The day of Saint George in Asi-Gonia in Crete
April 23 is the day of Saint George all over Crete and Greece. Somewhere up on the mountains of Crete there is a different Saint George, Saint George the "Galatas" or the "Milkman", as it is translated in Greek. This particular Saint George is in the village of Asi-Gonia in Rethymnon district.
Asi-Gonia is a mountainous village with 800 inhabitants, most of them being shepherds. The village is mentioned in the Roman period as a village controlled by the town of Lappa, the Argiroupolis of today. It is also mentioned in the Venetian period and it is believed that the initial settlement was built on a more easterly location than today.
No Turks lived in Asi-Gonia during the turkish occupation period. The reason is that the people of Asi-Gonia were able to control easily the gorge, which is the only natural passage to their area. It is the same gorge that you will drive through to reach Asi-Gonia today too.
The people of Asi-Gonia took part in all liberation fights against the Turks and the 1867 revolution was declared here.
George Psychountakis is a local hero and the author of the "Cretan Runner". He was born and raised here and he was a shepherd like the rest of his family. Psychountakis was a messenger for the Greek and British resistance during the German occupation period in World War II. His memories from those days are the subject of his book "Cretan Runner", translated to English by Patrick Lee Fermor.
Psychountakis has also translated Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" from ancient Greek to the Cretan dialect. For his work as a writer he was awarded by the Academy of Athens and the Polytechnic School of Crete.
Link: More about Psychountakis
In Asi-Gonia there is the unique tradition of the blessing of the sheep on April 23, the day of Saint George. The shepherds of the area believe that Saint George protects them and their flocks and on April 23 they bring their sheep to his church, they milk them and offer the milk to everybody present.
The church is very close to the village' s square and the spectacle of hundreds of sheep surrounding the statues of the local heroes, while they are waiting their turn to be milked, is unique.
The shepherds hang their best sounding bells ("leria") on their animals,
the sheep gather in the "kourta" outside of the church and they are milked one-by-one,
VIDEO: Watch a short video of milking frenzy and listen to the sheep bells and the priest's chanting. Click to open the video file. If this fails, then right-click and choose SAVE AS to save the file in your hard disk and open it with the Windows Media Player.
- Each sheep produces about 1 liter of milk per day.
- Sheep are milked 6-7 months per year, so a single sheep produces about 200 liters of milk per year.
- Six liters of milk. are required to produce one kilo of cheese.
the flock is blessed by the priest,
and the milk is offered to everybody present in plastic bottles.
Part of the milk is boiled and offered in glasses to the visitors by girls of Asi-Gonia in traditional dresses.
This tradition is very old and nobody can say when it started. The people of Asi-Gonia claim that it goes back in time until the very first days of the existence of their village. The shepherds of the area own 25,000 - 30,000 sheep and goats and it is unthinkable for them to skip the traditional milking even for a single year. Those shepherds, who keep their animals a great distance from Asi-Gonia and cannot transfer their sheep to the church, will milk them and take the milk to the church instead.
The feast lasts the whole day from early in the morning until late in the afternoon, when the last flock of sheep will be milked and blessed. A lot of people, mostly locals and some tourists, visit Asi-Gonia this day and the cafes in the village's square are full all day. The air smells of grilled souvlaki, the traditional Greek dish of skewered pork meat.
On April 23 it is the nameday of George. The Greek names are Yorgos for men and Yeoryia for women. The Yorgos and Yeoryia of Asi-Gonia will be visited by friends and family in their houses in the evening and the celebration will last until late in the night.
If you happen to be in Crete this day and you want to visit Asi-Gonia, then you may do so at any time of the day. The traffic police at the entrance of the village will guide you to the parking area. You will leave your car there and then walk for five minutes to the village's square and the nearby church.
If you want to have lunch at Asi-Gonia, other than the souvlaki offered by the cafes, then you may enjoy a nice meal at the tavern close to the parking area. There is another church of Saint George there and a few giant plane trees (platania) keep the place cool and shady.
Other options for lunch are the many taverns at the nearby Argiroupolis.
How to drive to Asi-Gonia.
From Heraklion drive on the highway to Rethymnon. Do not enter the town but keep driving to the west. Some 10 km later you will see the sign to Episkopi. Leave the highway and follow the signs to Episkopi, Argiroupoli and Asi-Gonia.
From Chania you will drive on the highway to Rethymnon. The sign to Episkopi is about 10 km past Georgioupolis.
Asi-Gonia is 5 km past the waterfalls of Argiroupolis. You will drive through the gorge of Asi-Gonia where there is a small river and many plane trees. The road is narrow and full of bends, so some extra attention is required.
Other sightseeings in the area.
- The waterfalls of Argiroupolis. The need of Rethymnon for water is covered by the water that comes from here. The water comes out of a cave, which is also a church with the very unusual name Ayia Thinami (th as in this), meaning Saint Power (of God). It is an area with lush green and many taverns.
- The village of Argiroupolis, which is above the waterfalls. You must follow the signs to Argiroupolis not to the Springs of Argiroupolis. The village is built on the ruins of the ancient Lappa, a minoan town which became very important during the Roman period due to its alliance with the Romans. In 824 the Arabs destroyed the town and stole its gold. Ask at the village to point you to the house with the roman mosaic floor. There are also roman tombs outside of the village at the location "Epta Parthenes" (Seven Virgins), where 7 local young women were killed by the Turks.
- The 12th century monastery at Miriokefala with the excellent frescoes.
- The plateau and the village of Kallikratis. It is 12 km past Asi-Gonia, high up on the mountains. The road is asphalt and concrete and it continues to Askifou Plateau, Imbros and Hora Sfakion via the abandoned village of Asfendou. The road is narrow and full of blind bends.
- A dirt track of 10 km continues from Kallikratis to the village of Kapsodasos near Frangocastello. It is a scenic route but a difficult drive.