Exploring the hidden depths of Corfu: the secrets of the island’s caves unlocked

A journey down into the underground depths of Corfu that lasted 15 days and explored 25 caves was completed a few days ago by Dutch speleologist Rene van Vliet and a team of both local and notable European speleologists and spelunkers.

“Corfu has more caves than one would expect. Up until now I have collected information on 186 caves and chasms but there are many more on land and in the sea!” Rene van Vliet said to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency, noting that another 78 caves remained to be explored.

The team included speleologist Gertjan van Pelt and Corfu speleologists and forestry experts Yiannis Gasteratos and Theodoros Skalitis. Among the caves they visited were those of Platesgourna, Grava, Gravolithia, Pitiri’s Grava, Charos’ Grava, Bouzavieri’s Grava and Pelaus’ Hole at Ai Mathias.

Filled with stalactites and stalagmites, which reflect the individual ‘history’ of each cave as they build up over the years, these caves all have their own myths that are associated with them, van Vliet said.

The Gravolithia cave, for example, which the team explored down into its lowest section, is a big and deep cave full of fantastical shapes formed by stalactites, which in certain places have joined with stalagmites to form pillars. In 1926 locals believed the cave was the lair of two dragons, one of which was killed by a Venetian soldier many centuries ago while the other remained in the cave and sometimes emerged at night to eat a sheep or a goat.

When the cave was entered in 1926, there were thousands of bats but in the last two years, van Vliet said, there has been no sign of them apart from their droppings.

One of the most impressive caves on Corfu is Platesgourna, which is hidden in an olive grove and has two small entrances, though only one is suitable for accessing the interior. The main chamber of the cave, with a magical array of massive stalactites, stalagmites and pillars, opens up after a small “entrance hall” but is considered extremely vulnerable due to its unique interior.

Bouzavieri’s Grava, in addition to its impressive decoration, also has sections where yellow crystals are embedded in its walls and an impressive but dangerous chasm at one end, with dry and friable walls that are difficult to descend and even more difficult to ascend. The chasm leads to even deeper passages and chambers that lie beneath the floor of the cave, each of massive size and depth.

Pelaus’ Hole is said to have seven levels that lead out to the sea and there are many stories about it. According to one, someone once threw a cat into the cave and found it swimming in the sea the next day. Entering this cave, the speleologists had to get past sharp rocks and protect their ropes from fraying. Their efforts were rewarded with a chamber full of impressive decorations and various kinds of stalactites and stalagmites. They were also able to reach the second and third levels but then found their way barred by earth. They intend to return and remove the earth on their next visit, in order to explore whether there are any more levels.

According to van Vliet, the mission required careful preparation: “In the last eight months I studied various old Greek books and a scientific article of a previous speleological exploration of Corfu from 1957. Then I applied and got some old maps from the Corfu Archives. The 18th-century maps indicate the caves and often the name of the cave,” he said, adding that he wished to return as soon as possible to continue the search.

“Many hidden and interesting caves await a visit! In order to find many caves I need the help of volunteers and professionals due to the thick vegetation. With some significant help, many caves can be accessible to all of us,” he said before his departure from the island.

The next mission to explore Corfu’s caves is scheduled to take place in the summer of 2019 and is sponsored by the Dutch company Canyonzone, the Spanish company Rodcle and the French company Aventure Verticale, which also provided the spelunking equipment for the last mission.