Our second week in Slovenia found us in the tiny village of Zerovniča, in the southern part of the country. We chose this little known hamlet for it’s close proximity to three different natural wonders that were beckoning us to do much more than just read about them. Surprisingly, but also much to our delight, this region attracts very few tourists, but consequently has very few accommodation options. We managed to find a small family farm that also doubles as a guesthouse, about 3 km from Krizna Jama (Cross Cave). Veronica, the mother of the farm, is a sweetheart who knew her way around the kitchen, and one evening she served us a farm fresh vegetable soup which may now stand as the tastiest soup I’ve ever had. Besides amazing food, the farmers also provided us with rental bicycles that served as our transportation for a few days while we explored the natural wonders of the region.
The first of those wonders that we visited , and the one that initially drew us to the area was the Krizna Jama. While not the largest, and surely not the most visited cave in this extremely cavern-rich country, this cave system has one of the most dynamic displays of stalactites and stalagmites, and as much diversity of cave animals of any cave in Slovenia. There are 45 different organism species in the cave, including several bat species. One of the truly unique features of this cave is the water that flows through it. Usually rivers are credited for eroding the land they run over, while carving themselves deeper into the earth. The water here is known as ‘flowstone’, and it’s calcium content is so rich that the cave surface under the water actually grows at a rate of 10 cm every 10,000 years due to calcium accumulation. This is also aided by the fact that the river only drops 1 meter over the 2 kilometers that we traveled, so the flow is extremely slow.
What really sets Krizna Jama apart from the impressive, gigantic cave systems like Postojna and Škocjan is the degree of conservation that goes into protecting it. While the massive tourist trap, Postojna is loaded with electrical wires, lights and even a train inside the cavern, the tour operator of Krizna Jama takes very conscious steps to limit human impact on the cave, while still offering an educational experience to a handful of visitors each year. Much to the continued dismay of the government, which would like to see Krizna Jama turn into a huge tourist spectacle, the tour operator only allows a maximum of 1000 visitors a year, or 4 per day into the inner reaches of the cave system. A larger number of visitors, consisting mostly of school groups are allowed into the first few impressive chambers for a one hour tour, but even then, those tours are only available by reservation.
The four hour tour that we were fortunate enough to score a spot on, due to Haruka making a reservation over a month in advance, was shared with a Brazilian couple and our guide, Egor. The tour took us two kilometers deep, through 13 different lakes within the cave that are linked by a subterranean river. It seemed that Egor’s main task was to make sure that no damage was done to the cave, by explicitly instructing us where to place each footstep as we navigated each portage whenever we weren’t floating up and downstream in a rubber raft. His second task was to make sure that nobody got hurt, as he was a real stickler for safety, and we were all provided with top-notch equipment to insure that everyone stayed safe and comfortable. His third task was to provide highly informative and entertaining guidance through the cave with his excellent, yet quirky English. It was easily the best guided tour I’ve ever been on, and at €35 per person, it was a bargain.
The following day, we hopped on the bikes again and ventured about 3/4 of the way around Lake Cerkniča. This lake disappears and then reappears fairly regularly because it is a natural phenomenon known as polje, which means that it’s floor is made up of many stream sinks that carry the water away very slowly through a tight underground cave system. When it rains a lot, the stream sinks have such a slow drainage rate, that the area floods and becomes a lake. At the time we were there it was less than half full and was basically a thriving, expansive wetland that is home to thousands of different bird species. In all there are over 28,000 different species of flora and fauna, making it one the most diverse lakes in the world.
We wove our way through dense forests along the edge of the lake for about 20 km until we came to Rakov Škocjan, a stunning gorge that was created when the ceiling of a massive cave system collapsed. The remnants of this colossal event are some steep canyon walls and two natural bridges on either end of the gorge. The first section of the regional park that we encountered, was what is called the ‘Small Natural Bridge’. It may be the smaller of the two bridges, but it is an absolutely spectacular sight to behold, as it spans two walls that are riddled with smaller caves for additional exploration, and it made for a great lunch spot.
We then pedaled through the single track that meanders through the gorge, which was quite a challenge on pseudo-mountain bikes with thin tires. We eventually made it to ‘The Grand Natural Bridge’, which is certainly a huge natural bridge, and beautiful in it’s own right, but somehow lacks the wow-factor of it’s smaller counterpart. We remarked that if we ever returned to this magnificent regional park (which has no admission charge), that we would just take in the area around ‘The Small Natural Bridge’ and explore it thoroughly. On our way back to Zerovniča, which should’ve been a fairly short route around the north side of the lake, we lost our bearings a bit and ended up on the road that winds it’s way through the center of the lake. While it was certainly a longer and more strenuous ride back home, it provided incredible vantage points of this natural anomaly.
The next day, it was time to leave sweet, sleepy Zerovniča behind and head for the Julian Alps in northwestern Slovenia. While we were already becoming aware of Slovenia’s bleak public transportation system, it became abundantly clear while traveling on a Saturday that bus options are even slimmer on the weekend and making the 2 1/2 hour car journey was looking like it would take close to 12 hours if we relied on buses. Catching a ride with BlaBlaCar wasn’t an option as we were traveling between two small towns with very little traffic, so we hopped on an early morning bus that got us about a third of the way to our destination of Kobarid. From there we decided to hang our thumbs out on the side of the road and hitchhike our way to Kobarid.
Our first ride was a relatively long wait of 20 minutes that got us 10 minutes down the road and out of the center of Idrija, where the hitching would surely be easier. Sure enough, we were picked up a few minutes later by a friendly woman who explained in impeccable English that there was a small music festival 15 minutes up the road that her kids were helping to organize. It didn’t take much convincing on her end for us to derail our trip a bit and check out the small hippy festival nestled in a forest by the river. When we got there, her daughter greeted us and got us settled into the groovy vibe of Karajzewc, an organic, all-acoustic festival with no electricity. Within minutes we were meeting lots of kind folks and feeling a lot of gratitude for the ways of the universe. We did still have our sights set on Kobarid, so we only stayed for 3 hours, but before we left we attended a sound healing set where 20 or so people laid down in a field surrounded by various instruments that one musician played one by one in a seamless set of ethereal soundscapes that lulled us into a space of deep peace. And then we were back out on the road thumbing for a ride again. After a rather long wait of 20 minutes, we decided to change locations up the road a bit, and just as we were picking up our packs, I saw a tourist bus coming and threw out my thumb on a whim. Miraculously, the guy pulled over, and explained that he was done working for the day, so we ended up with a whole bus to ourselves on a ride that got us most of the way to Kobarid. Two short rides later and we were at our destination, and while the 8 hour journey wasn’t a quick one, it was highly enjoyable, as all of our drivers were super friendly and spoke great English.
Kobarid is a small mountain village on the banks of the emerald waters of the Soča river. We spent the better part of a week there to slow our travel pace way down and take in some of the sublime nature of the region. Slap Kozjak Waterfall and the Tolmin gorge were standouts, and a nice little afternoon rafting trip down the Soča river was also a blast. Toward the end of that week, we moved up north a bit to the Lake Bled area, where we continued to be blown away by stellar views. Again we found that moving around the region by bus was painstakingly difficult, so again hitchhiking was our preferred mode of transportation, and of the half dozen or so rides we got in the area, we hardly ever had to wait more than 5 minutes for a ride. Those last couple of sentences basically sum up our Slovenia experience thus far in a nutshell: Gorgeous nature, challenging tourist infrastructure and amazingly kind people. In other words, it’s like heaven here!