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Chania Old Town

Figuring Out the Old City

Chania harborChania is a big town. Its a city really. But 90% of Chania you will never see unless you plan to live here. For those visiting for a few days or a week there are few places outside the Old Town that you will need to know about. Just imagine a modern city that has sprung up around a medieval fortress with giant walls and even a moat, and within these walls are the buildings and ruins of the people who have settled here over the ages from the Minoans to the Byzantines, Venetians, Turks and the current inhabitants, a mixture of Greeks, Albanians and other nationalities. Most of the major buildings came courtesy of the Venetians who bought the island of Crete after the fall of Constantinople and preceded to fortify Chania which they controlled until 1645 when it fell to the Ottoman Turks. The center of the town was Kasteli which in those days meant it was the most heavily fortified, being the acropolis (upper village). It is also where the remains of the Minoans were uncovered. The massive wall surrounding Kasteli had four gates, two of which were destroyed by German bombing during the Second World War, the other two which are still intact. As the city spread out from Kasteli a new outer wall was built in 1538 and the inner wall and towers were turned into houses. If you walk up Kanevaro street from Venizelos Square you can see remnants of this older wall.

Chania old harborThe easiest way to get your bearings is by going to the port. Many of the hotels are in the new town just across from the central market on Hatzimichali Gianhari and if you are staying outside of Chania and are coming to the city by car and bus chances are this is where you are going to end up. If you walk two blocks west from the City Market you will turn right on Halidon Street which will take you past the Pelekanaki Bookshop, the Archaeological Museum, the Cathedral of the Trimartyei, past lots of interesting shops and right to Venizelos Square with its fountain surrounded by cafes including a Starbucks. You are at the entrance to the main harbor. For those who have been to a lot of Greek islands just imagine Old Chania as a cross between Mykonos and Hydra without the whitewash and with a lot more interesting places to shop and eat and drink.

Going West

Chania harbor looking westIf you are standing in the square facing the sea the area to your left (west) is called Evraiki, which was the Jewish Quarter and features the Etz Hayyim Synagogue which was lovingly restored by my high school history teacher, the famous writer, cook and artist Nikos Stavroulakis. As in many places in Greece the Jews of Chania were rounded up by the Nazis to be sent to concentration camps. The Jews of Chania never made it that far. The boat transporting them was mistakenly sunk by the British and they all drowned. If you take a walk down Zabeliou street and turn left on Kondilaki street you will find signs directing you to the Synagogue. If you continue down Zabeliou, you will pass numerous shops, cafes, restaurants, small hotels and the wonderful Tamam, a sort of mezedopoulion-taverna in an old Turkish Hamam (bath house) and one of the best places we ate in Chania. If you cut down to the waterfront there are the usual fancy looking fish tavernas and tourist shops that you will find on the high-priced realestate of just about any Greek island, most who employ people who stand out front and convince you that their restaurant is the best using a variety of methods to grab your attention. You will also pass the Mediteraneo Bookshop and if you turn up tiny Theofanis street, sandwiched between a couple cafes you will come to the Casa Delfino Suites where we spent the second half of our stay and if you are looking for a quiet place for an espresso they have a nice little cafe in a beautiful courtyard with the world's tallest cactus. For what it is worth this is one of Tipper Gore's favorite hotels. She stayed here when Al Gore was VP and a few years later Al showed up, bearded and incognito. It's a good example of how the aristocrats lived during the Venetian period.

Chania harbor looking westIf you continue on the waterfront you will come to the Maritime Museum housed in the Firka Fortress which was constructed by the Venetians. The museum includes about 2,500 exhibits like paintings and models of ships, different kinds of naval instruments and devices, a model of Chania during the Venetian period, and an exhibition of the 1941 Battle of Crete. Behind the main building is a cistern and the barracks of the soldiers. The building was used as a prison by the Turks and by the Nazis. If you climb the steps to the walls where two remaining cannon still point out to sea you will get a view of the harbor, lighthouse originally built by the Venetians and then continued by the Egyptians during the Greek War of Independence. If you continue past the Maritime Museum you will come to the defensive walls of the city at what is called Talo Square which is one of the primary parking areas for those living or staying in Topanas, (a Turkish word for guns or cannon,) the district northeast of the Jewish quarter. During the military dictatorship of 1967-74 a Xenia Hotel was built on the wall, then sat empty for the last twenty years before being demolished in 2008. Theottokopoulou Street is another entrance to the neighborhood and on the right is the Venetian Magazine, where their gunpowder was stored, now a center for the restoration of icons. On the left is a large Turkish building built in the typical top-heavy style, a wooden structure that juts out from the stone foundation, which you will see in any town in Greece which had a Turkish population. Continue up Theotokopoulou street past more shops, restaurants, cafes and small hotels and turn right you can climb to the top of the walls and look across the moat to the neighborhood of Neo Hora (New Town). You can walk to Nea Hora from Talo Square, past the Monument of the Hand which commemorates those who died when the ferry Heraklion sank on the way to Pireaus from Chania in 1966. The community swimming pool, Nea Hora Beach and the small fishing boat harbor and fish tavernas on the coast can all be reached in about ten minutes.

Going East to the Inner Harbor

Chania harbor looking east to the mosque and kasteliGoing East ... from Venizelou square along the harbor road which by the way is closed to automobile traffic you will pass the usual large cafes and tourist restaurants before coming to the Mosque of Kioutsouk Hassan, the oldest Ottoman building in Crete, erected in 1645. Currently it is used as an exhibition hall but it has been a shop, restaurant and a cafe in the course of its history. The back of the mosque has an ugly junta style cement structure that has nothing to do with the original building but was added when it was a cafe or restaurant and may one day be torn down. The area behind the mosque with the tall buildings that overlook the harbor is Kasteli which you can enter by going back to Venizelou Square as  I mentioned before. But just to keep it simple we are going to continue along the waterfront and come back later. After the mosque is a series of restaurants, none of which I ate at, though Monastiri has gotten decent reviews in some of the guidebooks, and we almost stopped here but were deterred by the fancy tablecloths and wine glasses. The next few buildings are the hip clubs and bars, the kind of places that are still open when people like me are having breakfast. Across the entrance to the Inner Harbor is the Fortezza, a seasonal club with a free ferry shuttle that crosses the harbor in what was the Bastion of Agios Nicholaos a fortified building where the Venetians and the Turks executed their prisoners. As you continue you will notice that the buildings are larger and more industrial, though most, if not all are restaurants, bars or clubs, and that there are actually fishing boats in the harbor, unlike the outer harbor.

Venetian Shipyards in Chania, CreteIf you walk past the massive Customs House in Katehaki Square (or parking lot) you will come to seven very old, large and interconnected buildings called To Megali Arsenali (Great Arsenals) built by the Venetians which were the shipyards. Originally there were seventeen of these buildings which were built between 1599 and 1607. Now they are used mainly for storage awaiting some higher purpose but of the three at the far end of the harbor one has been turned into the Maritime Museum's home for the Minoa, a re-constructed Minoan ship. The Minoa which sits impressively within the building was built in 2002 and launched with great ceremony on December 1st 2003. Then on May 29th 2004 they left Crete with a crew of rowers and sailed 210 nautical miles up the coast of the Peloponessos, stopping along the way on the islands of Antikythera and Kythera, the towns of Monemvasia, Kyparissi (my grandmother's village), the islands of Spetsai, Hydra, Poros, the town of Methana, the island of Aegina to Pireaus. The journey took 25 days though only ten days were actually sailing because of bad weather, and returned to the island by ferry. The museum also has historic photos and paintings of Greek warships and fishing boats and two smaller latin sailboats. By chance I went there the day they opened and am the proud owner of ticket #00001. I was the first person to visit the new museum.

Fish tavernas in the inner harborBetween the Arsenals are a number of fish tavernas with a mostly Greek clientele, at least in March-April when we were there. The most popular among the locals is probably Ta Neoria or known to the locals as Xalkiadakis, the owner's name, where we were taken our first night in Chania by our pal Nikos from the Hotel Ammos for grilled fish. It was excellent and I would have gone back if I had more time, but felt I should experience a couple others. Lonely Planet had a couple recommendations but they seemed a little more fancy. Generally my rule is that if a psarotaverna (seafood restaurant) does not have paper tablecloths they have probably been spoiled by success. So a couple days later I went to the Tsipouradiko of Stelios Mastourakis which by no coincidence happened to be right next to the Hotel Porto Veneziano where I was staying. No matter, again it was a good choice. I had their delicious white taramasalata (if it ain't white it ain't right is my general rule with tarama), a green salad and a grilled soupia (cuttlefish) and because it was the day I planned to work and catch up on my e-mail I drank only water. It didn't matter. As is the custom of any restaurant that exhibits true Cretan hospitality I was given a complimentary home-made halvah for desert and a chilled bottle of tzikoudia which of course I drank and then blew off work for the rest of the day. In fact for the rest of the week and was greeted by several hundred e-mails from travelers desperate to find ferry connections when I finally got on my computer again once I was back home in Athens.

Hotel Porto Veneziano, Chania, CreteAfter the fish tavernas you will see a large 4 story building that does not fit in with anything you have seen so far. This is the Hotel Porto Veneziano and despite its appearance it is a great place to stay in terms of comfort and location. The rooms in the front all have a view of the harbor and you can watch the fishermen repairing their nets and sailing in and out of the port. It seems to be a couple degrees cooler in the summer than the more congested areas of the old town to the west because of the lack of buildings, much of it due to German bombing and the fact that you are right on the sea. Between the Arsenal buildings and the hotel is Salpidonos Street, which has a row of bars that are hopping at night. At the intersection with Epimenidou Street is the small Cafeneon of Christos Paralas which is several hundred decibels quieter than the bars, where you can get a nice tsikoudia and meze. Look for the honeybee and real traditional tables and chairs. On Epimenidou Street is a traditional bakery with a wood oven that makes delicious tiropitas which I advise you not to eat in your car unless you have a vacuum handy. On the same street is the Kritiko Kalitechniko Steki where you can eat traditional Cretan food and listen to traditional Cretan music every night.

Chania lighthouseFrom the Inner Harbor you can continue walking on the stone wall of the breakwater all the way to the Bastion of Saint Nicholas to the lighthouse, along the way taking photo after photo of Chania, and as in my case during early spring, the snow-capped mountains beyond. If you have brought your fishing gear with you this is a great area to try your luck, especially out by the lighthouse on the end or near the small fishing boat channel that cuts through the wall and stone breakwater. If you turn right after the Porto Veneziano, in front of the Minoan Ship Museum, you will pass a large parking lot and an opening in the city wall that leads you to a small beach. Above the beach is a park with a view of  Koum Kapi, a Muslim settlement which was outside the city walls beyond the Gate of Sabbionera in a sandy beach area. Koum Kapi and Sabbionera both mean Gate of Sand. The gate itself was destroyed to make it easier for cars to enter the city and most of the sand has been covered by buildings, both old and new. The waterfront which is closed to automobile traffic, is one cafe after another and is where most of the young people of Chania hang out.

Splantzia

Splantzia, Chania, CreteFrom the hole in the wall that used to be the Gate of Sand, Minoos street runs south towards the new city. To the west is a maze of small streets and houses which used to be the red light district of Chania, the largest such area in Crete. In fact it is still the red light district of Chania. If you are nervous about wandering around a neighborhood of brothels then turn right on Drakoloulou Street and that will take you all the way back to Venizelos Square, though it will have changed names to Sifaka and Karaoli-Dimitriou by then. This large neighborhood is called Splantzia and used to be the Turkish part of Chania. Its a maze of narrow streets and interesting houses, many built in the ruins of more ancient structures and a fun place to get lost in. The centerpiece of the neighborhood is Splantzia Square on Kalistou Street, and the Monastery of Agios Nikolaos which was built sometime in the 14th century. It was later converted to a mosque and a minaret was added, which still stands. It is now an Orthodox church. At the corner of the square is the small church of San Rocco, built around 1615 to protect Chania from the plague. Also in the square it the Platanos Ouzeri-Tzipouradiko which used to be the neighborhood cafeneon, serving Greek coffee and tsikoudia before getting a facelift and a new diverse menu, full of traditional and neo Greek dishes at surprisingly low prices. If you walk up Daskalogiani street away from the sea you will come to Cuisina Epi, a hip little restaurant on the right side of the street, with excellent home cooked food, that is only open in the day.

M Boulakas, silver Cretan knife makerA couple blocks further up on Hatzimichali Daliani street are three cool restaurants. Mezoleiako and For Anna are both traditional-modern ouzeri-mezedopouleons and around the corner on Kal Sarpaki Street is the Well of the Turk, an acclaimed middle eastern restaurant owned by an English woman, which had a small private hamam when it was the home of Turkish man a century ago. But the most interesting discover for us was the shop of Nikos Boulakas who makes the traditional silver knives and other ornamental chains and jewelry which is used in the Cretan weddings. It is really magnificent handmade work and if you are looking for the perfect gift to bring back, something that is uniquely Cretan then stop in here. He is often working late in his shop which is on Hatzimichali Daliani #52 just around the corner from those restaurants above. He is a very nice guy who will be happy to show you his work. You can also visit his website at www.boulakas.com

Kasteli

Dominican Nunnery of Santa Maria Dei Miracoli, Chania, CreteIf you walk uphill you will come to Kasteli and on the way pass remnants of the old wall, much of it used as walls for later buildings. You will also see the Minoan excavations on Kanevaro Street, covered by a large structure to keep out the rain. The small street west of the archaeological site will lead you past the Monastery Pension which is built in the ruins of the Dominican Nunnery of Santa Maria Dei Miracoli, built in 1615 and destroyed by German bombs. It was these same bombs that exposed Minoan pottery shards and led to the excavation of the ancient city of Kydonia, which until then its whereabouts were unknown. At the peak of Kasteli is the former Venetian Palace complex which became a prison under the Turks and is currently the Polytechnic. Through the gate on your left you come to a large parking lot and the Government House, built in 1898 by the Great Powers in the period between Crete's independence from Crete and union with Greece. It is now occupied by squatters. The Palace of the Rector of which little exists was on the western side of the square at the top of Lithinon Street. From the edge of the square you have fine view of the old harbor and the town. The whole area is full of interesting buildings, some of which escaped the wrath of the German bombs and some which didn't and are now garden walls and property boundaries.

Stivanadika

Stivanadika, Chania, CreteBetween Kasteli, Splantzia and Evraiki is the area where most of the small shops are located. Skrydloff Street also known as Leather Street which becomes Tsouderon was known for its shops that made the stivanania the boots that were the preferred footwear of the Cretan men up until the middle of the last century. There are still a small number of these shops left but mostly the street is something like Pondrossou Street in the Monastiraki neighborhood of Athens, full of tourist shops, clothing and the Cretan Knife shops that the island is also known for. Across Halidon is the Catholic Church of Saint Francis with its beautiful little courtyard and a statue of the Saint. The Folklore Museum, the Municipal Art Gallery and the Archaeological Museum, which also has a beautiful courtyard full of antiquities are all on the same street. A block north of Leather Street is the Orthodox Church of the Metropolitan, also known as the Trimartyri. During the Turkish period it was turned into a soap factory owned by Mustapha Pasha Naili whose son fell down a well and prayed to the Virgin that he be saved. When indeed he was saved he gave the factory back to the Christians to be used as a church again. It was renovated in 1897 by Czar Nicholas of Russia and became the metropolitan cathedral of Chania. Right next to the square is an old Hamam that has been converted into shops.

Mitos Gallery Jewelry and Gift ShopA shop worth visiting is Mitos at Halkidon 44 which sells work by local artists and well known artists from around Greece. Some of it is pretty amazing and almost all of it is unique and includes a lot of ceramic pottery, paintings, jewelry, blown glass. The shop is more like a gallery and has the feeling of a really wacky museum of modern art. Right across the street is Pelekanaki Books which I mentioned at the beginning of the page and this is another place you should make a point of stopping into browse their large selection of books, pick up a guidebook and a decent map, maybe a phrase book and to say hello to the owner Reneta. A couple doors down is GS Tours where we not only bought our ferry tickets home after much deliberation, but the next day came back and the happily changed them, not only to another day but another ferry company. Most of the time when you try to do this the agents either refuse, or act annoyed or charge you extra. The general manager Mata Thimianou was pleasant and very good natured and I recommend her for flights and ferry tickets. If you enjoy shopping you will like this area. For a really great view of the city cross Halkidon Street by the Cathedral and continue on the small street that goes up to the Shiavo Semibastion. In the spring it is covered in grass and wildflowers.

Demotiki Agora

The Demotiki Agora, Chania, CreteProbably my favorite place in the old city is the Demotiki Agora (Municipal Market) which is on Taxiarchou Markopoulou Square on Hatzimichaki Gianari street where the new town begins. In 1911 the Cretans filled in the moat with the central bastion and the Venetian walls and on the rubble built this copy of the market in Marseilles in the shape of a cross. It was inaugurated with great ceremony by Eleftherios Venizelos as part of the celebration when Crete was united with Greece. It is one of the best markets in Greece though slowly but surely the tourist shops have begun creeping in. There are several fish stalls including the well maintained Yxthoupoleo Giorgos, owned by Greek-Canadian George Tzinirakis who is happy to tell you anything you want to know about fish in Greece. He has quite an assortment including moray eels and the dreaded drakinos, a poisonous spiney fish that must be handled very carefully if you don't want to suffer severe pain, paralysis and possibly nerve damage. Across from George's fish stand is a small restaurant called Manolis, one of several that serve the workers and shoppers in the market, with fresh fish, meat and vegetable dishes and also the famous patsa, the tonic of the working class, made from tripe. There is a modern looking coffee shop at the center of the market and a more traditional cafeneon a few doors down, both usually filled with old men. There are several bakeries including one that still uses a wood burning oven, a few butchers and some very colorful vegetable and fruit markets. Somewhere in between the typical market shops and the tourist shops are the shops that sell herbs, olive oil, soap and other Cretan goods, which are becoming the style all over Greece. If you eat in one of the restaurants or have a coffee in the cafes and need to use the toilet don't be shocked when they say they don't have one. People at the market use the public restrooms in the square which are about the cleanest public toilets you will find anywhere.

You can click on any of the photos on this page to see them full size.
You can also see my Chania Market Photo Album

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