Exploring Naxos’ Venetian History

One fascinating era of Greek history is the Medieval period during the occupation by the Venetians. One of the Venetian strong-holds in Greece was on the Cycladic island of Naxos. The Venetian Duchy of the Aegean ruled here from 1204-1537. At that time the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas were beset by pirates who invaded the coastal towns and islands. The Venetian navy was powerful and came to the rescue by occupying many areas of coastal Greece where they set up fortresses to guard the islands and coastal town. There are Venetian towers and fortified mansions scattered throughout the island.

View of Naxos

As the ferry pulls into Naxos main port you will see,on the left side, the islet of Palatia with its distinctive arch, and the unfinished portal of a temple to Apollo built around 530 BC and never completed. It appears that most of the town’s activities occur down by the busy port esplanade, but behind it is a labyrinth of narrow backstreets and vaulted alleys that lead up to the old town. Known as ‘Kastro’, this is the fortified castle where the 13th century Venetian Duchy and his successors who ruled the Cyclades. As you pass through the Trani Porta (Strong Gate) you are entering Naxos’ medieval world where the wealthy Venetians lived. The Greeks lived down the hill in what was called the Bourgos.

Street in Kastro, Naxos

Only two of the ‘Kastro’s original seven towers remain. Within this enclave there are several Catholic buildings, including a 17th century Ursuline convent where young ladies of the Venetian aristocracy were educated. Next to the restored 13th century cathedral is the Mitropoleos Museum which contains artifacts from the remains of the Mycenaean city (13th – 11th century BC). Nearby is a school opened by the Jesuits in 1627 where pupils such as the Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis once attended. The school is now the Archaeological Museum and contains many rare, white marble Cycladic figurines.

A few of the Venetian Catholic’s descendants still live in the old mansions that encircle the site. Family coats of arms continue to decorate the doorways. One of these 800 year old tower-mansions is now the Venetian Folklore museum, Domus Della-Rocca-Barozzi, belonging to the Della Rocca family.

Old cathedral in Kastro

Whenever I’m visiting Naxos I love to meander up the narrow, vaulted streets and browse inside the walls of the fortress. This time, I spent a pleasant morning visiting the Venetian Museum, located just inside the Trani Porta. The tower-house is actually still occupied by the heirs of the original family who once ruled there. Walking into the house is a journey back in time. Here, you can not help but imagine life back in Venetian times. The owners have preserved the atmosphere and glamour of the building, transforming it into a folkloric museum. They actually occupy the tower for part of each year but during the tourist season it is open to the public. They have combined different historical periods in the tower with collections of household articles and other artifacts.

Venetian Museum bedroom

The tour takes up to forty minutes and if you’re lucky, you might even have the owner as a guide. I enjoyed my leisurely stroll through all the rooms including the bedrooms, dining room, nursery, gallery, library, chapel and study.  The rooms are full of gorgeous, ornate furniture and elaborate rugs. In the bedrooms, clothes are spread out on the beds and the tables are set with dinnerware. I took time to stop and enjoy the beautiful views of Naxos from the balconies. A friend who was visiting with me was thrilled with a chance to play the old piano that was once played by Leonard Bernstein. As I browsed through the tower-mansion, I got a real sense of how life must have been back in those times and how the Venetians rulers have influenced the people and culture of Naxos.

Venetian Museum dining room

The tour ends in the wine cellar where I tasted some of the local wines that are on display. I bought a bottle of sweet yellow kitron, an aperitif made only on the island.

View of Kastro from the port of Naxos

During the summer, cultural activities such as music concerts and art exhibitions are held in the garden which has spectacular views of the harbour. The music ranges from Classical to Jazz and traditional Naxos music performed by international artists and local musicians and dancers in traditional costumes.

Written by and photos by Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com 

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