If I were to describe Rethymnon, I would simply call it the jewel of the Renaissance. The old town of Rethymnon which harmoniously blends the oriental features of the Turkish period with the Venetian architecture — is one of the best preserved cities. When Crete Urban Adventures invited me on a tour which they call Rethymnon Conquered, I immediately said yes to the opportunity of exploring the past and the present of this remarkable city.

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The church of the Four Martyrs

Our meeting point was at the Square of the Four Martyrs and after admiring the church of the Four Martyrs which features unique icons by Fotis Kontoglou the renowned Greek writer and iconographer, we followed our local guides.

Do as the Greeks do — Greek coffee first

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When you are in Greece, do as the Greeks do. First things first, have a coffee — a Greek one better. We found ourselves in a traditional Greek coffee shop, a kafenio.

A few locals were already seated comfortably, enjoying their morning routine — coffee, newspaper and small talk. We had our Greek coffee with a koulouri which is a small round raisin bread topped with sesame seeds. Its best enjoyed when dipped into coffee.

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Worry beads, Sculptures and Askomantoura

Have you seen men playing with a string of beads? These are called worry beads or kompoloi in Greek and are used to pass time or to reduce stress in Greek culture.

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We visited the Ergastiri Kompologioy which specializes in handmade kompoloi.

A few stores down you will come across Terzis Art, where two brothers have opened up an impressive concept — a clothing store and an art gallery combined. rethymnon_conquered-16

Vaggelis Terzis is the Artist and he was there working on his next masterpiece. He uses natural materials and waste which he recycles to create his art.

Trying saying Askomantoura well I had to write this one down — an ancient traditional Cretan musical instrument, related to the bag pipes. The bag is made out of the goat’s belly.

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I got to hold one at the Liranthos Workshop where the owner Michalis Katsantonis runs his family business making handmade musical instruments.

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Historical city

As we walked the narrow streets of Rethymnon, we observed the architecture of the buildings which entwined the strong Cretan traditions with the Renaissance influences which are most apparent on building facades.

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You will also come across some Turkish influence, evident in the wooden frames that dress some of the buildings that are scattered around the old town.

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The Mosque of Kara Musa Pasha

The streets of Rethymnon have claimed their names from the ancient Byzantine families who settled on the island during the 11th and 12th centuries when Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, wanted to give Rethymnon an aristocratic charm, persuading some noble families to make Rethymnon their home. Each family had their own unique coat of arms that decorated churches and buildings around the island. Thus if you come across family names like Kallergis you will know that they are descendants of the noble Byzantine families of the past.

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This building has always operated as a school, even to this day

 Cretan flavours

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Jamie with the koulouri seller who thought he was going to be featured in New York Times

The tour is generous on nibbles too, we tried everything from koulouri, to olive oil, raki and graviera cheese.

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A highlight of the Rethymnon Conquered tour was visiting the workshop of Giorgos Hatziparaschos, the last traditional phyllo master who is famous for making the ultra-thin phyllo pastry.

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The master himself unfortunately wasn’t there at the time we visited but his wife and grandchild were busy running the shop, which is set in a Venetian building on 30, Vernardou Street (Old Town Rethymnon). The latin sign on the building reads “Virtue makes this house shine”.

We then had a wonderful wine and Cretan delicacies break at Avli, a charming restaurant with the most quaint garden, full of bougainvillaea. It was a little corner of paradise on this hot summer day.

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We sampled some excellent Cretan wine, the Lyrakis Legacy white wine, which is produced from 4 grape varieties: Vilana, Vidiana, Moscato and Sauvignon Blanc paired with Cretan dakos, olives, cheeses and hortopitakia, savory pies. We also tried the Alexakis red which is a blend of Kotsifali and Syrah.

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The last stop of our tour was at a cool spot, by the breezy swimming pool of the Rimondi Boutique Hotel, where we toasted with a glass of raki to the best day ever.

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Thank you Rebecca, Michael, Popi and Giannis for your amazing Cretan hospitality.

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Duration of the tour: 4 hours

Price:  54

You may book your tour here