There are few things as pleasurable as taking a walk around Rethymnon old town (Palia Poli). More than any other of Crete’s historic cities it has managed to retain much of its original Venetian and Turkish heritage.
The town sits midway between the major cities of Heraklion and Chania but maintains its own very individual character. If Heraklion, 50 miles to the east, exhibits the restless metropolitan swagger of a capital city and Chania, 37 miles west, a pride in its distinguished past, Rethymnon displays a unique serenity.
Built by the Venetians as a staging port between its two larger neighbors, its smaller size makes it more intimate and less inhibiting. Although you can wander for hours in the narrow streets and alleyways you will never be far from the wonderful harbor, lined with fish tavernas and cafes where tourists and students from the university alike wile away hours chatting or feeding fish in the crystal clear water.
Retaining most of its architectural integrity, walking the streets reveals much of the story of the town. Fortifications, fountains, domes and minarets all stand testimony to its ancestry. There is archaeological evidence that a small settlement has been on this site since Minoan times.
The town’s name is thought to be derived from the flourishing Mycenean center of Rithymna which was large enough to mint its own coins. For some unexplained reason the town went into decline, although the discovery of both Roman and Byzantine mosaics does reveal that the site remained inhabited.
It was in the early 13th Century, when Crete became a Venetian colony, that the city as we now know it, began to develop. As a center of commerce, Rethymnon had its own council, nobles and a bishop. They built the city walls and the castle, the harbor, the Loggia and many of the churches and houses, which remain today.
With the decline in Venice’s power and influence, the city was captured by the Turks in 1646 and became part of the Ottoman Empire. Minarets and domes were added to former Christian churches, which were transformed into mosques in which the new muslim population could worship. The solid, stone walls of classic Venetian houses were adorned with wooden balconies and the waterfront cafes were built as places for the men to congregate and drink coffee.
The harbor today makes the most of its stunning location, and competition to attract business is fierce among the waiters in the dockside tavernas. Just a short stroll inland to the Platia Petihaki where restaurant tables are scattered around the pavements that surround the beautiful Rimondi Fountain is probably a better bet for a reasonable meal without the hard sell.
The fountain is, needless to say, Venetian as its three lion heads spouting water might indicate. It has been a focal point for locals since it was built as a source of clean water by the rector of the city, A. Rimondi, in 1626. The water runs into three sinks that support four Corinthian columns above which the latin words liberalitatis and fontes (generous and fountain) can be made out.
In the streets and alleyways around the fountain are shops selling handmade jewellery, leather goods, embroidery and lace. Wandering there you catch glimpses of the towering minaret of the Mosque Neratzes. Now a music school, the Turks converted the Christian church of Santa Maria by adding the galleried minaret and three small domes.
That the city has kept so much of its architectural integrity and is in itself a center for cultural and academic pursuits lends much to its air of relaxed confidence. I have visited Rethymnon as often as I have visited Crete itself, its lure being hard to resist if I am on the island.
Author Bio: Richard Clark is a writer and journalist, and is the author of two books about Greece. Both are available in paperback or in eBook format from Amazon and other major retailers.
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