Slovenia’s Incredible Caves

Originally Published by Free B&B, October 2017

 

Sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Hungary, Slovenia is one of Central Europe’s lesser known gems. With dramatic scenery, almost as rich in diversity as the country’s history, this is an off-the-beaten-track destination that certainly packs a punch. From towering mountains and crystalline lakes to rolling green hills and even a small stretch of Adriatic, Slovenia seems to have it all. Factor in charming cities and picturesque farming communities, and you could be forgiven for feeling like you have stumbled across some kind of latter-day Garden of Eden. It is underground, however, that Slovenia really begins to show its wild side. Buried deep below the surface lie some of the world’s most spectacular natural caves, with an array of streams, flora and fauna that simply blow the mind.

The fact that Slovenia as a country is relatively compact means that getting around is a breeze. A solid rail and bus networks allows for easy access to a number of the main towns and cities, whilst the excellent road network makes this a road-tripper’s dream. For those seeking a more active experience, cycling and kayaking are popular past times for locals and tourists alike, and provide a completely different perspective to this fascinating area. A particularly famous area for active exploring is the northern region of Koroška, with its labyrinth of subterranean trails and streams. Ever wanted to mountain bike through a cave to discover hidden underground mountains? How about kayaking across lakes almost 700m below ground, before riding a real mining train back to the surface? Koroška has all this and more! In the meantime, here are some of Slovenia’s other must-see caving destinations…

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Postojna Caves

Around 1 hour to the west of the capital, Lubljana, lie the caves at Postojna, the most famous of Slovenia’s cave compexes. Served by excellent road, rail and bus connections, this sleepy town hides a network of caves that stretch for over 20km underground. To add to the magic, the entrance to one part of the caves is hidden behind the imposing Predjama Castle, which is well worth a visit in its own right. Access to the caves to the general public is generally only possible as part of a guided tour, which meets a short bus ride away from the castle. Available year round, the visit begins with a magical train ride into the expansive complex, passing through numerous passageways and caverns before being delivered to one of the large central chambers. From there you can explore the seemingly endless caverns, each adorned with glistening stalagmites and magical underground streams and pools. The world’s largest stalagmite, measuring a staggering five meters in height, can be seen here, along with the Europe’s only cave-dwelling vertebrate: The eerily named “Human Fish”.

Living for over 100 years, the Human Fish, or “Olm” is fabled to be a distant relative of the dragons that supposedly roamed these lands thousands of years ago. Able to go years at a time without food, this unique and endangered creature is almost exclusively found in the caves in and around Postojna. Getting to see one in its natural environment is an amazing experience!

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Škocjan Caves

Lying in the main train line between Ljubljana and Trieste, just over the Italian border, is the small town of Divača. The area is home to a number of caves including those of Divaška and Vilenica, although the grand caves at Škocjan are by far the most impressivex and are even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex of caves stretches over 11km long, with a total of 11 vast chambers, one of which being the highest cave hall in Europe! The network of streams, pools and waterfalls is truly enchanting, with stalactites and stalagmites doing a fantastic impression of the towers on a magical castle. It is also here that the mighty river Reka flows underground before re-surfacing around 20km away nearer to the Adriatic Sea.

As a general rule, admissions to the Škocjan Caves is only possible as part of an organised tour. In reality, this isn’t a problem at all as the guides are all locals with an intimate knowledge of the area and personal stories that really bring the caves to life. There’s something indescribable about scurrying through the towering caverns of Škocjan, in the cold and damp, with only the narrow beams of your guide’s flashlight stabbing at the inky darkness. A top tip, though – photography is technically prohibited in much of the complex, so best to turn your flash off to avoid drawing attention to yourself if you do decide to snap a few pictures!

As an added bonus, once you’re back above ground you have the opportunity to explore the enormous gorge that adjoins the site. The views are dramatic, and if you’re feeling brave you can even venture across the small bridge the spans the gorge – Definitely not one for those with a fear of heights!

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Kostanjevica Caves

Whilst the caves themselves are ancient, the Kostanjevica was only discovered in 1937 when a flood washed away a layer of land and exposed the gaping mouth of the stunning caverns behind. As such, and thanks in part to their more remote location, these are a true hidden gem and the stuff of dreams for any budding Indiana Jones! Nestled in the foothills of the Gorjanci hills, close to the Croatian border, this sleepy area is best accessed by road as public transport is extremely limited. Accessible only during the summer months, the true beauty of this site is its sheer undeveloped charm. Whilst a basic level of lighting and footpaths have been installed, visitor numbers are still relatively low meaning there’s a very good chance you may have the cave to yourself! It’s best to be prepared and bring a waterproof jacket and sturdy pair of shoes – the fact that the caves are so natural is fantastic, yet brings its own challenges! Back on the surface, the wonderfully lush countryside is home to extensive woodland areas, intertwined with fairy-tail streams and mini-waterfalls. An incredible destination and the perfect place to get away from it all!

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A Journey Into The Shan

Originally Written for One City Road, March 2017

As a kid growing up in England, it was not uncommon for Mum to bribe me into doing some kind of physical activity by assuring me that my “dinner would taste all the better at the end of it”. I’d like to think I was a pretty savvy kid, and soon realised that this generally wasn’t the case, and that dinner was usually pretty delicious without hours of sweat and exertion beforehand.

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Fast forward 20 years and you’ve probably gathered by now that I’m not, by nature, the most sporting of creatures. Sitting with a cold beer in hand one evening, you can imagine, therefore, my misgivings when my partner bounded onto the terrace and announced that she’d just booked us onto a two-day trek into the hill tribe villages the next morning. We’d only arrived in Hsipaw, a small town in Myanmar’s Shan State, a few hours earlier after a 12-hour train journey. The slow pace of life here was slowly becoming infectious and I had personally been looking forward to a slow amble around the town the next day, punctuated with numerous cups of tea.

Alas, it was not to be. 8am came around fast and we found ourselves marching out of town with a small gaggle of other backpackers, led by our ever-resourceful guide, Ko. We had to cover 17km that day to reach our overnight stop in the village of Ban Kham, with a climb or around 900 meters thrown in for good measure. Whilst the trail varied from basic to non-existent, the countryside scenery was never less than stunning. Our route was punctuated with small farmer’s huts, where we were invariably plied with bananas fresh-off-the-tree and sweet local tea. Along the way, Ko (not his real name, more of a local phrase meaning ‘Brother’) would stop and pick interesting tit-bits for us to try. Peanuts fresh out of the ground were particularly surprising, tasting not unlike their namesake ‘Peas’.

The British Government advises against ‘all but essential travel’ to a large part of this area due to ongoing insurgencies. As ever, we relied on the mood on the ground at the time to reassure us that we wouldn’t wander into harm’s way. On a couple of occasions, we passed small groups of what Ko cheerfully dismissed as ‘local hunters’. Personally, I’ve never seen anyone hunt with Kalashnikovs, but we exchanged cheerful “min-ga-la-ba ‘s (Burmese for Hello) and went on our way. A bunch of bumbling Brits are unlikely to present much of a threat to their cause, least of all hunting.

Cresting our final hill at around 4pm, we were greeted with a cluster of small, bamboo houses nestled into a small valley, with promising wisps of smoke drifting from the make shift chimneys. We were to spend the night sleeping on bamboo mats around an open fire in one of these stilted constructions, before setting off again at sunrise the next day. Having been warmly welcomed by our host family with more cups of strong and sweet tea, we were soon seated on empty hessian sacks around the clay fire pit that was the focal piece of their single-room abode. Grandma spent the next hour or so lovingly stirring, tossing and boiling numerous clay pots over this simple wood burner, whilst the kids prepared salads and breads in the open-air kitchen overlooking the valley.

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Burmese meals at the best of times usually consist of no less than 10 small dishes in the middle of the table for all to share. Spicy chutney’s that can catch the uninitiated off guard; dried fish with peanuts, pickled greens and curried vegetables are all staples of the Shan dinner table, and bring a balance of texture and flavour that any Michelin chef would be proud of. A special mention must go to the Pickled Tea Leaf Salad, with juicy home-grown tomatoes and crunchy fried beans. The freshness of each ingredient sang out loud and clear, yet worked in incredible harmony for a dish that had been mixed with bare hands in a clay bowl just minutes earlier. As soon as a dish was any less than full, Grandma would send one of the kids scurrying out to refill it, lest her guests go to bed anything less than full.

The Fork and Spoon are the classic Burmese eating utensils, with the fork mainly used to load the spoon – a technique that takes a little practice. Nonetheless, several very contented hours were spent slurping around the fire, with Ko doing his upmost to provide a little translation between us and our hosts. With the sun well below the horizon, and Granma’s pots well and truly emptied, we succumbed to the day’s exertions and drifted into possibly the best night’s sleep I’d had in months.