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!

Elounda

Elounda, Crete, Greece, Karma Travel. creteisparadise.wordpress.com

Spinalonga

Spinalonga, Crete, Greece. Karma Travel. creteisparadise.wordpress.com

I have never read Victoria Hislop’s “The Island”, but my friends are fans of the novel and the TV series it inspired, so when they learnt I was going to Crete, I was told to go to Spinalonga and report what the island was like.

Spinalonga is a small island near Elounda in the east of Crete.  To my friends’ delight, I was able to take pictures of a scenery exactly like that portrayed in the movie, as one proud local informed me that a street has been reconstructed to mirror the scenery of ‘The Island’.  I must say it is not hard to imagine why someone would obsess about this small island and write novels about it.  It is such a fantastic site!

Spinalonga is an artificial island;  the Venetians carved it into an island off the Kolokitha peninsula for military purposes.  They needed a stronghold in this area, and built a fortress which they wanted to be off shore to protect a nearby port.  It was them who named it ‘Spina lungha’, which means ‘long thorn’.   They built fortification upon fortification, first to defend it from pirates, then from the Ottoman Turks.  Their military prowess proved effective in so much as the island remained a Venetian stronghold even after the Ottomans had taken over Crete in 1645.  The Ottomans finally conquered it in 1715.  In the meantime, the fortified island had effectively defended Venetian trade routes and had also become a haven for Christians fleeing persecution by the invaders.   The tables turned in 1866, when the island became a refuge for Ottoman families fearing reprisals by Christians.   The last Turks left the island in 1903.

It was decided that their empty houses could now be used to contain a leper colony -one of the last leper colonies in Europe, which was functional until 1957.   The island then became a slum where outcasts who were suffering from what was then considered an incurable disease were sent to die.  The conditions of lepers improved with time; hospitals were built, and medical staff were sent to care for them.  Then, a cure was found and a leper island was no longer needed, so the island was again vacated.  The last inhabitant left from this rather sad period was an Orthodox priest who stayed behind to comply with the tradition that required a commemoration of a person’s funeral to be held at intervals of 40 days, 6 months, 1 year, 3 years, and finally 5 years.   The priest was able to leave the island in 1962.

The site and its poignant history are so compelling that the Greek Archaeological Service is laboriously trying to maintain the ruins.  A cemetery for lepers still exists and can be visited, and you can wander around ruins of churches and houses, as well as the remains of the ancient Venetian fortifications.

If you would like to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site, contact Karma Travel.  You will need boat tickets and some tips, which they can helpfully provide you with!

Sfakia

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Loutro, kri kri, mountain goat

I spent half a day in Chora Sfakion, and used the time to visit nearby Loutro as well.

The seascapes in this area are stunning. I used to say that my favourite colours were blue and turquoise, but I don’t think I had an idea of the intensity of the hues these colours could have until I was in Crete last week.  What an amazing feast for the eyes, just to look at the Mediterranean glistening in the sunlight!

I had wanted to go to Loutro lured by the promise of Roman ruins and the opportunity to hike for a short distance towards another nearby beach.  I took a ferry from Chora Sfakion and as soon as I descended in Loutro, I walked up a hill.  The signposting, again, was missing, so I was not sure whether I was again looking for the E4 in the right place.  I suppose it becomes a matter of trusting your instinct, given that there will not be a sign, plaque, or arrow to direct you.  There were, indeed, some ruins, both of what seemed a Roman settlement and a Venetian fortress.  I took plenty of pictures.  There were also kri kri (wild goats) and these were so relaxed in my company, that they even posed for pictures!

I then spent about two hours swimming in the sea before taking the ferry back to Chora Sfakion.  Chora Sfakion (Sfakia) is a seaside resort, and has lovely tavernas by the seafront.  I had drinks by the beach in a taverna a little up the hill.  The owner was chatty and very hospitable.  I tried a local speciality, a ‘Sfakian pitta’ which is a pancake filled with soft white cheese and served with honey.  Simple and brilliant!

If you want to organise your travel to this area, ask Karma Travel for advise and buy a tour from them!  It will make your life easier 🙂

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