Disappointingly I've not actually had a "welcome to Slovenia" text from EE. Maybe they figured the one they sent me when I arrived in Kosovo in May covered it?
I'm standing at the train station looking at the departure board, trying to work out which platform I need for the 9.36am train to Koper via Divaca. The main board is displaying a blank space where the platform should be; I retreat to the ticket office to check the smaller screens, which instead show "BUS". Is that a Slovene abbreviation for something else? Please let it be an abbreviation.
The clock ticks over to 9.34am as I race back to the platforms and ask a guard. He points: "the green bus over there". You mean the one that's not a train? Because, you know, I was really after a train this morning (they're meant to be good here!). That's why I bought a train ticket not a bus ticket. Thwarted, I double check with the driver that we will be stopping at Divaca and take a seat on board.
Several hours later I set off with a guide down towards the entrance to Skocjan caves. Much to my dismay we're told there is a strict 'no photography' policy inside the caves in order to protect them from damage. Apparently even the sparse lighting lining the walkways and steps is resulting in moss and algae growth, so is switched off as soon as tour groups pass by.
When I stopped at tourist info in Ljubljana I was surprised to find not so much as a single trace of a leaflet on Skocjan, but superlative laden brochures for the less impressive caves at Postojna in abundance. Several passengers were clutching them on the bus this morning, yet it only takes a few moments of flicking through a guidebook to Slovenia to establish that although Postojna is heavily marketed, it's much less impressive than Skocjan (even my light speed trip planning discovered that). Their loss. Skocjan has reportedly been compared to the grand canyon (so tells me the Californian chap I hiked back to the train station with this evening).
How can I describe Skocjan in any way that will even begin to do it justice? I don't think my writing is there yet, but I shall try.
You journey through the cave system begins in the "silent cave" before entering the main "murmuring cave" with the river Reka running through it. Initially I wasn't exactly overwhelmed. I've seen caves before: stalactites and stalagmites, cascading flows of multicoloured rock, sharp drops in temperature. None of these are new to me so I confess to having been a little blasé initially - been there, done that.
Then we progressed into a more open space, home to a giant stalagmite that's around 250,000 years old and still growing. Quite an ugly beast, as are most stalagmites compared to their usually more elegant counterparts the stalacmites, who adorn the ceiling of the cavern. We weave between the stalagmites, towering over us like slumbering stone giants, and draw closer to the entrance to the murmuring cave, which lies below. A dull roar is just about reaching up to us.
They call it a cave, but to me that conjures images of a poky, claustrophobic space. It is not. Try and picture a river gorge with a cavernous stone ceiling and you might be close. As our group reaches the top of the steps leading down into the canyon a chorus of reverent gasps, oohs, aahs, and wows rises up. We're still in a fairly quiet portion of the cave system and we all seem to have switched our volume down even as our wonderment spontaneously forms into sound.
The tourist path winds down to the left, and then hugs to the cavern wall at the midpoint between ceiling and river below. Thin striplights roughly the length of my arm and spaced about two metres apart run along the path edge. Yet from our viewpoint these now look like miniature fairylights snaking into the distance, shrouded in the mist rising up from the river as it crashes over rapids and races towards our end of the cave. It is simply beyond anything I had imagined I would see today. Pure magic.
We make our way through the gorge, across a bridge over the canyon, and marvel at the former tourist trail from the 1930s which now lies in ruins, the bridge having been washed away by floods. I don't think I would have fancied it is all I will say.
As we reach the farthest end of the gorge and are preparing to enter the series of smaller chambers that lead back up to the surface - and daylight - our guide stops us and starts flicking some switches.
Suddenly the entire canyon is plunged into complete darkness such as you've never experienced. She quickly flicks the lights back on, but then explains that there's a problem with the lights on the final stretch of the trail. She asks anyone who's brought torches to spread themselves out along the group to try and help us see our way.
Warning us to be very careful (the paths and steps are all carrying a layer of surface water) we set off. A few people seem a little distressed, but I just find this all incredibly exciting. Authentic. I can't see my own feet, much less the steps I need to navigate, alternately up and down and around bends. However I can now imagine what it would have been like when these caves were first discovered and explored in the 1800s. They were ethereal with the minimal lighting we had before; without they're enigmatic, the pitch blackness and roar from the river challenging your senses to define the space around you.
The lights spring back to life just as we catch our first glimpses of daylight reaching into the cave ahead of us. From here it's out into the open gorge, past waterfalls and pools of emerald waters, through another set of smaller caves formed by the river Reka, and eventually back up many steps to a viewing point perched atop the hill. It has a small stone platform, a short series of steps leading up to it. As I approach it the laboured breathing of a fellow hiker behind me momentarily pauses, "is this where they present us with our trophies?" he calls up to me.
"It had better be!" I reply.
It wasn't. Don't let that deter you from visiting though. There's actually a lift to take you back to the carpark at the end of the first set of caves, before the gorge. All the extra walking I did was just an optional extra for the [fool]hardy few of us who are gluttons for punishment.
Riding the 6.30pm "train" back to Ljubljana I discover from a local who happens to work for the railways that 78km of the power lines over the tracks were damaged by "ice rain" back in February, so only diesel powered engines can operate while repairs are undertaken. No small task. You would think though that they might tell you this when they sell you the tickets or you search their online timetables.
On the plus side of course, it has handily kept this trip true to its role as an addition to my great Balkan bus journey.
There's something calming about being on a quiet bus as the light fades and the passing drivers begin to switch their headlights on. Or maybe that's just the contented exhaustion kicking in...