Welcome to Lakkos, raki, sex and marijuana!
It was the period when the district of Lakkos was home of the subculture of magkes, scandalizing the conservative society of the time. This “infamous” neighbourhood also became the core of (sub)cultural creation and a shelter for underground artists. Outlaws and prostitutes, hashish and rebetiko music ... the micro-society of Lakkos near the city center had it all!
It all started somewhere in 1900, when a presidential decree passed by the Cretan State ordered the concentration of brothels in clearly defined and isolated areas. It was then when Lakkos was selected for the establishment of Christian brothels – the Muslim ones where concentrated in Kizil Tampia (today the district of Agia Triada).
The district of Lakkos was actually an excellent choice, as it was near the British barracks (and British soldiers obviously had “needs” to satisfy!) and it was already a degraded area, away from busy streets and public buildings.
Along with the establishment of brothels came the establishment of the people that supported them, namely prostitutes, pimps, madams and the “lovers”.
Gradually, a whole parallel world developed within Heraklion, which at the same period experienced another kind of development: urbanization and the embrace of western cultural ideals that came hand in hand with the rejection of everything Lakkos represented.
The inhabitants of Lakkos though did not mind the snobbish attitudes of well off Herakliotians and continued writing their own –short but legendary- history, with their local slang, nicknames, hierarchies, passions and rebetiko lifestyle, the old Greek equivalent of rock ‘n’ roll! The subculture of Lakkos was formed between the two world wars, offering endless excitements –legal and illegal- to local society! And then World War II came and the Battle of Crete along with the fierce bombardment of Heraklion by the Nazis (that also destroyed many brothels), the Occupation and the transferring of Lakkos’ prostitutes in a central hotel to “serve” German soldiers. And later, the destruction of the old city structure came – but that’s another story.
Lakkos and Asia Minor
After the destruction of Asia Minor and the population exchange, the arrival of refugees from Asia Minor brought dramatic changes in the demographic synthesis of Heraklion’s population. Many refugees settled in districts around Lakkos and many found in Lakkos a shelter and ways to survive, by engaging in its “activities”. The refugees also brought the traditions of Asia Minor with them: musical instruments such as santur, violin, oud, toumperlek and dances such as karsilamas, apltaliko zeibekiko, and of course, the famous amanes and refugee songs that quickly became very popular in Lakkos.
Naturally, the respectable de rigueur Heraklion from the opposite shore despised these eastern melodies with the Turkish exclamations (aman, yala, yavroum) that reminded them the Ottoman period - which they eagerly tried to forget.
Rebetes and Magkes
Even the microsociety of Lakkos had hierarchies, categorizations and power struggles! Magkes, rebetes, mortes, kalntirimitzides, mourmouria, alania, koutsavakides, were all different categories of more or less the same kind of people! The differentiations were obvious only to “insiders”. For example, magkes were distinguished by their “manliness”, their unique attire (pointy shoes, woolen hat, a jacket partly worn with one of its sleeves left hanging, a tight belt and stripe pants), the language they used, the “heavy” way they were walking, their gestures, the way they were dancing, etc.
Rebetes, on the other hand, were at the top ranks of the hierarchy and played a protagonist role in the feasts and hashish-smoking gatherings, which looked more like mystic rituals around a shisha (waterpipe) that ended in ecstasy, musical improvisations and zeibekiko dances.
Rebetika of Lakkos
The rebetiko music of Lakkos has not been recorded (with only few exceptions) and most songs were forever lost when the last inhabitants of Lakkos died. The intellectuals of the time considered them “inferior”, immoral and not worthy of being recorded in any way. However, these songs told stories of this unique little community, its melodies were the sound of a historical period, lifestyle, language, customs, all of which were lost along with the community itself. For the few remaining songs we know that they were simpler and more “primitive” when compared to famous rebetiko songs. The content of their lyrics was more or less predictable: love, passions, hashish, prison. Many musicians of Lakkos, however, became widely known, such as “Koulouras” and Katsaros. As for the rebetiko hall of fame of Lakkos, popular artists of the time that visited the area included Vamvakaris and Batis.
Don’t even try to find traces of Lakkos’ lost glory today. However, part of its “vibe” is still preserved as this remains a relatively degraded area, with old houses, small gardens, narrow lanes and old shops sealed with metal plates. The district’s main lane passes in front of the lovely church of Agios Mathaios (St. Mathew), a chapter of the Municipal Library (Vikelea), a small square with neighborhood shops and abandoned buildings. Near the exit to the Venetian Walls you will see the impressive old building of Pananio Hospital. The district underwent several renovation works during the past few years. During the “gentrification” process, high apartment blocks were constructed, rising next to the few remaining old village houses, as well as a new monstrous Cultural Center that shades the whole block behind it.
Recent citizen initiatives such as the "Lakkos project" were inspired by the district's history and some new and tasteful restaurants and cafes have re-opened, making Lakkos part of the city center again. These initiatives give a new and modern flair of Lakkos without "distrurbing" whatever its left from its historical character and it’s still worth wandering around the neighborhoods, making up “true stories” of prostitutes in love with rebetiko lovers!