The county of Rethymno in Crete is situated between Heraklion and Chania. It is one of the most beautiful regions in Crete, with dominant mountains, long sandy beaches in the north and southern parts of the region, and rich vegetation. This alternation of images creates an ideal setting for moments close to nature and to experience the famous Cretan way of life.
Rethymno is the most mountainous area of Crete and has a large production of olive trees and vegetables. The rural landscapes and the picturesque sceneries call for interesting explorations and excursions amongst nature, and therefore if you have your own transportation, you will have the chance to discover many secret beauties and magical corners of this area.
Rethymno is the smallest of the four Cretan prefectures, but has strong historical memories from the occupation period of the Venetians and the Turks, due to its geographical position, where it was used as a refuge of the various enemy attacks.
The city of Rethymno is divided between the Old and New Town – Palia and Nea Poli. The impressive Venetian fortress – the Fortezza, stands dominant in the city offering a nostalgic trip back to the past and wonderful panoramic views of the sea.
Rethymno, similar to the old town of Chania, has a picturesque port with old buildings of Venetian architecture and structure. The small fishing boats that are scattered in the port give a tranquil and peaceful charm, while all around are many restaurants, traditional taverns, cafes, and bars, creating the ideal setting for one to enjoy a lovely meal, drink or coffee, and admire the wonderful view and soak up the atmosphere.
The Old town of Rethymno still preserves its authentic character, and the historical glimpse is still evident through the narrow alleys and old Venetian mansions with the wooden shaded balconies and the carved doors.
Strolling and exploring the streets in the city will give you the chance to see and admire the old buildings and the little chapels that are found in various places. These make Rethymno a very picturesque setting and full of photo opportunities.
Rethymno has lovely beaches with Panorama and Bali most popular on the north side and within close distance of the city, while the beaches Plakias and Agia Galini in the south of the region are again very popular and extremely beautiful.
The region of Rethymno doesn’t have any archeological sites, but there are many sites of historical interest such as the Ideon Andron at Psiloritis mountain, which according to mythology is the cave where Zeus was raised, when Rhea hid him here, so he wouldn’t be swallowed by his father Cronus.
The various excavations that took place here brought to light evidence that this cave was a sacred and very important place in the Minoan period, while many believe that the cave was also a planetarium – the 1st in history.
Another heroic monument of historical and naturalist interest is the Arkadi Monastery, referred to as a symbol of the revolution of 1821 after it was blown up by the besieged Greeks in order to save themselves from the Turkish slavery.
The region of Rethymno is an ideal destination for holidays and rewarding vacations. It has impressive sites and morphology and therefore is ideal for exploring and touring. The villages are very beautiful and picturesque and the beautiful beaches are equally as charming. The locals are most welcoming and friendly and you will have the chance to sample the unique way of the Cretan life and Philoxenia.
History of Rethymno
Rethymnon has a rich and varied history that spans thousands of years. Findings from caves in the region provide evidence of human habitation that dates back to Neolithic times. Findings from within the town indicate that Rethymnon has been inhabited since the late Minoan Era. During the 3rd and 4th Centuries BC, the autonomous state of Rithymna was of sufficient importance to issue its own coinage.
The Venetian rule saw Rethymnon flourishing as a commercial, artistic and administrative center. The Venetians created a harbor, built extensive fortifications – including the impressive Fortezza which still dominates the town today – and constructed distinctive monuments such as the Rimondi Fountain and the Loggia.
During the Turkish occupation, Rethymnon fell somewhat into decline. However, the town did become an important center for local resistance in Crete’s battle for independence. The Turks also left their mark architecturally, most notably in the modifications they made to Venetian buildings and in the construction of minarets and mosques.
In 1913, Rethymnon, along with the rest of Crete became unified with Greece. During the Second World War local inhabitants played an extremely active role in resisting the Nazi occupation; townspeople and villagers frequently risking their own lives in the process.
In recent decades Rethymnon has continued to grow and prosper – as a center for local industry, tourism and a seat of learning. To find out more about the history of Rethymnon, please select the menu options to the left of this page.
The earliest evidence of human habitation comes from excavations that have been carried out in some of the numerous caves in the region. Findings of particular note that indicate human presence during the Neolithic Period have emerged from work carried out at the caves of Gerani, Melidoni, and S(f)endoni.
The Gerani Cave (7 km West of Rethymnon) was discovered by accident in 1969 by workmen building the new National Highway. Archaeological research led by Ioannis Tzedakis revealed that the site was inhabited during late Neolithic times. Both human and animal remains were found – indicating that the site was used for worship and for burial. Neolithic artifacts uncovered from the site include stone figurines, tools made from stone and bone, stone pottery, jewelry, and spear shafts.
Sfendoni Cave in Zoniana Excavations at the Melidoni Cave (5 km North East of Perama) and the S(f)endoni Cave (7 km West of Anogia) have uncovered evidence of human habitation that dates back to the early Neolithic times.
Some of the findings from caves in the region may be seen on display in the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon.
Evidence of human habitation dating back to the Early Minoan Period (2600-2000 BC) has been uncovered from numerous caves and sites throughout the Rethymnon Prefecture. Key sites of note providing valuable information about life during this era include the S(f)endoni Cave, the settlement of Pyrgi on the site of ancient Eleftherna and the settlements of Hamalevri and Apodoulo.
Patsos CaveFindings from the complex of buildings at Monasteraki (in the Amari valley, 38 km South of Rethymnon), the settlements of Pera Galinous and Stavromenous and the Patsos Cave date back to the Middle-Minoan Period (2000-1600 BC). The settlement at Monasteraki is believed to have been a palace created in approximately 2000 BC and destroyed in 1700 BC, either by earthquake or fire; thus suffering the same fate as the First Palaces of Knossos, Festos, Malia and Zakros.
There are a number of sites in the region indicating the human presence during the Late-Minoan Period (1600-1100 BC). These include the settlement of Zominthos (Anogia), the place of worship at Fantaxospiliara (Prinos) and the cemetery at Armeni (10 km South of Rethymnon). Excavation work carried out in the Mastabas district of Rethymnon indicates that the town itself has also been inhabited since Late Minoan times. Archaeologists have uncovered a hewn grave typical of the period along with tomb furnishings.
Some of the findings from these sites are on display in the Archaeological Museum in Rethymnon.
Modern-day Rethymnon has retained the ancient motif depicting two leaping dolphins as a symbol of the town.
ElefthernaDuring the Hellenistic period (330 – 69 BC) Rithymna’s significance as a city-state apparently started to wane, probably due in part to the emergence of neighboring centers in the region. However, Rithymna still remained important enough to be mentioned by writers of the period. The writer Claudius Aelianos (3rd Century BC) describes the temple of Rokkaia Artemis on Palaiokastro hill, Claudius Prolemos (2nd Century BC) and Plinios (1st Century BC) also describe the town.
The decline that had started during the Hellenistic period continued during the Roman period (69 BC – 395 AD). By the end of the Roman period, Rithymna was a small and insignificant village, being completely superseded by the flourishing centers of Eleftherna, Lappa, Sivritos and Axos.
During the First Byzantine period (395-824), Rethymnon continued to exist as a small village as part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Axos and Eleftherna became the religious centers of the area as Christianity expanded across the island. There is little information about Rethymnon during this time, however, some tombstones from the period have been discovered and are on display in the Rethymnon Archaeological Museum.
The Arabs conquered the island in 824 and ruled until 961. There is little historical evidence about the impact of the Arab rule on the region, however, some Arab coins have been found in the area of the village of Giannoudi (4 km South-East of Rethymnon). It is also believed that it was during this period that the ancient sites of Sybritos and Lappa were destroyed.
Crete was liberated from the Arabs by Nikoforos Foka in 961. Liberation was followed by Crete’s reintegration into the Byzantine Empire. It is during the Second Byzantine Period (961-1204) that a settlement by the harbor was first established. By the time the Venetians first arrived in 1204 this settlement had been fortified, evidence for this comes from the description of Byzantine fortifications in a Venetian document of 1229. However, no physical evidence of the original Byzantine fortifications remains.
In 1204 Byzantium handed over Crete to Boniface of Monferrato of the Fourth Crusade. Boniface of Monferrato then sold Crete to the Venetians for 230 kilos of silver. However, the Venetians were initially slow to establish themselves on the island. In 1206 the Genoese pirate Enrico Pescatore invaded Crete and it was not until 1210 that the Venetians regained control.
It was during the Venetian occupation that Rethymnon re-emerged as a settlement of note. The Venetians constructed impressive fortifications in the town – most notably the Fortezza, built distinctive monuments such as the Rimondi Fountain and the Loggia, and developed the harbor. Rethymnon became an important trading center for the export of wine and oil from the region. This period also marks a time of cultural and artistic Renaissance for the town. Local scholars such as Markos Mousouros, Zacharias Kalliergis, and the Vergikios brothers were internationally revered. Poets such as Hortatzis, Troilus and Marinos Tzane Bounialis made valuable contributions to Cretan literature, and painters such as Emmanuel Lambardos and Emmanuel Bounialis were renowned as exponents of the Cretan School in Renaissance art.
The first 150 years of Venetian rule were turbulent times, marked by several uprisings by local inhabitants against the Venetian conquerors. However, despite local resistance, the Venetians managed to implement a number of administrative changes to the region. In the second administrative division of Crete (14th Century), Rethymnon was made capital of one of the 4 provinces. In 1307 it became the seat of the governor, indicating the growing importance of the town. The port also became more important as a center for international trade due to its direct link with Constantinople.
After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Crete became increasingly vulnerable to raids from the East. In 1538 Khair-ed-Din Barbarossa (pirate/Turkish admiral) attacked the North coast of Crete. This attack brought home the need to fortify Rethymnon. One of the greatest architects of the age – Michele Sanmicheli – was brought to Rethymnon for this purpose. During the period of 1540-1570 fortification work began. Unfortunately, the only remaining part of the original fortifications to be seen today is the Guora Gate in the center of town.
The initial fortifications were unable to withstand the continuing onslaughts from the Turks. In 1571 the pirate Ulutz Ali launched a devastating raid on Rethymnon and the Turkish army burned down half the houses in town. The Venetians responded to this by starting work on the construction of the imposing Fortezza, the first stone being laid in 1573. Over the years, however, the walls of the Fortezza became weakened by successive Turkish raids. In 1646 during the fifth Venetian-Turkish war, the troops of Huseyin Pas besieged the city for 22 days. The local population and Venetian soldiers sought refuge in the Fortezza but were finally forced to negotiate a surrender to the Turks on November 13th.
The period of the Turkish occupation is seen as one of the darkest times in Crete’s history. Rethymnon continued to be an important administrative center under the Turks; however, it was also a hotbed of local resistance. The Turks imposed crippling taxes on the townspeople, re-investing little in the development of the town. Muslims became dominant, and those Christians who resisted conversion to Islam suffered severe repression.
Architecturally, the image of the town changed completely. Many churches were destroyed, with mosques and minarets been erected in their place. The Turks also made modifications to the existing Venetian houses – most notably in the construction of sachnisia, or wooden balconies, projecting from the buildings. The distinctive mix of Venetian and Turkish architecture in the ‘old town’ of Rethymnon is still greatly in evidence today.
During the Turkish occupation, there were numerous uprisings by local inhabitants. One of the first major rebellions, centered in Sfakia, took place in 1770. This rebellion failed, however, it did pave the way for an almost constant series of successive revolutions. By the 19th century, the Turkish occupiers were under serious pressure from local inhabitants, both on Crete and on the Greek mainland. In 1821 the Greek War of Independence broke out. Despite the fierce fighting Crete failed to gain its freedom – instead, the island was ceded by the Turks to the Egyptian Pasha Mehmet Ali (1830-1841). After the Turks regained control of the island in 1841 Cretans were engaged in continual warfare in favor of union with the rest of Greece.
As with previous rebellions, the Great Cretan Revolution (1866-1869) failed to gain freedom for the Cretans. Nevertheless, this uprising drew international attention to the plight of the Cretans. The dramatic culmination to the siege of the Arkadi Monastery (18 km South-East of Rethymnon) in 1866 attracted worldwide sympathy. Several hundred local inhabitants barricaded themselves into ammunition storerooms and then chose to blow themselves up, rather than surrender to the Turks.
The Turkish period of occupation finally ended with the arrival of the Great Powers in 1897. The island was occupied by an international force, with the island being divided into regions controlled by the British, French, Russians and Italians.
In 1897 Russian troops arrived in Rethymnon as part of the settlement of the ‘Great Powers’ which gave autonomy to Crete. In 1898 Prince George arrived at Chania to take office as High Commissioner. During this time preparations began in order to establish Crete as an autonomous state with its own constitution and government. Autonomy brought Rethymnon several benefits, resulting in the revival of economic and intellectual activity within the town. Nevertheless, unification with the rest of Greece remained an ultimate goal for many of the inhabitants.
Elefterias Venizelos – Rethymnon.bizThere were several attempts by Crete to attain unity with Greece. A key protagonist in this respect was Eleftherios Venizelos, Prince George’s Justice Minister and a representative of the Cretan Assembly. As a result of Prince George’s implacable opposition to unification, Eleftherios Venizelos convened a revolutionary assembly in Therisos in 1905, summoning the Cretans to take up arms. Although the rebellion was subsequently crushed, the strength of local support resulted in the resignation of Prince George and the appointment of a new Governor. Despite the appointment of a new Governor, Cretans continued to press for unification with Greece. In 1908 the Cretan assembly unilaterally declared unity with Greece. However, the Greek government, fearful of antagonizing the Great Powers, rejected this declaration. It was not until the outbreak of the first Balkan War in 1912 that Cretan representatives were allowed in the Greek parliament. Crete was formally recognized as part of the Greek state at the end of the Balkan War in 1913 by the Treaty of Bucharest.
After WWI the Greek army landed at Smyrna (now Izmir) in Turkey. This started the Asia Minor War, which ended in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne. Part of the treaty called for the enforced exchange of populations: almost 400,000 Turks living in Greece were moved back to Turkey whilst almost 1.5 million Greeks left Turkey. On Crete, the entire population of 30,000 Turks left the island – leaving their houses to a similar number of incoming Greek refugees.
Hellenic Australian Memorial – During WWII Rethymnon was one of the major theatres of war in the Battle of Crete (1941). After intense fighting the German troops managed to capture the airfield of Maleme (16 km West of Chania), effectively ending the battle. Despite fierce resistance, the German occupying forces managed to settle in Rethymnon, taking control of all aspects of daily life. During the German occupation, Rethymnon became a center for local partisan activity. Many townspeople and villagers risked their lives by hiding and helping allied soldiers who had been stranded on the island after the Battle of Crete. The local monasteries also played an important role in the resistance, in particular, Preveli Monastery on the South coast. Resistance activities resulted in savage reprisals by the occupying forces; in a number of villages the entire male population was massacred by the Germans and buildings were razed to the ground.
After WWII, it took some time for Rethymnon to recover its former prosperity. The first tourists started to arrive in the late ’50s and early ’60s; this industry has continued to grow year on year. Over recent decades Rethymnon’s importance as a commercial and agricultural center has also increased: agricultural products, providing valuable revenue for the region include olives, wine, oranges, and avocados.
Intellectual activity in Rethymnon has continued to develop: in 1973 the University of Crete was established with a campus in Rethymnon; other campuses were built in Heraklion and Chania. In 1998 a completely new campus was built in the village of Gallou, 3 km South-West of Rethymnon. This campus brought together the schools of Philosophy, Education and Social Sciences. The Rethymnon campus is now the main seat of the University of Crete.
Modern-day Rethymnon is a fascinating mix of old and new. It is a thriving intellectual and commercial center, the inhabitants being extremely receptive to all the latest technological advances. Nevertheless, local people retain a deep sense of pride in their history, thus ensuring that Rethymnon’s unique heritage is preserved for generations to come.
As befits the cultural capital of Crete, Rethymnon and its surrounding region offer a wide range of opportunities for those wishing to engage in cultural pursuits. There are many notable archaeological sites in the prefecture, along with monasteries of international renown. In Rethymnon itself, there are several distinctive monuments – some dating back to the Venetian Period – that have been painstakingly restored.
Archaeology, art, and traditional folklore are all represented in Rethymnon’s various museums. The displays in the museums have been thoughtfully arranged and are well curated. Rethymnon also plays host to several festivals throughout the year – some of which are rooted in ancient tradition.
Music of Crete
Music has always been at the heart of the people of Rethymnon. Manolis Stagakis was the father of the modern-day lyre. He built the first one in 1940. Many people have followed him in the art of musical instrument building. The famous lyre player Kostas Mountakis played a very big part in getting international recognition for Cretan music.
There is an active ‘live’ scene for the Traditional Cretan Music, however, it is also acknowledged that there is a place for modern music.
More and more consumers join the movement to buy natural and organic products. Rethymnon offers the opportunity to shop for these products.
How to get to Rethymno
Flights to Rethymno
Many visitors arrive on the island of Crete by plane. The nearest airports to Rethymnon are Chania (± 60 km) and Heraklion (± 80 km). In high season (May-October) there are regular direct charter flights from all over Europe to these airports. Easyjet provides a direct flight from Gatwick and Manchester to Heraklion. In low season and for some long-haul flights, you may find that your international flight terminates in Athens. Should this be the case you can easily arrange a domestic flight from Athens to Crete – either with Olympic Airlines or with Aegean Airlines; both of these companies have online booking facilities.
The inter-city operator KTEL provides frequent regular services between the major towns and villages on Crete (online timetables available in English). Buses between Rethymnon and Heraklion/Chania run on an hourly basis; journey time between Rethymnon and Heraklion is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes, between Rethymnon and Chania approximately 1 hour. The bus station in Rethymnon is to be found at Kefalogiannidon Street (to the West of town, just off the main road to Chania); phone 28310 22785 (office), 28310 22212 (information), 28310 22659 (luggage storage).
In addition to inter-city services provided by KTEL, local bus companies operate frequent shuttle services between outlying suburbs/hotels and Rethymnon centre. Bus tickets for these local services may be purchased from peripteros (kiosks) along the route.
Rent a car or a bike
A great way to explore Crete is to rent a car or rent a bike. Distances are not so big and it’s the most convenient way to see the wonderful, still virgin beaches, visit Cretan villages and taste traditional dishes.
Several ferry companies provide connections to Crete from mainland Greece and the islands. Anek and Minoan Lines provide year-round daily services from Piraeus (Athens) to the main ports of Chania and Heraklion.
Anek provides a direct ferry connection between Rethymnon and Piraeus. The ‘F/B Prevelis’ goes 3 times per week in both directions. This ferry leaves from the industrial harbor (behind the Venetian Harbour). Check their website for the latest information.
Further afield there are several ports on Crete which have ferry connections to the islands and mainland Greece. These include Kastelli/Kissamos in the West, and Agios Nikolaos and Sitia in the East.
The Anek office in Rethymnon is to be found at 250 Arkadiou; phone 28310 29221/55518/26876; fax 28310 55519.
By Car / Taxi
Many European companies offer fly-drive packages to Crete; these companies will generally provide a “meet and greet” service. Major car rental companies are also represented at both Heraklion and Chania airports in the arrivals halls. In Rethymnon itself, there are numerous outlets that provide car rental services.
Taxi services run between both Chania and Heraklion airports and Rethymnon. Recommended fares are displayed in both these airports; however, it is advisable to check the price with the taxi driver before setting out on your journey. In Rethymnon, local taxis may be flagged down on the street or picked up from one of the taxi ranks. The main taxi ranks in Rethymnon are to be found at Platia Iroon (Square of the Unknown Soldier) and Platia 4 Martiron (centre of town, just by the Guora Gate). On July 3rd, 2007 advertised taxi fares from Rethymnon were as shown in the photo.
Useful Telephone Numbers
- Ambulance – 166
- Fire Brigade – 199
- Police – 100
- Hospital – 28310 87100
- Public Busses – 28310 22212
- Hotel Association of Rethymnon – 28310 55873
- Taxi – 28310 25000 / 28310 22316
- Tourist Information (EOT) 28310 56350 / 83127
- Tourist Police – 28310 28156
Health Care Facilities
Rethymnon has a well-equipped hospital with helpful staff. It has a 24hr Accident and Emergency department and also an outpatient clinic that is open during office hours. The hospital is located at G. Triandlidou, phone 28310 87100. Rethymnon also has several private medical practices covering most medical specialties. High-quality dental treatment is available from a host of dental surgeries. Most private medical and dental practitioners speak English and/or German. Details about medical/dental services available in Rethymnon can be found in the local papers and also from pharmacies in Rethymnon. Greek pharmacists are highly trained and are well-qualified to deal with the majority of minor medical complaints. Pharmacies are generally open between 09.00-14.00hrs Monday to Saturday, and between 18.00-20.00hrs on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Pharmacies also operate a rota system for out-of-hours cover. The names and addresses of out-of-hours duty pharmacists are posted on pharmacy doors.
The Tourist Office (EOT) is located on the beach side of S. Venizelou, next to the Marina, in the Delphini Building. Opening hours: 08.00-14.00hrs, Monday to Friday (during high season), phone 28310 83127 / 56350.
The Tourist Police may be found in the same building, turn left when you enter through the main entrance. Phone 28310 28156.
The Tourist Office of the Rethymnon Nomos (Prefecture) is located at 1, Dimokratias Street (Opposite the town hall, past the school play ground). Tel: 28310 25012/25571/25572
By the 16th and 17th century, Rethymnon had become an important artistic and cultural center. Modern-day Rethymnon continues this tradition. There are several annual arts festivals hosted here. Many local people still practice handicrafts such as woodcarving, pottery, and weaving.
Rethymnon also hosts a very active community of painters, sculptors, and musicians.
For some people, having a holiday on a Mediterranean island means spending a lot of time relaxing on the beach and doing little else.
Other people, however, may want to spend their holidays in a more active manner. Crete and Rethymnon, in particular, provides the visitor with plenty of opportunities to engage in active pursuits; ranging from scuba diving, mountain biking, hill walking, bungee jumping, horse riding, paragliding and much, much more!!!
The Archaeological Museum is situated in the building opposite the entrance to the Fortezza. The museum houses findings from all the major archaeological sites in the prefecture, dating from the Neolithic age to the Roman Period.
Tues – Sun: 8.00-17.00hrs
Closed on Mondays
Since 1994 this museum has been housed in a beautiful Venetian mansion located at 30 Vernardou Str. The ground floor contains a library and is sometimes used as a lecture room. The large room upstairs houses the exhibits which are grouped into different sections:
- pottery section
- basket-weaving section
- weaving / embroidery / traditional costume section
- cereal cultivating section
- coppersmith’s workshop section
Tues – Sun: 8.00-17.00hrs
Closed on Mondays
This municipal gallery was founded in 1992 and is housed in a Venetian building in the old part of town. The permanent collection houses work by local artist Lefteris Kanakakis and works by contemporary Greek artists.
The Rethymnon Centre for Contemporary Art organizes exhibitions of local, national and international interest in co-operation with many agencies in Greece and abroad. All events are accompanied by lectures, training programs, speeches, and seminars.
The Mosque of Mastabas will be the home of this new museum in Rethymnon. Under the wings of the Goulandris Natural History Museum, this authentic 9-dome monument is being restored and the surrounding area will be turned into a botanic garden with endemic Cretan plants, trees, and bushes.
The paleontological collection of the Municipality of Rethymnon, which consists of findings from excavations from all over the prefecture, will form the basis of the exhibition.
Visitors will be able to see representations of dwarf Cretan elephants, dwarf hippopotamuses, and polymorphous deer. Information about these animals, the first inhabitants of Crete will also be made available.
The Centre for Cretan Popular Art is a ‘living’ museum. When visiting the Centre, you can watch craftsmen busy at work and talk to them about their art. At the moment there are areas for weaving/embroidery, ceramics, bookbinding, wood turning, and sculptures. Classes can be arranged for all the crafts in the Centre. In the permanent exhibition area on the first floor, the visitor sees the result of their labor. In principle, all the exhibits are for sale.
The Centre for Cretan Popular Art was established in Rethymnon in June 2000 with the ambition to support by any means (i.e. by the creation of laboratories, training and further education of craftsmen and tradesmen, promotion through the internet, permanent showroom, sales shop, etc.) our local folklore art. The diversity of forms and a great variety of handicrafts of this tradition give evidence of high aesthetic value and special beauty which has survived throughout time.
The achievement of this ambition will be sustained with the cooperation of various state and private organizations which have common fields of occupation with the Centre concerning mainly joint action and activation of producers of Folk Artworks for the benefit of whom the Centre was created.
The Centre is located at:
15-17 Kritovoulidou Str
Tel: 28310 51501, 29362 / Fax: 28310 29947
Mon – Fri: 9.00 -14.00hrs
Closed on Sat-Sun
Monasteries in the Rethymno Region
Located on a plateau at an altitude of 500m, 18km South-East of Rethymnon, the imposing monastery of Arkadi has been a symbol of freedom in Crete for centuries. The earliest written evidence dates the monastery to the 14th century, but it is believed that on the same grounds there has been a monastery since the 5th century AD. Towards the end of the 16th-century restoration and expansion, work was carried out. The monastery church dates from this period and is dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Saviour and to the Saints Constantine and Helen.
The monastery gained international fame during the Cretan revolution against the Turks in 1866-1869. Finding themselves under siege from the occupying forces, local inhabitants barricaded themselves into ammunition storerooms and then chose to blow them up, rather than surrendering to the Turks – resulting in hundreds of deaths. A memorial ossuary is housed in the octagonal building just outside the front gate.
Within the monastery grounds, there is an interesting museum housing the sacred banner of the Arkadi tragedy, post-Byzantine icons, weapons from the revolutionary era, vestments of great artistic and historical importance and personal items belonging to the legendary Abbot Gabriel.
The anniversary of the Arkadi tragedy is marked every year and is celebrated as a public holiday on Crete.
This monastery is situated on a hill above Bali (approximately 37km east of Rethymnon). It is sometimes referred to as the monastery of Atalis, which was the name given to the village of Bali by the Venetians. An inscription on the main gate dates the monastery back to 1635; however, this does not preclude the existence of an earlier monastery on this site. The monastery retains several distinct examples of Renaissance architecture.
Partly due to its geographical position overlooking the Bay of Bali, the monastery played an important role during the Cretan uprising of 1821. Local monks were active in the struggle against the Turkish occupiers, and the monastery suffered considerable damage as a result of bombardment by the Turkish navy. For many years the monastery lay deserted. In 1983, after careful restoration work had been carried out the monastery became functional once more.
Opening hours: every day, except Friday, from 09.00-12.00hrs and 18.00-20.00hrs.
The nunnery of Agia Irini is located a few kilometers south of Rethymnon, just outside the village of Roussospiti. This nunnery appears to date from the 14th century. It flourished during the Venetian period and continued to exist up until the Turkish occupation of the island. At some point during Turkish rule, the nunnery fell into disuse and remained abandoned until 1989 – when restoration work gave it a new lease of life. The currently resident nuns have made it their mission to preserve and maintain traditional handicrafts of the region – in particular, weaving and embroidery. The museum in the nunnery grounds houses an impressive display of needlework produced by the nuns.
The monastery of the Prophet Ilias is located just outside the village of Roustika (approximately 17km south-west of Rethymnon). According to inscriptions on two bells on the site, work started on the existing monastery in 1637. However, when the Turks conquered the island in 1646 work on the monastery was halted. Construction resumed in 1667. As with other monasteries in the region, the monastery of Prophet Ilias played an important role as a center of resistance during Turkish rule. The monastery thrived until 1821 when it was destroyed by the Turks. It was rebuilt in 1831 but was once again destroyed by the Turks in 1866.
The monastery of Arsani is located approximately 12km east of Rethymnon, along the road from Stavromenos to Loutro. The monastery is believed to have been founded by a monk called Arsenios during the period of Venetian occupation and the earliest written reference to the monastery dates back to 1601. However, the current buildings bear little resemblance to the 16th-century monastery. In 1888 the central church of Agios Giorgos was constructed on top of the remains of the earlier buildings. The church was restored in 1970, and in 1989 the nave was decorated with frescoes. The monastery has a museum, containing an excellent collection of icons from churches of the Prefecture of Rethymnon – many of which belong to the style of the Cretan School.
Preveli monastery is located on the south coast of Crete, near the village of Lefkogia (approximately 37km south of Rethymnon). The site actually consists of two monasteries, some 3km apart: the ‘Kato’ or ‘lower’ monastery, and the ‘Piso’ or ‘back’ monastery.
Kato Preveli was founded during the Venetian occupation, probably by a feudal lord known as Prevelis. An inscription on a bell on the site dates the monastery to 1594; however, it is likely that the monastery was built on the remains of a Byzantine monastery dating back to the late 10th century or early 11th century. Kato Preveli was destroyed by the Turks in 1821 and remains abandoned to this day.
Piso Preveli is a complex of buildings that includes abbot’s quarters, cells, refectories, a bakery, a library, and a museum. A magnificent two-aisled church, dedicated to St. John the Devine and the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, dominates the center of the complex. Piso Preveli remains a fully functional monastery which can be visited by the public.
Preveli, along with other monasteries such as Arkadi, occupied a vital role in Crete’s struggle for independence from the Turks. During the Cretan Revolution of 1866, Preveli protected many partisans from the occupying forces – thus incurring the wrath of the Turks who destroyed Piso Preveli in 1867. Piso Preveli was completely rebuilt in 1897.
Monastery of Preveli – Rethymnon (Rethymno), CreteDuring WWII Preveli became a centre of resistance against the Nazis. The monastery sheltered Allied soldiers stranded on the island after the Battle of Crete. – frequently disguising them as monks – and helped to organise their escape off the island by boat. It is partly due to the role that Preveli played during the WWII that the monastery has attained international status as a symbol of freedom and courage.
Monuments in Rethymnon
The Guora Gate is the only remaining part of the Venetian fortifications that were constructed between 1540 and 1570. The gate stands at the Square of the Four Martyrs and leads to Ethniki Antistaseon or ‘Market Street’. During the Venetian Period, the gate was the main entrance to the town, forming part of a fortified wall which stretched from the beach at Plateia Iroon in the East to Plateia Vardinoyianni in the West and then on to the Fortezza.
The Church of St. Francis is located halfway down Ethniki Antistaseos, as one walks into the old town from the Guora Gate. The church is one of the most important examples of Renaissance architecture in Rethymnon. The church originally belonged to a Franciscan monastery. The church is a single-aisled wooden-roofed basilica. The ground floor windows and the main doorway on the North side appear to be of a later date than the rest of the building. The doorway is of particular architectural importance due to its elaborate decorations. The Church of St. Francis is currently undergoing extensive restoration work and is not open to the public.
The magnificent Fortezza which dominates the town is said to be one of the largest Venetian castles ever built. Building work on the Fortezza started in 1573 in response to the ever-increasing number of raids by Turkish pirates. After many modifications, work on the fortress was finally completed in 1590. The total length of the walls is about 1300m and there are four bastions, three on the South side and one on the East side. The main entrance gate is at the East side and there are two other gates, one at the West side and one at the North side which could only be accessed by sea. Over the years the walls of the Fortezza became weakened by successive Turkish attacks. In 1646 during the fifth Venetian-Turkish war, the troops of Huseyin Pas besieged the city for 22 days. The local population and Venetian soldiers sought refuge in the Fortezza but were finally forced to negotiate a surrender to the Turks on November 13th.
Fortezza Rethymnon (Rethymno) – West View
The Venetians constructed a new cathedral for Rethymnon – dedicated to St. Nicholas – within the Fortezza grounds. During the Turkish occupation, the cathedral was destroyed and a mosque built in its place. In recent years the mosque has undergone extensive restoration work and visitors may now admire the fabulous dome in all its glory. The juxtaposition of the mosque within the grounds of a Venetian castle is one of the features of the site that makes the Fortezza so distinctive as a monument. The Fortezza also houses several impressive remains from the Venetian era. These include the remains of guardhouses, barracks, arsenals and water cisterns.
It used to be part of an Augustinian friary. From the original building only the East and the Northside survived. The elaborate entrance on the North side gives one an impression of the building’s original splendor.
During the Turkish occupation, the roof was replaced by three small domes. In 1890 a minaret was added, based on the design of local engineer Giorgos Daskalakis. The minaret is currently undergoing restoration work.
The mosque is now mainly used for lectures, concerts and theatre performances.
The Rimondi Fountain is located at the North End of Petychaki square, in the center of the old town of Rethymnon. During the Venetian Period, many towns on Crete suffered severe water shortages. For most practical needs residents counteracted this problem by collecting rainwater in cisterns or by digging wells. However, drinking water for the inhabitants was supplied by public fountains.
These basins were used as troughs for animals to drink from. The water runs from spouts that are in the form of lions’ heads. There are three recesses in the fountain; the central recess is of particular interest as it has a semi-circular alcove displaying the crown of Rimondi. After Rethymnon fell to the Turks in 1646, the fountain was walled in and domed over for a time; however, the later Turkish additions either fell into decay or were destroyed by local inhabitants.
Throughout the ages, the harbor in Rethymnon has posed considerable difficulties for marine engineers. The natural harbor has a narrow basin and consequently a tendency to silt up quickly. In 1582 the Venetians started work to expand and fortify the existing harbor. The seabed was frequently dredged and a harbor wall was built on the North East side. Problems continued, however, and for a while, engineers entertained the idea of moving the harbor further west, closer to the Fortezza. The projected cost of this project, though, was too much of a deterrent to put this idea into practice.
The lighthouse dates to early Turkish times, but several repairs in the 19th century have altered some of the original features.
Most of the buildings in the harbor were also built during the Turkish period; although it is possible that some of the vaulted ground floor areas of the buildings might initially have been used as Venetian boat sheds.
The Venetian Loggia in Rethymnon was built in the mid-16th century and is located on the corner of Arkadiou street and Paleologou street. The building has a square layout with three vaulted walls (the south wall of the Loggia is not vaulted). The vaulted walls consist of three semi-circular arches, the central arch in each wall functioning as an entrance to the building. Originally, the building was open to the air; however, at a later stage, a timber roof was constructed. Restoration work to the Loggia was carried out in the mid-1990s and since then the building has functioned as the Archaeological Museum shop.
Archaeological Sites in the Rethymnon Area
The Late Minoan cemetery of Armeni is situated between the villages of Somatas and Armeni, approximately 10 km South of Rethymnon. Excavation started in 1969 and to date, more than 200 tombs have been discovered. These tombs are spread out over an area of more than 3 hectares. The vaulted tombs were hewn out of rock and many were used as family tombs, containing multiple burials. Numerous skeletons have been found on the site, providing researchers with a wealth of information regarding people’s physical appearance and state of health during this period. The Armeni cemetery lay undisturbed for centuries, escaping the attention of grave robbers and looters. As a result, archaeologists have been able to uncover an impressive collection of tomb furnishings and artifacts from the site. These include pottery, bronze vessels, tools, weapons, and jewelry. The more important findings are on display in the Archaeological museums of Rethymnon and Heraklion. The location of the Minoan cemetery at Armeni continues to provide researchers with a mystery that has yet to be solved – as up until now archaeologists have failed to uncover evidence of a corresponding settlement to account for the presence of such a large necropolis.
Lappa, near current day Argiroupouli was one of the most important towns in Crete during the Roman period, issuing its own currency. From the coins that have been discovered on the site, it is clear that Lappa, although inland, maintained close links with the ports of Hydramia on the North coast and Phoenix on the South coast.
In 68BC Lappa was destroyed by the Romans, but during the civil war between Octavius and Antony, the people of Lappa cleverly chose to side with the victor, Octavius, who allowed them to rebuild their city. Most of the remains that have been discovered on the site date back to this period.
Key findings that have been uncovered at Lappa include Roman baths and an aqueduct to the South-East of the village. Statues of Aphrodite, Pan and Hera have also been discovered as well as busts of several Gods, the decrees passed by the city, vessels and numerous coins. Many of the items found at Lappa are on display at the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon.
Whilst it is during the Roman period that Lappa rose to prominence there is also evidence of human life during the Hellenistic period in this region. One of the caves along the road to Zouridi was used as a burial place during this time and the remains of some adults and children have been found.
Monasteraki is a village in the Amari valley along the scenic road that connects Rethymnon with the Messara plain in the South of Crete. Excavations at the site have unearthed the remains of a complex of buildings dating back to 2000 BC (Middle-Minoan Period). The complex of buildings includes several storerooms, workshops, and archive rooms. Several important artifacts have been recovered from the site; these include storage jars, Kamares ware vessels, and earthenware stamps. It is generally believed that this site was a Minoan palace.
The site was destroyed during a major earthquake or fire in approximately 1700BC. This corresponds to the fate suffered by the First Palaces of Knossos, Festos, Malia, and Zakros. The area remained abandoned up until the Hellenistic period when part of the hill was re-settled.
The ancient city of Sybritos is located at Thronos in the Amari valley. Excavation at lower levels of the site has revealed that the area was probably first settled during the Late Minoan period. Archaeologists have uncovered numerous hewn tombs that are typical of this period.
At some later stage, the settlement was moved uphill to Kefala Hill. The transfer of location gave the inhabitants a complete view of the Amari valley and allowed the city to control the road linking North and South Crete. The city reached the height of its prominence during the Roman times when it minted its own currency. The coins, some of which are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon, depict the figures of Gods such as Dionysus, Zeus, and Hermes.
Key findings that have been uncovered from the site include a sanctuary – probably dedicated to Dionysus, a temple and a cemetery. In the village of Thronos itself, in the Church of Our Lady, a mosaic floor dating to Roman times remains partially preserved.
Eleftherna was one of the most important cities of ancient Crete. It is not certain when it was established, but recent findings link it to the Minoan period. The ancient city stood on a hill in the foothills of Mount Psiloritis. Key findings have been discovered in three areas of the hill.
At Orthi Petra (West side of the hill) archaeologists have uncovered a necropolis dating back to the Geometric Period, along with Roman buildings and streets built on top of earlier constructions.
At Pyrgi (on the summit of the hill) remains from the Roman and Early Christian Periods have been discovered.
On the East side of the hill, near the modern village of Eleftherna, researchers have uncovered a settlement with remains spanning all stages from Pre-historic to Early Christian eras. Some of the more important remains include Hellenistic walls, Roman buildings and baths, and an early Christian basilica. The site is still being excavated by the Department of Archaeology and History of Art at the University of Crete.
Axos, one of the most important cities of ancient Crete, has been inhabited since Late Minoan times.
Archaeologists have uncovered many parts of the ancient city, including the temple of Aphrodite, tombs, and artifacts. The walls of the original Acropolis are still visible on the summit of the hill today.
Some of the more important relics recovered from the site include stone vessels, figurines depicting a naked female body – believed to be the Goddess of Fertility, and a large number of coins. Approximately 40 types of coins show the heads of Apollo or Zeus, Gods who were worshipped in ancient Oaxos.
Festivals in Rethymnon
In the winter time, Rethymnon plays host to the grandest carnival celebrations in Crete. During the three week period leading up to the start of Lent, several events are organized. These include treasure hunts for children and adults and fancy dress parties hosted by the different carnival teams. The festivities culminate with a grand parade through the main streets of Rethymnon on Shrove Sunday. This year, more than 8000 people participated in the parade and the whole of Rethymnon became one giant street party.
Shrove Monday (Clean Monday) is traditionally a day for kite-flying, and this custom is practiced throughout the region, resulting in many colorful aerial displays. In addition to kite-flying, many villages organize their own unique festivities on this day. These festivities are accompanied by plenty of wine, music, and dancing. Everyone, be they visitor or local is invited to participate in the celebrations.
Every July for a 10-12 day period the Travelling Club of Rethymnon and the Municipality of Rethymnon organizes a wine festival in the municipal park. The festival has a diverse program of entertainment, including Cretan and Greek traditional music and dancing. A choice of several Cretan wines, supplied in big barrels, is on offer at various strategic locations throughout the park. For a small entrance fee and the purchase of a jug and/or glass, one can sample as much wine as one likes – for free! As the Wine festival takes place at the height of the tourist season the celebrations frequently turn into a wonderful multi-cultural fiesta.
It is generally accepted that Rethymnon had a unique position during the Renaissance period; hence a ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance Festival, one could say.
Everybody is invited to participate in a cultural dialogue between the past and the present, as well as between Northern European, Balkan and Mediterranean people – with the theme of our common historical and culture, past and present. In this dialogue nobody is just a spectator – everybody is to take part and be creative.