Together with Maria Kyvernitaki, an experienced tour guide, we visited the Venetian Fortezza in Rethymnon and meticulously crafted a virtual tour to showcase the grandeur and remarkable preservation of this historic monument.
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Fortezza, the East Gate
We enter the Fortezza through the main East Gate, an impressive archway protected by a semi-circular embrasure just over the arch. Unfortunately the Venetian coat of arms over the gate no longer exists.
The great inner door opens onto a long, cobbled, vaulted corridor. Treading on the stones worn smooth by time, it’s like entering a time tunnel for a trip to Rethymnon’s Venetian past.
You are here: East Gate = No 01
The Artillery Magazine
The Artillery Magazine, strategically located at the entrance to the Fortezza, is an example of historical military architecture. This two-storey building was mainly used for military storage, with the ground floor for cannons and the upper floor for small arms. Its strategic location near the entrance provided easy access for moving weapons in and out.
A notable feature of this structure is its sophisticated rainwater harvesting system, where the flat roofs channel rainwater into cisterns, the remains of which can still be seen.
In recent years, the Artillery Magazine has been carefully restored and used as a venue for cultural events and art exhibitions. The Fortezza, including the Artillery Magazine, is open to the public throughout the year and offers an insightful journey into historical military architecture, with panoramic views of the coastline of Rethymno city and adjacent urban landscapes.
Artillery Magazine = No 2
Santa Maria Bastion
Left of the entrance is the Bastion of Santa Maria (the Virgin) or St Paul. The guide explains that if we could see it in cross-section we would notice it is heart-shaped, a common shape in Venetian fortifications because it increased their defensive capacity.
On this bastion of the Fortezza we see some of the best-preserved gun embrasures, the paved corridors where cannon were laid to aim at the enemy through square openings in the outer wall of the fortress.
Cannonballs were piled on the raised stone platforms to left and right of each embrasure.
Santa Maria Bastion = No 3
The Erofili Theatre
Returning to the original path and heading straight west, we soon come to the demi-bastion of Sant’ Elia. Here is the modern Erofili Theatre, built in the 20th century and named after the famous play by the important Rethymnon-born poet of the Cretan Renaissance Georgios Hortatzis.
Today many cultural events are held in the Erofili theatre every summer as part of the Renaissance Festival organized by Rethymnon Municipality since 1987. The stage is set in a pretty amphitheatre, with tall, scented pine trees shading the seats below.
Erofili Theatre = No 4
Sant’ Elia Bastion
There is a lovely view from the Bastion of Sant’Elia (St Elias) and below us we see the Rethymnon neighbourhoods with small, old houses built in the shadow of the Fortezza.
Today these houses offer a fine view of the coast west of Rethymnon with the White Mountains in the background, but many centuries ago the original builders chose this site for the protection of the great fortress looming above them.
The bastion opposite (to the west) is that of San Lucca, the southwest bastion of the Fortezza.
Sant’ Elia Bastion = No 5
San Lucca Bastion
From the Erofili Theatre, the visitor has two choices. If you’re not in a hurry to get back to Rethymnon and want to explore the whole Fortezza, carry straight on. If you want a shorter walk, turn right and follow the paved road to the Mosque in the distance.
My guide and I aren’t in any hurry and want to explore every corner of the Fortezza, so we continue straight ahead. A little further on we see the fully restored, L-shaped cavalier bastion of San Lucca (St Luke). This cavalier bastion reinforced the defences, providing a gun platform raised above the main bastion. The impressive ramp used to bring up the cannon, ammunition and defenders is preserved in excellent condition.
San Lucca Bastion = No 6
Panoramic image with the view from the San Lucca Bastion
In this picture we see from left to right: the mosque, the storerooms of Fortezza and the old town of Rethymnon.
Continuing around the walls, we come to the western secondary gate. All that remains are some arched openings and an S-shaped cobbled road leading down to a small gate, kept barred today for safety reasons.
Over the gate are two twin covered embrasures which today, without their terrible guns, look to the casual eye more like storage sheds than an important part of the fortress defences.
Luckily the guide next to me knows the Fortezza inside out and explains the true purpose of these arches, so I’m glad she’s here to keep me informed.
West Gate = No 7
View to the West
In this wide image you can see the west part of Rethymnon town and the White Mountains. The building with the dome-like roof is a gunpowder magazine in Fortezza
The Church of Agia Ekaterini
From this area of the Fortezza we won’t go straight on – although we could – in order to present our tour of the fortress more clearly. We return towards the Erofili Theatre and then turn left, towards the mosque visible in the background.
Walking along the cobbled path, the first building on our right is the Orthodox church of Agia Ekaterini (St Catherine), dating from the late 19th century.
Just to the north, next to the mosque, is the so-called Bishop’s Palace, dating to the 16th century. This is an imposing building, preserved in good condition, which was probably originally used as the seat and residence of the Catholic bishop.
Saint Catherine Church = No 8
Next to the Bishop’s Palace is the Fortezza mosque with its impressive dome. It was originally built by the Venetians in the 16th century as the Catholic Cathedral of St Nicholas. Following the fall of Rethymnon to the Turks, it was converted into the Ottoman Mosque of the Sultan Ibrahim Han.
The mosque is a well-made square building with a massive dome and a minaret whose base is the only part still preserved, on the west side. Inside, the mihrab (prayer niche) is set in the centre of the southeast wall, facing Mecca.
Unfortunately the mosque is closed to the public, so we could only just glimpse the mihrab through the window.
Mosque = No 9
The Residence of the Rector of Rethymnon
Opposite the mosque is preserved part of the Rector’s Residence or Palazzo Publico complex. The Rector was the Venetian Governor of Rethymnon.
This is an exceptionally well-constructed building, once imposing and luxurious, completed in 1581. Today only a small section remains, which may have been used as a prison.
Residence of the Rector = No 10
Panoramic image of the Mosque and the Rector’s Residence
You can see from left to right: the Rector’s residence, the mosque and the church of Agia Ekaterini (Saint Catherine)
The Councillors’ Residence
Behind the Rector’s Residence you can see the Councillors’ Residence. The Rector, Governor of Rethymnon Province, ruled with the help of two Councillors, one of whom lived in the Fortezza.
Although the two-storey building was modified during the Turkish occupation, it has retained most of its original Renaissance character. Now restored, it houses the antiquities conservation workshop.
Councillors’ Residence = No 11
Along the north wall of the Fortezza were placed the powder magazines and a series of food storerooms and water cisterns. This area was chosen because it is the safest side, far from the main line of fire.
The storeroom archways divided the storerooms into smaller spaces and supported the roof.
Store Rooms = No 12
We continue our tour of the Fortezza, walking east along the outer wall above the sea. Our attention is drawn to a small pyramid-shaped building.
This is one of the gunpowder magazines, open on the north side so that the sea breeze would always keep the powder dry.
Gunpowder Magazine = No 13
Church of Agios Theodoros
Following the path, we come to the Bastion of San Niccol (St Nicholas). Here is a building with a double-arched roof, which may have been a workshop of some kind.
Right next to it is the Orthodox church of Agios Theodoros Trichinas. This was built in 1899 by the Russian Governor of Rethymnon, Theodore de Hiostak, during the period of the Cretan State (1898-1913).
Today many inhabitants of Rethymnon choose to hold a plain and simple wedding at this little church in the pretty pine copse.
Rethymnon Archaeological Museum
Taking the paved path just in front of the church of Agios Theodoros, we walk down to the Fortezza entrance where we started our tour. Our guide has done a wonderful job and managed to give us a full picture of the impressive fortress.
Outside the entrance to the Fortezza is the Rethymnon Archaeological Museum, there since 1991, which houses important archaeological collections from different periods of the town’s history. It’s well worth visiting so as to get a better idea of the centuries-long history of Rethymnon.
Art lovers may like to visit the Kanakakis Gallery, with works of modern art by local artists, near the Fortezza and the old harbour.
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