THE HOUSE OF ASTERION*
Crete on the Road: HERAKLION
The House of Asterion*. I have not gone mad. I do not want to copy. Nor do I intend to infringe the copyright, the ideas, or the witty creations of the greatest Argentine author of all times. Nor that I would have been ever capable of such a venture. He wrote short stories. I’m a never-ending chatter box.
It has become a bad-mannered habit to interact with literature when I have to name my posts. And not any book, but pieces that have left a scar on my literary history. This is clearer when I tell the story of a place I feel close to my roots. Here and now, temptation was stronger than ever. Borges is my favorite writer. Crete is my favorite island and Asterion the scariest monster of my childhood. This post had to be named The House of Asterion because Crete, with its mysterious charm, could only be the sanctuary of a fake monster.
Let the quest begin
Landing at Heraklion International Airport is a breathtaking experience since the final approach is completely over the sea, up tho the very last meters. The reflections of the sun on the greenish waters are genuinely peculiar. After picking up our car (by the way, do yourself a favor and choose a big one, mountain roads are no joke on this island!) we head to our first destination. Starting from Heraklion we slowly move to the East to complete an almost full tour of the island. We will end in Chania, to depart from another international airport, Daskalogiannis.
Having a car gives us autonomy with decisions, we are wise enough (wise in our case; in your case, it might be wise to do the opposite) to choose accommodation a bit away from main cities. It allows us to
a) enjoy beaches that are less crowded, cleaner, more beautiful;
b) live a more relaxed atmosphere, without being completely isolated;
c) pay more convenient prices.
After a twenty-minute ride we arrive to Stalis. The famous towns of Hersonissos and Malia are too crowded in Summer. Between them lies this small relaxed village, with a few restaurants, pubs and sandy shallow beaches the children adore. In fact we leave our bags in our room and a few minutes later we are swimming, enjoying the sun and a toast over a very Greek Mythos beer. That’s what I love the most about Greece: you wake up wrapped in the mist of Milan, a few hours later you’re fitting a bikini to dive in the wonders of the Aegean.
Cretans immediately show their nature: the most warm, and open-hearted people on Earth, who will offer you fruit from their own gardens and raki** from their grapes. Honestly happy to show you around, offer a hand, make you feel at home.
Another reason to choose this area is also our first date for the next morning. There is a guy waiting for us back in Heraklion, a monster.
La casa de Asterión, fish, and climbing to the top
It’s by no means my intention to make an academic post out this. But if you read this very short story by Borges, you will learn one of his obsessions were labyrinths – physical but also as a metaphor. Throughout his literature he borrowed universal myths transforming them into new stories with a life of their own. The House of Asterion is no exception.
The myth behind the Palace of Knossos, the myth of Theseus, is one of the most tragic and fascinating in Greek Mythology. The story of a glorious hero and a terrifying monster, the Minotaur.
Through the times, the achievements of Theseus in defeating the Minotaur have been praised with honors. Borges, instead, tells the story of the defeated monster. Suddenly the labyrinth becomes a house and the fear of a monster mirrors the Minotaur fearing loneliness. To sum up, the hero, Theseus, is nothing but killer. In a borgean way, the story is turned upside down.
As a child, this was one of the myths my dad used to read me when I asked him for Greek stories (yes, no fairy tales for me, I was weird!). Later, I majored in Latin American literature and my thesis was precisely about this (and other) stories by Borges. Therefore I was not skipping the Palace. What’s more, being the Minoan civilization part of the History program for third graders, for the sake of on the road education, what better way to spend our day?
Let’s go to Knossos
Arriving to Knossos is very simple, try to do it early and take hats with you, avoid midday sun (because of traffic, we couldn’t even if we tried), carry sunscreen. There’s no way to get much shadow-sheltered places to rest. If you intend to visit it thoroughly, which might take up to three hours, heat is a problem.
The place is, at least, controversial. This mostly because of the works of restoration that took place for over thirty-five years after its discovery. Works that gave new color and life, reinventing the area according to what Lord Evans deduced the place might have been.
Here is where most people tend to stop at: Let’s be critical at Evans, let’s move on and let’s go to Festo (Phestos, on the opposite side of the island), thus forgetting to really open their eyes (or books, before paying their visit) to see the immensity that lies in front of them, restored or not.
The palace was the social and political center of the Minoan civilization. It would be better to talk about a palace complex instead of a palace. It is impossible to prove this was the house a monarch, even if the rooms might have been suitable for a royal family. Most of the buildings served a civic, religious and economic center.
The complex is quite impressive, 1300 rooms connected with corridors of different sizes and directions. Six acres also featuring a theater, a main entrance on every of its four cardinal faces, and enormous storage rooms with containers made of clay (pithoi), that stored oil, grain, beans, olives and dried fish.
Beneath them, holes in the stone to store objects of higher value, such as gold.
It takes us two full hours to pay a good visit of the area without a guide, just our own books. Once we are done with the Minotaur, a refreshing stop is much-needed. The sun had hit on us heavily in the worst hour and there are a few hundreds of meters to go up the road to reach our car.
On our way, we pass by old women selling sweet figs from their gardens, the smell is irresistible. Olive trees on both sides of the road try hard to give us some shelter, but it’s an arduous task. People and buses come and go everywhere. The hustle of tourism at its bests.
A traditional Greek taverna, Pasiphae, is our oasis. I just let myself fall on one of their chairs and… a feast. Huge jugs of freshly made orange juice from the orange trees right there. Along come dishes of still hot from the oven Greek pastries (Kalitsounia) filled with sweet feta cheese and honey. These are the moments when you thank God, the Gods, all the Greek Pantheon for the Mediterranean: its food, sun, weather and diet.
I believe I have never tried something so delicate, soft, gently cloying, with a refreshing perfume of lemon drops and strong cinnamon powder. The perfect combination of smells flooded your nostrils preparing your mouth for a major banquet. We order it twice.
For the rest of the afternoon we find an activity with a good deal of shade to take a break from the heat. On the way back to Stalis, there’s a perfect place.
Even if small and in limited premises, it offers shadowy and fresh alleys, lighten by the blue glow of water, where all kind of fish swim in relaxed movements. Refreshing, calming, ideal for a pause at the rhythm of jellyfish and octopus, giving a sense of peace and calmness. Even sharks look friendly when passing by near the children to be included in the perfect shot.
We are tired and hungry, in the mood for a rest… on the beach and with another glass of Mythos, home-made bread and tzatziki. Greek Gods bless Greek food.
Giorgios, our host at the hotel, has already made plans for us, he has booked dinner on the other side of the mountain. Therefore this is how my love-hate relationship with Crete begins. For I hate mountains and mountain roads. And the bare sight of a mountain. And bends on them. Even if it’s just a hill.
Still I love Crete. Crete is my second home. When my plane lands in Crete I cry in joy, when my plane takes off from Crete I cry in despair. When I get to Crete I am home. Even so, I hate its mountains. This is when I start hating Crete. This is when your love affair turns into the seventh year itch and wish for a very flat lover.
Mochos is a very traditional Cretan town, there is a wide main street with an Orthodox church on one side and colorful tavernas all around, tables on the street and Vichy tablecloths. Here you feel that it doesn’t really matter where you’re going to eat. Everything will be great, because in a place like this, that’s the way it is.
They are waiting for us at Rodamanthis. And they welcome us as old friends, there is fresh sea food, dakos bread, olive oil, grilled octopus. Genuine flavors, colors and perfumes fill our table and do not drain our pockets. Even the priest is eating on a table some meters away from us. If he is here, this is the best place in Mochos, I think. And it’s not luck. Every restaurant in Crete serves fruit and raki once you finish, and that will be on the house. Always.
The night seemed to go on and on in Mochos for ever, old people stayed sitting at the front of their homes drinking raki and talking to neighbors until late in the evening. They said kalispera to everyone with a wide smile. For us, it was over, the next day we were moving East and then South. It was time to leave. After that succulent Cretan dinner there was still a good bunch of hairpin turns to drive back down the hill, all of them with a little bottle of raki in our bodies.
I know, that’s another story. Don’t insist, though. They might look like hills. For me, they remain huge Cretan mountains.
* “The House of Asterion”: (original Spanish title: “La casa de Asterión”) is a short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
** Raki: (ρακή) is a Cretan alcoholic drink, a fragrant, grape-based brandy that has 40%–65% alcohol by volume. The drink is normally home-made and the alcohol content can vary. Each Cretan village has one or two residents with a license to distill. They will serve you Raki cold and after dinner. In most bars and tavernas it is a complimentary drink they pour in small glasses to go with fruit after the meal.