Why two Belgians moved to Crete permanently? Can you find an observatory in a remote mountainous village? What are the mysteries of the universe? These three questions may sound irrelevant to each other, but they have one common feature: Sasteria. Sasteria is the name of the observatory that two Belgian people, Filip Feys and Chantal Debrabandere, opened in a mountainous village to the south of Crete, Agios Stefanos.
This unique and pioneer project offers visitors the chance to observe the sky through modern telescopes and to realize how many wonders our universe has. The work is cooperative in Sasteria. Filip, being an amateur astronomer since 1980, shows people around the night sky, talk to them about night constellations and helps to use the telescopes. Chantal, elegant and cosmopolitan, has undertaken the painting seminars, workshops and walks to the surrounding nature that are frequently organized. Filip talked to us about this project, its difficulties and how living in Crete is like.
Can you describe your business in a few words? What exactly do you offer visitors?
We offer our visitors the possibility to observe the night sky and they can do that with different types of high-grade telescopes. First of all, we start with a short introduction how to use the different telescopes. Then we explain the use of each one and of what kind of material they have been built. While observing, we explain people what they are seeing and how they have to observe. Of course, not everyone coming in Sasteria is professional or amateur astronomer, so some people need guiding. They learn to orientate themselves by learning the necessary constellations and of course we provide answers, if they have any questions about the Solar System, Milky Way, Galaxy's, Nebula's and many other features that the night sky offers. Locals can also join the astronomy club. For us, the main goal is to bring the beauty of the night sky to everybody and we hope that they look up to the stars from a different point of view.
How did you get the idea to open such a business? Why an observatory?
I have been an amateur astronomer for almost thirty years now. For many years, Chantal and I had the idea to open an observatory, but in Belgium we did not have the open sky as we wanted. So for us it was obvious to search for a location in a country where there are many clear nights and as far south as possible in Europe. And because we like Greece very much, the choice was for us easy, Crete.
Were you somehow connected to Crete in the past? Why did you open Sasteria in Crete and in fact in such a mountainous village?
First of all, the location of Crete is far south and this is very important to observe the southern constellations. It is very difficult to observe this part of the sky in the light polluted countries in Europe. The location of Agios-Stefanos is superb, its elevation above the sea level is 420 meters. This provides us crystal clear nights with no moister from the sea and no light pollution from Makri Gialos. We know Crete very well. We visited the island many times in the past. There's a good connection with other European countries the whole year round. Crete is an island where people live the whole year and it is very important that it provides its own water.
Do you offer accommodation to visitors? Is there any accommodation in the village or close by?
Yes, we do offer accommodation. Visitors can choose between Agios Stefanos or one of the accommodations near the sea, this is only 6 km away from us. Most of the people who come to observe choose to stay in our village. That offers them the chance to combine their interest in astronomy and other workshops with the way of living in a typical mountain village.
How can visitors get to Agios Stefanos?
The best way is to drive there and enjoy the views as they climb up to our village. Agios Stefanos is about 40 km from Ierapetra and another 40 km from Sitia. If they are staying within a circle of 20 km, we can pick them up for one of the workshops.
Do you live in Crete permanently?
Yes, we live here permanently. We have been visiting Greece since 1986, so we knew what to expect from living in an Greek island. Of course, we have to adapt to the Gretan way of living but for us that is what we wanted. In one year, we learned the basics of the Greek language, so we can communicate with the locals here. We like it very much!
Do you think Crete is proper for the development of alternative ways of tourism?
Of course, it's ready. Now it the moment to discover the beautiful nature and to enjoy the way of living in a typical village. The traditions are still there to discover and we will help the people to realize their dream of staying in a village like Agios Stefanos. We think that Greece has to support more the small business and bring back the tourism to the local people. The possibility to find accommodation in small pensions, apartments and local houses are pushed away by big resorts with all-inclusive formulas. We have to make the visiting people aware by advertisement that there are other ways to explore Greece. This should be the job of the Greek government to advertise this side of Greece in different countries.
What comments do you hear about your observatory and Crete in general?
Our visitors find the project a fantastic idea. They love it to have a chance to observe though telescopes of this size. They are surprised of what they all can see, formation of stars, supernova's, other galaxies and many other objects. Details on planets, moons that transit the planet disk, all these are spectacular for the observer. Every time on the end of an observation they say to us "we didn't realize that the universe was that big and full of wonders". Also the locals and people that have business here find it great that there is something new and unique to offer their costumers.