Of mice and human fish

I hadn't travelled half way across Europe to visit a dormouse museum.  You might think that this would go without saying, but why exactly would someone go to Slovenia?

I had gone because I could.  A new budget route had opened to Trieste, on Italy's Adriatic shoulder, but even the Ryanair website couldn't make much of Trieste as a destination.  It suggested heading 150km west to Venice or, more intriguing, a short journey east to Slovenia.  This appealed to me.  Suddenly the Balkans were accessible to short breaks.

And so I made my first mistake before I had even touched down.  Slovenia may be former Yugoslavia but the Balkans it ain't and never has been.  More to the point, the Slovenians won't thank you for suggesting that it might be.  Don't mention the war either.  The Balkans conflict hardly touched Slovenia: it claimed a surprisingly easy independence in 1991.

I knew I'd done something right when Italian factories and refineries made way for Slovenian forests and rivers.  I caught a bus that took in the towns on Slovenia's 30 mile share of the Adriatic.  Slovenia claims to have beaches but you'd be disappointed if you went there for a beach holiday.  Even the Slovenians take their buckets and spades to Croatia.  The seaside attractions are architectural and scenic ones.  I would stay on the bus until I found the perfect coastal resort.

First on this geographical beauty parade was Koper, an attractive old town overshadowed by Slovenia's only commercial port.  Next came Izola, with a marina instead of a port and a lively modern town attached.  The penultimate settlement was Portoroz.  I began to worry.  This was an Austro-German beach resort with no style but plenty of beer bars: a nice setting but way too brash.  The last resort was anything but: Piran is a preserved medieval town filling the tip of a pretty peninsula.

Tourist brochures would describe Piran as a fishing village, but the local fishermen would call it a tourist town.  There is a small marina, an oval square (if there can be such a thing) and ruined hillside town walls.  In the limited space between, terracotta-roofed Venetian architecture leaves just enough room for tiny alleys, hidden squares, low archways and winding stone stairways.  The 17th century bell tower by St George's hilltop church is a replica of the campanile at St Mark's Square in Venice.

Down at the waterfront, a parade of seafood restaurants and pizzerias caters to Italian day-trippers and German yachtsmen.  Few visitors spend the night in Piran and those that do retire early.  The Theatre Bar, more popular than the adjoining playhouse, provides what nightlife there is to a fashionable local youth.

There was a lot to see nearby and not long to see it.  The sensible option was to hire a car.  With a beach resort just down the coast it was easy and cheap.  The only bad thing I can think of to write about Piran is that its waterfront is clogged with cars.  It's not that there are very many of them, just that there is so little room for them all in the town.  Out on the open road, the traffic disappeared completely and the driving was easy.  Southern Slovenia is a land of mountains and meadows, farms and forests, caves and castles.  I was soon outside Predjama Castle, a medieval fortress built spectacularly into a cave, half way up a cliff.

Every good castle has a legend attached.  From this stronghold Erazem Lueger, a 15th century baron in the mould of Robin Hood, held out against the Austrians, taunting them and dropping fruit and animals on them like John Cleese's French in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  The Austrians were baffled by his unlimited access to these luxuries, via a secret passage through the cave and beyond.  Erazem met a Pythonesque death too, hit by a cannonball as he sat on the toilet.

The castle was rebuilt in the 16th century and now looks more like an ancient Tibetan monastery with roofing from closer to home.  But it still has a drawbridge, a dungeon, a working catapult, a jousting track and a stunning location, so no complaints there.

You can explore Erazem's cave but it makes more sense to go a few miles down the road to  Postojna's section of the same cave system where they have installed viewing facilities, and more besides.  Preferring to see my stalactites without the aid of a toy train and coloured lights, I drove on to Skocjan Cave.  The route twisted and undulateed past signs directing me to caves of every size and depth: every forested valley around here is a collapsed cave.

I've been to caves before and I know what to expect.  There will be narrow dank corridors, a vast open cavern, a set of stalagmites called "the church organ" and a limestone formation that looks like a rock but that also looks like something else if you care to put your mind to it.  But everyone had said this would be the highlight of my trip so I could hardly drive past.  There were no other English-speaking visitors so I made my own entertainment while my group was guided through in Italian.

All was going according to plan until we reached the edge of the Great Hall.  As I peered into the darkness ahead and tried to make out the source of a distant rumble, the guide flicked a switch and revealed the cave's piece de resistance. Beacon lights trailed off into the distance, marking the edges of a terrific subterranean gorge.  At the bottom, the river Reka cascaded through the chasm, its spray hanging in the air illuminated like fog.  It was like a cross between Blade Runner and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.  Even the Italians took off their sunglasses for a better look.  We followed a ledge cut high into the chasm wall, finally crossing to the other side over a vertiginous 140 foot high bridge.

These caves are home to human fish.  Or so the locals will have you believe.  What they are referring to is Proteus Anguinus, a blind troglodyte amphibian.  They're up to a foot long and shaped like a worm but with four feet and heads like a gecko.  Disappointingly, the only thing remotely human about them is the skin colour.  If they sound like monstrous creatures, it is reassuring to know that about the only chance of seeing one is in a fish tank at the Postojna Cave.

With more time I would have visited Lipica, home of the Lipizzaner horses, famous of Vienna's Spanish Riding School.  But I had plans involving different creatures.  The direct route to Sneznik Castle and its dormouse museum was by tiny roads via Lake Cerknica.  I couldn't easily find the way so I stopped at a roadside restaurant.  Heads were shaken and worried glances cast my way.  "No tarmac", they said, "and no signs".  It wasn't suitable for a little hatchback like mine.  If I had a tractor I might be OK.

I didn't have a tractor but that had never stopped me from doing anything before.  "Will the lake be there today?" I asked.  "Maybe", the waiter replied.  If this seems like a surreal conversation I can explain.  Despite the effort I was about to go to, I was far from sure that I'd see the lake when I got there.  This is a lake that fills from below ground.  When the cavern underneath floods, its excess water fills Cerknica, sometimes in the space of a day or two.  What look like springs are the pressure valves of subterranean sinkholes.

In situations like this I invariably ignore local advice.  I'm almost always wrong to do so, but the rare occasions when I've been right have more than vindicated this approach.  It was as hard as I'd been told to find the way through the disorientating forest, and the tarmac did indeed very quickly make way for a dusty trail.  But when the track became too rough it was always because I'd taken a wrong turn.  I put the car through its paces with hard acceleration and racing manoeuvres.  It was just as well that I met only one vehicle coming the other way: you can look pretty daft doing handbrake turns in a Citroen Saxo.

When the forest thinned, the lake could be glimpsed through the firs to my left.  It was liquid in parts and marshy grasses in others.  A farm occupies a narrow promontory but today it cut into fields, not waters.  The only break in the tranquility came from some locals making a half-hearted attempt at canoeing.  It was worth the off-road excursion but it would have been more picturesque if it had rained more in the last few weeks.  I drove on, alongside what should have been the lake shore.

I pulled up in a cloud of dust outside Sneznik Castle, my poor Citroen looking like it had just completed the Paris Dakar Rally.  This castle had a moat to go with its drawbridge but with its shutters, tiled roof and chimneys it looked even less like a castle than Predjama.  As a fortified country house it was a fine example.

I hadn't come here to see a castle anyway.  But when I found the dormouse museum I found it closed.  Oh well.  At least I'd have a reason to come back, perhaps on Dormouse Night in September when dormice are hunted and barbecued.  I wasn't too disappointed.  Like I said, I hadn't come to Slovenia to visit a dormouse museum.

©  Nicholas White 2001