Slovenia is best known for its unspoilt and picturesque natural landscape, and being a relatively small country, many of its sights are easily accessible day trips from the capital, Ljubljana. The world-renowned Postojna Cave is located to the south-west of the city, an hour away by bus. I planned to visit on one of the rare days where rain was forecast for much of the afternoon. I figured the cave would provide shelter from the rain yet I’d still be out of the apartment and into nature. Late in the morning, when I boarded the bus in downtown Ljubljana, the skies were already darkening with thick clouds and mid-way through the journey it began pouring heavily.
As we travelled through the countryside, raindrops streaming down the windows of the bus, I wondered what the cave experience might be like. The images I had seen depicted an underground world of huge caverns and intricate formations. I knew that Postojna Cave had been popular with tourists ever since the early 1800s. The small train that took visitors inside had been in operation for at least a hundred years and the electric lighting that illuminated part of its interior, had been there even longer.
On approach, the cave entrance appears like the tip of a large knife wound on the surface of a forest covered hillside. The area around it is heavily embellished with all the trappings of tourism – extensive coach parking, mediocre restaurants, garish posters, guide rails, access ramps and toilet blocks. I grimaced at the sight of it and wondered if it was a mistake even being there. The entry charge was steep and even though it was a weekday and raining heavily, there were still hundreds of tourists milling about, waiting for the next ninety-minute tour to begin.
I joined the queue and before long we were separated into groups by signs, railings and the gestures of the tour guides. I was in the ‘English-speaking’ group and just beyond the entrance we boarded a small train, similar to the ones that take children on rides around city parks. Despite its size, it travelled at considerable speed through a narrow tunnel, making its way ever deeper into the cave. Every so often the tunnel would open out into a sizeable cavern, then just as quickly the walls and ceiling would close in again. For good reason, signs warned passengers to remain seated and to keep their arms inside the carriage.
The train travelled for two kilometres before it finally came to rest deep underground in an area known as the Great Mountain. The remainder of the tour would be on foot, walking along a path that wound its way through various labyrinths and passageways. Jackets were essential as the air inside the cave was cool and maintained naturally at a constant ten degrees throughout the year.
The entire Postnoja complex is known as a karst system, formed by the slow erosion of limestone deposits by underground water sources, in this case the Pivka River. The cave itself is twenty-four kilometres in length and although the tour only covers a small portion of the cave, it was enough to appreciate its immense size and grandeur. The interior was full of unique and irregular limestone formations, each of them wet with moisture, gently lit with special lighting and growing ever so slowly over millions of years.
There were caverns as big as concert halls, natural bridges of rock, stalactites and stalagmites approaching each other from opposite directions, eventually forming bulging columns of limestone that seemed to add weight and body to the overall structure. There were delicate formations as well, thin and translucent webbings, hanging from ceilings of rock like natural curtains or the spaghetti-like strands of limestone that pointed stiffly down towards the floor. The structures were unusual and otherworldly, with all the detail and splendour of the interior of a gothic cathedral or a stately palace, except here it was the work of nature, and all the more grand because of it.
On the final leg of the walk, we passed a large purpose-built concrete room housing an aquarium. It contained some small but unusual looking eel-like creatures called olms. They were pale and flesh coloured, with underdeveloped eyes that made them virtually blind. Each had tiny arms and legs for clambering over wet rocks and a tail for swimming.
Olms are a type of aquatic salamander and are considered an endangered species. They have become a symbol of Slovenian natural heritage and an important contributor to the promotion of the Postojna cave. Perhaps capitalising on the popularity of ‘Game of Thrones’ and Slovenia’s association with dragon mythology, the guides bizarrely referred to the olms as ‘baby dragons’, despite their complete lack of resemblance. What I did find fascinating about the creatures is that they can live for up to 100 years or longer and are able to survive more than eight years without food.
All of the tour groups seemed to finish their tours more or less together in a large cavern where we waited for the next train to take us to the surface. I couldn’t help but notice a brightly-lit souvenir kiosk occupying a position of prominence within the room, hoping to entice people into leaving with something other than their memories. Most people though seemed content with taking in the atmosphere of the spacious cavern or snapping a few more pictures. Back outside the rain was still falling and the air felt almost humid compared to the coolness of the cave. Without lingering, I took the next bus back to Ljubljana.
A few days later, I left the capital and took a bus north to the town of Bled, renowned for its glacial lake and picturesque scenery. During the late 19th century the town was developed as a health resort by a Swiss naturopath and became a popular destination for aristocrats from all over the world. The town is just as popular today for its scenic beauty and healthy environment, as well as operating as a base for visitors seeking more adventurous activities in the surrounding region. Accomodation in Bled is typically luxurious, expensive and in high demand, however I chose a more modest place to stay – a camping ground on the other side of the lake. It was nestled amongst trees in a valley between steep forest-covered hills.
I reached the camping ground in a taxi that skirted around the northern shore. The weather was warm enough for swimming and the ‘beach’ in front of the campground was full of people, some in the water, but most lazing about in deck chairs on the grass. A little further inland was the reception office run by a competent and multi-lingual staff. I secured a tent site for two nights amidst a mass of white and very similar looking camper vans. Their number plates indicated a predominance of Dutch, German and British campers, many of whom were retirees or families with young children.
It didn’t feel at all like my scene but I decided to stay the two nights I’d booked before contemplating whether to extend or move on. The surrounding landscape was stunning and the campground was well appointed with large, impeccably clean and tastefully designed shower blocks, free wireless internet access, a restaurant, cafe and a small market store. My little orange tent seemed out of place amongst all the camper vans with their annexes, lounge chairs and bbq’s. Many of them had a small satellite dish on the roof connected to what I presumed was a television set inside. It wasn’t exactly my idea of camping. I was hardly getting away from it all and being immersed within a sea of strangers made me feel more alone than if I’d been by myself, somewhere remote and miles from anyone.
After setting up my tent, I hiked to the nearest high point, a pyramid shaped hill called Ostrica. It was a well-known spot for taking in views of the entire lake. There were a few other people on the summit, each of us sitting on rocks in the late evening light, somewhat transfixed by the view before us, as if we were all in some kind of meditative trance. The lake’s only island is relatively close to the western shore and, with its small baroque church, gives the scene unique photogenic appeal. On the northern shoreline, a cliff face protrudes upwards and is topped by Bled castle. More undulating hills grace its southern shores, and in the distance high mountains provide the background to a truly alpine scene.
Later in the day I went for a swim in the lake. It was refreshingly clear with bluish-green waters and an abundance of fish, always visible not far below the surface. Spotted randomly around the lake were holiday makers in various watercraft: canoes, kayaks and paddle boats. Many rowed their way out to Bled Island to climb the steps leading from the waters edge to the church, its steeple clearly visible above the trees.
In the late afternoon it started to rain and after lingering under the cover of the dining area for as long as possible I made my way back to the tent. Before long it was raining heavily and showed no sign of abating. I took the opportunity to read my book, The Magus by John Fowles. Its descriptions of a hot summer on a Greek island seemed worlds away. I slept well as it rained through the entire night. By morning, the clouds had cleared, the rain had stopped and it was looking again like a pleasant sunny day.
After breakfast I packed up my gear. My tent had got very wet during the night and some of my clothes were damp. I wiped as much mud off the tent floor as a I could before packing it for drying at a later time. I decided to leave the campsite and head further afield to an even larger lake called Bohinj, about twenty-five kilometres to the south west. From everything I’d heard and read, Bled was touristy but Bohinj was more natural and closer to the big mountains. It seemed like an obvious choice. Being in the vicinity of Bled had been rewarding though. Despite the heavy emphasis on tourism, the region was still remarkably beautiful and unspoilt.
From the camping ground, it was a short walk up the hill to the station where I boarded a train to the town of Bohinjska Bostrica. As we travelled through alpine meadows and deep valleys, I had my first glimpse of distant snow-covered peaks, while beside us mountain rivers flowed fast and fresh with snow melt.
After arriving in the town I walked to the centre and had lunch at a restaurant renowned for its traditional Slovenian dishes. I ordered a delicious stew made from sauerkraut, beans, potato and sausage and followed it with coffee and a slice of strudel. Already, the surroundings felt markedly different from that of Lake Bled. It was calmer and less developed and seemed more typical of traditional country life. I was starting to feel more at home.
From Bohinjska Bostrica, it was a twenty minute journey by bus to the small town of Ribcev Lav on the eastern edge of Lake Bohinj. The view of the lake was exceptional, even more so than Bled. On foot now, I took a right turn over a stone bridge, past a white church and walked for thirty minutes along a country road to Stara Fuzina, a quiet alpine village at the base of the Julian Alps.