Our tour took us southeast from Ljubljana. The region we were going to is called Kras in Slovene but is best known outside the country by its German name, Karst. That’s because karst has become a geological term for terrain that consists mainly of limestone. The phenomena associated with this kind of terrain were first studied and written about in this part of Slovenia. A Serb geographer named Jovan Cvijić published a study in German (Das Karstphänomen, 1893) and thenceforward the name of the district — the German name, Karst, rather than the Slovene Kras or the Italian Carso — was the common term used for similar limestone terrain wherever it’s found on the planet. Well before Cvijić, the 17th-century nobleman and scholar Janez Vajkard Valvasor (or Johann Weikhard, Freiherr von Valvasor) had written about karstic phenomena, also in German, so perhaps he too should get some credit for introducing the name.

The Classical Karst, and some neighboring territory
Karst or Kras or Carso is not the name of an administrative district but rather of an area defined by its distinctive geographical features — in American terms, it’s more like North Woods or Mojave than Minnesota or California. Its boundaries can be defined rather flexibly: the area historically called Karst is mostly a broad, high (1300 feet), limestone plateau near the coast. The part of it that actually touches the Adriatic is nearly all inside Italy, which owns the city of Trieste and a narrow strip of coastline that connects it with the rest of Italy. Though this “Classical Karst” has some mountains in its north and west, a more broadly defined Karst includes most of the area between Trieste and Ljubljana, all of which is limestone country. The caves of Postojna and Predjama lie within this territory, though not in the Classical Karst. You can find Postojna at the far right on this map. (Notice the international borders, shown, for some reason, in pale pinkish purple. Hrvaška is Slovene for ‘Croatia,’ and Jadransko Morje for ‘Adriatic Sea.’ I trust that Italija is self-evident.)

Among the common karstic phenomena are caves, underground rivers that create them, and lakes that, in dry weather, disappear into sinkholes. Kras, at least as broadly defined, contains all three. Slovenia has 8,500 caves so far registered, with about a hundred more being added to the registry each year — quite a few for a country smaller than New Jersey.

Click here for more about karst and karstic features.

The Classical Karst area also has attractions that are less geological: the original Lipizzaner stud farm — which we didn’t go to see — is its biggest tourist draw. It’s located in the village of Lipica (“LEE-peet-zuh” as the Rick Steves guidebook guides the pronunciation), which, spelled in Italian — Italy is only a short distance away — is Lipizza. Add a German suffix and you get Lipizzaner (‘native of Lipica’). This is where the famous breed was developed, beginning in the 16th century, by crossing Spanish horses with a local Kras strain. The stud farm was established by a member of the Imperial family, Archduke Charles II, in 1580. He chose the location because it resembled the home of Spanish horses, which it was his original intention to breed because they were considered Europe’s best at that time. (Today’s trivia fact: this gentleman was one of those considered as husband material by Good Queen Bess of England; being an unregenerate Papist, however, he didn’t make the final cut.)

Another Kras attraction is the red wine called Teran, named after the red, iron-rich soil (Italian terra) in which the grapes are grown. While in Ljubljana we did manage strike up an acquaintance with this attraction, and found it good though not overwhelming.

At 1:00 pm we were waiting in the hotel lobby when our guide, Maja — pronounce the j as a y and you’ve got it — joined us. She was a bright university student who spoke excellent English. We walked outside with her and waited as another Kompas employee drove up with the tour vehicle — not a bus, but an SUV, since only one other couple besides ourselves had signed up for the tour. The driver handed the keys to Maja and went off on foot, while she got behind the wheel and drove us around the block to the Hotel Union (a Secessionist monument whose picture we would be taking the next day) to pick up our fellow travelers. They were a Polish couple named Peter and Monica (or Piotr and Monika as I suppose the names would be spelled in their native language), younger than us, but not by too many decades. Peter, a lawyer who makes frequent business trips to the US, was fluent in English, but Monica didn’t share this ability and was pretty quiet during the drive. Peter eagerly discussed American politics and sought our opinions on the approaching presidential election. He told us that, on a recent visit, he had been shocked when an American whose intelligence he respected told him that he simply could not give his vote for President to a black man. We assured Peter that many white Americans saw things quite differently (and we were very glad when this was proven the following November).

Maja propelled us rapidly along the high road (indistinguishable from an American Interstate) that runs from Ljubljana to the port of Koper, on the tiny stretch of seacoast that was left to Slovenia after Trieste and the coastline north of it were ceded to Italy. Postojna was on this route, just off the highway. On the way, Maja pointed to (or toward) the sites of two of Slovenia’s “disappearing lakes.” The biggest and best known is Cerknica Lake (Cerkniško Jezero), five miles from the highway and much too far to see. We did pass within sight of the Plain of Planina (Planinsko Polje), home to the winding course of the Unica river — one segment of the river that eventually becomes the Ljubljanica — which forms lakes in the winter and sometimes the early spring. But none were visible now. Cerknica is wet from October to June, so I presume that it would have had at least some water in late May, but unfortunately it was out of visible range.

When we got off the highway at Postojna, we drove about six miles northwest of the town to visit Predjama Castle, a startling sight perched high on a cliff in the mouth of a huge cave. The name Predjama means ‘in front of the cave,’ and it’s true that most of the construction is out in front rather than inside, although some of the oldest rooms are well back under the natural roof. Just below the castle is an entrance to one end of a long cave system created by a small stream, the Lovka, which today goes underground at the foot of the cliff. Over the millennia, this stream has honeycombed the limestone with passages, continually wearing its way down to lower levels and leaving dry caverns behind (in the chronological sense, though in the physical sense they’re naturally above it). The Lovka runs underground toward the west, coming to the surface about eight miles away (at the town of Vipava, near the vineyards that produced the Zelen wine we drank in Ljubljana). From there, it flows into the Adriatic — unlike the Pivka, which goes underground only six miles away, but (after passing through the huge Postojna caves) flows north-northeast to Planina and ultimately through Ljubljana to the Sava, the Danube, and the Black Sea.

Predjama Castle
It's not certain, however, that the Lovka created the cave in which part of the castle is built. No underground connection is known to exist between the castle cave and passages made by the Lovka. An entry to this cave system is just below and to the left of the castle in the picture. It's blocked by a wall because the castle's owners, ever since the Middle Ages, had been using it to stable their horses. But they reached it by using an outside path down from the castle. It's possible, I suppose, that the castle cave was once part of the same system and that (at some point so far in the past that only a geologist could imagine it) the part of the cliff containing this passage broke off and collapsed into the valley. Another possibility is that the cave was created not by the Lovka but by ground water that was forced upward, under high pressure, to permeate and ultimately dissolve the limestone above it. Some caves are created this way. Whatever made the castle cave, it was something that happened long before the Lovka began its work on the cave system that exists now, as the comparative altitude of the two caves indicates.

The castle is the subject of a well known legend involving a rebellious knight — either a Robin Hood or a robber baron, depending perhaps on the predilections of the narrator — who lived in the 15th century. Before that, the castle is thought to have been built in the 11th century, though the oldest documents that mention it date from the second half of the 12th. The builder was the Patriarch — that is, the Archbishop — of Aquileia. (The 6th century Archbishops of Aquileia assumed the title of Patriarch when they renounced papal authority in 533, and kept it after returning to the Roman fold a century later. In fact, they used it for another thousand years, until 1752.) In the first documentary references (at least on the authority of Wikipedia), the name of the castle, and of the family who held it at that time, is Lügg; they were also known as the Knights of Adelsberg — the German name of Postojna — which might have been a title held by the head of the family.

The subject of the legend, Erasmus Lügger or Lüger, lived in the latter half of the 15th century. An enemy of the Habsburg Emperor Frederick III, he became a “robber knight,” leading his troop of followers, who lived with him in the castle, on plundering expeditions in and around Postojna. The Emperor sent the Governor of Trieste with an army to besiege Erasmus in the castle. Since the cave had a secret exit through which supplies could be brought in, the siege was unsuccessful for quite a long time, until (according to the legend) the Governor managed to bribe one of Erasmus’s servants or followers, who sent a signal while the outlaw was relieving himself in the castle privy — which, like most castle privies, was built on the outside so that gravity could handle the task of waste disposal. Artillery was brought to bear, and that was the end of the story.

Click here for more about the legend of Erasmus.

After the robber knight’s undignified exit from this life, which occurred in the year 1484, what was left of the castle was acquired by a noble family named Oberburg and then by another noble family named Purgstall, who rebuilt it in the first decade of the 16th century. But they hardly got it finished before an earthquake destroyed it in 1511.

Cobenzl arms on the side of the castle, under the date 1570
In 1567, Archduke Charles II (the one who would later establish the Lipica stud farm) leased the castle to a Baron von Cobenzl, who rebuilt it in pretty much the form it has today. Some accounts give his first name as Philipp, others as Hans (i.e., Johann). The castle brochure, strangely, calls him Ivan, technically agreeing with the Hans tradition, but this form of the name wouldn't have been used in Slovenia. An inscription over the front entrance has the initials I. K. and the date 1583, perhaps the time when that part of the castle was completed. This suggests that the occupant was a Johann (or Janez), as the letters i and j were more or less interchangeable during the 16th century. (It may be worth mentioning that later members of the family, some of whom were prominent in Austrian affairs during the 18th century, were named "Johann Philipp," so the 16th-century rebuilder of the castle may have had both names as well.) The Cobenzl coat of arms, which appears to have been cleaned but not restored, is painted on the side of the castle under the date 1570. Both Wikipedia and the castle brochure give this as the date of his renovation, but it must have taken more than one year — perhaps 1570 is when the large buildings outside the cave were completed.) The newer parts are mostly outside and (as you look up toward the cliff) to the right of the oldest parts that extend back into the cave. Later the baron bought the castle outright, and it remained in the Cobenzl family until 1810. Although some members occasionally spent time there, the family were in general absentee landlords — a fortunate circumstance, insofar as it preserved the castle from losing its earlier form in a succession of rebuildings and remodelings. In 1846, it was bought by the family of Prince and Field Marshal Alfred von Windischgrätz, and remained in their possession until Tito’s government nationalized it in 1946.

A restoration effort was begun in 1990. The castle brochure reports that the structure was renovated, recent additions were removed, and a new roof was constructed in authentic period style. The work is still going on: “Wooden fittings such as ceilings, panelled walls, windows, doors, galleries, etc. are gradually being constructed. All of this is slowly creating a picture of the castle as it was after its renovation in the 16th century — which is the effect we are aiming to achieve.”

Jousting ground below the castle
Since the cost of the tour covered our tickets, Maja bought them for us at a booth while we were taking pictures of the castle in front of and slightly above us on the cliff. We were almost as high as the castle, on a wide earthen ramp that supported the road and several buildings that housed touristy enterprises, including a restaurant. This hillside approach must have been created, or at least considerably widened, after Erasmus’s time, because the besiegers would have found the castle much easier to attack if they could have gotten their whole force up to where we were. Also ahead of us, to the left of the ramp that ascended to the castle gate, a parallel ramp sloped downward and flattened into a sort of grassy lane where a joust is now held every summer, presumably by members of the Slovenian or Central European equivalent of our Society for Creative Anachronism.

Maja led us through the castle. We had to go up a few stories in the newer part before we got to the cave entrance and the old structures that went back into it. Not much restoration had been done back there, but we were able to see how natural and man-made walls were combined to create the original stronghold. In the newer buildings, we toured a series of rooms that might have been found in any medieval or renaissance castle — places for the lord, his ladies, his knights, and the rest of the castle’s residents to do their work and spend their days. All of this was of some interest, but the castle’s striking appearance and amazing situation in the landscape is what makes Predjama so much worth visiting.

Tower inside the cave mouth
A balcony below the highest tower (at the left in the pictures above) commanded a long view down the valley. Looking directly down, we could see the Lovka — a small, rather puny-looking stream, which is amazing when you consider what it has done in the way of cavemaking — heading toward the point where it disappears under the cliff. Looking directly up, we could see that most of this tall tower is sheltered by the roof of the cave — a placement that the great height of the opening (about 403 feet) made possible.

Privy (top left) and stable (bottom)
A tiny building to the left of the balcony is supposed to have been the privy where Erasmus met his end — or, at least, the successor to that ill-fated convenience, which the legend says was destroyed by the fatal shot. At first I didn’t find this easy to believe, since it seems to be sitting on solid rock, but the brochure (signed by Dr. Peter Habič, who I assume is an archaeologist or historian) labels it “water closet.” It’s hard to imagine modern plumbing being installed there before the 19th century, but the rock may be less solid than it appears from a distance; there’s quite a bit of greenery around it, and some of this may conceal an overhang. Below and slightly to the left is the entrance to the cave that served as a stable. A bridge, hardly more than a gangplank, extends to the nearby hillside, and one can imagine Erasmus and his men sallying out (in single file and carefully, one would assume) for a day of sacking and pillaging. This opening was once the Lovka River's entry point into the mountain side, and leads into the long cave system that extends westward toward Vipava.

When we came back down the hill on our way back to the Kompas SUV, Peter kindly offered to take our picture with the castle in the background. On the platform behind us you can see a rude catapult no doubt placed there to help visitors visualize the last chapter in the story of Erasmus.

Us, with castle and catapult

When we left Predjama it was nearly time for the 4:00 tour of the cave at Postojna, and although we hurried we didn’t get there in time. There was nearly an hour to kill before the 5:00 tour (the last of the day), during which we, the Polish couple, and Maja all went in different directions. Outside the cave is a sort of mall, which the Rick Steves book justly describes as tacky, containing souvenir shops, restaurants, and so on.

There is also a “Vivarium” displaying live specimens of cave fauna. The star of this group has always been proteus anguinus — a blind, pinkish salamander sometimes called the “human fish” from the closeness of its color to that of European humans. (I got the impression, from a book by an English woman who visited Postojna with a local friend, that among Slovenes this animal can also be the object of giggly insinuations based on its putatively phallic shape.) Proteus anguinus, also called the olm, is a kind of salamander, technically an amphibian although it spends its whole life under water — not only in the Postojna caves, but in various underground rivers throughout the contiguous limestone areas of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. I don’t fully understand either name: anguinus is a Latin adjective meaning ‘snaky,’ which is clear enough, but nearly all the meanings of proteus are derived from the Greek divinity who could change his shape at will. If that’s the meaning of the name here, it must have been given in irony, because this animal looks very much the same throughout its long life. (Anyway, what would be the use of a chameleon’s color-changing talent to a blind animal living in total darkness?) Perhaps whoever named it was thinking of what Proteus might have looked like during a transition between human and serpentine forms. (Or perhaps they wanted to honor Slovenia’s oldest scientific journal, which Wikipedia says is named Proteus. But in this case the name anguis protei [‘Proteus’ snake’] would be more in line with standard practice than ‘snaky Proteus,’ the way the current name translates.)

Proteus Anguinus at home (photo found on the Web)
Protei anguini (let’s call them “P.A.”) might have merited a visit to the Vivarium, but we didn’t expect to find any members of that species on display. Inside the cave itself there had always been a tank where visitors could see specimens of the P.A., but Maja told us that this exhibit was currently shut down. I may have misunderstood her explanation, or forgotten some of the details, but I believe it was as follows: the authority that manages the caves had run afoul of a European Union regulation declaring that animals could not be held and put on display unless they were fed regularly. P.A., however, has very unusual feeding habits: It can eat a great deal (for its size) at one time, and can go for a long time without food. I believe Maja told us that it generally eats one meal every six months. (The Wikipedia article doesn’t back this figure up explicitly, but it does say that, in a controlled experiment, one member of the species lived for ten years without food. To such an animal, eating as regularly as once every six months might be like vacationing on a cruise ship or at an old-fashioned resort in the Catskills. The company’s practice had been to catch a new batch of P.A. every three or four months and let the old batch go. In view of P.A.’s dietary requirements, this seems more than reasonable, but the E. U. bureaucrats had not been persuaded. Perhaps the Vivarium was displaying them in spite of this injunction, but we assumed that it wasn’t. (Matters may have changed by now, because as of autumn, 2009 the Postojna Caves website advertises live specimens of P.A. on display in the Vivarium.) By the way, P.A.’s irregular eating habits don’t appear to be a detriment to longevity: Wikipedia gives its average lifespan as 58 years.

Tiny-necked cave beetle (photo found on the Web)
We weren’t attracted to the Vivarium by the chance to see the other unique cave creature, a blind beetle that a Slovene naturalist named drobnovratnik, or ‘tiny-necked one.’ Perhaps we made a mistake; I can’t deny that the insect pictured on the web page looks sort of cute. (I don't quite trust the red color though; in all the other photos I could turn up, the bugs were an unexciting brown. Think tourism; think promotion; think Photoshop.) In any event we decided to seek out refreshments instead of fauna, and wound up sharing a chocolate croissant and a plump pastry quite similar to a jelly doughnut that was filled with apricot jam: welcome, if not exotic, discoveries. They were accompanied, of course, by the usual Radenska.

When it was time for the 5:00 tour, we were on the spot and ready. One way the custodians of this huge cave have made it convenient for visitors is by building a railway to carry them 2 kilometers in to the most spectacular part; the walking tour that follows is about half that long, some of it up and down hill. Most American cave visits we’ve made began with an elevator ride down into the ground, but that isn’t necessary here, where the terrain is so hilly that rivers (as already noted) tend to flow in the sunshine when they’re on low ground and to duck beneath the landscape when it rises. We’d seen the tiny Lovka running to the bottom of the cliff at Predjama, and here at Postojna we could have walked a short distance to see the Pivka, a much larger stream, disappearing into the hill where the cave begins. We were able, well above the river, to enter a dry cave that it had created ages earlier, and board a train that followed this cave along a horizontal track.

Cave train (photo found on the Web)
Trains have been carrying visitors over this route since 1872, powered at first by huffing and puffing cave guides, then, after 1914, by gasoline powered engines, and finally, since 1959, by electricity. The parts of the cave closest to the entrance were known even in medieval times, though the first to publish a description was the 17th-century gentleman scholar Janez Wajkard Valvasor (a.k.a. Johann Weikhard, Freiherr von Valvasor) in his huge work Glories of the Duchy of Carniola. In 1818, the Austrian Emperor Franz I came to see the cave, and a local man named Janez Čeč, engaged to hang extra lamps in preparation for the Imperial visit, climbed high enough to discover vast connected caverns that no one had known about. Exploration has subsequently established that the Postojna cave system extends almost 13 miles underground. 3.3 miles of this are open to visitors, allegedly the greatest length of publicly accessible cave in the world. The admission of tourists began in 1819, and a succession of custodial organizations (usually governmental) have labored to accommodate them, providing not only the railway, but also electric lighting as early as 1884, before there were any electric lights in Ljubljana.

Unfortunately, photographic evidence that Dorothea and I actually toured this magnificent and beautiful cavern is very skimpy. Picture-taking in the caves is prohibited, except in the chamber where the tour ends. The Rick Steves book refers to this as "a laughable rule that nobody takes seriously," but that wasn't how it looked to us on the day we visited. Some tourist reports on the Web mention photographers generally disregarding the ban. One unhappy vistor said that, even when the guide asked them to stop, the photographers went on taking pictures, and complained if the tour moved too quickly or if someone stepped into a scene they were framing; this person considered the shutterbugs the only bad thing about the tour. Another faulted the guide for not explaining until the end that the reason for the prohibition was concern for the well-being of the cave's rare insects and amphibians; he thought fewer visitors might have ignored it if they'd known this. But none of the people on our tour were using their cameras. In any case, I don't think we could have taken very good pictures without much more elaborate lighting than we had at our command. We dutifully snapped a few (none of which would interest the editors of National Geographic) when and where we were permitted to. Hopefully our restraint made the lives of a few beetles or salamanders a little happier.

When the train was ready, we took seats on one of the open cars and rattled through the darkness and then through illuminated chambers and rock formations. All cave tours are given by official guides, so Maja wasn't with us, though Peter and Monica, whom we'd met at the starting point, were. At the end of the 2-km trip we were let off in a large, multilevel chamber called the Great Mountain, after a massive rock formation within it. Here the passengers separated into groups: guides were standing next to signs indicating what language they'd be guiding in, and each passenger joined the most linguistically convenient group. Guided tours were available in Slovene, German, Italian, and English. There may be a wider selection of languages during the high tourist season, but there are always at least some tourists whose native language isn't being offered, and — since English is the most common second language in most of Europe and Asia — the English group is always one of the largest. But this was the last tour of the day (recommended in the Rough Guide, along with the first of the day, as least likely to be crowded) in what was still the off-season, and the train hadn't brought more than a couple of dozen passengers. There were eight of us in the English-language group, which Peter and Monica joined.

We set out from the Great Mountain chamber and crossed the Russian Bridge, which — which, like the Russian Road over the Vršič Pass — was built during World War I by Russian prisoners of war. Below us was a lower level of the cave that we would pass through later on the tour. Caves are not straightforward tunnels; when a river is making one, it follows the path of least resistance, like any river on the surface, and when it encounters a harder piece of rock, turns aside until it finds a way to continue downhill (as all rivers naturally do) or else backs up until the pressure is strong enough to overcome the resistance. Just as a surface river will divide to flow around a resistant piece of land and then come together again, creating an island, the same thing happens under ground — but in three dimensions: the river might turn up or down as easily as right or left when it comes up against an obstacle. There's another difference, too, of course: carving a course through rock, even comparatively soft rock such as limestone, takes thousands or even millions of years.

The young woman leading the tour guided us through the upper levels and eventually down to the lowest, where we saw the River Pivka flowing in its current course: the youngest and lowest of three passages that it has carved over the ages. The Great Mountain chamber, where our walking tour began, was on one of the higher passages (though I don't recall which one), but the passages weren't completely separate like the floors in a house. They were connected at many points by great openings like the one the poor Russian prisoners had bridged, as well as slanting passages not too steep to be walked. The Postojna system may be too vast and complex to be drawn in cross-section, but the Predjama brochure has a diagram of the Lovka's caves, below and behind the castle, that illustrates the general principle pretty well:

Diagram of the caves at Predjama
The Lovka now follows the lowest course, which isn't shown past the middle of the diagram because, being full of water, it can't be explored. But the upper courses — high and dry now since the river has found a lower entry point (or at least comparatively dry: one is called the Muddy Passage) — are connected with those below them, indicating that the middle passage began to be cut while water was still flowing into the top one, and the same is true for the lowest passage in relation to the middle one. The upper middle part of the diagram appears to show a place where a different river (or perhaps the Lovka in a more remote age) entered from above, at a point where the surface level was lower. I don't know how far the two passages at the right of the diagram extend, but they may go all or most of the 8 miles to Vipava. That's where the river comes out, so it's clear that at least the undiagrammed passage on the lowest level is that long.

Getting back to Postojna, our tour took us into several chambers on the upper levels, which were the richest in spectacular sights. There's a simple reason for this: the impressive stalactites and stalagmites we saw took eons to form, and this process couldn't get started until the chambers were no longer filled with water. So the higher the level of a cave, the longer the head start it has had in getting itself decorated. We saw a White Hall, where a high calcium content made the formations white, and a Red Room, whose formations were colored by iron oxide. There was also a Spaghetti Room, its ceiling full of short, thin stalactites the size of soda straws — or sticks of dry pasta. Eventually, we worked our way down to the lowest level, where we could see the Pivka, and pass under the Russian Bridge far above our heads.

Subterranean wall hangings
The last stop on the tour was the biggest open space in the Postojna caves, called the Concert Hall because of its spectacular acoustics as well as its great size. It's said to be capable of holding 10,000 people, and for all we know, it might do that every day during July or August, but we were happy to be in a smaller group. As we headed up to it from a lower level, the guide suggested that any of us who could sing might want to test the acoustics in the hall. Aha, I thought, I'll burst into song and impress everyone with my tunefulness. But that was at the beginning of the climb — which proved so steep that, when I reached the top, I would have been hard pressed to gasp, let alone sing. No one else was in the mood either (or perhaps everyone else was equally short of breath), so the marvelous acoustics were left to be taken for granted. This was the place where photography was permitted. There would have been no point in trying to capture the huge room with our small cameras, so we wandered to the corners where some interesting formations were illuminated. Here's one. There are a couple more in the gallery.

To recall the beauties of the Postojna Cave, we're forced to rely on our powers of memory (which — experience suggests — do not increase with age). Nonetheless, it was a rewarding excursion and well worth taking. When our hour-and-a-half tour of the cave was finished, Maja drove us quickly and uneventfully back to Ljubljana, dropping us off at our hotel at about 7:15. We weren't in the mood for a long hike, so for dinner we decided to try the Gostilna Šestica, only a couple of doors down from the Hotel Slon. That part of our day is documented in a codicil to the narrative of our first day in Ljubljana (to wit, here).