The Slovenia Times

Digging Deeper



Several years ago, I was roaming around the Great Britain. Following the suggestion of local people I decided to visit - after all the breathtaking castles - an underground cave, which was advertised as uniquely beautiful. I was curious what they had to show to visitors, so I joined a group of tourists, following their guide who was talking enthusiastically about the boring, muddy and wet underground hole. My first impression was that it was petty theft to charge admission for something like that; there were no stalactites, stalagmites or other formations typical for the karst caves. For me, coming from Kras, where you can find such a cave on every corner, it was completely disappointing; I'm sure just as much as it is for the average British tourist to make a tour of Slovenian castles.

Later, I discovered that you should not take having such geological treasures next to your home for granted. The following years I took several friends, coming to Slovenia from abroad, to see our underground caves. They were impressed without exception; most of them simply said "breathtaking" or something similar. The Škocjan Caves, a bit more remote and with fewer tourists than Postojna Cave, were the most impressive for most of them.

Basics ...

The Škocjan Caves, a system of underground caves and channels, are the creation of the sinking Reka River, which springs from below the Snežnik Mountain (1,796 m). The river flows some fifty-five kilometres on the surface and gathers the waters on the impermeable flysch rocks. When it reaches the limestone surface, typical for the Karst, it deepens its riverbed through erosion and by dissolving limestone. The river remains on the surface for the first part of its course on the limestone, but after a four kilometre-long gorge it ends at a magnificent wall; the water disappears underground, where it continues its way through the caves.

In the distant past, probably a few hundred thousand years ago, the ceiling of the cave collapsed some 200 metres from the sink of the river, creating two huge 'holes' separated by natural bridge, a remnant of the original cave ceiling: Mala dolina (120 m deep) and Velika dolina (165 m deep). At the bottom of the latter, the Reka River finally disappears underground. The water appears on the surface again after flowing underground for 34 km, at the springs of the Timava River in Italy, not far from Trieste and the Adriatic coast. The Škocjan Caves is a system of caves which includes - beside Mala and Velika dolina - Tominčeva jama Cave, Šumeča jama Cave, the 'halls' Velika dvorana and Martelova dvorana, and Henkejev kanal Channel.

People and the Caves

In the Tominčeva jama Cave, a dozen ancient skeletons of people were found. Here the animal bones, ceramics and other funerary goods were discovered, which indicate - with some other findings - that the first people probably settled the caves about 5,000 years ago. The first written sources mentioning the caves date back as early as the 2nd century B.C. Poseidonius of Apamea (135 BC-50 BC) wrote: "The Timava River flows from the mountains, falls into an abyss (i.e. the Škocjan Caves) and then, after flowing about 130 stadia underground, springs beside the sea."

The Škocjan Caves area is also marked on the oldest published maps of this part of the world; for example the Lazius-Ortelius map from 1561 and Mercator's Novus Atlas from 1637. Later, in 1689, the Slovenian nobleman, scholar, and polymath Janez Vajkard Valvasor was also impressed by the phenomenon. He described the sink of the Reka River and its underground flow in his great work 'The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola,' published in 1689 in the German language. The paintings of French painter Louis-François Cassas (1782) testify that in the 18th century people visited the bottom of Velika dolina and that the caves were considered as one of the most important natural features in the Trieste hinterland.


The Škocjan Caves were explored throughout the 19th century, mostly as a result of attempt to supply Trieste with drinking water; thus, the explorers tried to follow the underground course of the Reka River. In 1840, Ivan Svetina, an expert on wells from Trieste, reached the third waterfall, about 150 metres from the sink in Velika dolina. Adolf Schmidl led the explorations in 1851 and 1852 with a group of miners from Idrija. They penetrated up to 500 meters further, to the fourth, according to some statements maybe even the sixth underground waterfall. Their exploration was finished when a sudden rise of the river swept away their boats and equipment.

In 1884 a Caving Section of the Littoral Section of the German-Austrian Mountaineering Society was founded; it was an important turning point in the exploration of the caves. Under the leadership of Anton Hanke, Jožef Marinitsch and Friedrich Müller and with the help of local people Jože Antončič, Jurij Cerkvenik-Gomboč, Franc Žnideršič, Janez Delez and others, systematic exploration began. In the first year, they conquered the sixth waterfall, "the key problem of explorations." In 1890, explorers reached Mrtvo jezero (Dead Lake), which lies about 1,700 meters from the last sink. In 1904, when some brave locals climbed the sixty-metre wall of Müllerjeva dvorana (Müller Hall), Tiha jama (Silent Cave) was discovered.

The next important speleological exploration took place in 1991, almost 100 years after the discovery of the Dead Lake. In September that year, Janko Brajnik and Samo Morel, Slovenian speleologists and divers managed to swim through the siphon Ledeni dihalnik in Marchesettijevo jezero (Marchesetti Lake). Below the siphon, they discovered over 200 metres of new cave passages. A new chapter, which is still in progress, has been opened.

The great work done by local people, especially from the nearby villages of Škocjan and Matavun, who participated in the difficult and even dangerous construction of the trails in the cave, must be acknowledged. They manually chiselled nearly 12 kilometres of trails in the caves, fitted them with wedges and protective wire or fences and built wooden galleries and bridges.

Cave tourism

At the beginning of 19th century, cave tourism also started developing, although it's difficult to establish precisely when. According to some sources, in 1819, the county's councillor Matej Tominc (the Tominčeva jama Cave is named after him) ordered that the steps to the bottom of Velika dolina be made. January 1st 1819, when a visitors' book was introduced, is the date considered the undisputed beginning of modern tourism in the Škocjan Caves.

The number of visits increased after the path leading to the bottom of Velika dolina was introduced in 1823. In the 1884, when the Littoral Section of the German-Austrian Mountaineering Society found the above-mentioned Caving Section, another major step for the tourism was made. The Society acquired the lease to the Škocjan Caves and organised guided tours. In the 20th century, tourism significantly developed but never overly so. In 1996, a decade after Škocjan Caves were entered onto the UNESCO World Heritage List, the Škocjan Caves Regional Park was established. A public agency with 15 employees, it draws up protection and development programmes, observes the state of the natural heritage, and works for its recognition.

Visiting the Caves

The Škocjan Caves are in the Kras region, about 80 kilometres from Ljubljana and 30 kilometres from Trieste. If you are arriving on motorway from Ljubljana, follow the signs for Koper and take the Divača exit. The road to Škocjan Caves is well marked with signs. If you are coming by train, get off at the Divača railway station. There is a map at the station showing the three-kilometre long footpath to the Škocjan Caves.

It is possible to visit the caves every day of the year. The guided tour, which is approximately three kilometres long, lasts around 90 minutes. Sport footwear and a warm sweater are recommended; the cave temperature is around 12 °C. The tour begins at the Information Centre in the village of Matavun. It's also worth visiting the museum collections in the village of Škocjan, situated above the caves, about a ten-minute walk from the information centre. In the Jurjev barn, there is an exhibition devoted to the history of exploring the Škocjan Caves (including two cross-section models of the underground canyon of the Caves). The ethnology exhibition in the Jakopin barn, and museum collections in the Delez Homestead, including a geological, biological and archaeological collection are also to be seen.

Once you're there, you might want to explore some more and visit some interesting points in the region to discover the local architecture, cuisine and beautiful landscape. For complete information, ask at the park information centre and/or visit its website.

The Škocjan Caves are the only monument in Slovenia on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Beside the Škocjan Caves, there are only three caves included on this list as an underground natural monument: the Mammoth Caves and Carlsbad Caves in the USA, and the caves on the Slovak-Hungarian border (Aggtelek and Slovak Karst).

Škocjan Caves Park Information Centre

Matavun 12, 6215 Divača

Phone: 00 386 (0)5 708 21 10,

Kras, karst ...

Kras is a Slovenian name for a limestone region northeast of Trieste Bay, partly situated in Slovenia, partly in Italy. The word kras (karst in German and English, carso in Italian) is derived from the pre-Indo-European word 'karra' meaning stony. In the Middle Ages, the region was known as a rocky, treeless land. In the 19th century, the name of the region was adopted as the generic name for all limestone landscapes and hydro-geological systems. In the middle of that century, the first attempts of the reforestation with black pine (Pinus nigra) were made. Today, woodlands cover approximately half of the region.

Karst is a typical landscape that developed on limestone. The most important agent of the process called karstification is the solubility of the carbonate rocks, which is common for Kras. Limestone, which is mostly composed of calcite, is dissolved by rain water and drains underground through fissures. As a result the underground caves developed over millions of years; their stalagmites and stalactites are a consequence of limestone deposits, dissolved in the water.


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