The romance of trains is eternal. Trains go where planes or cars cannot. Train journeys can bond complete strangers with philosophical chats, and show you vignettes of local life in a cinematic unfolding. We are a bunch of people experiencing the joys of travelling on the Eurail network in Slovenia. The train is on its way from Ljubljana to Postojna Jama. It’s the famous Postojna caves and the Pretjama castle that we are headed to. It’s a languid ride through bucolic scenes of green rolling hills, dappled valleys, sheep grazing in meadows, blink- and –you- miss- it villages and traditional hay drying stands. Slovenia is one of the greenest countries in the world and more than half its area is wooded. We whizz past picture perfect stations with geraniums in window boxes and the station master with a red hat.
Slovenia is famous for its peculiar karst or limestone landscapes and caves. Slovenes often say, “Below our feet are our real treasures!” There are more than 8000 caves all over this pint sized country and caving is a much enjoyed local pastime. Stretching over more than 20 kilometres, the Postojna caves in Slovenia is breathtaking. According to legend the Postojna dragon was intimidating locals, until one day Jakob the shepherd played a trick on it. He gave the dragon calfskin filled with quicklime. The dragon ate the calf, drank the water and lime played its magic on him! Carved and shaped millions of years ago by the river Pivka, these caves was discovered in the 17th century. It really opened as a tourist attraction in 1819 when the emperor Franz I of Austria came to visit. Electric lights were fitted here even before they came to Ljubljana. Peter Stefin, the head of marketing of the Postojna caves says that this cave has seen more than 30 million visitors including heads of states and kings and queens!
There is a miniature, open narrow gauge train which ferries the tourists through an artificial tunnel and the limestone caverns like a roller coaster gone astray. We move our heads and bodies, ducking to avoid the roof of the caves and screaming as if on a theme park ride. The train disgorges us at the foot of the Big Mountain, an enormous hall formed by the collapse of a ceiling, ringing with an eerie silence. It reminds me of a Jules Verne novel. Inside is a fairy tale land of stalactites and stalagmites in a series of disorienting caverns. Did an eccentric set designer have a hand in its execution, I wonder. The power of nature never ceases to amaze: stalactites and stalagmites grow at around 1-2 mm per 100 years! So what we are looking at is the work of millennia. The acoustics are superb and the dimensions gargantuan. There are all kinds of fanciful shapes which are pointed out by our guide- some look like animals, some like birds, there are sheets and translucent curtains, even razor thin spaghetti on the ceiling, and there’s one which looks exactly like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We see the iconic ‘The Brilliant’ a solid column in pearly white formed from pure calcium. The caves are eerie and chill and the piece de résistance is the Concert hall cave which can hold almost 10,000 people!
The caves are home to the white salamanders or the human fish, a blind amphibian with pigment-less skin, endemic to these subterranean waters of the caves. These creatures can live up to a 100 years and are equipped with both gills and lungs to survive in these dank caves. Flash photography is prohibited to protect these creatures. The train brings you back to the Black Cave- so called because the walls have been blackened by the Slovenian Partisans burning the hidden fuel of the German soldiers here. From the eerie darkness to the world of living is a welcome transition like a blind man being gifted the power of sight. A lunch of gnocchi pasta, local wine and apple strudel in a restaurant decorated in pleasing green chintz is just what the doctor ordered.
From the subterranean wonders, it’s on to a fairytale castle. The stuff that medieval fantasies are made of, where a lonely princess is waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince! Predjama castle is wedged tight into a rocky cliff 100 metres high. It’s easily one of the most dramatic settings that I have seen! The coat of arms at the entrance has the date 1583 but the cave castle behind is even older. The insides of the castle have been renovated and have residential quarters with re-creations of medieval women spinning yarn, a friar saying his prayers, children in tableaus and even a torture chamber. There are stags heads on whitewashed walls and ancient weaponry alongside a wine cellar. It has the feel of a museum but what is exhilarating are the views from the windows, of the surrounding landscapes. Below the castle are layers of caves formed by an underground river inhabited by an army of bats. Our guide regales us with the story of Erasmus the wily robber knight like Robin Hood. He incurred the wrath of the Austrian king by killing his kinsman and by his links with Hungarian enemies. The governor of Trieste laid a siege on the castle to capture this errant knight, but for months he survived and defied the army and even provoked them by throwing out fresh meat or cherries! Clever Erasmus was getting his supplies through secret passages and crevices in the cave castle
Finally a messenger was bribed to light a candle and expose Erasmus’s whereabouts. It is said that a well-aimed cannonball hit Erasmus when he was “where even kings have to go”! Our guide says that like any self respecting castle, Predjama also has its share of ghosts. The castle hosts the Erasmus Knights Tournament in the month of August every year. This is a re-creation of medieval games complete with people in period costumes, archery, swordplay, and jousts. After a day of subterranean adventures and fantasy worlds, it’s on the train again. This time it’s to Opatija on the Adriatic coast. But that’s another chronicle. And another day...
Published in The Hindu Business Line,2010