According to the data of the Greek Speleological Society, there are over 3,000 caves in Crete, many of which have great scientific value and are of archaeological, palaeontological and historical interest. Of this huge number of caves, however, only a few are open to the public. The Sfendoni Cave belongs to the group that tourists can see. It is also the largest cave in Crete that has been made available to visitors.
Access to the cave
The Sfendoni Cave was shaped by nature on the southern slopes of the Chalepa hill at an altitude of 630 meters and belongs to the Psiloritis National Park. It is located approximately one kilometer northeast of Zoniana and 43 kilometers from Heraklion, the capital of Crete, and 52 kilometers from Rethymno.
Sfendoni is one of the most important and also the most beautiful caves in Greece and the richest in Crete in terms of natural decorations. To protect its natural beauty and the uniqueness of its fauna, it is under UNESCO protection. The fact that the creation of such protection was needed is evidenced by the fact that several dozen years ago local residents were able to cut down stalactites and stalagmites, ignoring the value of the cave.
The cave is known by three names. The name Zoniana was taken from a nearby town. The term Sfendoni, on the other hand, has a different genesis and comes from a partisan fighter named Sfendonis, who was said to have been hiding in this cave once.
The last name of the Hole of the Sfendoni ( Σφεντώνη η Τρύπα ) was used by the locals because the cave entrance was once literally a hole one square meter in size.
The cave is 145 meters long and covers an area of 3000 square meters. Visitors can see a path about 270 meters long, which runs through about two-thirds of the cave's surface. The route is well prepared and tourists walk on landings secured with ropes on both sides.
Visitors to the cave move on the platforms
The cave consists of successive chambers with rich stalactite and stalagmite decorations. These chambers have their names given by Anna Petrocheilou, the most famous Greek speleologist: Harmony Hall , Fairy Sanctuary, Chapel, Palace, Parthenon, Panorama, Diocese, Lost Child. The individual chambers vary in size, generally about 18-20 meters long, 9-12 meters wide and about 3-4 meters high. One of the caves, called Parthenon, is distinguished by the dimensions of about 30 x 30 m. It is filled with stalactites and stalagmites up to 6 meters high.
Schematic of the Sfendoni Cave
While visiting the cave, you will definitely notice that the walls are illuminated in a variety of bright colors, creating a slightly psychedelic atmosphere. There are water reservoirs in several places. You can also see the so-called "cave pearls". This is a type of calcium carbonate infiltrate that resembles pearls. Some rock formations containing calcium carbonate crystals sparkle in the spotlight as if they were sprinkled with glitter. Although it is difficult to find silence during the tour in a group, you may be able to hear the drops falling into the water. It is worth stopping by to feel the extraordinary atmosphere of this unique natural architecture.
As the French say:
The cave is a kingdom of silence and loneliness,
in which man is not afraid of loneliness,
face to face .
Due to the fact that the entrance to the cave is closed with a tight door, the temperature inside is constant and amounts to 16-17 degrees Celsius. In summer, a trip to this place is a moment of rest from the heat outside. Maintaining a constant temperature and humidity is necessary for the unique organisms that inhabit Sfendoni to survive. It is because of them that it is not allowed to take pictures with flash.
Since the Palaeolithic times, the caves have been used not only as places of worship, but also as a shelter. It was the Minoans who initiated the custom of worshiping their gods in small palace and home chapels, and those built on mountain peaks, as well as in sacred caves. In more modern times, the caves have long served as a refuge for locals at a time when Crete was under foreign occupation.
It was no different with Sfendoni. As evidenced by the archaeological works conducted in its area in 1987 by E. Gavrilakis, this cave was inhabited during the early Minoan period (3500-2300 / 2150 BC), as well as in the late Roman period. The remains of 95 bones of various animals (lambs, goats, pigs, deer) and stone tools from the Neolithic period and later have been found here.
Currently, the cave is inhabited by small animals such as mice, rats, cave invertebrates and about 400 bats belonging to three species. About 20 species inhabiting this cave are endemic animals, that is, found only in this cave. The most important of them are equipedes, pseudo-scorpions, twin scorpions and snails, which form small populations here and constitute a characteristic biosociality. One of the most interesting creatures is the endemic equinox Graeconiscus guanophilus , found only in the Sfendoni cave. The remaining invertebrates are rather difficult to notice during an ordinary visit to the cave, because they are small and generally colorless. The lack of light inside the cave has made them also blind. Neither of them would survive in the weather conditions outside the cave.
Originally illuminated interior of the Sfendoni cave
Several legends have arisen around the cave. Characteristically, they are related to one character. As there is supposed to be a grain of truth in every legend, who knows ...
As mentioned above, one of the cave names used comes from the Cretan partisan Sfendonis. He came from Sfakia, which is the southern mountainous and wild region of Crete famous for its tough and very warlike people. Sfendonis, fleeing the Turks occupying the island, took refuge in this cave. One day, while he was sitting in the cave entrance and cooking meat, a young man saw him who approached Sfendonis and asked him for a piece of meat. The Spfendonis, out of fear or anger that the man might hand him over, kicked him so hard with his stivania , a traditional Cretan boot, that he killed the unfortunate man.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful fairy who hid in a cave and went out at a certain time of the day to drink water at a neighboring spring. The shepherd saw the fairy many times, but once he tried to approach her, the fairy escaped and hid in a cave. Driven by lust and curiosity, the shepherd waited in front of the cave for the fairy to come out again. When she finally showed up, he threw a stone at her using the fabric belt. The wounded fairy managed to take refuge in the cave again, but while escaping from the cave entrance, she dropped the bloodied handkerchief that the shepherd had found her.
There is also a second, slightly different version of this legend. According to her, the shepherd approached the wounded fairy and, charmed by her beauty, tried to kiss her. The fairy, however, pushed him away and promised to give him a special roll of silk if he didn't hurt her. Thanks to this roll, the shepherd's family could spin silk endlessly. Despite such a tempting offer, the shepherd could not help but kiss the fairy despite her clear objection. In order to punish the insistent man, the fairy placed the "curse of trembling hands" on him and his whole family.
Another story relates to the skeleton of a small child found in the last northernmost chamber of the cave. This skeleton was completely covered with chalk material, indicating that it had been in the cave for many centuries. Probably a child entered the cave and could no longer get out. However, many local residents believe that it is the skeleton of a boy killed with a Sfendonis shoe.
Visiting the cave is possible only in the presence of a qualified guide who is a resident of the village of Zoniana. No wonder, because the inhabitants of this nearby village grew up in the vicinity of the cave, before it was even allowed for tourist traffic. The guide speaks Greek and English, German and Russian are also possible (depending on the group). Self-tour is not allowed for the safety of visitors and the protection of the cave. Tickets can be purchased at the kiosk next to the car park. In a small cafe you have to wait for the group to gather. In the summer season it usually takes 20-40 minutes, depending on how long the previous group entered the cave. The ticket in 2019 cost 5 € for individual guests. For organized groups the admission ticket costs 4 €. There is also a tavern and a gift shop in the building.
In the middle of the cave, photos are allowed, but as mentioned above, no flash.
Depending on the size of the group, the tour takes 35-40 minutes . There are regular stops during it, so there is a lot of time to take photos. The guide carefully describes the corners of the cave shown, and it's definitely worth listening to.
Cave entrance times depend on the season. Between April 10 and October 31, the cave can be visited between 10:30 and 17:00. From November 1 to April 9, between 10:30 and 14:30.
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