Skocjan Caves Park: Unique Karstic Site in Slovenia, Just Across the Border.

Skocjan Caves Park (Grotte di San Canziano in Italian) is located in the extreme north-eastern part of the classical Karst (Carso) area, near the town of Divača, in western Slovenia, about 15 km east of the border with Italy (Fernetti or Gabrovizza crossing). For this proximity, as well as for the historic and cultural links that the region of Istria entertains with Italy, the site – and the current page – are included in this website.

Due to its extraordinary underground canyon, basic research on the Karstic phenomena, rich archaeological heritage and great biodiversity, the Skocjan caves were included in the UNESCO natural and cultural world heritage sites’ list in 1986. In 1999, the Skocjan caves were also added to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International importance as an underground wetland site. In 2004, the entire park area was included in the UNESCO’s MAB (Man and Biosphere) programme as the main Karst Biosphere Reserve.

The Skocjan caves system comprises numerous caves and passages, collapse dolines, natural bridges and sinkholes. It was created by the Timavo/Reka river, which flows some fifty km on the surface then sinks into the Karst underground, resurfacing again at the ‘Bocche del Timavo’ springs near Duino, on the Gulf of Trieste.

The Skocjan caves’ rich natural heritage includes certain rare or indigenous subterranean animals, and the especially diverse dry Karst meadows on the surface. The park’s cultural heritage comprises also the typical rural architecture of the extreme eastern part of the Karst region (known as the Divača Rim) – the most characteristic examples of which are the stone roof at the Betanc farm, the kitchen extension with a hearth and chimney at the V’nck farm and the thatched roof of the J’kopin barn. The Skocjan caves Education Trail (described below) – and the Museum collections – complement the visit and the diverse activities offered by the park.

Practicalities: the welcome sign and the leaflet are coded with four colours: the colour blue is the general presentation of the site; the colour red is called 'The Classic Tour', as it deals with the deeper part of the caves, which can only be visited with a guide; the colour orange is termed 'The New Part', which can be visited alone or with a guide (in either case, both these parts – red and orange – can only be accessed with a ticket, and can be seen continuously; starting with orange and then red is probably smoother, but it can be done in reversed order too). The circular Educational Trail (colour green) is free, and it can also be walked alone or with a guide (but if you do it guided, you will require a ticket). In terms of duration, the red part only takes about 1 h 30 (this is the best option for a quick visit, as you will see the most impressive – and protected – part of the site; no pictures are allowed); the orange part can take from a minimum of 1 to 3 hours, depending on your interest, but pictures can be taken in this section; for red and orange together consider a minimum of 3 hours. All these parts are described in more detail below.

Skocjan Caves Park (Blue)

The Park is located in the classical Karst and is a true open-air museum. Here you can acquaint yourself with distinctive above-ground and subterranean Karst phenomena, the most characteristic example of which is unequivocally the Skocjan caves system with its exceptional archaeological finds, pioneering explorations of the Karst underground, and a rich natural/cultural heritage. Your stay in the park can be short or last several days, and can even include a visit to the Timavo/Reka river basin in all its extension and diversity.

Through the Underground Canyon (Red)

The guided tour begins at the Skocjan caves’ Visitor’s centre, takes you to the main man-made passageway in the Globočak collapse doline, and continues through to the Silent Cave (Tiha Jama) – a fossil passage filled with numerous dripstone formations. On exiting the cave, you will be enthralled with the view of the underground canyon of the Timavo/Reka river, which you will cross on the Cerkvenik bridge – suspended nearly fifty meters above the riverbed. You can return to the surface past the Tominc cave (Tominceva Jama) and the waterfall under the natural bridge in the Big Collapse Doline (Velika Dolina).  

Following the Timavo/Reka River Underground (Orange)

You can walk this path on your own or with a guide, entering the first part of the cave through the natural entrance carved by the Timavo/Reka river below the village of Skocjan. Natural light penetrates the shaft through the numerous openings, and the path runs just above the water. After visiting the Little Collapse Doline (Mala Dolina) and the natural bridge, where the Timavo/Reka river spills through the narrow canyon into a lake with a high waterfall, you can also explore the Big Collapse Doline (Velika Dolina) and the Tominc cave (Tominceva Jama), known for its many archaeological finds.

Along the Skocjan Educational Trail (Green)

You can also experience the park by walking the circular Educational Trail around the Big Collapse Doline (Velika Dolina) and Little Collapse Doline (Mala Dolina), which then goes through the characteristic villages of Betanja, Skocjan and Matavun; guided tours begin and end at the Visitor’s centre, but you can also walk this trail free in your own time. Along the Skocjan Caves Educational Trail (described in more detail below)  you can learn about Karst phenomena, relief forms and hydrological characteristics, the diverse flora and fauna, as well as the rich cultural heritage of the area. As part of the Educational Trail, too, you can visit the two Museum exhibitions in the village of Skocjan. Let us now explore some of the most notable parts of Skocjan Caves (the items presented below will all be found along the orange trail).

The Mahorčič and Marinitisch Caves

The Timavo/Reka river flows first into a narrow valley, which is transformed into a picturesque gorge after contact with the limestone bedrock. After just over three km, the river reaches a magnificent sinkhole under precipitous walls, which offer a solid support to the old village of Skocjan. The Timavo/Reka then disappears below ground into a vast channel, with an underground lake and a window in its 100-metres high ceiling: this is the Okroglica shaft, which opens up in the centre of Skocjan.

The first cave is named after Jožef Mahorčič, who was mayor of Naklo, and introduced the book of visitors back in 1819. At that time, visitors only descended to the Reka sinkhole; today, this space is known precisely as the Mahorčič cave. Systematic research began when a caving section of the Austrian Mountaineering Society was established in Trieste (a city then belonging to the Austrian Empire); according to oral tradition, the innkeeper Eggenhofner – a cave explorer from the Trieste area – swam to the end of the cave under Skocjan.

On May 4th, 1884, Josef Marinitisch – and another explorer who was accompanying him – used a small boat and followed the river’s course through the cave. At the exit of the Little Collapse Doline the boat capsized, and Marinitisch remained trapped on a boulder in the middle of the stream. It took twelve long hours for the locals to rescue him; this event, in any case, gave a name to the second part of the cave below Skocjan: the Marinitisch cave.

Subsequently, the locals from the villages of Matavun and Skocjan carved paths and steps, and fixed spikes and cables onto the steep walls; they were also the first to guide visitors into the cave. A devastating flood on Sept. 2nd, 1965, however, substantially damaged the tourist path in the Mahorčič cave; only in 2010 the Park obtained the EU funds to renovate the cave, which is now fully accessible to visitors again.

Paths and Signs in the Skocjan Caves

The first paths in the Skocjan caves were made in 1823, the main motive being that of exploration and tourism. More than 10 km of trails were then carved, mostly between 1884 and 1905, when the caves were leased to the Littoral section of the German-Austrian Mountaineering Society; all of them are still in use. This demanding work was mostly done manually – the paths were protected by metal railings (and part of an original railing is still displayed): some of the trails were quite challenging, while others were safer but less exciting; regardless, both types are examples of the technical heritage of the period. Most of the paths, some parts of the caves (channels, chambers, gorges, etc.) – and of the main attractions (viewpoints, speleothems, outstanding rocks, lakes, etc.) – were then named and marked with signs.

As many as 146 locations – marked by original plates mounted on the walls – were found in the vicinity of the paths. Various information appears on the signs, which also display a considerable variety of shapes, materials and dimensions; unfortunately, only 21 of the original signs are preserved in their original locations.

Along the trail, for instance, is a replica of an original sign bearing the name ‘Radonetz Warte’ (that is, ‘Radonetz Viewpoint’, named after a sponsor and member of the society, Eduard Radonetz, who at the time was Prefect of Miramare, near Trieste). The sign was removed when the caves came under the management of the Trieste section of the Italian Alpine Club (when the city became Italian). The metal plate was fixed on to the wall with six screws, which were additionally secured in the holes with wooden wedges. The upper part of the sign displays the name of the structure; below is indicated the year when the location was given its name; in the lower right corner, there is also the name of the society (D. & Do. E. A. V. S. Küstenland, in this case) that fixed the plate, for the benefit of today's visitors, again.

The Natural Bridge

The natural bridge is the remaining part of a cave ceiling between the Big and Little Collapse Dolines (Velika and Mala Dolina). Near a beding plane (a fracture in a continuous body of limestone) under the natural bridge, an elliptical channel developed (known as Mikl Barn/Miklov Sedenj); later, when the level of karst water lowered, the Timavo/Reka river deepened it by another 40 metres.

The depth of the Big Collapse Doline on its western rim – from the Stefanija Viewpoint to the sinkhole, where the river Timavo/Reka sinks into the karstic underground for the last time – is 154 metres. A few entrances to the side dry channels open up in the overhanging walls of the Big and Little Collapse Dolines too: the most well-known of these are the Tominc cave (Tominčeva Jama) – with its archaeological finds – and the Schmidl Hall (Schmidlova dvorana), which hosts a unique association of Alpine (Primula auricula) and Mediterranean  plants (like Adiantum capillis-veneris; Campanula justianiana should also be mentioned, as it was first found in the Big Collapse Doline). The extraordinary biodiversity of this location is enriched by many bird species, which include Owl, Rock Dove, Mountain Swift, Wall-creeper – and others.

In the Big Collapse Doline is also found the first tourist path, which was carved back in 1823 and descends from the village of Betanja to the Tominc cave (Tominčeva Jama). Other paths were predominantly built at the end of the 19th century, and were subsequently widened or renovated. The Tommasini Bridge, which crosses the Timavo/Reka river 50 metres above the Big Collapse Doline, also dates from this 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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

The Timavo/Reka River

After flowing above the surface for fifty kilometres, the Timavo/Reka river disappears underground into the Skocjan Caves. This stream, with a torrential nature, is known for its extreme water-level fluctuations, with the highest/lowest water level ratio of 1:3,000. While the cave receives only a few litres per second during the drought period, the stream may flow up to 387 m³ after heavy rain.

The streamflow is affected by heavy precipitation mainly in the upper part of the basin, under mount Snežnik (1,796 m) – a high mountain range that intercepts most air currents coming from the Kvarner Gulf (Golfo del Quarnaro). Precipitation may reach very high quantities (e.g., 300 litres of rain per m² were recorded in only one day at the end of January 2014), which cause the Timavo/Reka river discharge to increase very fast. The flood wave then reaches the Skocjan Caves in about ten hours, leaving plenty of time for alert and, in case, closing the site to visitors.

Inside the cave, the Timavo/Reka river usually floods up to 30 metres high – the highest flood recorded being 132 metres (in 1826). The power of water inspires both admiration and awe: when viewed from the ‘inside’, it is easier to understand how the stream created and formed the sinkholes and cave passages; it is not surprising that the villagers named the upper part of the river (that is, the young Timavo/Reka) ‘vielka woda’ (‘High Water’). In the past the river has caused much hardship to the millers, who were hardly able to curb its torrential nature.

The Tominc Cave

The Tominc cave (Tominčeva Jama) is one of the most extensive archaeological cave sites in the Eastern Alps. The second (and more important) phase of the excavations took place at the beginning of the 20th century under the direction of the head of the Trieste Natural Science Museum, Carlo Marchesetti. Several cultural layers have been discovered in the cave sediments, dating back to the Early Middle Ages, Late Antiquity, Iron Age, Bronze Age and the Eneolithic (or Copper Age).

Archaeologists have linked several finds – a copper axe and a dagger with a hilt, for instance – to the sacrificial activities of Prehistoric man. Further, a Late Antiquity Christogram dating back to the 4th or 5th century A.D. indicates that this area also served as a religious site.

Tominc cave (Tominčeva Jama) is, too, the largest Prehistoric cave burial site in the Karst (Carso) region; five Iron Age graves were discovered at the cave entrance, and the skeletons of at least ten Eneolithic bodies were dug in a small recess in the eastern passage; the majority of these finds are now kept in Italian Museums and repositories. A stratified deposit composed of two cultural layers has also been preserved near the eastern wall; the upper layer contains finds from the Middle Ages, Late Antiquity and the Iron Age, while the lower layer testifies to the material culture of the Early Copper Age.

In the middle of the entrance is a well dating back to 1889, dedicated to the Viennese Karstologist Franz Kraus. 

The Skocjan Caves Educational Trail

The Skocjan caves Educational Trail begins and ends in front of the Skocjan caves Park Information centre in Matavun, where you can get information and buy a guidebook available in four languages (or just pick up a leaflet). The book will guide you in the discovery of the features of both the park and the surrounding Karstic landscape. About two km long, the trail takes around one to two hours to walk; it is well marked, and walking it is easy (although in some places it will require moderate effort); it is therefore suitable for individuals and larger groups alike.

In the introductory section of the trail, visitors will learn about particular aspects of nature conservation, geo-morphology, ornithology, hydrology as well as the history of settlements and other human activities in the area – an indication of the large number of topics covered along the itinerary. At the Stefanija Viewpoint a magnificent view opens up above the Big and Little Collapse dolines (Velika and Mala Dolina), with the village of Skocjan in the background. The trail then turns into the woodland, past a typical Karst beehive and through the Jurjev dol, towards the village of Betanja, in front of which another viewpoint – formerly known as ‘Mici’ viewpoint – is located. From there – with a slightly different view over the collapse doline, and with the help of the descriptions – it is easy to comprehend the extraordinary power of water, and learn more about typical examples of plant and animal life that have made the steep rock walls of the collapse doline their home.

At the other end of Skocjan – beside the village cattle pond (known here as ‘kal’), and once seen the Okroglica shaft (or abyss) – it is possible to proceed to visit the exhibitions in the Jurjev and J’kopin barns. The Jurjev barn is devoted to the history of the exploration of the Skocjan caves, while the J’kopin barn illustrates the various phases in the traditional methods of producing grain, and its use at the time of ploughing by hand. The Natural Science Centre (‘Delezova domačija’) – situated beneath the village cemetery – presents a collection of Karst rocks, curiosities on the endemic flora and fauna of the park and its underground resources, as well as a rich documentation on the archaeological heritage of the area (this part is on the lower ground floor). The final section of the Educational Trail leads to the village square in Matavun, where different types of stone walls and other items of interest are presented; from there, the visitor can follow the marked path down, and return to the Information centre and the parking lot.

The Skocjan Caves Educational Trail in the Skocjan Caves Regional Park was created in cooperation with the local population and with the assistance of numerous experts from various universities, institutes, schools, museums and associations.

Ethnology: the J’kopin Barn in Skocjan.

Before it was renovated, the J’kopin barn was an accessory building of J’kopin farmhouse (J’kopinova domacija), located in the centre of the village of Skocjan. It was erected near the cultivated fields and meadows, standing just in front of the entrance to the tightly-grouped village, in an area open to the winds and detached from other buildings to avoid the risk of fire – which was very high in the past, due to the thatched roofing. The J’kopin barn had already been drawn in this position in the land register of the year 1819, as a ‘one-cell single-storey building with a rectangular ground plan’. The apex of the gable-end stone walls are covered in slate, while the wooden two-drip barn attic supports a roof made of rye straw. In the past, the corn from the surrounding fields would have been threshed in the barn, while hay would have been stored on the planks of the hayloft, just under the roof; also, the implements for work in the fields and other tools would have been stored in this building.       

The Wealth of Corn. Since the very beginning of human settlement, farming – cultivation of the land – was connected in an inseparable way with the notion of survival. The development of farming can be traced from the earliest utensils used for work in the fields; from those instruments, tools and work practices one can proceed to the application of mechanical (or industrial) technology after the second world war, and the introduction of present-day computerised modernisation – something that is in the process of constantly being improved.

In the J’kopin barn are presented the procedures of corn processing and its use as a crop, with a particular focus on the stage of arable farming, when the animal plough would still have been used in agriculture.

In this region, the simple early form of plough (known as ‘ralo’ in the local language) was gradually introduced after the settlement of the Slavs in the 6th century AD. By means of a symmetrical plough-share (‘lemez’ or ‘ralnik’), the ground was turned-up, loosened, and the earth clumps would be broken up. This early plough was further developed into the plough known as ‘plug’ or ‘drevu’ in the 10th century AD, which was a more complete tool that replaced the ‘ralo’ plough. Following that, over the course of the centuries, the plough did not change, essentially, until the 19th century, when special ploughs for different tasks in the fields (and with different functions) were designed, taking over the simple plough: the hilling-up plough, the digging plough, the ‘Cugmar’ iron plough, etc.

The basic components of the plough are the a-symmetrical ploughshare (‘lemez’) and the mouldboard (‘deska’) – which turn up (and break) the soil – and the fore-carriage with the wheels (‘pluzna kolesca’ or ‘kulca’), to which the draught animals would be harnessed. The harness consisted of a wooden yoke: either a single horse-collar (‘enojni jarem’ or ‘komat’) or a double yoke (‘dvojni jarem’), made out of a bowed upper part and a lower part called ‘kamba’, to be placed on the draught animal’s neck. Dragging (or harrowing) was part of the preparation of the soil before tillage and after ploughing, once the seeds had been covered up. The oldest harrow (‘brana’) was made from closely tied-up branches with thorns (from plants such as hawthorn), weighed by stones. This was later replaced by a wood harrow containing wooden nails, or iron-pegs.

The growth and crop of corn depended upon proper sowing. Until mechanisation was introduced, harvesting was the most difficult task, which took several days. Woman reapers (‘zanjice’) worked with a sickle; more rarely, in some places, the corn would also be cut with a scythe (‘kosa’), on to which a canvas was fixed: that was men’s work. The reaped corn was then tied in bundles (‘snopi’), sheaved and put into stacks (‘kope stoge’) near the farmhouse, to be dried. A high pole was used as support, around which the sheaves were stacked. The dried sheaves were carried on to a rack waggon (‘vozovi’ or ‘lojtrnik’), to be stored in the barn yard until threshing (‘mlatev’). Manual threshing was considered a straining task: a steady rhythm had to be kept, and often the whole family would be busy with it over the whole winter.

The flail (‘cepec’) was the tool used to separate the grain from the chaff: this tool consisted of two sticks connected with a leather belt and a strap (‘goz’), which replaced the simple stick that was used earlier, until the middle ages. The threshed grain then had to be cleaned – winnowed (‘ocistititi’ or ‘vejati’), as it were –, which was done by means of a large sieve (‘reseto’ or ‘rehta’) or a special manual shovel (‘lopata’ – ‘vejanca’), with which the grain would be scooped up and thrown into the air: it would then fall on to a canvas, as the wind blew off the chaff. Other utensils used for the various phases included the ‘wind chamber’ (‘vetrovnica’, ‘pajkel’ or ‘bareta’) that was used for the cleaning of grain, the thresher for harvesting (‘na gempelj’) – driven by draught animals – and the straw chopper (‘slamoreznica’). All these tools were introduced only in the 19th century, and as they spread they facilitated the farmer’s work to a great extent.

Many different implements and tools were also used to bake bread (‘kruh’): nowadays, there is a revival of this tradition, and the use of old utensils happens ever more frequently, arising from the nostalgia for the homeliness and quality of such bread. The dough was kneaded in special wooden kneading troughs called ‘necke’ or ‘lempur’, and later also on kneading tables (‘miza-mentrga’). The entire process of the preparation of bread – from yeast-making (leavening) up to the final produce – demanded a lot of care and attention, until that final and most rewarding task: the baking of bread itself in an ingenious baker’s wood-oven, carefully crafted in stone by skilled workforce.           

Archaeology: Skocjan in the Past

Located at the junction of the Karst region of Kras, the Vreme valley with the Reka river and the flysch Brkini mountain range, the Skocjan area was obviously a point of meeting and passage in the past, not only for the people of the immediate area but from very distant regions as well. Among the numerous archaeological sites in Slovenia, this ranks among the most important.

The Velika jama na Prevali (or Musja jama) cave is an abyss over fifty meters deep, two km south of the village of Skocjan. In the mound of rock rubble at the bottom of the abyss, an extraordinary number of largely Bronze age and a few Iron age objects have been discovered. Most are broken, and some have been partly melted due to the intense exposure to fire. Various weapons dominate the more than one thousand items found here: spear points are especially numerous, and there are also frequent socketed axes, swords, helmets, and fragments of Bronze vessels. The objects have been dated to between the twelfth and eight century BC, and are obviously the remnants of offerings and religious rituals held above the Musja jama abyss. Some of the objects are of Mediterranean origin, while numerous others came from Pannonia (Eastern Europe); therefore, above the Musja jama abyss there existed, throughout this period, a sacred site of major significance, for an area that stretched from the Pannonian plains  through to Central Italy. As a consequence, the prosperity of the community that populated Skocjan and its surroundings in this period can be explained by the control it had over such an important religious site.

Among the several burial grounds from this period, the most important is located near Brežec, and it contains 325 urn graves. Among the oldest graves from the 11th and 10th centuries BC, appear some individual iron objects (knife blade, axe) two hundred years before iron came into general use in Central Europe; the majority of the graves near Brežec date from the 9th and 8th centuries BC. An exceptional find from the men’s graves are the swords, since these are very rarely discovered in sites dating from this period. The period of burials at the Brežec site largely coincides with the dating of objects from the Musja jama abyss. The advent of the Iron age probably brought about a decline in the importance of Skocjan, since after the 7th century BC the evidence of human presence is more rare. Life here obviously did not die out completely, however, as demonstrated by a 6th century BC grave from Skocjan containing a ribbed pottery situla with a foot, and even more some extraordinary finds – such as the Skocjan Treasure: a deposit of numerous items of jewellery including necklaces, bracelets, pendants and amber berries from around 400 BC that were discovered by chance beside the southern wall of the Skocjan hillfort. Another find of exceptional significance dating from the same period was made in the Okostna jama cave: the upper rim of a Bronze situla from one of the graves found here is engraved with an Early Venetian text – the oldest writing to have been found in Slovenia. This find links Skocjan – in the 4th century BC – to the region of the Veneti in north-eastern Italy, while at the same time indicating the early knowledge of writing, which at that time was connected mainly with religious matters.

The period of the last millennium BC is therefore a time that gifted Skocjan with exceptional archaeological remains, which are as hard to match in Slovenia as in the rest of the world. To a great extent, we can link these remains with the religious sphere that was most probably the basic impetus for the prosperity of the population of the Skocjan area. Settlements did not cease with the appearance of the Roman authority in the Skocjan area, however, but the archaeological evidence left behind is much more modest. Worth mentioning, among the rare finds, are the dedicatory inscription to Caesar Augustus, found in Skocjan, and the Early Christian symbol found in the Tominčeva Jama cave.   

Return from Skocjan Caves to Carso

Return from Skocjan Caves to Italy-Tours-in-Nature

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