The Arkadi Monastery, in the hills some 23km southeast of Rethymno, has deep significance for Cretans. As the site where hundreds of cornered locals massacred both themselves and invading Turks, it’s a stark and potent symbol of human resistance and considered a spark plug in the struggle towards freedom from Turkish occupation. When visiting, be sure to cover your shoulders out of respect. There are three buses (two on weekends) from Rethymno to the monastery (€2.80, 40 minutes).
In November 1866, massive Ottoman forces arrived to crush island-wide revolts. Hundreds of Cretan men, women and children fled their villages to find shelter at Arkadiou. However, far from being a safe haven, the monastery was soon besieged by 2000 Turkish soldiers. Rather than surrender, the Cretans set fire to their kegs of gunpowder, killing everyone, Turks included, except for one small girl who lived to a ripe old age in a village nearby. A bust of this woman and one of the abbot who lit the gunpowder stand outside the monastery. Also here (next to the cafeteria, skip the food), in the monastery’s old windmill, is the macabre ossuary with skulls and bones of some of the 1866 victims neatly arranged in a glass cabinet.
Arkadiou’s most impressive structure, its Venetian church (1587), has a striking Renaissance facade marked by eight slender Corinthian columns and topped by an ornate triple-belled tower. Inside, its interior is hushed, ornate and filled with ancient relics.
Left of here is a cypress trunk that was scorched by the explosion and still has a bullet embedded in its bark. Beyond is the former refectory (dining room), now a small museum of religious objects, icons and weapons used in 1866 as well as a gift shop for your iconic needs. At the end of the left wing is the old wine cellar where the gunpowder was stored.