We spent three delightful days exploring Chania (pronounced hawn-ya) on the northwest coast of Crete.
Our 2nd floor suite was steps from the beach with wall-to-wall windows facing the water. We were tempted to just stay in the big comfortable bed, open all the curtains and enjoy the huge wind storm churning up the surf on the first afternoon we arrived.
However three days is such a short time to learn what is unique and special about any city and as we had been driving all day, we elected to stretch our legs. We headed back out and began our first walk to discover the secrets this seaside city called Chania held in store.
At our host’s recommendation, the following morning we set our alarm for 7am so we could watch the sun rise over the Cretan Sea while in the comfort of our room. It did not disappoint.
This city of only 55,000 residents has a 14th-century Venetian harbor and a striking 16th-century lighthouse to explore. Both the old town and the old Turkish Quarter have some of the narrowest winding streets we have come across. There are plenty of wonderful restaurants serving excellent food and beverages where you can lounge and soak in the ambiance and the amazing harbor views. There is a balanced mix of Cretan, Ottoman and Venetian elements to behold and interesting blend of architecture throughout the city.
An ancient Minoan settlement by the name of Kydonia lies buried beneath Chania. A few excavations have unearthed more Linear B tablets describing the Minoan city. During or slightly after the collapse of the Minoans, the next wave of settlers to Kydonia were the Dorian Greeks, arriving from mainland Greece around 1100 BCE.
In 69 BCE, the Romans conquered Kydonia, followed by the early Christian rule of the Byzantines (395–824 CE). Arabs ruled for the next 100 years then the Byzantine Empire re-took and held the city (961-1204 CE). Following the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the leader of the crusade, the Marquess of Montferrat of Italy was given Crete. He turned around and sold it to the Venetians for 100 silver marks. In 1263 the Genoans of Italy, who were major rivals of the Venetians, seized and held the city until 1285, when the Venetians returned.
It took the Ottomans more than two decades to defeat the Venetians but by 1669 the Venetians had lost the island and the Ottoman rule began. Under the law and influence of the ‘Great Powers’ of Europe, in late 1898 the Ottoman troops were forced to withdraw from Crete, marking the end of 253 years of Ottoman rule.
Crete became a semi-autonomous state and finally began it’s initial move towards independence and reunion with Greece – with Prince George of Greece as the High Commissioner of Crete.
Following the Balkan Wars, in 1913, Crete was officially united with Greece and the Greek flag was raised in the old Venetian harbor. In Chania.
The jewel of the harbor has to be the imposing lighthouse. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Egyptian’ Lighthouse, it was actually built by the Venetians in the 16th century. The Venetians were able to close the port and access to the city from any threat that may arrive by sea by using a massive chain tied to the base of the Egyptian Lighthouse across the water to the Firka Fortress on the opposite side, effectively blocking the entrance.
Nearly 70 feet tall, Chania’s lighthouse is one of the oldest preserved lighthouses in the world.
Maritime Museum of Crete
To the right of the lighthouse lies Firkas Fort built by the Venetians in order to guard the port entrance. Today the excellent Maritime Museum of Crete, created in 1973, is housed at the entrance to the Firka Fortress. Therein lies an incredible collection of naval objects, model ships, a whole section on the Battle of Crete and many more displays highlighting the history of Chania.
The museum houses ancient and modern ships including an outstanding replica of a 3500-year old Minoan ship.
There are naval uniforms, personal possessions of military personnel, photographs, letters, orders, historical paintings, pins, money, a vast collection of sea shells, large and small, nautical instruments, war relics and memorabilia. It is a museum well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.
Mosque Küçük Hasan
The Küçük Hasan Pasha Mosque sits next to the water and is the only preserved mosque remaining in Chania. It was built by the Ottomans in 1645 on top of an earlier site of a Christian temple. The mosque has a large pink dome supported by stone arches and 6 small domes that top a gallery. It is surrounded by tall palm trees and a cemetery where the graves of local Ottoman rulers were laid to rest. The mosque was closed in 1923 and its tall minaret was removed a short time later.
Minaret Ahmet Agha
The Minaret of Ahmet Aga is located on a pedestrian only street lined with restaurants and shops. Its sharpened pencil like shape towers high above the rooftops of the charismatic Splantzia quarter and is only one of two remaining minarets from the Ottoman era in the city.
Church of Agios Nikolaos, Splantzia
The church of Saint Nicholas was also built during the Venetian occupation, around 1320, for the Order of Dominican Monks of Saint Nikolaos. During the Turkish occupation, it was converted into a mosque and an impressive minaret was added.
After the Turks left, in 1928 it was converted back into an Orthodox church and you will find the interesting looking church east of the Kasteli district in the bustling Splantzia Square. Surrounding the square we also admired the beautiful window shops filled with arts and crafts, pottery and home decor shopping treasures.
Trimartiri Cathedral of Chania
Also known as The Presentation of the Virgin Mary Holy Church, this Greek Orthodox cathedral, is located in the old town area of Chania and notably, was built during the Ottoman rule.
Inside the church are icons and paintings by well-known Cretan artists and goldsmiths. The interior of Greek churches, in general, are decorated with incredible ornate furnishings, silver is used extensively and the artwork pieces are painted using bright colors reminding us of the simple lines used during the 14th and early 15th centurie.
This Cathedral has an interesting story/legend:
During the Ottoman Rule, the Cathedral of Chania was turned into a soap factory and inside the soap factory, there was an image of the Virgin Mary with a candle that always remained lit in front of her.
The legend goes that in the mid-19th century, the Virgin Mary appeared, in a vision, to a worker in the factory and told him to leave because this place was her home and not a place for soap manufacturing. The employee left, taking the picture of the Virgin with him. Shortly thereafter, the child of a Pasha, a high ranking Turkish officer, fell into a nearby well. In desperation, the Pasha appealed to the Virgin Mary to help him save his child and promised that in return, he would build a new church for the Christians. The child was saved and the Pasha immediately began to build the new church. By 1860 the church was completed.
Like a number of large cathedrals in Spain, this cathedral has only one tower, making it look somewhat incomplete and lopsided. Regardless, it is beautiful both inside and out. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that the pews were, without a doubt, the most comfortable we have ever seen in any religious structure. Wouldn’t it be great if all churches offers comfortable seats like these?
Nana Mouskouri (1934-), Greek singer, one of the top-selling female singers of all time
John Aniston (1933-), actor and father of American actress Jennifer Aniston
Crete truly has it all – natural vistas, outdoor activities, gorgeous beaches, outstanding olive oil, crafts, arguably the best food in all of Greece, raki, excellent roads, sleepy villages, hidden coves, thousands of years of fascinating history, galleries, museums, architectural sites and the magical city and setting of Chania. It is only the beginning of 2020, but this destination may be hard to top.
Yasou from these Cretans,
Ted and Julia
- The Old Venetian Harbor
- The Town of Chania
- The Virgin Mary Holy Church