Way back in May/June 2022 we were in Crete. Don’s notes from May 29th in Athens: a day where neither one of us was much good for anything. I felt tired and grumpy and Ali wasn’t doing well having had almost no sleep. So we wandered around trying, unsuccessfully, to find sim cards from a street seller. We had coke and ice creams, but nothing helped improve our moods. We finally headed back to our hotel for dinner, but the dining room wasn’t open, it being a Sunday, so we went to an Italian place just around the corner where we ordered pizza, but ran out of time to finish it, so took half of it with us back to the hotel in time to get a taxi to the ferry dock.

It was a sad day all round apparently. It happens. Not every day travelling is unicorns and rainbows.

Finally, at 7pm, we get a taxi to the ferry at Piraeus Port.

I’m worried about our luggage. How am I going to be able to manage it all with Don unable to carry any of it? But the taxi driver takes us right onto the dock next to the ferry! What a relief. On board there’s a bit of lugging luggage up and then back down stairs to the storage area, and over-tipping stewards who help us, but finally we are settled, and I am happy again. An overnight ferry from Athens to Chania, Crete. What could be better? Our cabin is swish; we finish our pizza in the dining room with a beer for Don and ice cream for me. All is well. I find the outside deck and look out over an Athens sunset

happy to be on a boat. A mini cruise! Fun!

We leave Athens at sunset and arrive at the docks in Chania at sunrise.

Once again my concerns about getting transport from the ferry to our apartment while having to deal with the luggage by myself are unfounded. There’s a taxi on the dock that takes us right to the front door.

For a while we’re stumped. We can’t seem to find the lockbox for the key. Minor panic ensues. It’s always a little stressful on travel days. But we persevere and eventually find it attached to a pillar and half hidden behind a parked car. We’re in! And oh what luck; there’s an elevator! It’s small, and old, but much better than lugging the luggage up three flights. The apartment is bright, comfortable, and a little funky. A canary sings on a nearby balcony. We unpack, find the nearest grocery store for basic supplies, and then go exploring. It’s time to coddiwomple, that is to travel in a very purposeful manner towards a vague destination. Isn’t that a great word! I just recently learned it, and plan on using it. A lot. It’s such a perfect description of what we do. Exploring is so mundane. We coddiwomple!

A few days of wandering around Chania, down ancient streets;

down narrow Medieval streets draped with bougainvillea;

over slate-grey flagstone paving;

warmed by walls with the soft patina of ochre or terracotta; and I’m utterly smitten. What a sweet little gem of a town this is.

Because I don’t know any better I pronounce it Chan-EYE-ah. It’s actually pronounced HAN-ya, or more like HUN-ya, and is often spelled Hania.

Everyone has wanted to own Crete. Like Cyprus to the east, just about every European kingdom or empire that ever existed has conquered it. In a similar fashion to Cyprus, for one small island Crete sure has seen a lot of action; for a very long time. The Minoans, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, and Turks have all laid claim to it, and the ancient streets reflect this blend of cultures and eras.

And so there is the Küçük Hasan Pasha mosque constructed after the conquest of Chania by the Ottoman Empire in 1645. As seems to be the habit of conquerors the world over, it was built over the remains of the place of worship of the vanquished culture, in this case a Christian temple. But times change, and in 1939 its minarets were demolished, and it has been used ever since as a museum, a storehouse, a museum again, a visitor centre, and an exhibition hall. I want to see inside but it’s closed.

In contrast, quite close by is the Greek Orthodox Holy Metropolitan Church in Athinagora Square built in the mid 1800’s.

But the real leading lady of Chania is the Venetian port. It looks more Italian than Greek, a reminder that Crete was part of the Republic of Venice for over four centuries, and Chania one of the most important towns of this outpost of the Republic. Despite the crush of tourist restaurants that crowd the water’s edge it’s hard to lose sight of the fact that this beautiful harbour has good bones. Good Venetian bones.

The harbour was built by the Venetians in the 14th century to protect the city from invaders and to facilitate trade in such commodities as salt, grains, spices, silks, brocade, and slaves. For hundreds of years it was an important staging point between Europe and Asia. During the late 1400’s and throughout the 1500’s long narrow structures with high vaulted roofs were built for ship building and repair, a testament to the significance of the port. They originally had wooden doors, and ships could be hauled right inside.

And then there’s contemporary Chania. Having waxed poetic about the beauty of the Venetian port and Medieval streets, I look out the window one day to see this:

a line of bras; so many bras; all pegged out to dry on the balcony opposite. We’re not in the 15th century anymore. Who could possibly need so many bras? And why? Don has his own idea, but then one morning we walk outside right into a street market at our front door and I’m pretty sure this is where they ended up.

If Chania had a sibling then Rethymno would be its little sister. Like Chania I mispronounce it until I know better. It’s RETH-ym-no.

We take a bus to Rethymno, and you see it as soon as you approach the town: La Fortezza, the Venetian fortress, rising on a small hill above the town and impossible to miss,

but the bus deposits us right in the town so we coddiwomple around there first.

The Old Town is one of the best-preserved areas of the Venetian Republic in Greece, where people of the 21st Century live in 16th century buildings,

and where the Center of Byzantine Arts is housed in a building several hundred years old; but probably not as old as the Byzantine era in Crete which ended in the early 13th century.

Wandering the Medieval streets

we eventually arrive at a Venetian gate in the old walls of city,

and the minaret at the end of this street

gives us a hint of what’s to come: the Neratze Mosque from the days of the Ottoman Empire. It was originally a church, then became a mosque, and now is a music conservatory.

Up on the hill we enter the citadel through the formidable East Gate and tunnel.

This huge fortress

was built in the 16th century as a stronghold against Turkish pirates, by 100,000 Cretans on forced labour, and 40,000 pack animals, also no doubt on forced labour. The Turks finally captured it anyway in 1646. Still it withstood them for about 100 years. We wander the vast area, looking into some of the remaining buildings: the Ibraham Han Mosque

and the petite Orthodox Church of Agia Ekaterini.

Looking over the walls are views of the town and the infinite blue of the indefinable junction between the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.

Once again, like Chania, the star of Rethymno is the Venetian port; a small fishing fleet,

Tourist Row restaurants all along one side,

and undeniably good bones.

In 1978 I was part of a group of people who spent four months on an overland expedition in South America. There were 24 of us living in a truck and camping every night. I’ll write about it eventually. Anyway one of the lovely things about visiting Chania was being able, for the first time in 45 years, to reconnect with two of the people from that group. We had dinner together in Taman, a restaurant that serves traditional Cretan dishes and some Turkish specialties. It was a fine evening sadly marred somewhat by the very loud table next to us so we had to shout a bit to be heard. But still, it was wonderful to see them again.

Next post: We were in Chania for five days but only two were devoted to Chania. Apart from the day trip to Rethymno, we also went on a boat trip to Balos and Gramvousa, and spent a day at Elafonisi Beach.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2023.