Let me tell you a story......
I was in Heraklion for a few days visiting friends and checking on my house which was being renovated at the time. I used to live in Heraklion and thought I knew the city well but as I left the 3rd floor Airbnb apartment I'd rented to head into town for a bite to eat the route was new to me and I walked through district of the city I'd never before. The brightly illuminated Kommeno Mpenteni unveiled it's arches and graffiti to me as I strolled thorough the cavernous walls of the city and there before me was the new Cultural Centre, a building I had watched being constructed over time not too far from Nikos Kazantzakis grave on high were I liked to gaze over the city and take in the warm breeze that drifted across my favourite town in the world. I knew I could walk to the centre by taking the wide Plastira Street down to Chaniaporta and then up into the centre but figured there must be a more direct route so took the road to the left of the cultural centre heading in the general direction of the Morozini Fountain. The evening had descended to night by the time I'd showered to head to my favourite eatery (Beer O'Clock) close to Platea Venizelou but as I ventured into pastures new I immediately noticed some murals painted on the derelict buildings to my left. It was clear that this unexplored district of the city was in need of some TLC but it was also clear that wall art had become a 'thing' around these parts and as I continued more pretty coloured half ruined buildings and murals enlightened my path town-ward. Soon the narrow alley I walked unsure of my route opened up into a pretty square and there was a kafeneio open with tables dotted around the plaza. To the wall some historic information that informed me that I had accidentally stumbled upon Lakkos. Reading more whilst gazing at the bustling square atmospheric it appeared this part of town had lived a chequered life years ago of hashish dealers, prostitutes and been used to house repatriated immigrants of the Greco-Turkish War and had it's own sub culture as a result. Whilst the ladies of the night and weed peddlers had long since departed as I looked at the uninhabited buildings and narrow lanes that lead all ways I wondered how on earth I had been a resident of this city but never found this place before and felt a little confused as to how that could have been.
My walk to the centre should only have taken 10 minutes or so but this short trip to grab a bite soon became over an hour in length exploring the narrow lanes and discovering more artwork and colourful inspiration as I wandered. Just why had none of my numerous walks or chats with my friends ever disclosed this place to me before? I needed to know more of Lakkos.
This unexpected discovery was the start of my love affair with Lakkos. I am by my own self admission an admirer of street art in it's cultural form (not rabid graffiti!) and I'd often wondered as a resident of the city why Heraklion only ever seemed to have the more industrial scrawl on it's walls but this was something quite wonderful. I vowed to learn more and take a drink and some food at the lovely looking kafeneio I had discovered.
So what had happened in Lakkos? And where is it?! Here's what I found...
Where to find Lakkos
Lakkos is a district of the city of Heraklion in Crete. It's within the city walls (10 minutes walk from the centre) to the Southwest of the central city and from the Morozini Fountain (Lions Square) at the top of August Street if you head away from the sea toward the Bazar and turn right onto Idis Street just follow the main road down and round onto Kalokerinou Street and about 500m down take a left before you reach the Chaniaporta gate in the city walls and you're in Lakkos!
The history and culture of Lakkos as we now know it begins around the dawning of the 20th century when a decree was passed to order the concentration of Christian brothels into one area and Lakkos became the city's red light district. Since this part of town was designated for this purpose a sub culture grew up around the area creating it's own unique slang and a passion for Rebetiko music. The dealing of hashish became synonymous with the area as it became a centre for 'illicit fun' amongst it's narrow alleys and as the Greco-Turkish war ended the subsequent population exchange lead migrants to settle in Lakkos and the surrounding districts bringing with them their own traditions, music and culture that fused into the melting pot to make Lakkos culture unique whilst looked upon with some derision by the Heraklion gentry.
Time and tide saw the prostitutes move closer to the centre and the dealers either arrested by the authorities or scattered out across town and this corner of the city became increasingly uninhabited, disused and undesirable to those seeking a more respectable post code and the result was a neighbourhood that is still half abandoned.
With the district's past full of colour Artist Mathew Halpin came to Crete for the warmer climate and lifestyle but discovered the district and it's historical beauty amongst the degradation so began an initiative to breath new cultural and artistic life into this now half abandoned neighbourhood.
The Lakkos Project was born and with permission from the local authorities to go beyond the usual rules of colour and style his artist collective began to rejuvenate the district and worked hard to clean and freshen up it's public spaces, repaint the largely unused buildings and artists came to add murals on the walls. The areas main square had murals and historical art and information placed around it to create an atmospheric plaza where the 'Kafeneio O Lakkos' with it's tables dotted around the square has a stunning vibe to take a drink or dine within the centre of this artistic quarter.
A stroll around Lakkos now is fast becoming an outdoor art gallery where painting and sculpture inspire the mind amidst the neighbourhoods narrow streets and lanes. It's like Lakkos was 'left behind' as the other districts of the city demolished and rebuilt concrete apartments in neat squares yet because this region was tainted of the past the narrow corridors remain as does much of the original architecture which Mathew and the others who work on the project do their best to retain as they breath life into the area.
Lakkos Project initiator Mathew Halpin was afforded the opportunity to live in a large house with the area and has used the property to establish the Lakkos Artists Residency. The residency is a house were painters and sculptors can apply to stay and actively work on bringing their art to the project.
The project and residency are not run for profit but moreover to inject cultural inspiration and new life into Lakkos and the house has enough space for artists to live, work and exhibit.
Donations are asked for to stay in the residency and an agreed plan of what you will do uring your stay needs to be explained prior to arrival. Donations for your stay go toward the restoration of the residency and afford a unique opportunity for artists to live and work together on bringing vibrancy, reason and a new rejuvenated environment to the neighborhood again.
You might ask why breathing new life into this region of the city has importance or what is the purpose. Well because of the city's regeneration elsewhere by demolishing and rebuilding with new concrete frame residences this area whilst still around half abandoned remains a charming and architecturally important region because it has almost stood still in time ignored by the revamp going on elsewhere. As it stands there are worrying plans to demolish large parts of the district and replace with a road and if you can find the owners of the unused houses some are waiting for them to fall down in ruin as that makes rebuilding simpler to achieve under local planning rules. What Mathew and his colleagues are doing is vital work to prove to the rest of the city's population that this area is worth investing in and preserving by restoring to it's former glory with all of it's old charm and traditional feel. It's a battle against the modern systems of the local area and the stains of the past to remind people what a special place this is and how wonderful it's becoming and how special it could be.
Lakkos today is a fascinating place to spend some time wandering around the narrow alleys looking at the art and taking some food or a drink in the beautiful and atmospheric square, and with the brand new Cultural Centre just on the edge of the district it seems fitting that this region of the city is allowed to remain as it was and become a hub of creatives and artistic stimulation within the traditional setting of old Heraklion that is largely lost in other parts of the city.
We'd like to congratulate Mathew and his friends and colleagues for passionately working to breathe life back into this forgotten but wonderful neighbourhood.
You can check out more about The Lakkos Project HERE
And apply to stay and help with the project at the residence HERE
We interviewed Mathew recently and you can check out our chat with him right here.....
Long live Lakkos! Pay a visit for an hour or two if you are in town and play your part (just by visiting) in rejuvenating this unique and colourful part of town. Even if it's just for a drink or some meze our footprints make this place relevant again and relevance will bring life. We recommend it!
(c) Simon Mcilvenna 2020
Here's a short file about Mathew and Lakkos to give you a further taster...
Some photos of Lakkos, it's art, history and culture...
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© Simon Mcilvenna 2020