18 June 2018

No sight of the ghosts
of old soldiers at the
castle in Frangokastello

The ruins of Frangokastello … said to be haunted in the early morning dew by the ghosts of old soldiers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

Patrick Comerford

There is a story in Crete that the ghosts of old soldiers who fought in a rebellion against the Turks almost 200 years ago, can be seen riding and marching along the beach at Frangokastello in the early morning lights at the end of May and in early June.

After visiting Hóra Sfakíon on Saturday afternoon [16 June 2018], we continued on to Frangokastello (Φραγκοκάστελλο) and the ruins of the Venetian castle in a remote setting on the south coast of Crete. Frangokastello is about 12 km east of Hóra Sfakion and takes the whole area takes its name from the large, ruined 14th century castle by the long sandy beach.

The castle was built on a fertile plane by the Venetians in 1371-1374 as a garrison to impose order on the rebellious Sfakia region, to ward off Saracen pirates, and to protect Venetian noble families living in the area and their properties.

The Venetians named it the Castle of Saint Nikitas after a nearby sixth century church. Local people, however, never saw the castle in a positive light, and contemptuously named it Frangokastello, the ‘Castle of the Franks,’ meaning the Castle of the Crusaders or the Castle of the Catholic Foreigners.

The name stuck and eventually even the Venetians came to call it Frangokastello.

The history of Frangokastello begins in the Bronze Age. There was intensive human activity in the wider area around Frangokastello as early as prehistoric times, even in mountainous and inaccessible areas.

Several Minoan sites have been found, dating from 1800 to 1450 BC, when many people lived in settlements. Some examples of pottery have been preserved from that period.

From the mid-seventh century AD to 824 AD, Arab raids led to coastal sites being abandoned gradually as villages moved inland seeking protection from the Saracen pirates.

Frangokastello overlooking a long sandy beach on the south coast of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Throughout the period of Venetian rule, there are references to powerful noble families of Byzantine descent who held large fiefs and exercised a major influence on the Orthodox population.

The Venetians gave them limited administrative powers, introducing a feudal system that was adapted to local circumstances in Crete, and the Sfakia area was ruled by the Skordilis clan. Two branches of the clan, the Pateras and Papadopoulos families, often fought with each other in feuds. Venetian sources claimed they were criminal and often committed oppressed the local people.

The Venetian Senate eventually agreed on 10 February 1371 to build a fortress to protect the area from pirate raids and to control the local population.

But, according to local lore, the building work was sabotaged by local people. Every night, the local Sfakians, led by six Patsos brothers from the nearby village of Patsianos, destroyed what the Venetians had built each day. Eventually, the Venetians brought in extra troops and the Patsos brothers were betrayed, arrested and hanged.

The beach at Frangokastello seen from the castle walls (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The castle was built between 1371 and 1374. Although the Venetians called it the Castle of Saint Nikitas, local people contemptuously referred to it as Frangokastello. The name eventually stuck and was adopted by the Venetians as well.

The castle has a simple rectangular shape, with square towers at each corner and the remains of a Venetian coat of arms, with the lion of Saint Mark of Venice, above the main gate, along with the arms of the Querini and Dolfin families. The south-west tower, the biggest of the four towers, was the most important and protected the main gate.

The buildings within the walls, as well as the battlements, included garrison residences, stabling, stores and kitchens.

The fortress never seems not appear to have served the purpose for which it was built, as the Sfakia area remained lawless and there were times when Frangokastello did not even have a token garrison.

The Venetians repaired the castle for the last time in 1645, and the shape of the building remains since that period, although it appears to have played no significant role in defending the island against the Ottoman invasion and capture of Crete.

The castle ramparts and the beach seen from the south-west tower in Frangokastello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

During the period of Turkish rule, Frangokastello continued to decay. The Turkish forces fighting the rebellious Sfakiots camped there during the Orlov Revolt (1770). The failed rising was led by Ioannis Vlachos or Daskaloyiannis. He surrendered and was flayed alive in Iraklion as an example to other would-be revolutionaries.

During the next Cretan revolt against Turkish rule in 1828, Hatzimichalis Dalianis, a Greek patriot leader from North Epirus in present-day Albania, captured Frangokastello, and garrisoned the castle with a force of Sfakiots and Epirotes.

For a week, 600 Greek rebels faced 8,000 Turkish soldiers. But his decision to abandon familiar guerrilla tactics and face the much larger Turkish regular army on the open plain favoured the forces of Mustapha Naili Pasha, the Governor of Crete.

The decisive battle was fought at Frangokastello on 17 May 1828. The Greek rebels were besieged by the Turks and Dalianis was killed along with 338 of the defenders. The remainder capitulated, surrendered the castle to the Turks, and were allowed to leave. But it is said that those who were killed were left unburied until a strong wind blew sand from the nearby beach of Orthi Ammos and covered them.

In the weeks that followed, many of the Turks involved in the siege were then killed in rebel ambushes launched from the local gorges. Mustapha Pasha blew up the ruined fortress so it could never be used again by rebels.

Later, however, during the great Cretan Revolt (1866-1869), the Turks were forced to rebuild the castle in order to control the island. Frangokastello fell into disuse after the liberation of Crete.

In recent years, the south-west tower has been partially restored. Visitors can climb to the top for spectacular views of the castle buildings and the long sandy beach below, and the base of the tower is used for exhibitions.

Inside the north-west tower of Frangokastello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

According to tradition, around the anniversary of the battle in the last days of May and the first days of June each year, the ghosts of the armed Cretan and Epirote soldiers who were killed in the fighting, are seen at dawn marching and riding their horses towards the fortress, only to disappear in the sea. These ghosts are called Drosoulites (Δροσουλίτες), or dew-men, because they only appear in the morning mist.

Although their appearance has been explained as a meteorological phenomenon, the castle ruins are a reminder of the tortured history of Crete, and visitors are told of the legend of the ghosts that haunt it, the Drosoulites, at this time of the year.

Perhaps it was too late in the day, perhaps it was too late in June. But we never saw the Drosoulites at Franngokastello. Or, perhaps it was a case of old soldiers just fading away.

The beach at Plakias seen from Sellia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

After exploring the ruins, we had an ice cream on the beach below the castle and then continued on past the Church of Saint Nikitas to Sellia, for views of the beach at Plakias, into the Kotsifou Gorge and on to Kanevos for a late lunch in Taverna Iliomanolis.

The road back to Georgioupoli took us back across the White Mountains, into Rethymnon and along the coast.

The Kotsifou Gorge at Kanevos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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