Rethymno for families: One of the most beautiful, fascinating days in Crete was when we toured Rethymno with locals. We walked through the city (and out of the city, but that’s another post coming soon), its history and secrets with Hara, a city-dweller, and Yannis who knows and loves telling stories about his island.
One aspect of Crete some visitors often overlook is its history; they are too busy going to the most stunning beaches on the Mediterranean. Because yes, the beaches in Crete are impressive. However, the island is so rich in history and tradition that devoting our days only to the seaside would have felt a loss. We decided to go on a tour called Rethymno Conquered designed by Crete Urban Adventures. Every bit of it was incredible… or as they say, it was really our #BestDayEver!
The Urban Adventure begins…
The morning started early with a visit to one of the most important churches in Rethymno, located immediately outside the old town, the Church of the Four Martyrs. When we arrived, our guide was waiting for us with some pieces of bread for the Holy Communion. He didn’t know but it was a blessing since we hadn’t had that much time for breakfast.
The Church of the Four Martyrs (also Tesseris Martyres) is a must-see in Rethymnon. It’s dedicated to saints Aggelis, Manolis, Georgios and Nikolaos who were martyred in 1824 for not converting to Islam. The four martyrs were Crypto-Christians (i.e. they pretended converted but in reality maintained their Orthodox Christian faith).
The church has three aisles and features impressive frescoes and icons. It’s not such an old construction as it was built in 1975, however, its style, magnificence, and serenity easily remind you of older sanctuaries.
Let’s have a coffee!
Afterwards, we headed for a proper coffee, but it turned out to be a local experience as well. Ours was not a modern bar, Hara introduced us to one of the most deeply rooted traditions throughout Greece, the Kafenion.
The Greek café, the kafenion, is a traditional coffeehouse. But that’s saying the least of it.
In fact, Kafenia are an important piece of Greece’s everyday life, magical places that capture the local flavor of the country and its people, who spend hours over a cup of coffee engaged in friendly conversation.
Kafenia are part of the Greek way of living.
These cafés are normally frequented by men who drink Greek coffee, ouzo or raki, have animated chats with friends or play backgammon (tavli). Even when women are not officially banned from them, they are most often populated by men. We enjoyed a cup of authentic Greek coffee and some koulouri (traditional Greek bread rings) while breathing the most authentic spirit of Crete.
Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing…
Our walk continued at a friendly pace, among interesting conversation about the city. Minutes after, we bumped into another staple of the Greek tradition: We stepped into a tiny shop which wouldn’t normally attract tourists, but being ushered by locals has its advantages. Have you ever heard of worry beads?
Komboloi is something you have probably noticed if you’ve been to Greece. They’re strings of beads than men usually manipulate when they are sitting at a café or even while walking. An instrument to relax or to cope with anxiety. Despite the current secular use, their origin is religious and dates a long way back in time, when monks in Mount Athos made strands of beads by tying knots to say their prayers.
Beads in a Komboloi can be made of amber, wood, and coral. They normally come in odd numbers, have a head of a fixed bead (the “priest”), and a shield dividing the two threads of beads. If you want to learn more about this tradition, the largest collection of komboloi in the Mediterranean is also in Crete, in Chania.
Mosques in town and traces of the Ottoman rule
Walking with locals provides a deep insight into the past of Rethymno. A past that, all over Greece, is marked by endless years of Ottoman domination. Ottoman invasions were a threat on the island during the last years of the Venetian rule.
While the Ottomans indeed invaded Crete in 1645, they only arrived in Rethymno in 1646. By the end of 1648, almost all the island was under Turkish control. After a long series of battles, bloody massacre and struggle, Cretans expelled the Ottoman forces in 1898 and the Cretan Republic declared its independence.
Therefore, today it’s easy to see refined remnants of Venetian architecture, inspired in Italian Renaissance, mixing with Ottoman style. This eclectic face of the city appears on the many buildings and alleys of the old town. Mosques share the landscape with fountains, Venetian lions, and cobble-stoned passages.
The Kara Moussa Pasha mosque got its name after the Turkish commander of the naval campaigns against Rethymnon. It’s located where there used to be the Venetian monastery of Agia Varvara. The courtyard of the mosque has the rests of the minaret, several grave steles, and a mausoleum where the Pasha is probably buried.
We were also lucky to visit a traditional Venetian house. A heart of wood and local limestone provide shade and a faint but pleasant smell of humidity. A small square patio with plants is still in the middle of the courtyard, adding contrast to the heat out on the streets and the quiet, cool atmosphere pervading the house.
The Neratze mosque was, in fact, the Church of Holy Mary in Venetian times. The roof of the building was replaced by three domes and a minaret added in 1890. Now, the building is mainly used for music concerts due to its impressive acoustics.
More traditions: music, ice cream, and rakomelo
Another insight of interest was a stop at a musical instrument shop, there we were able to appreciate the difference between the Minoan Lyra, the Cretan Lyra, the Mandolin and the Bouzouki, as well as see some very old guitars and an Askomandoura (a Greek folk instrument similar to an Irish bagpipe).
Music is a very ancient craft in Greece; it can be traced back in times and related to Pythagoras and his philosophical system of harmony and sequence. According to the philosopher, each of the seven planets produces a particular note related to its distance from the Earth. This is known as Musica Mundana, or Music of the Spheres. Tradition says that the sound produced is so exquisite that our ears are unable to hear it.
A quick stop by the Rimondi fountain refreshed every one of us. We all remembered drinking water here from our previous visit, yet the fun for kids is always like the first time! What we didn’t know and locals told us is that the pinkish building next to it used to be a mosque during the Ottoman rule.
While parents took a break with a small glass of Rakomelo (local raki mixed with honey), Hara took our kids for a refreshing ice cream which put all of us in an excellent mood! (Mom still thanks you, Hara…)
Our last visit that morning was the one I’d been waiting for. A while ago, I came across an article about a very special person. Inside a Venetian house in the old town, Giorgos Hatziparaschos the last traditional phyllo master in town has been making ultra-thin phyllo pastry by hand since the times of the II World War.
Thousands have visited his workshop to buy his well-known handmade phyllo and admire both him and his wife, Mrs. Katerina, at work. His son told us that Mr. Giorgos started working as an apprentice when he was about twelve and went on making phyllo all his life. It’s still possible to see his dexterous hands working the dough over two huge tables that measure 3×4 meters.
His ability captured our children when he tossed the dough in the air giving shape to an enormous air bubble. Then it’s rolled out and stretched over the tables where it’s left to dry. Then, his wife would cover the phyllo for the next phyllo layer.
Against the unstoppable arrival of massive manufacture, Mr. Giorgos and his family have continued the tradition of homemade and handmade values with love and extreme dedication, producing one of the most beloved treasures of Rethymno.
The first part of our day was a blast! The beauty of Rethymno keeps enchanting us every time we visit. But it didn’t stop there..! Another guide, Yorgos, joined us for a visit to the magnificent Moni Arkadi followed by a traditional Cretan lunch in the mountains. We also visited the village of Thronos and learned a few lessons from locals. All this packed with fun activities for the children who enjoyed a daring day baking bread, feeding goats and unlocking a church… I wrote all about this incredible afternoon here.
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