Even the goats won’t touch it. It presents a beautiful face to the world, especially in the spring, but it is so toxic that someone died from stirring their tea with a twig from it. Others have been poisoned from accidentally inhaling the smoke from burning branches. The powdered wood is used as rat poison. Oleander is not a plant you want to mess with. Apparently it has a lovely scent, but I decided I didn’t really need to get close enough to find out for myself. In Crete it is planted alongside the major roads as a deterrent to wandering goats. It works. We don’t see any goats.

And what a gift! We were in Crete in the late spring of last year, and everywhere we travelled on the island, from Chania to Elafonisi, to Kissamos, to Rethymno, and finally to Heraklion, we see blooming oleander bushes along the way, welcoming us with their luxurious pink and white flowers.

I first noticed the gorse bushes in Croatia any time we travelled throughout the countryside; in Crete they seem even more abundant. Gorse is everywhere, and in full bloom, a bright yellow companion to the oleander. Apparently gorse is tough enough to withstand the oleander’s toxic fortress.

And so on a bright day in early June we travel the 140 kilometres by bus from Chania to Heraklion, once known as Candia, and for nearly five hundred years the capital of this outpost of the Republic of Venice. It is now the capital, and largest urban centre of Crete, and pronounced, and often spelled, Iraklio. Or Iraklion.

I really want to see the Palace of Knossos so we’ve come to Heraklion because Knossos is nearby. Apart from that we have a couple of days in town with no real agenda so as usual we coddiwomple around to see what we can see. We’re staying in a centrally located Airbnb and walk for miles every day. At the top of the list, and the most obvious thing to see, is the Venetian port and castle.

Unlike Chania and Rethymno there’s not much left from the Byzantine era, or of the city the Venetians built, due an earthquake in 1926, and damage during WWII. But there is still the iconic artificial harbour built by the Venetians, and we’re drawn to it day after day.

A long breakwater with a fortress at the end, and a smaller sea wall opposite, curl around and protect a small sheltered bay that in the days of the Republic of Venice was one of the most important trading centres in the Mediterranean and a necessary stop en route to the East.

In the image below you can see the breakwater that connects the town to the fortress. In a huge engineering project the breakwater was created by sinking old ships filled with stone.

The castle is known simply as Koules, koules being the Turkish word for fortress. It was completed in its present form in 1540.

I notice a long low tunnel, off the ramp leading down to the interior, that’s overflowing with cannonballs. I’ve never seen so many. It’s quite the stockpile. I also notice the exquisite views back towards the city. Nice place for sentry duty.

Beyond the fortress there’s a modern breakwater 2.5 kilometres long. We walk almost to the end and discover the murals.

I can’t find any information about them. The images include the Abduction of Europa, Phoenician warships, Neptune, and many varied underwater scenes, a woman whose hair is octopus arms, several mermaids and flying dolphins, a man whose helmet is the head of a lion, a rendition of an ancient mural found on Santorini of a flotilla exploring the Mediterranean in the 1600’s BCE, and much more. It’s one long fascinating wall of street art.

The return journey, nearing sunset, gives us one of the best views of Koules, the symbol of the city.

We don’t really push ourselves in Heraklion – apart from a very early morning start to get to Knossos we have an easy couple of days wandering, then back to our small simple apartment for a rest, a little more flaneuring, then another rest, then looking for a place for dinner. And so it goes.

Out for breakfast one morning Don orders the “full English” and gets the biggest plate of food he’s ever seen: two fried eggs, several slices of bacon, sliced sausage, a pile of chips, a few baby tomatoes, and a mound of toasted bread fingers, and tea. Ali helps me by eating one of the eggs, one rasher of bacon, all of the tomatoes, some of the sausage, and some of the chips. After a rest at the cafe we wander back through the market and then back to the apartment for another rest . . . . . . . we find enough energy to go back to our new favourite ice cream store for another two scoops each – dark chocolate & orange, and passion fruit for me, mango and something else for Ali.

In our wanderings we find a Venetian church and the grand Morosini Fountain, both echoes of the past, some contemporary street art,

the small fishing fleet,

the Venetian Loggia, originally built as a club for the aristocracy and that’s now the town hall for the people,

some streets that take you back in time,

another with a whole row of bright flower pots,

and a restaurant with the best decor ever, elegantly showcasing contemporary Heraklion. It’s called The Home, Ethnic Bistro Bar. I don’t remember the food, other than that we enjoyed it, but I sure remember the inviting colourful ambiance.

The fortress is intriguing (especially the piles of cannon balls, which I’d never seen before), and has great views in all directions, the Venetian harbour is beautiful, and the long wall of street art on the modern breakwater a surprising and engaging discovery, but still, in the end, it’s the people I’m most drawn to photograph.

Maybe it’s because we’re not there in the high season, or maybe Heraklion’s not that big of a draw for tourists,

but we find there are very few, and everywhere we wander there are groups of locals,

the people of the city going about their daily lives,

hanging out at bars and cafe’s,

at restaurants at the end of the work day,

and shopping along the central market street.

One day we sit in a cafe and watch as a man ducks in for a quick coffee, and his kid watches happily from the truck window.

And these men on the market street: I watch two old friends who delight in each other and who obviously haven’t seen each other for a while. They unexpectedly run into each other on the street: a huge joyous loving hug, words I don’t understand but the meaning is plain, and then a happy conversation.




Collectively all these images are like a snapshot of Heraklion: a relaxed and vibrant city with a thriving cafe and restaurant scene; large central spaces cleared of traffic; a small working town that’s contemporary while honouring the past. The murals alone attest to Crete’s long and varied history, and Heraklion’s place in it. The city feels prosperous. And comfortable. We enjoy our brief stay there.

Next post: the Minoan Palace of Knossos – a huge bucket list item for me that didn’t disappoint. Magic!

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.