Spelunking in Harmanecka Jaskyna

by Ivona Dostalova

There are few places on earth where nature can be seen in its pristine condition. Travellers in Europe eager to set their feet on ground undamaged by humankind's intrusive ways are somewhat limited in their choices. In Slovakia, however, a network of more than 3,800 caves burrowing deep below the ground and winding through hills offers a rare glimpse into a realm protected from the outside world.

Of the thousands of caves in Slovakia, which cover a territory of approximately 1,080 square miles (2,700 square kilometers), twelve of the most beautiful are open to visitors. Harmanecka jaskyna (Harmanec cave) is one of the twelve. Set in a deep valley dominated by the Velka Fatra mountains, 10 miles (17 kilometers) northwest from Banska Bystrica, it's a must for nature-lovers. A 40-minute climb along a path which zigzags its way through a large thicket of evergreen yew trees leads to the mouth of the cave. The entrance to the cave is 850 feet (260 meters) above the valley.

Explorer M. Bacurik, who first discovered the cave in 1923, managed to crawl into the small hole only after blasting it open. Nowadays, the narrow crack easily swallows anyone willing to slide into the darkness. A walk through the cave leads through a series of small claustrophobic passages, less than one yard wide, which opens up suddenly into astoundingly spacious halls. Be warned though: the high chimneys, deep canyons, and dark dips serve as a perfect winter resort for bats. Inside the cave is a myriad of sites and sounds conjuring up images limited only by one's imagination. Water percolates from the surface, enriched with calcium and other dissoluble minerals, leaving behind elaborate and intricate decorations on the cave's walls. Stalagmites, formed on the floor by the dripping water, take on the appearance of pagodas and cream wedding cakes. Stalactites, hanging from the roof, appear as curtains, canopies and waterfalls. Masses of limestone suggest lumps of cottage cheese, a bear's head, a mother with a baby, the Orava castle or Janosik, the Slovak Robin Hood. If you concentrate your vision just right, the image of Krivan, a mountain that became Slovakia's national symbol, appears to hang upside-down from the roof just within a visitor's reach. Shift your gaze once again and the stone formations magically take on the appearance of the High Tatras rising from the distance. The tour snakes through passageways for about one and a half hours. It's almost a rule that during the tour the lights suddenly go off for a while. There's no need to worry though; it's only the tour guide trying to demonstrate absolute darkness. Leaving behind the cool mysterious caves, the expedition ends where it began. Going down to the valley, satisfied and content, one feels assured that the visit was undoubtedly worth the climb.

But Harmanecka jaskyna is not the only attraction the area has to offer. There's much more to see in the vicinity. Banska Bystrica is a regional center located in a dale between the Velka Fatra mountains, Kremnica Hills and the Low Tatras. Banska Bystrica first made a name for itself in the Middle Ages as a silver and copper-mining center. Gradually, it became a prosperous and flourishing town. Its significance is evident in the main square, which is lined with enchanting gothic and renaissance burghers' houses. A castle with a clock tower and a gothic parish church add to the medieval flavor.

Just a stone's throw from Banska Bystrica is Tajov, a charming little village at the foot of the Velka Fatra mountains. Jozef Gregor Tajovsky (1874-1940), one of the best writers of his time, was born in Tajov. A small museum is located in the house where he spent part of his life. The town is a nice place to stay for those who like the peace and quiet of the countryside, but a car is necessary to travel through the area.

Leaving Banska Bystrica for Donovaly, a favorite ski resort among Slovaks, one can find Spania Dolina just a short distance from the main road. Old women in this picturesque hamlet spend their summers knitting bobbin laces while sitting in front of their houses. Donovaly is a nice spot for those in love with handicrafts and folk architecture.

How to get to the cave

The best starting points for Harmanecka jaskyna are Banska Bystrica and Turcianske Teplice. By car: It's exciting to take the road from Turcianske Teplice to Banska Bystrica. Cut into steep slopes, with lots of twists and turns, the road offers gorgeous views. Be aware: the road goes up then immediately falls down. Chewing on bubble gum will help ameliorate uncomfortable pressure in your ears. Watch for the sign Harmanecka jaskyna between the villages of Dolny Harmanec and Horny Harmanec.

By bus from Banska Bystrica: Take a bus leaving from the main bus station (next to the train station), to Horny Harmanec, platform 9.

Tel. 00421-088-745 479

By train: A train goes through the valley and mountains from Banska Bystrica to Turcianske Teplice-Diviaky.

For those who are not in a hurry it's a pleasant way of spending a day. It passes through 22 tunnels; the longest is 4.498 meter long. Get off at the station Harmanecka jaskyna. Check the timetable at the railway station in Banska Bystrica, as the train does not go very often. Tel. 00421-088-437 03, 00421-088-742 132.

A few points worth noting

The temperature inside the cave remains a constant 6 degrees Celsius throughout the year.
Wear long trousers and bring a jacket or warm sweater, even if the weather outside is warm.
Passageways are well maintained but often slippery. Heavy shoes are recommended.
Don't forget about a 40-minute climb to the cave. The way down is quicker. It takes about 20-30
minutes. You should allow 3-4 hours for the whole visit.

Entrance fee

Ticket: Sk 50 (children pay reduced fee)
Camera: Sk 100
Video camera: Sk 200

Guided tours

Sept. 16 - Oct. 31: 10.00, 12.00, 14.00
Closed on Mondays.
At scheduled times a minimum of 4 visitors is
required, or the price of 4 tickets must be paid. Visits
at any other time are allowed if arranged with the
manager (an extra charge applies).

Contact

Harmanecka jaskyna, 976 03 Dolny Harmanec, tel.
00421-088-798 122

Other Sites

Caves in Slovakia