The Relaxed Capital of the Prefecture

Rethymnon is the commercial and administrative centre of the Rethymnon Prefecture which is one of the four Prefectures in which Crete is divided. Rethymnon has approx. 35.000 inhabitants. The town preserves much of its Venetian and Turkish appearance, with old aristocratic buildings dating from the 16th century, arched doorways, stone staircases, Byzantine and Hellenic-Roman remains, mosques, a small Venetian harbour and a myriad of narrow streets. Just east of Rethymnon lies one of the largest sand beaches in Crete (12 km) and to the west a rocky coastline ends up in another large sand beach.

Rethymnon. The Venetian harbour, Crete. Copyright Rodney Aarup

A short history of Rethymnon

Rethymnon is built on the site of the ancient town Rithymna that dates from the Mycenean era. From around 400BC to 310BC Rithymnia was an autonomous city state. Then from 310BC to 277BC it was under Egyptian rule and after a short independent period it became once more affiliated to Egypt and renamed Arsinoe. It lost its importance and gradually dwindled into just a large village. From 67BC it was ruled by the Romans like the rest of Crete.

In the 13th century during the Venetian occupation of Crete, Rethymnon regained importance. The Venetians used Rethymnon as an intermediary port for the ships travelling from Herakleion to Chania. And as Rethymnon also became an administrative centre, Rethymnon gradually grew into becoming the third largest town in Crete. The town was attacked and partly destroyed several times; in 1538 by the Algerian pirate Khidr Khayr ad-Din Barbarossa, in 1567 and 1571 by the Ottomans and finally in 1646 in came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire - as did the rest of Crete in 1669.

The Ottoman rule lasted until 1898 where after the Russian army held the town until 1909. In 1913 Rethymnon like the rest of Crete became part of Greece. Especially over the last three decades, Rethymnon has experienced a significant economical growth due to tourism and partly thanks to being home to a branch of the University of Crete, Rethymnon has also won a reputation as a cultural centre of Crete.


The Venetian Fortress

Rethymnon is completely dominated by the fortress at the top of a low hill named 'Palaiokastro'. It was built in 1590 to protect the city from the pirates raids and the Turks and it is the largest Venetian fortress ever built. The name 'Palaiokastro' means 'The old Castle'. Even the Ventian called it so when the fortress was newly built so there must have been an even older building on the site. Probably the acropolis of the ancient town of Rithymnia.

The interior of the Fortezza accommodated storeroom for canons and weapons, a residence of the two Venetian Councillors of Rethymnon and the residence of the Rector - a luxurious building in the central square of the fortress. Some of these buildings, as well as of some others built later, can be seen. Also, the view from the fortress is magnificent.

The municipal theatre "Erofili" has an outdoor theatre here. The theatre hosts the performances during the Renaissance Festival in July - August which the Municipality of Rethymnon has organised annually since 1987.

Other sights in Rethymnon

The Rimondi Fountain. Rethymnon, Crete

The Rimondi Fountain is situated in a corner of the Platanos square in the centre of the old Venetian town. It was built in 1626 by the Venetian Rector or Governor, Rimondi. The water runs from three lions’ heads into three basins. There are four Corinthian columns with acanthus-leaves on the capitals that supports an architrave where one can still read the words 'Liberalitatis' and 'fontes'.

Another significant building which you will probably see if you take a stroll in the old centre of Rethymnon is the Venetian Loggia. An elegant building of the 16th century, that used to be a Venetian gentlemen's club. Today it houses the information office of the Ministry of Culture and functions as a sales point of the archaeological museum selling replica of huge classical Greek statues.

Remnants from the Ottoman rule can also be found. The Music Conservatory in Rethymnon is housed in what used to be the Neratzes Mosque, which again used to be an old Venetian Church. The mosque is normally closed to the public, but concerts are sometimes given. Next to the mosque there is the impressive minaret, built in 1890.

Another mosque, the Kara Mousa Pasa Mosque used to be a Venetian monastery. Today it houses the Restoration Board of Rethymnon.

The 'Porta Guora' is the entrance to the old Venetian town. It is the only remnant of the defensive wall that used to encircle the town.

Outside the old town The Municipal Gardens are ideal if you're looking for a shady tranquil place. Unless of course if you happen to be there when some of the various activities that are organized here take place. The Wine Festival is held there annually at the beginning of July. Another festival is held on 7-8th of November, in memory of the destruction of Arkadi Monastery.

Museums in Rethymnon

The Folklore & History Museum (Vernardou 28-30. Open Monday to Friday 09.30AM - 2.30PM. Closed Saturday and Sunday.) The museum is housed in a restored Venetian building with an interior courtyard. There are eight halls with collections that include textile and basket weaving, embroidery & lace, costumes, ceramics, historic photographs and maps, weapons and coins. All in all there are over 5.000 items dating from the 17th to the 20th century on display.

The Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon (8am to 3pm, closed on Monday) is situated just opposite the entrance of the Palaiokastro Fortress. the Museum exhibits objects from the Neolithic to the Roman period, found at the Prefecture of Rethymnon (mainly the sites at Eleftherna, Monastiraki and Armeni). Clay figurines, funerary coffers, grave offerings, statues, grave steles, red-figure vases, bronze vessels, jewellery and glass vases, are some of the objects on display.