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Home / Where to go / Day Trips / West Crete / Rethymnon - Moni Arkadiou - Margarites
Rethymnon - Moni Arkadiou - Margarites

This day trip takes you to Crete’s intellectual capital Rethymnon with its Turkish and Venetian architecture in the historic quarter. On your way back to Malia pay a visit to the beautiful monastery of Arkadhi, followed by a stop in the pottery village Margharites with its fine earthenware.

RETHYMNON

Rethymnon, competing with Hania for the title of most picturesque town in Crete, is a lively provincial place all year round. With a population of 30,000 people it is Crete’s third largest town and capital of the prefecture Rethymnon. It may lack Iraklio’s or Hania’s sophistication, but it has a flair of its own and is Crete’s intellectual capital with a campus of the University of Crete.

Its historic quarter with its narrow alleys reveals graceful minarets and domed mosques; the houses with their elegant porticos and arches are alternated with the wooden Turkish oriels. Everywhere there are (tourist) shops and eateries, scattered around town and in the harbour, and all this under the watchful eye of the massive Venetian fortress that stands as a rock.

A Short History
With traces of a late-Minoan settlement "Rithymna" became a flourishing city-state in Roman times. An important trade and storage center, its harbour in particular, the Venetians turned it into a seat of one of their 14 prefects in Crete in the thirteenth century.

After 1453, when Constantinople falls to the Turks, a stream of eastern immigrants makes Rethymnon flourish artistically. With piracy and the Turkish threat becoming more apparent, the Venetians start to fortify the city. The fortress is built after Barbarossa and his pirates plundered the town in 1538; it didn’t hold off the Turks though, who took Rethymnon in 1646 after a siege of 23 days. Although a governmental seat during Turkish rule, Rethymnon has always had a rebellious spirit, in particular during Crete’s War of Independence and World War II. The last Turks leave Rethymnon in 1923, after the forced population exchange with Smyrna.

Sightseeing
Take the Four Martyrs Square as a central starting point for exploring Rethymnon’s picturesque historic quarter. On this square is a statue of Kostas Yamboudhakis, the renowned explosives master of the Arkadhi monastery. The modern church of the four Martyrs is named after the four Cretans that were hanged on this square by the Turks, for refusing to betray their religion. Have a look inside, as it displays brightly coloured frescoes, along with the relics of three of the martyrs.

South west of here is the Public Garden with trees, hibiscus and oleander for a shady escape from the crowds and the heat. There is a mini-zoo with some peacocks, turkeys, ducks and goats, along with a chi*ldren’s playground. In summertime festivals like the Wine Festival (July) are held here.

Passing the Porta Guora, the former city gate and remnant of the defensive wall, you enter Rethymnon's historic quarter. Stroll along the Market Street of Ethn. Antistaseos and look down a sidestreet on your left for the San Francesco church, former Venetian basilica. Today it is part of the university and used as an exhibition hall.

From the market street you run into Petihaki square, a lively spot with palm trees and eateries. Stop to admire the Mosque of Nerantzes which is the biggest mosque in Rethymnon with its three domes and high, proud minaret. Originally the Venetian Santa Maria church, it was converted into a mosque in 1657 by Pasha Gaza Hussein, who also used it as a study centre. The minaret was added in 1896, shortly before Crete’s liberation from the Turks. The mosque was reconsecrated in 1925. Today it is a concert hall and music school (Odhio).

TIP
Other mosques well worth a visit are Kara Moussa Pasha, a little pretty mosque near Iroon square; it is now restored and in use as a botanical museum (Open daily 9am – 6pm), Veli Pasha, south of the town hall, at the end of Dhimokratias and Validhes Sultana, with its slender minaret at Four Martyrs square.

A little off Petihaki square is the Rimondi fountain, a picturesque well firstly built in 1588, then rebuilt by Venetian governor Alvise Rimondi in 1629. It is whispered that he wanted to outdo Morosini and his fountain in Iraklio, of which he was a tiny bit envious. The Turks covered it with a dome, of which remnants are still visible.

Down Paleologou Street you can admire the Venetian Loggia, a perfectly restored building. Used as a club house for the Venetian noblemen, it was converted into a mosque under Turkish rule. After the Turks left, everything that was reminiscent of Islam was destroyed. Nowadays it is a museum shop that sells reproductions of classical art.

Having reached the waterfront, you could opt for a break at the long sandy beach that stretches east for nearly 15km. Or you could turn left to the inner Venetian harbour, lined with cafes and taverns, all of them competing for your attention. Especially in the evening this is a perfect place for a "vólta" along the quay to the lighthouse, enjoying the view and watching people.

TIP
West of Petihaki square, in Th. Arabatzoglou Street, shortly after the shopping area, you’ll find yourself in a quiet zone; this part of the street, with its alleys and a little further on Koroneou Street are said to be the most picturesque parts in town. Everywhere you look there are high wooden Turkish oriels alternated by remnants of Venetian splendour like arches and stone window cornices.

On Koroneou Street turn right via an alley to Melissinou Street to reach the Venetian fortress. (Open Tue-Sun 8am – 7pm, last admission 6.15pm; Adm.3.50euro). Take the trouble to ascend it; from here you have a stunning view over the town and its harbour. Large enough to shelter the whole city population in case of emergency, the Turks converted the former Venetian bishopric into a mosque in 1646, which they named after their Sultan Ibrahim.

Museums
Archeological Museum (Near the entrance to the fortress, tel.28310-54668; Open daily 8.30am – 5pm; Adm.1.50euro)
Historical and Folklore museum (M.Vernardhou st.28-30, tel.28310-23398; Open Mon-Sat 9.30am – 2pm; Adm.3euro)
Centre for Contemporary art (Kanakakis Municipal Gallery, Himaras 5, tel.28310-55847; Open Tue-Fri 9am – 2pm and 7 – 10pm; Sat-Sun 11am – 3pm)

To go to Arkadhi, head east from Rethymnon, following signposts for Iraklio. Once you’re out of Rethymnon, before Platanias, the signposts for Arkadhi are well indicated; (be careful when crossing the National Road).

MONI ARKADHIOU – THE MONASTERY OF ARKADHI

(Tel.28310-83076; Open daily 8am – 1pm and 3.30 – 8pm; Adm.2euro)
Situated 23km south-east of Rethymnon, on a small upland plateau at the foot of Mt. Psiloritis, the Arkadhi monastery stands there like a tower of strength, determined and erect in the solitude of the hills surrounding it. A spiritual centre since the sixteenth century, with a beautiful Renaissance church, it became – through an act of despair – Crete’s national symbol in its struggle for independence.

Firstly mentioned as a chapel in writings of the 14th or 15th century, the monastery was founded in 1572 by its dedicated monk Klimis Hortatzis. The beautiful facade of the church was built in 1587. With a superb combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements, it strongly recalls the Spanish colonial churches seen in Central America.

During the 16th century it was a centre of art and literature with an extensive library, housing a school and printing manuscripts. Under Turkish rule it obtained great wealth and became one of the richest monasteries in Crete and a popular stop-over for travellers. As seat of the Cretan Rebellion movement the monastery of Arkadhi co-ordinated Crete’s revolution in the struggle for liberation and unity with Greece.

Elefteria I Thanatos – Liberation or Death
One of the most important events in this struggle that attracted international sympathy for the Cretan cause, was the suicide in November 1866 of 600 women and children and 300 rebels who had taken refuge in the monastery to escape their Turkish opposers. Rather than surrender to the thousands of Turks who had besieged the monastery, they preferred to blow themselves up by lighting the gun powder magazine. The explosion killed almost all Cretans and many of the Turks.

This shocking event led to names like Victor Hugo making public declarations of support and in Britain money was raised for a ship "The Arkadhi" to run the Turkish blockade. Later, during WWII, the monastery lent assistance, food and shelter to the andartes (the rebels) and their Allied comrades.

Today the monastery is still active, with the most impressive of its buildings being the church. Its icons, made by Ioannis Stathakis, and the iconostasis in particular, show a close bond between the painter and the monastery. In the refectory (the dining room) where 36 andartes were slaughtered by the Turks, you can still see the marks of the sword blows on the tables. Next to it is the small kitchen with its medieval character.

In a corner of the yard is the former gunpowder room where the horrible explosion took place. Even today it is roofless. The cloister in the monks' quarters, with its arched arcades giving it a very medieval character, provides a perfect view of the church facade for taking photographs.

On the first floor a small museum is arranged, showing the monastery’s history during Turkish rule. Near the car park, in a former windmill is the ossuary that displays, rather macabrely, the sculls and bones of the people who died in the explosion. Outside stands a bust of the one Cretan girl that survived.

TIP
Take a break at Tavern Arkadhi. With nothing else around, this is a good place for a simple snack. Leaving Arkadhi, you follow the signs for (Arhaia) Eleftherna; this road also leads to Margharites, the pottery and ceramics village. From Margharites head for Perama, where you can take a left turn for the New National Road; this is the fastest way to Iraklio. The Old National Road is a winding, scenic, well asphalted road, leading through typical Cretan villages. At Gazi, Iraklio, you resume the New National Road that leads to Malia in 30min.