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Rethymno’s Byzantine and Venetian past charms visitors

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October 2011

Having been blown away by the charms of Chania, our first stop in Crete, we continued on to Rethymno, an hour west along the north coast. We walked quite a way toward the sea until we found the lodging we were looking for, a pension we found in the Lonely Planet guide, which we purchased in Chania to make life a bit easier as we continued our Greek-island trek.

The guidbook’s recommended budget room turned out to be better than expected, if a bit hard to find. But as we all know, getting there is half the fun. Called L’Atelier, this small apartment hotel is on the edge of the charming port area. It’s just above a pottery shop, and for 45 euros a night we had a bedroom, kitchen and balcony, where we ate all our meals for the two days we spent in this beach town.

Much like Chania, it too is a former Venetian stronghold, later controlled by other foreign powers, including Turkey.

We walked for a few kilometers up and down the boardwalk looking for a good place to swim and on both days we found chairs and umbrellas for 5 euros for two. Unfortunately, unlike the calm of Chania beaches, the strong waves at the Rethymno beaches made swimming more challenging.

We learned that the sun is very strong in these parts and that one should always take precautions. We returned to our apartment with sunburns and, for Barbara, a heat rash. The lesson: Cover every part of your exposed body if you react negatively to prolonged exposure. Even Barbara’s ear was burning—from too much sun. We had fun choosing our meals in the supermarkets and minimarkets that dot the boardwalk. We feasted on taramosalata, tzatziki, tomatoes, cukes, red peppers, avocado, feta and black olives that had the texture of prunes and were not at all as oily or salty as the ones we get in Canada. For about one euro each for the dips, we ate like royalty on our peaceful balcony with a view of the town, avoiding the waiters hustling for business all along the waterfront and the restaurants all serving the same dishes.

The waterfront is dotted with cafés and restaurants, and they hustle big time. The area is delightful, especially at sunset. Walking among these stone structures, we felt transported centuries in time. But we desisted, after one disappointing and expensive meal, from succumbing to the hard sell.

The city’s Venetian-era citadel, the Fortezza, is among the best-preserved castles on Crete. It is a big part of the charming setting, which tempted us to stay on and continue walking around town by day, and reading on our terrace in the evening. This was the general tenor of our short stay in Rethymno, sinking into the quiet delights of perfect weather, great food, starlit nights and great reading, not to speak of the comfort of being with your beloved far from the stresses of our daily routine back home.

We nevertheless decided to push ahead with our non-existent agenda to Iraklion, which took about 1½ hours on a comfortable air-conditioned bus.

Hotels were not as charming here, at least the ones that fit our 50-euro-a-night budget. We chose the Mirabella, which is 15 minutes from the Old Centre of town, for its air-conditioning and balcony, although the room itself was tiny. We had two cots to sleep on and a sink in the room because the bathroom was no bigger than the small shower and adjoining toilet.

After cooling off (it was 32 degrees Celsius), we took a cab to the palace at Knossos and the ruins there, which were excavated and reconstructed according to the vivid imagination and scholarly values of British anthropologist Sir Arthur Evans.

An hour walking among the ruins in extreme heat was sufficient. We complemented the tour with a visit to the archeological museum in the heart of town, where the major artifacts from the Minoan period are stored. We sat in a breezy outdoor café sipping our café freddos, one with ice cream, and trying desperately to get the WiFi working. We had seen the three north-coast cities of Crete and promised to return on a future trip to sample the charms of the south coast and fabled Libyan sea.

The next day we boarded a Catamaran for Paros, which takes only four hours and costs a farmegen (a fortune): 90 euro each. Yikes! But what delights awaited us there …


Visiting Knossos is a great way to absorb the ancient Minoan culture. Knossos Palace is the legendary site of Theseus fighting the Minotaur, Ariadne and her ball of string, Daedalus the architect and doomed Icarus of the wax wings.

The culture flourished in Crete during the second and third millennia B.C. Knossos was one of its main cities, and it contained its largest palace after the shattering earthquake that marks the beginning of the New Palace period in Greek archaeology around 1700 BC.

We know little of the Minoan culture, compared to later Greek cultures, because much of their language has been lost. Two written languages are associated with Minoan culture: Linear A, first used during the early Minoan period, and Linear B, which doesn’t appear on tablets until about 1450 B.C. Only Linear B has been translated and it has been identified as a form of Greek.

During the Second Palace period, 1700-1450 BC, the Palace of Minos covered nearly 22,000 square meters and contained storage rooms, living quarters, religious areas, and banquet rooms. The structure itself was built of a complex of dressed masonry and clay-packed rubble, and then half-timbered. Columns were many and varied in the Minoan tradition, and the walls were highly decorated with frescoes.

Evans had a marvelous imagination and a tremendous creative fire, and he used his skills and archeological values of the early 20th century to create what you can see today. It is a revealing experience to wander among the ruins and contemplate yet another great civilization that has vanished.



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