Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

I have been blessed to be in a part of Italy where after only a couple of hours of driving in any direction other than south,  I can get to a completely different country and experience different cultures, food, ways, languages, etc. (Of course, the same could be said of driving to a different Italian region, but simultaneously the same couldn't be said about it.)  One such country I always like driving to if not just through is Slovenia, a mere two hours away from Venice, and thirty minutes away from the largest Italian city (Trieste).  The area southwest of the country is the Kras region, a landscape dominated by rocks that have eroded over time to form subterranean caverns, sinkholes, rivers, and caves.  (The term for such topography, "karstic," was derived  from the region's name.)  In Kras, the greatest manifestation of this phenomenon are the caves, one of which--Skocjan Caves--I had the opportunity to see.

First off, although other caves in the area can also be visited--Vilenica, Postonja, and Grotto Gigante near Trieste--the Skocjan caves are particularly good to see because they are not as oft-trodded as the other ones (Postonja has a train running through it and a museum inside...) and also has the distinction of containing the largest subterranean chambers and the longest underground karstic cave in Europe, as well as one of the deepest underground canyons in the world.  What the other caves offer in ease of visit Skocjan offers in scale and ability to inspire awe and fear.

The caves surprisingly enough were formed by the not so intimidating Reka River, which goes underground through a relatively small opening in the ground.  The opening is so small that a few rocks can effectively block the opening and cause the whole cave system to flood in a matter of hours.  And the view of the river from the outside doesn't prepare one for what is inside:  gothic caves straight out of comic books and a walk alongside (and across!) a canyon 420 feet deep constantly being pummeled by the strong currents of the river, the sounds of which are being echoed throughout the chambers. The river continues for another few hundred kilometers until it resurfaces in the Gulf of Trieste.

The path through the caves start off fairly safe, until one reaches the Roaring Chamber, whereabouts the path goes along the canyon walls a few hundred feet above the river.  Along the way, one can see remnants of old trails left behind by the first explorers of the caves, as well as the earliest tourists to see the caves (which makes one thankful that safety standards have been made stricter since then).  The path is well lit, but I had the good chance to see the caves during the last tour, which meant they were flicking off lights behind us as we left each chamber.  This made for a satisfyingly eery experience, and made the exit back into daylight truly something out of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

After the tour, we enjoyed homemade beer in Gostilna Mahnic, which is located right on the park entrance.  Good brews, and a great way to end an awesome tour through what could be one of the most amazing cave systems in the world.

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