Caves and castles in Slovenia: Postojna, Predjama and Pivka

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If you are travelling through central Europe, don’t pass by Slovenia…. it’s definitely worth a visit. A nation of just over 2 million and with a very small coastline, it’s distinctly Alpine with many woods, forests and meadows. The dominant colour is green, and in the north the magnificent Alpine peaks of the Julian and Kamnik-Savinja Alps open out into wide basins and valleys below. Slovenia has the largest uninhabited forest in Europe, which is home to the European brown bear, wolves, wild boar and lynx. We didn’t see any brown bears (although there were bear trips on offer),

but we did see an extraordinary number and variety of butterflies.

Slovenia’s biodiversity, perfect order in apparent disorder, ranks among the highest in Europe. It is home to many endemic, rare and threatened species of flora and fauna, including 180 different species of butterfly, almost 3 times as many as inhabit the whole of the UK.

So, what else is Slovenia famous for……number one on the list must be caves! I’ve visited a few caves in my time, but never have I seen anything quite so amazing as the caves we visited in Slovenia. Slovenia’s karst (limestone) landscape, makes it ideal for cave formation and there are over 13,000 in the country, with new ones being discovered daily. Water drips through the porous limestone rock, dissolving calcium bicarbonate, forming calcite in a tiny hardened ring when the droplet meets air. It’s a slow process.… 100 years to form just 1cm of Stalacite. Stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling and stalagmites rising from the floor eventually meet to form towering columns, some of which have taken hundreds of thousands of years to form.

First, we visit Postojna Cave

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Postojna Cave

(https://www.postojnska-jama.eu), a jaw dropping 24km series of cave caverns, halls and passages (as a visitor you get to visit 5km), which was hollowed out by the Pivka river some 2 million years ago. At the entrance we are loaded onto a cool yellow and red electric cave train, in the dark, which feels a bit like a Disney ride. And then we speed through the first 3km of the cave system, oohing and aahing. The next couple of kilometres are done on foot and I can’t honestly describe how amazing these caves are…hopefully the pictures speak for themselves.

Towards the end of the visit we pass through the Spaghetti Hall,

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The Spaghetti Hall, Postojna Cave

where the stalactites are in their early stages of formation and hang like spaghetti from the cave’s ceiling.

Next we walk through the White Hall, where the white columns of pure calcite and quartz stone sparkle

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The White Hall, looking through to the Red Hall, Postojna Cave 

in the subtle cave lighting and then into the Red Hall, where the limestone here is tinted with iron oxide deposits, ranging from deep orange to rust red. One word……awesome!

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We learn about cave animals, of which Postojna has 416. There are some interesting words from the cave world. Speleology….the study or exploration of caves, Troglobites…..animals that can only survive in the cave environment, Troglophiles…….animals that live most of their life cycle in caves, but can also survive above ground and finally Trogloxenes…….who live at the entrance of caves but forage outside (e.g. bats). There is a Vivarium at Postojna, showcasing the tiny cave invertebrates; beetles, millipedes, and snails who move and grow very slowly and have adapted to life in total darkness by losing functioning eyes and their skin pigment. They often have extraordinary long-life expectancies and the largest of the cave creatures, the Olm, or cave salamander (also known as a Human Fish) regularly lives to be 100 years old and can live for 6 years without eating…. cool or what?

Next I visit Pivka Jama (pronounced Puka) and the Black cave, which are situated under our campsite and are the last two caves along the subterranean river Pivka before it disappears.

The entrance is dramatic, almost vertical, via a collapsed sinkhole.

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The entrance to Pivka Jama

Our guide, Bine leads our group of Slovenian, Danish, Dutch and German (and me) visitors and talks fluently in German, moving to Dutch, and then back to Slovenian. I’m in awe of how gifted people in Croatia and Slovenia have been in their language ability. I feel ashamed that the one language I learned at school, French, is now barely good enough to ask for a coffee and the bill. Luckily the tour is delivered in English! The Pivka cave is not as well-known as Postojna but feels different as

the river still flows through the cave system.

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The Pivka River in Pivka Jama

We walk along a tunnel which was carved out by the Italians 95 years ago in secrecy, in an attempt to spy across the border into what was Austria-Hungary at that time. Later in the 2nd world war, in an occupied Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the caves were also used to store fuel by the Nazi’s. We learn that the cave system is a constant temperature of 10 degrees and with no traces of pollutants, complete darkness (when the lights are turned off) and very little noise, our guide is hopeful that a new therapy…… Speleotherapy, might hold promise for treating a range of conditions, such as Asthma.

During our stay in the Carniola region of Slovenia, we also visit Predjama Castle, the world’s biggest Cave castle. If you are visiting Postojna caves in the Summer, there’s a free shuttle bus and combination ticket that will allow you to visit both.

At Predjama, in the 123-meter cliff, a medieval castle was first built some 800 years ago

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Predjama Castle

and has evolved over the centuries into the enchanted spectacle of today. There is a great free audio guide at the entrance which will take you through the castle’s rooms retelling the stories of its walls. The most famous of legends is that of Erazem Predjamski, a Robin Hood type baron, who laid siege for a year against the imperial army. The castle and the cave system beneath offered protection from his enemies, allowing food to be smuggled in via its secret passages. Unfortunately, it didn’t end well for Erazem after a servant, bribed by the enemy, betrayed his master and lit a candle when Erazem visited the toilet. The toilet was a particularly weak spot on the outside wall which meant that our hero met his maker by canon, whilst visiting the John…… a most unheroic death!

After our visits to these amazing caves and castles I am reminded of the enormity of time and of how long these caves with their stalactites and mites, and the creatures that live there have evolved on our planet. And of how our time on Earth is like a grain of sand, or a drop in the ocean, in comparison.  I wonder what future generations will think when they look back at our time on Earth and how our species will evolve in the millennia to come? But just for today I will continue to –

“Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places…… and have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.”  Stewart Udall (American Politician, author and Professor of Environmental Humanism).

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