Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Crete's capital deserves an homage and that's what I attempted in an essay for a major newspaper but their headline didn't quite work—so here's my original version, with a few additions. Lean into Heraklion, a Mediterranean city quite illogically unloved.
Crete is no lightweight Mediterranean island. To understand this it helps to approach its capital of Irakleio by boat from where you will see the long line of jagged peaks rising up as if throwing out an eternal terrestrial challenge to the Cretan Sea: “You talkin’ to us?” But as mighty as the Cretan ranges are, they are also cryptic. This is not the easy languor of Amalfi or Corfu. This topography is tough.
Irakleio too is not a town to wear its heart on its sleeve – fortunately I was forewarned of this and never expected it to. At first it can seem rather a hard and inscrutable place, and much unloved save for one exceptional, very well-known museum.
The Minoan civilization was Europe's first. In art the Minoans generally look pretty happy, even when they're leaping over bulls. They were big on international trade too, just like the Venetians whose imprint on the modern cities of Crete runs deep.
And those famously unsentimental Venetians held Heraklion close even while the rest of the island slipped from their grasp. Venice’s most obvious traces remain in the form of the thick fortifications that still define the old city’s perimeter – guarding the softer urban heart for more than eight centuries now.
Wrong side of the wall?
For a travel writer, the less famous towns come as something of a relief. The immense pleasures that came with doing a guidebook on Paris, I well recall, were bundled with burden: how to frame a city that has both bedazzled and befuddled chroniclers of place since time immemorial? How to pinpoint the best, while leaving out nothing, in a city where the tiniest detail can reveal more than any towering, Instagram-friendly monument ever could?
I had no such turmoil in Irakleio – an outwardly anodyne port city named after Hercules, and the biggest burg on a large, all-season island. I arrived with no long lists of sights to check off, or Michelin stars before which to genuflect. In fact, the easiest thing would have been to clamber off the ferry and take a taxi straight to my hotel. But straight lines are not Irakleio’s forte, and my suitcase has wheels. As I arrive, I figure I’ll see a side of Irakleio that I’m not supposed to see: the part outside the walls.
“I hate Irakleio!” an Athenian friend had sniffed, incredulous as to why I would spend three nights in the city instead of heading directly to the nearest beach resort. I keep this in mind as I draw farther away from the port, realizing as my phone battery dies that the one essential ingredient that makes Crete what it is – the sea – is largely absent from the life of its largest town.
Cryptic, as I said, but not unlikeable. And although my GPS is down, I’m in no particular hurry. I wheel my suitcase up the main thoroughfare of Ethnikis Antistaseos, in the hopes of reaching Leoforos Dimokratias, but then I see a great looking bakery with people who look effortlessly tanned and relaxed, and decide it’s as good a time as any to give up. Time to take a break and revel in an iced espresso and the absence of tourists who think wearing socks with sandals is the way to go. The street is Ikarous, I think, but it’s a sultry evening and I’m not taking notes. Who would be? In a place like this you don't write it down, you breathe it in...
That said, I do mentally note a beautiful new-looking AB grocery store and a big hair salon before losing my way and climbing up a hill to find Dimokratias. It’s the long way, but I don’t mind. I walk through some kind of park where people look happier and less rushed than in Athens, and I stop in front of the Monument of National Resistance. The sky glows soft purple. I continue on down the avenue towards the Galaxy Hotel, passing many an inviting little restaurant and café, and don’t think of Minoan civilization even once. I can feel guilty about this later, I decide, and take corrective action as necessary.
Semi-desperately Seeking La Serenissima
I’m grateful to the chief god in these parts – who just so happens to be Zeus – for freeing me from any obligation to check off a list of sights to see. How pedestrian that would be, and contrary to the spirit of the place. And the spirit I feel here is far more akin to that of Venice (with apologies to native son and Zorba author, Nikos Kazantzakis) than it is to that of Athens. I feel in the bold strokes – the mighty walls with their poetically named bastions like Martinego and Saint Andreas, the brooding Koules sea fortress, as well as in the lighter flourishes.
There’s the Morosini fountain at Liontaria, or Lion’s Square where everyone seems to end up before deciding which café to park themselves in. The lion figures in the fountain aren’t large, you would almost want to tickle their chins were they not made of stone. I’m reminded that the old Venetian Doge Francesco Morosini seemed to have a thing for cats, even filching the famous lion of Piraeus to have it stand guard in Venice instead. But I see that it helps to adopt a feline attitude as you wander around the center; only then, one step at a time, will you perceive a faded lion of St. Mark chiseled into the upper portion of one of the ramparts, or an old stone arch dating from a messier Cretan time in an otherwise refurbished building.
I skip the cafes and continue walking down August 25th Street, past the exceedingly lovely two-story Loggia which our friend Morosini was responsible for rebuilding in 1628, and which now houses offices for the city of Irakleio. All that’s missing is a canal in front, but never underestimate Venetian sleight of hand; as the avenue slopes gently down to the sea, and the pastel façades become more fanciful, with the light spilling up from the Mediterranean I realize that gondolas or not, I am in the middle of Irakleio’s answer to the Grand Canal itself. But Cretans are proud, so I keep this thought to myself.
Fake stars, lunch and a haircut
After a few nights at the Galaxy, a hotel where the modern features and warm welcomes (and very delicious freshly-cooked breakfasts with a memorable parrot-bright array of fresh-squeezed fruit juice “shots”) essentially makes me fall in love with it, I abscond to more modest quarters on Idomeneos Street, near the harbor. To economize even further I take a room on the first floor facing the street; any sunlight is blocked by a nicer hotel across the way and the roar of the planes taking off from the airport nearby was a constant. The breakfast is sadder than a 2AM Donald Trump tweet so I skip it. I do the unthinkable in a foreign city: I sleep the day away. An airplane wakes me up and it’s early in the evening. I head down Epimenidou Street to August 24, stop at a brightly-lit kiosk for an iced coffee drink and head to the waterfront.
The Cretan Sea in front of me is black, the fish tavernas are brimming with laughter and I’m alone looking at a hundred points of light rising in the distance to the west. I could be a on a boat and those lights could be stars, but they are just the lights from houses on the hillsides beyond Irakleio. The next day I will explore the western fortifications: the bastions of Saint Andreas, Pantokratoros, Bethlehem…I learn that the publication of the The Last Temptation of Christ gave cause for the Greek Orthodox Church to excommunicate Kazantzakis, and that as a consequence his tomb is not part of any cemetery but rather at the Martinego bastion. From my viewpoint, he is the one who’s sitting pretty.
I was told I had to go to a restaurant called Peskesi for an authentic Cretan lunch, so I went. It is fantastic. The tomatoes are a revelation, as is the array of Cretan cheeses and slender medallions of pork grilled with Cretan herbs and honey and theatrically presented. But I am also enthralled by a banana-flavored cola drink that I am told is much-loved by the locals. I hate to admit it, but it is good – and if not good for my body, at least I can say the libation is locally sourced. In fact it sets off a chain reaction of additional discoveries, such as locally made and absolutely luscious “Love Bites” – essentially little granola squares in a variety of flavors and all with glorious Cretan honey as a sweetener. Later, as I drift from periptero (kiosk) to periptero I make the discovery of discoveries: chocolate-covered baklava wrapped up a like a candy bar so you can buy dozens and stuff your suitcase with them. Not that I would ever do such a thing…
Other Irakleio peculiarities: walking the streets of the city you cannot help but notice how many barbershops there are. I have no idea why, and conduct no survey, but it seems the men of the city are a tad obsessional when it comes to their beards and hair (and they look that much the better for it). I decide to get a haircut myself, though I don’t really need one. I spot a nice looking barbershop in Milatou Street and enter; it’s noon so it’s not busy. A young Cretan whose elegance reminds me of the Prince of the Lilies (but with shorter hair and no headdress) does the job and half an hour later I’m hitting the streets of Irakleio looking more cosmopolitan and café-ready than ever.
Driving in Irakleio – or, are you actually insane?
No one tells me that you’re not really supposed to drive down August 25th Street, but then I do not think to ask. I just, you know, rent a little car and give driving a go. But the guidebook clutchers are already looking at me quizzically as I approach 18 Agglon Square, but I cannot clear it because a delivery truck without a driver in it is completely blocking my way in the front, while tourists thronging behind me are making my Plan B of backing up to angle for a side street an impossible dream. After five long minutes of being stuck like a goat on a boat, I fully expect the Irakleio police to swoop in and arrest me; mercifully the driver returns and gives me a hand signal for the all clear. This will be the nicest hand signal I will receive all day.
As I navigate the maze of byzantine byways with names like Gorgolaini, Savathianon, Vourdoubadon and Valestra, I am both captivated by the nomenclature and completely tangled in the web. Here and there I spot what appear to be remnants of Venetian architecture, or maybe it’s just my imagination getting the better of me. In any event, I will let no opportunity for an Instagram-worthy photo op to escape without a fight, and they are coming at me fast and furious. In fact, the narrower the streets get, the more photogenic flourishes they seem to offer. The problem is there is nowhere to park— certainly nowhere legal—and I rapidly discover that pulling up on the sidewalk to snap an Instagram, to show the world how really quite cool this unloved city is, is a not a move widely appreciated by other Irakleio drivers. After an hour or so of fitful stops and starts, I’m wishing for a donkey because my odyssey on four wheels leaves me feeling like an ass. My advice? When in Heraklion's old town, support your local taxi driver.
Knossos is not the countryside
But I still have the car! Which brings me to the next day. The Minoan palace ruins of Knossos are just a few miles from the center, so I make that my first stop. Now Knossos is clearly significant, clearly very crowded and clearly not the countryside. I realize that Crete is far longer than it is wide and to my way of thinking the former hippie enclave of Matala, 40 miles or so to the south, is not so far. So bye bye Knossos tourist buses, and hello Highway 97 leading to the south coast and a beach called Kommos, next to which are the partially excavated ruins of an ancient Minoan port.
The giant curve of the Libyan Sea coast is one of hypnotic beauty, the byproduct of a wedding between mountain and sea at which I’m just an uninvited bystander. This thought weighs on my indulgence to the extent that I leave the area both revitalized and somewhat perplexed. An Irakleio state of mind, you might say, and not by any means a complaint. It intensifies as I head north back to the quixotic city.