THE HOSTING CITY: HERAKLION
Capital of Crete
Heraklion is the capital of Crete. With more than 170,000 inhabitants, Heraklion forms the largest urban area on the island, as well as its administrative, economic, and commercial center. Over one fourth of Crete’s total population lives there, placing Heraklion in the top five largest cities in Greece.
Lying at the center of Crete’s northern coastline, Heraklion is connected with all major cities on the island via its national road. The economy of Heraklion focuses on tourism, services and agriculture. The whole island is among the most popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean and Heraklion is its international hub. The “Nikos Kazantzakis” Airport is the second busiest in Greece, whereas the port of the city welcomes daily numerous ferries along with cruise and cargo ships. Many of the products that are transported are rooted in agriculture. Supported by its mild climate, Crete is home to fruits, legumes and olive oil, the basis of the Cretan diet, famous for its benefits on health and span of life.
The city has many attributes, various styles of architecture as well as a rich cultural life. Some of the main attractions of Heraklion are the Venetian fortress and loggia, the Archaeological Museum and the site of Knossos, arguably the oldest city in Europe. Many artists come from Heraklion, the most famous one being Domenicos Theotokopoulos, commonly known as El Greco, the works of whom are known all around the world.
In its long history Heraklion not always had joyful periods. The city has been marked by numerous conquerors and physical phenomena that have literally changed the flow of its history. Some of its biggest catastrophes have been caused by earthquakes and volcano eruptions.
Earthquakes are very common in Crete as the island lies on the southern edge of the Aegean Sea Plate, under which the African Plate is submerging. The fault length created by this ongoing activity has subjected Heraklion, and Crete as a whole, to numerous earthquakes, sometimes with catastrophic results. For example, it is estimated that in 1810 one third of the buildings of the city had suffered multiple damages during an earthquake that was felt all the way to Cyprus and northern Africa.
Even though Crete isn’t known for its eruptions, Heraklion is only 110 km (around 68 miles) south of Santorini, an island in the Aegean Sea marked by volcanic action. This has been proven quite unfortunate in the past. For instance, historians mention that there was an eruption on September 1650 at Kolumbo, a submarine volcano, around 8 km (almost 5 miles) northeast of Santorini. Consequently, a tsunami was created, which reached the shores of Heraklion. As the city was under siege at the time by the Ottomans, its defenders regarded the incident as a bad omen.
Nevertheless, the most prominent eruption in the area had already happened more than 3000 years before. In the 16th century BCE, the volcano of Santorini produced one of the largest explosions in human history. The results were dire: a large part of the island plunged into the sea, earthquakes and tsunamis emerged and the coasts within reach were severely hit. Crete was no exception. The Minoan civilization was affected to such a degree that the phenomenon is mostly known today as the “Minoan eruption”.
All these natural catastrophes have shaped the landscape of Crete. As a result, its inhabitants have shown numerous times their will to endure every adversity that has come their way. For example, during the Second World War, the Battle of Crete is regarded as the first time that the German army faced such a strong resistance from the local population. Perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), one of the biggest Greek writers and a native of Heraklion, has summed up best the continuous battle of Crete for survival. Buried on the Venetian walls of the city, his epitaph reads: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free”.
Heraklion and its chief port is full of history and attractions in and around the Old City.
The most notable monument along the port is the 16th-century Venetian Fort of Koules. Fishing boats line the shore, where a walkway runs along the waterfront. Across the road but fronting the port are the Venetian Arsenals, easily recognizable by the stone facade and huge archways. is where the Venetians repaired their ships. To the west of the harbor, the scenic promenade stretches along the sea and is lined with seafood restaurants.
Five kilometers southeast of Heraklion lies Crete’s biggest and best-preserved Minoan site and one of the most important tourist attractions, the Palace of Knossos. A vast monumental palace, with four wings built around a spacious central courtyard, Knossos is believed to have been the mythical Labyrinth of King Minos. Remarkably sophisticated, it included ceremonial spaces, living areas, storage rooms, elaborate decoration, and a complex drainage system. Buses from the Old Town leave every 15 minutes for Knossos during the summer season, making it extremely easy to visit. If you have your own car, parking is free.