The Cave of Zoniana
One of the most interesting caves on Crete is near the village of Zoniana, just 43 km from Heraklion and 52 km from Rethymnon.
The quaint village of Zoniana, which has a long and intriguing history, is situated 630 meters up on Psiloritis Mountain (Mount Idi) in the Mylopotamos region of the Rethymnon Prefecture. Zoniana is the village’s modern name – prior to 1920 it was called Zeus’ Pit, possibly named after the God Zeus. The main occupation of the residents is cattle breeding
As you drive up the mountain road into Zoniana, which is located just a short distance from the renowned village of Anogeia, you will see the sign for the famous Sfentoni Cave, or Sfentoni’s Hole, one of the island’s most beautiful caves, extensively adorned with stalactites and stalagmites.
Following the signs will bring you to the parking lot which affords a panoramic view of the area. In the parking lot is a kiosk where you can purchase tickets to the cave.
As you are not allowed to enter the cave on your own, the ticket price includes the services of a well-trained guide, who is responsible for both your personal safety and the protection of the cave. The guides, all of whom are residents of the village who grew up playing children’s games in and around the cave’s galleries before it was open to visitors, are well versed in explaining all about the deep, dark secrets of this fascinating attraction.
There is a paved path leading from the kiosk to the mouth of the cave, which originally was only about a meter wide. Since the cave has become such a popular site, the entrance was opened up and adapted to provide a comfortable and safe access for the great number of visitors.
Upon entering the interior, you will walk, together with the guide, on metal corridors with ropes on each side, which allow for an additional feeling of security, especially while walking on sloping paths.
The impressive 3000-square-meter cave allows a 270-meter walk, providing visitors with breathtaking sights of how Mother Nature patiently “creates” an aesthetic spectacle by using mineral-rich water drops.
Huge columns create puzzle-like spaces. Innumerable stalactites and stalagmites of various shape and colour adorn the halls of the cave, while hollowed-out water basins and “cave pearls” can be found throughout the cavern, where the sparkle of microscopic calcium crystals is especially impressive.
Life Inside the Cave
Contrary to what you might think at first, caves are not empty of life. Here, life is in harmony with the special conditions that hold in the interior: eternal darkness, humidity and very little food. The creatures that live inside the cave are transparent or colourless, blind and often microscopic and very delicate.
Also, there are lots of bats living there, a fact which is confirmed by all the blackened areas at the top of the cave. The black colour comes from bats’ excrements as they hang upside down from the cave’s ceiling. Since a bat consumes its weight in insects on a daily basis, it creates a huge amount of excrement, which is used as food by the rest of the creatures that co-exist in the cave.
Other food sources include the remnants of mice food, like acorn shells; the excrements of mice, and the carcasses of mice or other small animals that had entered the cave and died before being able to find the way out.
How Stalactites and Stalagmites Form
Deep inside the cave, only the sound of falling drops relieves the monotony of the dark and silent caverns. The carbon calcium dissolved in water, flowing through the cracks of the chalky rocks, is crystallized around a water drop. This causes a small, fragile “pipe” to gradually form. When the pipe clogs up, water begins to flow on the external surface and a larger amount of carbon calcium piles up on the pipe. This is how the stalactites are formed.
Directly underneath the stalactites, where the drops fall onto the ground of the cave, the stalagmites are formed, and there are innumerable ones of various sizes and shapes.
If the water drops contain dissolved metal oxides, both the stalactites and stalagmites are formed in colour.
Sfentoni’s Hole, the Popular Name of the Cave in Zoniana
The cave had been used, since olden times, as a hideout. Once, there was a guerilla ( hainis ) from Sfakia who had found refuge there. His name was Sfentonis. One day, as he was sitting by the entrance cooking a piece of meat, a young man saw him and came close to ask for some meat.
Sfentonis, in a fit of anger or for fear the man might give him away, kicked him with his stivani (traditional Cretan boot) so hard, that he killed him.
Legends of the Cave in Zoniana
There was once a beautiful fairy who used to hide in the cave and come out at a specific time of the day for a drink of water at a neighbouring spring. A shepherd had seen her many times, but as soon as he tried to come close to her, she ran and hid inside the cave.
Driven by lust and curiosity, the shepherd laid in wait for her outside the cave. When the fairy showed up, he hurled a stone at her using his fabric sling. The fairy, although injured, managed to run away and hide in the cave, leaving her bloody handkerchief by its mouth.
According to another version, the shepherd approached the injured fairy, and bewitched by her beauty, attempted to kiss her. The fairy pushed him away and promised to give him a special reel of silk if he wouldn’t harm her. His whole family would be able to spin the silk, which would never come to an end. The shepherd, however, couldn’t resist kissing her, despite her objections. The fairy then put “the curse of trembling hands” on him and all his family.
The Little Child’s Skeleton
There was a tragic incident that took place in the cave, but nobody knows exactly when. A few decades ago, a little child’s skeleton was found just outside the last hall of the cave. The skeleton was fully covered with chalky material, indicating that it had been in the cave for many centuries.
No information concerning the child’s death is available. It is possible he might have entered the cave, became trapped in its labyrinthine forks, and never managed to find the way out.
Then again, it might well be the skeleton of the adolescent, who was killed by Sfentonis !
NOTE . This article was based on the book “Sfentonis Hole” written by Caloust Paragamian, and was published by the Cultural Club of Zoniana. You can buy this interesting book at the reception stand in Zoniana. The pictures included also belong to Caloust Paragamian, except for those which are copyright of the explorecrete.com website. ExploreCrete has the author’s and the publisher’s permission to use printed and photographic material.
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