Some words are never lost in translation. As we arrived to the small town of Zaros on the Greek island of Crete, I quickly learned “coffee” is one of those words. Down the narrowest of alleys and past plenty of Cretan men’s stares, we parked in front of our hotel for the night. The night before was spent sleeplessly worrying about the bed bug sighting. We departed Rethymno faster than we arrived and headed for the hills of Crete to hole up in essentially the next closest thing to grandma’s house. Walking through the threshold, we were greeted by Katerina and her Greek. She chatted and chatted as we nodded and nodded. We suspected our room key was coming after all of our confused nodding. Instead, she uttered a word I could at last recognize, “Kafés?”
Even buried in the mountains of Crete speaking to possibly the last person on Earth to not know a single word of English, we broke language barriers over coffee. With empty cups, Katerina appeared again, this time moseying over to a cluttered desk. Rather than asking for our money, she hands over the key to her kingdom, a key that I imagine opens a pretty impressive door.
We quickly discover that much of this area, like the key that opens our room, is trapped back in time. Zaros cements itself in the foothills of Mt. Psiloritis, Crete’s highest mountain at 2,456 meters. Just 46 kilometers from Herkalion, the rustic mountain village leaves little to see and do. Famous for its natural spring water, Zaros is ever-present all over Crete. Its water is what lured me here, just as it did for the Minoans and Romans.
After researching Zaros’ nearby attractions, we begin our search for none other than Zeus’ birthplace. As one would expect, the father of the gods’ beginnings is not the easiest to find. The road narrows and narrows until it is not a road at all but a mere path that we question our rental car should be traveling. We pass by shepherds who look at us in wonder as they wave, almost as to say, “Good luck.” A fork in the road presents the option to go down two paths that don’t seem car-worthy. A tiny rock with a faded red arrow pointing right is the only indication we might be on the right track to Zeus.
With our stomachs leaping down the cliff and plenty of nail biting, the road at last turns to pavement and we see a sign for the Ideon Cave. Located in the Nida Plateau, the cave has acted as a pilgrimage site since antiquity when it was believed to be the site of Zeus’ birth. Relics from the cave have been unearthed to prove what the ancients thought of this otherwise inconsequential opening in the Earth. Today, gold jewelry and a bronze shield from the Ideon Cave can be seen at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. I head down into the darkness with a little prodding from Zeus, for an opening such as this is beyond intimidating.
Dark and not particularly descript, I try to imagine those worshipping here beginning in the late fourth millennium B.C. A hole in the ground in the middle of what feels like the most isolated place on Crete seems like the appropriate space for the god of all gods in Greek mythology to exist.
And on this hot September day, the cool from the cave does in fact seem miraculous, mysterious and mythical. I realize it is not a coincidence that after the big bad bed bugs of the city, we holed up in two caves in Crete, the one presided over by the legendary Katerina and the one watched over by the mythical Zeus.
Have you been the Ideon Cave on the island of Crete?