In my previous posts I waxed lyrical about how relaxing Slovenia was and how difficult it was to imagine anyone feeling stressed unless they had four legs and went by the name Trigger.
Difficult yes, but not impossible….
Sitting in the hostel in Ljubljana, having just successfully managed to navigate with some fellow travellers to Lake Bled and back via public transport, I assumed that it would be equally straight forward to use the same process to get to another of Slovenia’s natural wonders, its giant underground caves, the next day. An English girl staying at the hostel thought the same thing so we agreed to head of to find one.
Slovenia, it is apparently said, has two levels. The one on the surface, and another underground. Apparently over 40% of Slovenia has suitable geography for caves, and over 10,000 have been documented. So possibly not a good idea to jump up and down too much. Of these, two, at Škocjan and in particular Postojna are the most famous. Always preferring the underdog, we chose to visit Škocjan. After all, just because its a bit less touristy, how hard could it be to get there?
The first sign of possible stress and danger occurred immediately upon trying to book train tickets to the nearby town of Divača A severe winter storm in February had brought down many trees and wrecked overhead power-lines which were still being repaired so we would be taking a rail replacement bus. The bus was not busy, and stopped on route at Postojna, were most of the other passengers got off. “Fools” we though, blindly following the tourist trail without ever veering from the beaten track. Another 40 minutes later and the rolled up outside Divača station. Due to laziness and lack of organisation, we had not set off from the hostel until gone 1030 and so found ourselves arriving at 1220. Still plenty of time we thought, to get to the caves in time for the 1300 tour. After all, a bus apparently meets the train, and its only supposed to be a relatively short walk anyway. We’ll have no problems.
But we did have problems. Divača appeared deserted. No one else had got off our coach here and there was no sign of any bus to whisk us off to the cave system. But still my spirits were high, the weather was perfect for a walk so who needs a bus after all I though? Now, which way? We looked around for an indication of some sort of sign. You would expect that the nearest train station to a UNESCO world heritage site would have some fairly detailed instructions and or maps showing how to reach it, but no, instead most of the signage was taking up advertising a hotel and riding school. Instructions to reach the cave when finally located after some increasingly frantic searching, consisted simply of one solitary arrow sign, pointing vaguely back in the direction our bus had come, “Škocjan Caves” it read, “1 hour.” Bugger. Still we thought, surely they were exaggerating. 1 hour must be the time it takes for portly 40 somethings to make the journey. A couple of spritely 20 somethings must surely be able to best that time and arrive in time for the 1300 tour.
We did not make it in time for the tour. My companion didn’t make it at all. 15 minutes later, we were very lost. Or rather we knew where we were, thanks to the GPS on my phone deciding to co-operate for a change, but we couldn’t see an obvious entrance to the park on the map on my phone or any sort of paths or signs pointing the right direction. We had by this point already traipsed across a field only to find no obvious route to our destination and been left to double back on ourselves and stand slightly confused by the highway.
Deciding that slow and steady was perhaps the best way to get to the caves, I decided that if coaches do go from the station to the site, they must do so via the main roads and whilst that certainly looked to be the long way to get there, it would be the one most likely to get us there without getting us lost. My companion seemed to agree, but also seem to rank the risk of wandering along a pathless highway as being quite high on the “might get us killed” scale, and so announced they were bailing and would go back to Ljubljana.
For me defeat was not an option. If I’m defeated by a minor thing such as lack of any sort of noticeable signs in Slovenia then things weren’t going to go well for me when I am forced to test my non existent Russian language skills in Kyrgyzstan…It was soon apparent that the route I had chosen was probably high on my companions risk list for a reason but I pushed on, and 50 minutes later, having played what felt like a very long game of Frogger, I managed to find a sign to the caves! Success! The feelings of doom that had been occupying me on my jaywalking jaunt started to dissipate. Ok, I had missed the tour at 1300, but there must be a later one, and I was in no hurry to rush back to Ljubljana.
Arriving at the site, the feelings of doom began to return. It was not as if the site was deserted, it was in fact a hive of activity. Only this was construction activity. It was frankly a building site, with no sign of other visitors or tourists.
Still having gone this far, I eventually found a ticket office and my optimism was rewarded – it was open! The next proper tour was not until 1530, however, I could if I wanted join another tour to a different part of the caves at 1400. A single tour was 12 Euro, doing both was only 20 Euro, which in the circumstances I was happy to pay. 1400 rolled round and with no other visitors or guides around I ended up getting a 1 on 1 tour from the commercial director for the site. The tour was great, the caves impressive in size, although, slightly underwhelming compared to what I had been expecting (but then this was only a secondary tour after all.) The tour was stated to take an hour, but in reality we were back at the start within about 45 minutes.
I wondered if more people would be around for the main tour, I was starting to feel a bit sorry for the place. My sympathy was misplaced, it turned out there would be. A Spanish couple arrived. Oh well that not too bad. Then a coach turned up. Then another coach….
It soon became apparent that there were going to be two tours happening at the time. One involving what appeared to be largely north american grown ups. The other, 40 odd Belgium school children. I knew it was inevitable. As much as I tried to manoeuvre myself into the other group, it was no use, I was turned away – “no, you are with the other group.” I’m not quite sure why, but the sound of school children talking excited French puts my teeth on edge and as the tour began I was forced to focus my mind on all the good things that have come out of Belgium. Like beer, and Tintin. Unfortunately I couldn’t think of anything else to add to the list….
The caves themselves quickly become epically impressive. The paths are lit by electric light, but the majority of the cave system remains in a dark twilight. The size of these caves really does take some comprehension. The millions of years it must have taken to form them can really be appreciated. The tour itself consisted of over a kilometre of trails through the cave and would have been longer had it not been for further renovation work, which as I have said in a previous blog, seems to blight any attraction at this time of year. The height of the cave also strikes you, and most of all, the effect it has on the noise of the river below, acting as a giant echo chamber, totally drowning out the efforts of our guide to instruct, in English, 40 uncoperative French speaking Belgium school children. Before entering she had made it clear that photographs inside the cave were not allowed, an instruction I’m fairly certain the Belgium children understood, but they proceeded to ignore anyway. Her spirit was not broken though by this blatant disregard for the rules and she continued bravely throughout, ignoring the obvious signs that no one could hear her explanations of the geology over the noise of the river, and that in all likelihood the children didn’t care anyway. Her patience only seemed to crack when the Belgium teachers started to join in the the violation of the no photo rule. Still, what do you expect I thought, from the country that wrecked the Congo…
Still, for me this sort of site is the type of thing I must enjoy wandering around without information from a tour anyway, and whilst annoying, the line of people moving through the cave did bring to mind Lord of the Rings style images, and a bridge between two sides of the cave brought inevitably obvious quotes to mind.
The second tour, finished after about 70 minutes. Whilst the two tours had been slightly shorter than the suggested times in the guide, I was on this occasion not too put out, as it gave me a good chance to catch an earlier bus back to Ljubljana. Bravely choosing to travel a different way back I soon discovered that whilst badly sign posted, the walk between the station and the caves, if you knew the way at least, was a simply one taking aproximatly 30 minutes. Still, live and learn I thought, as I nursed a cold beer and a Twix bar waiting for the return bus. And if all travel was without stress and adversity – where would the fun be?