Arkadi Monastery is one of the most fascinating Crete attractions of all. Arkadi is also hugely important to Cretans themselves, as it has played such an important part in their history. So what can you expect to see when you visit, how do you get there and how long do you need there?
The monastery of Arkadi is fortified as it has had to stave off attacks for much of its history. It contains a 16th century Venetian-style church, cloisters, monks’ cells and a small museum.
This Greek monastery is best known for its role fighting off an overwhelming attack by the Ottoman Turks during the Cretan Revolt of 1866.
WHERE IS ARKADI MONASTERY?
Arkadi Monastery Crete is 10 km inland from the north coast of Crete. The nearest city of any size is Rethymno, 20 km (13 miles) along the coast to the west. Chania is 85 km (59 miles) away, further to the west.
GETTING TO ARKADI MONASTERY
The monastery is located to the south of the main Crete highway which runs from Heraklion to Rethymno and Chania. The most convenient place to turn off is Stavromenos, on the approach to Rethymno, passing through the small Cretan villages of Asteri and Amnatos en route.
There is also a local minibus running from Rethymno bus station to Arkadi monastery which follows this route off the main road.
If these aren’t convenient and you’d still like to see the monastery, Arkadi can be reached on tours from many Crete resorts along the coast. We saw tours advertised in Chania, Rethymno, Panormos and Bali. It’s one of the most popular day trip destinations on Crete holidays, so fear not, you should be able to get there easily.
We visited by bus, returning directly to Rethymno after our visit. If you opt for a tour, you can also expect to pay a visit to the nearby village of Margarites, and the site of ancient Eleftherna.
HISTORY OF ARKADI MONASTERY
Nobody really knows the foundation date of the monastery at Arkadi Crete. We do know that the church dates from the 16th century, so that’s the earliest we can definitely say it was in existence. An inscription in the complex mentions the 14th century, so it’s possible it was founded as early as that – but we don’t know for certain.
Crete was invaded by the Ottoman Turks in 1646, though they didn’t control the entire island until much later. The monastery continued to exist under the auspices of the Turks until the 19th century, when it was sacked and looted in 1822, shortly after the rest of Greece had declared independence.
In 1866 the Cretan Revolt broke out, and in one of the key early battles, a small rebel force (259 soldiers) and around 70 women and children barricaded themselves in Arkadi Monastery. The Turkish forces eventually prevailed, largely because of overwhelming numerical superiority. Most of the Cretan refugees there opted to die rather than face capture by the Turks.
The abbot set fire to the large store of gunpowder in the monastery, the explosions killing most of the people inside. The telegraph had recently been invented, and news of the Arkadi holocaust was quickly disseminated worldwide, causing outrage. Although sympathy lay with the rebels, the Revolt was to fail. The Cretans briefly gained independence in 1898, before finally being incorporated into modern Greece after the Balkan wars ended in 1913.
WHAT CAN YOU SEE AT ARKADI?
As you walk through the fortified gate, the first thing you see is the iconic honey-coloured church. It has become one of the most recognisable symbols of Crete, and you’ll see photos of it outside most tour companies between Heraklion and Chania. It’s the oldest known part of the compound.
If you follow the trail around to the left, you’ll find the trunk of a cypress tree with some bullet holes made during the revolt and siege of 1866. From here, you continue to the refectory (where the monks eat) and a chapel.
The monks live in rooms called cells in a section of the cloister behind the church – you can visit one of the rooms, traditionally and sparsely made up as if a monk was still living there.
You can climb stairs to the first floor for elevated views over the monastery and south side of the church. You can also climb the stairs for views above the entrance.
Outside, there is also a small ossuary, where you can see the bones of some of those who perished there during the Turkish assault.
The Museum at Arkadi is housed in buildings to the right (south) of the church. It has a series of historical relics, including some precious centuries-old Gospels, Bibles and icons.
It’s also one of the best places in Crete to learn about the island’s recent history, particularly the siege during the Cretan Revolt. The exhibition goes into the story in plenty of detail, enough to enable anyone to grasp the importance of the events there.
HOW LONG DO YOU NEED AT ARKADI?
Two hours is enough for most visitors – you may need a bit of extra time if you read through everything in the Museum in detail.
Adult entry tickets cost a very reasonable 3 euros.
There’s also a toilet block outside in the car park, and the Arkadi cafe serves refreshments through the day.
THINGS TO SEE IN CRETE NEAR ARKADI
If you decide to drive south, Spili is one of the most beautiful villages in Crete. If you follow the narrow country roads south towards the coastline, you’ll have options including Agia Galini, Plakias, Kalypso beach and Preveli all nearby.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.