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My Great Greek Adventure: Crete’s Capital and Captain

The National Herald

Chania Crete - Old Harbor. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

The east and west sides of Crete are almost like their own exclusive islands. They differ in numerous ways and each side has its own archeological, geological, or cultural treasures to share. The west is where the capital city and most popular hub Chania is located. Along with other major cities, Chania is built around its infamous port. The old Venetian port and its adjoining side streets mark a time in Cretan history when war and attacks were frequent and deadly. It became vital to place a port in a place and position that made attacks more difficult. The greater Chania area has been inhabited since the Neolithic period and has been recorded as the first settlement on Crete. In ancient times this settlement was called Kydonia and was home to the Minoan people. Kydonia was praised by the writer Homer as being a vital city, whose location and ecological position were desired the world over. History tells of the many conquests and captures of ancient Chania. As the inhabitants of Chania changed from the Romans to the Byzantines, more conquerors moved in, the shape and form of the city evolved. The harbor we see today was constructed by the Venetians in 13th and 14th centuries. Their control over the city spanned many centuries and their influence can still be seen in the old town of Chania today.

The harbor in Chania has a very distinct and uncommon shape which adds to the nostalgia and pride Cretans and Greeks feel for it. It has two ends which lay almost a kilometer apart, and consist of a docking and ship-repair area, and another for unloading cargo. The harbor is shaped sort of like an upside down heart, and the bottom of the heart is the long wall that separates the sea and the inner harbor and leads along a narrow path to the lighthouse. At the far east end of the harbor is where small ships dock and the path to the lighthouse begins. A large warehouse building that is no longer in use is the dead end for the water, as the waves crash up against the cement boat ramp. Now this warehouse is a swanky restaurant with incredible views of the harbor and lighthouse, and this type of revival can be seen all along the port.

The National Herald

Chania Crete - Seitan Limani beach. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

As you walk from the east to west ends of Chania's harbor you see pieces of its history in the architecture and layout of its iconic town. Large warehouse and factory buildings, now upgraded into bars and restaurants, mosques or catholic churches placed by various settlers, and colorful intricate details on the buildings mark the path along the harbor's edge. At the time of the Venetian's construction of the port, its use was strategic but today it is a gathering place for people in Chania. Restaurants and shops fill the west end of the harbor where the lighthouse looms high in the sky and where the sea wall ends opening up to the sea. On land, the city is still protected by Byzantine era fortification walls, which signal the end of the harbor's west end and lead into the side and coastal streets of modern Chania.

Remnants of Chania and Crete's turbulent past have shaped what the island looks like today. Not far from Chania city is one of the most vital military bases in the Mediterranean. Souda Bay is a Greek Air Force and Navy Base which also houses some United States Navy operations and resources. Its location at the narrow base of the almost perfectly round Akrotiri Peninsula, shields the bay from the sea. As ships became larger and heavier, Chania's old harbor was too shallow and fragile to accommodate these ships and they instead docked in Souda Bay. Souda Bay's history is just as ancient as it smaller counterpart in Chania, dating back to the 7th century BC. It is said to be one of, if not the largest naturally formed bay in the Mediterranean Sea, which made it a prime location for people to establish settlements. Centuries later, Souda Bay continues to be a hub for military operations, trade routes, and travel. It connects the sea, where you can catch the ferry boat back to Athens or other neighboring islands and cities in the Cyclades or the Peloponnese.

The National Herald

Chania Crete - Agia Triada courtyard. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

Chania is also widely recognized for the Akrotiri Peninsula that begins at the outskirts of the city. The site of Crete's international airport, the peninsula houses some of the most memorable cultural and environmental treasures on the island. On the far east end is the secluded beach Seitan Limani, a narrow pebbled beach tucked between tall cliffs that is only accessible by a steep hike down the mountain. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is certainly worth the adrenaline rush to get there. Wild goats often descend the cliffs and greet beach goers by begging to eat their snacks. More traditional roadside beaches like Marathi attract families and more easy-going crowds. The cultural legacy is just as rich as the natural as seen in the carefully preserved Agia Triada Monastery. The monastery is located in the center of the peninsula, high up on the hills of the ascending mountains. Surrounding it are vineyards of the region's unique and distinctly flavored grapes. The monastery in collaboration with a local family, produce their own wine, olive oil, and other food products that are grown and packaged by the people there. Inside the building is a grand courtyard full of charming gardens, historic architecture, and peaceful corners and sanctuaries. Its construction began in the seventeenth century but was interrupted by the Ottoman invasion. The building would not be fully completed until after the Greek Revolution of 1821. In the center of the courtyard is the church, which was one of the pieces that would not be completed until after the Revolution but is truly the heart of the monastery.

The National Herald

Chania Crete - Agia Marina area. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

The heart of Chania is around the old harbor and town, but the city extends far beyond its ancient districts. On the western outskirts of the city is the Agia Marina area, a buzzing beach town that attracts travelers from all over the world. During the summer this spot is beach bar heaven with endless shops and beach chairs lined up along the sea. Within Chania and beyond it in all of the close neighboring regions, the scenery and the cultural artifacts transform. From the old city and harbor to the sacred holy and archeological sites, and the lively beach bars and restaurants, Chania cannot be singularly defined.