By Saul Schwartz
Crete may be quintessential Greek, but you only have to dig down a little to discover its many foreign influences through the centuries. This makes the island the perfect getaway for any traveller seeking to understand the history and cultures of Europe, while enjoying warm weather and beautiful nature.
You’d like to explore a 350-year-old Mosque after breakfast, have lunch by a Venetian Harbour and then laze by the beach the rest of the afternoon? You’ve come to the right place: Chania!
My wife Fern and I spent four days in Crete, using Chania as our base. With its winding old town full of narrow lanes, its Venetian harbor and Ottoman influences, Chania is quite beautiful. We were enthralled by this historic town with its amazing water views and found locals to be very hospitable.
The weather was very pleasant when we visited in November, with daytime temperatures above 20 degrees celsius. As the high season ends with October, there were few fellow tourists around. Those you are going to meet at this time of year are probably from Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
It is a little more than 100 years (in 1913) since Crete was reunited with Greece after it for centuries had been occupied by Romans, Andalusian Arabs, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottoman Turks. We saw many influences remaining of the era when Venice annexed Crete in the 13th century and the time period from 1645, when Crete was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Today, the population of Crete at around 635.000 is similar to that of Athens. Crete is the largest and most populous of the many Greek islands.
Top Sights in Chania
Originally built in the 16th century, this imposing lighthouse is the jewel at the entrance to the harbour. During the Turkish occupation, the lighthouse was rebuilt in the form of a minaret. Its Venetian base still stands. Portions of the lighthouse are restored.
We walked down a long, somewhat uneven path around the sea wall to reach the lighthouse from the harbour. On the way, we had splendid harbour views and we looked down into the very clear water to see many fish. Upon arrival, you cannot go up to the lighthouse tower, as the lighthouse itself is closed.
Fortifications within the Venetian Harbor
Portions of the defensive walls that once surrounded Chania remain intact. The Venetian walls were built to protect the harbour against the expanding Ottoman Empire. The massive fortifications remain impressive. The best preserved section is the western wall, built in the 16th century. The harbour also includes a restored Venetian Arsenal, called the Great Arsenal.
The charming old town is full of picturesque alleys. The labyrinth winding narrow streets were fun to stroll. The old town is located just above the Venetian Harbour. In this area, there is plenty of Turkish architecture, colourful Venetian buildings and numerous boats.
Right outside our hotel, Casa Delfino, an imposing Venetian townhouse is identified with a plaque. This townhouse was built in the 13th century and became the tallest building in the old city of Chania. During Ottoman rule, the townhouse was used by senior executives of the empire. This building is now a hotel called Porto del Colombo.
The former Mosque of the Janissaries
As far as Turkish and Muslim architecture is concerned, one of the most emblematic sites in the old town is the former Mosque. This building dates back to 1645 when the Turks captured Chania. In 1923, it stopped functioning as a mosque. The building has been renovated and is now used as a space for exhibitions and sales, including crafts and jewellery. It is located on the eastern side of the harbour.
The exterior of the Mosque contains a large dome and four stone arches, each joining at the base with the dome. Seven small domes adorn the roof. There are a few decorative stone structures remaining inside the building which showcase its prior use as a mosque.
Nea Chora Beach
The town beach was clean and not very crowded despite the pleasant weather. This beach was about a ten minute walk from our hotel. The long sandy beach is near a series of taverns. There is a small area to change clothes.
Umbrellas and chairs can be rented from the local restaurants nearby. Swimming is allowed. The beach is public and there is no fee. One day we sat on the beach, another day we did beach yoga. The views from the beach are nice, with black rocks in the very blue water and white seagulls on the sand.
Etz Hayyim Synagogue (The Tree of Life)
The last remaining Jewish synagogue in Crete is located in the old town, several blocks from the waterfront. The hours when the building opens varied from the hours advertised outside of the synagogue. We were able to enter during a Friday night Shabbat hour. Two volunteers, one of whom is Jewish, talked with us about the current usage of the building, which is primarily for holiday services. We were allowed to say several traditional blessings in Hebrew, along with the volunteers, as there was no Friday night Shabbat service. At one time, this area was known as the Jewish quarter.
Within the maze of the old town streets, the building was easily found once we found signage listing the name of the congregation and the Shalom greeting in Hebrew. There are decorative Jewish stars of David on the building’s doors and windows, as well as Hebrew lettering. Inside the building, the main room featured teakwood benches, embroidered cushions, beautiful lights, a wooden ark and colorful cloth textiles. Just behind the sanctuary room, we saw a small graveyard within a courtyard, where the congregation’s four rabbis are buried, a ritual bath and a decorative eternal light. The restored synagogue has a moving memorial board dedicated to the Jews of Chania who were killed by the Nazis.
The history of the building and its Jewish community was very interesting for us. Until 1999, the synagogue was a desecrated house of prayer that remained the sole Jewish monument on Crete after the destruction of the community in World War II. In 1944, the entire Jewish community on Crete was arrested and herded onto a ship which sank, leaving no survivors. This building stood as the remaining monument to the success of the Nazis in destroying 2.300 years of Jewish life on the island. Beginning in 1996, the building was restored and in 1999 it was rededicated. Our volunteer guides estimated that several hundred Jews are scattered throughout Crete today. The name of the congregation which means “tree of life” seems to appropriately address the ability of the Jewish people to continue to live in a location that had been the source of great sadness, especially around 75 years ago.
Monument of the Hand
Just below the old town, the Monument of the Hand sculpture drew our attention. The monument was erected in 1990 on the seafront. The sculpture is a memorial to the victims of the 1966 ferry disaster near Chania. When the ferry sank, around 200 people drowned. The moving sculpture depicts a victim’s hand struggling for life.
The portions of Chania outside of old town include typical chain stores and local businesses. The most magnificent building in New Town is the Agora. The covered municipal market was built around 1909. It is modeled on the covered market of Marseilles. The Agora includes shops with vendors selling vegetables, fish, meat spices and herbs. A series of excellent small eateries are scattered throughout the Agora. Also we saw that you can buy Cretan cheeses, olives and souvenirs. Odd foods such as eels are also available for purchase.
Where to Eat
The harbour’s lively waterfront has many restaurants. There are additional places to eat scattered throughout the streets of old town. In the off season, about one third of the restaurants close, but there are still plenty of options available.
We enjoyed Gallini’s restaurant so much that we ate three dinners there. This restaurant has a stunning view of the Venetian Old Harbour, including the lighthouse and the former mosque. The front and center couch seating allowed for people watching during our meals. The extensive menu primarily features Mediterranean and Greek food. As the main course we twice shared the grilled gilt head bream with olive oil and lemon. Both times the bream were among the tastiest fish we could remember! Once we had the sea bass which was also good. Each night we shared a salad which featured amazingly fresh vegetables. During each meal, the restaurant provided us with a surprise complementary additional item, either as a drink or food item. The service was exceptional and we really enjoyed chatting with the articulate and hospital manager host. The prices were extremely reasonable.
With the Venetian atmosphere, we were in an Italian food mood one evening. Our hotel’s staff told us that Funky’s Pizza, in New Town, was the best pizza in Chania. The slices were inexpensive and the taste was above average. There are few seats, but we were able to eat standing just outside the eatery on a platform.
Where to Stay
This elegant boutique hotel of Casa Delfino is housed in a 17th century Venetian mansion. For six generations, the hotel has been run by the del Fino family, and we had the pleasure of meeting the latest del Fino owner. Upon entry, you enter a pebbled mosaic courtyard with plants and vases, which was a nice oasis to hang out or have a meal. Our two level suite room included a bed on the loft level and an Italian marble bath. A small balcony allowed us to overlook the quaint alleys of old town during our stay. At 145 Euros per night, the price was a good value. There are 24 individually decorated suite rooms in the hotel.
We spent some time on the roof garden and terrace where we experienced amazing views of the old harbour, the sea and the pastel colors of Chania’s old town roofs. The hotel’s extensive breakfast included delicious home-made Cretan treats. Local products included cheeses and olives, organic fruits, as well are more standard fare. The sesame honey bars and home-made granola were both exceptional. We ate in the cozy dining room. The impeccable staff was very accommodating to our specific food requests.
To relax, on our last day, we took advantage of the hotel’s Ottoman-inspired spa. We had couples massages which also included a steam room and a whirlpool. The spa facility was very pleasant and the spa staff was excellent. The spa prices for various treatments were very reasonable.
Ten Final Tips
- A guidebook is helpful for getting around. Lonely Planet Crete was a helpful guide for us to find sites and get oriented.
- The currency is on the Euro. We found prices to be lower than in many areas of Europe.
- Crete is a large island, so for us it made sense in four days to concentrate on the northwest and north-central areas. As a result, we did not get to see the island’s capital Iraklio (also called Heraklion), the town of Rethymnon or other sites further away.
- A rental car was helpful to get us from Chania to Knossos. In peak tourist season, we would have been able to get by without a rental car through a bus tour instead.
- English was spoken mostly everywhere and the signage in English was easy to follow.
- Although it did not hinder our trip, some minor sites are closed in the off season.
- Hours of operation do vary in the off season, so it is worth checking in advance.
- We needed a passport for the rental car and hotel, but our international driving license was not required.
- One advantage of travelling to Chania in the off season is that none of the cruise boats are in the port, with hordes of tourists disembarking.
- The Greek island experience is totally different than a trip to Athens. It is much more relaxed and low key.
Most US travellers arrive in Crete by air from Athens, while visitors from Europe usually have direct flights to Crete. Our flight on Olympic Air from Athens into Chania Airport took less than one hour. The planes were comfortable and the prices were reasonable. The small one terminal airport is about 15 kilometers from Chania with a drive into town only taking 20 minutes.
Today Chania has a population of just over 50.000, being the second largest city in Crete after Heraklion.
- Chania’s official Tourism website
- Crete’s official Tourism website
- Chania on Greece’s official Tourism Website