Crete is the queen of Grecian cave sites, with about half of the known caves located on this large island. Many of them show signs of prehistoric and ancient use and habitation, and excavations have produced many votive objects, carved stone images, and other artifacts.
One of these caves sacred to Eileithyia is located just south of the village of Amnissos a few miles outside of Iraklio. The Cave of Ilithias is one of many dark, womblike caves associated with childbearing, and the cult of Eileithyia, a Cretan goddess of childbirth, persisted here. At one time, this cave was maintained as a regular tourist site complete with parking lot, but it now can only be accessed by requesting the key in the nearby village.
In the heart of Agios Nikolaos, there is a tiny cave that was used by members of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of Crete. Some of the names of these brave men and women are chiselled into the rocks toward the rear of the cave, which is now a popular bar. No admission fee, though the proprietors naturally expect you to purchase a drink -at a slightly more expensive price than usual. When I was there, they were more than happy to provide a flashlight to see the inscriptions more clearly, and the bartender pointed out several to me. Look for the neon sign saying "Cave Bar" opposite the restaurant-crammed corniche. This is definitely the easiest of the Cretan caves to reach.
The southwestern coast of Crete has many sea caves which can be explored. There is also the honeycomb of burial caves in the cliffs at Matala, and several dramatic caves near Red Beach.
The birthplace of Zeus, originally a Cretan god, is located in the Diktaian Cave(also called Dikteon Andron) located just outside the village of Psirho, roughly between Iraklio and Agia Nikolaos. Locals will be happy to rent you a donkey for the journey to the cave. The descent is a steep one - wear good shoes, and a walking stick may also help.
Zeus's popularity may be judged by the fact that another Cretan cave also claims to be his birthplace. This is the Idaion Cave in the Rethymno province. Some of the finds from this cave are in the Iraklion Museum.
An easy-to-access, dramatic cave is that of Saint Sophia, located south of Chania near the village and gorge of Topolia. It's a great "starter cave", accessible by steps, easy to go through, never completely dark due to is large entrance, and relatively unclaustrophobic. There's also a terrific traditional taverna just outside, offering views of the gorge.
A spectacular cave is located on the small island of Antiparos, just off of Paros. A newly renovated road eases access to this previously hard-to-reach cave with amazing stalagmites and stalactites.
In mainland Greece, the largest cave is located just outside Ioannina (also called Jannina, Yanina, and other variants). This cave, Perama, was formed by a subterranean river and includes numerous small lakes and a vast variety of stalactite shapes. It's open year round and is just 4 km from Ioannina.
In Macedonia, the Petralona Cave provides electric lighting and its own museum, including artifacts of very ancient human habitation. It's located in Petralona Village.
Some caves are extraordinarily complex. Take a look at Uwe Buecher's diagram of Katafyngi Cave. Click on the photos to virtually visit the entire cave through dozens of photos. But watch out for the bats.
If you're traveling with kids, a visit to one or two of these caves is a sure way to compensate for the overdose of culture that Greece so happily provides. Caves bring out the explorer spirit in everyone, and also provide a cool break from the summer heat - you may even want to bring a sweater. Also, unless you are certain that the cave is electrically lit, bring flashlights.
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