That’s the message I didn’t want to hear on Easter morning.
We were in Brno in Moravia (eastern half of the Czech Republic) and everything was closed on that Monday. Fortunately, we had made a Plan B in anticipation of such closures and it was time to kick it into top gear. With great anticipation I called the number in my guidebook listed under ‘Moravsky Kras.’ A piercing shriek of joy almost escaped my lips when a lady answered at the other end. It meant, they were open!
The ‘Moravsky Kras’ or Moravian Karst in English, is a limestone region in south Moravia, with a network of nearly 1100 caves full of stalactites and stalagmites with only four open to the public. We picked the Punkva Caves (pron. Poonkva) since they are the largest and also have a namesake underground river running through them.
The woman on the phone warned me that I had to come before 2 since the cave tours were getting booked up. We leapt off the fluffy bed in our hotel room, dressed in jeans, rain jackets and hiking shoes and an hour later were standing in the reception area to the Punkva caves.
To my complete horror, I found that accompanying us on the tour of the caves was a class of noisy American teenagers. Even our tour guide, a sweet young Czech man, seemed intimidated by the jabbering 15 year olds. I don’t know much about stalactite behaviour but I was afraid the noise levels would cause the equivalent of a cave avalanche by making one fall and slice my head in two neat halves. Nothing of the sort happened and the kids turned out to be quite entertaining in the end. They took pictures furiously, continued to talk at the top of their voices and apparently passed wind as well as one young girl enquired with a young man, “Did you just fart?”
The caves are a cold, damp affair with the temperature staying at 8 degrees Celsius all year round. As you move deeper and deeper into the caves the stalactite and stalagmite formations get increasingly elaborate, inviting appropriate names such as “Angel” and “Curtain” reflecting their shape. The texture of these formations look like someone melted millions of candles and quickly sculpted the wax to create them. But touch it and the wet, cold stone reminds you that this is the chemistry of millions of years of water and carbonate rock.
My favourite formation was “Romeo and Juliet” a stalactite and stalagmite, that grew exactly opposite each other from the top and bottom and appeared to be ready to meet in the middle till a change of flow in the water condemned them to star-crossed misery, ensuring they would never kiss. The story went down well with the teenagers.
One of the most wondrous moments in the first part of the tour is when you step out of the dark caves into a pool of light coming through what looks like a hole in the sky. The air is fresh and misty and the light gentle and diffused. As your eyes adjust to the light, you realize you are standing at the bottom of the Macocha abyss – the deepest of its kind in central Europe. That moment when you enter the abyss and the light rushes around you like water around a drowning man you wonder if this is what it feels like when you spot heaven as a dead soul – head lifted towards the sky and bovine smile spread stupidly across the face.
The nearly 140 m deep Macocha abyss was formed when the roof of a cave fell in. It is called Macocha after a local legend of a step-mother who pushed her step-son into the abyss. Saved by a protruding branch the boy returned to tell local villagers about it and fearing their ire, the step-mother or Macocha in Czech, threw herself into the gorge.
We left the abyss and our teenage friends and entered the darkness of the caves again, but this time on another side and in a boat on the underground Punkva river. The river runs deep into the caves and the stalactites hung low. Here we really were in danger of hurting our heads if we didn’t lean and duck in time to avoid the low roof as the boat moved through the caves.
The boat tour ended when the river emerged again in the open but we discovered that the Punkva caves had still something left to offer. We rode a little cable car to the top of the Macocha abyss to look at its foggy bottom from the top. Looking down this sinkhole is quite dramatic as it still retained a coat of white winter snow on the side and a placid green pool of water of the Punkva river right at the very bottom. For those who commit suicide here, and apparently there are many, this beauty is the last they see of the world.
We then wandered off into the woods around the top of the abyss where we hiked in solitude for two hours. In the Moravian Karst region, even nature contributes to the Czech Republic’s seemingly endless supply of beautiful architecture.