Towns / Cities Visited: 142
Countries Visited: 24
Steps Taken Today: 15,675
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,667,289
As expected, we slept terribly on our rock hard beds, and awoke achy but still determined to enjoy our day. With our intended breakfast hindered by the kitchens lack of can opener, we improvised with what we could rustle up from our snack stores, stowed our bags at the front desk, and headed off to our first attraction for the day, and the biggest draw card to to this area: Postonya Cave. It was only a fifteen minute walk from our accommodation, and we were soon joining the swarm of other visitors mulling around the mouth of the cave. Funneling our way over to the English tour sign, we awaited our guide, not only pleased that there was a dedicated tour in our mother tongue, but also surprised to see that they offered dedicated tours in multiple other languages too, like Italian, German, and Russian. It really is designed to be as inclusive as possible.
Not long after, our guide arrived, and we were led through the secure entry point, and over to a rather lengthy, open air train: think amusement park kind of thing. Taking our seats, we pulled away from the platform and headed deep into the cave. As the journey commences you are taken through a darkened cavern, its walls tinged black, due to, and we wouldn’t learn this until later, the fact that Nazi’s used the first section of the cave to store aircraft fuel during the war. This store was destroyed by Slovene Partisans in 1944, and the resulting fire burned for a week, charring the stone. Luckily, as we continued, we found the rest of the trip unsullied by Nazi hands. All at once, the narrow tunnel opened up into a huge sweeping chamber, filled with massive pillars of dripstone, and sharp pointed stalactites reaching desperately for their twins on the floor. The whole place is lit tastefully with warm spotlights, throwing curious shadows around the cavern. As you whiz by on your carriage, it honestly feels as though you are being trundled through a massive movie set. It seems too otherworldly, too perfect in its imperfection, to not be crafted by intelligent minds, and yet it seems, once again, that mother nature is a far better artist than any of us.
Our locomotive journey concluded, and we alighted into an even bigger chamber than the previous. This cave system is truly enormous; in fact, it is more than a whopping twenty-four kilometres long, although only around five kilometres is open for viewing. It is a karst cave, carved out long ago by the Pivka River, and has been in use for far longer than many of its cousins across Europe. Whereas many caves remained hidden over the centuries, graffiti found within it dates back to at least 1213 AD. Despite being known, it wasn’t until 1818, when the cave was prepared for a visit by the Emperor Francis I of Austro-Hungary, that it was considered as an attraction, and it opened to the public the very next year. The train was a later addition, in 1872, which was at first pushed by the guides, later run on gas, and finally changed over to electric.
Beginning our tour, we weaved along the sealed path provided to prevent slips, trips, and twisted ankles. As we moved, the guide explained the many features here, from the dripstone formations which almost resemble stacks of candle wax, melted and reset in all their dripped glory; to something we had never seen before, curtains of rock, so delicate they do truly look as though they are petrified fabric. The colours here vary depending on the mineral deposits in the rock, with some sitting as a bright white, whereas others are a delicate orange hue thanks to the iron content of the rock.
As you move towards the rear of the chamber, you notice a gaping chasm in the floor, and spanning this a concrete bridge, reaching onwards deeper into the cave. This somewhat unnatural addition comes courtesy of Russian prisoners of war during WWI, and as such is known rather aptly as the Russian Bridge, We made our way across it to continue our journey, stopping briefly at its centre to look down into the dark chasm below. Now, if the main cavern was the main movie set, the series of caverns after it must surely be the smaller sets to depict places far from the original, for how else could one step from the warm orange hues of curtain rocks, to a cavern filled with spaghetti thin stalactites; or from rooms decked out in the brightest white stone, to others sporting large chunks of flint in their exposed walls. This place seems so alien to the outside world, as though some nightmarish creature is surely lurking in the darkened corners, or waiting to be hatched from the towering pillars.
The remainder of the tour was filled with oohing and ahhing in equal measure, with a long pause to admire the most noteworthy formation in the entire system: a pristinely white pillar known simply as, Brilliance. Its purity it only enhanced by comparing it to the deep ochre of the floor to ceiling pillar just beyond it. Sometimes it is only with juxtaposition that we can see the true extent of natures wonders.
The cave exploration ends in a final gaping cavern, known appropriately as The Concert Hall, by way of the fact it is, at times, used to hold concerts in order to take advantage of its naturally stunning acoustics. Oh how I longed to have been able to listen to the haunting sounds of a string quartet echoing around the space; a soulful tune plucked at the heartstrings, calling forth lost love in its minor chords; a reminder that even when buried deep and shrouded in impenetrable darkness, beauty exists.
Tearing ourselves back into the more familiar world of human creation, we were led towards the underground gift shop, but not without first stopping to be introduced to one of the unique residents of this place. Yes, that’s right, even here away from light and fresh air, life continues on. Walking over to a darkened tank, and clearly told not to use any flash photography or shine any lights on it, we were introduced to the olms. These alien-like creatures are in fact a flesh-coloured and completely blind species of salamander, which lives exclusively in caves in this region of Europe. Now, because they are native to the pitch dark, they are extremely sensitive to light. So sensitive, in fact, that it can cause their delicate skin to burn. Moving in amongst the throng of tourists gathered around the tank, we were instantly angered to see several Asian tourists disregarding the guides instructions, and using the flashlights on their phones to try and get a better look at the defenseless olms. I am usually not a confrontational person, but when people I care about or animals are endangered by the reckless actions of others, I tend to have a bypass switch on my introversion. As my partner yelled at them to turn the light off, I did the only think I could think to in the circumstance, use my own form to block the light from reaching the tank. The action seemed to get the point across, and they turned off their light, but by the time we left, I was still seething. Human selfishness knows no bounds sometimes, I swear.
Our tour was finally over, and with a small memento in hand, we boarded the second train and made the journey back out into the sunlight once more. Feeling hunger settled beneath our annoyance, we headed over to the cafe to grab a bite to eat before continuing, settling in for a quick plate of goulash and a cider to take the edge off.
Fed, and ready to make our way to the second attraction for the day, we were faced with the fact that, unfortunately, during the off peak seasons, the free tourist shuttle that usually ferries people between here and our next location does not run. Instead, tourists are required to either drive the nine kilometres there if they have a vehicle, or organise other transport. Seeking assistance at the ticket desk, the helpful lady ordered us a taxi, which ended up being a private transfer, and without too much hassle we were being dropped off, and organising a time to be retrieved in a couple of hours. So, what was this attraction we’d gone to so much trouble to get to? That would be Predjama Castle, a renaissance structure built within the mouth of another of the country’s caves, and the world’s largest cave castle. As if the day needed more surreal, fantasy-esque sights, we stood there marvelling at a building so entrenched in the stone surrounding it that it seems almost to be carved from the mountain itself, or alternatively slowly being swallowed whole by the mouth of the cave.
Lets be honest, building a fortification into the very rock itself is genius. For starters you only have to ensure the front is strong, as the back half is literally a mountain. Secondly, its impossible to be surrounded. Couple that with the fact that there is a tunnel, created by nature and expanded by man, that runs through the mountain and which was only known to the inhabitants of the castle, allowing for supplies to be snuck in in the event of a siege, and you have a wonderfully strategic and impregnable piece of history. Due to the clear advantages of this place, it makes sense that there has been a fortification here since at least 1274, when the Patriarch of Aquileia had a Gothic castle constructed. It was later acquired by the Luegg family, better known as the Knights of Adelsberg, who expanded the site. Its most infamous ruler, Erasmus of Luegg, was the lord of the castle in the 15th century, and was a scrupulous robber baron, who imposed high taxes and tolls on those crossing his land, and also resorted to having travellers and merchants robbed of their cargo and goods, which he snuck into the castle using the aforementioned tunnel. He eventually overstepped his bounds and began a fight with the Habsburgs and their ruler, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, which resulted in him aligning himself with King Matthias Corvin and attacking Habsburg estates. As you can imagine, it didn’t end well for him, what with the Habsburgs being hugely powerful, and after a long siege, Erasmus was killed. As is wont to happen within the fog of unreliable historical facts, there is a legend that he was betrayed by a servant and killed by a cannonball whilst sitting on the lavatory at Predjama Castle, however this is highly unlikely, despite it seeming like poetic justice, if not a little Game of Thronesy. After the siege, the castle was in a state of disrepair, and ownership changed hands. The second castle built didn’t last long, and was destroyed by an earthquake fairly soon after its construction. The current castle was built in the late 16th century, remaining largely unchanged to this day, and was, for some time, used as a hunting lodge before being open to the public.
Now that you’re up to date with a brief history of the place, I’ll continue. After ogling and snapping a dozen pictures of the exterior, we scurried towards the entrance, grabbing our audioguides and beginning our self led tour. The first thing you notice upon entering, is that the cave really does abut the cave perfectly, with the natural stone making up all of the back walls. Now, the interiors have obviously had a little restoration work done to bring them back to their crisp whitewashed glory, but the structure is precisely as it would have been when the hallways would have been trod by armour-clad knights, and the flowing dresses of the castle’s damsels. The furnishings are sparse, but fairly historically accurate, and as you peak out one of the windows you can see the faint mark of the family crest which once stood proudly on the castle’s exterior in 1570. Its striped shutters, and window boxes filled with bright red flowers, help to add to the feel that the history of this castle lives on, and is not just some dusty tome on a shelf.
Predjama is home to all the additions you would expect from an almost half millennia old castle; from light filled sitting rooms for ladies to sew and weave in, to the dark dungeons used to torture prisoners; and from the hanging cast iron pots of the kitchen, to armour stores with their disembodied suits and selection of stabby sticks, disectors, and wallopers. As expected in such a class driven time, the plush bed chamber with its grand four poster bed was the only heated room in the castle, beside which the small chapel sits, with its connecting window so that the lord and his family could listen to mass from the warmth of their room, whilst the underlings sat shivering in their pews.
Leaving the warmth of the interiors, we adventured out into the more open air passages which run between the main fortification and the cave. It is here we visited the famed spot which was once the lavatory of death, before walking into the safety of the cave itself. Within the cavern sits the wellhead which once supplied the castle with a protected water source. The cave was also home to the blacksmith and the baking ovens, which makes sense really, given that its awfully hard to set the castle on fire if you surround most of the fires entirely with stone. You can see the, now hand-rail clad, steps that lead into the caves tunnel, but unfortunately they are only open for tours in the height of summer, due to the resident bats hibernation period for the majority of the cooler months.
With our exploration at an end, we returned our audioguides, snuck past the cat snoozing lazily on the sun-warmed concrete, and took a quick peak at the church which sits beside the carpark as we waited for our transfer to arrive. Its most noteworthy feature being that instead of the usual gold, the religious accouterments decorating the space were donned in silver. As someone who finds the warm hues of gold to be not of my taste, I rather revelled in the cooler nature of the more subtle silver.
We eventually bundled into the car of our transfer, which varied from the female driven van we had arrived in, and were greeted by our former driver’s husband. This kind gentleman happily shuttled us back to the cave at our request, as we figured that we still had a few hours to kill before our journey out of Postonja and across the border into Italy. The short drive was made pleasant by our chauffeur pointing out sights along the way, including an old Yugoslavian military complex which now sits abandoned in the forest. Arriving, we decided to take full advantage of that time, and purchased tickets to two other exhibits which are offered at Postonja Cave, the first being a museum displaying all manner of fossils from millennia gone by in and around the cave, as well as a large collection of preserved insects.
The second attraction, and arguably the more interesting of the two, being the Vivarium. The start of the exhibit here explains the rock layers which make up the caves, and even houses the jaw of a cave bear which used to live in Europe before it became extinct some 20,000 years ago. As we entered the rear of the museum, ducking into the cave that holds this speciality zoo, it was into relatively dark conditions, as can only be expected for a place displaying animals which naturally subsist with no light at all. Fear not though, there is more than enough to read signs and traverse without injury. The place isn’t huge, but as you make your way around the tanks, pressing the light button for a brief period of dim illumination in order to be able to spot the creatures, it becomes clear that, although it seems near on impossible for life to exist in such conditions, there is an abundance. In fact, around 150 species in total, with olms being the largest and, with a life span of around 100 years, likely the oldest. I might not have been able to get a good photo, but allow me to provide one from the internet so you can see one of these incredible amphibians. There are countless other miniscule critters on display too, from elusive cave spiders to slenderneck beetles, and even tiny transparent cave shrimp, all perfectly evolved and adapted to thrive in otherwise inhospitable conditions. A reminder that survival of the fittest is still alive and well, making things taller, better, faster, stronger, or in this case, non-reliant on sunlight.
With the day getting on, and our visit at its conclusion, we wandered back into town to grab an early dinner, as our transfer to Italy would find us arriving a little too late to muster food. Sitting down with a remarkably good kebab each from a little family run shop, think toddler hanging off grandma’s leg as she cooks, we quietly said our goodbyes to Slovenia: a dark horse of unexpected beauty. Returning to our hostel, we grabbed our bags and made our way to the train station in order to be picked up by our private transfer. Now, given that my mother, and in truth my partner or myself, had no desire to lug our suitcases back up the hellish stairs to the station, we ordered a taxi, no thanks to the unlocatable hostel receptionist, and after a short wait were bundling into the private van which would whisk us away. Unlike our trip from Klagenfurt to Bled, this transfer was a group one, but it was still a comfortable ride. Two and a half hours later, we were being spat out at our Airbnb in the suburbs mainland of Venice. We sorted ourselves out, and before long my brother and his friend arrived on their bicycles. This would be the first time we were all actually staying together, and finally be able to catch up properly on the years events.
In depth chats would have to wait for the morrow however, as we were all exhausted and collapsing into bed soon after. My tired mind was filled with the scurrying of subterranean creatures, and I thought about how often we imagine alien life to look remarkably like these beasts, or those in the shadow of the deep sea. We understand that otherworldly life would likely have to survive in entirely different conditions to ourselves, and yet we often forget that many of the types of conditions we imagine already exist, for the most part, in some way, shape, or form on Earth. No light, we’ve got it; immense pressure, yep got that too; no oxygen, oh yes, we have a parasite that can manage that; the vast unlivable vacuum of space, hell we even have a micro animal that can do that too.
There are many who do not believe that life exists beyond the boundaries of our own planet, and yet when you look at the remarkable ability of life to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, it does so almost every time. A rudimentary look into ecology, biology, and astronomy, and it becomes almost undeniable that somewhere out there amongst the billions of galaxies and the trillions of stars which are held within them, there is a planet harbouring life in some form. Sure it might just be some primal bacteria or single cell organism, but that was all that resided on Earth once too. More often than not the deniers of alien life ask the question ‘If life exists, why have they have not contacted us then?’ This question of course relies on the idea that not only life exists, but that this life is also highly evolved and intelligent. Although probability is that intelligent life has, does, or will exist at some point, there are a number of other important factors which must align for interstellar communication to be successful, and lack of success on our behalf does not automatically conclude that we are alone in the universe. These other beings must also: exist at the exact same time as us, which has an extremely low possibility; exist long enough or close enough to get a message to us before we or they die out: have the means to send such a message to far reaching places, something we ourselves have not figured out; be capable of receiving messages in the same medium as we have sent and vice versa, and be able to understand them; and have the desire to contact other civilisations. There is one final, and arguably more important, factor that must be aligned; they actually have to believe that we may exist.