Frangokastello, a name that resonates with history, is a place of remarkable beauty and significance on the south coast of Crete. This enchanting location is home to a castle and a scattered settlement, approximately 12 km east of Chora Sfakion within the prefecture of Chania. The castle, a symbol of the area’s rich history, is a testament to the region’s past, struggles, and resilience.
The Venetians constructed the castle of Frangokastello between 1371 and 1374. The Venetians built this fortress as a garrison to impose order on the rebellious Sfakia region, to deter pirates, and to protect Venetian nobles and their properties. The castle was initially named the Castle of St. Nikitas, after a nearby church. However, the locals, who viewed the castle with contempt, referred to it as Frangokastello, meaning the Castle of the Franks (i.e., Catholic foreigners), Castelfranco, or Franco Castello. This name eventually stuck and was even adopted by the Venetians.
The construction of the castle had its challenges. Local Sfakians, led by six Patsos brothers from the nearby settlement of Patsianos, would destroy every night what the Venetians built during the day. Eventually, the Venetians were forced to bring in additional troops, and the Patsos brothers were betrayed, arrested, and hanged.
The castle has a simple rectangular shape, with a tower at each corner and the remains of a Venetian coat of arms above the main gate. The buildings within the walls and the battlements were constructed during the Ottoman Turkish occupation.
Frangokastello has been a witness to numerous historical events. In 1770, the Cretan rebel Ioannis Vlachos, also known as Daskalogiannis, was captured at Frangokastello by Turkish forces. He was later tortured and executed at Heraklion. On 17 May 1828, a significant battle was fought at Frangokastello during the Greek War of Independence. Hundreds of Sfakiots and Epirotes led by Hatzimichalis Dalianis, a Greek patriot from Epirus, occupied the castle but were besieged by the Turks and massacred. However, many Turks were killed by rebel ambushes launched from the local gorges.
The Drosoulites: A Spectral March in the Dawn Light
The term Drosoulites (Greek: Δροσουλίτες) refers to a unique phenomenon observed around the castle of Frangokastello in the Sfakia region of Crete, Greece. This phenomenon, deeply rooted in local folklore, is a long procession of visions that appear to residents and visitors alike. These apparitions are said to be visible yearly, particularly around the anniversary of the Battle of Frangokastello or in early June.
The Drosoulites, as described by witnesses, appear as a group of human-like shadows dressed in black, armed with weapons, and either walking or riding. They are seen moving from the monastery of Agios Charalambos towards the old fort, Frangokastello, a 14th-century Venetian fortification. According to local legend, these spectral figures are the Greek fighters who perished during the Battle of Frangokastello on 17 May 1828. Since their tragic end, they are said to appear as supernatural beings in the area.
The spectral army is led by Hatzimichalis Dalianis, a Greek patriot from Epirus, who was the chief of the Greek men during the battle. The army had taken refuge in the fort during the Greek War of Independence against the Turks, where they were killed after a seven-day siege.
The local people named these apparitions Drosoulites, meaning “dew shadows,” due to the time of the phenomenon. The phenomenon is observed when the sea is calm, the atmosphere is moist, and before the sun rises too high in the sky. It usually lasts about 10 minutes and is visible from the valley at a distance of 1000 m.
Over the years, many have tried to explain the Drosoulites scientifically. At one point, it was suggested that the phenomenon was a mirage from the coast of North Africa. However, there still needs to be an accepted consensus. On the other hand, some interpretations suggest the existence of a psychic phenomenon akin to divination, seen in some countries like Britain and Germany, also regarding ghost armies.
The appearance of the Drosoulites has been documented over the ages. In 1890, a short Turkish army mistook the apparitions for rebels and fled. Even during the Second World War, it is said that a German patrol opened fire on the visions.
The Drosoulites of Frangokastello is a fascinating blend of history, folklore, and natural phenomena. Whether they are the spectral remnants of a tragic past or a unique meteorological event, they continue to captivate the imagination of locals and visitors, adding a layer of mystery and intrigue to the already rich history of Frangokastello.
Today, Frangokastello is a place of tranquillity and beauty. It boasts an extensive, sheltered, and gently shelving sandy beach, which has provided the basis for a low-key tourist industry in recent years. Tourist accommodation is scattered over the flat plain around the castle, but the area’s relative remoteness has discouraged significant development.
Frangokastello is not just a place; it’s a journey back in time. It’s a testament to the resilience of the people who lived there, their struggles, and their victories. It’s a symbol of the rich history of Crete, a record that is as fascinating as it is complex. So, the next time you find yourself in Crete, visit Frangokastello. Walk its ancient walls, explore its towers, and let the echoes of the past guide you through the annals of Cretan history.
Table of Contents