In my last post, W1702 – Almost Egypt, I described how I almost visited Egypt – how I stayed on board the ship at our first port in that country, and how our visits to the other two planned ports were cancelled due to security concerns. I also described our transit of the Suez Canal, which runs through Egypt, and how as we exited the Canal our Captain announced that we would be visiting Heraklion in Crete as a replacement to the cancelled ports in Egypt.
Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, the 88th largest island in the world and the 5th largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, lying some 160 km south of the mainland of Greece. It was once the centre of the Minoan civilization (c. 2700–1420 BC), which is currently regarded as the earliest recorded civilization in Europe. Crete is 260 km wide from east to west, and from north to south it is 60 km at it’s widest point, but narrows to as little as 12 km at it’s narrowest point.
Heraklion is the largest city and the administrative capital of the island of Crete, and it is the fourth largest city in Greece. It was founded by the Muslims in 824, who built a moat around the city and made it the capital of the Emirate of Crete. In 961 it was attacked by Byzantine forces, who laid siege to the city. Eventually the city fell, the inhabitants were slaughtered and the city looted and razed to the ground. It was soon rebuilt and remained under Greek control for the next 243 years.
In 1204, the city was bought by the Republic of Venice as part of a complicated political deal. The Venetians built enormous fortifications, most of which are still in place, including a giant wall, in places up to 40 m thick, with 7 bastions, and a fortress in the harbour. After the Venetians came the Ottoman Empire. During the Cretan War (1645-1669), the Ottomans besieged the city for 21 years, from 1648 to 1669, perhaps the longest siege in history. In its final phase, which lasted for 22 months, 70,000 Turks, 38,000 Cretans and slaves and 29,088 of the city’s Christian defenders perished.
In 1898, the autonomous Cretan State was created, under Ottoman suzerainty, with Prince George of Greece as its High Commissioner and under international supervision. In 1913, with the rest of Crete, Heraklion was incorporated into the Kingdom of Greece. Heraklion became capital of Crete in 1971, replacing Chania.
The day after transiting the Suez Canal was spent mostly at sea crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and we sailed into Heraklion around 5:30 in the afternoon. I was amused to see an additional four-legged crew member in a bright orange life jacket on board the pilot boat as it delivered our pilot:
Sailing into the port it was quite a shock to see snow lying on the ground at the top of the mountains behind the city. It had been very noticeable how much cooler and fresher the weather was since we had left the Suez Canal, but we certainly didn’t think it was that cold!
From the ship I also had good views of the Venetian fortress of Rocca al Mare, and two Greek Orthodox churches amongst all the buildings on the hillside:
The ship was staying in port overnight, and through the following day until 8pm. Some of the passengers promptly went ashore to eat in the city, but Carol and I remained on board until the following morning.
We had booked a coach tour with three stops which we hoped would give us as good as possible flavour of the island in one morning. The first stop was at the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George Selinaris. Although we were unable to enter most of the buildings, we could view a tiny chapel that was beautifully decorated inside:
The coach then continued the journey east along the north coast of Crete to a viewpoint overlooking Elounda Bay. Here we stopped for a few minutes to take pictures of Elounda and the island of Spinalonga far below:
It was then a short drive to our final and longest stop, at the coastal town of Agios Nikolaos. Here the coach parked up on the quayside, and we had an hour to explore the town by ourselves. The town proved to be very attractive, with an outer harbour full of boats, and also an inner one that used to be a lake called Voulismeni until an entranceway was cut through to the sea in 1870. Historically it was thought that the lake was bottomless, in fact it is 64m deep.
There were a number of streets full of interesting shops, and we also found a tiny and much larger churches, both beautifully decorated inside once more:
Carol and I would have happily spent far longer exploring the town, way too soon it was time to return to the coach for the return journey to our ship.
After lunch and a short rest on board ship, Carol and I set off on foot to explore Heraklion. We walked along the seafront, past the huge Venetian city walls, to the Rocca al Mare fortress, only to find it had just closed for the day.
We then walked up into the shopping area, where there were a few impressive buildings to be seen, as well as many touristy shops similar to those we had seen earlier in Agios Nikolaos:
After walking around and in some of the shops for a while we headed back to our ship, pausing on a bench overlooking the harbour for a time watching the people and boats on the move.
Despite much of the day being disappointingly cloudy, Carol and I very much found our unexpected day in Heraklion, Crete to be a treat; and we also appreciated being somewhere safe rather than being in Egypt with it’s ongoing troubles.
That evening we set sail for our next, and sadly penultimate port on this epic cruise, Valletta in Malta. Our adventures there will be the subject of my next post.
Postscript: I hope that this post makes as much sense as my posts normally do, as much of it was written this afternoon while I was under the ‘affluence of incahol’. Today we had a fabulous gala lunch for all the passengers about to complete sailing all around the world, at which the wine freely flowed. Those who know me will know that normally I don’t drink alcohol at all, and will therefore be amazed that I quaffed a couple of Bellinis during the meal. Carol was most interested to see what happened when I tried to walk away from the table afterwards, but to my surprise I was able to make it safely to my cabin without incident. Phew!