The tourist paradise: Postojna Caves in Slovenia
Slovenia’s Postojna Caves manage to be both a natural and a man made wonder. At the same time. The stalagmites and stalagtites are straight from the hand of Mother Nature. The lighting and the transport are pure engineering. The atmosphere is a combination of both. And now there’s the miracle of the proteus..a human dragon that has managed to time its extremely rare egg laying to coincide with the tourist season…
I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a place that processes so many human beings with so much efficiency. Apart from Disney World. But then, in many ways Postojna out-Disney’s even Disney. It was sending people on a journey under the earth when Mickey was an embryo with ears. Its two most iconic structures are as pure as Snow White and one is even named after her. It has a cool ‘dark ride’ that everyone can board. And fast food? You could spend all day having ice cream here.
This cave has led the way in cave tourism
Check out the numbers. The Postojna Caves attraction has clocked up some 35 million visitors in its 200 year history, including 150 presidents and last year, the Japanese royal family. It is the only two track underground cave railway in the world and had trains before British Rail, in 1872 to be exact. It had electric lights before Victorian London; in 1883 to be exact. And all these good people of the world have come to see a natural attraction that’s up to 100,000 yrs old, and hasn’t really changed all that much in all that time.
In caves things change slowly
I lie. Things do change in caves. But the natural processes work in geological time. How else would those almighty mites and tites get there? It’s just you won’t live long enough to see it happen.
If you need a quick geology lesson in how the caves develop their mounds and flowstones, then here it is. Rainwater finds its way down into the earth through the porous limestone that’s prevalent in the whole of Slovenia’s karst region. The limestone contains the mineral calcite, which the rainwater dissolves. From every drop of water, a few milligrams of dissolved calcite is deposited in more or less the same place. Which over thousands of years grows into a solid drip. Stalactites are the calcite drips growing downwards from the ceiling and stalagmites are the columns pushing up. Got it? I might test you later.
Drops and drops and creepie crawlies
But it’s not all silent, glacially slow dripping in Postojna’s huge network of caves. There’s other stuff too. Far from being a dark dead place, this cave is teeming with life. Slightly weird life admittedly, but life all the same. It was in Postojna Caves that the first specimens of most groups of cave fauna were found. The first beetle was found there as far back as 1831. But then, beetles are ordinary. Deep in a dark place in the middle of the tour I stumble across a human fish.
The proteus lives on
Even Darwin took notice of this one. I don’t actually stumble across it. It’s in a tank. And it hears us coming long before we see it. But it’s still a moment to remember, as I stare out a creature people once believed was the spawn of a dragon. I stare. He doesn’t. He doesn’t have eyes. And I’m not sure ‘he’ is even a he. It could be up to 100 years old and is anaemic and anorexic in appearance, as well as having a different number of toes on each foot. But it is a rock star in the cave animal chain and just one of 84 species of creature living in Postojna’s 21 km of dark passageways, which in turn leads to a system of around 10,000 caves.
I learn later that in fact at least one of the proteus isn’t a he. Because ‘she’ has just laid eggs. Apparently this is a little miracle as it’s the first time an egg has ever been laid in a show cave. Perhaps I’ll need to return at Christmas when the babies are due to be born. It could be the closest I ever get to alien life.
Why visit caves in Slovenia?
If you come to Slovenia (and I heartily recommend you do) you really must do one of the show cave attractions. Because with around 15,000 caves, almost half of this small country is karst-like and you can’t really get a full sense of the place until you have gone underneath it.
All the cave attractions are very different. Postojna is the full on tourist experience while the others are somewhat less developed and commercialised. Postojna isn’t just a tourist attraction though; it is an international karstology centre and the world’s Karst Research Institute is tucked away in its entrance. It has some real history; the first natural gallery is black and sooty from activity in the 2nd World War and in the Congress Hall many a posh dance has been held. It also has an underground post office. Mickey Mouse may need to up his game to compete with this place.
Did we like it? I liked it. And Hannah loved it. The train ride is brilliant. Although it actually only goes a few miles an hour it feels like a rocket. No one is strapped in, there is a rush of wind as it accelerates and you feel like you are constantly going to hit your head on a rock, but of course you never will.
The walk through the dark caverns is beautifully lit and suitably damp smelling. You can rent an English audio guide to take you through the history and the geography. It’s now a pet friendly attraction with a special hotel for your doggie to stay in while you do the tour.
All in all it is a dark, dank, beautiful and very exciting few hours. With an ice cream, or twenty, at the end.
Trains run around the Postojna Caves hourly in summer from 9-6, and the attraction is open all year round. An adult ticket is 22.90 euro, and children are priced at 13.70 euro but you can also saver passes which enable you to save money and visit several local attractions. We turned up without booking and got on the last train, but it might be wise to book ahead if you are on a schedule or looking for a specific time.
Unless you want the thrill of wearing a cape like they did in the old days, wrap up warm and wear boots. There is quite a bit of walking. I fear neither of our mothers would have been able to complete the walk up the ‘great mountain’ but your kids should be fine.
If you are scared of the dark, or of trains, then you can go bug hunting with a flashlight in the much smaller Vivarium Proteus museum space, on a separate ticket.
Alternatively you can hire your own family guide (minimum three people) and have a private Adventure Tour of some of the other caves. You get full protective clothing and will spend about 6 hours under the earth exploring some of the unique places the train can’t get to. For full details and prices contact the caves. We did something similar in the Krizna Jama Caves and it was one of the most unique adventures we’ve ever had.
Disclosure Note: Thanks to Katja Dolenc Batagelj at Postojna Jama for hosting us to enable us to bring you this story. As ever, the experience, views and opinions expressed remain entirely our own.