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Rethymno: the heart of Crete

No other city in Crete has the culture and flair of Rethymno. Michael Sweet explores the jewel in the Cretan crown and its magical province

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Venetian Port, Rethymno. Photo: dreaminggreece.com

05 July 2017

The Guora Gate, known by Rethymniots as Megali Porta, is still the main northern entrance to Rethymno's old quarter. An arched stone portal just 2.6 metres wide, for nearly 500 years this narrow opening is all that has remained of the Venetian town's walled fortifications.

Today Megali Porta is flanked by a travel agent and souvlaki bar, and they're both doing a roaring trade. It's July 2017, and as temperatures soar, along with the number of tourists in Rethymno, there's more pedestrian traffic than ever through this ancient gate.

I first walked through Megali Porta on another sweltering July day as a young backpacker. It was my first trip to Crete and I'd swung my pack on top of a battered bus in Heraklion, heading for Chania province; Rethymno was the dusty interchange. With my gaze fixed on Crete's wild south-west coast, I spent just a few hours in the town, but it was long enough to feel its energies.

I vowed to return, but a decade would pass before I did. On every trip to Crete since, making time to explore this remarkable city and the province that shares its name, has been an abiding passion.

What sets Rethymno apart from Chania and Heraklion? Its scale for sure (the resident population is not much more than 45,000); its natural elegance - its sweeping sand beach; its magical old quarter (the most intact of all Crete's medieval towns) with its floral canopies and its fine hospitality offerings. It's all of these things and more.

But unpicking what makes Rethymno Crete's 'cultural capital', goes beyond its aestehtics and history, beyond its centres of academic learning, beyond its love of carnival and Renaissance music festivals: it's about the character of Rethymniots themselves - a community that radiates a creative energy born of combining ancient tradition with flair and inspiration. Rethymno's character is all about its people, people like hotelier Katerina Xekalou.

The most intact of Crete's medieval towns, Rethymno's old quarter is a labyrinth of alleyways created by the Venetians in the 15th century.

Precious legacies
A cluster of beautifully renovated Venetian dwellings in the Old Town, Avli Kriti has been delighting guests for more than 30 years. With its renowned restaurant serving classic Cretan cuisine, infused with a contemporary twist, along with its 12 luxurious suites, Avli is at the very top of the Cretan hospitality scene. But like Rethymno itself, it's the elusive 'culture' of Avli, that sets it apart.

A true pioneer of the local hospitality industry, Katerina Xekalou's journey to create Avli began in 1986 when on a return trip from Athens to her family home, she came across a beautiful but derelict residence in the heart of the old town. At its centre was a sublime walled courtyard built in Venetian times.

No-one had attempted to transform such a property (set in the then decaying Old Town) into a high-end hospitality business before. The challenges faced by Katerina (a graduate of Political Science at Athens' Law School) were immense, not least winning local hearts and minds to the idea that sensitive development, offered a commercial lifeline and cultural resurgence to a long-ignored part of the city. So began Katerina's mission: to develop a restaurant and hotel, immersed in Rethymno's history, inspired by her memories of childhood, and infused with the essence of Cretan life. At the heart of the concept was the courtyard.

"My childhood summers rolled seamlessly into a courtyard full of voices, laughter, games, and life experiences," says Katerina, "with a large loving family of uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and visitors, sharing feelings, flavours, fragrances and dinners, under the watchful but so loving gaze of my grandmother Penelope."

An all-suites hotel with award-winning restaurant, Avli Kriti celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Katerina's labour of love, realised over three decades, has shared her family's legacy with thousands of guests.

"I imitated what I learned," she says. "It's about being welcoming, being warm, and giving guests the best we can. We want to create a place where people always want to come back."

As a member of the Yades Greek Historic Hotels Group (which celebrates Greece's cultural heritage by uniting properties of exceptional historical significance), Katerina personifies the group's mission. Along with Yades' other 17 properties across Greece, Katerina's philosophy is about providing guests not only great food and accommodation, but sharing precious legacies.

Katerina's roots, like most Rethymniots, lie in the province's interior. The courtyard of her childhood memories is in Akoumia, a small village 40 km south of Rethymno, and it's in such hamlets that this region's magic is perhaps at its deepest.

Katerina Xekalou at work leading one of Avli's famous cookery classes.

Into the province
Surrounding Rethymno, its 1500-square kilometre province is one of Crete's most remarkable regions. A handful of roads branch south from the town to the hinterland; ribbons running first through gentle hills which then pick their way through towering gorges, and cross massive round-shouldered mountains before diving down to the Libyan Sea.

The route heading south-west, signposted to Atsipopoulo, is the old road to Chania. Another, dropping due south, runs for a dozen kilometres before bending east to Spili (famous for its spring waters and weaving) and on to Agia Galini. A right turn before Spili will take you through one of the most awe-inspring gorges in Crete - Kourtaliotiko - and on to Plakias, where nearby some of Crete's most idyllic and accessible beaches are to be found.

As always, history and legends walk with you along this rugged and beautiful coast. Attacked through the centuries by invaders, clung to by tiny isolated communities, dotted with ancient spiritual retreats, this is a timeless land.

Forty minutes south of Rethymno are some of Crete's finest beaches, untouched by large-scale tourism. Above, a cove at Ammoudi, four kilometres from Plakias.

Faith and resistance
Twelve kilometres east of Plakias, Preveli Monastery stands high above a tiny and isolated palmfringed beach. Active in rebellions against the Turks in the 19th century, and dating from the Middle Ages, today the monastery is more wellknown for the exploits that took place here 76 summers ago during WWII. It was here in July and August 1941 that hundreds of Allied soldiers who had evaded capture after the fall of Crete were spirited away by submarine under the noses of their Nazi pursuers. Having been given refuge in nearby villages, and then by the Preveli monks, the soldiers' escape was the result of the extraordinary bond created between the troops and local people, who risked their lives for harbouring them.

Rethymno province continued to be a vital escape route for hundreds of Allied stragglers in the months that followed, and a centre of resistance until the end of the Nazi occupation.

East of Preveli are the tiny hamlets of Agios Fotini, Triopetra and Agios Pavlos - once fishing villages, now outposts built for lowkey tourism on a coastal landscape hardly altered over centuries. For a day trip, Triopetra's the pick, with its virtually pristine seafront adorned by a handful of laid-back tavernas.
If you're heading back to Rethymno and have time to spare, a turn-off west of Spili offers the chance to savour one of Crete's best kept secrets: the Amari. Accessed through the village of Gerakari, (famous for its succulent cherries), the Amari Valley lies cradled 500 metres above sea level, between the mighty Mount Ida and the Kedros range. The Amari is a magical labyrinth: ribbons of country lanes shaded by cypresses, oaks and pines, connecting tiny hamlets largely untouched by tourism. Between the villages, a patchwork of fields, of citrus and vines, all nestling up to some of the oldest olive groves in Europe.

Every road, every path, in this remarkable area opens its own door to history. From the Amari, take the road north and it's not far to Arkadi Monastery, 23 km southeast of Rethymno. It was here during the 1866 Cretan revolt against Ottoman rule, that more than 900 - mostly women and children - sought refuge. After three days of battle against the Turkish forces, close to being overrun, the Cretans chose self-immolation rather than surrender. Their awful sacrifice brought worldwide attention to the cause of Cretan independence, and ultimately to Crete's unification with Greece.

Head further east, almost into Heraklion province and perched more than 700 metres up the north face of Mount Psiloritis, the village of Anogia has a powerful and tragic history. It was burned by the Turks, then by the Germans in WWII, who carried out brutal reprisals against the townsfolk for their support for the Allied cause during the war.

Resistance, heroism, and sacrifice are of course traits not unique to this locale; they are defining quailities of Cretan identity, but nowhere are their legacies more powerfully felt, than here, in Crete's inspiring heart.

A memorial above the site of the 1941 evacuations of Allied troops at Preveli.

Walking Rethymno
A plethora of travel guides are available to help reveal Rethymno's treasures, but the recently published Discover Rethymnon on Foot (Mystis Editions), available in most local bookshops, is a perfect introduction to exploring the old quarter. Three gentle walks just outside the city are also featured. Of all the many sites, the dramatic Fortezza of Rethymno - built by the Venetians in the late 16th century - is a good place to start explorations, with sweeping views of the old quarter and the coasts east and west. At the Fortezza's entrance the Archaeological Museum of Rethymno displays exhibits from Neolithic to Roman times, including Archaic and early Christian relics from important archaeogical sites, such as Eleftherna, and Minoan finds from Armeni and Monastiraki. For more recent cultural treasures, head to the Historical and Folk Museum which has over 5000 items depicting Rethymniot rural life between the 17th and 20th centuries.

Rethymno's architecture transformed during Ottoman times, with wooden covered balconies (sahnisia) projecting from the upper storeys of Ottoman residences.

Michael Sweet was a guest of Avli Lounges and travelled to Crete from Athens with the assistance of Aegean Airlines. Aegean Airlines operates 10 daily services from Athens to Crete.

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