My Favorite Neighborhoods in Chania: Splantzia
Not long ago I wrote a list of the places to visit in Chania. As time goes by, and the more I walk around the city, the better I get to like it. Truth is that the second city of Crete is easy to love. All its stories, myths and facts make it a place of undoubted charm. Wandering around every day allows me to discover secret gardens, monastery yards and shady squares. A collection of meeting places, each with its local rites and traditions. Among all neighborhoods of Chania, colorful Splantzia comes first. Splantzia breathes an authentic Chaniotic atmosphere made of tranquil corners, old-fashioned kafenia, and a distinctive suburban flair, all of it very hard to resist.
Colorful Splantzia: A bit about it
Today, everything seems to take place along the busy Halidon street in Chania; yet, it was Splantzia the true beating heart in the past. Locals would gather in cafés and shops, or meet weekly at the imposing Church of Agios Nikolaos in the current Plateia 1821, still called Splantzia by everyone.
Silent witness of the Turkish occupation, in 1821 the square saw the hanging of the bishop of Kissamos Melchisedek on the plane tree still standing there.
The district flourished during the beginning of the XIX century, with the arrival of hundreds of families from Asia Minor, something that neighbors still recall with recognition and pride. Yet, Splantzia also underwent a tremendous devastation as a result of the Nazi bombarding of the city, in May 1941. Time went by, the quarter recovered, and every bit of history has been embroidered on this colorful arras still known as Splantzia.
How I walk around Splantzia
I have no perfect recipe to walk around Chania, I’m still finding my way. Still, I think I’ll never come up with the ideal itinerary because it has a lot to do with my daily mood. When I want to feel like a tourist, I choose the picturesque Venetian district or the old harbour.
Instead, if I want a more intimate, indigenous atmosphere, I choose the less busy extreme of the New Marina, I walk down Miaouli street, and pick one of the tiny alleys (e.g.: Greasimou) going uptown. Then, I walk until I see the magnificent skies of Splantzia, adorned with both a minaret and a tower bell inside the same church. I sit at my favorite café for a round of meze and end the day with a stroll along Maxaradika, the street of the knives.
Agios Nikolaos, a church with a minaret
The focal area is Plateia 1821, at one end of the square, a view that some celebrate as a symbol of two religions living in harmony. However, I rather respect the local past and see it for what it is: A minaret imposed to a church during the Ottoman occupation.
Agios Nikolaos is part of the main church of a former Dominican monastery, dating back to 1320. Here, both the old tower bell and the wooden roof have been replaced in modern times. During the Ottoman occupation, the Turkish turned the monastery into a mosque known as Hunkar Camii. The minaret with two balconies also dates back to the times of the Ottoman rule. Agios Nikolaos has been operating as a Greek Orthodox Church since 1919.
The church of San Rocco
At the opposite end of Splantzia, the former Catholic Church of San Rocco dates back to the early 1600. It’s dedicated to the saint that offered protection against the Plague (different sources imply the disease spread in Chania at those times. Other suggest that the epidemic disease was part of a strategic tactic of the Ottomans). The period of the Ottoman rule saw the small chapel converted into a military guardhouse.
This single-aisle vaulted church now hosts art exhibitions. I’m always impressed by its door and by the rose window over the main entrance. Along the entire length of the southern side, an inscription in Latin reads “Dedicated to the most good and greatest God and Holy Rocco, 1630“).
To Kafenio is not really the original name of this historic bar, but it’s the name on top of the entrance, and that’s also how I call it. Here I love to spend early afternoons under the shadow of the leafy trees. It’s also the place where I take my friends when they visit. Or where I eat with my family in summer nights. Evenings here are made of cheerful conversation, authentic local food and generous shots of raki.
I’ve spent hours in this café since I moved to Chania. And after several months, they now know me as Gabi, and always serve me with the authentic Cretan hospitality. Here it’s easy to experience the traditions of Chania, well away from the touristic quarters. Oh… and yes, if coming at night, either book in advance or be ready to wait. Food is so fresh and tasty, and prices so convenient, that To Kafenio is always packed.
Both Nikos, the current owner, and his father, Kyrios Adonis, are always open to share memories and stories of Splantzia and the café.
To Kafenio has been managed by Nikos for the last 22 years, but it was not always that way…
A past of glory… and a present of fame
In the past, the café belonged to Nikos’ father, and it was not a bar. He used to sell cloths mostly imported from Asia. And it was such a convenient retailer that even priests would buy from him for their vestments. Kyrios Adonis, who is now 91 years old, kept his shop decorated with vibrant colors against a black background to highlight the goods. Women from every corner of Crete would shop there, his prices were convenient and the quality excellent. He was one of the few selling special cloths for Easter and Christmas celebrations, a novelty back in time.
When Kyrios Adonis retired, his son, Nikos took over, but with different plans. He converted the place into a kafenio, and nobody in the family regrets it. The new business proved a complete success. To Kafenio is known to locals as Bourbos, wich is short for Nikos’ last name.
Mr. Adonis recalls many changes in Splantzia during the decades, and in spite of its old-fashioned atmosphere, little remains of its glorious past. A past enhanced even more by the ideas that immigrants from Minor Asia brought with them in the 1920s. Maybe the same thing happened to his shop, once a refugee for crafty housewives, now a corner for bohemian characters, as well as solitary and alternative people.
At To Kafenio try: Cuttlefish stuffed with myzithra cheese or octopus cooked in wine; their traditional fava, or some perfect stuffed vine leaves (dolmades).
And kids…? Kids love their meatballs, sausages, and ice cream.
Tiny Agia Eirini
Once I’m done with my mezes, I cross the street. Here I am walking the alleys belonging to the Turkish quarter, beautiful restaurants with Ottoman flavors, chairs on the streets, flowerpots, and Agia Eirini.
This unique underground chapel dates back to the 13th Century. The Holy Temple of Agia Eirini is right in the center of the Turkish district of Splantzia, in Rouga Square, and surrounded by a labyrinth of narrow streets full of lively colors and austere Ottoman constructions.
In the area, I sometimes walk past The Well of the Turk, one of the best-known restaurants in town, and get lost in the maze that ends in Maxaradika, on Sifakia street. Colorful bougainvillea, fragrant pots with basil and lavender, and the occasional Cretan cat add a touch of romance to the place. Old ladies sit at their front doors while kids play and laugh under old-fashioned street lamps.
I slow down my pace as soon as I reach The Traveller’s Corner. Nothing is really special about this angle… or everything is. It’s certainly a sight that won’t go unnoticed.
Considered the Bohemian neighborhood of Chania, interesting bookstores couldn’t be missing in Splantzia. Less than 100 meters away from the square, Tο μικρό καράβι (The Small Boat) is a boutique bookshop that mostly focuses on new editions. Here, an inviting sofa offers a pleasant angle to discover new readings.
Names of prestigious international authors decorate walls and windows attracting the curiosity of those passing by. A must for any bookworm. The bookstore also sells books dedicated to the history and the geography of Chania, local travel guides and very unique photography books.
Along the Street of the Knives (which I couldn’t place in a district other than Splantzia, please read on), there is a new place, Φοβ (from the French “fauve” – wild beast). A new Coffee Bookshop where to buy great literature, but also books about Philosophy and Art. There’s a great collection og bilingual editions of Greek authors, and some of the biggest international writers too (I couldn’t hide my surprise when I found books by the Argentine Ernesto Sábato translated into Greek!).
This tiny corner is bound to become my favorite refugee for winter. I plan to visit with my laptop, order a cup of hot chocolate and tell you the latest news in town. An enthusiastic, young owner, made all his way from Thessaloniki with a bag full of interesting ideas to promote letters and visual arts. And I am sure he will turn Φοβ into the place to be of Chania. Among the upcoming events there are book presentations, exhibitions and a range of interesting proposals. My suggestion: Don’t miss Φοβ, even if for just a short visit. It’s on Sifaka street 26 (Old Town).
Maxaradika, in or out?
While doing reasearch and talking with locals, I discovered many refuse to place Maxaradika within Splantzia… but at the same time, many others do not conceive Splantzia without Maxaradika… It was not easier to understand the actual limits of the neighborhood. Specially when Google maps places Splantzia square… out of what they define as Splantzia!
So, as disagreement remains, I decided I might as well design my own Splantzia. Easy… for me it’s not just a district, but a local state of mind. I believe that the most colorful street of Chania must be part of this alternative area. And that’s Maxaradika, the street of the knives.
However, Maxaradika is more than knives. Different bars that alternate on the street add a personal touch, quite unique to this road. Maybe the most beautiful one is Plaka. Easy to spot thanks to the vivid decorations on its walls and the music. Specialized in beers, I always have a glass of Chios Smoked Robust Porter, one of the many Greek labels that’s changing the vibrant scenario of Greek micro breweries. They also propose creative salads and meat, all very spicy. Plaka is on Sifaka N°8 and you can read more about them here.
Miden Agan, wine tasting downtown Chania
Less than a 100 meters away, there’s another place that I like to visit from time to time and I want to tell you why. I’ve developed a taste for Cretan wines. A taste that has turned into a passion. However, living in the city might pose a problem as far as distances is concerned. We do have some great wineries in the area, yet none of them in town. Besides, many of the best wines of Crete don’t even come from Chania, but from Heraklion, at least two hours away… Not very convenient when in the mood for a glass.
Well, no worries, Miden Agan (Mηδέν άγαν, or “Nothing in excess”) comes to the rescue. Run by the knowledgeable Maria Andronidou, this is our local wine temple. One of the happiest memories of this past summer belongs to a visit that one of my favorite Cretan wine makers organized for me. Maria not only walked me through some of the finest wines of the island, but also taught me valuable lessons about wine tasting and local varieties. I love Cretan wine, she has taught me why I do. Find Miden Agan here.
Neighborhoods of Chania, Colorful Splantzia