OFF THE BEATEN TRACK/TRAVEL
by Eric Mackenzie-Lamb
POSTOJNA, SLOVENIA: Once part of the former Yugoslavia, yet largely spared from the horrors of the Balkan wars of the 1990’s, this small country-only 7,827 square miles in area, or about the size of the American state of Massachusetts-offers a unique experience for those visitors willing to go out of their way to experience the truly unusual. For Slovenia possesses an astonishing variety of culture, art, history, and, above all, a unique and wild natural beauty which has remained largely unchanged since the dawn of pre-European history.
And nowhere is this more true than the legendary Postojna Caves, where Nature itself has been the ultimate creative artist.
Located in the densely forested southwestern region of the country, between the Julian Alps and the Adriatic Sea, the caves, designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site, have seen millions of visitors-including kings, emperors, robber barons, smugglers, artists, prisoners of war, scientists, and the merely curious-since at least the 13th century.
Its underground network of caves and connecting tunnels extends for almost 24 kilometers (15 miles), and includes a subterranean watercourse. According to scientific studies, the Postojna caves began forming more than two million years ago, when rain and river water started to penetrate the surface limestone and gradually seeped ever deeper through the porous crust. Later, stalactites and stalagmites began to take shape. Originally white or light grey due to their original calcium carbonate content, the colors of some changed over time to ochre, red, or yellow whenever iron or magnesium were absorbed.
And then there are the shapes of Nature’s own sculptures themselves-some resembling fine lace curtains, others birds, yet others so bizarre that all you can do is to stare at them and try to use your imagination. Even Picasso or Henry Moore would have been in awe. The largest stalagmite, aptly named The Giant, soars to a height of 16 meters (almost fifty feet). There’s also an underground mountain, The Calvary, whose crest stands at 45 meters (about 135 feet).
The caves contain some unusual man-made creations as well: the Russian Bridge, named after the prisoners who built it during World War I, as well as the original railway tracks which were first installed in 1872, and which were used for two-seat carriages made to transport dignitaries, aristocrats and other wealthy visitors while being physically pushed along the tracks by a local guide. Interestingly, electricity was installed as early as 1884; this meant that, with lamps situated at strategic locations, guides no longer needed to carry candles or lanterns in order to find their way.
Next came petrol powered trains, but these created serious problems because many visitors, understandably, objected to the smoke and fumes in such a confined area. The “gas guzzlers” were finally discontinued in 1959, when modern electric coaches took their place. These were also considerably larger and more sophisticated, not to mention comfortable. Today, each rail convoy can accommodate up to 120 visitors, and many of the guides speak up to nine languages. The tour itself consists of a combination of open-topped rail carriages, walkways, suspension bridges, and viewing platforms. (There’s even a working underground post office). For enthusiasts looking for something truly different, there are also kayaking tours along the underground river.
One of the tour’s most memorable (and for some, uncomfortable) events takes place when all lights are extinguished for two minutes in order for visitors to experience the total darkness and sounds of their surroundings. (That’s usually when the chill finally sets in; the caves’ temperature, whether in winter or summer, is a permanent ten degrees Centigrade, or 50F).
But, as visitors soon learn, humans are not the only inhabitants of the Postojna Caves. As examples, there are Cave Freshwater Shrimp; Cave Water Bugs; Cave Hoppers; even Cave Lice. (We’ll spare you their long Latin scientific names, but each creature is truly unique). In all, it’s believed that at least 190 varieties of animal or insect life exist in these caves, including three types of fish.
But, by far, the most prominent and unusual of all is the so-called “Human Fish” (Proteus anguinus), a bizarre creature whose evolutionary presence has made Postojna famous not only in Slovenia, but throughout the global scientific community. To begin with, Proteus has no eyes, as it exists in permanent total darkness. Although it breathes through gills as fish do, it also possesses atrophied lungs. Growing up to 33 centimeters in length, Proteus reproduces not only by eggs, but also through living young. Even through late medieval times, the creature was widely feared by the few who had actually seen it, and, as rumors spread, even by locals who hadn’t. Most believed the creature to be the progeny of an evil dragon which inhabited the secret darkness of Postojna’s underworld.
But, for now, let’s move on to the subject of Christmas.
Did you know that Postojna
Caves hosts the world’s largest underground Nativity scene? Or that a full classical orchestra-and an audience of up to ten thousand people (yes, you read that right)-all join together every year for a spectacular subterranean Christmas Eve concert? And that one of the greatest operatic tenors of all time, Enrico Caruso, was once featured in the event?
Yes, all fact.
Merry Christmas to you from Down Under! (No, Slovenia, not Australia).