My Travel Map

My Travel Map

09 January 2015

The Karst and Škocjan Caves, Slovenia

My first take on Slovenia is going to be captured in three short posts on three amazing and beautiful locations.  I guess that is somewhat appropriate... Slovenia is a small country and definitely an amazing and beautiful one.  First up, the Karst region and Slovenia's underworld.

Slovenia's Karst region, which is part of a greater region of the same name that stretches into Italy, is a large limestone plateau bordering the Adriatic Sea and stretching pretty far inland.  The natural forces of erosion have slowly but surely carved into the limestone, creating a wonderland of cliffs, gorges, canyons, and caverns in this spectacular region.  Also, due to its own microclimate, the Karst is a cooler, wetter region compared to much of the rest of the Mediterranean, and this allows lush forests to thrive here.  It is truly a beautiful and quite ideal region, and definitely one great for long walks, bike rides, or hikes.

The Karst even has its own unique style of architecture.  Taking advantage of the relatively soft limestone that is so plentiful in the region, most older buildings are constructed from stone blocks.  The most impressive (predominantly churches) employ dry-stone architecture, masonry using perfectly cut stones with no mortar!  That remarkable fact really sinks home when you look at the height and complexity and stone spires of most of the church steeples in the region, like shown above and below.

Every town and village has a church, and they all seem to be constructed using that amazing stone work.  There was a similar stone masonry church in Trieste, Italy... it really is the style of the region.  Also, there are those red tile roofs.  The combination is pretty neat... the stone has a ghostly quality to it, but the red adds that touch of vibrancy and life.

The Karst is sprinkled with small villages, and it is pretty straightforward to make a day hiking from village to village through the surrounding countryside.  The people here seem to live quiet and peaceful lives, which is a true thing of beauty in this modern age.  While there, we got to explore the tiny village of Škocjan, pictured here, near the World Heritage caves with the same name.

After a short but pleasurable hike to the village from the main entrance to the caves, we ate at this rustic little restaurant that caters to visitors of the national park.  The restaurant was part of the owners own home, with linen covered tables set up outside on the patio.  The house itself was the definition of rustic and quaint.  We only got to see the pub and indoors part of the restaurant, which is setup in the cellar, but it was a cozy little place.  I can imagine it taking on a very special beauty during a snowy winter too... or a sunny summer too.  We were there on a cloudy and wet day in early spring, and it was still great.

For lunch, I had a Slovenian gnocchi with a local mushroom cream sauce that was perfectly seasoned with a complex variety of herbs and spices... it was an amazing fusion of the major local cuisines: Italian, Viennese, Hungarian, and Slavic.  I got it served up with a local beer, the many varieties of which Slovenians are very proud.  The beer was good, and this was easily one of the tastiest meals I've ever enjoyed.  The hearty gnocchi and savory mushrooms were just perfect to warm the soul on an otherwise dreary day.

This dog and a small child also kept us entertained while we ate.  The dog kept playing with this plastic bottle while the little girl danced and hopped happily around it.  Eventually, the dog tired out from all the excitement.  Like I said, the place was pleasant, sleepy, and really quite idyllic.

On the walk back to the caves, we passed by this old house, which is supposedly done in the traditional style with the heavy, thick stone walls and thatched roof.

Back at the caves and looking over the valley to Škocjan village. I can't say enough how beautiful this region was. The bright green of the forest and the ghostly pale grey of the limestone contrast wonderfully, while the rolling hills provide a picturesque backdrop. Add the village and its picture perfect church in for a scene right out of some fairy tale.   Most of the forests in the Karst region used to be oak, but those trees have been largely cut over the centuries for timber (supplying the shipyards and construction of Venice since the Middle Ages) or cleared for pastureland.  Sadly, where people have actually allowed the forests to remain or return, faster growing species like pine has replaced much of the original oak.

And here is one of the reasons this region is so amazing: rivers, such as the the Reka River that flows under Škocjan, along with the soft limestone are responsible for the regions network of caves and caverns. Over millions of years, the flow of water has carved its way through the limestone, forming deep canyons and underground caverns out of what was originally a broad, cracked base plane of limestone. It is the caves that Škocjan is so well know for though, and for good reason, the network of caves under the area is immense and still not fully explored.

The river surges out of the ground into this little valley before disappearing again under another rock wall downstream.  This natural wonder has intrigued people for ages... and many explorers have bravely tried to map the subterranean course of the river.  That has led to many amazing discoveries hidden below...

Anyone can now tour the caves at Škocjan. There are two systems, the small and the big. The small part, pictured here, is a tall tunnel that follows the river under the village of Škocjan. The big part is where it gets really interesting though... those caverns are something out of some fantasy realm. They are enormous and make you feel like you are tiny and insignificant and can be easily lost in the maze of open spaces under the world you're so used to. To be down there brings a feeling of excitement mixed with disquiet and discomfort; in the big caverns, where you are more than 100 meters below the ground and more than a kilometer from the nearest access to it, your mind, both conscious and subconscious, knows you really are exploring a place that is not meant for human life. People really are alien to that underground world...

The evidence for how the water carves through stone is so immediately apparent all around you.

Early explorers of the caves did so without the luxury of the carved and suspended walkways and electric lights that are now available for scientists and tourists.  They explored the caves without electricity (no flashlights!) and were forced to use the river to do so.  Imagine, taking a small raft or personal float for a river ride that plunges you into a deep, dark unknown.  The theory was: they knew where the water went into the ground and where it came back out again (many kilometers away), so they figured they could just follow the course as it went underground.  That of course fails to recognize places where the water completely fills the cavern or tunnel around it, leaving no open space for air. Anyway, several explorers died deep underground on endeavors like that... 

Like I just said, nowadays, we benefit from a system of walkways that have been carved out of the rock or suspended above it.  Though purists will argue that these are hideous disfigurements and scars on the natural landscape (cavescape), I have to admit, without them, we wouldn't be able to appreciate the system nearly as easily (which purists would also say is a good thing, since it strictly limits damage that inevitably comes from human contact).  Deeper in the cave system, there is a bridge, the Cerkvenik Bridge, which is just like something out of Lord of the Rings!  It is perched 45 meters above the river below, with another ~40 meters of open space above your head in a cavern so deep underground that you really have no sense for which way you could find an exit again.  One of the things I found most amazing was the system of pathways that have been carved into the limestone... the one that tourists now follow winds its way off into the distance and is eerily lit by little lamps along its side... but even better are the old paths, which look quite otherworldly, like something that were carved and used by goblins or dwarves.  Being in those caves is an incredible experience to immerse yourself in!

Seriously though, these pictures from the smaller tunnel/cave are nothing compared to the main caverns further below... I highly recommend doing your own image search of "Škocjan Caves Slovenia"... they are amazing but still do no justice for being there yourself.

The caves are stunningly beautiful.  The walls are deeply furrowed and complex and scatter whatever light is available in all different ways.  The height of the caverns is hard to comprehend as well... these places are huge empty spaces embedded within enormous amounts of rock.  Our guide told us about times when the river is in flood, causing many of the caverns to fill completely!  That is difficult (if not impossible) for the brain to grasp given the grand scale of the spaces involved.  However, from a scientific standpoint, it is an awesome case of flow rates and fluid mechanics...

The Škocjan Caves were easily one of the most spectacular natural wonders I've ever experienced. Like any great natural wonder, they evoke a strong and unique emotional response in addition to providing such amazing and wonderful sights to take in. These caves, and even the surrounding Karst region, transport you to a completely different world... a place that conjures fantasy and fairy tales... they make you feel somewhat like you are a child again, exploring the great unknowns of the huge and wonderful world around you. And honestly, experiences that make you feel like that are truly priceless.

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