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Rethymno’s Fortezza crowns a great craggy rock over the town on the northern shore of Crete.

Rethymno’s Fortezza

Rethymno’s Fortezza crowns a great craggy rock over the town on the northern shore of Crete, sure to draw the eye whether you’re immediately under its towering thick and sloping walls, or marvelling from the distant hills as you drive by, its honey-ochre stone perfectly set against the vivid blue of Crete’s seas. From either viewpoint it dominates your perception of the town: it feels enormous, impregnable and a sure symbol of safety. It’s a clear marker of the Venetian investment in the town and island.

And in the sixteenth century, it was all too necessary. The Aegean had hardly been a lake of calm in the preceding centuries, as an almost absurd number of powers fought for position, glory and, inevitably here, for trade; but as the fifteenth century waned, the ability for middling powers to weather the challenges, or play one rival off against another became an ever more scarce commodity. It was a period that saw the balance of power tilt irrevocably in one direction as the Ottoman Turks mastered Greece and entrenched their domination of the Balkans and Anatolia. Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, fell and an Empire that has lasted seemingly forever was winked out of existence; Ottoman power carried itself to Egypt and the plains of Hungary. The Knights of St John were thrust out of Rhodes as the Turks took to the sea. This is the time of their famous sea-captains – Dragut, Barbarossa, Uluç Ali – and of the routing of the Christian powers’ fleets at Preveza and beyond as the Mediterranean threatened to become an Ottoman lake.

Amid all this, there remained a few remnants in the Aegean of the western Christian land-grab after the Fourth Crusade, with various Genoese, Venetian and other holdings sprayed here and there through the Aegean. But in the sixteenth century, the Ottomans began to tidy up the map.

View of the shipsheds from the Venetian Fort in Heraklion Crete

View of the shipsheds from the Venetian Fort in Heraklion

And that’s where our Fortezza comes in.

Venice, the ruling power in Crete since the early thirteenth century, recognised the growing threat to Crete and its other scattered possessions in the Aegean and Adriatic. How valuable they all were is shown by the scale of the response, because Rethymno’s Fortezza isn’t the totality of it: there are also vast and awe-inspiring new fortifications and huge warship sheds to be seen on our tour at Chania and Heraklion, and these are almost the tip of the iceberg. Which is where you might see a problem coming in, and it’s not the only one.

A guerite or covered guard post built into the Fortezza wall at Rethymno in Crete

A guerite or covered guard post


With that in mind look at the great mass of the Fortezza, its walls hugely thick and massy, projecting in and out with pointed bastions and fleches and think of the cost and time. And then add Chania, Heraklion and a dozen other places to the emergency needs at the same time. And the shipsheds. And the warships within, and the sailors, and then the garrisons and the stradiots and other mercenaries and the guns... Put all the costs of that together; remember that the existence of the expanding power of the Sultan and his fleets scything into your livelihood mean that you haven’t got a choice, and then be glad that your job isn’t to make the Venetian budget work.

All of this explains something of how the Fortezza came into being, because for all the clear evidence of money and other resources being lavished to transform this great rock into a fortress, if you follow the story, and know how to read a Renaissance fortress, the limits of Venetian wealth, power and planning quickly become apparent. First there’s the sheer amount of time it took to get to what you can see. It began way back in the 1530s and began well with one of the great military architects, Michele Sanmicheli, being hired to fortify the entire town in the latest scientific style. But it proceeded achingly slowly until eventually, by 1570, it was almost ready…

At which point the corsair Uluç Ali (ironically, himself an Italian renegade) landed and laid the town to waste from end to end. The Fortezza, begun in the aftermath, was a second-best option: to defend a much smaller, cheaper area and move everyone from the smoking rubble into this straitened circuit. Even with the labour of over 100,000 Cretans, though, the work was still not quick, and, as people do after disasters, the Rethymnians gradually ceased to wait and resettled amid the debris of the bigger, older city and made new lives out of the ruins. Instead, then, the Fortezza became a redoubt: home to the government and garrison, with the people encroaching outside.

This reduced plan might have worked if history and events weren’t so bothersome and complex. In fact, for a while, it did, helped a little by the rebuffs to Ottoman power at Malta and Lepanto. Though the latter especially was temporary in its effect, the Venetian possessions did gain something of a reprieve. And reprieves mean those people move back into the town and the frightening amount of money for colossal defensive programmes look even more alarming…and unnecessary.

View of the Venetian Harbour and Fortezza, Rethymno, Crete

View of the Venetian Harbour and Fortezza

So, though the Fortezza is in many ways a textbook fortress of the sixteenth century, it was never given every element it should have been. As to what’s missing, well, you’ll have to come around the site with us to hear that tale in full. And believe me, it’s worth it because the Fortezza is impressive not just for its magnificent architecture, but for its wonderful views to the distant and implausibly beautiful peaks of the White Mountains, and down to a town that is a precious treasure house of transplanted Italian architecture in its churches and palazzi. It feels worth defending.

But for a while that seemed less urgent. Until in 1646, as the Civil Wars sputtered out in Britain and the Thirty Years was nearing its bloody end in Europe, the Venetians found themselves in the early stages of their own hideous cataclysm: a war that would last a generation and be renowned for its hideous profligacy with lives, and for the longest siege in history - The Cretan War.

But if you want to hear how that panned out, you’ll have to join us up high on the Fortezza’s wall-wreathed crag to hear the story where it happened. A reminder of the breadth of our tour’s story, which just begins with the extraordinary Minoans.

You can explore Rethymno and the Fortezza on our wonderful escorted tour of Crete.

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