The access to the cave, while steep in spots, is up a rock staircase. And if you need to fortify yourself on your way up or down, there is a traditional taverna with a beautiful view of the Topolia Gorge.
In spring, keep your eyes and nose out for the bizarre "Dragon Lilly", said to be sacred to the Greek god Apollo. These odd plants have speckled stems leading to a huge, rich maroon spathe that smells like carrion. This isn't an unlucky accident of nature; the plant counts on flies to be attracted to it in order to be fertilized by the pollen they carry to it from other dragon lillies. Just don't accuse the caretakers of failing to take out the garbage.
Refuge of Saints and RebelsThe cave itself has a wide opening. Inside are remarkable stalagmite formations. A small chapel also occupies the cave. Legend has it that a miraculous icon of Saint Sophia fled from Constantinople and "took refuge" here in the cave. Remains from neolithic and Minoan times have been found here, and the cave has known its fair share of drama in more recent ages. It may have been sacred to Dictynna, the mountain goddess and lawgiver to the Minoans, or to Britomartis, her daughter, whose name is said by some scholars to mean "Sparkling Rocks". One female-shaped stalagmite is inexplicably kept whitewashed, perhaps a survival of ancient practices.
Under the Ottoman Occupation, a horrid bargain was offered to young men - if they brought the head of their brother or father as a sign of obedience to the occupiers, they would be pardoned for any "crimes" of their own. A young, promising Cretan rebel leader named Psaromilingis knew of this offer by the occupiers but would not think of it. So his father and an uncle brought him to this cave, urging him to kill them so that he would no longer be a fugitive and free to carry on the fight. He refused; his father and uncle then killed themselves in the cave. Shocked by their sacrifice, he did take their heads to the Ottoman rulers and received his pardon.
But the cave seems big enough, and old enough, to contain even such distressing stories and still be a serene place to visit. Today, it is a calm oasis of coolness from the heat outside. Stalagmites, flowering cave plants, and the plain ancient chapel will keep photographers happily messing with exposure settings for an hour or more.
When You Go:The Cave of Saint Sophia is located in the dramatic Topolia Gorge. The cave is just after the tunnel; as soon as you see the signs, pull over to the right side of the road to park.
Watch yourself on the sloping stalagmites; it's easy to lose your footing and polish these ancient stones by sliding on your bottom.
At the Panorama café below, keep an eye out for a local man in full Sfakiot costume. He can be induced to pose for photographs when he's not too busy grilling meat a on a spit.
Admission to the cave is free. It is not wheelchair accessible. Festivals are held on the Tuesday after Greek Orthodox Easter and on December 24th.
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