Cool, damp air greeted us as we entered the narrow, low-ceilinged passageway. The significant drop in temperature was a welcome relief from the hot Slovenian summer sun. As our eyes adjusted to the dim interior, we followed our guide through the manmade tunnel toward one of the world’s largest discovered underground canyons: Skocjan Cave.
Visiting Skocjan Cave – named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 – had long been on our list, but during our first trip to Slovenia, we only scheduled enough time to take in the sights of Ljubljana and Lake Bled. On our second visit through the country, we were intent on discovering more of Slovenia – from the coast to the mountains to the countryside…and also what lay below the surface. Skocjan Cave is situated near the coast and, at first, we considered seeing the cave on our way from Ljubljana to the coastal city of Piran. However, we didn’t want to feel rushed during our time at the cave, so we decided to slow our pace. Rather than breezing through the caves, we made a 24-hour stopover in Divaca, the closest town, so we could have plenty of time to visit Skocjan Cave and the surrounding area.
The cave was sculpted millions of years ago by the rushing Reka River. The force of the water eroded the limestone rock into a cavernous canyon. The river originates in the east and flows on the surface until it reaches the cave, where it plunges underground and streams 25 miles northwest toward the Adriatic Sea, returning to the surface at the springs of the Timava River.
Although 2000-year-old archaeological remains and written sources prove the cave was discovered and used by early settlers in ancient times, the magnitude of the cave was not exposed until the late 1800s. Navigating the cave in boats, an 1884 speleology expedition revealed the massive size of the subterranean space, which includes numerous sub-chambers and waterfalls. As we ventured into the dank cave, it was easy to imagine ourselves as 1800s explorers, though our journey into the cave was much less difficult via a 100-meter-long entry shaft dug in the 1930s.
We stepped into the natural cave and entered a series of rooms connected by a winding path. All around us, stalactites dripped from the ceiling and stalagmites rose from the ground. The unique rock formations were shaped — and continue to be shaped — over thousands of years. As water seeps through the fissures in the porous cave ceiling, minerals are carried and deposited along the way, resulting in the icicle-like rocks. The largest stalagmite in Skocjan Cave stands 165 feet from the cave floor to the tip.
We moved from the smaller chambers into a vast, dark space and felt a rush of heavy, humid air. A melodious murmur rose from somewhere beyond and filled the shadowy space. We realized we were standing on the canyon’s edge. In the darkness, we felt the excitement of unearthing a great discovery, as if we were the first to view the primitive landscape designed by none other than Mother Nature herself. Looking down, the river below was barely visible through a thin layer of fog that hovered just above the water.
Peering down the length of the cave, we were stupefied by the enormity of it. The low light and foreign terrain altered our depth perception. The very few man made installments inside the natural cave provided a scale, but the sheer size of the cave was still difficult to determine. Remnants of a bridge destroyed in a 1965 flood resembled a miniature replica of the original. In elevated and recessed alcoves, giant tree trunks displaced by floods resembled mere sticks. The immense cave dwarfed everything that was in it.
We crossed the canyon at Cerkvenikov Most, a narrow bridge built in the 1930s that straddles the river, and leaned over the railing, watching the water move swiftly through the canyon and feeling the wind whip across our faces. Bats circled in the black space above us, hidden by the darkness and only detectable by the sound of their flapping wings.
As we neared the end of the cave, abrasive sunlight flooded the path. The natural cave opening formed a large archway that, for some reason, felt grand and triumphant, as if we had somehow conquered the cave. Tourism in the cave can be traced back to the early 1800s, and, although thousands of visitors have passed through Skocjan Cave since, the space is still rustic and raw. Inside the cave, nature still rules.