When I finished touring the Bozkov Dolomite Cave (Bozkovské dolomitové jeskyně), I had achieved my goal: I had finally visited all 14 caves accessible to the public in the country. The plethora of caves fascinated me with rich stalagmite and stalactite decoration, often taking grotesque forms in an Alice in Wonderland type of setting. Breathtaking rock formations resembled waterfalls, castle ruins and owls, for example. There are almost 3,500 caves in the Czech Republic. While not all of them excited me, in many cases, it was well worth exploring the depths that whisper about the long-ago past and even contain remains of prehistoric man. First, a little cave vocabulary is in order: stalactites hang down from the roof of a cave, while stalagmites point upwards from the floor of a cave.
I have visited the Punkva Caves (Punkevní jeskyně)in the southern Moravian Karst region twice, once way back in 1992 and again in 2008. (The Moravian Karst region is known for its breathtaking caves. There are about 1,100 caves in the area, but only five are open to the public.) The first time I went to the Punkva Caves a friend drove me. For the second visit I took the train from Brno to Blansko (a short trip) and then took a bus to the information center near the caves. Back in the early 1990s, it wasn’t necessary to make a reservation in advance, and tickets were sold at a small kiosk. Now it is essential for visitors to make a reservation.
These caves are the most popular in the country. They are mentioned in many guide books and swamped with tourists from around the world. Discovered between 1909 and 1933, the Punkva Caves took me to the bottom of the Stepmother Abyss (Macocha), from which I felt the power and strength of the chasm, as if I was being swallowed up by its size.
Not only did I see stunning ornamentation, but I also enjoyed a magical motorboat ride through the Masaryk Cave and others. To be sure, fairy tale settings and grotesque shapes abound. Some of my favorite moments during the hour-long tour include the decoration of the wall of the Front Cave; the stalagmites and stalactites in the Mirrored Lake boasting Two Owls, A Castle on a Cliff and a Turkish Minaret, and the fantastic decoration of the Angel’s Cave.
Located near the Punkva Caves is Kateřina’s Cave (Kateřinská jeskyně), a short distance from the information center that hadn’t been there when I first visited the area in 1992. The 45-minute tour covers 430 meters. The name of the cave comes from a legend that enthralled me: The shepherd Kateřina entered the cave looking for one of her sheep that had gone astray. Unfortunately, she got lost and never saw daylight again.
At the beginning of the tour, I learned that the Main Dome is the biggest publicly accessible natural underground space in the country; concerts are even held there, the guide informed our group. In this space I felt swallowed up by its vastness just as I did in the Stepmother Abyss. Some shapes of intriguing stalagmites that I saw included Two Owls and The Shepherd Kateřina. I noticed many exquisite, tall stalagmites and stalactites, especially in the part of the cave nicknamed the Bamboo Forest. I especially liked one formation, in which stalactites appear as an angry storm cloud with claws.
Not far, in the same region of southern Moravia, are the Sloup-šošůvka Caves (Sloupsko-šošůvské jeskyně). I took a bus there from Blansko; they run every hour. The bus dropped me off 200 meters from the cave itself. The short tour covers 890 meters, while the long tour covers 1,670 meters. The total length of the underground corridors reaches 4,200 meters. Of course, I took the long tour.
I was fascinated that remains of Neanderthal man have been unearthed there. I crossed a bridge that allowed me to gaze to the bottom of Nagel Chasm, 80 meters in depth. That was something to remember! Some of the decoration that awed me included the rich ornamentation of the stalactites in the Gallery and a four-meter high formation called the Waterfall.
I also saw cave bear bones, and a vertical abyss that is 64 meters deep. In the Big Three Hall three huge stalagmites resemble a snow mountain, a waterfall and a fortress. I also imagined shapes of a spiraled totem pole and a spiraled tower as well as a gigantic top hat and swords stuck firmly in the cave floor.
Also nearby in the southern Moravian Karst region, the Balcarka Cave (Jeskyně Balcarka) features two floors of unique stalactite and stalagmite decoration, such as that exhibited in the Gallery. Since I did not have a car, I could not combine this visit with my trip to the Sloup-šošůvka Caves, even though the two are not that far apart. I went by bus from Blansko to Ostrov u Macochy. Buses ran every hour, so I did not have to wait long.
I was in awe that stone and bone instruments dating back to the Stone Age as well as bones of Pleistocene animals have been discovered there. One shape in the cave looked like an elderly hand with knobby, long fingers pointing downward, as if it was about to gently touch something.
Shapes similar to ruined castles and towers fascinated me as well. Some lumpy forms reached out with tentacles to touch the stalactite quills above. Other ornamentation took on the appearance of a spiraling tower with a steeple on top. I saw many fragile-looking stalactites hanging from the roof of the caves, too.
As fascinating as the Punkva Caves are the Javoříčko Caves (Javoříčské jeskyně) near Litovel and Olomouc in central Moravia. Discovered in 1938, these caves boast some of the most exquisite stalactite and stalagmite decoration in the Czech Republic. In all, 788 meters are accessible to the public. Visitors can choose from a 40-minute or 60-minute tour. The short route takes one 450 meters, while the long one covers all 788 meters. I chose the 60-minute version.
Perhaps this system of caves is the most grotesque, appearing to be part of a horrific fairy tale filled with monsters. Yet it was difficult to get to; I went by car from Olomouc, the historic town where I was staying. I could not find any suitable public transportation.
Some intriguing formations featured a stalagmite shaped as a pagoda, with what appeared to be a Rococo doll seated on it. Pastel colored limestone spikes took on the appearance of waterfalls, named Niagara Falls and the Falls of the Elbe. The Curtain, which appeared to be fringed with lace and measured more than two meters in length, fascinated me the most. It looked as if the curtain was almost flapping, captured in a single moment. Crystallizing calcite surfaces made up the lace while the red tint came from ferrous compounds.
The Sacred Hole has a spellbinding history. Banned religious groups used to gather there in the Middle Ages; I saw black stains on the ceiling that had resulted from torch smoke. The most beautiful decoration I saw, though, was in the Scree Dome and the Dome of Giants. The Scree Dome featured a unique-shaped mound sprinkled with what looked like white icing or virgin snow. The breathtaking ceiling was a composite of fragile, thin exquisite stalactite spikes.
In the Fairy Tale Cave there was even more astounding decoration of stalactites pointing down from the ceiling. In the Dome of Giants one shape looked like a monster with a multi-layered crown on his head. Another formation I liked featured stalactites hanging from the roof, looking like a cloud with droplets of rain frozen in the sky. One more intriguing characteristic about these caves is that some stalactites and stalagmites called heliotites grow against the laws of gravity.
The Mladeč Caves (Mladečské jeskyně) are also located near Olomouc, not far from the Javoříčko Caves. I went by car the same day I visited the Javoříčko Caves. It was not easy to get to these caves, either, and I was there on a weekend, which made it even more complicated to go by public transportation.
Remains of prehistoric man have been found here, including many skeletons of people from the Early Stone Age. I saw skeletal-like formations in the Cave of the Dead while Nature’s Temple was dominated by what looks like it was once a shimmering white waterfall. In the Virgin Cave the shapes took on forms of hills with towers and castle ruins. One figure that impressed me looked like a mummy.
The Koněprusy Caves (Koněpruské jeskyně), only an hour or so from Prague and seven kilometers from Beroun, boast the largest system of caves in Bohemia. The caves were discovered in 1950 and opened to the public in 1959. They are easy to get to as well. I took the train to Beroun, about an hour from Prague, waited about an hour and then went by shuttle bus to the caves. I was impressed that bones of prehistoric animals have been unearthed there. The stalactite and stalagmite ornamentation was thrilling; one cave even used to be a medieval money forgers’ workshop in the 15th century. According to the guide, between 5,000 and 10,000 fake coins were made there using copper sheets and an amalgam of silver. I saw copies of the equipment the forgers used.
I took note of some stalactites shaped like an organ; Eternal Desire is composed of stalactite and stalagmite spikes that are almost touching; and another formation appeared as white gushing water, stopped in time. Perhaps Prošek’s Dome astounded me the most. In this cave I set my eyes on the 1,500-year old Koněprusy Roses stalactite formation. It fascinated me that this is the only place in the world where this sort of ornamentation has been discovered.
In another cave a certain formation could depict a rock-made window frame overlooking a grotesque landscape of quills, resembling swords, pointing down from the roof. Nearby a stalagmite appeared to me as a sandcastle, seemingly so fragile that it could be broken with the slightest moment. A shape on the ceiling looks like a gaping mouth about to swallow the visitor.
In the waterfall I saw the droplets of water gushing down, stopped for eternity. Also, in the Organ Hall, I noticed stalagmites taking the form of a small town made of cliffs. Replicas of bones unearthed in Prošek’s Dome were exhibited in the Empty Dome; for example, I took note of the skull of a woolly rhinoceros and part of a human skull, both 13,000 years old.
BOZKOV DOLOMITE CAVE
There are other caves that I liked, too. I went by bus to Semily and then took another bus about one kilometer from the Bozkov Dolomite Cave, but it can be difficult to find public transportation that goes there. This cave, in the foothills of the Giant Mountains of northern Bohemia, boasts the longest cave system in the country formed on dolomite limestone as well as the largest underground lake in Bohemia in the Lake Cave. Discovered in the 1940s, it is the only publicly accessible cave in northern Bohemia.
For me, the underground lake of glinting green water framed by rock formations was the thrill of this tour. Some of the rocks even formed an archway through which the water seemed to flow into the horizon. I saw other rich stalactite and stalagmite decoration on the tour, too. For example, I imagined that a squid was moving sideways in a strong current when setting my eyes on one formation. I was a bit frightened when I peered down a chasm into the depths of darkness. In another cave I took note of a waterfall bulging at its bottom.
NA POMEZÍ CAVES
I stayed in the spa town of Jeseník in northern Moravia when I visited the Na Pomezí Caves (Jeskyně Na Pomezí). I took the bus from Jeseník, but times were irregular. The Na Pomezí Caves have the largest cave system in the country.
While exploring the 530 meters of these caves, I saw a curtain-like formation that appeared to be made with coarse material. Cascades and large stalactites adorned the caves. I imagined one grotesque shape as someone’s dentures about to bite into two muffins. Some of the caves that enchanted me here included the Ice Dome, the Weeping-Willow Cave and the Roman Bath corridor.
There are other caves in the country, but those are the ones that excited me the most. Whenever I descended the steps and walked into the depths of a cave, I felt as if I was looking deep into my soul. When I listened to the legend of Kateřina getting lost in the cave of the same name, I thought about feeling lost myself, how I didn’t want to be an English teacher anymore, but for the time being couldn’t find another job that suited me. I felt that I had yet to find myself, and I was nearing 40.
In other caves I mused about my life as well. I pondered over whether I should have had children. I wondered if I would be happy being single all my life as the few men I had loved hadn’t loved me. I thought about many things during those visits to caves, and I always felt enlightened by the time I exited each cave, leaving the darkness of my musings for the joyous light of day.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.