Many people come to Crete, the largest Greek island, to explore the ruins of the Minoan Palace of Knossos, the center of Europe’s oldest civilization. Fewer make their way 90 miles west to Chania, an ancient city on Crete’s northwest coast.
Recent excavations have uncovered the remains of a Minoan palace under modern Chania, making it among Europe’s oldest cities. In the four millennia since its founding, a series of empires, beginning with the Greeks and then the Romans, have imposed their religious views on the city’s architecture. For example, the Venetians, who gained control of the city in the late 13th century, built a long breakwater to protect the harbor and erected a lighthouse at the end of the breakwater to warn incoming ships. In 1320, they erected a Dominican monastery. When the Islamic Ottoman Empire defeated the Venetians in 1645, they converted the monastery into a mosque, erecting a 131-foot-tall minaret alongside the building, and later rebuilt the lighthouse to resemble a minaret. When the Greeks gained control of Chania after World War I, they converted the mosque into the Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. They then added a bell tower to the side of the church opposite the minaret, making St. Nicholas the only church in the world having both a minaret and a bell tower.
Chania, with a metropolitan population of about 100,000, is a delightfully walkable city. Be sure to stroll along the breakwater to the lighthouse. Although the recently restored lighthouse is closed, the site provides a magnificent view of Chania’s Old Town. You can then relax at one of the many outdoor cafes along the waterfront promenade and venture into Old Town’s narrow pedestrian-only streets, featured in the 1964 movie “Zorba the Greek,” which include a variety of interesting shops.