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Thinking of Greece and the Greek islands,most travelers don't immediately see medieval castles rising up in their imaginations. Yet Greece,with its many small islands and strategically important harbors, has more than its fair share, some dating back to ancient times. The well-preserved and partially-restored castle which has given the name to the village of Frangocastello on the south coast of Crete is one of the best known.

The rectangular castle dominates a small rise along a headland; I first saw the building from a couple of miles away while approaching by kayak along the coast. It keeps a low profile but the flat crenellated line of its walls was unmistakeable. Most visitors will reach it by the good coastal road. Though the gate is sometimes closed and locked, it's usually open and access is free. A few years ago, a wooden stage was added at one side of the courtyard and it is the venue for the occasional festival, traditional dance, or musical event. In the tourist season, a lone lyra player will sometimes set up and provide traditional Cretan music in the hope of a tip of a euro or two.

History of Frangocastello

Crete, like much of Greece, suffered under the domination of various foreign powers, from the Romans to the Saracens to the Venetians and finally, the Ottomans. Frangocastello was built and modified by the last two of these conquerors. On the exterior wall near the back gateway, the arms of St. Peter, the symbol of Venice, can still be made out, along with the coats of arms of a couple of prominent Venetian families. From the beginning, the legends tell of a turbulent history. The Venetians attempted to veil the fortress under the protection of the nearby Greek Orthodox chapel of Agia Nikitas - but this didn't stick. When the Venetians first built this castle to help them control the south coast and watch for pirates -some would call them just competitors- it was said that the local Patsos family would tear down the walls each night; eventually the band of brothers were captured and executed, beginning the bloody history of Frangocastello. The name Frangocastello comes from the Greek derogatory term "Frank" for anything foreign; this carried the same meaning as referring to the "Huns" or the "Vandals" - maurauding foreigners bent on destroying whatever they found. While the Venetians did not quite see it that way, and were generally fairly light-handed in their centuries-long rule of Crete,they never quite lost their status as invaders. Unfortunately for the Cretans, the Venetians themselves were eventually defeated by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans made some changes to the castle, adding some interior structures and another layer of blood to the ground.

About Frangocastello

The Venetians constructed the castle in 1371-74, so it qualifies as a medieval relic. It seems to have been a new construction and not one built on a pre-existing fortification; its location is actually hard to defend, at the edge of a broad plain with the steep mountains beyond.

The original castle did not have the crenellations and boasted a square tower at each corner; only one of these is relatively intact today. A small similar stucture nearby has been described as "officer's quarters" but probably was a guardhouse. It can be rented.

The site is not curated at all; two busts nearby represent Daskalogiannis or "Teacher John", (whose descendants run the Hotel Daskaliogiannis in nearby Loutro) and Hatzimichalis Dalianis, two heroes of the revolts against the Ottomans, with inscriptions in Greek. There are no pamphlets, but a small gift shop across the road leading through Frangocastello will sometimes have a pamphlet on the area, including the castle.

The Ghosts of Frangocastello

Frangocastello is the site of a mysterious phenomenon which I have been told by Cretan friends actually occurs - though even in this age of video recorders and cell phone cameras, it seems to have never been recorded. In spring, around May 17th (though, technically, it should be that date by the Gregorian calendar) villagers and others from all over Crete come to the castle to sleep outside and wait for a strange occurence - the appearance of flickering shadows resembling a battle between mounted men and soldiers projected on the interior walls of the castle. These are called the "Drousolites" or "dew-spirits", the spectral fighters of Dalianis' battle against the Turks in 1828. Dalianis took control of the fortress and a much larger force came up against them. While retreat to the mountains where they could not be tracked was possible, Dalianis decidedto make a stand with less than 730 men against a force of nearly 9,000. The battle was a huge victory, though Dalianis himself perished with over three hundred of his men.

Various explanations for the Drousoulites have been offered -that it is a kind of mass hypnosis and hysteria among the watchers, that the images are the real ghosts from a very bloody battle between Daskalogiannis' men and the Ottoman occupiers, that it is a projection of live military men drilling on the coast of Libya which is 170 miles away over open water, or it's a similar projection of some memorial statues showing a mounted man or men. As with the legends of the "green flash" - long considered apocryphal but eventually caught on amera - it's supposed to be necessary for the sea to be glass-flat for this spectral phenomenon to occur.

But even the observers who claim to have witness the phenomena differ on what they see - one Cretan man I know, George Stavroulakis, a sophiticated retired oil tanker captain, told me that in his youth he joined the others in sleeping at the castle and saw flickering shadows projected on the interior walls of the fortress. Others say that the apparitions emanate from the church of Agios Kharalambos and advance toward the fortress, just before dawn, disappearing as they reach the sea and the sun starts to rise. Supposedly both later Turkish forces and German soldiers during the Nazi occupation found the apparitions real enough to assume that they were being attacked. Though the legend is firmly attached to Dalianis and his men, the procession from the area of the church to the fortress doesn't quite match the tale - which had his forces in the fortress and in two different churches at the time the battle began.

I don't discount some genuine oddnesses at the site, and I still think of it as an ominous place, especially on stormy days. On my first visit, my kayak flipped over in a higher-than-usual wave off the reef, possibly the result not of reflected shadows from military drills in Libya but an actual slip-slide earthquake on the North African coast of Algeria which caused a small tsunami wave to wash against the coast of Crete.

Visiting Frangocastello

The seaside village surrounding the fortress has several small, family-run hotels and a few tavernas. The beach is protected by an offshore reef and has a wide wading area suitable for children or cautious swimmers.

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