Into the Dark Cave
As the train moved forward to the south from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, to the Postojna Cave Park, there was a subtle undertone to the atmosphere. It was rainy and sparsely populated outside. The old train moved through verdant mountains, making the only sound there. The view ahead was blurred by the trees and the mountain mist, but my destination, Postojna, was made clearer by this — with its underground world and eyeless juvenile dragons, it seems that Postojna should exist in such a remote and inaccessible place.
What does the underworld look like? Postojna's underground cavern is a dark place full of tusk-like stalactites. Although the caves were paved with sightseeing train tracks 150 years ago, the 13th-century signatures etched in the walls of the old entrances show that bold visitors were here 800 years ago. But they dared to stay only a few meters deep of the entrance, and the stalactites they saw were painted by them into various shapes of monsters.
At first glance you will be totally shocked by this enclosed space if you are a little claustrophobic, but the fear disappears when you recognize, that even St. Paul’s Cathedral (London) could be accommodated in the cave hall. The 24 km long cave is surrounded by various stalactites. Some hang thickly from the roof of the wide cavern, like swarms of worms emerging from small holes; some are crossed beside you like shining swords. When you arrive in a spacious hall, you feel as if you have stepped into the mouth of a monster, surrounded by teeth dripping saliva.
“Our professional staff is highly educated and can help tourists in case they have a problem.” Katarina Kanduč, a karst physiologist and cave animal expert, told me. It has been proved that all fears are redundant since more than 39 million visitors visited Postojna Cave in 200 years.
We took the train through the caverns, past narrow tunnels. All passengers lowered their heads and began to scream. Kanduč told me that she once hosted a basketball team and they all covered their heads with their hands. "The tunnels look narrow, but they're elaborately designed, and there's no danger at all," Kanduč told me.
Although the caves can be stifling, the experts who spend most of their time there have also given them some romantic interpretations. "Some stalactites grow from the top of the cave and from the ground at the same time, eventually forming a column. We then say that they are going to marry," Kanduč quipped. "But it takes a long time, at least a hundred years for a stalactite to grow one centimeter."
The concert hall is another must-see. It is the spacious part of the cave, with excellent echo effects, and has been used many times for underground concerts. During the tour, a girl sang melodies in the concert hall, which echoed with the ethereal sounds of a choir. There is also the only running underground post office in the world, and many visitors sent postcards which will travel through the earth.
Eyeless Baby Dragon
Humans live on the earth, and dragons live in underground caves. This is the kind of story for mythological fiction, but it is a real thing in the cave of Postojna. In one of the caverns' hollows stands a large, flat tank in which the blind creatures known as Baby Dragons live.
This salamander, called Olm, was first recorded by local naturalist Valvasor in 1689. Since it was believed that the caves were inhabited by fearsome dragons, the animals were believed to be the offspring of dragons when a rainstorm washed them from the underground cave to the surface.
The Olm is a well-protected species by Slovenia today. Next to the cave is a Proteus Cave Vivarium open to tourists, where I get a clear view of the baby dragon. They are shorter than A4 paper, reddish all over, with their hearts in their throats. They have gills as wrinkled as a girlish pink dress, and most impressively, they have no eyes at all.
"They're completely adapted to the dark life at the bottom of the cave," Kanduč told me. When they found that life in the dark cave no longer required the eyes to be sensitive to light, their skin began to grow slowly towards the eyes and eventually completely covered them, making the Olms into eyeless dragons.
The Knight's Secret Passage
The dragons and the mysterious underworld are by no means the whole secret of Postojna. A few kilometers away from the cave lies another wonder -- an 800-year-old Predjama Castle suspended from a 123-meter cliff. While the beautiful fairy tale castle is a happy home to the prince and the princess, this suspended fortress is for the glory of the knights. It shows the medieval castle as a military defense – a commanding position on the cliff, the entrance by suspension bridge, the windows for pouring down hot oil, the dark damp jail and a fugitive, secret passage... All these make the thrilling stories of hundreds of years ago come to life.
The most famous inhabitant was Baron Erazem Lueger, who came here to escape the troops that were after him. His enemies surrendered the castle and tried to starve him to death, but the baron was not only safe, he also generously dropped fresh cherries and roasted mutton from the walls to the exhausted soldiers.
"The answer is behind the castle," our guide said as he lead us to the rear of the fortress, which instead of a solid rock wall, turned out to be a secret passage to the outside world. It was through this secret tunnel that the baron was supplied with fresh food during the siege.
The smart and cunning knight was finally betrayed by his servant and killed on the toilet one night. Today, half a century after the Slovenian Robin Hood died, the castle doesn't seem to want the story to end in this way. When the fortress was renovated in 1991, a workman found an unidentified treasure box full of belongings in the storeroom. Some adventurers claim to have seen the ghost of the knight bustling about, carrying food in the secret passage.
“Where are you from?” Before visiting Hotel Jama's underground secret room, our new guide greeted us in the hotel lobby. "I'm Chinese, from the Netherlands," I said. Then he confiscated my mobile phone.
We were taken to this underground secret room. If I hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't have believed that beneath the surface of such a fine and comfortable hotel there was a wiretap room from the last century used to eavesdrop on political conversations. With the caves attracting top politicians from around the world, the luxury hotel closest to the caves had an unusual status. It wasn't until the hotel was renovated in 2016 that the underground space was discovered, revealing why strange faces always showed up in the dining hall or using the toilets at the hotel at that time.
I was able to see the surveillance conditions only seen in James Bond movies, to hear the records of conversations in various languages that had been tapped 40 years ago, and to walk down the underground steps to where the intelligence staff used to work and rest. Simple rooms filled with wiretaps of all sizes, and a compartment with a bed for napping.
"Where are you from?” A familiar voice sounded in the room. "I'm Chinese, from the Netherlands." Isn't that what we had just said to each other in the hotel lobby? Just when I was too surprised to say a word, the guide opened a small device and pressed the delete button. Before I got to understand whole thing, my voice had disappeared forever in this world of intrigue, like other millions of insignificant voices that had been recorded here during Tito’s time.