When I first stepped into Sfendoni Cave (or Sfentoni), I was immediately captivated by the otherworldly beauty that unfolded before me. The cave’s extraordinary geological formations, including its mesmerizing stalactites and stalagmites, bore witness to the passage of time and the wondrous forces of nature. It felt as though I had stumbled upon a hidden treasure trove shaped over millennia into an enchanting underground realm. As I delved deeper into the cave’s winding passages, I couldn’t help but marvel at the intricate patterns and structures surrounding me, each a testament to nature’s enduring power and artistry.
The cave contains different chambers with whimsical names like The Harmonies, the Sanctum of the Fairy, the Chapel, the Palace, the Parthenon, the Panorama, the Metropolis, the Lost Child, and the Fossilized Waves. Throughout the cave, you’ll see beautiful stalactites, stalagmites, and some fossilized waves near the end, making it a must-see for any spelunker.
The Sfendoni Cave is a geological marvel and a unique ecosystem, hosting a diverse array of flora and fauna adapted to the subterranean environment. As I explored the dimly lit passages, I marvelled at the tenacity of the cave-dwelling creatures, from tiny insects to blind salamanders thriving in the dark and damp recesses. The cave’s atmosphere, shrouded in an air of mystery and ancient wisdom, supports life forms that have evolved distinct adaptations to survive in this lightless realm, offering a glimpse into the resilience and wonder of nature.
Life Inside Sfedoni Cave in Zoniana
Geology and Cave Life The area outside the cave is breathtaking. To the northwest of the parking lots and recreation areas, steep slopes rise up to 50 meters high, resembling a natural wall. Enormous rocks dominate the landscape, almost suspended as if deliberately placed. Despite the harsh conditions, plants like thyme, oregano, thorny burnets, and others tenaciously grow in small crevices, displaying remarkable patience and resilience.
Crete boasts the highest number of caves in Greece and, consequently, the richest cave fauna. The tiny troglobiont isopod Graeconiscus guanophilus was found only in the Sfentoni cave in Zoniana, making it unique to this location. Measuring just one centimetre in length, colourless and sightless, it is a fascinating discovery.
Life has thrived within the depths of Psiloritis, giving rise to creatures that have adapted to survive and reproduce in the pitch-black, food-deprived environment. Troglobites wriggle or crawl through the dark, isolated tunnels formed by subsoil cracks, hunting for scarce food and potential mates.
Bats produce large amounts of waste due to their daily consumption of insects, equivalent to their body weight. The rhinophyloid family encompasses the three species that nest in caves, distinguished by their unique nose shape. During the day, they sleep hanging from the cave roof, wrapped in their membranous wings to conserve body heat.
The cave is home to numerous mice, primarily rats, which feed on decaying food remnants such as mouldy acorn shells or the carcasses of cave-dwelling species.
The cave also hosts various invertebrates, including isopods, pseudoscorpions, cave millipedes (Diplopoda), diplurans, and snails, all of which are small, slender, colourless, sightless, and unable to survive in an outdoor environment due to their inability to adapt to climate changes. These creatures rely on their tactile and chemical sensors to navigate their surroundings and endure extended periods of food scarcity. With limited geographical distribution, small populations, and belonging to the troglobiont cave biota, these species are vital components of the cave ecosystem.
A Walk Through Ancient Stalactites and Stalagmites
As I ventured deep into the mystical Sfendoni Cave in Zoniana, I was greeted by the awe-inspiring sight of ancient stalactites and stalagmites. These natural formations, created over thousands of years through the slow deposition of minerals from dripping water, adorned the cave’s ceilings and floors with breathtaking beauty. Some stalactites hung like icicles, their delicate formations resembling intricate crystal chandeliers, while stalagmites rose from the ground like frozen fountains, forming an otherworldly landscape that seemed plucked from the pages of a fantasy novel.
Imagine being in a dark, silent, and humid environment, with only the sound of water drops breaking the everlasting monotony. Within this setting, nature created sculptures of exceptional aesthetic quality through the slow crystallization of water salts.
Stalactites in different shapes and colours hang from the ceiling, meeting the upward-growing mounds of mineral deposits formed in centuries.
The sparkle in many of the cave’s rocks comes from the tiny crystals formed due to the concentration of calcium carbonate – a spectacular dust-glitter-sprinkled underground sight.
If you look up, the black spots on the ceiling are the bats’ resting places. The colour is primarily caused by their breath, sebum, and excrements.
The Sfentoni cave features impressive columns in the “Palace” chamber, and you will find the most symmetrical and undulating ones in the “Parthenon” chamber.
Legends and Myths Surrounding Sfendoni Cave
Delving deeper into the allure of the Sfendoni Cave, I couldn’t help but be captivated by the legends and myths shrouding this enigmatic subterranean realm. Local folklore weaves tales of ancient nymphs and mysterious spirits inhabiting the cave’s depths, adding an aura of magic and intrigue to the already mesmerizing surroundings. As I listened to the whispers of these age-old stories echoing through the chambers, I felt a profound connection to the rich tapestry of myth and history that envelops the Sfendoni Cave, infusing every step with a sense of wonder and enchantment.
Decades ago, a small child’s skeleton, preserved in chalky material, was discovered just outside the final chamber of the cave, later named the “lost child’s chamber.” The skeleton probably belonged to a young man killed by Sfentonis, a guerilla from Sfakia who had taken shelter in the cave, or to a child who ventured into the cave out of curiosity and fascination with the unknown, only to become trapped in its labyrinthine passages and perish there. The mystery of this death remains unsolved to this day.
In January 1987, E. Gavrilakis excavated the cave on behalf of the local Ephorate of Antiquities and discovered evidence of human settlement dating back to the Early Minoan Period (3500 – 2300/2150 BC), as well as items from the Late Roman Period. During the excavation, the archaeologists also discovered a small collection of 95 bones from domestic animals (lambs, goats, pigs) and wild mammals (deer).
The cave has been around for a long time and was a safe place for people in tough times. Visitors can only explore about 2/3 of the cave with a knowledgeable guide. The specially designed tour route and the bright lighting make the visit safe for kids, individuals with disabilities, and seniors. The cave spans 3,500 square meters and has a north-south orientation. It measures 145 meters in a straight line and has a total area of about 3,000 square meters.
Tickets and more information (opening hours, group discounts, etc.) are available on the official website of the cave.
Sfedoni Cave in Zoniana is part of the Psiloritis Natural Park, included in the European Geoparks Network, a network of protected areas with exceptional geological heritage under the auspices of UNESCO.