“Today is life, tomorrow never comes”, Cretans stipulate. True to their motto, the people of Crete choose to live each minute to the fullest; and so as they do in every occasion, they celebrate Christmas with passion and zest.
Even though the littoral town of Chania, Crete’s former capital, second largest and arguably most picturesque city, is certainly not your typical, Northern European, “Rovaniemi-esque”, destination, in fact it offers an amazing, magical (and somewhat different) “Christmassy” experience.
My self being always on the lookout for the non standard, the unconventional and the unexpected, I have spent several Christmas holidays at the wonderful old town of Chania, and have relished every minute; especially since I discovered Domus Renier: a breathtakingly beautiful boutique hotel at the heart of the Venetian port, which has won me over with its aesthetic, hospitality and flair.
However I’ll get back to this in a minute, but before let me tell you a few things about Christmas in Chania.
New customs and old traditions of Christmas in Chania.
It is true that globalization has reached this corner of the planet too, so Christmas in Chania have been somewhat “westernized”, with the familiar additions of the sparkling, ornamented trees and gift laden shops. Of course the impressive decorations and countless, twinkling lights make up for a majestic, fairy tale-like scenery.
Yet Cretans, proud people that they are, still observe their traditions. This means that, along with the trees, they also decorate wooden model ships, according to the age old Greek custom that is still alive in the islands. After all, they are nautical people; and the adornment of the boat symbolises the family’s gratitude to the deities for the safe return of the father and his sons from their voyages into the harsh Aegean sea. Local and imported traditions are thus amalgamated, making Christmas in Chania even more special.
So wandering through the dazzlingly lit alleys and streets of the old city, is spectacular indeed. A must stop is at Chania’s trademark, shape crossed, municipal market. On the mornings of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, the atmosphere here is particularly enchanting as various choir groups sing traditional Cretan carols (the music and lyrics are divine!). There are also several Christmas bazaars on the market’s square; I distinctly remember buying some milk boxes from the Greek branch of the “Medecins du Monde”. The money went to families in need; while the boxes were used to create an “alternative”, albeit quite impressive, Christmas tree.
Actually there are several things going on all over the city: There is usually a carousel, train and play castle at the park, while equally popular among among the young and the old alike is the ice skating rink on the stadium. Then on the Venetian harbour throughout the holiday season, there is nearly always something exciting to see or do at the KAM foundation (Center of Mediterranean Architecture), from musical concerts, to theatrical plays, art exhibitions or parties, you’ll certainly get a hearty dose of entertainment and culture.
But the highlight of the festivities, during the last couple of years, has been undoubtedly the Santa Run Chania. This is a fun, charitable event-a parody, if you will- of the famous Santa Run held in various cities of the world every December, whereby participants traipse through the city streets wearing Santa Claus costumes. In this Santa Run official timing and medals do not exist. Everybody is a winner as money raised through participations is offered to children with health issues. This year the 7th Santa Run Chania edition shall take place on Saturday 23rd of December; and organisers are hoping to raise 100.000 euros for the children in need. So get your gear ready! Even if running (well, walking really) is not your cup of tea, you’ll get treated to various delicacies from the stores along the route, while the DJ’s shall keep you amply entertained. The whole thing culminates into a huge party, in which the whole town partakes. This is guaranteed to put you into a jolly, festive mood, so make sure not to miss out!
Yet for a more spiritual, transcendental experience, on Christmas Eve you should visit the cave of St. John the Hermit at Marathokefala in Kissamos, 22 km west of Chania. The Divine liturgy here is combined with a traditional representation of the birth of Christ in the manger with real animals that local farmers bring. Bonfires are lit, chimes and bells ring joyfully and a big star shines from the top of the cave. It’s truly magical! Make sure though to dress warm and be prepared for the crowds, for it is a spectacle that attracts thousands of people.
Christmas in Chania and Domus Renier Boutique Hotel
Christmas in Chania is indeed extraordinary-I’ve spent many holidays here and can attest to that. But last year what made my experience even more alluring was this great discovery: Domus Renier; housed in the historic Renier townhouse, at the basin of the Venetian port, is a skillfully renovated boutique hotel which has been christened the “latest jewel in Chania’s crown”. And not without good reason. Original features are artfully restored and tastefully combined with timeless pieces as well as contemporary, one off designer furniture and the latest conveniences to create a luxurious, hospitable environment throughout the premises.
Named after ingenius Luigi, an accomplished, cosmopolitan politician and diplomat, who made rector of Chania and duke of Crete, while also served twice as an ambassador to Suleiman the Magnificent; the suite that I had chosen, was actually a marvel. With its intrinsically painted ceiling with relief and its interior oriel balcony overlooking the sea and the Venetian port, it made me feel as if I had stepped into a period movie’s cinematic set. Good thing there was the state of the art shower with hammam and hydro-massage, that brought me back to the present!
But it was not only a matter of aesthetics. In point of fact it was Domus Renier’s gracious, warm hospitality which did the trick and wholeheartedly won me over.
Following my long Christmas walks at the brightly lit city and my escapades into the surrounding charming countryside, every time I returned to my room, I was to be greeted with a surprise seasonal treat -an amazing pomegranate liqueur made for Christmas, some traditional melomakarona, or the sumptuous sweet buns prepared with the secret recipe handed down from the grandmother of the owners. This is but an example, though. It was the sum of myriad little-thoughtful- things that made me feel especially welcomed; a most desired emotion, especially at this time of the year. Indeed spending last Christmas in Chania while staying at Domus Renier, is one of my fondest memories; and an experience I vouched to repeat again and again. Of course I’ve already made my plans for the upcoming holidays; Follow my lead and you’re in for an amazing treat!