The Rambling Writer’s Greek Travels, Part 12: The Caverns at Pyrgos Dirou

This series started on Oct. 15 and continues every other Saturday. I’m taking a trip back in time to my 4-month backpacking rambles around Greece in the early 1980s, which planted the seed for my recent novel The Ariadne Connection. Now, as I work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect, I’m reflecting on the ways a writer’s experience can be transformed into fiction. I hope you find the journey illuminating, or at least entertaining. Sadly, most of my photos from the trip were lost; these below are borrowed.

 After leaving the medieval fortress island of Monemvasia, our new friend Nikko gave my partner Jim and me a ride to a busy crossroads where we could catch a bus north into the Peloponnese peninsula. After our timeless interludes in the islands, it was a rude reintroduction to modern industrial life. Countless trucks and busses roared past in clouds of diesel fumes, and it was three hours of fruitless arm-waving before a bus finally stopped to take us on. At that point, we didn’t care where it was heading. But once more, a helpful deity “descended in the person of the blameless driver,” to paraphrase the ancients, and dropped us in the town of Githio. Nearby, we learned, was a complex of caves that beckoned us to explore.

The complex includes three caves, the Alepotrypa, the Katafigi, and the Glyfada, along the course of an underground river, with about 5,000 meters accessible and most not yet explored. The caves, occupied in Paleolithic and Neolithic times but later sealed by a rockslide, have revealed a treasure trove for archeologists after they were rediscovered in 1958. Remains of Neolithic inhabitants and their possessions indicate that the caves housed a busy community from at least 5300-3200 BC, and was apparently a trading and ritual center, with a nearby port. Excavations in the Alepotrypa caverns have found tools, pottery, obsidian tools, and silver and copper artifacts from that era before the Bronze Age in Mycenaean Greece. Because the cave collapse, probably caused by one of the earthquakes common in the area, was sudden, it captured a buried “snapshot” of the lives and possessions of the people of the time.

Like others of the many caves throughout Greece, Alepotrypa, which means “foxhole,” was apparently found by a villager by accident. This local was hunting foxes with his dog, when the dog disappeared into a hole in the ground. The dog didn’t come out until a couple days later, coated with red mud, and led his owner to the rocky entrance.

There is now a museum at the entrance to the caverns, displaying marble statuettes, stone and bone tools, textile tools, ceramic jars, weapons, and silver jewelry, along with the skeleton of a woman caught in the rockfall.

Part of the underground complex is partially flooded, and Jim and I took a boat ride through the beautiful, eerie labyrinth of stalactites and stalagmites.

Underground caverns worldwide seem to hold a fascination for humans from earliest recorded history, stirring both fear and reverence.  They sometimes symbolize the womb of Gaea, or Mother Earth, and sometimes are regarded as the entrance to chaos or the underworld where demons lurk. The archeologists studying Alepotrypa believe it maybe have been the prototype of the entrance to Hades, the Greek mythological underworld where spirits resided after crossing the River Styx.

Greek mythology abounds in stories of sacred caves, including the Dictaean Cave on Crete where Zeus was born, and the Corycian Cave on Mt. Parnassos above Delphi, sacred to Pan, Dionysos, and the local nymphs. And, of course, in Homer’s Odyssey, the wily Odysseus outwitted the man-eating Cyclops Polyphemus, who had trapped him and his men in his cave.

From my journal about the flooded caverns:

The caves drip with stalactites, from high-arched domes or narrow passages so low we must duck in the boat. We drift past twisted spires and drapery-like, thin sheets of rock. The musical plunk of dripping water on the clear pools stirs ripples as a deep bass moan echoes from deeper in the passages. The boatman douses the lights and we drift in a darkness so total that I lose all sense of up and down. Another booming echo — the guttural roar of the Minotaur lurking at the center of the labyrinth?

 In my novel The Ariadne Connection, caves play an important role as refuge and as initiation of a near-future Ariadne into ancient mysteries. As a child on her rocky Cycladic island, she escaped the control of  her tyrannical father by exploring the natural caves, where she still finds sanctuary as an adult:

Following the dim twists and turns past more dead ends or passages that led to sudden drops into darkness, she squeezed through tight openings and clambered over the uneven footing of broken rocks until she finally climbed down another jumble of boulders into a cave where eons of the slow drip of water had created ridged stalactites and stalagmites. But since her childhood, the drought had sucked away many of the hillside springs, and the cave held only a whisper of moisture.

Ariadne threaded her way around the stone formations, following a glimmer of light toward the exit high on the mountainside. Flanking the low opening, two ancient guardians, carved from the white stone in some unrecorded past, watched the distant blue sea. The faces, blurred by time and weather, were little more now than faint eyes and blunt noses, but they seemed to gaze calmly through Ariadne as she obeyed her childhood ritual and knelt to touch their smooth curves in thanks for safe passage through the labyrinth.

In the sequel in process, the sacred Corycian Caves will play an even bigger part, and I’m eager for my return trip to Greece this fall to explore those caverns above Delphi. Until then, “Chairete! Rejoice!”

What special caves have you visited? How did they make you feel?


You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here on alternate Saturdays. Sara’s newest novel from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction and recently a second Cygnus for Science Fiction.




The Rambling Writer’s Greek Travels, Part 12: The Caverns at Pyrgos Dirou — 4 Comments

  1. Another vivid, terrific entry. Those photos are jaw dropping!

    The only significant caves I’ve visited were the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, with my then ten-year-old son and local friends, back in 2004. It was not as colorful as the above, as I recall, but beautiful in its own way and eerie. It was stiflingly hot and humid outside (summer!) so the forty-degree-temp year round in there felt wonderful. (afterward, people stood around outside where the two airs mixed, just breathing in the natural air conditioning). The guides told us stories about the caves as we walked, sometimes squeezing through holes. I remember the sadness I felt at hearing about the consumption camp there–people thought bringing victims of tuberculosis would cure them. Imagine lying there in that dim, cold place, getting weaker and weaker.

    Less significant, and more stupid, as teens we camped in the palisade caves up around Pismo beach one night. I remember a big rock dropped a couple feet from one of us. Those were not remotely solid–a mild quake and we would have been toast.

    • Eeek, glad that rock did not find its target! Greece is riddled with caves (and earthquakes), so not a particularly safe place to set up a community, but I guess for those ancient people it was relatively secure from attackers. I do love going in for a visit — there is something so mysterious about going into the depths.

  2. I am a cave hound, and have done Mammoth, Wind Cave, Natural Bridge, Sonora, and Inner Space. All these allow the average person to visit–I am not a caver. But they fascinate me. I can see how they could appear to be places of refuge, hence I use them in my novel Fire Sanctuary.

    Depending on the area, the rock formations can vary a huge amount. The delicate honeycomb formations at Wind Cave stand out in my mind.