These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Underground sightseeing

By Tom Philpott

    Ochtinská Cave
 Ochtinská Cave
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Each year, tens of thousands of tourists visit Slovakia's mountains. Only a fraction of them, however, realize that the country also has plenty of natural beauty below the surface.

Slovakia is home to nearly 5,000 caves. Not only are they awesome reminders of an era when the earth's plates crashed together, they contain rich deposits of human history as well. Inside them, explorers and archeologists have found prehistoric drawings, medieval graffiti and ancient human remains (see box).

Unfortunately, like many attractions in Slovakia, the country's best caves require some effort to reach on public transportation. But don't be discouraged. Visitors who make it to the southeast or the winding roads of the Low Tatra mountains will find their efforts rewarded.

Slovak Karst

The nation's most famous caves lie in a 500-square-kilometer natural reserve east of Košice known as the Slovak Karst (Slovenský kras). A karst is an area of irregular limestone, where erosion has produced fissures, sinkholes, underground streams, caves and abysses (an underground void without an opening at the surface). The Slovak Karst was formed around 250 million years ago, during tectonic plate movements of the Middle Triassic Age. It contains more than 800 known caves and abysses.

The Karst lies just north of the Hungarian border, and a third of it actually extends underground into Hungary, where it's called the Aggtelek Karst. The Slovak and Hungarian governments have declared their parts of the Karst protected reserves, and in 1995 UNESCO declared the Karst's caves a World Heritage Site. These designations are important: karsts are extremely sensitive. Almost anything - including toxic waste - can seep through their pours and contaminate them.

At first glance, the Karst makes an unlikely tourist attraction. From the surface, it's no more than a huge, barren plain with a few jagged canyons. Like many places along Slovakia's southern border, the karst region is economically depressed. Its towns lack good hotels and restaurants. And aside from a couple of castles, the architecture tends to be modern and drab. Don't be put off though. Inside the caves, there is a world of beauty all its own.

The Karst's most famous and spectacular cave is Domica, a vast system of tunnels and voids that crosses underground into Hungary. The bulk of the cave actually lies outside Slovakia and can't be reached from the Slovak entrance. The Slovak share of Domica is five kilometers long, of which 1.3 kilometers is accessible to the public.

The cave's scenery is otherworldly. Stalactites, some as thick as tree trunks, rise like miniature mountains. They are towered over, and met by, stalagmites hanging from the ceiling. Bats swoop and soar between them. It's interesting to imagine the cave before electric lights were installed, when bats, water, slime, ooze and rocks ruled the void, and the few torch-wielding humans that entered were merely intruders.

Tourists have been coming since 1936, and today there are lights, railings, marked paths and trained guides leading the way. Our guide liked to shine his flashlight on stalactite formations and intone, with the gravity of a scientist, things like, "That one is known as the Japanese tearoom." Many of the cave's formations are named in this manner. Our guide also showed us a wild boar, a fire-breathing dragon, and a Turk.

The most exciting part of the tour was a 100-meter raft ride on the "River Styx," a murky waterway with soaring walls and looming stalactites above.

Tours run daily (except Mondays) at Domica Cave, every hour, 9:00-16:00, from June 1 to August 31, and 9:30, 11:00, 12:30, and 14:00, the rest of the year. The cave closes for repairs in January. Admission is Sk80.

    Ochtinská Cave
 Ochtinská Cave
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Domica is the Karst's biggest and best cave, but others are worth a visit. Ochtinská aragonitová jaskyňa has spiky aragonite formations that resemble massive flowers. Jasovská jaskyňa, in Jasov, has lovely stalactite "forests," pagoda-shaped stalagmites, and graffiti scrawled by Czech Hussites (i.e. heretics), who hid there in 1452 from soldiers loyal to the Hapsburgs (who were ardent Catholics). Finally, Gombasecká jaskyňa has quill-like formations that span up to three meters.

Guided tours to Gombasecká (Sk60), Jasovská (Sk70) and Ochtinská (Sk100) leave at the same time as tours to Domica, but the three smaller caves are closed November 1 to March 31.

The best base for visiting the Slovak Karst is Rožňava, a small city 50 kilometers west of Košice. Because public transportation is poor, and the caves are 20-30 kilometers outside Rožňava, and often in opposite directions, it's hard to see more than one in a day without a car. Staff at the Rožňava information center (058 732-8101, can help you plan trips and arrange accommodations.

Caves of the (Nízke Tatry) Low Tatras

The Low Tatra mountains in Central Slovakia have two major caves, both in the Demänovská Valley, south of Liptovský Mikuláš. Demänovská ľadová jaskyňa is an ice cave. Bring a jacket if you go, since parts of it are below freezing year-round. Also worth mentioning: the entrance is a brisk, 15-minute uphill hike from the road.

The ice cave is 1.7 kilometers (1 mile) long, about half of which is accessible to the public. The tour opens with stops in a vast chamber of mini-stalagmites and alongside a patch of graffiti from the 18th-century. As the trail descends further into the cave, the air grows colder and the rock formations become more elaborate. Last stop is another large chamber-this one freezing cold - where massive ice stalactites drip into a frozen lake.

    Demänovská Cave of Freedom
 Demänovská Cave of Freedom
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Demänovská jaskyňa slobody -Demänovská Cave of Freedom - earned it's name during the World War II when guerrillas from the Slovak National Uprising (see History, pg 43) used it as a weapons cache. The cave is 8.4 kilometers long, 1.7 kilometers of which are accessible to the public. It's worth a visit just to see its exotic rock formations.

Tours into the caves begin at 9:30, 11:00, 12:30, and 14:00, except Mondays, when the caves are closed. The Cave of Freedom is closed in December, and the Ice Cave is closed from October 1 to May 15. Tours leave every hour, 9:00-16:00, from June to August. Admission to both caves is Sk130.Call the Liptovský Mikuláš information center (044 16-186,

044 552-2418, for more details.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2004.

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