Besides the opera, another excursion that Dale had planned in advance for us was a visit to the Punkva Caves in the Czech Republic which can only be seen as part of a scheduled tour.
The Punkva Caves are a popular destination for Czechs and Austrians, so reservations were necessary and ours were for Saturday, May 24; not only for the caves but also for the only accomodations in the area, Hotel Skalní mlýn (Hotel at the Rock Mill).
We took the high-speed Czech RailJet from Wien Meidling Bahnhof to Brno in that part of the Czech Republic that used to be known as Moravia when it was still part of the Habsburg Empire before WWI. At Brno, we transferred onto a local train to Blansko, a small city in the heart of the Moravian Karst region.
According to the Czech Conservation Agency:
A karst landscape is one which has been shaped by the dissolving action of water on stone such as limestone to produce unusual surface and underground features including disappearing streams, vertical shafts, springs, complex underground drainage systems and caves.
Sounds like the underground system in North Florida that our eldest son, Kyle, spends so much time cave-diving in.
We weren't sure what we had gotten ourselves into when we arrived in Blansko. This was our first visit to a former Eastern-Bloc country (I don't include the former Yugoslavia which we visited in 1983) and stepping off the train in Blansko was like entering a time-warp – as if time had stopped in 1968 when the Soviet Army had entered the country to supress the reforms underway at that time.
But we found a taxi and made it to the hotel by the caves, which turned out to be pretty nice.
We enjoyed a nice meal of borscht and goulash, washed down with some Pilsner Urquell, then peeked in at the wedding reception going on in the dining room next door before getting to bed early.
The next morning after breakfast we started our 2-mile uphill hike to the top of the cliff above the Macocha Abyss.
There's a cable car on the top of the hill that we took down the cliff face to the cave entrance. It was just too early in the day to rappel down.
The tour through the Punkva Cave system is underground around one mile long. It starts in a now dry part of the system that is called the front dome:
The Czech government is in the process of modernizing the catwalks, access roads and trails and the entrance pavilions to create something very similar to what exists at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky – very state of the art.
We continued our walk through lit natural tunnels and A couple additional caverns,…
… admiring the various stalagtites and stalagmites along the way.
After walking a little less than a half mile underground, we entered a man-made tunnel that was about 4 feet wide and 8 feet high that we walked through for about another quarter mile which led us out into the open at the bottom of the Macocha Abyss:
The Abyss was formed long ago by several caves collapsing onto one another; it's essentially a giant sink-hole. Here, the subterranean Punkva River comes to the surface and then flows down into the Punkva Cave system. The pooling area of the Punkva you see in this photo is about 150 feet deep.
And here's a picture taken from the same location looking up at the surface which is more than 400 feet overhead!
We continued from the bottom of the Macocha Abyss through another man-made tunnel to a grotto where we boarded an electric-motor-powered boat that took us for a half mile boat ride on the subterranean Punkva River,…
… finally back into the open where we disembarked,…
… took the cable car back up to the top of the overlook cliff, and then hiked the 2 miles back to the hotel to get our backpacks and catch a taxi to the train station in Blansko.
Everything went according to plan, except one thing –
We didn't bring hiking shoes. Oh, our sore and soggy feet.