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The Grotte D'Antiparo, Greece

Tony Jarrett

While holidaying on the Greek Islands last summer the writer took the opportunity of visiting this famous show cave.  Although one of the first systematically explored caves in the world, few British cavers must have visited the system and subsequently articles in British publications are few.

Situated on the ten mile long island of Antiparos, access to the cave is gained by taking a hour and a half motor boat trip from the town of Perissa on Paros Island - via the main village on Antiparo - to a small hamlet several miles along the coast.  From the landing stage here the hardy tourist can either walk the mile and a half track into the mountains or hire a mule.  (The writer being idle chose the latter).  After a forty minute jog in the blazing sunshine and feeling akin to a gold prospector in Death Valley, the entrance is reached on a bare limestone hillside with superb views of the Aegean Sea.

History of the Cave

At around the same time as the original exploration of Pen Park Hole and Lamb Leer were taking place, the Grotte d'Antiparos was fully explored by the Marquis de Nointel, French ambassador to the Turkish Empire then ruling these Greek islands (though graffiti on formations indicated partial previous exploration by the early Greeks).  The audacious Marquis descended on 23rd December, 1673 armed with ropes, rigid wooden ladders, a large group of servants and sailors and even a couple of artists to record the event for posterity (and for his King, Louis XIV). The party explored deep into the cave, discovering en route the large well-decorated hall some eighty meters down. The Marquis was so impressed that he spent three days underground and during this period celebrated Christmas Eve mass attended by over five hundred people!  The cave was illuminated with hundreds of lamps and wax tapers and a novel innovation was the firing of several mortars and cannon in the entrance followed by a wild clamour of assorted musical instruments (shades of the Hunters backroom!)  This incredible pantomime was followed by the removal of tons of formations for display in a Paris Museum - unfortunately a pastime shared by many of de Nointels successors.

In contrast to this first visit, the scientific investigations of the naturalist Tournefort in 1700 were far more subdued, though even this episode has its humorous side. Tournefort - a botanist - formulated a theory of vegetative growth to explain the development of the formations, doubtless due to the resemblance of stalagmite growth rings to those of a tree! He published an elaborate description of his visit and also of that of de Nointel.

A further description was provided by the next distinguished French visitor in 1780, the Count Choiseul-Gouffier.

From this date on visits became more frequent though the upper classes seem to dominate the scene. The Greek king Othon was there in 1840 and another French ambassador, Gobino, in 1865.

Particularly unwelcome visitors descended on the area in 1770 - 1774.  These were Russian occupation soldiers who followed in their predecessors footsteps by removing many formations for a Petrograd museum.  Their Italian counterparts of 1941-1943 continued this vandalism.

Now protected by a stout gate and operated as a show cave for some years the situation has improved - though it is noticeable that one of the main attractions pointed out by the guide is the vast amount of historical graffiti covering nearly all of the accessible formations.  Despite three centuries of vandalism the remaining stals, though generally dry and old, are plentiful and impressive.  Vast pillars, stalactites and curtains proliferate and there are a number of the curious “palette” or “shield” formations only found in the caves of warm climates.

The cave itself is formed in a steeply inclined rift or fault with wider sections forming the heavily decorated chambers.  Its 100 meters of depth is descended on spider-web like concrete steps hanging in mid air.  These are only some two feet in width and provide great sport were the handrails are missing and visitors at the bottom are trying to pass those going down!  The cave ends in a rift blocked with stalagmited boulders and breakdown, though a short pitch in the floor some way back up the passage possibly goes further.  The writer had neither the time nor equipment to investigate this.  The spirited lecture provided by the guide halfway down was unfortunately all Greek to me.

In conclusion I found this a really worthwhile visit - made especially enjoyable by the novelty of mule transport and the remoteness and lack of commercialisation of the cave.  A "must" if you are ever in the area. Incidentally there are many other caves on Antiparos and other islands. Little exploration seems to have been done in the islands and the climate, vast quantity (and quality) of naked foreign females on the beaches and cheap wine make this an English caver’s paradise.

Refs (from the writer's library only)

Famous Caverns and Grottoes - W.H. Davenport Adams 1886 pp. 78-84 Antiparos - the Island with the Cave of Stalactites. - B. Kaloudas 1964  (Guide Pamphlet)

La Conquete Soutterain. - P. Minvielle 1967 pp. 15-21

BCRA Trans. VoL 1 No.1. - J.R. Shaw Cohort History of Speleology)