Snow-topped mountains provide the scenic backdrop to the karstic land of Slovenia, and beneath them, breath-taking caves of an immense scale. We settled into Hotel Jama, at the heart of Postojna Cave Park, to explore the self-sculptured depths, before dropping by Ljubljana… and a little-known town that has suddenly appeared on the map, thanks to America’s new First Lady.
Hotel Jama welcomes guests into a reception area inspired by the undulating curves of the karst cave underworld, with unique wooden panelling emulating the naturally formed curtains of the cave. The dark wood is carried through to each of the sleek, modern rooms, with a glass wall separating the ensuite bathroom and floor length curtain, should you wish to have a little more privacy… and prevent yourself from walking into it should you forget that it’s there.
Just next door is EXPO Postojna Cave Karst, presenting the history of tourism, exploration and conservation work of Postojna Cave over the last 200 years. Visitors have included kings and queens, emperors and empresses… every kind of noble and significant person you can imagine, amassing to over 35 million visitors from over 160 countries, with the first visitor signature located on the wall of Old Signatures Passage dating back to 1213.
After our first lunch at the Hotel Jama restaurant – where we return later for Dinner in the Dark, deliciously prepared by Tomaž Škvarč and providing much fumbling and paranoia (bye bye, etiquette) – we take the Classical Tour of Postojna Cave. The open train ride into the depths shuttled through both wide open spaces and narrow tunnels, with ceilings so low that I worried about losing my head and kept my arms safely in my lap. I need both and did kind of wonder if anyone has ever gone home missing a limb (or two). Having been running since 1872, surely there must have been a few.
The actual magnificence of Postojna Cave is impossible to capture in a photograph, and one must really experience it on foot. Electric lighting, installed since 1883, creates a bewitching ambiance, highlighting unique cave formations within an environment that is inherently dark… darker than dark. Pitch black. Not even the cave dwellers can appreciate their beauty. Postojna is proud of its Proteus (AKA the Olm or Human Fish) and aside from their image being carved into walls and available in all manner of souvenirs, you can also meet them face to face (they’ll not see you, mind). Fifty metres in from the entrance to Postojna Cave you will find the Vivarium Proteus – The Proteus Cave, where a few of these remarkable creatures reside. With a life span of 100 years, they can also live for around 12 years without food… of course, discovered purely by accident when one of them had been stored away in a jar and forgotten about (fun times, huh).
Next day, we take a break from exploring caves to visit Ljubljana, the capital and largest city of Slovenia, and European Green Capital 2016. The famous Triple Bridge was designed by the architect to whom Ljubljana owes much of its style – Jože Plečnik, who was commissioned to extend Franz’s Bridge (designed by Italian architect, Giovanni Picco in 1842 and named after Archduke Franz Karl of Austria), to prevent the bridge that had been in place in various forms since 1280 from becoming a bottleneck. Rather than widen the original bridge, Plečnik added another two footbridges, at a slight angle, either side. All three bridges became part of Ljubljana’s pedestrian-only zone in 2007.
Bars and cafes line the north side of the river Ljubljanica, down to Butchers’ Bridge (Mesarski most), where lovers hang their locks and throw away the key. Although a few combination locks were noted… hopefully they were just thinking of the environment, and not suffering from a lack of commitment in their romantic endeavours. We stopped for tea, coffees and traditional Slovenian desert at Štrukljarna on Plečnik’s arcades, where the central market takes place. Here, they prepare over 20 kinds of traditional and modern Slovenian dumplings (štruklji) from different kinds of dough, with creamy or classic fillings and toppings.
After exploring the streets of old Ljubljana, and taking in the awesome view of the city from the top of Ljubljana Castle, we head to JB Restaurant on Miklošičeva, where world renowned chef, Janez Bratovž, treats us to a delicious six course meal, accompanied by Slovenian wines. Apparently, these are rarely found outside Slovenia due to their three wine regions only being large enough to support their own market, with very little export. The dessert of basil sorbet was a personal favourite, and I would highly recommend a visit to sample JB’s fantastic cuisine, should you be in the area. After lunch, we head to a small picturesque town in Slovenia, which is revelling in the newfound status of their former resident.
While the West continues to reel in shock at the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Sevnica, situated on the left bank of the Sava River in central Slovenia, now serves up a very tasty American pie in honour of Melania Trump, aptly named ‘First Lady’, filled with ‘luscious wax apples’ from the region, dusted with icing sugar to reveal a vacant ‘M’ and sporting an all-American style flag.
Year 2017 is a very special year for USA and Sevnica. Our fellow citizen from Sevnica has become the first lady of the USA. In her honor (sic) we have baked a special pie in café and bakery Kruhek. American Pie. We enriched the traditional American dish with a taste of Sevnica.
It doesn’t stop there. Our first call in Sevnica is at the local footwear manufacturer, Kopitarna Sevnica, where we’re presented with the ‘White House’ slippers and their (sadly) genuine fur pom-poms. Apparently, Melania herself gratefully received a pair… although, surely it would be rude not to. Later, after our brief visit to the misogynistic Salami Festival (more on that later), we dine at the “best restaurant in Sevnica.”
Pizzeria Rondo now serves up the ‘Presidential’ burger, formerly named the Trump burger (before the Trumps’ lawyers clamped down on the use of their ‘brand’ for commercial purposes). The huge bap features a topping of cheese, pre-melted on a griddle to form a kind of toupee (yes, indeed), and precariously fixed by an American flag. Meat and dairy is more of a red flag to me, so I managed to dodge the essence of Trump and the follow-up Melania deserts, although the latter looked quite tasty, to be fair.
As for the Salami Festival, well… it’s no wonder that Melania was prepared for the sexist manners of Donald Trump when she grew up in a town that’s been holding an annual (and strictly) men-only salami festival since 1962. We were granted exclusive access to the testosterone fuelled sausage fest, christened Salamijada, but as a woman it felt uncomfortable to say the least and we soon left. Meanwhile, up the hill at Sevnica castle, the new women’s salami festival was taking place. Yes! If you can’t beat them, join… oh, hang on… if you can’t join them, beat them! Preferably over the head with their precious salami, but at the very least with a more welcoming festival.
Fortunately, there’s way more to Slovenia than the drama created by Sevnica’s famous ex-resident and their sexist sausage-fest. While magnificent caves and castles are in abundance, Predjama Castle, situated just a few kilometres from the entrance to Postojna Cave, provides both. Built into the face of a 123-metre high cliff, it’s difficult to tell where the castle walls end and the karst cave begins. We took our first tour of the castle – which is now a museum on five floors, presenting life in the 16th century – the following morning, and learned the story of its most famous resident, Erazem of Predjama, which is actually hilarious… somewhat.
The 15th century knight, considered the Robin Hood of Slovenia, fell foul of Austria’s Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in 1483, after killing his relative, Marshall Pappenheim, at the Vienna Court (who had offended the honor of Erazem’s friend, Andrej Baumkircher of Vipava). Such was life back then. Erazem took refuge in his almighty castle, causing further mayhem with his new ally, the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, by attacking Habsburg estates and towns in Carniola. Long story short, Emperor Frederick III ordered the governor of Trieste Gaspar Ravbar to siege Predjama Castle, and they attempted to starve Erazem to death.
Little did they know that the cunning knight had a secret passage up through the back of the cave, and continued to feast, much to their dismay, until over one year later, by which time they had managed to bribe a servant of Erazem, who confessed the only vulnerable location within the castle walls – the lavatory. And so that cheeky knight, Erazem, lost his life while relieving himself after too much wine (no doubt), when said servant signaled to the soldiers below by placing a candle in the window, and their cannon fired a single blow.
Later that day, we deck ourselves out in red boiler suits, wellies and hard hats, with obligatory lamps, for our final cave adventure. Venturing down an old stone, and seemingly never-ending, staircase, we explore the depths of Pivka Cave, using only our headlamps to highlight sparkling stalagmites, among the dark caverns. Around an hour or so into the cave we take turns to abseil nine metres down a rock face, where my main discovery is the holes in my boots when I step into the water to reach the dinghy that is to take us to a wall we must climb to continue. Wonderful. Nothing quite like wet feet in the midst of a cave adventure, but intrigue proves a great distraction.
Our final evening in Slovenia is spent back at the stunning Predjama Castle, which had been specially candlelit throughout for our ghost hunt. Yes, ghost hunt. For this unique experience we are told we must enter the castle one at a time, leaving several minutes between each to be sure we are alone. Of course, I volunteered to go first… then questioned this decision profusely as soon as I made it up to the first floor, with its view of the torture chamber. It was creepy as hell, but I kept going until I made it to the bedroom – aka the main living room with its adjoining chapel – where the vibe freaked me out and I turned on my heel, stumbling down candlelit steps of all shapes and sizes. Consistency was definitely not a concern back in the day, and I may as well have fell into the arms of my fellow ghost hunters.
Once we had collected ourselves, we retired to the nearby restaurant for a medieval feast. Greeted by our host in full medieval dress, and each given a fetching tunic to wear ourselves, we were seated at a bountiful table in full view of Predjama Castle, fully lit in an exchange of colours, from pink to green to blue, via floor to ceiling glass windows. It kinda felt like Christmas, so we wished each other a merry one and tucked into our last dinner together, while regaling ghost stories and tales from our respective countries.
Even after taking in some wonderful cave explorations and historical excursions, I feel like there’s much more to discover in Slovenia. It’s been said that you only need a week to cover the best bits, being a country of just 7,827 square miles, but with borders to Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, and a coastline along the Adriatic Sea, it’s worth sticking around. Hotel Jama is perfectly situated for Postojnska Cave Park and Predjama Castle (which incidentally, I did later find has featured on Ghost Hunters International), and also makes a great starting point for day trips to Ljubljana, Bled, the Slovenian coast, Trieste, and even Venice. I still need to see Bled (apparently Trump asked if it were for sale, on his one and only visit), and to be honest, I did really enjoy that First Lady Pie.
Wizz Air flies from London Luton to Ljubljana four times a week on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday with fares starting at £25.99 (one way, including all taxes, non-optional charges and one small cabin bag). For more information about Wizz Air’s routes or to book, visit wizzair.com.
Words: Sarah Hardy
Photos: As Credited