Hercules City through the Eyes of its Mayor

Do you know, dear reader, that there are two Hercules in Greece? One is a mighty demigod with all his 12 labours, and the second one is a Curete from Crete, who organized the first Olympic Games on this island; and Heraklion, the “city of Hercules,” was named in his honor in the 9th century BC: at the starting point of its history it was the harbor of ancient Knossos, the center of the Minoan civilization. The city changed its names (Khandak, Megalo-Castro, Kandia) and the owners (Arabs, Venetians, Turks), each time rose from the ruins and in 1831 regained the present name: this was told to our correspondent by the mayor of Heraklion Vasilis Lambrinos.

– Modern Heraklion has preserved architectural evidence of Arab rule, Venetian and Turkish one,”—the mayor began a virtual tour of Heraklion.—The Turks besieged the city for 21 years, from 1645 to 1669. This is the longest military siege in the history of mankind… Most of the Arab monuments in Heraklion are fortifications. The Venetians also strengthened the city, and their fortifications along the perimeter of the city (about five kilometers long) are almost completely preserved. The fortress of Koules is also Venetian, as is the Basilica of St. Mark and the Morosini fountain in the city center. Turkish sources are reminiscent of the Sevili source, for example, which is located near the central market, as well as mansions (konakiya) and barracks (kislades). The building of the main court is on Justice Street—it is not far from the city center—just the former barracks.

The Cretans had so long experienced the influence of other cultures, as well as the oppression of the invaders, and how did they managed to preserve their national identity?

– The Greeks are people with a very strong mentality, and thanks to this we managed to preserve our national culture, our originality. I think that in it we are similar with Russians, and our traditional friendship is based, among other things, on this similarity. Therefore, many of our young people and me, too, are interested in books of Russian classics: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky… By the way, during the Renaissance, when the Venetians were still in the city, the Cretan school of icon painting was developed here, whose founder, Michael Damaskinos, was a teacher of El Greco. Theophanes the Grek also came out of this school, who, as is well known, together with Andrei Rublev, painted in Russia icons and murals in temples: this is mentioned in a film by the Russian director Tarkovsky. This connects also Heraklion with Russia.

Even Stalin acknowledged the rightness of Churchill, who said evoking the events of the Second World War: “Earlier we used to say that the Greeks fight like heroes, and now, that heroes fight like Greeks”.

– During World War II, the Germans captured Greece and Crete, and the city of Heraklion too. They planned to carry out the operation in a short time, but it stretched for two months around the country, and on Crete it lasted a week. Crete was important for the Germans to carry out Operation Barbarossa in Russia, and the long resistance of the Greeks undermined the success of this plan. In Heraklion, in Mena Georgiadis Park, there is a memorial monument to the fighters of the national Resistance. On April 14, the city opens a park named after the Russian hero Yuri Gagarin. The ceremony will be attended by the Russian ambassador to Greece, Greek Culture Minister Elena Kountoura, as well as by Russian cosmonauts, including Russian citizen and ethnic Greek Fyodor Yurchikhin. The park has already a bust of Gagarin, and there will be there an olive avenue. Each tree will have a photograph of a cosmonaut. With special devices, park visitors will be able to receive information about their life, about each of them.

As far as we know, another grand project will be implemented in Heraklion. I mean the new airport.

– The decision has already been made, but construction has not yet begun. Of course, the new airport will help increase the number of tourists, which pleases. But it should be noted that the existing airport has been modernized in order to optimize transport services for tourists.

– Tell, please, how many people are there in Heraklion and how many tourists does the city take annually?

– According to the census of 2014, there are 173 thousand citizens in Heraklion, but in reality, there are much more, if we include non-permanent residents. In summer, this number increases, of course. Heraklion airport, for example, passes more than 5 million tourists a year. In the municipality of Heraklion, we have 5500 places for tourists in our hotels. We believe that this is not enough. Therefore, new hotels are being built now. Imagine that in 2018 the Palace of Knossos was visited by a million people, and by 500 thousand—the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, one of the best. In addition, I recommend visiting the Historical Museum, the Museum of Christian Art at the Church of St. Catherine, the Museum of Nature…

It is clear that tourists help to replenish the city budget. What kind of problems do they bring with them?

– No problem! (He smiles.) The only downside to the increase in tourist traffic is that the mayor’s office should hire more employees during the high season.

Are the tourists so conscious that they do not litter? The beaches on Crete, like the sea, are amazingly clean, or do the cleaners their work so well?

– Sea water is clean, because we do not have “artificial pollutants”, I would say so: no oil production or some other enterprises… In respect for tourists… they behave well, like us (he smiles again).

Is it difficult to be the mayor of Heraklion?

– It is difficult, but I like to help my native city to develop further. If people not always thank the mayor of the city, but the more valuable is every sincere “thank you”. This is a reward for me.

If you had an unlimited monetary resource, what would you spend money on first?

– The municipality finances the social sphere, insurance of the population due to the crisis in our country and all cultural events that are held throughout the year. For example, now you can visit an art exhibition in the Basilica of St. Mark, for free. Our concern is the development of the city’s infrastructure, free health care for all who need it, including for permanent residents of foreigners. The municipality provides housing and food for people who do not have work, including migrant refugees. Now in Heraklion, since 2016, 600 refugees live already permanently—not in camps and special centers, but simply in ordinary houses. This helps them not to feel detached from society, to assimilate, and we do not treat them as strangers: their children go to schools; they are treated in our hospitals. When some of them decide to move to another country, their children cry because they do not want leave Heraklion.

It’s true: Crete is an island you don’t want to part with.

– Come to live with us—we will be happy! About 3,000 Russians are living legally on Crete and about 700 people in Heraklion. Russians have two societies that are actively involved in the work of the council on the assimilation of immigrants in Heraklion.

We know that since last year Heraklion have a Russian sister city, Nizhny Novgorod. How do your relationships develop?

– This summer, a delegation from Nizhny Novgorod is expected in Heraklion, and at the end of the year, an exhibition of agricultural products of Crete is planned in Nizhny… I hope that our talk today will help you present Heraklion to Russian readers, including the ones from Nizhny Novgorod.

09.04.2019 Svetlana Zaitseva