The train ride through Slovenia’s Postojna Cave may feel, at times, like something out of a theme park. But this underground wonderland has been millions of years in the making, one drop of water at a time.
200 Years of “Wow!”
Local residents had long known of a small cave near their town — one of the thousands of caves in Slovenia. They were preparing to illuminate a sign with torches to welcome the visiting Austrian Emperor in 1818. A lowly assistant lamplighter named Luka Čeč accidentally shined his torch into a much deeper hole and disappeared. Everyone feared he was dead until he emerged hours later to exclaim, “Here is a new world, here is paradise!” The discovery was initially credited to a local government administrator, and Čeč toiled in the cave for the rest of his life in poverty before receiving the recognition he deserved.
Since then Postojna Cave has welcomed more than 38 million visitors. Fortunately, they don’t have to proceed by torchlight on foot, breaking off stalactites and stalagmites to mark the way back. The development of tourism here progressed with the industrial revolution, when more workers suddenly had leisure time for a visit. The first underground railway opened in 1872, with local guides pulling visitors in wagons. Electric lighting was first switched on in 1884. Gasoline engines were added after World War I, replaced by electric locomotives in the 1950s. Today’s double-track train whisks visitors in and out of the most astounding parts of the cave in minutes.
Highlights of Postojna Cave
Don’t be discouraged if there’s a long line to board the train. Officials told me the occasional backup is due to sorting visitors by their preferred language out of the 17 options available. It’s what Californians would call a “Disneyland line” that keeps moving forward at a steady pace. We saw large tour bus groups arriving before 10 am, but the crowds had thinned considerably by mid-day when we visited in early May.
On an earlier visit to Slovenia, I had opted for the more natural hiking experience at the UNESCO-protected Škočjan Cave. I feared that the Postojna train ride would come off as too touristy. Wow, was I wrong! The sheer size and complexity of the underground chambers makes Postojna unlike any other cave I have visited in the world. The 90-minute tour feels like a trip to another planet. Even with annual visits approaching the one-million mark, you’ll feel like an explorer on a personal voyage of discovery. Only 5 km of the 24 km cave is on the regular tour; more adventurous visits are available by appointment.
The train ride takes you past an underground ballroom that was lit with Murano glass chandeliers when Italy controlled the region between the world wars. The rooms are layered over and under each other, as you’ll notice when you cross a bridge built by Russian war prisoners. Near the exit, you will notice ceilings that were blackened when Slovene partisan fighters set fire to a fuel supply the Nazis had stored in the cave.
In the heart of the caves, you’ll leave the train and walk for about 1.5 km (less than one mile) through the White Gallery, the Red Gallery and the oldest part of the cave containing the iconic snow-white “brilliant” stalagmite and baroque pillar.
Our guide, Peter, pointed out some of the more famous formations and explained how they were created by centuries of dripping mineral water. The newly installed flintstone footpath has a slight incline and is not slippery, even when wet. Although it’s wheelchair and stroller accessible, those with mobility issues have the option of staying on the train.
Your Safety and the Environment
When the guides warn train passengers not to stand up or reach outside the car, they are NOT joking! The trains move at a fast clip and just when you think there’s ample space to extend your arm for that selfie, you’ll be crashing ahead into solid rock. Don’t even try it.
Also, for the love of nature, do NOT reach out and touch the formations. Sadly, our guide showed us places where touchy-feely visitors have turned the deadened columns black. While the artfully concealed lighting creates a feast for your eyes, it can also encourage the growth of cave-destroying green algae. Environmentally compatible bulbs have been installed recently, but there’s not much that can be done about self-obsessed visitors who fail to turn off the flash for their cameras, phones and tablets, despite numerous warnings from the patient guides. So don’t be a jerk. My best advice is to…
Put Down That Camera!
My trusty Panasonic Lumix camera with Leica lens ordinarily takes amazing pictures in lowlight conditions and I highly recommend it if you want to travel light. But only a few of my numerous no-flash clicks ended up being properly lit and focused. The available lighting highlights the formations, not the visitors. Frankly, I wish I had just put down the camera to enjoy my experience in this extraordinary environment a bit more. Leave the artsy photography to professionals with specialized equipment, who are given access under carefully monitored conditions.
Human Fish or Baby Dragons?
Putting down your devices will allow you to come face to face with a species that is unique to the darkness of Postojna Cave. The olm (proteus anguinus) is often called the “human fish” because of its unpigmented skin. These “baby dragons” in local lore can live for 100 years and go up to 10 years without food. You’ll see a few of them in a display tank on your walk.
Postojna made international news when 22 baby olms hatched in 2016, the first time their reproduction had been seen by humans. (So forget the legend that they are the offspring of a fearsome cave-dwelling dragon.) Amateur photography of the critters is strictly forbidden. But you can buy a whimsical souvenir to take home. Don’t miss the lovely photo op at the old mill on the River Pivka as you return to the parking lot.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Buying Your Tickets: Most visitors combine the Postojna Cave with a visit to nearby Predjama Castle, which I describe in this post. There is a helpful website in English for planning your visit to both the cave and the castle and additional natural history exhibits for those with more time. Buying your ticket in advance allows you to skip the longer line at the ticket office.
Getting there: Postojna is an easy day trip for those staying in Ljubljana. We arrived by rental car in less than 45 minutes. Ample parking available, paid at a ticket machine in the lot. You can also book a custom tour with a local guide, who will arrange your transportation.
Staying in Postojna: The four-star Hotel Jama offers rates that include admission to all attractions in the park. Substantial savings! Those on a tighter budget can find low-cost camping options and a choice of local hotels and guesthouses nearby. Clicking on these links to make your reservation will help support this blog at no additional cost to you. Thanks!
When to go: Slovenia can get crowded in the peak summer travel months of July and August. It’s just as delightful in the spring and fall. The caves are open daily, year-round, including holidays. There’s an underground Nativity scene during the Christmas holidays.
What to wear: It’s chilly down there. The temperature inside the cave is a consistent 8-10 degrees (48 Fahrenheit). I was shivering in a thick sweatshirt. My Salomon hiking shoes kept my feet dry and toasty.
Kids and Pets: Postojna Cave Park has long been a must-see for school groups and is one of the most kid-friendly attractions in Europe. The park also has a kennel where they’ll watch your pet for free while you tour.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Postojna Cave Park. Post reflects the experience a typical visitor can expect. Opinions and research are my own.