by Tim Dawe
I step down to the busy bus depot weaving and wheeling my suitcase. I know that my hotel is nearby but I haven’t a clue where; there are no maps or direction – or help. After a week in Crete I feel that it’ll work out – it always does. Following other wheeled suitcases, I spot a tiny, faded sign, “old town”. Within minutes I am in a maze of medieval alleys, and then looking at a beautiful crescent-shaped harbour of vivid blue. It’s the heart of Chania (pronounced Hahn-yah).
I spend several mesmerizing minutes taking it in, panning around this broad and busy waterfront with people darting, ambling, lounging, eating, drinking or boarding boats in the sun. Then I see it; my hotel, right in the middle, on the waterfront. If this harbour is Chania Theatre’s stage, I’ve got a box seat – no, the royal box. My first floor room is clean with every amenity in working order. I throw open the shutters blinking in astonishment. The panorama takes in the entire harbour; it starts at my balcony. Yes, the proverbial room with a view. And this is only €30 per night?
While multi-layered, Chania’s long history is seen through the prism of four centuries of Venetian rule, starting in 1252. The Bronze Age Minoans established Kydonia here on a former Neolithic site and, from about 1100 BC, were absorbed within Greek dynasties until taken over by the Romans in 69 BC. Byzantine rule (395-824) brought Christianity to Chania, with its own bishop. The Venetians enlarged and fortified the town with a fusion of architecture and culture. As with most of Greece, the Ottoman Empire dominated for 400 years until it imploded after World War I. Key in overthrowing the Ottomans was Eleftherios Venizelos, revolutionary hero and later Greek prime minister – and from Chania. Crete moved its capital from Chania to Heraklion in 1971.
Old Town contains most of the attractions. Staying here, on the waterfront, is a bonus. Things I want to see are not only close-by, they are practically next door. I explore by radiating out. A long, snaking breakwater with its 16th century lighthouse shelters a considerable waterway. The picture-perfect harbour is ringed with restaurants and the distinctively domed former mosque, Yiali Tzami, in the front stalls. Seated behind are the colourful hotels and homes with rooms to rent, one or two dilapidated that only adds to the atmosphere.
Running the width of the walled city are venous walkways for shopping, eating, accommodating – or just plain living. Despite the tourist throng in early spring, everything moves calmly, free of cars and go-anywhere teenagers on noisy Vespas. I visit the Firkas Fort at the harbour entrance opposite the landmark lighthouse, its massive construction an effective defence for so many centuries. Inside, a naval museum displays Minoan to modern day ships but for this Australian the history of conquest, culminating in the World War II Battle of Crete, illustrates how Cretans define their homeland and sense of place. Outside, generations of families take advantage of the high position to rent rooms with little shady nooks. It’s odd to see bedrooms opened at street level. I wander into Pension Lena but apparently Lena has popped out, leaving her cats in charge.
Moving on, the mandraki, or boat harbour, is filled with jetties of show-off motor launches and workhorse yachts doing the whole, summer-long Med. People spill onto the promenade to eat lobster, eventually taking its colour, encouraged by restaurateurs eager to earn the last tourist euro before the slowing winter. The mosque built by an Armenian architect in the 17th century, now sadly a lacklustre shop and gallery, shows fine engraved stonework in a golden glow of afternoon light. Posh Porto Veneziano hotel in Neoria (new town) sits between Byzantine and Venetian city walls. I make a personal comparison of its likely lesser views and greater prices. A series of long narrow buildings with grand façades stand sentinel in front of moored pleasure boats. It’s the Grand Arsenali, built in 1585 to store munitions and repair ships, later to become a school, hospital and town centre, but now an architecture centre. Its cousins are at the end of the waterway and house a ship museum and gallery space.
I return via meandering streets past the large 20th century agora (market), a proud centrepiece before refrigeration and supermarkets but now, after being a German storage dump during the war, looking rather forlorn. I pause for a drink, and just love the way I can get an ice-cold beer from the ice-cream shop. Up a slight incline and I’m in Kasteli, once a Turkish stronghold, now with mansions sitting along deep archaeological digs. Closer to home, tucked away from shopping streets, is Etz Hayyim synagogue, a reminder of a former thriving community. The Nazis removed all Jews thereby expunging from Crete 2,300 years of Jewish culture and history. Boisterous children play in the square in front of the Cathedral in the main street, Halidon, which bisects the old town. Opposite in a former church is the small but informative Archaeological Museum.
Despite its central location, my little hotel provides a quiet refuge to recover from taking in so much so quickly. All around, branching off, and off again, are alleyways offering scores of al fresco eateries. Behind is Taman. It is a former Haman, now a restored and popular restaurant with diners lined up outside. This is a shame because of what’s inside. My dinner table stands atop a massage bench, the scene of much lathering and pummelling when a Turkish bathhouse. Its marble slabs, now without soapy bodies, form my table top. Waiters run up and down the benches and in and out the door to serve diners. It’s a meal-with-theatre in a grand, lofty space. I move 20 metres to take my Greek coffee at Mesostrato, a “topless” restaurant, the ruins of a mansion neglected for years. It’s uplifting sitting in someone’s former room, restored now but retaining a small forest of trees, to gaze up three storeys to the stars.
Wandering home late there’s every sign this party will go on until dawn. It’s still warm and there’s a feeling akin to joy for this place, its easy welcome and its charm. I turn-in with the memory of narrow streets of happy people at table under bougainvillea, washed with yellow lights and laughter. It’s true what they tell you; Chania is a beautiful and memorable Cretan town.