Roller Coaster Ride ….. Through a Cave?

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Europe » Slovenia » Inner Carniola » Postojna
July 29th 2022
Published: August 11th 2022
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Today we leave the idyllic Lake Bled to drive to the village of Piran on the so called Slovenian Riviera, the country’s 46.7 kilometres of coastline, yep that’s all they’ve got, sandwiched between Italy to the north and Croatia to the south. … and don’t whatever you do forget the point seven; I wonder how many decimal places Australia’s coastline usually gets quoted to.

But first a detour to the Postojna Caves which are about fifty kilometres inland from Piran. We don’t know all that much about what we’ve got ahead of us, other than something about a train. We read some warnings that it’s a tad chilly inside, ten degrees, which is a bit of a contrast to the thirty plus out here in the sun. Issy’s not into cold so she hires one of the coats on offer. It’s a full length grey woollen smock, with holes where there should be sleeves, and a hood, and she now looks like a cross between Little Red Riding Hood and a refugee from a Siberian prison camp.

If the long queue waiting for our timed entry spot is anything to go by, the caves rate fairly highly in the popularity stakes. We head into what feels like a city metro station - two long yellow trains on either side of a “platform”, both packed with fellow cave lovers - actually I think it might just be me out of the two of us who’s a cave lover; I think I remember Issy telling me once before that they make her constantly afraid that thousands of tons of rock are suddenly going to collapse in on top of her. Anyway she seems to be putting on a brave face, well I think she is, it’s a bit hard to see too much under the hood bit of the Little Red Riding Hood outfit.

The train heads off. I was expecting a gentle meander, but this thing’s charging through tunnels like there’s no tomorrow. It feels like we’re on a roller coaster, only without the ups and downs, although they’re more than making up for that with constant sharp horizontal zig zags. I’m sure whoever designed this setup did their homework, but I’m still feeling a constant urge to duck as rocks whizz past at breakneck speed seemingly only millimetres from our heads. The guy a couple of rows in front is quite tall and it seems only a matter of time until pieces of his shattered skull get splattered all over our faces. The route takes us through tunnels between caverns of stalactites and stalagmites, one of which is all decked out with chandeliers and looks like something off the set of a Dracula movie.

If they were wanting us to admire the cavely formations from the train it’s going way too quick, so after what seems like several kilometres it’s a relief to pull up at metro station number two, and off we get. So it seems we‘re going to be allowed a short walk. We head up through a massive and ridiculously spectacular chamber full of every cavely formation known to man, and then some. And it seems our walk may be a bit longer than we’d first thought. The path continues through more enormous caverns, and then more and more. This place is absolutely mind blowing. I’ve been to lots of caves before, but if there’s a more spectacular one than this anywhere on the planet I’d like to see it. A kilometre or so later and we must be back at the surface; we’re in a gift shop. But hang on, no, it seems we’re still kilometres underground. We exit the gift shop onto the platform of cave metro station number three, and we’re soon back on our horizontal roller coaster for another thrill ride back to where we started. That really was something else; possibly the highlight of the entire trip so far.

We read that the locals first started showing tourists around the caves back in 1819. That proved to be a fairly long and tricky exercise leading people through kilometres of tunnels by torchlight. So in 1872 they put in the first railway to speed things up. I’m not sure how much that would actually have sped things up; the guides had to pull it along the the tracks. Anyway, fortunately things improved from there, first to gas powered locomotives and then to the electric trains we rode on today.

On the way through we saw a display of olms, which are sold (not literally, although I think you could buy some oversized cloth versions in the gift shop) to the tourists as cave dragons. The reality’s not quite so terrifying. They’re 25 cm or so long salamanders that only live in the complete darkness of caves, only underwater, and only in this part of Europe. …and if that’s not fussy enough, it seems they also don’t like having their photos taken. Now I can understand that if you’d been living out your entire life in total darkness and some tourist suddenly pointed a flash gun in your face it might not do much to improve your day, but signs suggest these guys don’t even like to be snapped without flashguns. I wonder how anyone knows this.

Our cave tickets are a package deal which includes entry to Predjama Castle some ten kilometres or so up the road. Issy’s not really into castles so I head off alone. We’re told that Predjama is the largest castle in the world that’s built entirely inside a cave. I’m not sure whether there are any other castles on the planet whose builders decided to put them in caves, but it seems like an impressive claim nonetheless, and I suppose you’d at least save on the cost of a few walls. The facade is indeed pretty spectacular; it looks like the front of a regular castle, but it’s all set in a sheer cliff face under a rocky overhang. It’s thought that there’s been a castle of some sort here since the thirteenth centrury. The current iteration was built in the sixteenth century after the previous version was destroyed in an earthquake, and it’s apparently remained virtually unchanged since.

The castle’s most famous resident was apparently a gent by the name of Erasmus of Lueg. He had a few disagreements with the Holy Roman Empire, which responded by ordering that he be captured or killed (or I suspect captured and then killed). The castle was sieged, but it seems old Erasmus was a smart cookie; he ordered his troops to build a tunnel up through the roof of the cave to the surface high on the clifftop above so he could sneak food in when the Holy Roman guys weren’t looking. Anyway it apparently didn’t do him too much good; in the end he was shot, allegedly while sitting on the toilet, which doesn’t sound like a particularly dignified way to go out.

We head off into Piran. It seems there’s not a lot of room for cars in its ancient narrow streets so we park in a massive multi storey car park just outside town, along with what feels like half of Slovenia, and catch a shuttle bus to the main square.

We’re greeted at our waterfront accommodation by the owner, the delightful Maja. She must be pushing eighty, but she’s clearly not going to let the grass grow under her feet. She’s an avid family historian and spends her summers here in Piran, and her winters in Tenerife where she writes. She tells us that her family was once one of the wealthiest in Slovenia, but they lost it all to the Communists, and eventually fled to Paris where she spent a large portion of her life. She tells us she speaks eight languages. She says that the population of Slovenia used to be four million, but so many left to escape communism that it’s now only two. She is an unbelievably interesting and engaging lady. She wants to know all about us, and writes down all the details of our family so she can include them in her book. She says that God sends her interesting guests so that she can write about them; is it wishful to think she’s including us in that generalisation?

Our room is on the second floor of the character filled eighteenth century building, and has a balcony staring straight out at the Adriatic Sea. We think there are three apartments here that Maja rents out. The doors off the staircase are flimsy, transparent concertina affairs, so it feels like we’re just living in a house with other family members. I wonder how many pushing eighty year olds go for a nightly swim off the rocks. Well it seems at least one. As we head off for a stroll we see Maja all decked out in her bathers heading off for a dip.

The waterfront is packed with sun lovers stretched out on their towels on whatever hard horizontal surface they can find, whether that be rocks or paving; there’s no sand. The town’s a maze of narrow alleyways with the occasional square to break things up. It’s all extremely cute.

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17th August 2022
Predjama Castle

This country is rich in history and beauty.

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