Whilst taking my 1992 Summer holiday touring Europe, I could not resist the temptation to drop in on one or two show caves which were on my way. Thus my family were subjected to a selection of caves in Germany, Czekoslovakia and Austria, all of very differing character.
Germany is not particularly well known for its caves, but it does have a number of karst areas and one or two show caves. The premier show cave in Germany is probably the Attehohle which is situated in the Sauerland about 100 km east of Cologne. The cave consists of a three dimensional maze of phreatic solution passages and is extremely well decorated. Pretty as it is, its management is very old fashioned and the guides appear uninspired, delivering a dull and humourless commentary. The 'chemical engineering' that has gone on in order to enlarge some of the smaller passages to 'tourist size', so completing a round trip, and the concrete walkways are also highly unsympathetic with the cave form. Not one to go out of your way for.
The Moravian Karst just north of Brun, south-west of Prague, is a National Park covering 120 sq km which contains several show caves and other karst features. It is a very beautiful area of deep wooded valleys cut into a high farmed plateau possessing all the classic karst features such as poljes and dolines that you might expect. Of especial note is the massive Mococha pit, a vast collapse doline no less than 138m deep and measuring 175m x 75m across. A viewing platform at the top enables the visitor to peer into its depths and at its bottom can be seen the river Punkva as it emerges briefly into daylight on its underground course through a cave system which has six entrances and over 32 km of explored passages.
The name of the ravine comes from a 17th century folk tale: The story has it that there was a vicious stepmother. In order to get rid of her stepdaughter she threw her into the pit. The child, however, became caught in some bushes over the precipice and was rescued by a passer by. An angry crowd of villagers then punished the callous stepmother by throwing her to the Mocacha (Step Mothers) Ravine.
Of the several show caves in the Moravian Karst, the premier attraction is the Punkevni Jeskyne which is the major resurgence cave in the area. The tourist route takes the visitor through a series of dry and spectacularly decorated galleries to the base of the Mocacha pit from where an artificial tunnel connects with the underground river and a boat ride back to the surface. Unfortunately, such is its popularity that there was a four hour wait when we visited so we decided to try one of the other show caves instead.
The Sloup-Sosuvske cave is at one of the main sinks of the Punkva and is an extensive system of which over 1.5 km is open to the public. Opened in 1882, it was one of the first show caves in Europe. The entrance is a grand arch which contained deposits of archaeological importance. This leads to an impressively decorated chamber and then on to a long series of galleries connected by passages excavated through cave fill. At intervals deep pits in the floor give impressive views 70m down to a lower level of the cave. The show cave ends in a very mediocre grotto, the 'Fairytale Hall', which appears to contain an assortment of formations transposed from elsewhere in the cave. In one of the halls there are rows of beds lining the walls. These are used for 'speleotherepy', a magic cure used for asthmatic children who spend 3 hours a day in the cave on a monthly cycle breathing in the cave air.
The Moravian Karst is well worth an extended visit; much longer than the half day we had available.
Austria contains some of the most spectacular alpine karst and caves in Europe as well as many fine show caves. The Eisreisenwelt in the Tennegebirge massif south of Salzberg is one of the major cave systems in Austria (42 km long). As a show cave it must rank as one of the most spectacular in Europe.
Situated at an elevation of 1640m, access is firstly by a 6km drive up a steep zig-zag road to the car park perched high on the mountainside. A walk of about 1 km leads to a cable-car which rises a further 500m up the hillside. A final walk along a steep path cut into the stark rock face of the mountain climbs the last 60m or so to the cavernous entrance of the cave which opens in the bare rock of the near vertical mountainside.
The entrance is closed by a metal door through which blows an incredible wind when it is opened. Armed with a hand held carbide lamp the tourist immediately enters an immense circular tunnel over 25m in diameter which bores deep into the mountain. The floor is covered with ice and icicles hang from the ceiling and drape the walls. The tourist paths are formed on wooden walkways constructed over the ice and these lead up one wall of the passage and return down the other side so as to make a circular trip. The twinkling of the lamps held by visitors in other parties illuminates the passage far into the distance.
The passage initially climbs very steeply for over 30m in awe inspiring proportions. This ice fall was a major obstacle to early explorers and although the cave was first entered in 1879, it was not passed until 1913. At the top, the passage continues to climb to 130m above the entrance before levelling. Ice is abundant, not only on the floor but in vast domes and draperies of spectacular appearance. The guides illuminate the ice from behind using magnesium ribbon imparting a beautiful blue glow to the ice. The tour ends in a vast ice floored chamber which is reached via a narrow passage where the wind is so strong that the lamps blow out necessitating relighting on the other side. The return trip takes a route below the underground glacier in a natural tunnel sculpted in the solid ice to emerge at the top of the ice fall again.
This cave is quite unlike anything else in my caving experience and is truly spectacular. Not to be missed if you get the chance.