19 July 2016
Early one morning last week, two of us took a short taxi up to the sleepy village of Maroulas in the mountains above Platanes, where I am staying in Crete. The village is just five minutes away but is at a height of 240 metres and is perched on a hilltop overlooking olive groves and valleys and looking out to the sea.
Maroulas has no one main square; instead, the village is a maze of narrow alleys, with Byzantine churches, old Venetian towers and mansions with decorated doors and stone mosaics, Ottoman fountains, and over a dozen old oil presses.
And, of course, there are typical Greek village tavernas and cafes to help while away the time on a lazy summer day.
It is said that the village was originally named Amygdalea, but it was completely destroyed by a flood or earthquake. Two cemeteries dating back the palatial period of Minoan era have been excavated about 1 km west of the village, and the findings are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon.
The first person to move back to the village was a shepherdess called Maroula, a form of Maria. According to tradition, while she was grazing her sheep in the area, she found a spring of cool water. She moved into the village, and so it was named after her.
Some archaeological finds show the village was inhabited in Roman, early Christian and Byzantine times. After the Venetians took control of Crete, Maroulas became part of the castellated territories of the fortezza in Rethymnon in the 14th century.
During the first Venetian period, the houses of Maroulas became second homes or agricultural warehouses for the nobility of Rethymnon. The olive groves and presses of Maroulas were important for the local economy and the village had a large number of olive presses.
The main buildings in the village date from the late Venetian period in the 16th and early 17th century, and the Ottoman period, from the 17th to the 19th century.
Two 16th century Venetian tower houses dominate the village. The largest tower is 44 metres high and was built as both a residence and for defensive purposes. It is one of the largest towers in Crete and was restored in 1997-2011.
The second large tower, on the south-east side of the village, is a three-storey Venetian tower also dating from the 16th century. But there are other, smaller tower houses scattered through the village, many awaiting restoration.
Many of the old Venetian mansions have battlements and typical Venetian doors and arches, some of them decorated with coats of arms.
The Church of Aghios Nikolaos and Aghios Antonios, the oldest of the five churches in the village, was built in the 14th century. It is a twin church with two naves, and the north side of the church is built into a cave that forms part of its north and east walls. A low arch links the two naves, forming one church with two separate icon screens and sanctuaries.
Outside, in the church yard, a sarcophagus with early Venetian decorations may be the tomb of an early benefactor of the church.
The Turks moved into Maroulas in 1630. They brought with them architectural elements from Anatolia, including fireplaces and chimneys, wells, hammams and fountains.
For a short time in the 1920s, the village housed Greek refugees who had been expelled from Anatolia in western Turkey. In the 1920s and 1930s, Archbishop Timotheos Veneris of Rethymnon used the Venetian house known as the Despotiko as his summer residence. It has a cobbled courtyard and a Venetian doorframe that is similar to the entrance to the fortezza in Rethymnon.
In 1985, Maroulas was declared an “historic monument.” for its historical monuments and houses. But the population of the village began to fall in the 1980s as young people left for the cities, leaving only the elderly behind. Many of the houses are neglected or abandoned, and one taverna has been locked up for years, with all its furnishings decaying inside.
Today, however, Maroulas is coming back to life. It has over 200 residents, there are children playing in the streets once again, and many of the old buildings have been restored by Greeks and by foreigners who have moved to the village.
As we sipped coffee in a local café, the early afternoon temperature soared to 42, and there was no sea breeze to cool the air. We called a taxi, and were soon back at Platanes and the coast.