It’s crazy underground. Discover what lies beneath in caves across Europe.
From huge underground lakes to sculptures made out of salt, you’d be amazed at what lies beneath, says contributing editor Mike Peake
Three years ago, I went on an outward bound course with my then employers and learned all sorts of important things about myself, most notably that I really couldn’t drink as much as my colleagues. Along with the obligatory bridge building was a night-time caving expedition where we were given the chance to turn off our torches and feel our way out should we fancy it.
Oddly, we did, and as we were 1km underground the blackness was breathtaking. There wasn’t a sound – save for the endless bumping of pit helmets on rock and some weeping from the girls – and it was truly an immense experience. Hooked, I set my mind on exploring other underground options around Europe. Here are seven of the best.
Just 50km from Trieste, Italy, lie the Postojna caves in Slovenia, some of the most accessible on the planet thanks to about 8km of navigable trails. Unusually, most of the system is on the same level and you can wander around at will, although if you want to shell out a bit you can hire a dinghy and a guide will take you to places dark enough to scare Stephen King.
Slovenia is like a slab of Swiss cheese, with more than 7,000 known caves, and Postojna has been attracting paying visitors since 1824. The incredible underground train ride is straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, specifically, the one with the underground train ride, if that helps.
EXPECT TO PAY: €20 gets you in, while €60 will buy you a challenging, five-hour guided tour. For more details, visit visit www.turizem-kras.si
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France is a wondrous holiday destination, which perhaps explains why more people visit the country than anywhere else on the planet. Yet away from the sun-kissed beaches of the Mediterranean and the lush green valleys of the Dordogne is an outdoor adventurer’s Mecca – the Ardèche, a land-locked department in southern France serving up mountains, rivers, forests and caves.
Although closed to the public, Chauvet Cave near Vallon features paintings some 30,000 years old. But among the seven other caves in the area is Aven d’Orgnac, with 3ha (one tenth of its total space) of underground hiding places to explore. Its top draw are the “organ pipes”, a collection of stalactites hanging down like something from The Phantom of the Opera.
EXPECT TO PAY: €9.70, www.orgnac.com
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They won’t reopen until May because there’s a good chance winter visitors would get snowed in – but if you’re in Austria this spring, and in need of a sight to make you look up and mutter something that rhymes with “moley twit”, you should seek out the largest system of ice caves on the planet.
The Eisriesenwelt Caves are less than an hour from Salzburg, and are the kind of thing you’d find in a Tolkien book. Their nooks and crannies measure more than 40km and date back a cool 100 million years. You don’t need a smidgen of caving experience to have a peep around either, as some nice men have put in a proper path, including lights. Interestingly, the nearby town of Werfen is where scenes from both The Sound Of Music and Where Eagles Dare were shot.
EXPECT TO PAY: €8.50 to see the cave, or €19 if you want a cable car jaunt (recommended) thrown in (www.eisriesenwelt.at).
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There are more than 170km of known tunnels down here in this yawning cave system in the belly of the Swiss Alps, although experts say there are undoubtedly a lot more. Its name translates as “Hell’s Hole”, and it’s as forbidding a spot as we’ve seen – a maze of tunnels, crevasses and holes, with the kind of creepy rock formations that make you convinced you’re being watched.
Scoffing at the quick tourist visit, more intrepid explorers can trek deep into the cave system and spend the night in a bivouac, traversing underground lakes and monster caverns as they go. Eerily, the temperature in the caves is the same all year round – a breezy 6ºC.
EXPECT TO PAY: CHF395 (€264) for two days in Hell’s Hole with Trekking Team (www.trekking.ch). The caves are at Hintertal in the Muotatal Valley, roughly 130km from Friedrichshafen or Basel.
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CUEVAS DEL DRACH
Spend too long in a cave and you’ll end up looking like Gollum – but you’ll struggle to tear yourself away from this popular Mallorcan tourist spot, which houses one of the world’s biggest underground lakes.
Known as the Martel Lake, it lies within a 2.4km-long set of caves sitting just 25m below the surface, and was first discovered by Frenchman and pioneering cave explorer Edouard Alfred Martel in 1896.
Every day, audiophiles are treated to a classical music concert, where the sounds dance off the stalagmites, walls and water. Mesmerising!
EXPECT TO PAY: €10.50. Porto Cristo, 65km from Palma (www.cuevasdrach.com).
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Wieliczka Salt Mine
This place is simply awesome, and has been providing Poles with stuff to put on their chips since the Middle Ages. Excavations go down as deep as 327m, and the UNESCO-listed site first opened to visitors – condiment-mad European VIP ones – way back in the 1500s
Over the years, romantic/artistic/bored miners have carved all sorts of weird and wonderful figures out of the white stuff (which is actually not that white), and nowhere did they get more carried away than in what became the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, which features scenes from the Bible in salty relief. Unashamedly touristy – it pulls in 1 million visitors a year – there’s also a serious side to the mine at the neighbouring Treatment Centre, where salty air and water is said to cure all manner of chesty ills.
EXPECT TO PAY: PLN48 (€12). Wieliczka, 10km south-east of Krakow (www.kopalnia.pl).
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If you look across the City of Lights from any decent vantage point, you’ll see just how much of the place is built from limestone. Most of it was plucked from the ground below – and as a result the capital of France straddles earth more holey than Rab C Nesbitt’s vest.
While this was a problem during the construction boom of the last 200 years (thanks to disappearing floors), it did provide city planners with a solution for what to do with all the bones clogging up the city’s cemeteries. In the late 1700s, an order was decreed to close the graveyards, reclaim the land, and pile the bones underground. In the Paris catacombs you can enter a chamber so full of bones it’s like entering hell. There are thought to be about 6 million skeletons in there, none of them intact. Instead, you’ll see walls of tibias, fibulas, and – creepiest of all – skulls.
EXPECT TO PAY: €7, www.catacombes-de-paris.fr
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