“ Sightseeing Type: Tours „
Hey ho, another review - another cave. Recently I reviewed the magnificent karst caves at Postojna in Slovenia; this time it's another karst cave not far away in Italy, just outside the city of Trieste. The Grotta Gigante is billed as the "biggest tourist cave in the world" which, having been to Postojna I have to take issue with. I can only imagine that this must be referring to the central cavern in Trieste because Postojna is a huge complex of caves of which the visitor sees only 5 Kilometres of the twenty-odd that have been explored. The Grotta's vital statistics - 107m high, 65m wide and 260m long. I've dug up some statistics that might enable readers to put these facts into perspective - the Eiffel Tower is 324 Metres high, the Tower of "Big Ben" is 96.3 Metres tall and the Angel of the North is 20 Metres high.
WHERE IS THE GROTTA GIGANTE?
The Grotta Gigante is situated about 15 Kilometres from the Italian city of Trieste, near the border with Slovenia. The area has lots of caves because it is largely limestone; in Slovenian this is known as "kras", in Italian "carso"; as a result, Italians refer to the whole of this region as the "Carso". To get to the cave is easy; it is well signposted for drivers and it can be reached on public transport, either by bus or by tram from the centre of Trieste.
There is a small car-park at the visitors' centre, people using public transport should ask the driver where to alight then follow the signs to the cave entrance which is a ten minute walk from the main road.
The nearest town is Villa Opicina which, with its good selection of restaurants and hotels would make a good place to explore the area from.
HISTORY OF THE GROTTA GIGANTE
Although it possible some explorers might have found the cave earlier, there isn't much on record prior to 1800 when a whole series of explorations were made. However, it was not until a second, much safer, entrance was discovered in 1908 that tourists could visit.
Since then the cave has become one of the most popular attractions in the area but it is also a centre for scientific work; two enormous pendula hang in the centre of the cave, there to measure movement of the rocks.
VISITING THE GROTTA GIGANTE
The cave is open all year round. Between April and September there are tours every hour; at other times of the year you should check in advance. You buy your tickets at the reception area in the visitors centre and you can look around the exhibition until the tour starts. Admission for adults costs 7 Euro 50. If the group is quite small and there aren't too many different languages among the visitors, the commentary will be played in those languages; the staff will explain this when you buy your ticket.
The exhibition consists of a couple of rooms displaying information and photographs to do with the discovery of the cave, the geology in the area and the transformation of the cave into a visitor attraction. Unfortunately the captions are only in Italian and Slovene.
You will need to wear non-slip, sturdy footwear and a waterproof or warm jacket (this applies more outside the summer months although the icy drips can be a shock at any time). The guide will stop at various spots to play the commentary or simply let the group catch up but you do need to be able to manage the five hundred steps which can be very wet and slippy. Children might like the idea of a visit to this cave but may find the stairs difficult; they are treacherous on the descent and hard-going on the climb back up.
Finally, there is no smoking, no mobile phones and no flash photography. Now you may go into the cave....
INSIDE THE GROTTA GIGANTE
The cave has been artificially lit; had it not been you'd see literally nothing. In fact, although there is lighting it's not very bright so until your eyes adjust the first thing you notice is how cool it is inside the cave. Then you look to your right and a huge expanse of stalactites and stalagmites is spread out in front of you. The lighting has been cleverly placed so highlight some of the most impressive and unearthly formations. In placed small tufts of plants have grown, seeds that have come into the cave as the water has permeated the limestone have been nurtured by the lights in the cave and have created a "mini bonsai garden" - if such a thing could be said to exist.
Some of the formations have been given names; the "gelati" look like ice creams while in another part of the cave giant mushrooms spring out of the floor of the cave. One of the most notable types of formation here is the "palm trunk stalactite" which, not surprisingly, gets its name from its resemblance to a palm tree. As the cave is so high, the water that drips from the roof moves quickly, creating quite a splash when it hits the bottom and the water sprays out like the peeling bark of a palm tree.
The formations take on different colours depending on the minerals in the water; in this cave they are mainly earthy tones ranging from pale yellow through rusty orange to deep rich browns. In this way it differs from the caves at Postojna which are much more colourful.
The tour takes about forty-five minutes which includes two short stops to listen to the commentary.
When you emerge from the cave there is a small souvenir stall that sells small pieces of polished minerals, postcards and a few tacky souvenirs that could come from anywhere. There is a small book section with some books on caves and geology. There are toilets here too.
Across the road is a small snack bar with lots of outdoor seating that serves hot and cold drinks, ices and light meals.
A few minutes walk back towards the main road is a lovely traditional trattoria "also sign-posted in Slovene as a "gostilna"). There are excellent set lunches or you can just have a drink inside or outdoors in the pretty courtyard.
I did enjoy visiting the Grotta Gigante, but that was before visiting the caves at Postojna. If you are really interested in caves and geology then you should visit both as they are quite different. However, visiting these caves requires more walking and you need to be quite fit. The Grotta Gigante is not as dramatic in its beauty as Postojna but a visit does not demand so much time and in that respect maybe a better option for people short on time. The Grotta Gigante costs around 10 Euro less than visiting Postojna and seems reasonable value given the differing experience.
Alas, I don't recommend this cave for small children although I think they would probably enjoy the experience. When we were there one visitor ended up carrying his son who couldn't walk any further and this put the father and child at risk on the steep, wet steps.
The Grotta Gigante was an interesting experience but there are better examples of karst caves in the region that offer a more user-friendly activitiy for the whole family.
The world's largest tour cave!