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About Heraklion Prefecture, Crete Greece

The Prefecture of Heraklion covers the Central part of Crete; its extent is
2.640  square klm, the coast line 250  klm approximately, and it counts circa  300.000 permanent residents. It is divided in  7  provinces: Viannou, Kainourghiou, Monofatsiou, Maleviziou, Temenous, Pyrghiotissis, and Pediados.  Heraklion is the capital city of the prefecture.

Driving from one area to another by car or on motorbike may prove a fascinating experience. The secondary roads, often difficult dirt tracks leading to remote villages, pass from places of extraordinary beauty and driving or even walking there, is an unforgettable souvenir.

The central part of the prefecture's territory is rather flat, with fertile valleys and plains, the most important being the plain of Messara. At the centre of the western part, the mountain of  Idi (Psiloritis for the locals), ending up in the territory of Heraklion prefecture, is a natural border with Rethymnon, although a few of its highest peaks are found in the territory of Heraklion. At the eastern part it is separated from Lasithi by the mountain Dikti, also ending up in Heraklion territory. A rather low mountain chain, the Asteroussia Ori, of a height of approximately 1200 meters  are found at the middle of the Southern part. Being less mountainous than the rest of Crete, Heraklion is densely inhabited and the visitor wandering around will find a lot of villages, pretty close to one another.

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As it occurs with the rest of the prefectures in Crete, Heraklion has coasts both at the North, in the Aegean Sea and at the South, in the Libyan Sea. Most of the  beaches at the North are sandy, some of them well protected from the "meltemia" (northern summer winds), due to the existing bays and small coves.

The southern coasts are open to the South, with only one  considerable bay, that of Messara. Partly sandy and some of them pebbly, the beaches have crystal clear blue water and very interesting seabed, for the fans of snorkelling and underwater activities. Swimming starts earlier in the South, where the weather is a bit warmer.

The natural environment is milder in Heraklion compared to the mountainous landscape of Chania or Rethymnon. The central inland part of the prefecture is dedicated to agriculture and the visitor will come across extended enough fields with vegetables, olive trees plantation and vineyards. Vegetables are also cultivated during winter in greenhouses situated all around at the plain. However, as the mountains are not absent, there are magnificent places there too; small gorges, caves, narrow roads leading to intact, traditional villages.

The territory of the prefecture is crossed, from West to East, by the last part of the European path E4, which passes through the whole of Europe and Greece and ends up at Crete; in the island the path starts from Kissamos (Kastelli) and ends up at Siteia in the Eastern part.

Heraklion is a very wealthy place. Along with the traditional agricultural and cattle breeding activities, which used to be the main occupations of the locals in the past, tourism is today one of the main economic resources. The area attracts a lot of visitors all year round, both Greeks, for business or vacation, and people from abroad, mainly from Europe. The University, the other schools of advanced studies and a good number of research centres are  an additional factor of cultural and economic prosperity for the prefecture in general and the city of Heraklion in particular.

The history of the area starts as early as the Neolithic times. As excavations in various sites have shown, not only had it flourished during the Minoan period, but, in fact, it was the centre of this great civilisation. During the Venetian domination of the island, it had played a very important role too; the city of Heraklion, Candia as it was called, was a prosperous city, well fortified, the base for the activities of the Venetians in South Mediterranean.  As it happens with the rest of the island, Heraklion had been the centre of numerous revolts and revolutions during the Ottoman domination, as the independent character of Cretan people could not stand being under the yoke of any foreigner. During the World War II, following this long tradition, the people had strongly resisted to the German occupation; it is characteristic that the villages  of Viannos had been almost totally destroyed and all the male population were arrested and executed by the Germans, in order to make an example of them for the rest of the population.
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Undoubtedly, during the Minoan and Mycenaean periods Knossos was the most important city, the economic and cultural center. However, a small settlement upon a low hill, close to the sea, with  the name Heraklion did also existed, at least since the Archaic period. Several remains of Archaic and more recent times are brought to light during the rescue excavations in the city center, especially at the area of Daidalos st., Xanthoudidou st. Beaufort st. etc.
Strabo informs us that Heraklion was the port of Knossos. The remains from this period are several, the more characteristic being the mosaic floors revealed during the rescue excavation conducted at the area of the Museum.

During the Byzantine period the settlement was called Kastro (meaning "Castle"), but in this period of time Gortyna was the administrative and cultural center. The area is in decline until the Arabic invasion in 824; earthquakes and external invasions contribute to this fall.
The Arabs reinforce the fortification of the town and construct a ditch around the walls; named after this structure, from now on the town will be also called Chandax (meaning "ditch" in greek). During the period of the invasion (824-961 A.D.),  the arabic culture is diffused in the island, until 961 when the Byzantines take back Crete and of course Heraklion; the town recovers from damages and start flourishing again. The walls at the area of Daidalos street should have been raised in that period.

After Constantinople was conquered by the Francs of the 4th Crusade, in 1204, Crete, along with Heraklion  was given to Bonifatius of Monferrat; this latter sold the island to the Venetians who took possession of the island in 1211 and keep it until 1669. During the first years of the Venetian domination Cretan people revolted several times against the conquerors, but from the 15th century onwards, revolts came to an end and a period of peace started for the island. As a result, Kastro or Chandax (Candia as the Venetians called it) knows a new period of development. It is in that times that the Venetians construct the big walls of the city with the 7 bastions, the castle of the port, the harbor as well as many public and private buildings and monuments. Along with the reconstruction of the city, there is a flourishing of the cultural life: painting (the so-called Cretan School of hagiographers, Domenico Theotocopoulos, "El Greco"), literature, poetry and above all theatre reach their peak, thus creating the special Cretan style which continued to develop until the city was conquered by the Ottomans.

After an almost 25-years siege (1645-1669), the Ottomans take possession of the city, which is now called Kastro again and it remains the administrative center of the island. Due to the long period of war the city is almost totally destroyed. The Ottoman government proceeds in extended repairments both of the fortification and of many buildings; however, the cultural renaissance  of the Venetian period and the commercial activities are declining.

A new period of development begins for the city in the 18th century, as the Christian population participates more and more in the economic life of the city.
At the same time, several revolts and revolutions against the Ottoman domination take place. By the mid-19th century the capital city is transferred to Chania, but Heraklion continues to develop and to take part in the revolts and revolutions, up to 1898, when Crete is set autonomous.

In 1913 Crete is encorporated in the Greek state, which signals a new step in the development of the city. Heraklion is extended in space, the population increases and the first signs of urban pull and the needs in buildings for residence and amenities get more pressing. So, development proceeds sometimes in rash, which results in destroying several interesting buildings, mainly of the post-war period.
Even parts of the Venetian walls were sacrificed to "development". In the last decades, however, the Municipality, along with other Foundations of the city are carrying out consolidation and restoration works, aiming at preserving and make broadly known several monuments of the city.

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