Pirate stories in Rethymnon

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I’m back in Rethymnon and I have taken a stroll up Paleokastro (‘Old Castle’) hill to the Fortezza.  This is a Venetian fortress with a colourful history.  It  possibly stands on the site of a Roman acropolis which is believed to have included a temple to Apollo and a sanctuary dedicated to Artemis.  The ‘Old Castle’ was built here in Byzantine times.

This small fortified Castel Vecchio was occupied by a Genoese pirate in 1206, when the Byzantine Empire was weak and the Fourth Crusade was in full swing.  This pirate was Enrico Pescatore, an enemy of the Venetians whose high hopes led him to claim Crete for himself briefly and strengthen the fortifications.  He named himself Enrico dell Castello de Candia, and was of course also self-appointed Governor of Candia.   His Cretan endeavour did not last very long, for the Venetians’ naval power surpassed his.  Enrico went on to be hired to protect a German fleet of galleys transporting Emperor Frederick II’s bride, Princess Jolanda of Jerusalem, to him.

The Venetians  used Rethymnon as a strategic base, built a small harbor and stronger fortifications.  In the 16th century, the walls were tested by Turkish invaders and other pirates.  A Calabrian corsair, Giovanni Dionigi Galeni, took the fortress in 1571.  As a child, Giovanni was captured by one of the corsair captains of Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, and served as a slave in a galley.  He joined the corsairs and converted to Islam.  Giovanni was then known by many names, a terror in the Mediterranean.  He even appears in Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha under the name ‘Uchali’.  Apparently, this would have come from his Italian pirate name, Occhiali.  He started operations out of Algiers, where he became a notable follower of the most feared corsair in the Mediterranean, Turgut Reis.  By this time, he was referred  to as Uluj Ali, and was ‘awarded’ the administration of the Aegean island of Samos, and promoted to Beylerbey (Chief Governor) of Alexandria.  The taking of Rethymnon came during an eventful year for him, when he had captured four galleons near Malta, and then faced a mutiny of his janissaries in Algiers, who demanded overdue pay.  In this year, he also participated in the Battle of Lepanto, where he was involved in a campaign to drive the Spanish out of North Africa.  This is probably where the Cervantine reference comes from.  In this context, Uluj Ali probably had enough trouble already and did not quite manage to capture Crete, although he did raze Rethymnon to the ground.

The Venetians learnt a lesson when Uluj Ali attacked, and promptly started works to strengthen the fortifications.  Construction works were ongoing for the next twenty years.  The fortress was then designed to house administrative offices, ammunition storerooms, and a Catholic church which was attended by the Venetian officers and administrators who lived within the walls of the Fortezza.

After the Turkish occupation, the Catholic church was converted into a mosque, and houses were built inside.

The Fortezza was used as a prison at one point, and at another the houses built inside were used as brothels.  The houses inside the fortress were demolished in the 20th century, and the fortress remains, holding the ruins of the armoury, the church which was converted in to a mosque, and the Erofili Theatre, which merits another blog post.

I am sure there are more colourful stories to this place, which is very pleasant to visit and is now used for cultural events.  In fact, it is the home of a Summer Renaissance Festival which has been running since 1987.

If you would like a guided tour of the Fortezza and pretty Rethymno, and need to sort out transfers and accommodation, just contact Karma Travel!  Their expert staff will take care of all your travel needs and you will be able to just focus on enjoying your trip.  They can also provide helpful information about seasonal festivals and special activities to make your holiday more interesting and pleasurable!

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