Ano Asites is a secret place I was not going to divulge the secrets of. Not telling strangers about such pristine treasures would be sacrilegious though. So, for the reader who has never been gifted by brotherhood and sisterhood of Cretans, here is the story your travel agent or tourism office never told you. This latest tale of Crete starts and ends with genuine people, real friends, and the mysterious nectar that binds the island’s future to its glorious past.
Friendship is the most ordinary thing on Crete, but friends are the most extraordinary things you’ll find here too. Since our first visit in 2014, and especially now that we’ve moved to the island permanently, Minas Liapakis, his lovely wife Kallia, their families and their friends have demonstrated the real Minoan heart. The low key co-founder of EyeWide Digital Marketing in Heraklion, Minas will be humbled by my mention of them here. However, if Crete is anything it’s authentic and genuine – there’s no way to show you the islands prize without them. Like true friends, and like true Cretans, they took our family under their wing from day one. But rest assured, our story is not such an uncommon one, for it is said that all of Crete protects us.
If you are not so familiar with Crete as part of Greece, this island is a significant part of the economy and cultural heritage of the overall country. Crete is integral to the overall Greek economy and culture but retains its own local cultural traits more so that any other region. once the center of the Europe’s earliest recorded civilization, that of the Minoans (c. 2700–1420 BC), the place is special in so many regards.
Singing and Dancing by the Kazania
Crete’s beating heart is agriculture since the dawn of time. I hope the reader can identify with what I mean here. For more than twenty centuries Cretans have been born, lived, and died under the southern Aegean sun. The land referred to by the ancient Egyptians as Keftiu, has existed as long as any other under the tender mercies of the gods. Humans have lived in Crete for more than 130,000 years, and the sand and soil here, the highly intense sun, and the life-giving winds that bring precious water remain Crete’s most sacred trilogy. I’ve not time or space here to unfold for you this island’s agrarian wonders – suffice it to say, you can grow anything here – anything.
Famous mostly for having the best olives in the world, Crete is one of the few regions of Greece and southeastern Europe capable of sustaining itself without tourism. As important as olives, oranges, and wine are, raki is a kind of communal elixir of brotherhood here. Raki, or tsikoudia a digestive libation and spirit, as well as the central subject of many local feasts centered around the kazania, or stills where the spirit is produced. Minas and Kallia afforded us an invite to be part of festivities at Ano Asites the other day. Once again we were amazed by Cretan tradition and seemingly unending hospitality.
While there are industrial level distilleries for raki on the island, the kazania scattered about in the villages of the island and wherever grapes are grown. For an in-depth description of what differentiates raki (tsikoudia) and how it is made, please refer here. As for this past weekend’s festivities, I hope readers will forgive us being too immersed and absorbed to be true journalists. My wife and partner Mihaela was the only one a tad bit focused on Argo that night, as you can tell by the marvelous images here. The few images we do have should suffice to give you a clue I hope. The fall season in Ano Asites was really capitalized by Minas’ family, friends, guests, and fellow villagers.
For our story, Ano Asites, the village of my friend Minas, was the site of our most recent introduction to Cretan culture. Reading the various descriptions of various raki festivals over the years does not hold a candle to actually being involved in such festivities. Truth be told, the village is not so unknown since its history goes back centuries. Completely destroyed by the earthquake of 1857, upper and lower Asites (Pano and Kato Asites) have been centers for revolutionaries and freedom fighters several times. Most recently during the Nazi occupation of the island in WW II. Located in the eastern foothills of Mount Ida at almost 500 meters elevation, Ano Asites is roughly 27km from Heraklion.
Casual visitors will find local farmers and shepherds warm and friendly, and the Byzantine church of St. Antonios and a folklore museum interesting. There are also fascinating caves nearby, as well as numerous historic churches. Those interested in Crete revolutionaries will want to visit the St. George Gorgolaini where the tomb of the fighter Francs Mastracha is located. Between Kato and Ano Asites there are a great many natural and historic attractions to take in, such as traditional bell making (above), apple growing, winemaking and other wonderful arts and handicrafts. But, the genuine Crete is not a superficial thing, one has to “live” the island, and one great way of achieving this is to hike Canyon St. Haralambos (above) , and to gather in St. Anthony Gorge, just a short walk outside the village boundaries. Whether you cherish moments of solitude and melancholy, or rousing laughter and shared humanity, this tiny speck of Eden offers unparalleled uniqueness. Words and images really do fail when spiritual qualities abound, what cannot be seen or touched is prevalent in this village.
Once again I find myself falling back on a cliche. Ano Asites, these local festivals, and the soul of Crete is just something you have to experience yourself. So come this year, move the land of the Minoans your top bucket list.
Image credits: A special thanks to Rural Heraklion for several of the above images of Ano Asites.