Memories of Venizelos

Few people can boast a family home like that of Rena and Ioanna Koutsoudakis. Built in the early 20th century as the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s consulate, when Ottoman rule had just ended, it was later purchased by their family and leased to the British in August 1940, who reprised its diplomatic role. During WWII the building was reappropriated by the Germans (less subtly – a bomb in the garden blew out the windows). Then, in 1947, the Koutsoudakis’ recovered it – promptly leasing it again to the British.

The Brits left in 1955, however, and the family home would become the Hotel Doma, high in the Halepa district, overlooking the sea and the busy boulevard named after Eleftherios Venizelos, under whose stewardship Greece dramatically enlarged its northern and Aegean territories.

After the catastrophic Megali Idea (‘Great Idea’) led to the abrupt termination of 2000 years of Greek civilisation in Anatolia, Venizelos returned from a Parisian retirement to lead the Greek delegation that signed the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, mandating the Greek-Turkish population exchanges. He later served as prime minister again, but died in Paris.

Venizelos experienced a second exile but spent many of his final years in Hania. Kyria Rena recalls Venizelos, then quite old, walking past on his morning constitutional. ‘I was a little girl then,’ she says, ‘and my sister, who was then only two years old, would always rush to the window, at just the moment he would pass by every morning – we would wave excitedly and he would smile; he always waved back.’

She also recalls that one year, on Venizelos’ name day, his political supporters promenaded past her house on the way to his home, ‘carrying an enormous cake they had baked – of course, in the shape of Crete’.

Despite the partisanship that has chronically marked Greek politics, and other political factions’ voluble opposition to Venizelos, when he died in 1936, at 72, there was a great outpouring of grief. In Hania, people hung black in their balconies. ‘I remember that many men from the villages came in traditional dress, with knives on their belts, and my mother taking us to Agia Magdalini Church, where Venizelos was lying in state,’ recalls Kyria Rena. ‘When it was our turn to look in the coffin, she said to me, “Daughter, I want you to look very carefully, for this was a very great man. Look, and don’t forget him!” That is a moment I have always remembered.’

-Text by Chris Deliso. Published in Lonely Planet Greece and Crete 2010.