Twenty-five kilometres north of the tall grey apartment complexes and graffiti-stained streets of Brno is the Moravian Karst, which offers 100 sq km of caves and underground trails.
On a sunny Saturday in April, 20 of my classmates from New York University in Prague and I took a trip to the caves, attracted by the excitement of exploring the depths of the great unknown.
This was not my first experience spelunking, as true cave explorers call it. About two hours from my native New Jersey, Howe Caverns, located in upstate New York, are the Empire State’s equivalent of the greater Brno caverns. When I was younger, I used to call it Howe Taverns, which might be a more acceptable term for the Moravian Karst, which has several self-service restaurants and various bars serving Pilsner in collectible mugs. I passed on the beer, opting instead to take the trolley up the winding road, away from the tourist-filled base and to the entrance of the caves.
The base of the Karst is as kitsch-laden as any tourist destination almost anywhere. A log cabin selling postcards, disposable cameras and safety helmets also has a porch where Adirondack chairs and patio furniture invite guests to buy ice cream or a cheeseburger before their excursion to the caves. My friends and I instead chose the field across from the cabin, where we stretched out in the wildflowers and admired the striking beauty of the surrounding Drahany Highlands.
After our trolley ride, we were met with an identical scene. An outdoor patio, gift shop and snack bar seemed to be replicated and placed in the exact same position, except instead of a grassy field there was the tall, craggy face of a rock wall and the ominous entrance to the caves.
Our assigned tour time had conveniently left us with an hour to walk around, so we went into the gift shop. Cracked-open geodes sat sparkling, bright red “POZOR” signs taped to the shelves. For just CZK 1,200, I could buy my very own rock! I thought about Howe Caverns and then of the large purple geode on my desk at home and quickly walked away.
The Moravian Karst may have the makings of one of the Czech Republic’s cheesiest tourist sites, but it is also an incredible geological area. The Karst contains more than 1,000 discovered cave systems, but only four of those are open to the public.
The Sloupsko-Šošůvské, Balcarka, Kateřinská and Punkevní Caves are the caves that are open to the public. They have separate entrance fees, ranging from CZK 70 to 160 for adults. Specific information on ticket costs can be found at the Karst’s website.
The caves were discovered in the early 1700s by Lazar Schopper, a monk who is the first known explorer of the famed Macocha Abyss. The abyss is almost 140 metres deep and the largest gorge of its type in Central Europe, according to the Karst’s website. The abyss was created because the ceiling of a cave collapsed and has become one of the most visited chasms in the world.
A walking tour through the Punka caves will bring you through the stalactite-covered ceiling of the dimly lit caves. At the end of the 720-metre walk, after ducking under low-hanging rock faces, you’ll arrive at the vast expanse of the abyss appears. Crane you neck upward, and see onlookers peeking down and waving from an observation deck 100 metres above.
The highlight of the tour through the Punka Caves is the final stretch: the Mokrá cesta, or “wet walk,” an underground boat ride down the Punka river. The boat floats over three subterranean lakes, lit a mysterious green color, with the shapely curves of the water-carved walls casting an eerie feeling.
It’s amazing to see how these still bodies of water have carved out miles and miles of caves and how, over time, tiny droplets of water have created the fragile-looking stalactites and stalagmites that drip from the ceiling and grow from the floor.
An exploration through the other three caves will expose the geological greatness of the area. The Belcarka caves boast a variety of domes, complete with cliffs. Like an entirely different world, the Belcarka caves also have an overwhelming number of stalactites and stalagmites, formed by water and lime deposits over millions of years.
The highlight of the Kateřinská Cave is its layered stalactite formations and excellent acoustics. Concerts have been held in the main hall, the largest underground venue in the Czech Republic. The Sloupsko-Šošůvské chambers compose the longest cave system in the Czech Republic and also have cliffs, gorges and marked walking paths.
The tour ended where it started: in the gift shop, where I bought a light-up stalagmite pen for my cousin. It’s identical to the one I bought from Howe Caverns when I revisited the caves last summer. There must be one distributor of cave goods in the world, a giant warehouse filled with headlamps, safety helmets and rock-patterned ponchos.
After a cable car took us to the ridge of the Macocha Base, I peeked down and saw a group of tourists, mere specks so far from the ground I was standing on. Before we got back on the bus and made our way through the breathtaking scenery of Moravia and back to Prague, I caved in a bought an overpriced ice cream. It was in the shape of a cave explorer, complete with a yellow gumball for the lightbulb of his headlamp.