The Fortress of Fragokastelo

Fragokastelo is a rectangular fortress, built by the Venetians in 1371 on the southwestern bay of Crete, at the Sfakia province, in the prefecture of Chania. It covers one acre of land and its main entrance faces the Libyan sea. Above the main gate, the Venetian blazons and coat of arms, featuring the lion of Saint Marcus and the Venetian Crowns are still decorating the walls.

 The Venetian Blazons and Coat of Arms

Nowadays, the fortress is an integral part of the area, which bears its name. This has not always been the case. As recently as two decades ago, the locals usually referred to the region by the name of one of the two villages in the bay of Frangokastelo, Kapsodasos or (more commonly) Patsianos. In a way, calling the region Fragokastelo is a form of poetic justice, as it was the creation of the fortress that triggered the events that led to the creation and naming of the Patsianos village. 

Fragokastello, otherwise known as Castel Franco, can be found with a lot of similar spellings in worldwide literature. To name just a few, Fragokastelo, Frangokastelo, Frangokastello, Frangocastelo, Frangocastello, Fragocastello, Fragocastelo, Frangkokastello, Frangkokastelo, Fragkokastello, Fragkokastelo, Frangkocastello, Frangkocastelo, Fragkocastello and Fragkocastelo!

 The northern side of the Fortress

This variety of spelling is due to more than just mis-translation. To begin with, Castel Franko stands for 'Castle of the Franks'. In turn, 'Franks', is how most Greeks referred to all invading western Europeans in medieval times, as opposed to referring just to the medieval French, which might have been more appropriate. This, in turn, means that when the name is, inappropriately, understood to refer to the French, it makes sense to spell it Francokastelo, with a C. Or, from latin, Francocastello, with two Cs. Confused? You are not alone. Not to mention the fact that this 'castle' is really a fortress...

 As mentioned above, the locals referred to the area of Frangokastello primarily by the name of a nearby village, Patsianos. This village was named after the Patsos brothers. They became legendary for sabotaging the build of the fortress in the 14th century. The six brothers would sneak into the building site at nighttime and tear down the previous day's work. As most of the builders were locals in forced labor, no-one gave the word to the Venetians. The six brothers were thus able to keep up their meddling for some time, but eventually they were caught on the act and hanged from the four towers and the main gate of the fortress.

 Fortress interior, looking towards the second entrance

The Venetians used the fortress for less than a century. As time went on, the castle became a lure in the hands of the conqueror of each era. Throughout the Turkish occupation, it was used by the locals for their own defence, when Turkish forces were in the area. The most famous such event took place on the 18th of May, 1828, when the Battle of Frangocastello took place, in the wake of the Greek Revolution of 1821. The troops of Hatzimihalis Dalianis or Talianos, from Epirus,  took positions in and around the fortress.

Hatzimihalis Dalianis

The battle lasted 7 days. In this time, Dalianis himself died, along with a significant number of his troops. However, Stratis Deligiannakis continued in his place. Eventually, the two sides agreed to a truce. The Turks retreated and the Greek troops exited the castle, under the condition of retaining their guns and the wounded. After their departure, the Turkish commander, passa Mustafa, demolished the two towers looking towards the village and headed for northeast. Soon afterwards, most of his troops were attacked and slaughtered by the locals, who wanted to avenge the defeat of their side.

 The 'classic' view of Fragokastello, from the small port

Later, during the Cretan Revolution against the Turks (1866-1869), the fortress was used as a starting place for the Turkish troops to disembark to the area of Sfakia. The battles between the Greeks and the Turks continued, the fortress swapping occupants with every battle, while repairs were carried out when possible.

 As the castle was occupied by all sides (Venetians, Turks and Greeks), it is no wonder it is known with so many names. Even its form and overall shape must have changed considerably (the walls of the tallest of the four towers are not running parallel with the rest of the fortress, which has resulted to some debates here!). And finally, 600 years after it was first built, the fortress managed to name its region, but only unofficially. This is why it is still difficult to find a road map that displays Fragokastello, despite the size of the area!

 

Another folklore close related to the history of the fortress is the story of Drosoulites which may be translated into 'Dew Shades'. In the hot days at the end of May and the beginning of June in the bay of Fragocastello, a strange phenomenon is said to take place. According to the legend, in the early hours before sunrise, a row of shadows of people appears to be marching from the deserted monastery of Saint Charalambos towards the sea, where they disappear. Drosoulites are believed to be the shadows of Dalianis troops who were slaughtered during the Battle of Frangocastelo. On the other hand, scientists categorised it as a mirror effect. They believe that what the locals see is nothing more than a mirage of shadows of men exercising on the Libyan coast.

Whatever the explanation, the Fortress is today the major attraction of the area, providing an unusual backdrop to swimmers at the beach next to it. The fortress is open for visitors throughout the year, sometimes playing host to musical and other cultural events, usually in August.