Rethymno is the most representative sample of a Cretan Renaissance city.
Rethymnon is the third largest city of Crete with a population of about 30000, built on the site of ancient Rithymna (4-5th century BC). After the Byzantine era, Rethymnon was fortified and further strengthened by the Venetians.
The old town is one of the nicest attractions for visitors to Crete, who have the ability to roam in the past. The town with the quaint streets and the beautiful monuments reserves its Venetian and Ottoman hues, as it was not altered by the modern era. In contrast to Heraklion and Chania, Rethymnon preserved mainly a Greek Renaissance character, as most nobles during the Venetian Period were Greeks.
Near the old town with the narrow streets, the visitor shall visit the largest fortress in Crete, the majestic Fortezza. Other attractions include the small Venetian harbor with the lighthouse, Venetian Loggia, Rimondi Fountain, Rethymno Park, Santa Maria, Historical Museum, Nerantze Mosque, St. Francis Basilica, Great Gate (Porta Guora), Mosque of Kara Musa Pasha and Venetian mansions in Street Arkadi. Finally, visitors can enjoy their bath in the vast sandy beach starting east of the port of Rethymnon.
History: The Castle of Rethymno
Till the Byzantine Era, the modern city of Rethymnon was a small and insignificant dorp. This settlement was easily occupied by the Arabs but became a town only during the Venetian Occupation. The Venetians were dealing mainly with marine trade, thus they needed a port between Chania and Heraklion for stopping their ships, running along the shores of north Crete. For this reason, they transformed the small bay of Mandraki, located east of the rocky hill of today’s Fortezza, into a functional harbor.
The town of Rethymnon started developing around this port. The Venetians defined Rethymnon as the regional administrative center and the capital of Rethymnon prefecture. This new town was inhabited mostly by Greek nobles, in contrast to Chania and Heraklion. In 1583 the Venetians over Greeks ratio was about 1/3. Thus, Rethymnon was a city of high social status.
The Venetians could not leave this town defenseless. The town was fortified since 1303, but the walls were not able to protect the town of Rethymno during the horrible invasion of the pirate Barbarossa in 1538. Immediately after the attack, in 1540, the town was fortified with walls designed by the renowned Venetian military engineer Michel Sammicheli.
The fortification consisted of 12 feet thick walls in a straight line, starting from the east sandy beach, where the bastion of Sabionera or Santa Barbara was located, and ending near the beach of Koumbes, running along a deep moat. There were two more gates along the walls, namely the Great Gate (Porta guora), which survives even today in Ethnikis Antistaseos Street, and the gate of Porta dello squero opposite the current central park of Rethymno.
The wall was strengthened by two bastions, Agia Paraskevi bastion and Kallergis bastion on the west. Another gate was later opened next to Kallergis bastion, called Agios Athanasios gate.
But still, this fortification was weak and incomplete, because there was no wall protection on the side of the sea. Indeed, when Olouts Ali attacked Rethymno in 1567 from the sea, he managed to destroy it completely. Thus, the walls proved to be useless and were totally abandoned. Therefore, the Venetians decided to protect Rethymnon, by building the impressive fortress of Fortezza on the hill Palaiokastro.
Religious monuments in Rethymnon city
Rethymnon during the Venetian occupation hosted a large number of churches, the number varying according to sources, from 23 to 46. Most temples were Christian Orthodox, few of them are preserved today, and many were turned into mosques during the Ottoman era. The oldest surviving Christian temples are Agia Paraskevi, which today houses the Institute of Mediterranean Studies of the Foundation of Technology and Research, and Agia Sophia, used by the Ministry of Culture.
The Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon is temporarily hosted in the basilica of Agios Fragiskos (St Francis) in the old town of Rethymnon. It hosts exhibits from various excavations around the prefecture of Rethymnon which represent all periods from the Neolithic Age to the Roman period.
The sandy beach of Rethymno is located just 1km east of the city centre, next to the Venetian port. It's a lovely beach with golden sand and crystal clear shallow waters, very well organized and close to all amenities of the city.
The Historical and Folklore Museum of Rethymnon was founded in 1974 and is housed in a Venetian building (17th century) that is a wonderful example of urban residence of the last phase of the Venetian occupation of Crete, in Renaissance.
The Venetian Harbor of Rethymnon, next to the modern harbor of the city, with the Egyptian lighthouse is one of the most picturesque areas of the old town. It operated in the Byzantine period (after 961), but flourished during the Venetian period. The Venetians in the 14th century started major projects to facing the problem of siltation, which holds till today.
The old town of Rethymnon is a preserved Renaissance city that bears elements from both the Venetian and the Ottoman Era. In the old town there we meet the street markets of Arkadi and Antistaseos Streets. Above the old town we meet the imposing fortress of Fortezza that once protected Rethymnon. The picturesque narrow alleys housemany restaurants and taverns with traditional music.
It is based in the heart of the old historic town, under the Venetian wall and the Archaeological Museum. It is housed in a Venetian building that operated (in the early 20th century until the 70s) as a soap factory and is now a modern museum around covering about 1000 sq.m.
Fortezza fort dominates the hill Palekastro beside the old town of Rethymnon and is one of the biggest fortresses of the Venetian Era. It has been built on the site of the citadel of ancient Rithimna and the Temple of Artemis Rokkea. The grand pentagonal fort was built in the 1573 and has perimeter 1300m long.
The mosque of Mastabas, with the characteristic 9-dome architecture, is an authentic monument of Rethymnon and has been conceded to GNHM following a decision of the Ministry of Culture. Upon completion of restoration and of the relevant museological study, it will operate as a Museum of Palaeontology, being annex of Goulandris National History museum in Crete.