Heraklion the capital of Crete

the fort of HeraklioHeraklion is the capital city of the County of Heraklion and of Crete itself, and also the commercial, administrative and industrial centre for the whole island. With a population of around 174,000 people is the most populated city on the island and the fourth largest city in the whole of Greece . As such it is a far cry from the traditional Greek island holiday spots. It is a bustling, lively port city and also the financial and administrative centre of Crete. Like any large European capital, is alive with the sound of scooters and motorbikes, car horns and general bustle. Although big, modern and busy it has lots of interesting sights.
Throughout history, Heraklion has always been a busy and important city. It is built on the side of a hill that overlooks the port and developed from the ancient Roman town of the same name, being the port of Knossos. In 824 AD it was occupied by the Saracens and became one of the Mediterranean"s busiest ports. It was during this time of Arab occupation that the impressive fortifications and the first castle were built.

The Arabs named the city, El Khandak (Chandakas), after the moat or ditch (chandaki in Greek), which they dug around the city for protection. Located exactly in the middle of the Mediterranean, the city port n this north west coast of Crete became an important stop off point on international trade routes. The city became part of the Byzantine Empire in 924 and was sold to the Venetians for a thousand pieces of silver in 1204. Under Venetian rule the city changed its name to Handax or Candia and was occupied by families resettled from Venice. This influence of the Italian Renaissance helped the city to flourish as a safe haven for artists and intellectuals. It was at this time that it became the most important political, military, commercial and social centre on the island. Under Venetian rule the fortifications and castle that can be seen today were constructed. These vast fortifications allowed the city to withstand a 21 year siege, the longest siege in history, by the Turks, which the Cretans finally lost with the result that the city became part of the Ottoman Empire, taking again its old name of Heraklion or Megalo Kastro (great castle) to the locals.


the walls Heraklio The harbour entrance is still guarded by the Venetian fortress "Rocca al Mare" (known locally as Koules) was built by the Venetians to protect the port against invasion. the original construction was destroyed in 1303 by an earthquake and the one seen today was constructed between 1523-1540. Inside the castle the rooms were used for storage, prison cells (the castle was used as a prison for Cretan rebels when the Turks seized the city) and guard rooms. It is now a popular art gallery. The remains of the Venetian Arsenal, which are a series of high stone vaults that are built into the wall behind the harbour, are the old shipyards (the Tarsanades) where the galleys used to be built. the Martinengo Bastion, in the south part of the walls is the highest and most important part of the wall. It is the site of the tomb of the Cretan philosopher, poet and writer, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) who, amongst other things, wrote Zorba the Greek. He was buried here against the wishes of the Orthodox church, who opposed his anti-religious writings. A quote from his writing marks his grave. "I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free". the views from this rampart are panoramic. the Historical Museum of Crete has a recreation of his study and library in Antibes, France (where he lived) and also includes photographs, manuscripts and first editions of his books. the same museum also displays two paintings by Domenicos Theotocopoulos (El Greco): "View of Mt Sinai and the Monastery of St Catherine" painted in 1570 and "the Baptism of Christ" painted in 1567.The formidable walls constructed during the Venetian occupation are the main feature of the city and a good way to orient yourself on first arriving in the city is to follow them around the boundary of the city. The walls also offer good lookout places for some of the best views across the city. they were first constructed in the 15th century and then improved and extended during the 16th and 17th centuries. their length is 3km and there are four gates: The Gate of Malus in the port itself; The Gate of St. George; The Gate of Pantocrator and The Gate of Jesus. The Gate of Pantokrator dates back to 1570 and the interior facade there is a bust of Pantokrator with an inscription written in Greek. The Gate of Jesus, or New Gate, is in the south walls and dates to 1587. The interior facade is decorated with triglyphs and metopes.
st titus cathedral heraklionFrom the waterfront it is possible to follow the main thoroughfare in the city, 25 Augustou, named after the date in 1898 when the Turks, in reaction to an English attempt to appoint a Cretan as a Customs official, massacred a large number of Christian residents. Close by is the Cathedral of St. Titus, who was a fellow traveller of St. Paul and is the Patron Saint of Crete. He was martyred in Gorton and his skull is kept in a reliquary inside the church. the church building is Byzantine and was modified by the Venetians in the 16th century. During the Ottoman Empire it was changed into a mosque. In 1856 it was destroyed by an earthquake but was rebuilt in 1872. It became orthodox again in 1926 after some repairs and renovations were completed. The various architectural elements give proof of the history of the building.

the LoggiaIn the Square of St Titus is a rectangular two-storey building, the Loggia. It has been sensitively reconstructed now but during the Venetian period it was the centre of public life for the Venetian gentry, who would gather here to relax. It is now the Town Hall. Close by in Venizelos Square is St. Mark"s Basilica built in 1239 and dedicated to its patron, St. Marcus, Venetians Protector. the original building was destroyed in 1303 by an earthquake and has been restored. It was once the Cathedral of Crete but, like the Cathedral of St. Titus, was converted into a mosque by the Turks. In 1956 it was restored to its original Venetian form. It is a three aisled basilica with a wooden roof. Today, the building is used by the Municipal Art Gallery and houses a permanent exhibition of Byzantine frescoes.

San Marco HeraklioThe Basilica of San Marco was built by the Venetians and is dedicated to their own patron saint St Mark. It stands on Venizelos (Krini) Square and is one of the largest churches in Greece. During the Ottoman Empire it was converted into a mosque and a minaret was added. In 1956 it was restored to its original form and today is used as a literary institute, an exhibition hall and a concert hall.

The Cathedral of Agios Minas is located on St. Catherine Square and is one of the largest cathedrals in Greece. Cross-shaped with four pillars, two impressive bell towers and a magnificent dome it stands next to the charming old church of St Minas.It was built between 1862-1895 and is one of the most impressive as far as size and site are concerned. It has a domed cruciform design and is dedicated to the Patron Saint of Heraklionn. The smaller, older church of St. Minas alongside it has a significant array of wooden icons from the 18th century.

The city boasts many beautiful buildings aside from churches that are a legacy from the Venetians. The Loggia, perhaps, is one of the most elegant Venetian buildings and is now used as the Town Hall. The Vikelaia Library houses a collection of more than 80,000 books which were donated to the Municipality of Heraklion by Dimitrios Vikelas who was a Greek scholar of the late 19th century.

One of the quaintest and most charming parts of the capital is around the Heraklion central market place which runs from Meidani to Kornarou Square. The area is lined with stores, squeezed together, selling fruit and vegetables, cheeses, meat, herbs and spices, souvenirs, cheap clothes and shoes. Near the top of the market, at Karterou Street are the fishmongers. The whole area is well supplied with cafes and tavernas. It is a busy lively place and although it is no longer the place where the city's inhabitants do their daily shopping it is still buzzing with shoppers and visitors. This area has been inhabited as a market place for centuries and if you look closely you can still see the remains of old Heraklion. Look for the Venetian archway inside the Koudournas coffee shop or visit Touli's bakery where you can see a 16th century church that has been enclosed by the buildings.

morozini  fountainThe ornate Venetian Morosini Fountain with its four lions spewing water from their mouths is located in the centre of Heraklion at Eleftheriou Venizelou Square. Locally the square is known as Lions Square. The Square is always bustling and is surrounded by cafes and tavernas. At Kornarou Square are the Turkish sebil and the Bembo fountain. The sebil, a public fountain for quenching your thirst, was built by an eminent Turk, Hatzi Ibrahim Agha, during the Ottoman period. Today it is a very picturesque cafe. Next to the sebil is the wonderful Bembo Fountain, close to the Central Market, dates back to 1588. It is decorated with Venetian coats-of-arms and a headless statue of a male. It is believed that the statue had supernatural powers and, during the Turkish domination, the Turks would paint it every May and religious rituals were held in its honour.
The 17th century Priuli (or Delimarkou) Fountain is just behind the Bodosakeio School close to the Venetian Dermata Gate. It is beautifully decorated with Corinthian type columns and elaborate metopes. There is also a Turkish inscription which refers to the Turkish pasha who managed to get the fountain working again.

Venizelou squarePlateia Venizelou is one of the most popular tourist haunts in the city and is the site of the much photographed Morosini Fountain. It was built in 1628 by the Governor to celebrate his success in bringing water by viaduct from Mount Youchtas to the centre of the city. Locally it is known as the Fountain of the Lions as the water spurts from the moths of four lions. It is further decorated with Nymphs, dolphins and other mythological elements. At the top there was originally a statue of Poseidon with a trident but this was destroyed by the Turks.

Plateia Kornarou (Kornarou Square) is named after Vitsentzos Kornaros, the Cretan composer of the epic poem, Erotokritos, upon which many of the island's traditional folk songs are based.

The church of Agia Ekaterini in (St. Catherine) in the square of the same name. It dates back to the 15th century and throughout the next 200 years continued to flourish. It was the centre of Cretan Renaissance and is where El Greco, amongst others, was educated. It is home to an exhibition of Byzantine Art, including icons by Michael Damaskinos, the mentor of El Greco and the artist behind the Adoration of the Magi.

Finally, a visit to Heraklion should always attempt to take in some of the outstanding museums. The Archaeological Museum in Xanthoulidou Street contains finds from all over Crete and contains one of the biggest collections of Minoan art objects. Also the Historical and Ethnographic Museum in Kalokerinou Street have very fine collections of artefacts of the region, the Traditional Museum and the Museum of Natural History give lots of interesting information about life in Crete throughout the ages.
Read more about places to see around Heraklion

fresco from the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion