Coming to Heraklion for first time, the visitor nowadays may be surprised by the changes that are taking place in Crete´s capital city. Heraklion is celebrating its rich history and moving onwards to a future full of potential.
Where, at one time, the number of cars in the city center would have made walking difficult, you will now find large city-center spaces cleared of traffic. You can enjoy walking in one of the most historically and socially fascinating cities facing the Mediterranean, on streets free from traffic noise and rush.
The city has opened up in so many ways, making the city a place of discovery. These changes bring a harmony between the traditionally warm, considerate people of Heraklion, and the fine buildings that surround us, the open public spaces and views over the ocean. Many landmarks tell their story about the city and the island that gave birth to gods, to rebellion, and to a place that inspires everyone who feels the spirit of Crete.
Heraklion today is living between the fast moving currents of regeneration and a deep desire to maintain links with a past. Both these strands define its character. In the last hundred years alone, we have seen huge changes, which can be quite easily followed, in buildings and streets that reflect the changing fortunes of Crete. The old town areas of the city, established from mediaeval times, now offer visitors some fantastic walks in the heart of the city.
If you begin a walk around Heraklion, starting at the fishing harbour close to the modern port, what will strike you first is the Venetian fortress at the harbour gate.
The fortress was originally built by the Venetians and called Rocca al Mare, but is now known by its Turkish name, Koules. It has a mixed history for centuries it was used as protection against invaders, as were the great city walls and ditches. These are among the longest city walls in Europe.
With its huge dark hallways and cells, the fortress was also a prison to many Cretan rebels and those who broke the rules imposed by successive occupiers of Crete.
Koules is built on two tiers and offers a commanding view of Heraklion from the battlements. Nowadays, the harbour itself is home to brightly colored fishing boats and busy tavernas selling fresh fish.
Looking back towards the city you will see the strong arches which housed boats under repair and were used as an arsenal for storing guns and gunpowder.
The greatest threat to the Venetian stronghold of Heraklion, or Candia, as it was named, was thought to come from the seaward side of the city, and indeed, many naval skirmishes were fought off this coast.
The view northward takes in the uninhabited island of Dia, where evidence of ancient Minoan settlement (approx. 2700-1450 BC) was found by the diver, Jacques Cousteau.
Boat trips can be booked from travel shops throughout central Heraklion, as can excursions to various places of interest.
25th August Street
The pedestrian 25th August Street, is directly opposite the Old Harbour and extends to Lions square. It took its name from a massacre of martyrs which occurred in 1898. This involved the killing of many Cretans and British in this area, by the Turks, forcing the Great Powers (Britain, France and Russia) to recognize Crete´s struggle.
These events led eventually to the declaration of a Cretan State and finally, unification with Greece in 1913. Old and modern buildings compete for space now on the street named to remember 25th August.
Walking up the short hill and passing some commercial shops and tourist offices, you reach St. Titus Cathedral, a quite impressive sight.
Saint Titus, a fellow traveler of Saint Paul, preached the gospel in Crete during Roman rule and was martyred in Gortyn, where a 7th Century basilica, stands in his memory.
The church in Heraklion, was built during the second Byzantine period, when it first served as the city´s cathedral. The skull of St. Titus was transferred here from Venice in 1956 and has been kept in the church ever since.
During Venetian rule, it housed the seat of the Catholic archbishop and was renovated in 1466. However, it was ruined in a fire in 1544, while during the Turkish Occupation it served as a mosque and was called Vizier Tzami, after a minaret was added.
The present-day structure, is the result of further renovations after its almost entire destruction by a strong earthquake in 1856 and further constructions which followed in 1922.
Walking a little further, you will discover the Venetian architecture of Loggia, which functioned as a club for the nobility, in order to gather around and relax.
Loggia is a wonderful example of Venetian building, unmistakable with its semi-circular arches, it was built in the 16th century and was located in the Piazza dei Signori (Square of the Administrative Authorities).
Today, Loggia is decorated with sculptured coat of arms, trophies and metopes houses, part of todays town-hall of Heraklion. In 1987, it was awarded with the Europa Nostra first prize for the best renovated and preserved European monument of the year.
St. Mark´s Basilica, almost next door, is now the Municipal Art Gallery and often host art and crafts exhibitions, while is almost always open to visit.
Built in 1239 in the Piazza delle Biade (Square of Blades), it was at one time the Cathedral of Crete. The Basilica belonged to the reigning Duke, eventually becoming his burial place.
The Lions Square or Liondaria
This is the heart of Heraklion, where tourists and locals share the small space around the fountain, exchanging glances and perhaps a few words. Business and pleasure combined here and it's the place to meet for whatever purpose.
To give some background, it might also be called the Morosini Fountain or Liondaria in Greek or more properly, Plateia Eleftheriou Venizelou, after Eleftherios Venizelos, Crete´s greatest man of state.
The decorated fountain is composed of eight cisterns and decorated with stone relief, depicting figures of Greek mythology, Nymphs, Tritons, sea monsters and dolphins, while the main basin is supported by four sitting lions balancing a circular bowl on their heads.
It was left by Francesco Morosini, the Italian governor who had it built to commemorate Venetian success in bringing much needed water, through a brilliantly executed viaduct system from Mount Youchtas, to the centre of the city.
Morosini was still in charge when the Turks captured the city. Nowadays it is always interesting, the hub around which Heraklion revolves.
No need to be hungry here. The bougatsas, or vanilla cream pies, are great for breakfast, and there are plenty of omelettes, crepes and souvlaki places around. You will always be given water when you sit to order something, and might well be charmed into sitting for quite a while in any of these worthwhile establishments.
On the far side of the square, you reach Handakos Street, which has become pedestrian street as well and there, are located some of the best rock pubs in the city. Handakos, a busy thoroughfare since antiquity, is an attractive place to walk, shop or rest.
Walk slowly through Agora or the Market Street that runs alongside a shopping boulevard called 1866, after a Cretan uprising. From top to bottom, with some shaded sideways exits, this old Market Street is still a place for Herakliotes to come every day to find clothing, house stuff, herbs, fish and fresh meat.
It´s a good place to find thyme honey, raki (the Cretan clear spirit) from among shops selling everything, from selections of Cretan music to the finest cheese.
This market has a long history, always a place to meet and make plans. Walk the side-streets and you will smell good Cretan food and feel the buzz around you.
Cafés here do not distinguish much between Greeks and foreigners, neither do the inexpensive eating houses that serve good food to all who enter. There are some tourist traps, but all are friendly and offer good quality.
At the top end, at the last turn, you will find the fishmarket and some great little ouzeries shops (less formal than a taverna or restaurant), that fill up at night and provide excellent seafood delicatessen.
Plateia Kornarou, lays at the top of the market along with a lovely Venetian fountain of its own, the Bembo Fountain, probably the oldest in the city and it bears some very good decoration.
The Bembo Fountain was built in 1588 by Venetian architect Zuanne Bembo. It is decorated with columns, Venetian family coats-of-arms and a headless male statue, that was carried from the town of Ierapetra.
At one time, people believed that the statue had supernatural powers and every May, religious rituals were organized in its honor.
The atmospheric kafeneio alongside it, still serving Greek coffee and aperitifs from an antique stone pavillion at its center, is a great reminder of Crete´s Turkish past.
The square, was named after Vicenzos Cornaros (1553 to about 1614), composer of the epic poem Erotokritos, which is a narrative poem like a novel written in the Cretan idiom, the poet's mother tongue, consisting of thousands of verses on the love and romance of Erotokritos with Aretousa and which to this day, it is performed regularly throughout Crete and continues to evoke pride in every Cretan heart.
Agios Minas Cathedral
The Metropolitan Church of Agios Minas is an Orthodox Cathedral, located in Heraklion and is the seat of the Archbishop of Crete. The church is dedicated to Saint Minas, patron saint of the city of Heraklion.
It began to be built on March 25, 1862 by the Metropolitan of Crete Dionysios, from Adrianople, Thrace, but its construction was stopped during the Cretan Revolution of 1866 and was finally completed in early 1895. The place where the church was built was a garden belonging to a Turkish family. The inauguration of the church took place on April 16, 1895, by the Metropolitan of Crete Timotheos AD.
The square, also contains a wonderful collection of religious icon paintings, housed inside the strong walls of the much older church of Agios Minas, and the Basilica of Agia Ekaterini, (Saint Katherine) built in 1555 and the site of a renowned school of Renaissance painters and writers in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Inside the church can be seen the work of Mikail Damaskinos among other representatives of the Cretan School. The plateia (square) here takes its name from this church, rather than the great cathedral.
Plateia Eleftherias or Freedom Square
Eleftherias Square is the central square of Heraklion. The free space in which Eleftherias Square has been formed today, during the Venetian rule, was used for the exercise of the mercenary army of the Venetians.
Later, when the gate of Agios Georgios was built in the 16th century AD, the square was renamed Agios Georgios Square.
In 1628, in the context of the water supply of Heraklion with the majestic Morosini fountain (Lion fountain), a water bridge was built based on three arches, over which a water pipe for the Fountain passed.
From this water bridge this square was heard and is often heard to this day in the name of Treis Kamares, although they were demolished by the Turks in the 19th century AD.
Also from Eleftherias Square were lost the underground circular barns of the Venetians, where grain was stored for emergencies, such as the siege of the city, and the large Venetian water tank on Dikaiosynis Street north of the Prefecture.
The tank was built of stone, underground and had a capacity of 6,000 barrels while the water stored there came from the area Pelekita of Archanes. It was made for emergencies to meet the water needs of the city, as Heraklion was essentially a large fortress, which thanks to its fortifications and auxiliary facilities was able to withstand 22 years of siege by the Turks.
With the proclamation of the semi-autonomy of Crete under the sovereignty of the Sultan in 1898, troops of the Great Powers settled on the island to maintain order, which left on July 26, 1909. Then in Heraklion came the English, who settled on the walls. while they did their high schools in the square, like the Venetians a few centuries ago.
The beginning of the 20th century found the square as the main place of recreation of the people of Heraklion. A little later, in the middle of the 20th century, a part of it is formed into a garden and acquires a concrete enclosure and railings, which closed every night. Until about 1975, Eleftherias Square was the center of the Sunday walk of the residents of Heraklion.
Young and old walked from the Kapetanakeio school (east of the square) to the statue of Eleftherios Venizelos, crossed Eleftherias Square and continued on Dikaiosinis Avenue to Meidani, the main crossroads of Heraklion near Lions. From this point they returned to Eleftherias Square again, and the route was repeated until they got tired.
The latest layout of Eleftherias Square wanted to give the center of Heraklion a modern view and the air of a European big city. It is paved with marble, acquires benches of minimalist perception while preserving some of the trees (eucalyptus) and is decorated with metal pillars that symbolize ship masts, recalling the naval history of Heraklion.
Today, Eleftherias Square with its cafes and children playing around, is full of life any time during day and night. The people of Heraklion, however, have never accepted this new form of Eleftherias Square and that is why discussions have begun in the municipality for its change.