We heard about this quirky festival during a BBQ with our very hospitable neighbours/Airbnb hosts, Katerina and Miltos, the previous Saturday night and decided it was something worth checking out.
Asi-Gonia is a small mountain village about an hour (and a beautiful drive it is – the vegetation changes and it becomes more lush) from Chania city. Although April 23rd is the day of St. George all over Crete and Greece, Asi-Gonia celebrates a different St. George – ‘The milkman’. As is typical of Cretan mountain villages, most of the inhabitants seem to be shepherds. On April 23rd, the shepherds bring their livestock (sheep and goats) down from the mountains into this village where they are rounded up, and brought to the church where they are blessed, and therefore protected for the year ahead.
We figured it must be a popular event when we got stuck in a traffic jam just outside the village. We followed the policemen and women’s signals as to where to park and ended up in a narrow dead end outside a house where Frank spent some time turning the car so that we would be able to get out when we were leaving. Nowhere seemed to be off limits as a place to park so we hoped nothing would be in our way later.
We followed other small parties of people walking along a narrow road which lead into the village of Asi-Gonia. What a lovely quaint place it is! Little stone-paved streets lined with houses that had very well kept gardens – a mixture of vegetables, flowers and trees – led to the main square. This was occupied by about 100 goats being managed by several shepherds – some as young as 7 or 8 holding their traditional hooked staffs which were taller than some of the boys.
Meanwhile, we realised that we had a little problem – in the form of a furry schnauzer named Lenny. Imagine, we brought a dog to a sheep festival… what were we thinking?? We obviously weren’t! We did realise when we were almost there that it might pose a problem but none of the police or stewards said anything to us on the way in. But we met an Irish travel guide (with a very strange, unplaceable accent) who lived there and he told us that if the sheep or goats saw him, even on a leash or in Frank’s arms they could react. Can you imagine the fury this could unleash on the locals? Imagine if we caused a stampede? It would have been a little embarrassing to say the least. We had to bring him back to the car, open all the windows (after assurances from same Irish man that the car and dog theft rate here were both zero), left plenty of water for him, and promised we wouldn’t stay long. I know Pauline Clarke will freak out reading this bit but rest assured mother, there was plenty of mountain air blowing through the car so I knew Lenny would be ok.
Back we went to where the atmosphere was building nicely. There were lots of families buying balloons, toys, and local produce. We had a delicious pancake that had goats cheese in the middle of it and was drowned in honey. I find that everywhere in Crete I taste the goats cheese it is different and here it was a lovely light, creamy one that went so well with the local honey. We also tasted some raki made with honey – it too was very tasty. People were already getting into the raki and it was only ten in the morning! It promised to be a lively event alright!
There was another square beside the church and here there were spectators looking into the ‘pit’ which at this time was crowded with sheep and a few goats among them. They were running around in a circle. I felt like I was back in Balla mart but with nicer weather and in less mucky and smelly conditions. To the side, the sheep were being brought into a little area one-by-one in a sort of frenzy of milking. I wonder is there a competition at the ploughing championship back home for the most animals milked in an hour because these lads would have a good shot at the title. The milk was being handed out in two-litre plastic bottles by young girls in traditional dress (for the occasion) to anyone who wanted it. Of course I had to join the large crowd of people who were pushing forward with hands in the air – it was like trying to grab the barman’s attention in a busy pub on an Saturday night in Dublin. I got my prize, which I had absolutely no intention of drinking – I wasn’t in the mood for a potential bout of food poisoning.
Throughout all of this activity,we could hear the almost chant-like singing of the priest or priests (I think there were two) being amplified from the little church just below the square. It’s not unlike the call to prayer you hear coming from a mosque in any muslim city.
There were queues to get into the church. I joined (me and my FOMO). It took a while as everyone in front of me was lighting bunches of long slim candles, presumably praying for the health of their livestock, and by the time I got into the church, my fear was realised: I had missed out because the chanting had ceased and the ritual was over. Like any of the Greek orthodox chapels I’ve been in, this one was heavily decorated with ornate objects and colourful paintings of the particular saint whom the church is named after. In this case, St George.
I had noticed a stack of bread loaves on a table outside the church earlier. The table was now empty and I saw several people with chunks of bread in their hands or in plastic bags. I queried this on Google afterwards but didn’t get a satisfactory explanation. The Greeks do seem to love their bread though, it must be said.
At this point it was time for us to leave although everyone else was just getting into the swing of things. Another herd of goats was entering the village as we were walking out. We also came across a banquet being set up for the feast later. It would have been nice to hang around for the day and get happily drunk on raki and join in the dancing that would undoubtedly happen that evening. What a lovely tradition to have witnessed all the same!
PS: no dogs were harmed in this episode.