Diktaeon Cave

by Barbara Vessey

A visit to the Diktaeon Cave, reputedly the birthplace of Zeus, must be on every tourist itinerary. No holiday in Crete would be complete without this experience, but nothing in any of the tourist guides or even travel books on the island prepared me for the descent.

In addition to the many, and expensive, coach tours which are on offer, the bus from Heraklion, capitol of the island, conveys the visitor cheaply and very comfortably on the spectacular ascent into the mountains, the one hundred mile [160 km] round trip costing about GBP 3.00. At about 4,000 ft [1219 m] the Lassithi plateau is reached and circumnavigated, with its neat plots of fruit and vegetables, each surrounded with apple and olive tree, and irrigated by water drawn up by windmill. These windmills, said to be 10,000 in all, are metal gantries about 20 ft [6 m] high with a dozen [12] small white sails which can be neatly furled around the spokes of the sail when not in use, and it is quite a sight as the bus tops the pass to see this absolutely flat plain, ringed by mountains, stretching away for about seven miles [11 km], and all these white sails wildly whirling.

At the far side of the plateau the new road peters out just beyond the village of Psychron above which the cave is situated. A sign says ”Diktaeon Cave 2 km„ but omits to point out that the direction is vertical! A stony track zig zags from the little cluster of tavernas and souvenir shops, in amongst the ubiquitous olive trees, and for the weak or foolhardy donkeys may be hired - rather after the style of Clovelly! The ascent continues until at about 1,000 ft [304 m] above Psychron the visitor arrives on a wide shelf with spectacular views back over the plateau and forward into the rugged mountain with only sparse vegetation at this height. A man sits under an olive tree with a table at his side and from him you buy a ticket for 50 drachma (about 30 p). He asked me if I had a lamp, and when I said no, he said I must buy a candle, which I did for 25 dr. There were no other visitors at the time, and I could see no sign of a cave but he waved his hand at the hillside just above and on following a small path towards the hill, there appeared the gaping entrance to the cave about 30 - 40 ft high [10 m].

As no details or warning about the cave had been given, I assumed that one would enter a large, flat floored cavern and thus was totally unprepared for the deep, almost sheer hole which appeared at my feet [m?]. Far below me, about 800 ft [243 m] down in fact, I could just make out the flicker of candles carried by some other visitors. Between us a black void! A candle stuck into a nearby rock reminded me that I must light my own, and begin to search for a way down.

As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I could just make out a handrail to the left and dimly perceived that steep steps had been cut into the rock. As they shone with a wet sheen it was very cautiously that I began to descend. Candle light was initially almost totally useless but gradually I overcame my fear of being precipitated into the blackness below and began to make out the stalactite formations in the roof above, and by the time I reached the bottom, a combination of candlelight and the dim light shafting down from the entrance above, was sufficient to reveal some magnificent examples of stalagmites and stalactites, with small pools and a little overflow trickle which disappeared somewhere into the rock. At various levels small opening could be seen but it was impossible to tell whether these led anywhere, and nowhere was I able to discover whether it is possible to explore this cave further.

Although in summer one must pay to visit the cave, I could observe no means of shutting off the cave during other times, and I presume visitors come here at all times of the year. I reflected on my descent how in Britain such a visit would have been impossible without proper lighting and all kinds of safety regulations, which would have spoilt the rather more adventurous nature of the expedition for those who, like myself do not venture far underground.

It was pleasantly cool and quiet in the cave, the small groups of visitors who were ascending and descending seeming to make little noise and their candles hardly affected the lighting level, and it was rather reluctantly I began the steep but decidedly more secure ascent to the hot dry landscape outside. It was easy to see how myths and legends would arise from such a cave. Before the building of the new road into the mountains, access for thousands of years had been difficult and the mountains would have appeared more mysterious and inaccessible. Where better for Zeus to have been born?

Text reprinted from The British Caver, Vol 93 1984, by kind permission of the editor.