Restoring the Old Town of Heraklion

• Category: Interviews

The Lakkos Project started last year as a private initiative in order to restore the neighborhood of Lakkos, which is actually the Old Town of Heraklion in Crete. Until about the middle of the 20th century, Lakkos was an underground region with refugees, women selling vulgar love, men smoking hashish, musicians playing rebetiko (a kind of music that was largely banished in the 1920s and 1930s) and generally a declining society that would come in total contrast with the urbanization of the new town of Heraklion.

This quarter was almost abandoned by the locals for many decades until a volunteer group decided to renovate it. A very interesting fact is that this initiative was started by Mathew Halpin, an Australian visual artist who moved to Heraklion few years ago. talked to Mr Halpin to see how he was inspired this project.

Mr Halpin, when and how did the Lakkos Project start?

When I first moved to Lakkos four years ago, I used to park my car along with many others in the main square. I became aware of the area's history and felt very sad that such a charismatic place should be left so abandoned. Last year, the Lakkos kafenion opened on the square and became popular overnight. With this encouragement, I came up with a plan to regenerate the area. With the support of Vaggelis Vandoulakis, the Lakkos kafenion owner, and Konstantinos Stavrakakis, the director of Festivalaki, we went to meet Vasso Lambrinou, the current mayor's wife. Vasso and I along with her municipality volunteers group had, the previous year, helped to rebuild a Pakistani family's mini market which had been blown up in what seemed like a racial hate crime. We had worked well previously and I knew the new municipality also wanted to paint the old city.

What is the aim of the project and how exactly do you work on this?

The aim of the project is to create something of an old town or creative hot spot for Heraklion. We started by paintings some abandoned houses with lively colours. Now we are creating an outdoor art gallery in the park in Lakkos. Along with helping paint the streets, the municipality is now helping us to make new gardens where previously cars parked.

Do you have any personal connection with the region of Lakkos?

When I moved to Heraklion 4 years ago, I felt some weird pull to find a house in Lakkos. I have always loved abandoned places and saw an opportunity to restore an old house. I now have done this twice. Once with my house and the other with my artist's studio which was an old shop.

Do you live all year round in Crete? How did you decide to move from Australia to Crete?

Yes, I live year round in Crete. Before moving here I lived in Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn was an amazingly beautiful city to live in but it was too cold. I moved to Heraklion because a close Greek friend I had previously lived in Sydney with, was also moving here. The climate in Crete is very similar to Sydney's so that was fine. I did suffer from culture shock at first but, once I found other creative friends, things came together.

How did the locals react to the Lakkos Project?

The locals in Lakkos are mostly very welcoming to our efforts. Surprisingly the older residences are the most encouraging. We do go two steps forward and one back, but I think that is the nature of the Greeks, change is a bit frightening. The Municipality was very supportive of our original ideas and the municipality volunteers group come to every meeting and volunteer events. As the project grows, so does the bond with the municipality and their involvement is invaluable! We also get lots of local clubs and individuals coming to our makeover days. Also local businesses have been supportive with donations of materials.

How do you make sure that all the reformations you do are keeping up with the character of the region?

Heraklion has nothing to do with the other beautiful cities in Crete which follow heritage colour schemes closely. Because of previous bad development and lack of heritage protection, the old city is a mess. The city is full of large apartment buildings mostly painted in pale yellow or beige. In my personal opinion, I feel we need to paint the old houses in slightly brighter colours so that they stand out from the yellow city. We have been given the ok to paint Lakkos colours not on the heritage colours list, but only Lakkos. As the project moves around Lakkos, we take special care to restore any original features. Heraklion's old town desperately needs its heritage protected and the Lakkos Project is fully behind doing this! We alter the colours but this in my mind highlights the area's charms.

What are the future plans for this project?

Next spring we are planning to have a large Lakkos Festival with a strong focus on the history of the area but also on the modern arts. We had done some free walking tours this summer that were totally booked out. Next summer we would like to do more tours in Greek and English. We are about to receive another donation of house paints so the regeneration goes on.

More information on the website of the: Lakkos Project