The exceptional volume of the underground canyon is what distinguishes the Škocjan Caves from other caves and places them among the most famous underground features in the world. The river flowing through the underground canyon turns north-west before the Cerkvenik Bridge and continues its course along the Hankejev kanal (Hanke's Channel). This underground channel, first explored at the end of the 19th century, is approximately 3.5 kilometres long, 10 to 60 metres wide and over 140 metres high. At some points, it expands into huge underground chambers. The largest of these is the Martelova dvorana (Martel's Chamber); with a volume of 2.2 million cubic metres, it is considered the largest discovered underground chamber in Slovenia and one of the largest in the world. It is interesting to note that an underground canyon of such dimensions ends with a relatively small siphon: one that cannot deal with the enormous volume of water that pours into the cave after heavy rainfall, causing major flooding, during which water levels can rise by more than one hundred metres.
Fun fact: Homer’s epic poem depicts the perceptions of the ancient Greeks of the underworld, according to which the doors to the Kingdom of Shadows were volcanoes and caves. Before entering the Underworld, Odysseus makes libations and burning offerings to the Underworld gods, Hades and Persephone.
Homer's epic poem, one of the oldest preserved written pieces, corresponds to the first half of the 8th century B.C. but it draws upon earlier traditions. The finds from Mušja jama near Škocjan belong to the same period. In this 50-metre deep abyss, archaeologists discovered over 600 metal artefacts from the period between the 12th and 8th centuries B.C. The settlements at Škocjan and Gradišče, and especially numerous burial sites and other wealthy archaeological finds testify to the extraordinary significance of this location in the 1st century B.C. This is particularly evident in Mušja jama. Burnt and broken objects from the abyss, mostly weapons and animal bones, provide evidence that sacrificial rites to gods were performed above the cave in the late Bronze Age, probably similar to those described by Homer in the above-mentioned fragment. Judging by the finds, people made pilgrimages to this cult centre from places several hundred kilometres distant, from the territory of Italy, the Alps, Pannonia, the Balkans and even Greece. Contacts with distant regions are reflected in the Škocjan community, which was distinct from the surrounding society because of its outstanding wealth and distinct social hierarchy. Three millennia ago, the magnificent entrances to the underworld and the dramatic scenes of the entrance of waters into the dark underworld gave Škocjan a great symbolic religious power and transformed it into a cult centre without rival in the territory of Slovenia and far beyond it.
Due to particular microclimatic conditions, an extraordinary ecosystem has developed in Velika and Mala dolina. For instance, Alpine (e.g. Prumula auricula) and Mediterranean species (e.g. maidenhair fern, Adianthum capillus-veneris) grow side-by-side: exceptionally rare in nature. This is possible due to the nature of habitats of Alpine representatives that grow on rocks in the shady part of the sinkholes where the sun rarely shines even in the summer and where it is cold throughout the year. It is only in these conditions that these plants are sufficiently competitive to survive. Contrary to Alpine plants, the representatives of Mediterranean plants survive only where the temperatures do not fall below freezing. This is possible on the ceiling of the Schmidl Cavern where, due to cave air, temperatures do not fall below freezing even in the winter.
Source: The Skocjan Caves Park Public Service Agency
From the past: Cave festival
On 7 December 1884, a contract was signed between the Primorska Section of the German and Austrian Mountaineering Society and the Naklo Tax Municipality by means of which the latter leased the Škocjan Caves to the Society for a period of five years, starting from 1 May 1885. On the first anniversary of the entering into force of this lease contract, the Society organized a festive opening of the caves, entitling it "Grottenfest" or, in English, the Cave Festival. For this occasion, the trails leading to the Schmidl and Rudolf Halls were arranged. This practice was followed in the following years. Visitors were attracted to the Cave festival by newly established trails in 1888, 1889 and 1891. Between 1901 and 1904, the number of visitors rose to an estimated six hundred, perhaps a thousand. The number of visits, however, declined after 1908, the reason being heavy rains. A decision to abolish the festival was adopted in 1911. The festival took place every year between 1886 and 1911, except in 1895; in total twenty-five times. It was organized in the first half of May or June, taking place on Whit Monday from 1894 to 1900.
In 1914, World War I began and, in 1918, these parts came under the Italian occupation. In 1920, the remaining Section of the German and Austrian Mountaineering Society organized the Cave Festival again after many years. This would be the last time in its history. In 1923, the festival was celebrated for the first time under Italian rule, symbolically marking the authority of the Italian society. Promotional activities included the already proven approaches, such as bus transportation from Trieste. Moreover, in 1933, a bridge across the Hanke's Channel was built. According to the available data, this festival under the auspices of the Italian Mountaineering Society took place eleven times between 1923 and 1933 on the first or second Sunday in May. No written records about this festival exist after 1933. Janko Gombač, who still remembers the festival well, says that the festival was organized once more after the war in 1946, when the cave was managed by a special agency called "Kraške jame Slovenije" (Slovenian Karst Caves) from Postojna. "It was illuminated for the last time in that year."
Concealed in this sentence is the people's perception of the festival. According to Gombač (born in 1917), the son of Matavun inn-keepers, on the occasion of the cave, the name "belajtnga", from the German "Beleuchtung", was used which means illumination, lights, lighting and is thus connected with the illuminated cave that used to be the festival's main attraction.
Fun fact: Some thirty-six years of tradition, perhaps even more, is not little. Why invent new things when the history offers us a solid record of a festival so inextricably connected with the Škocjan Caves? This is why the Park's Management has decided to take the initiative of reviving this festival with the aim of connecting the management and locals in a joint Škocjan Caves Park Festival.
Source: The Skocjan Caves Park Public Service Agency