Although most of the buildings that attract visitors to Maroulas date back to the Venetian period, the discovery of arched burial chambers has led archaeologists to suggest that the area may have been inhabited since the Minoan period. Two cemeteries of the palatial period of Minoan period have been found in the area. The findings are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon.

It is said the village was originally named Amygdalea and that at one point it was completely destroyed by a flood or an earthquake.

According to tradition, Maroulas takes its name from the shepherdess Maroula, a name derived from Maria. While she was grazing her sheep, she found a spring of cool drinking water. This natural spring water fountain at Vryssi was the main water source of the village, supplemented by rainwater collected in tanks. Although the water at the fountain is no longer drinkable, this is a quiet, shaded place to rest under a spreading plane tree.

The settlement was probably founded as a fortified town in the second Byzantine period, and continued to prosper after the Venetian invasions, when the houses in Maroulas became second homes in the cool mountains for the nobility of Rethymnon.

The Venetians built towers with battlements, tower houses and several mansions that display Venetian coats of arms on the arches and doors.

There are seven or eight churches scattered through Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

There are seven or eight churches scattered through the village and in the surrounding hillsides, and I visited at least four of them.

The main parish church was being repainted inside. The smaller church next door has Byzantine fragments. The tiny chapel in the centre of the village was locked and closed.

The interconnecting twin churches of Aghios Nikolaos and Aghios Antonios, with a mediaeval sarcophagus in the churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

A double nave church built into the rocky hillside that almost formed a cave was in fact two inter-connecting 14th century churches, one dedicated to Aghios Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas) and the other to Aghios Antonios (Saint Anthony), with a mediaeval sculpted sarcophagus in the churchyard.

At one time, there were three towers in Maroulas. The first was probably built in the Byzantine period but has since collapsed.

The second tower dates from the Venetian period, and stands by the cobbled street leading down to the fountain at Vryssi.

The tallest Venetian tower has become a symbol of Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The third tower is seen as the emblem of the village. This imposing tower was recently renovated. It is 14 metres high and has three floors. It was built sometime in the 15th and 16th centuries and served as an observation point and as well as the home of a Venetian noble.

Using fire and smoke, the watchmen on the tower could communicate with the fortress at the Fortezza in Rethymno. The tower had holes from which the guards could spill burning oil or tar on their enemies below.

Later Venetian buildings were inspired by the works of the Venetian engineer Francesco Barozzi. They date from ca 1577, and have become known for their aesthetic and artistic features.

After the Turkish invasion, Maroulas became the country seat of Turkish officials who valued its strategic position and wealthy soil.

During the Ottoman period, the main tower was used as an army base. Later, the Turks build using architectural elements from Anatolia such as chimneys, wells and hamams or fountains.

The main tower provides views across the countryside from Rethymnon to Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Metochi, a massive complex west of the settlement has traces of Renaissance and Islamic architecture, including a Turkish hamam or bath.

After the disastrous war between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, the main tower was used to house Greek refugees from Asia Minor.

In the inter-war years, the 17th century Despotiko or residence in the north-east of the tower became the summer residence of the Bishop of Rethymnon. However, the main tower was abandoned during World War II, and at the same time Metochi was partly destroyed during a Nazi bombardment in May 1941.

Maroulas suffered because of large migration in the 1980s, when young people left for the cities, leaving only the elderly behind.

New hope came when Maroulas was listed for its historical monuments and houses in 1985. The main tower was renovated and restored by the Municipality of Rethymnon in the mid-1990s, and in 1997 it was bought for the local community.

Further restoration work was carried out in 2007-2013 under an EU-funded scheme to restore specific buildings of historical interest in both Greece and Cyprus.

Maroulas is coming back to life with almost 200 residents today, and many of the old houses are being restored by families who have moved there to live permanently.

The village attracts many painters and photographers who find many themes here with the narrow alleys, old doors, door knobs and stone mosaics. Today, Maroulas is a maze of narrow streets and alleyways, with a few inviting tavernas and cafés. We lingered a little longer in the early afternoon sunshine in Milopetra Café, sipping a frappe and a double espresso.

On the way back down the winding twisting road to the coastline, we were pointed to an olive tree that is said to be over 200 years old. Our journey in time came to an end back in the busy resort town of Platanes.

An olive tree said to be over 200 years old in the olive groves below Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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