The Cave of Antiparos is among the most beautifuland most significant in the world; this because, in addition to being an enchanting natural site worth seeing, it is inextricably linked to the history of the area and generates great archaeological interest, owing to the findings from the Stone Age discovered in its interior. The engraved inscriptions that ‘adorn’ it are also an inexhaustible source of stories, legends and information concerning famous—and more anonymous—visitors, like a kind of guest book, whose first page was written hundreds of year before the birth of Christ.
Stalactites and stalagmites, which change form according to the inspiration and imagination of the individual visitor, adorn the ‘Katafygi’ [shelter], as locals used to call the Cave. It is located some 171 metres above sea level, is precipitous, and its interior temperature in wintertime is at about 15 degrees Celsius. It has an area of approximately 5,600 square metres. Its maximum depth reaches some 85 metres and the descent takes place easily and securely, by way of a cement staircase made up of 411 steps. The exceptional visibility makes possible the observation of details created by ‘Nature, the artist’, and also permits the search for human presence from the times of the Parian poet Archilochus (c. 680 - c. 645 BC) up to the 20th century.
Description / Interior configuration
Many centuries ago, the roof of the anterior section collapsed, resulting in the creation of the vaulted entrance to the Cave. Two picturesque little churches—Ai Yiannis Spiliotis and Zoodohos Piyi—which are connected to one other and beloved to Antipariots and visitors alike, were erected in the outdoor and semi-outdoor areas created by this collapse. The latter church, though smaller, is older; however, it is the former church that has lent its name not only to the entire Ayioyiannitiko vouno [Ai Yiannian hill; or vounali tou Ai Yianni—hillock of Ai Yiannis], but also to the Cave itself, which many call the ‘Cave of Ai Yiannis’ [Spilaio tou Ai Yianni].
The entrance to the Cave is called the ‘Prothalamos’ [antechamber] and consists of three levels. The first—and highest—the ‘Kalymmeni Plateia’ [covered square]—is paved in concrete and benches have been placed all around its perimeter. The second—‘Kryfos Thalamos’ [secret chamber]—is separated from the first by a huge stalagmite, the most ancient in all of Europe, named ‘Peloria Kentriki Kolona’ [huge central column], and stalagmites to its right and left, which resemble statues. In the old days they would tie ropes to the ‘Kolona’ [column] in order to descend into the Cave proper. The third level of the ‘Prothalamos’ is extended by a kind of passage, at the end of which a railed door leads to the main interior of the Cave. On this level and at a height of about three metres from the floor, one finds a small opening that reveals a chamber measuring 20 x 10 metres, known as ‘Krypti’ [crypt]. Archaeological investigation into this area carried out in 1974-1975 revealed potsherds and human bones, housed today in the Museum of Paros. Passing through the railed door, one finds oneself in the heart of the Cave, which, in turn, is divided into three ‘halls’.
The first hall, or the ‘Thalamos ton Petrinon Katarrakton’ [chamber of the stone waterfalls], has dimensions of 17 x 27 x 10 metres and is richly adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. It received its name on account of the majestic and wondrous adornment towards its right wall, where one finds dazzlingly beautiful columns and stalactites like waterfalls.
The second hall, or ‘Thalamos tou Kathedrikou Naou’ [chamber of the cathedral], is found 25 metres below the first. Its dimensions are 33 x 20 x 30 metres. This is where, in 1673, Christmas Mass was held by the Marquis de Nointel and his entourage. To the right are all-white stalagmite complexes, and above these are suspended ‘chandeliers’. Further off, there is a formation that has aptly been named ‘Mavros Katarraktis’ [black waterfall], and opposite it is a series stalagmites, the lowest of which is the renowned ‘Ayia Trapeza’ [(Holy) Altar]. On the one end of this hall and one metre below it, one finds a smaller hall with a most beautiful stalagmite called the ‘Ombrella’ [umbrella]. This hall is named the ‘Aithousa tou Varathrou’ [hall of the chasm], because there is a hole in it with a diameter of two metres and a depth of about seven to eight metres.
The third hall, which is found on a lower level, is called the ‘Vasiliki’ [royal], owing to the visit paid by Greece’s King Otto [or Othonas, reigned 1832-1862] and his consort, Queen Amalia, and the inscription they etched there. Its dimensions are 27 x 50 x 20 metres. Its adornment is not particularly impressive, but it is commanding, nonetheless.
- The Cave is divided into the ‘Antechamber’ and three additional halls: ‘The Chamber of the Stone Waterfalls’; ‘The Chamber of the Cathedral’; and, ‘The Royal Chamber’.
- The huge stalagmite found at the entrance is 45 million years old, the most ancient in Europe, and is called ‘The Huge Central Column’.
- ‘The Royal Chamber’ was ‘christened’ as such on account of the visit paid there by King Otto and Queen Amalia. Its adornment is not impressive, but it still is commanding.
- The two picturesque little churches that the visitor encounters at the entrance are named Ai Yiannis Spiliotis and Zoodohos Piyi.
The Cave was well known in antiquity. Fragments of ancient vases and findings from the Stone Age have been discovered in its interior. Etchings and inscriptions on the stalactites and stalagmites confirm its oldness. Archilochus (c. 680 – c.645 BC), the Greek lyric poet from Paros, was reportedly the first known visitor. The following inscription, engraved upon the majestic stalagmite at the entrance, survived up to the 20th century: ‘Epi Kritonos ide ilthon Menandros, Soharmos, Menekratis, Antipatros, Ippomedon, Aristeas, Fileas, Gorgos, Diogenis, Filokratis, Onisimos.’ [Menander, Socharmos, Menecrates, Antipater, Hippomedon, Aristeus, Phileus, Gorgus, Diogenes, Philocrates, Onesimus came here during the reign of Criton]. According to information that has been passed down to us, these individuals were conspirators plotting against the life of Alexander the Great, were revealed to be as such, and, in order to save their lives they fled and sought refuge on Antiparos. This is conjecture, as it has yet to be proven. It is most likely that they were ordinary visitors; however, the fact that the above narrative has survived through time means that it is up to the visitor to decide which version of the story he or she will keep.
In December 1673, the Marquis de Nointel—who, during the reign of Louis XIV served as French ambassador to the Ottoman court in Istanbul and was an admirer of the Ancient Greek civilization—was on Paros, the guest of the famous pirate Daniel. The marquis was on one of his continuous trips to the Greek islands aimed at collecting archaeological finds on behalf of France. On Paros, while overseeing the loading of antiquities for France, the marquis was informed that some colossal statue was located on the neighbouring island of Antiparos.
He left immediately for the island, with an accompaniment of 500 people that included painters, designers, builders, Jesuits, Capuchins, Turks and pirates. He reached the entrance to the Cave on Christmas Eve, only to discover—to his disappointment—that the supposed statue was but a huge stalagmite. He got them to lower him by rope to the depths of the Cave and there, in the light produced by large candles and lanterns, dazzled, he saw the wondrous decorative sculptures created by nature sprawling all around him.
He immediately took the decision to hold Christmas Mass upon a huge stalagmite with a perimeter of 18 metres and a height of eight metres, which from then on has been known as ‘Ayia Trapeza’ [(Holy) Altar]. In this area illuminated by 100 large candles and 400 oil lamps, the vicar ambassador Ioannis Vaptistis o ek Peronnis [Jean-Baptiste from Peronne] conducted Mass; this spontaneous Mass—the likes of which had never been held on Greek soil prior to this—was a thrilling experience. The following inscription was etched upon the stalagmite that had served as the Altar: HIC IPSE CHRISTUS ADFUIT EJUS NATALI DIE MEDIA NOCTE CELEBRATO MDCLXXIII [‘Christ himself was here and celebrated the day of His birth at midnight in 1673’].
Τhe Marquis de Nointel and his entourage remained in the Cave for three days and nights and slept near the ‘Ayia Trapeza’. However, as painters ‘immortalized’ the Cave in their artworks, other members of the entourage detached huge pieces of stalactites and stalagmites that were subsequently loaded onto ships bound for France. This marked the first major despoilment of the Cave; later, during the period of Russian supremacy over the island (1770-1774), the Cave suffered its second great despoilment. The stalactites and stalagmites that were detached adorn showcases in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg today. The Russians, in turn, were succeeded by the Germans, who destroyed a large section of the natural decoration during the Occupation of Greece in World War Two.
Following the visit by the Marquis de Nointel, the ‘Katafygi’ [shelter], as the locals referred to the Cave of Antiparos, which had become forgotten, came back to life. A host of foreign tourists arrived on the island to admire the grandeur of nature. These visitors dared to make the dangerous descent into its bowels, using rope ladders, ropes and fire-lit torches. Many of them, upon returning to their countries, put their impressions into print through the publication of books, accompanied by wonderful copperplates (engravings) of the Cave and of the impressive view one encounters when ascending the hill leading to it. They circulated these publications everywhere, thus exclaiming the glory and the grandeur of Greece, and contributing to the attempts of the Greeks aimed at their national liberation. Unfortunately, the visitors also contributed to the partial degradation of the Cave, by detaching pieces from it as souvenirs or for the purposes of selling these.
The many signatures of Greek and foreign visitors, some personages, some not, constitute a basic ingredient of the singularity of the Cave. Some of the more interesting ones are the inscription on the ‘Ayia Trapeza’ noted above; that of King Otto, in the last chamber: ‘Othon A’ vasilefs tis Ellados tis 27 Sept. 1840’ [Otto I, King of Greece, on 27 Sept. 1840], and on another stalactite the names of his entourage: ‘V. Adam 1840 D. Fragakis’; in addition, there is the special dedication: ‘Eleni de Tase, gynaika asygriti! Thisavros tou markisiou de Samber, 1775’ [‘Helene de Tascher, incomparable woman! A treasure of the Marquis de Chabert, 1775]. Of course, any human intervention of any kind is prohibited today.
In 1979, the renowned speleologist Anna Petroheilou carried out the systematic exploration, surveying and study of the route to be followed by visitors in the Cave, and also ‘christened’ the various areas of the Cave.
- The Cave was known in antiquity, as proven by the archaeological finds dating to the Stone Age and by the engravings / inscriptions in its interior.
- According to tradition, after the conspirators plotting against the life of Alexander the Great were found out, they used the Cave as a hideout.
- The standouts among the inscriptions that are etched in the Cave are those of King Otto and of the Marquis de Nointel [‘Christ himself was here and celebrated the day of His birth at midnight in 1673’].
- Archilochus (c. 680 – c. 645 BC), the ancient lyric poet hailing from Paros, is regarded as the earliest known visitor to the Cave.
- Many engravings have survived that were created by philhellenes who visited the island in the single aim of descending into the bowels of its Cave.
- In 1979, the famous Greek speleologist Anna Petroheilou undertook the task of methodically exploring, surveying and studying the route for tourists and named the areas of the Cave.
The creation of the cave
This amazing Cave opened up, in the main, in micaceous slate rock, overlain with limestone. It is very likely that it was created during the Tertiary Period. The Cave is precipitous, owing to the passage and accumulation of great amounts of water, which gnawed at the less durable rock. Later, during the Quaternary Period, the Cave ceased to receive such large quantities of water, and all the water that remained in its interior exited through conduits and chasms. That is when the dribbling began, which created, with the passage of time, all of its stalactitic and stalagmitic adornment. On account of the differences in surface slope—which influences dribbling—the adornment is more intense in the first two halls of the Cave (where there is greater dribbling) than it is in the third.
The Cave has an area of approximately 5,600 square metres. Its maximum depth is about 85 metres, it has a length of 89 metres and its maximum width is almost 60 metres. The studies that were carried out showed that it does not present any static problems.
AI YIANNIS SPILIOTIS – feast day 8 May
At the entrance to the Cave, the visitor is greeted by the little church of Ai Yiannis. This particularly beloved chapel has lent its name to the entire location, which is named ‘vounali tou Ai Yianni’ [hillock of Ai Yiannis] or ‘Ayioyiannitiko vouno’ [Ai Yiannian hill]. It connects internally with the smaller and older (350 years old) chapel of Zoodohos Piyi.
The chapel of Ai Yiannis was renovated in 1714 by the Antipariot Neofytos Mavrommatis, who was the Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and Arta [in west-central / northwest mainland Greece], and who, according to tradition, also pieced together the icon of the Saint, which had been broken into two, as he recognised the Saint as the venerable old man who had appeared to him in a dream and cured him of a very grave illness.
On the eve of and the day of Ai Yiannis—on 7 and 8 May, respectively—a celebration is held with local delicacies and tsikoudia.
Ascending towards the Cave, the view is special. The Aegean sprawls at your feet, you gaze at Soros and the surrounding inlets, the wild beauty of the rocks, while opposite is Paros, in a continuous open dialogue with our island. The unrivalled view makes the hiking route a wonderful experience (taking about 1.5 hours), as one traverses the coasts of the eastern section of the island and then climbs high, changing ‘angle’ and ‘lens’, ‘recording’ in one’s memory the sea sparkling as it plays with the sun.
HOW TO GET THERE:
By vehicle or bicycle: The paved road that leads to the Cave begins to the left of where the ferry boat from Pounta in Paros docks, in the Port area of Antiparos. The parking lot at the Cave is very big and spacious.
By Municipal bus: The Municipal bus stop is located in the Port area of Antiparos, opposite Ayia Marina, where the ferry boat from Paros docks. There are frequent departures for the Cave.
On foot: This walk is an enchanting experience and is estimated to take about an hour and a half from the ‘Molos’ (Port). If starting from the little village of Ayios Yeorgios, the walk also involves a bit of easy hiking; it takes about two-and-a-half hours, and will surely enthuse nature lovers. This was the route taken in older times by those wishing to visit the Cave when weather conditions did not permit transport by sea.
The Community of Antiparos (undated publication), Antiparos
‘The Cave of Antiparos’ (entry)