Škocjanske Jame, or ‘The Škocjan Caves’ are not as well-known as the tourist magnet that is Postojna Cave, but what a wonder of nature they truly are (as acknowledged in their World Heritage Site status.) If you’re looking for a subterranean adventure with just a dash of existential terror thrown in, then this is the place for you. Despite the feeling of mild peril (see below) this is a suitable family outing for kids who are old enough to walk by themselves: my 3.5-year-old had no problems. In fact, he didn’t want to leave…
The cave system
The cave system sits within two impressive sinkholes, or ‘Collapse Dolines:’ Velika Dolina and Mala Dolina (Large and Small Valley.) Our guide explained at the start of the tour that these were formed when the original cave ceiling collapsed a few hundred thousand years ago. I found myself hoping that no further collapses were due. The caves were carved out of the Karst limestone by the Reka river (the name Reka, incidentally, means ‘river,’ so it’s the River River), which still flows dramatically through the canyon within the cave system itself.
Though the river flows underground for 34 km from this point to emerge near the Adriatic Sea in Italy, the explored length of the cave system is around 6.2 km.
These caves have important historical significance dating back to at least the 1st Century BC, when they were a site of cult pilgrimage. The earliest recorded tourism was in 1819, though certainly the cave system had been explored earlier by local speleologists, many of whom worked tirelessly and in perilous conditions to build the walkways which would later grant tourists access to the cave.
The only tour offered at the present time (due to covid restrictions) is the ‘through the underground canyon’ tour. I do not think anyone could be disappointed. The route is a 3 km walk with around 500 steps to negotiate down into the depths of the canyon (underground) then back up through the Velika Dolina (open air). It should be negotiable by anyone with a reasonable level of fitness and mobility. The guided tour takes around 1.5 hours, and is currently available at 10:00 weekends and 13:00 daily.
The tour starts with a pleasant walk from the visitor centre through pasturelands down to the cave entrance via a 100m man-made tunnel. You will first enter the Tiha Jama (Silent Cave) which is filled with stalagmites and stalactites, formations not unlike those in Postojna cave. I did wonder at this point if there would be much difference between the two tours. Then we reached the Šumeča Jama (Murmuring Cave). What I heard when I entered was not so much a murmur as a roar. Hence the existential terror mentioned above. I thought this must be the beginnings of an earthquake.
The murmur (or roar), which sounds something like a train thundering through the cave depths, is caused by the fast-flowing Reka river at the base of the canyon. Reassuringly, a plaque points out the height to which the cave was flooded in 1965, before the path descends around 100m below this high watermark. This section of the walk is unforgettable. you descend the canyon via steep staircases, which are well-secured and fenced in. Evidence of earlier walkways and bridges which look anything but safe are testament to the history of cave exploration in the area.
The route crosses the dramatic Cerkvenik Bridge (don’t look over the edge if you’re not fond of heights!) then descends further to river level, where you are brought face to face with the thundering waters. It is most unusual to find such fast-flowing waters within the body of a cave with pedestrian access, making for a unique tourist experience.
From this point, you witness the river’s entrance point before climbing to exit the cave into the Velika Dolina. The climb back to the visitor centre is also dramatic, crossing the wild waters of the Reka as it flows through the sinkholes it created millennia ago. Note also the unqiue blend of Alpine and Mediterranean flowers which abound here in springtime.
Postojnska Jama v Škocjanske Jame: My Verdict
So, you’re visiting Slovenia and you only have time to visit one cave system? Which do you choose? If you’re looking for an easy-access, easy walking cave experience, and a fun train ride for the kids, choose Postojna. Also its rock formations are perhaps more varied and exquisite than those of Škocjan. But if you are looking to be brought into direct contact with the raw power of untamed nature, Škocjanske Jame is the choice for you. Of course, the best choice would be to stay a little longer and visit both!