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THE KARST REGION


In the 19th century, the German version of the Slovene name “Kras” given to the 500-meter high plateau that lies between Trieste, Nova Gorica, and Postojna became the scientific term for similar land formations around the world. In many world languages, “karst” means “a rocky waterless limestone surface with underground formations occurring through the chemical action of water on soluble stone.” One third of Slovenia’s surface area is composed of limestone where dolines, sinkholes, poljes, uvalas (poljes with tilted bottoms), blind valleys above swallowholes of streams, dry valleys, and various other karst phenomena can be found. Underground, there are innumerable karst caves and abysses.

Slovenia’s karst region is the cradle of the world’s scientific study of karst phenomena. The Slovene polymath Janez Vajkard Valvasor explored and described many Slovene karst caves, and in 1687 he submitted a treatise on the natural mechanism that fills and empties the intermittent Cerknica Lake through a system of underground streams and reservoirs to the Royal Academy in London. In recognition of his work, he was made a member of that eminent organization. The geographer Jovan Cvijic later introduced the Slovene terms “dolina” for a sinkhole and “polje” for a karst field into scientific literature. In 1889, Anthron, the first Slovene speleologists’ association, was founded in Postojna. In 1910, a special provincial association for the study of underground caves was established in Ljubljana; today, the Slovene Speleologists Association boasts around 1500 members. In 1929, a speleological institute was set up in Postojna for the comprehensive research of the karst, and since 1947 it has been a branch of the Slovene Academy of Science and Arts. Slovene sport cavers and professional speleologists have discovered over six thousand karst caves in the last hundred years. Given the fact that an average of seven caves-only three of which had been previously discovered-were encountered in every kilometer during construction of the expressway from Ljubljana to the Adriatic coast, it is estimated that about half of Slovenia’s karst caves remain undiscovered.

The town of Postojna stands beside the lowest pass (609 meters) between the Rhone Valley in France and the Vardar Valley in Greece. Along with an eagle, the town’s coat-of-arms shows the cave animal Proteus anguinus or “human fish” with its long body and atrophied eyes. This symbol of Slovenia’s karst underworld has been known for more than 750 years and was described in 1689 by Valvasor in his Glory of the Duchy of Carniola. With its twenty kilometers of tunnels, the Postojna Cave is the best known of the twenty caves filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and other limestone formations that are open for tourists in Slovenia. In 1213, a certain “C.M.” marked his visit to Postojna Cave, and to date more than thirty million visitors have been recorded. In 1872, the first railway tracks were installed in the cave and now a circular route is in place; the first electric lighting was installed 110 year ago.

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Postojna Cave

Vilenica, where local people took refuge from the Turks, is probably the oldest karst cave opened for tourists in the world. Visits to this cave were first recorded in 1633, and a visitors’ guest book from 1821 has been preserved. The five-kilometer long Skocjan Caves were created by the Reka River; here the Reka disappears, runs forty kilometers underground, and resurfaces as the Timava River that flows into the Bay of Trieste near Duino. The underground canyons in the Skocjan Caves stretch ninety meters from floor to ceiling. The French speleologist Casteret wrote that these caves were unmatched in the world, and since 1986 the Skocjan Caves have been registered on UNESCO’s list of the world’s natural and cultural heritage sites. Krizna jama (8.2 kilometers) near Loz with its twenty-two underground lakes, Planinska jama (6.1 kilometers) near Planina with the underground confluence of the Pivka and Rak rivers, and Taborska jama are among the larger caves boasting stalactites and stalagmites in Slovenia. The cave below Predjama Castle near Postojna is a major curiosity with six kilometers of tunnels spread in a network over five levels. The picturesque four-story castle literally hangs in the middle of a 120-meter cliff.

The disappearing Cerknica Lake was mentioned by writers some two thousand years ago, and its description can now be found in every better school book. Valvasor described the lake as one of the greatest wonders of the world, observing that in summer people mowed hay here, in winter they hauled logs, and in spring they fished. During the heavy autumn rains or the spring melt, water fills this more than ten-kilometer long and five-kilometer wide lake that subsequently disappears in May or June. Valvasor vividly describes the peasants rushing to harvest fish trapped around the swallowholes as the lake disappeared. Some of the water from the lake flows underground to the Rakov Skocjan area, resurfacing as the small Rak River which itself disappears after two kilometers. It then joins the Pivka River underground in the Planinska jama cave, reappearing to meander across Planinsko polje as the Unica River, and finally surfaces again near Vrhnika as the source of the larger Ljubljanica River. The planned Notranjska Regional Park will include Cerknica Lake, Planinsko polje, Postojna Cave, and the Rakov Skocjan area.

The karst region was stripped bare by the Venetians to provide the foundations for their island city, and before reforestation began in the last century, the Lipica Stud Farm near Sezana was a green oasis in the middle of a grey rocky desert for many years. Toward the end of the 16th century, the Austrian Archduke Karl of Hapsburg bought land here and in 1580 established a stud farm to breed the spirited Lipizzaner horses. The colts have a brown or mouse-grey colour while adult Lipizzaners are predominantly white. The highly intelligent Lipizzaners originally served as draught and parade animals, but now they are used as riding, dressage, and carriage horses. A major tourist center with the stud farm, a riding center, recreation facilities, hotels, and a casino has developed in Lipica. Its riding school, day trips on horseback, longer riding tours, and carriage rides attract guests.

The powerful northeast bora wind blows down from the high karst plateaus of Trnovski gozd to the Bay of Trieste, most often during the winter, and can continue for several days. Gusts of up to 180 kilometers per hour disrupt traffic, unroof houses in spite of their special tiles weighted down with rocks, and rip up trees. The bora is particularly extreme in the Vipava Valley and in the surroundings of Koper. For centuries, karst households have used the bora to cure their famous karst prsut (Italian: prosciutto), the choice dried pork leg that is a unique delicacy with its special aroma and flavour.

From the middle of the 19th century, Slovenes began to reforest the barren rocky landscape with Austrian pine, and the forest cover further increased as pastures for livestock were abandoned. Now more than half of the karst region is covered by forest which often impedes the bora and interferes with the drying of prsut. The karst region has very little arable land, and fields, vineyards, and meadows are limited to dolines, dry valleys, and terraces. Here the karst region’s famous Teran wine is produced from the autochthonous refosk grape specially grown on trellises. Teran is distinguished by its ruby-red colour, a fruity taste, freshness, and low alcohol content; it arouses the appetite, has a healthy effect on the body, and is traditionally served with prsut, venison, and cheese.

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Skocjan Caves, a UNESCO world heritage site

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The karst world near the
Skocjan Caves

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Predjama Castle

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“Human fish” cave salamander
(Proteus anguinus)

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Kras vineyard

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The disappearing
Cerknica Lake

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Lipizzaner horses at the Lipica stud and riding center

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Natural bridge in
Rakov Skocjan Regional Park

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Lo
ski potok Valley

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