Czech Caves Diary

 

Koněprusy Caves

Koněprusy Caves

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.

PUNKVA CAVES

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.

Punkva Caves

Punkva Caves

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.

Punkva Caves

Punkva Caves

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.

Punkva Caves

Punkva Caves

KATEŘINA 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.

Kateřina Cave

Kateřina Cave

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.

Kateřina Cave

Kateřina Cave

SLOUP-ŠOŠŮVKA CAVES

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.

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

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.

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

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. 

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

BALCARKA CAVE

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.

Balcarka Cave

Balcarka Cave

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.

Balcarka Cave

Balcarka Cave

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.

Balcarka Cave

Balcarka Cave

JAVOŘÍČKO CAVES

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.

Javoříčko Caves

Javoříčko Caves

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.

Javoříčko Caves

Javoříčko Caves

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.

Javoříčko Caves

Javoříčko Caves

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.

MLADEČ CAVES

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.

Mladeč Caves

Mladeč Caves

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.

Mladeč Caves

Mladeč Caves

KONĚPRUSY CAVES

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.

Koněprusy Caves

Koněprusy Caves

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.

Koněprusy Caves

Koněprusy Caves

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.

Koněprusy Caves - The Waterfall

Koněprusy Caves – The Waterfall

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.

Bozkov Dolomite Cave

Bozkov Dolomite Cave

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.

Bozkov Dolomite Cave

Bozkov Dolomite Cave

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.

Na Pomezí Caves

Na Pomezí Caves

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.

Na Pomezí Caves

Na Pomezí Caves

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.

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

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.

 

Looking up at the Macocha Abyss from the Punkva Caves

Looking up at the Macocha Abyss from the Punkva Caves

Rájec nad svitavou Diary

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The train trip from Brno to Rájec nad svitavou took about an hour. I chatted with four young women from Vancouver during the short ride. They got off at Blansko, heading toward the Punkva caves in the Moravian Karst region. I recalled waiting for that same bus during my exciting journey to the most beautiful caves in the region. Other astounding caves were accessible by bus from Blansko, too. By now I had seen all 14 Czech caves accessible to the public. Today I was enthusiastic about visiting Rájec again. Ten years ago I had been bewitched by the chateau’s interior. I expected to be enamored again.

I found my way from the train station in Jestřebí to the chateau in Rájec without getting lost, for a change. One glance at the rectangular courtyard decorated with blossoming orange flowers, and I recalled my thrilling visit all those years ago. I saw flashbacks of the big library, Hall of Ancestors and the Big Dining Room. Then I gazed straight ahead at the three-winged, elegant building, its entranceway sporting a balcony passage. The chateau was crowned by a high mansard roof. A dormer window and a clock tour made up other significant architectural features. To my left was the chateau’s chapel.

I was psyched by the time I entered the box office. I introduced myself and told the dark-haired, frowning woman manning the computer that I was a journalist writing about the chateau, that I had set up a 90-minute tour by email and that I had sent a confirmation a few days earlier.

Her belligerent response caught me totally off-guard. “I don’t care if you are a journalist. You have to wait until there are 10 people interested in a tour before you can see our chateau,” she screamed at me. There were circles under her eyes. I wondered if she had gotten enough sleep the previous night. This woman clearly had anger issues she was not dealing with. An older, smiling woman stood next to her, and a teenage boy in a scruffy T-shirt and jeans organized some pamphlets behind the belligerent brunette, ignoring her outburst as if it was nothing new to him.

“But I reserved a tour. I contacted you a month ago and sent you a confirmation on Saturday. I will be happy to wait up to an hour, but it is customary for journalists to get private tours if there is no one else interested in a tour at that time.” I spoke calmly, careful not to make the woman angrier.

“I never got any email from you.” Her tone was aggressive, vehement even, as her eyes bore into me. The boy kept his back to her, and the round-faced woman with short, grey hair kept smiling.

“If you did not get it, why did you answer it?”

“I did not get any email from you. I certainly did not get any confirmation,” She said, skirting the question.

“I sent you the confirmation on Saturday. It is Wednesday. Surely, you have received the email by now.”

“I will go look at our computer and call the caretaker, even though she is on vacation. Give me your email address.” I wrote it down for her, and she left the building. I gathered it was not possible to look it up on the computer in the box office.

Her calm, forever smiling colleague said that of course everything would be all right, and I would get a private tour if no one else was interested in seeing the chateau now. I found the email confirmation on my mobile phone and showed it to her. The teenager, who I assumed was a summer tour guide, answered the phone next to the cash register and announced, “She already found your email. Everything is okay.”

If everything was okay, why did it take the woman another 10 minutes to return?

ImageFinally, she stood behind the computer, which once again became the imposing physical barrier between us. The smiling woman left the room as the chateau leader in her forties announced, “I did not get any email from you. I called the caretaker, and she knows nothing about you.” I showed her the email confirmation that her colleague had seen. I noticed that her hair looked unwashed and uncombed. The young man was placing brochures in a drawer.

“I never got any email from you.”

“Then why did you answer the email I sent you a month ago and write me that you were looking forward to my visit?” I persisted.

“I do not even know what publication you are writing for.”

“You just read the name and link two seconds ago.”

The calm woman had returned and dared to speak up, stating that the guide should give me a tour, but the belligerent woman interrupted her, yelling, “We have decided you can spend 60 minutes in our chateau, but no more. You cannot spend all day with our tour guide.”

 “I requested the 90-minute tour, and I do not want to spend all day with your tour guide. I just want the 90-minute tour.”

“Sixty minutes. That’s all.” She said, her gaze threatening me to challenge her.

I set off with the young man, disappointed that I would only get a 60-minute tour. We were both silent until he opened the main entrance. “What do you want to take pictures of?”

“I never said I wanted to take any pictures. I said I wanted the 90-minute tour.”

“Oh, then that’s different. I have to go back and ask them if that is possible.”

About to give up and return to Brno, I waited another five minutes for the scruffy teenager. “If you want the 90-minute tour, you need to wait 10 more minutes.”

Why not? I had already waited 30 minutes. What did 10 more minutes matter? I felt as if I was a character in an absurd play.

At the designated time, a small group gathered around the entrance, and the guide introduced himself. There were seven people in our group. The woman had told me that there had to be at least 10 visitors for a tour to take place.

I knew I should be angry. No one had spoken to me so rudely for a long time. No administrator of any monument I had visited during my 21 years here had treated me so badly. I inferred that the people running Rájec did not make an effort to encourage tourists to visit their chateau and did not care what impression they made on journalists. The entire experience was so Kafkaesque, so typical for this country.

I recalled other Kafkaesque experiences, such as when I had to go to customs in Prague to pay tax on a package my mother had sent me. She had written that the cat litter box liners cost 11 USD, and the customs officer was convinced it read 1,100.00 USD. While I was able to persuade her it was not that expensive, she still made me pay tax. Each time it became my turn at the five customs counters, the officers on duty went on coffee breaks.

I tried to concentrate on the tour. First, the guide gave some insight into the history of the chateau. The community of Rájec was established during or before the 12th century while a stronghold was situated at the settlement probably from the 13th century, though it had not been on the site of the current chateau. The seat of the Lords of Rájec was destroyed twice – during the 14th century and again during the Hussite wars of the 15th century. 

The most significant clan to own the chateau was the Salm-Reifferscheidts, who obtained it in 1763. They would remain the owners until 1945. This chateau was built in 1769. The member of the family who would most influence the chateau was Count Hugo František Salm-Reifferscheidt, who became the owner in 1811 and was responsible for furnishing the interior. He expanded the library and the chateau gallery. However, dark days came to Rájec when the Nazis took control of the chateau during World War II – the reason why the state confiscated the building in 1945 under the so-called Beneš’ decrees. Now the chateau mostly flaunts the style of 19th century Romanticism.

ImageThe tour began. The Neo-Renaissance Dining Room featured a carved cassette ceiling supported by two Corinthian columns. I marveled at the colorful handsewn tablecloth sporting 126 coats-of-arms. The colorfully upholstered chairs also lent a certain charm and energy to the room. A closet from 1667 featured rich woodcarving.

After passing by impressive Oriental vases – there were a lot of them at this chateau -, we came to the Corner Room, which displayed the prince’s crown trimmed in white fur above a blood red color. It was given to the Salms on the coronation day of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II during October of 1790. The guide showed us the bronze door knocker featuring the god Neptune. This was the only furnishing in the chateau that hailed from its Renaissance days.

The Engravings Cabinet enthralled me. The wooden wall panels were decorated with engravings inspired by works of prominent artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens. Each wall showed off engravings with a different theme. I was especially drawn to the works dealing with life in the Vatican, though the ones focusing on French rulers also grabbed my attention. I was especially impressed with the 18th century Holland Baroque furniture with floral and plant motifs. I recalled admiring this style in the Český Šternberk Castle not far from Prague.

The stunning Hall of Ancestors contained 40 portraits of former owners and their families. I knew that each portrait told the story of a life, of dreams that did or did not come true, of love, of troubles and of pain. As I gazed around me at the portraits, I wondered what each person’s story was. I also noted the blue and white Meissen porcelain decorating the room. A jewel chest and two tables glittered gold.

The octagonal Ceremonial Hall featured Classicist illusive wall painting that covered the 18th century Rococo frescoes with mythological themes. I wondered what exactly the frescoes had looked like. A chandelier gave the illusion that it was gold.

The Rájec library, covering three rooms, contained 60,000 volumes, making it the largest chateau library in Moravia. Its possessions included medieval manuscripts pertaining to black magic. It dated back to the 1770s and was adorned in Empire style. What really caught my attention were the three standing skeletons in the second room. Two skeletons had one arm on each of their skulls. I wondered if they were scratching their skulls because they were puzzled by the box office brunette’s behavior.  The other skeleton was headless.

ImageNext we ascended to the first floor. The blue and white Meissen porcelain in the Dining Room was exquisite, and in the Big Hall I admired the detailed woodcarving on the gramophone from World War I. In a bedroom there were two intriguing maps – one showed Central Europe in the 1830s while the other was an administrative map of the Czech lands, delineating the different districts, from 1720. I was disappointed we did not get more time to peruse the maps.

In the study three African shields entranced me. On a desk from the 1830s there was a model of a hand that could be used as a paperweight. The Oriental Antechamber included a 17th century jewel chest with Chinese landscapes painted in detail on the drawers. In another bedroom I saw a tapestry decorated with 120 coats-of-arms and some seascapes with raging waves.

Last we visited the chapel, in another building. The Empire style painting of the Virgin Mary was the only intriguing piece inside. Otherwise, it was barren and depressing.

I took a short stroll through the English park, established in 1767, with ponds and a waterfall. I was still puzzled by the anger the woman had unleashed at me as I walked on a narrow path, thick with trees. I pondered on how all my life I had always taken the path less traveled by, the path to adventure, the path that would lead me to get to know myself better as a person. Growing up I had played baseball and ice hockey with boys, for instance.

At a university in America shortly after the Velvet Revolution, I had become enamored by Czechoslovak theatre and the life and works of playwright-turned-president Václav Havel. After graduation I moved to Czechoslovakia, with a modest job teaching English, not knowing the language and not knowing anyone in the country. So much had changed since then. I was not even the same person anymore.

Then I wondered if my memory of this chateau would forever be associated with the rude remarks of that nasty woman at the box office and the Kafkaesque absurdity associated with it. Most probably it would, unfortunately. I remembered reading one travel blogger’s post about how unfriendly and cold Czechs had been to her in Prague. She ended the article by stating she would never return to the Czech Republic. I hoped that someday I would return here, have a positive experience and be full of the enthusiasm I had felt when I first visited this chateau some years ago.

I noticed dark clouds hovering in the sky and glanced at my watch. It was time to head back to the train station.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

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