Rethymnon is the third largest town in Crete with a population of about 20.000 and combines the rarely united features of old town charm and history together with the proximity to a long, sandy beach. It preserves much of its Venetian and Turkish appearance and has a provincial rather than a city feeling to it.
It is a sea-side town built on an expanse of land that was once the site of the Minoan settlement of Rethimna and is dominated by the huge fortress, the largest ever built by the Venetians, that was constructed between 1573 and 1580. As you meander through the maze of narrow alleyways behind the fortress you can almost imagine what life must have been like four or five hundred years ago.
The Venetian harbour is very atmospheric, especially for evening dining or even a just day time coffee stop. Behind the harbour and the fortress are many small, narrow streets with shops, bars and places to eat. The fortress dominates the city and with its pedestrian streets below strewn with charming old buildings it makes some very photogenic sights. Venetian influence abounds and the minarets and domed mosques are a reminder of the Turkish influence long gone. However, many of the cafes have an ultra-modern design, and old and new combine to make a buzzing town. Take a look at the Neratze Mosque which is now an art centre.
Connecting the old town and the new is a long stretch of sandy beach. Along the coastal road tiny villages have sprung up with names such as Platanias, Adele, and Stavromenos, all of which offer easy access to glorious sandy beaches and the azure waters of Crete where you can relax and while away the day. Night life can be lively with many restaurants, tavernas and cafes bars to enjoy. Let’s not forget the wine festival that takes place every July or the fabulous carnival that takes place every March and is renown throughout Crete.
Inland from Rethymnon town is Arkadi, the most famous historic monastery on Crete. Its name is bound up with the liberation of the island and it has passed into history as a symbol of freedom and altruism. The date of the foundation of the monastery is unknown but it is thought that the first fortress-like complex was founded before the 14th century by a monk called Arkadio. There is a two-aisled church in the form of a basilica built in 1587. The extensive library of the monastery and indeed a large part of the monastery itself were destroyed by the Turks in 1845. Later, when the Turks extended limited privileges to the monastery, it was rebuilt, and despite the heavy taxes that were levied it managed to prosper. In 1866 when the Cretan revolution was proclaimed, the leaders of the revolt gathered here to plan their uprising. The Turkish commander demanded that the abbot, Gabriel Marinaki, expel the revolutionary committee otherwise he said he would destroy the monastery. At his refusal, Mustafa Pasha gathered a tactical force of about 15000 and set off on the 7th November 1866 for Arkadi. There were 964 people in the monastery of which 325 were combatants, the rest women and children. After two days of fighting the main door was broken down and on 9th November the Turkish army entered the monastery. Those who had survived within the monastery, seeing their defense had failed, blew themselves up along with a number of their attackers. The holocaust of Arkadi became a symbol of freedom, spurring international public opinion to voice itself on the subject of the Cretan struggle. The buildings that had been destroyed were restored after 1866.
On the south coast you’ll come across the Monastery of Preveli that dates back to the 16th or 17th century. The two aisled basilica church was built in 1836, destroyed in 1866, and subsequently rebuilt in 1911. Over the course of centuries the fortified location of the monastery made it a refuge for hunted freedom fighters and a centre of revolutionary activity. During the revolution of 1866 it harboured such freedom fighters and for that reason was destroyed by Resit Pasha. During the Second World War it was once again a centre of resistance, this time against the Germans who stripped it bare in retribution and took the Holy Cross with the intention of taking it back to Germany. However, the plane carrying the cross was unable to take-off from the airport at Maleme for some unknown reason. This was attributed to a wonder, because as soon as the cross was returned to the monastery the plane was able to take off. After 1941 the monastery became a centre of escape for allied armies.
The Rethymnon region has a diverse landscape with imposing mountains. There are gorges to be walked, ancient sites to be visited, time trodden villages to be discovered, and beautiful sandy beaches to be lazed upon, not forgetting the hospitality that will give you a true feeling of belonging.
Argiropolis is an ancient village and a nice inland drive from Episkopis, close to Georgioupolis. As you enter the village, to the right hand side, inside the small tunnel, there is a shop selling skin care products from avocado made in the small factory above the shop. Ask here for a map of the village as there are some interesting features. The owner is very helpful and speaks English (Canadian-Greek). Take the road down to the waterfall. Opposite the waterfall there are a couple of restaurants in picturesque surroundings. Walk down to the Church of the Five Virgins and see the fountain and the 2000 year old plane tree.