Guarding the Gates of Hell

Škocjan – named after Saint Cantianius to whom the village church is dedicated to – is one of the most unique villages in the world. This picturesque little place is perched precariously on a natural bridge between the river Reka canyon and a huge abyss of Little Dolina. On both sides the cliffs fall almost 200 metres deep to the entrance into one of the greatest wonders of Classical Karst: Škocjan caves.

Škocjan and Betanja above the cliffs of Little Dolina

The collapsed caves Little and Big Dolina are really immense – 300 by 250 m wide and 200 m deep chasm truly looks like the Gates of Hell. The Dolines and the 6 km of the underground cave system is a masterpiece of its creator, river Reka.

River Reka enters Little Dolina

Reka springs in the deep forest below Mount Snežnik near Ilirska Bistrica, and flows gently through the valley until it gets to the porous and soluble limestone of Karst – there all hell breaks loose. The river carved a huge canyon and then drove right trough a cliff, creating the natural bridge on which the village of Škocjan sits, digging under the ground until a large part of it collapsed creating Big and Little Dolina, and going underground through a huge cavern of Martel chamber – 308 meters long, 123 meters wide and 146 meters high with a total volume of 2,2 million cubic meters! – and Hanke channel, one of the biggest underground canyons in the world, finally disappearing in a small siphon lake. The cave is filled with the sound of rushing water, and after heavy rains the water level can rise a hundred meters in a couple of hours, as the siphon can’t swallow it all.

Big Dolina and the paths for visitors

The waters flow through unexplored, flooded chambers towards the Adriatic sea, but it can be reached a couple of times during its course; at the bottom of abysses of Kačna cave, Abyss of the three generations, Labodnica, and Lazzaro Jerko cave. The river finally emerges in a powerful spring of Timavo north of Trieste, flowing into the Adriatic near Devin.

Škocjan guarding the Gates of Hell

The huge, awe inspiring caves of Škocjan are famous since antiquity. Poseidonius of Apamea wrote in the 1st century BC: “The Timava River flows from the mountains, falls into an abyss, and then, after flowing about 130 stadia underground, springs beside the sea.” The caves are marked on the oldest maps created (Ortelius, Mercator), were described by Valvasor and painted by Louis-François Cassas. Tourism started in early 19th century, and the caves were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1986.

Clouds reflecting in a surprisingly calm waters of Reka

The wider area of Škocjan caves are a biological hotspot, as the wildly varied ecosystems packed close together offer refuge to many endangered and endemic species of flora and fauna. Glacial relics of the Ice Age flora, such as alpine auricula, crusted saxifrage, and Kernera grow on the bottom of the collapse doline, just above the Reka River sinkhole. Just some 40 metres higher we find thermophilic relics, like maidenhair fern and wild asparagus. Bats are numerous, and deep in the darkness of the caves the elusive endemic creatures of the night dwell.

Škocjan. The tree-lined circular abyss to the right goes 200 meters down.

The village of Škocjan and Betanja just below it are old; the church of St. Cantianius was probably built in 13th century, and expanded to its present form in 17th century with the bell tower added in 1879. Just beside the church there is a circular abyss called Okroglica that goes straight down for 200 meters to the river. However, as old the village is, it is absolutely not the first human dwelling in the aera. Remnants of human settlement dated back to the Copper Age and Early Bronze Age was discovered in Tominčeva cave; the spiritual significance of the caves is evident in numerous finds of ritually deposed weaponry, and a Christogram from the 5th century AD show the caves were an important religious site for some 4.000 years.

Anyhow, the Škocjan caves and its surroundings are not to be missed when visiting Slovenia. This magnificent, incredible, fantastic place will stir up your imagination and fill you with memories to cherish forever.

Kite aerial photos shot with Nikon P330 on The Spark Rokkaku kite. The conditions above the Big and Little Dolina are exceptionally challenging, as the winds get confused by a peculiar microclimate of the caves, and the turbulence here is even more unpredictable than the usual turbulence.

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