The main city in western Crete, Chania, is one of the most appealing on the island. Its setting, lively harbour, historical remains, busy market, museums and nearby beaches make it the ideal spot in many ways. It retains its unique charm and character no matter how many more visitors pack into the streets of the city whose name is variously spelt as Chania, Khania, Hania or Kania.
However you spell it, it doesn’t take long to fall under Chania’s spell. It's big enough to have all the facilities of a city, as well the other features listed above, but small enough for anyone to quickly find their way round and start to feel at home in. It is a small city, on a human scale, with an identifiable character about it.
The setting undoubtedly helps. To the north are the sparkling blue waters of the Sea of Crete, while to the south is the Lefka Ori range of mountains, the White Mountains that are the backbone of this end of the island. If you choose your harbour cafe carefully, you may be able to see snow-topped mountains and azure seas at the same time.
Parts of the waterfront are lined with tall mansions, looking at certain times not unlike Venice, and the Venetians are just one of several groups of people who have made their impact on this beautiful mongrel of a place. It was, naturally, an important Minoan city, but one which we know less about as the modern city has been added layer after layer on top of the Minoan remains. The Minoan city was called Kydonia, and the site is being excavated within the city boundaries.
Chania's Archaeological Museum
The best finds from Kydonia are on display in Chania’s Archaeological Museum, which is also rich in remains from several other sites in western Crete. It has a good pottery collection, and several good sculptures and mosaics. The building itself is also of interest, although the outside belies the interior. It was once the Venetian Church of San Francesco, and later converted by the Turks into a mosque. The remnants of a minaret and a fountain can be seen in a lovely little courtyard.
Mosque of the Janissaries
The Turkish influence can be seen elsewhere, such as the Mosque of the Janissaries right on the harbour, dating from 1645 and the oldest surviving Ottoman building on Crete. It was damaged during World War II, then restored and for many years made an unmissable Tourist Information Centre, but today it is used occasionally for exhibitions.
The Nautical Museum
The bulk of the harbour shows Chania’s Venetian aspect, especially in the restored Firkas fortress. It’s an interesting if small place to wander round, with good views of the harbour, and in one of its towers is the Nautical Museum with its collection of model ships and accounts of sea battles in the waters off the coast. Even if you are not a naval type, it is worth visiting to see an incredibly detailed scale model of Chania as it was in the 17th century, town as well as harbour, including the 16th-century Venetian Arsenali, or boat yards, which can also still be seen on the harbour. The Nautical Museum also contains one of the most vivid accounts of the Battle of Crete that you will see anywhere on the island.
The Folklore Museum
Chania also has a Folklore Museum, tucked away in the southeastern corner of the city but well worth walking out to, perhaps stopping off on the way at the busy Central Market. The museum is housed in what was obviously a once-elegant town house, when this area was one of Chania’s more fashionable districts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In among the memorabilia of local worthies, meaning little to the foreign visitor, are some gems including excellent information on the Cretan resistance Movement during World War II, and the earlier struggle for independence from the Turks. Some of the graphic displays of events during the German occupation are not for the faint-hearted, but will tell you a lot about the Cretan spirit and character.
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