There are hundreds of caves scattered around the Greek island of Crete and all of them are worth a visit, either for their natural landscape or for the history they hide. Many of the caves are open to the public and boast an unexpected side to the island’s scenery. This is an account of five of the most beautiful caves of Crete.
The Melidoni Cave
The Melidoni Cave (also locally known as Gerontospilios or the old cave) is located in the Prefecture of Rethymno and is famous for being one the theaters of the struggle for the Cretan independence.
Back in 1824, during the early uprisings against the Ottoman oppression, approximately 300 villagers took refuge in the cave refusing to leave. A Muslim commander sent two messengers but in reply, the rebels shot them. The Ottomans tried to force the villagers out by blocking the entrance, thus cutting off their main air supply.
The refugees used to open new air passages every evening, however, several days after, the Ottoman troops piled inflammable material at the mouth of the cave and set fire to it. Everyone inside perished and the cave turned into their tomb.
The cave is probably of the most impressive ones on the island. According to the myth, the cave used to be the home of Talos, a giant made of bronze who would be the protector of the Cretan coasts. Archaeological excavations have also proved that the area used to be an important Minoan shrine where they would worship Eileithyia, the goddess of fertility.
Today, visitors can appreciate a number of stalactites and stalagmites on the walls as well as a huge central chamber home to a shrine and ossuary in memory to the victims of the Ottoman massacre.
The Sfentoni Cave
The Sfentoni Cave (also known as Zoniana) is located about 21 kilometers from the Melidoni cave, also in the area of Rethymno. This remains the largest complex of Crete open to the public.
The legend tells that the area was discovered by an eight-year-old girl who was lured away by fairies, and who was found dead in the depths of the cave.
The magnificent cave extends for about 500 meters into a spur of the famous Mount Psiloritis, the highest peak on the island. It is possible to visit the caverns inside with a guided tour since visitors are not allowed to explore the cave on their own.
Impressive displays of petrified waves, stalactites, and stalagmites are to be seen all over the cave, most of them over five million years old. Extending over an impressive 3000-square-meter area, the cave offers unique views of how nature shapes such a bizarre spectacle through water drops and minerals.
The Dhiktean Cave
The Dhiktean Cave (also known as Psychro) can be found in the Prefecture of Lasithi, in the homonymous plateau.
According to the legend, it was here that Rhea gave birth to the god Zeus. The myth tells us that his father, Kronos, had received a warning telling him that one of his children would overthrow him. For this reason, Kronos ate all of his kids.
Rhea, however, was smarter than Kronos and when Zeus was born, she gave a rock in place of the baby for him to swallow. She hid Zeus in the cave and left him under the protection of the Kouretes, who would beat their shields out of the cave so as to prevent Kronos from hearing Zeus’ cries.
The legend also tells that once grown, Zeus spent his youth in another cave, on Mount Psiloritis. Despite all the variations the legend has, the Dhiktean cave was certainly a cult center during the Minoan period, and probably afterward as well. Explorations also brought to light offers made both to Zeus and to Mother Goddess.
The cave is quite easy to explore thanks to cement steps and electricity, the path leads visitors along a circle lane passing the bottom of the cave and an artificial lake.
The Cave of the Elephants
Moving to the Prefecture of Chania, close to the bay of Souda, it is possible to visit a submarine cave discovered by a snorkeler back in 1999. The first mission to explore the cave only took place in 2000, and it is known as the Cave of the Elephants.
The fantastic findings surprised the locals of the island and the entire country. Other than the unique beauty of the place, the research resulted in the discovery of bones of unknown elephant species.
The palaeontological materials found inside, indicates that it consisted mostly of elephant bones as well as a small number of deer bones. This was something completely new for the island and quite unique as well, since they came from a submarine cave.
Shaped in limestone from the Mesozoic, the entrance of the cave has 9m height, 6.5m width, starts at a depth of 10 meters below sea level and continues in a tunnel about 40 meters in length. The main chamber of the cave is filled with water only partially, ranging from just a few centimeters to almost 4 meters.
The cave’s roof presents stalactites with a marked shade of red, thus indicating the high content of iron of the material. The many stalactites found on the ground explain that the cave was not always covered by water.
The Chainospilios Cave
For those visiting the Prefecture of Heraklion, the Cave of Chainospilios (also Marmarospilios) can be found not far from the village of Kamaraki.
Locally known as the “Labyrinth”, this long and rather narrow cave presents galleries that used to be the bed of an old underground river.
Two hundred meters long, the cave presents a shorter parallel gallery which is richly decorated. Stunning stalagmite columns over 6 meters high date back over 12 million years ago. The roof shows the corrosive effects caused by the river water once present in the cave.
In some areas of the cave, shells have been found from periods going from pre-Minoan times to the years of the Ottoman occupation. Curiously enough, Chainospilios means the cave of the Chainides (or Cretan rebels) who used the area as their base to hide from the Turkish commanders.