A city like Chania in Crete calls for further exploration. It is a city steeped in history, home to many different people and civilisations over centuries. Oftentimes an explosive mix of race and religion. Minarets and synagogues, churches and monasteries – we explore the many facets of this old city.
Located on the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, many people have called this city their home. The Minoans and the Arabs, the Venetians and the Germans, and of course the Greeks. This mix of cultures is evident everywhere. You will see it in the architecture and the handicrafts, the food and the people.
The best way to really experience a place is when you can follow a local who is happy to show you around. But if you don’t know anyone in the area, it’s best to join a guided tour. Walking tours in particular are great because they usually have a pleasant pace and they give you access to corners that you wouldn’t normally get to see.
We joined a walking tour of Chania with Urban Adventures. A fantastic opportunity to listen to the street stories, to look beyond the beaten path and to get charmed by a city that is full of contrast and colour.
Follow us as we discover the traces of different religious groups and lose ourselves in the romantic streets of the ancient city.
After a visit to the Municipal Market we immediately find ourselves in the heart of the old town. It’s a charming place, in particular this early in the morning.
The traces of previous occupants are evident everywhere. We see a mosque, neatly blended in with the neighbouring houses, the round shape of the tall minaret brazenly extending its space into the narrow street. A leftover from the Ottomans who ruled the city from around the 16th century. Even today their inscriptions can be found in many places around the city if you pay close attention.
But there are other people here too that have left their mark. Venetian style balconies grace many of the building fronts. The Ottomans brought with them the invention of window shutters. Chania’s churches have strong Byzantine influences, and so do the fortifications near the old port.
But even without knowledge of these cultural references the old town of Chania doesn’t cease to charm us. As we walk through the city streets and our steps echo in the early morning sun, we take in the romantic atmosphere of overflowing Bougainvillea flowers. Cats sleep on the doorsteps that are warm with the light from the morning sun. Lush green leaved plants in generous planters and pots add a sense of nature to the urban landscape and give life to the yellow sandstone walls.
Only tentatively do the people of Chania open their businesses this morning, take out their goods and set up tables and chairs in the narrow streets. We see stores with handmade tablecloth, beautifully crafted and with motifs of olive trees and flowers. Leather products such as shoes, belts and handbags, products that have been made here in Chania for centuries.
A melting pot of religions and cultures
Through the maze of streets we go until we stand in front of the synagogue. Its front door is locked unfortunately, but still in use, even though the Germans where appallingly efficient in eradicating the Jewish communities of Crete during the Nazi regime. Today, there are still around 20 members of the Jewish community who call Chania their home.
Next, our local tour guide takes us to a Byzantine church, The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary. It is probably the best known church in the city, adjoined by a pretty square that is graced with tall statues of prominent figures. Inside the cathedral it is dark and cool, not unlike so many other cathedrals around the world. Yet, artwork and architecture are distinctively Orthodox.
We find the icon of the Virgin Mary in the central aisle of the church, blackened by age and decorated with votives. These little sheets of silver metal are left behind by worshippers. They are symbolic for the things that believers request intercession for.
Right opposite the church we visit a different house of worship. Christian too, but this time it’s not the Orthodox interpretation, it’s Catholic. The Capuchin Monastery in Chania was established by the pope in the 16th century. The order has been in this very spot ever since.
Even though the church is crammed into a small space that you can only access through a tiny courtyard, on the inside it is flooded with light. The pink walls, the sandstone pillars and the upper storey windows add a surprisingly feminine touch to this house of worship.
Islamic, Jewish, Byzantine, Catholic – Chania is a great example of how over the centuries different cultures have made the island of Crete their home.
Not that the change of power always happened peacefully or was played out with tolerance. Many people have lost their lives in the process, faced prosecution or extradition. But to see world religions represented close-by in such a small space – this is what makes Chania a wonderful place to visit.
We finish our walk of Chania’s old town with a visit to the Splantzia square. It is here, under the shady canopy of old trees, that we share a meal of Greek mezedes and raki with our tour group. In our back is the beautiful church of St Nicholas, yet another example of how Chania’s occupants made the city their own.
In a quirky juxtaposition there are the church tower and a minaret side by side. Neither of these make up the Greek heritage in the strictest sense. The bell tower is a fine example of Venetian architecture, as if taken directly from the city of canals on the other side of the sea. The minaret is an Ottoman masterpiece with not just one but two balconies.
Over food and drink we share stories about our backgrounds and lives with the tour group. As we soon find out we come from all walks of life. We are a curious mix of religions and nationalities, very befitting for a city like a Chania.
As it happens, we Germans sit together with descendants of Jewish people that have been prosecuted during WWII. Grandchildren and children from refugees from one of the worst regimes in modern history.
Moving forward from the past
Listening to these stories, tragic as they are, we start to realise how far the human race has come. Not to say that we are perfect in any way. There is still a lot of room for improvement. But if we as human beings can share a meal with others that are hailing from very different backgrounds then there is hope that we may, one day, achieve the same on a global scale.
Chania’s history is like an open book, painted clearly on the walls for everyone to see. It is in the echoing courtyards of the crumbling houses and in the splintering shutters of the old residences. I think we need to walk away from looking at what makes us different from each other and instead have to investigate further into what unites us.
Just like the Monastery Boutique Hotel that we also visit on our walk today we need to take the remains of our heritage and repurpose it to make it fit our modern concepts of humanity. We need to cherish the beauty of the past, eradicate the notion of what caused pain, and make it work for our generation. A view of the bright blue sea through an opening in a wall to please the modern eye. A redesign of a monastery ruin into a subtropical garden and hotel to introduce modern comforts within ancient walls. A reinvention of relicts, creating a path into the future without neglecting our past.
We can start in Chania but we should look at the world next.
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Please note we that accepted a friendly invitation by Urban Adventures and that we joined the tour for free. Regardless, all opinions voiced here are my own. To book any of their worldwide tours, click here.