CAVES NORTH CORFU


SPARTILAS

GRAVOLITHIA CAVE

In 2018 information was received about a spacious cave with three entrances outside the village of Spartilas. The information reminds of the book Island Trails (1973) containing the following interesting story about a visit to the Gravolithia cave in 1926.

 

A visit to the cave in Spartilas in 1926:

"(...) At the opposite extremity of Mount Pandokrator from Palaeocastritsa, and about one third of the way up its southern slope, lies the village of Spartilla. A splash of white against the blue-grey mountain background, Spartilla is mentioned here because of a curious cave a little below it and only a few hundred yards from the carriage road which winds laboriously up to the village from sea level.

 

Incidentally, Spartilla is a good example of a peculiarity which often puzzles travellers on their first visit to the Greek islands or the mainland. Why are so few villages situated on the seashore? Why are they mostly perched some way up a mountain side? The answer is pirates! Until well into the nineteenth century, Barbary-rovers, corsairs, and others of that unpleasant fraternity, were in the habit of carrying out frequent and ferocious raids along these coasts. This was a very common occurrence in the eighteenth century; the pirates even kidnapping the inhabitants (those who were not slaughtered) to sell them in the slave-markets of Egypt, Tunis and Algeria. To parry these dangers, the villagers were obliged to build their homes some distance up the mountain side so as to have time to prepare their defence before they could be set upon from the sea.

 

Watchers were always stationed on commanding heights, where the ruins of their stone martello towers (known as viglès) are still features of the landscape. The villages themselves were built as compactly as possible, the buildings crowded together and the walls of the outmost ring of houses in contact with each other to form a kind of rampart. These latter had loopholes instead of windows on the side facing outwards, thus making the storming of a village a regular military operation and one which a raider would generally think twice before undertaking. After all, pirates were ‘businessmen’ and booty could be too dearly bought (...)". 

 

 "(...) Returning to the Spartilla cave, its mouth is situated beneath a huge overhanging rock in the side of a low cliff, and is so narrow that one can only wriggle through by lying flat on one’s stomach. This feat should only be attempted by the agile and the thin, and even then there is not much room to spare. 

 

A young Swiss artist, René Berlincourt, and I attempted a cursory exploration of this cave in the summer of 1926. We were not able to obtain any preliminary information from the inhabitants of Spartilla as the villagers seemed to have a superstitious aversion to the place. They insisted that it extended for many miles underground and that a dog which had fallen into a chasm two or three miles distant from it was seen dashing out of the cave a week later, rabid with fear and with a huge black bat clinging to its back.

 

They also told us that the cave was the lair of two dragons. One had been killed by a Venetian knight a couple of centuries ago, but the other still lived in there and sometimes came out at night to devour a sheep or a goat. We were strongly advised not to go into the cave. Others had done so and had never been seen again.

 

We were rather relieved to discover that nobody could give any details as to who those ‘others’ had been or when their dreadful fate had overtaken them though the villagers ‘knew it was so’.

 

We were still more relieved, on nearing the cave, to meet a little goat-herd, aged about six, who offered to be our guide. We asked him if he hadn’t heard about the dog and the dragons and the ‘others’, but he just sniffed and replied that ‘Grown-ups don’t know nuffin’, or words to that effect. According to him, he had often been in the cave, lighting himself with stumps of candle ‘borrowed’ from the village church, and nothing had ever happened. We asked him what he had seen. He answered, ‘Only stones and bats’.This did not sound very promising. Our hopes of huge cathedral-like caverns glittering with stalactites, and crystal lakes inhabited by mysterious eyeless fish, did not seem likely to be realized. But we had provided ourselves with electric torches, candles, balls of twine and sandwiches, so we decided to go in and see for ourselves.

 

Squeezing through the narrow entrance after our diminutive guide, we found ourselves in a large circular chamber which seemed to be about sixty yards (more than 54 metres) in diameter and some thirty feet (more than 9 metres) high. Appearances, however, were very deceptive in that pitch darkness illuminated only by our candles and flash-lights, and the real dimensions may well have been half or double those figures. The ceiling and walls of the cave were festooned with numerous stalactites; not, unfortunately, glistening or even show-white, but just a dirty grey. The floor was very uneven and sloped downwards rather sharply away from the entrance. Jutting stalagmites made the going still rougher, and the whole place was smothered in bat guano.

 

The bats themselves took up most of the picture. There were thousands of them hanging in black fringes and rosettes from every projection above us and on either side. As usual with bats, they were hanging head-downwards with their membranous wings draped around them like cavaliers’ cloaks. At first they were so stupefied with sleep that they allowed us to touch them with only an uneasy twitch or a mild protesting squeak; but soon our lights seemed to disturb them and they began fluttering round the cave, and us, in ever thicker swarms. Fortunately, neither Berlincourt nor I (nor, to our surprise, the little goat-herd) had any particular aversion to bats which are useful and harmless creatures as far as Europe is concerned.

 

It was marvellous to watch them threading their way at full speed in and out of the hanging stalactites or almost brushing our faces without ever colliding with any obstacle animate or inanimate. Nature has equipped bats with a kind of inbuilt ‘radar’; as the bat flies, it continuously emits tiny ultrasonic cries pitched on so high a note as to be inaudible to the human ear. The bat can detect the presence of obstacles by the way the echoes are reflected back to it.

 

At the lowest level of the cave there was a pool of crystal-clear water about the size of a large bath-tub. I filled a number of test-tubes with this water in the hopes of finding something interesting in the way of troglodytic fauna and flora. But, unfortunately, I tripped on a slippery boulder and smashed every one – a most infuriating accident.

 

A little beyond the pool, the back wall of the cavern was breached by two narrow openings, each just large enough to be entered by a stooping man. Our guide admitted that he had never gone beyond the main grotto, so we sat him down on a comfortable rock and left him most of the candles and the haversack of sandwiches. We requested him not to eat all the latter, and instructed him to go for help if we had not returned by the time the candles had burnt out, or if he heard any dragons or other suspicious sounds. Then Berlincourt took the right hand opening and I the left and, switching on our flash-lights, we plunged into the vast unknown.

 

At the first glance I saw that the passage I had chosen appeared to have no side branches so that it was unnecessary to make use of my ball of twine to find my way back. It was enough to go straight ahead as far as the tunnel would allow me.This was not very far. After about twenty yards or so, the passage grew so narrow that I could only progress on my hands and knees. A little more, and I was crawling on my stomach. After about five minutes of this, I stopped. I had no idea how far I had gone. It seemed miles; but I knew it could only be a very short way and I regretted not having used my ball of twine as a measuring tape. Anyway, I did not feel inclined to go any farther. My flash-light did not show the end of the tunnel, but it indicated that it was growing still narrower with no sign of opening into another large cavern.

 

Some enthusiastic and intrepid speleologists may enjoy crawling along a pitch-dark knobby tube many sizes too small for comfort; but certainly I was not of their number. Perhaps if I had persevered for another five minutes I would have come into a mile-wide Aladdin’s cave; but I felt that I could not stand it for another five seconds. The blackness, whenever I switched off my torch, seemed to weigh on me suffocatingly, and I began to wonder if there could be any truth in that dragon story after all. It would be most unpleasant to meet a dragon, nose to nose, even if it were only a baby one. And what about snakes and scorpions and centipedes – not to mention landslides and explosions and earthquakes!

 

My scientific curiosity did not put up much of a fight against my claustrophobia (this sounds much better than plain ‘funk’); and I did not regain my composure until I had returned to the main cavern. Berlincourt rejoined me there a few minutes later and admitted that his experience had paralleled mine. In his case, too, the passage had narrowed very rapidly and he had also given up before reaching the end of the tunnel. We were both rather crestfallen; but a sip of ouzo and a sandwich (our guide had generously not eaten more than double his share) and, better still, a return to the sun-drenched outer world soon restored our good opinion of ourselves. As far as I know, the Spartilla cave has yet to be scientifically explored; new interests and hobbies were continually cropping up and, though I always meant to do so, I never visited it again". 

 

Other information about the cave:

It is known that inhabitants of Spartilas hid in the Gravolithia cave during World War II. During field work between 1976 - 2016 biologists found a species of pseudoscorpion and several species of spiders like for example the false widow spider (Steatoda paykulliana). 

 

Visits to the cave in 2018: 

During two visits to the cave in 2018 it became obvious that Berlincourt and Stephanides visited the Gravolithia cave in 1926. The richly decorated main grotto is unique on Corfu. Stalactites, stalagmites and columns are everywhere. At the right side of the hall a small chamber is located. It is said that there was a door in this part of the cave 30 years ago. Nowadays nothing is left of that anymore. At one point in the small chamber, a small window leading to greater depth is located, but the passage is too small for crawling.

 

The left part of the cave is much bigger and lower than the main room. Duck walking and crawling on knees or on the back is necessary because the ceiling is low. At two points there are small windows. From one of the windows cold air comes up from the depth. 

 

No bats were found in the cave but the entire floor of the cave was covered with bath guano. Locals say lots of bats were living in the cave thirty years ago. The small pool mentioned in Stephanides' book was not found or was dissapeared. 

 

It is interesting to mention that the stalactites and other decoration in the cave have grown faster than the regular 0,5 centimetres each century, over the past 110 years. It is known that some stalacitites are able to grow 1 centimetre each year. These although are exceptions! 

 

Literature 

Stephanides Th. Ph., Island Trails, London: Macdonald, 1973.