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.


Wonders of the Slovak Underground

By Tom Philpott

 Photo: Ján Svrček

They form an important part of the nation's natural and cultural heritage - and are remarkably beautiful as well. Visitors to Slovakia should not miss them.

Slovakia's natural beauty doesn't stop at its rich topsoil. The nation also boasts some of the world's most spectacular and prized cave systems.

Like many attractions in Slovakia, the most interesting caves require considerable effort to get to on public transportation. But cave-fancying visitors, who venture into the nether regions of the south, or onto the winding roads of the Low Tatras, will find their effort repaid.

Caves are remarkable depositories of natural history, graphic reminders of the time when the planet's tectonic plates crashed about, creating the continents as we know them today. And in an area as long inhabited as Slovakia, caves are also rich depositories of human history. These caves contain everything from prehistoric drawings to graffiti scrawled by hunted Hussites in the 15th century. They served to hide soldiers deserting the defeated Hungarian Army in 1944, and to conceal supplies for partisans of the Slovak National Uprising the same year.

Caves of the Slovak Karst

The nation's most famous caves lie in the Slovak Karst (Slovenský Kras) in the southeast. A karst is an area girded by a soluble layer of bedrock, in this case limestone. The porous nature of the bedrock gives rise to vast networks of underground waterways, as well as huge occasional voids. Voids with surface opening are called caves; those without are called abysses.

As is often the case, geology trumps geopolitics, and the Slovak karst region extends across the border with Hungary. The greater karst area is 500 square kilometres, with about two thirds of it in Slovakia. On the Hungarian side of the border, the area is known as the Aggtelek Karst. As a whole, the karst houses more than 800 known caves and abysses. The karst was formed during terrestrial plate-tectonic activity during the Middle Triassic Age, around 250 million years ago.

Both the Slovak and Hungarian governments have declared their parts of the karst protected nature reserves, severely limiting development. This is important, because karsts are extremely environmentally sensitive, since their porous nature allows anything - including toxic waste - to seep through and contaminate the entire system.

Better still, UNESCO in 1995 declared the caves of the Slovak and Aggtelek Karst World Heritage Sites, in recognition of their beauty and superior preservation. This will help ensure that these delicate underground ecosystems flourish without pressure from excess development.

At first glance, the karst makes an unlikely tourist attraction. On the surface, it's essentially a huge and barren plain, occasionally punctured by low-slung, jagged canyons dotted with scrub trees. A few farms try to squeeze production out of rocky soil that barely covers the bedrock. Like most of the southern border region, the karst area is economically depressed and draws few tourists. As a result, the region's towns offer little in the way of tourist infrastructure: few hotels exist, and ask someone for a place to get lunch, and you're likely to be pointed in the direction of a hostinec, essentially a pub serving a limited menu of food. Aside from a couple of wonderful castles, the architecture tends to be modern and drab.

But don't be put off. Step into one of the caves, and a world of opulent, almost baroque beauty opens. The most famous and spectacular cave is called Domica, a vast system that snakes its way south under the border to Hungary. The bulk of the system actually lies in Hungary and can't be reached underground from the Slovak side. However, the Slovak share of Domica is five kilometres long, of which 1.3 kilometres is accessible.

The scenery is otherworldly, almost hallucinatory. Stalactites, often as thick as tree trunks, rise from the earth like pointed little mountains. They are lorded over, and sometimes met, by stalagmites pointing down from the cave's ceiling. Bats, undaunted by human presence, if a bit put off by the artificial light, swoop and soar through the scene, reaffirming its status as a natural habitat.

One section of the cave, a stream known as the River Styx, is navigable only by boat. Perhaps the most exciting part of the tour consists of a 100-metre ride down the Styx on a small raft navigated by the guide. Gliding through the murky water, with the soaring cave walls and their stalactites looming above, is a wonderful treat.

Domica has been a tourist attraction since 1936, and the guided paths and lighting are expertly done. However, it doesn't take much to imagine how it was before these conveniences, when the space was left to its flora, fauna, and the humans who braved it without electric light. The space is labyrinthine; when the guided tour I took ended, I was surprised that we had completed a circle.

One traveller, the Scot scientist Robert Townson, recounted his experience in Domica in his Travels in Hungary, published 1793. He refers to the "large stalactites, as thick as my body" which were "ornamented in the manner of the most curious Gothic workmanship." Amid the beauty, Townson also points to the "awful gloom" of the environment - hardly surprising, given that he was operating without safety barriers, handrails, or electrical lighting. He writes that some of the stalactites were "so thick and close together" that he and his guide "were in danger of losing one another if we separated but by a few yards." The most jarring part of the account is when the guide loses his bearings after a three-hour tour. The guide "ran this way and that way and knew not where he was, nor what to do," Townson writes. Like any startled tourist witnessing such a spectacle, Townson "desired him not to be frightened, but to go calmly to work to extricate us from this labyrinth." The guide eventually did so, but not before nearly running out of wood to fuel his torch.

    Belianska Cave
 Belianska Cave
 Photos: Ervín Némethy

Things have gotten much more relaxed in Domica since Townson's tense sojourn. In my late-winter visit to the cave, I drew a guide with a serious, almost grave tone. As we made our way down the well-beaten path, complete with handrails, he would shine his flashlight onto a spectacular stalactite formation and intone, with the gravity of a scientist, "That one is known as the Japanese tearoom." Then, like a lepidopterist showing the anatomy of a butterfly, he would shine his light on each part - the table, the teapot, etc. Many of the cave's formations have been named in this manner - in addition to the tearoom, our guide showed us, in the manner of a learned professor, a wild boar, a fire-breathing dragon, and a Turk.

But if kitschy tour guides, modern technology, and decades as a tourist attraction have sanitized the cave a bit, erasing the gloom described by Townson, it hasn't lost its ability to inspire awe. The space is too vast and vividly adorned for that. And the bats that fly around remind the visitor that the cave always has been and remains a huge natural habitat.

Domica is the karst's flagship cave, but is by no means the only one worth visiting. Another notable and publicly accessible cave in the karst is the Ochtinská Aragonitová Jaskyňa. Though not nearly as awesome in scale as Domica, it's worth a visit for its spiky aragonite formations that resemble massive flowers.

And history buffs won't want to miss the cave at Jasov, Jasovská Jaskyňa. In addition to lovely stalactite "forests" and pagoda-shaped stalagmites, the cave also features graffiti scrawled by Czech Hussites from 1452, who were hiding from their Catholic Habsburg tormenters.

Finally, Gombasecká Jaskyňa is prized for its slender quill-like formations, which can be as long as three meters. Its many chambers teem with delicate and unlikely shapes, often richly pigmented.

Caves of the Low Tatras

Visitors to the Low Tatra mountain range in Central Slovakia often get sidetracked by the region's many skiing and hiking attractions and neglect its two major caves. That's a shame.

The more unusual of the two, both of which lie in the Demänovská Valley, is the ice cave, called Demänovská Ľadová Jaskyňa. Visitors should be prepared for a bit of a workout: to reach the entrance, you must hike about 15 minutes uphill into the woods. In addition, bring a jacket, even in the summer: it's below freezing year-round in the cave's ice-encased parts, and not much warmer in the others. But visitors are well rewarded for their diligence.

The cave is 1.7 kilometres long, a little less than half of which is accessible to the public. Its first mention in Hungarian court papers dates back to 1299, although it is thought to have served as shelter for humans since prehistoric times. The cave has been the subject of various sensational tales: in the 18th century, for example, some explorers found large animal bones in the cave's depths. Word spread that they belonged to a dragon, possibly of the fire-breathing variety. The truth was more banal: it was a bear.

The guided tour opens with a remarkable combination of natural beauty and historical significance. Graffiti from the cave's 18th century visitors vies for attention with mini-stalagmites and stalactites in a long hall-like chamber. The path descends slowly downward; the air grows colder as the rock formations become more elaborate. The tour's last stop is the freezing-cold ice chamber. It's a singular experience year-round, but it's at its best in spring, when massive ice stalactites drip down onto a vast frozen lake.

The other major cave is the Demänovská Jaskyňa Slobody, which translates as Demänovská Cave of Freedom. It earned that name because partisans used it to store supplies during the World War II National Uprising (see history section). Its length is 8.4 kilometres, but only 1.7 kilometres of it is open to the public. Although it lacks the exoticism of the rival ice cave, it's worth a visit for its many beautifully eccentric rock formations. Especially notable are the delicate "water lilies."

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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