We booked the tour to the Postojnska jama or Castle with optional trips to a cave and most importantly, Piran the seaside town. Leaving at 8:30 am and returning at 7 pm, the fee of 45 Euros was a bargain rate, but making it even better, it is limited to 4 people. Our guide was Palona, a 30 something woman who shared her age along with a number of other facts of her life. She was charming, but she lost the English prepositions too, making us scramble to looking to see if they were under the seats in the van or have flown out the window. The tour of the cave was optional as was a wine and ham tasting. Apparently, they make prosciutto like the Italians do, so this is the ham you test taste. Ron initially did not want to do the cave tour, but the pictures I saw had this little train-like contraption that you rode through making it Disneyesque. Who can resist Disney? I knew we were in on this one.
After picking up two Dutch guys from another hotel, we were off. sLOVEnia only has 2 million people of which 300,000 live in the capital city. It always amazed me that a country can run on so few people without dependency on larger nations like Luxembourg or Monaco has to do. Besides, 80% of the country is covered in forests, making it every shade of green.
Lovely drive, drive, drive disrupting my attempt to nap, nap, nap was Palona’s commentary on what we were passing, history of the country, and to our surprise praises for Tito as a ruler. She is the second one who had good things to say about him. It must be our Americanism that taught us he was a cruel dictator. Even the Dutch guys learned positive things about his leadership including the fact that Stalin tried having him assassinated ten times, never succeeding even with the 10th.
Our first stop was the Postojnska jama, a castle with a history dating back to the 12th century, cut out of the mountain making it quite unique looking. The history is too extensive to retell here. One of the last kings to hold up here was a nasty guy, so when the people revolted, they posted themselves outside waiting for the king to make his get-away. There was no back entrance due to the mountain. The king was smart enough to have a tunnel dug underground to receive food and supplies, unbeknownst to those holding their ground in wait. The wait stretched to a year and the king never materialized. Finally with a bribe, they were able to make a plan with one of the servants. When the king went to the toilet, a room outside and across a hidden balcony, the servant would raise a flag over the building. When the flag went up, the protesters stormed, catching the king with his clothes around his ankles. Is this where we “get caught without pants down”?
Another more humble bathroom story continues. I had to use one. They charged me 1 euro to use the urinal. I thought perhaps I misheard. I need to pee, I said, not take a shower, not wash my clothes, and I don’t even require any paper products. How lovely for me, hand over 1 euro. For this, I received a lovely multicolored ticket filled with writing as a receipt for my contribution. I am sure it cost nearly a euro for the printing of the ticket and the salary for the woman who had to chide me.
They had so many combinations of tickets here; it could take ten minutes to figure out what you wanted. We bought ours for 8 Euros each and it seemed to do all we needed, but it did not include a complimentary trip to the WC if needed. We were able to explore all the rooms of the castle, again many were laid out in antique furniture or replicas to give a feel for the place. I imagine the stone kept it cool in summer, but the winters must have been cumbersome to heat such a place.
We stopped at a grocery store for water and snacks. Palona said once she had guests buy at the snack bar at the caves and it was so overpriced, she swore she would have guests grocery shop first if they wanted to. It was then a little ride to the cave, passing greenery and ‘whineyard’ or ‘wineyards’ or what we would call vineyards along the way. Apparently, they are famous for an iron rich grape that is used for the red wine, making it high in iron content so parents give thimblefuls to the children for their health. Ron asked what varieties of grapes are used, but the response was that red grapes make the red wine and white grapes make the white wine. As definitive as it was going to get, I am afraid.
Once at the caves, our group set out. We were to meet Palona in 2 hours. There was no cute little train, no Disneyesque feel, and certainly no elfin types with pick axes and shovels mining for gold. The only thing this could mean is the unthinkable. This was a cave where you have to walk, climb, grunt, and groan. My first thought was to chuck the 11 euro entrance fee and leave while the getting was good. I didn’t even have sneakers on, but Crocs sandals. Oh, my stars, 400 stairs, quick smelling salts; I am getting the vapors. The walk to the cave entrance was like walking to an execution, it gave you a sufficient amount of time to consider your immediate future. Mine was not looking particularly pleasant. Once at the entrance, they divided the group into 2 groups: the Slovenes and English speakers together, while the French, Italian, and German were in the second. There were over 100 in our group alone and groups start out every hour. Imagine how many a day comes through here. My imagination was warded off by the evil thoughts of 400 stairs.
Skocjan Caves Park was initiated into the UNESCO natural and cultural heritage listings in 1986 and later in 2004, the Ramsar list of Wetlands of International Importance. It consists of numerous caves, natural bridges, sinkholes, created by the Reka River. The river flows 50 km on the surface and then sinks into the karst underground coming to the surface again at Timavo Springs near the Gulf of Trieste.
Concerns about slipping and sliding with the Crocs were misguided. The paths were created with rough hewn concrete, so walking was not too bad. What was more energetic than I like to retell is the walk itself going up stairs, down stairs and when not climbing stairs, walking on inclines from 10 to 890 degrees. Hell, it felt like 890 degrees, even if that is a little exaggeration. Each time we went down farther, my heart sunk a little more. What goes down must come up again and I knew there was no escalator. By the time we reached the bottom, we were at 567 km, miles or light years under the earth’s surface. I cannot remember what she said, but I remember her saying if we went down any farther we could have authentic Thai food for dinner. Why people want to be in caves is beyond me. They are only shades of brown. I thought there would at least be some interesting colors to entertain the senses, but brown in numerous shades: tan, beige, cream, muddy, caramel, chocolate, latte, and just plain uninteresting dark brown.
It was too dark to see my watch, but time was not passing as fast as it does when I am having fun; I could just tell. Each time we came to a staircase, I thought my heart would beat out of my chest and that was just thinking about having to climb it. Once I started, I was sure the ole ticker would just explode, which on the bright side would either mean: A.) No more stairs ever or B.) Getting a ride out on a stretcher. Alas, I had to do it the hard way and get out on my own steam. When we finally reached the end and you really could see light at the end of the tunnel, it was the first thing I could hear the tour guide say clearly. If you go to the left, you will have to climb stairs all the way to the top. If you go to the right there is an elevator. Let me say, one guide for a group this size is useless. She could not be heard by half the group regardless of the language. The only time she yelled was when she caught someone taking photos, which was not allowed. No, not me. I behaved only because all of my concentration was focused on not slipping, keeping count of the stairs we already climbed, so I had a running tally of how many were left, and dreaming about little Disney-like trains.
Finally, it was time to head for the elevator. There was that unspoken message first. In order to get to the elevator, you first need to trek a mile on 45 degree inclines that are on a path that look like a series of ZZZ lying top to bottom, so this path in essence switches back and forth. I though this was someone’s nasty rotten joke. Why isn’t there an escalator to the lift or a lift to the lift, better yet? Once we reached the top of the inclines, we have to climb two flights of stairs to get to the elevator door. They couldn’t build the lift down two more flights of stairs? Once the elevator doors opened at the top, the cheerful operator announces, that there were 67 more stairs to climb to reach the parking lot. What kind of hell is this? This rates right alongside of camping and hiking, both activities better left to the Germans and Swiss respectively.
A fun stop was the breeding farm for the famous Lipizzaner stallions. They are bred and originate from Lipica, sLOVEnia. Archduke Charles established a private imperial stud farm with Spanish stock here in 1580 at Lipica, or various other spellings. The horses were bred with other breeds to produce what we now know as the Lipizzaners. They are a particular breed that has a higher resistance to other horse diseases, but some fool recently tried to poison them and three were severely ill. Now there is a keeper in the field with them at all times that keeps them away from fence where they could once socialize with visitors. They are supposedly extremely social animals. As youngsters, they are grey or even close to black, but as they age, their hair loses all pigment and they turn pure white. Their skin remains grey their entire life.
Finally, we arrived in Piran, sLOVEnia, a seaside resort that was teaming with locals, other sLOVEnians, and Italians. We actually had to go into Italy a brief time to get here, but thanks to the Schengen Agreement, there was no border control. Piran is a cute little, little city that sits right on the Adriatic Sea. What they call beaches, we would call human piers. They have extra wide concrete slabs like sidewalks along the water where people spread towels or bring chairs. Dipping my feet into the unimaginatively cold water to cool off, felt great for a few minutes, but even the 90 degree sun could not keep me standing there with my feet freezing.This town reminds me of towns where I was born. Their only reason for existence is as a summer resort, otherwise they have nothing to offer. Having once been owned by the Venetians, the Italian influence it apparent in the narrow streets, the clothes hanging out on the line, the fish offerings on restaurant menus with Italian names. It is certainly lovely, but come October, it will be a ghost town once again until the following May.
We decided to eat at the hostel for their all-you-can eat Pad Thai dinner for 4.90 euros. As tasty as it was, we were closer to authentic Pad Thai in the cave than this was. By 10:30, we decided to check out this alternative colony that was keeping us up until all hours of the night. We received quite a comical show, but that is another story.