Raves for the Caves

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Flag of Slovenia  , Divača,
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Today's unintended theme turned out to be caves. I left Slovenia's piece of the Julian Alps early in the morning, heading south and west for the Mediterranean coast. On my way, I had two stops planned in the Karst Plateau. The Karst is an area of limestone that has tendrils through out much of Slovenia. The limestone is particularly conducive to the formation of caves, which means the cave theme for the day shouldn't have been a surprise.

In fact, my first stop was explicitly a cave. While there are many caves throughout Slovenia, the two most widely know are Škocjan and Postojna. I decided I would limit myself to just one. Postojna, from the guidebooks and advertising material seemed to be excessively touristy, almost as much a theme park as a cave, while Škocjan was a UNESCO World Heritage site. Always one for running off to World Heritage sites, I chose the latter.

I've been in many caves in the US, including two US national park caves: Carlsbad and Mammoth. Caves tend to be very similar. Stalactites, stalagmites, some other interesting limestone formations, maybe a bat or two. Carlsbad was interesting because it was so big and dimly lit, you could not see the ceiling. This gave me the sense of walking on the moon or some sort of alien planet. The Škocjan caves had enough lighting in place that you could see the ceiling. It was like walking in a giant cave, I know that's the worst simile ever, but that's what it was like.

Still, don't let my lack of appropriate metaphor mislead you. The cave was amazing. Škocjan was the (deepest? highest? tallest?, I'm not sure of the correct term, we'll go with tallest) tallest cave in Europe. In one "room", I got a sense of vertigo staring at the ceiling. It was covered with a white coating of limestone, while farther down the walls were a reddish brown color. If I stared real hard, my brain associated the brown with mountain rocks above the treeline, and the white with snow on the top, only this snow-covered mountain top reached so high into the sky it appeared to wrap around behind you. This made me dizzy, so I stuck to trying to keep the floor in my vision.

The key feature of the Škocjan, though, is not just the size of the rooms, but a river runs through the cave. In the largest room on the tour, you walk ~160 feet (50 meters) above the river, with the ceiling approximately the same distance above you. It was like being in one of the many gorges I've seen on this trip, except you could never see any sunlight peaking through the top. Unlike the gorges, we were so high above the river and the cave was so vast, the sound was muted, so you couldn't really get a sense of the river's power. But still, we were in a giant cavern with a large river running through it. Really, it's an indoor canyon.

Interestingly, my favorite part of the whole area was outside the cave after the tour had ended. The huge mouth of the cavern opened into a valley created when a section of the cave had collapsed, presumably thousands of years ago. At that point, the guide departed and we were given the choice of taking an elevator up to the valley rim or walking on our own. My group mainly consisted of a bus tour group, and their organizer made them all take the elevator as they had some type of schedule to keep. This meant that only a handful of us were left to walk, so the pace was much more relaxed, and it was easier to get a sense of nature without a chattering crowd.

I know I promised myself a break from hiking, and I certainly didn't imagine all 30-minutes of the return trail would be up the valley wall, but the sun was out and the walk was more than worth it. The collapse of the cave created a small, roughly circular valley, partly with shear-cliff walls, that had filled in with plants and trees over the years. Oh, and it still had the river running through it, of course, creating a waterfall or two along the way. This all gave it a sort of "Lost Valley" feel. The pictures won't do it justice. It was really one of the most remarkable places I've ever been. Good call, UNESCO.

After I clawed my way to the top, and promised my legs this was really it for a while, I hopped in my car and set out for Predjama Castle (Predjamski Grad). It had been a while since I'd read the description of the castle in my guidebook, and I had never seen any pictures of it, so it was a pleasant surprise when I arrived to see it was built into the side of a mountain, coming out of a cave.

A fortification has existed on the spot since at least the 13th century. The most infamous resident was a lord known as Erazem. He had a falling out with the Austrian Emperor in the 15th century, and retreated to Predjama Castle, from where he proceeded to launch attacks on passing merchant caravans. A siege was laid upon the castle, but Erazem used the caves to bring in fresh food and other goods. The tale goes that Erazem was only defeated and killed when he was betrayed by a servant.

Today, the inside of the castle was mostly bare and therefore unremarkable, except for where it met the caves, of course. At the top level of the fortress was a large staircase leading up and back deep into the cavern where Erazem is said to have accessed the outside world. The exit was walled up in later ages when, ironically, it was used by thieves to enter the castle and steal from the then owners.

So today, I saw a giant cavern with a large river, an enchanting mini-valley, and a castle built into a cave. Top that, tomorrow. Maybe I'll sleep in.
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