In a Hole in the Ground…
Each has taken millions of years to develop, and each is unique, like a fingerprint. Caves. Empty spaces in the rock, some are mere hollows, while others extend into long branching galleries deep into the dark. Products of nature, chiselled with soft water in hard stone, they have always inspired our imagination. Although none of Małopolska’s caves has given rise to legends of trolls, Gollum, and the One Ring, we have a dragon! The Wawel Dragon. And many of the most beautiful among the over 4000 Polish caves. Let’s have a short peek into a handful, shall we?
Much of the region is built of limestone, a fairly soft rock in a geological sense, that, moreover, is quite susceptible to water, over thousands of years of course. Thus, most of the region’s caves can be found in the limestone formations of the Jurassic Plateau stretching from Kraków northwards, and in the limestone part of the Tatras.
The Wielka Jaskinia Śnieżna, literally the “Great Snowy Cave” is Poland’s largest, deepest, and longest. Its total length is 23,753m, which is nearly 15 miles, and more sections are discovered each year.
The Jaskinia Mylna is the region’s longest cave that can be visited without a guide. It takes its name, Mylna – Tricking – from the twisting and turning corridors, where it is easy to lose your bearings. It is situated in the Kościeliska Valley in the Tatras. Don’t be too afraid of getting lost inside, as only less than a fifth of the total known length of 1630 m (Yes, that’s nearly a mile!) is accessible to tourists.
If you enjoy visiting film locations, you can visit Jaskinia Nietoperzowa not far away to the north from Kraków, in the Jurassic plateau. It was the backdrop for several film productions, notably the Polish classic Ogniem i Mieczem (By Fire and by Sword), and Bollywood’s Bangistan. The cave can only be visited with a guide, as it is home to protected bat species that gave the cave its name.
Perhaps the most historic cave is Grota Łokietka in Ojcowski National Park. It may have few interesting geological formations, yet it allegedly provided a hideout for King Ladislaus the Elbow-High (Władysław Łokietek) during the Bohemian incursion. According to a legend, while the Bohemian king’s henchmen were pursuing the short Pole, he was saved by a spider, as the thugs decided not to investigate a crack in the rock that a crafty local arachnid covered with cobweb just as the King had slipped into it.
However, it is the Dragon’s Den – in Polish Smocza Jama – that has become home to a legendary beast: the Wawel Dragon who lived here, and whose statue can be marvelled at by its bottom entrance. The top entrance opens within the perimeter of the castle walls, and you descend down a steep stair taking you into the whole 82m of the cave. Absolutely de rigueur, if you’re with children and/or fans of Neil Gaiman, who made it an important, though distant, location in The Graveyard Book.
As every cave is different, with characteristic colours, geological formations, and flora and fauna ranging from the aforementioned dragon (temporarily extinct alas) to bats, let me tempt you to a link with more information on them.
Make sure you will be safe in the caves you intend to explore. The temperature in some of those “holes in the ground” may stay at around 5°C even in summer. As these are places where the sun doesn’t shine, make sure to take a source of light, a headlamp (check the batteries!) is perhaps the most convenient. Make sure you wear hiking quality shoes or boots that you have tested in slippery conditions.
At 824m deep, Wielka Jaskinia Śnieżna is only 4 m “shorter” than the world’s tallest building – Burj Khalifa!