Friday, July 16, 2021

July 16th – Heraklion - A Tale of Two Islands

What a difference a day makes! Heraklion (the capital of Crete) today was looking so much better than Limassol had.

There’s a lot of similarities between Crete and Cyprus – they’re both big islands of a similar size (the 5th and 3rd biggest Mediterranean islands respectively); they were both late to get their freedom from the Ottomans; they both have excellent ancient sites to visit; and they’re both incredibly popular with tourists.

However, the differences in the atmosphere of Heraklion and Limassol were marked. Heraklion was busy, it seemed prosperous and well cared for, and there seemed a good balance between the local market and the tourist market.

From the right angles, Heraklion can look very attractive – its elegant Venetian buildings and sturdy Venetian fortifications look pretty good; but it would be overstating it to say that the town is a thing of beauty. Away from the busy pedestrianised streets of the centre, most of the rest of town is a densely packed jumble of concrete buildings, but it still seemed a pleasant place to live, with plenty of neighbourhood tavernas and ouzeries – in fact, there seemed to be an unfeasibly large number of places to eat in the town as a whole.

We started our exploring with a walk along the waterfront (the sea breezes made a welcome break from the intense heat), and we called in at the National Historical Museum to get more background on Crete’s history, and particularly to see the only two El Greco’s to be housed on the island of the great artist’s birth. These were only minor examples of his work, but It was fascinating to see the contrast between his fluid and colourful works, and the rigid poses of the Cretan icons displayed all around – it was obvious that the influence of Venice went far beyond the fortifications and loggias of its architecture.

We then found an off-the-beaten-track taverna for lunch – great food and excellent service at incredibly reasonable prices. It’s obvious that this town hasn’t sold its soul to the tourist market.

Our final task was to get up onto the huge Venetian walls that surround the city. They were huge – strong enough to withstand what’s thought to be the second longest siege in history, 21 years, before falling to the Ottomans in 1669. From that height you’d have got great views over the city (if it weren’t almost entirely modern and characterless in profile), but the main impression was just what a huge engineering project it must have been – they were at least 15 metres wide all the way round, and in places they were wide enough to accommodate full-size football pitches.

But, our shadeless wall walk finally wore us out, and it was time to return to the air-conditioning of the ship. I haven’t been to Heraklion for a few years, but I was impressed by how it’s doing.