Connor: Spelunker, Robber Baron and Train Passenger

Yesterday was Saturday, so it was time for Connor and his colleague to see more of Slovenia. There are posters all over Ljubljana for the Postojna Caves. All of these posters claim that the caves are a “World Famous Attraction”. I kind of feel sorry for the caves, because not only do I not believe that they’re “world famous”, I imagine most people in Italy and Austria have never heard of them. And Italy and Austria are both less than 100 km away. Poor Postojna.

We wanted to take a train, because trains rule and buses suck ass. However, the only morning train was at 8:30 am, so we decided we’d get a 10:00 am bus to Postojna and a train back in the evening.

We boarded the bus, seeing a big group of empty seats at the back. However, as we neared the seats, we saw that they were covered in swag. There were sequinned cardigans, and glossy handbags, and leopard print scarves. These seats had clearly been reserved by some high-class drag queens. We found free seats beside them. A French-speaking couple got on after us, and after them two young German women. They asked us who was sitting in these seats. We said we didn’t know. They were the only “free” seats on the bus, so they moved an electric pink glossy handbag and a rhinestone top to one side and they sat down. Just before the bus was due to leave, a group of eight little old Slovene ladies boarded, eager to be reunited with their wonderfully tacky gear and the seats that they’d “booked” while they wobbled off to the loo and to touch up their ruby red lips and jet black pencil-thin eyebrows. The French and the Germans had to stand for the journey, while the little old ladies reclaimed their seats. Luckily, my colleague and I could keep our seats, but one of the old ladies reached between my legs, to where she’d stored some supplies for the journey, and one-by-one a fresh peach for each little old lady appeared from between my legs.

We arrived in Postojna, a sleepy little town, at about 11:00 am, and followed the signs to the caves. We walked out of the town and down a hill. It was beautiful and wild and rural and very, very quiet, and I was expecting to come across the caves with the next turn of the hill, with maybe a little ticket office and quiet souvenir shop at the entrance. Instead, the first thing I saw was the biggest car park in Europe. Seriously, it was easily the size of County Roscommon. And then we passed the car park and entered the complex.

It was massive. We were no longer in the middle of the countryside. This was fabulously plastic. There was a ticket office, seven or eight cafes and restaurants, pubs, and about a million souvenir shops, and the ugliest-looking hotel in Europe (like the Trinity Arts Block, with added concrete balconies) It was like someone had taken an English seaside resort like Blackpool, and plonked it in the middle on the Slovene countryside. What was truly hilarious about it was that there were no people. So many souvenirs and no one to buy them. And this was a Saturday in August, presumably their busy season. It wasn’t completely empty, but the whole thing was entirely out of proportion to the number of visitors. Symbolic of this, was a man wandering around dressed up as a friendly red dragon, looking for children so he would have some purpose, but he couldn’t find any purpose. He was a very lonely dragon indeed. There were no children for him to greet. No one wanted to have their photographs taken with him. Poor dragon. 

We sat down to have a drink before going into the cave, and I insisted on sitting as far away as possible from the traditional Slovene maiden in traditional Slovene dress playing traditional Slovene tunes on an accordion. In case you’re wondering, traditional Slovene dress is exactly the same as traditional everywhere-in-Europe dress. She was wearing a number of ill-matched colours and fabrics, with more layers than is natural (Is that a petticoat? Is that an apron? Why does she have strings tying her breasts together?)

We started the tour of the caves. They really are very deep and very big. The tour starts with a two-kilometre train ride underground. It’s a very little train and the driver had no fear of twists and turns. Connor, on the other hand, is well-equipped with many fears, one of which is roller-coasters. The little train terrified me, but I managed not to shriek. Too much. 

We got off the train. The tour guide started by telling us about the caves in general. There are three levels of caves. We were in the middle one. On the tour we would see the middle and bottom level of caves, but not the top level, because they had collapsed. Wait a second. You wait until we’re two kilometres in before you tell us that the caves above us have collapsed. This was not comforting.

We walked through tunnel after tunnel and cavern after cavern. And cave formations are very impressive. All dem stalagmites and stalactites. They take all kinds of funny shapes. People were saying they looked like trees and animals and lots of different things. They mainly reminded me of ear wax and fungus. They were all coated in a greasy patina, and looked like some strippers who were baby-oiled up and ready for the Hen Party. There was another type of formation hanging from the ceilings, a very, very thin wavy orange material. They looked weird. The tour guide said that everyone says they look like curtains so that’s what they call them. Everyone else nodded and said that they do indeed look like curtains. I wish I was everyone. I was thinking that they looked like sheets of human skin hung out to dry. 

We spent about an hour journeying through the underworld and it gave me a lot of time to think. (There are only so many thoughts you can have about stalagmites.) I started coming up with my bucket list. Here are the beginnings of it. Before I die, I want to: 1. Walk the Camino de Santiago, 2. Go to Carnival in Rio de Janiero, 3. Learn to swim, 4. Have my own Vegas show, 5. Learn some real, proper Dirty Dancing dances, 6. Participate in the Naked Run at the Roskilde Music Festival in Denmark, 7. Learn to ride a bike, 8. Do Lough Derg, 9. Be published, 9. Kiss someone at the top of the Empire State Building, 10. Get the tattoos I’ve been promising myself for years (one on my right fore-arm like Liam from One Direction – a series of four chevrons in black, a stamp on my left bum cheek that says “Haters gonna hate”, tyre tracks up my calf, Dogtanian on my left shoulder, a star on my upper-right chest), 11. Go the Folsom Street Fair and have unspeakable things done to me by a stranger while a group of men in leather watches, 12. Spend a night in jail, 13. Lead a protest march on a parliament, 14. See the Northern Lights, 15. Be wooed by a Hollywood producer…

The tour led us to what they call the Concert Hall, a cavern with an unusually clear and long echo where music events are often held. I clapped my hands and heard the impressive echo. Not for the first time in my life, I wished I could yodel (16. Learn to yodel). 

The tour finished at the souvenir shop, with ten minutes to go before the train back to the cave mouth departed. What a happy coincidence. 

The souvenir shop had a display of photos of famous former visitors to the caves. I rushed forward, hoping to see a photo of Dolly Parton or Rihanna doing something naughty to a stalagmite, or maybe Bill Murray or Christopher Walked being ironic on a little train. I was sorely disappointed. There was a photo of the Archduke Franz Josef and his wife, and another of Tito. None of them were being naughty or ironic.

There’s a little postbox in the souvenir shop. Slovenes are apparently very proud of this postbox. There was a post office in the cave from the late nineteenth century. It was the first ever underground post office in the world. Which is nice I suppose. 

We got the train back to the surface and had lunch in the tourist village. We were served by a women who approached our table with a tray that held a stack of paper napkins and cutlery. She took a pair of silver tongs and laid the paper napkins before us ceremoniously, untouched by human hand. Then she scooped up a knife and fork in her paws and plonked them in front of us. I felt like send the cutlery back and demanding it be served in a more sterile way. The napkin ceremony had falsely raised my expectations. Tease. 

There was a free shuttle bus from the caves to Predjama Castle. While the publicity material for the caves refers to them as a “World Famous Attraction”, the publicity material for the castle says “Top 10 Most Attractive Castles in the World”. It does not attribute this quote to any famous commentator, writer or tour guide. I have a feeling it’s because it was never said by a any famous commentator, writer or tour guide. I have a feeling it’s a quote from someone who works for the Slovene Tourism Board. 

The castle is impressive. It’s built directly into the side of a mountain, and while it’s not attractive, it is impressive, remote and forbidding. As with every castle, the inside is disappointing, mainly made up of rooms, some with old tables and chairs, which mainly look like new tables and chairs except older. 

The most famous owner of the castle was a man called Erasmus, who was known as a “robber baron”, an excellent title (17. Become a robber baron.). He withstood a siege in the castle for a year and a day and you can easily see how. It is literally built halfway up a mountain, in the sheer face of the rock. Eventually, he came to his end when a cannonball shot him while he was sitting on a toilet moving his bowels. In an clear example of history repeating itself, Niall from One Direction was once attacked by a pigeon while he was sitting on the loo having a poo. He still, perfectly understandably, fears pigeons. 

We got the shuttle bus back to the Caves. There, we asked how we could get to the train station. The woman in the ticket office told us we should go to the bus station. We told her we wanted to go the train station. She said she would get us a car. 

We weren’t sure what this meant. A car? She rang someone. And then rang someone else. She wrote down lots of numbers. There were people waiting behind us. A lot of people. She was a good ten minutes on the phone. Then she said that she was waiting for a number and would we mind waiting while she dealt with the person behind us. 

Unfortunately, the person behind us was a group of 44 Russians, who had just arrived on a bus, wanted to pay separately, some of whom wanted a live tour in English, and some the audio guide in Russian. It took quite a while before we were dealt with again. Another series of phone calls ensued, where the woman at the desk wrote down more numbers. We asked what was going on. We thought maybe she was booking a taxi. She said she wasn’t, but that she was getting a car that the company used to transport people to the bus station. We said we were going to the train station, and she literally rolled her eyes and said “Whatever”. Eventually, she managed to get her colleague on the phone. She told us he would meet us outside the gates of the complex in a car that was “grey or something”. 

I was somewhat on my guard at the idea that we should go out onto the street and get into a car of indefinite colour, driven by a strange man in the middle of the Slovene countryside. What could possibly go wrong? 

As it turned out, the driver was lovely, in spite of the fact that he appears not to be reachable by phone by his colleagues. He drove us into Postojna and we said that we were going to the train station. He was surprised and asked us if we meant the bus station. We said we didn’t. He left us at the train station, an eerily quiet building. 

We went into the station building. The ticket office was closed and there was no one around. We went out onto one of the platforms. There was no one there. The electronic displays showing the train arrival and departure times had been switched off. We wandered around, expecting tumbleweed to cross our paths, when a man in uniform appeared onto the platform. 

We asked about the next train to Ljubljana. He didn’t speak English, but he showed us the timetable and pointed to the time the train would be here, about an hour into the future. We asked if we could buy tickets. He made it clear that we could buy them from him, but not yet. Then he said something about buses to us. Did he expect us to go to the Bus Station too? What was it with people in Postojna and trains? Even the Station Master at the Railway Station wants us to go to the bus station. 

We look for somewhere to get a drink or an ice cream. It’s very hot and we’ve walked a lot. The shop in the station is closed. We have an hour to kill and we walk into the town. It is 5:00 on a Saturday afternoon and nothing is open. No restaurants. No shops. There are no people anywhere. It’s a little bit scary. There are 10,000 inhabitants in the place, but they all seem to be spending Saturday indoors, with no loud music or TVs on, probably thinking bad thoughts about trains. 

Eventually, halfway back to the Caves, we find a hotel that is open. We are served mineral water in filthy, cracked glasses. We sit and drink in the water and the eery silence. 

We go back to the station on time for the train. There are no people around. About five minutes before the train to Ljubljana is due, the station master beckons us to follow him. He sells us to 2nd class rail tickets to Ljubljana, and leads us to the front of the station. We take our train tickets, and are told to board a bus. A bus with just three passengers. I think everyone had tried to warn us. I’m not sure. We arrived at Ljubljana Railway Station an hour later having spent the entire bus journey giggling and puzzled. 

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