The area of influence of the Škocjan Caves Regional Park ecompasses the entire Reka River watershed and covers 450 square kilometres. It is situated at the extensive junction of the karst and non-karst worlds at the southwestern foot of a high barrier of Dinaric plateaus. Its favourable location is influenced by the Mediterranean climate, and its surface is heavily broken. Reigning above it is the 1,796-metre high Mount Snežnik, the area’s easternmost border and the highest non-alpine mountain in Slovenia.
The upper part of the Reka River valley on the Slovenian–Croatian border, between Mount Snežnik and Gorski Kotar, is less than 20 kilometres from the Kvarner Gulf. A surface river network has developed on the large part of the area of influence, while the remaining part is characterized by a distinct underground flowing with major Karst springs at the junction with impermeable land. The most abundant are Sušec and Bistrica in Ilirska Bistrica and Podstenjšek beneath the village of Šembije, which boasts many stone barriers. A watershed (between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea) runs across the Snežnik plateau.
Flora and fauna
Mount Snežnik is known for its interesting flora that is extremely diverse from both phytogeographic and ecological points of view. It is known for its many plants, both rare and common, as well as ecologically and floristically highly diverse plant associations. Not long ago the area above Ilirska Bistrica was covered with many meadows that were created following the deforestation of flowering ash, European hop hornbeam and downy oak habitats. Nowadays, these are overgrown due to the progressive cessation of pastoral stockfarming and mowing. Above them, vast fir-beech forests extend, while pine trees prevail in numerous depressions where temperature inversions occur. The Snežnik mountain chain is also known for its diverse fauna. Hardly accessible and still rather intact forests offer shelter to many animal species, among others to three greatest predators, the bear, wolf and lynx.
Traces of settlement from the Iron Age have been found in the Ilirska Bistrica area of the Park's area of the influence. The terraced hill fort above Trnovo is one of the largest settlement complexes in the area. On the strategically-located Gradina elevation, a protected settlement in the Late Roman Age in the form of a stronghold is evident. A castle was built within its walls in the Middle Ages, one in the series of castles along the Reka River. The old Bistrica town centre dates back to the 14th century. Also from the Middle Ages is the multiply renovated Church of St. Peter. A characteristic feature of this town is the mixture of folk buildings from the 19th century and buildings that are commercial and administrative in nature. The mills and sawmills in its historical centre date back to the period between the 17th and 20th centuries. There are records of them from the first half of the 15th century. Sawmill craft trade was very important for the town. Today the mills and sawmills in the town centre are abandoned. Bistrica, which is also known as the cradle of quality music groups that cultivate folk songs (Volk Folk, Bistrške Škuorke etc.), for its convent and school of Sisters of Notre Dame (1888–) who continue the tradition of educating young girls, as the birthplace of the apiarist Anton Žnidaršič, the constructor of the AŽ Beehive and as a carnival venue and the town in which one of the oldest still operating youth clubs in Slovenia (MKNŽ) is located. It is also the resting place of 284 deceased fighters of the 4th Yugoslav Army, the Overseas Brigades and local inhabitants who found their rest place on the Freedom Hill (hrib Svobode). Initiatives to preserve the traditions surrounding the start of military service, "štel'nga", as a tourist event originate in the Bistrica area. The recruitment dates back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire when universal military conscription was introduced, and is a festive ritual, similar to the departure for military service. Recruits from Pivka, Bistrica, Brkini and Karst villages drove to the military headquarters accompanied by the sound of the accordian, a glass of wine or two, later on in the company of girls. First, they drove in horse-drawn carriages decorated with greenery and (paper) flowers but later the carriages were tractor-drawn. They received special attention. Local girls and women adorned them with bunches of paper flowers, and this custom was preserved just until recently in the wider area of influence of the Škocjan Caves Park, usually together with the custom of decorating carriages with paper flowers.
Reka River Valley
Flora and fauna
This is an ornithologically important area where, on the humid and flooding meadows, smaller swamps, reeds and the Reka River banks, many animals found their habitat, including the corncrake (Crex crex), a globally endangered species, little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus), common quail (Coturnix coturnix), kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), bee-eater (Merops apiaster) and other rare bird species. Flooding and marshy meadows are of significant importance especially in the sub-Mediterranean part of Slovenia since they represent a valuable and rare habitat of endangered plant and animal species, among them the scarce large blue (Maculinea teleius), a globally endangered butterfly species. Thermophilic slopes and occasional steep walls created as a result of the thrust of Snežnik's calcareous mass on the flysch Reka River valley are interesting from both the floral and faunal points of view.
The oldest traces of the settlement of this valley date back to the Late Bronze Age; they are protected due to their cultural monument status. These include two prehistoric hill forts that continued to exist in the Roman period. The first one, within which a burial ground was discovered, is located near Dolnji Zemon, while the other is near Dolnje Vreme (Soline), where the remains of an antique settlement (Sv. Jurij) and the related flat burial ground (Cerje) were discovered. Even older is the Iron Age stone mound near Zavrhek (Ajdovski gradec) – according to the latest research (Štanjel - Ostri Vrh) it is supposed that it covers the ruins of a prehistoric defense tower.
The remains of the medieval castle Gotnik pri Zabičah date back to the mid-13th century. The name of this mysterious castle perhaps brings to mind Gothic settlers. At Podstenj, we can admire the 17th-century Church of Sv. Anton Padovanski that is known for its exquisite stonecutting details and the Aquileian bell tower and is protected as a cultural monument. This is one of the rare parish churches that has almost entirely preserved its original appearance and the most beautiful ridged arched interior in the Karst area. The Carnival celebrations have their origins in the pre-Christian period and are connected with the ancestor cult, celebration of winter farewell and the arrival of spring as well as fertility magic rituals. In present times, the carnival is, above all, fun. Different kinds of masquerade figures and Carnival groups have developed in the Slovenian countryside.
The already-mentioned activities of flourmills and sawmills that were connected to water capacity of the Reka River and its tributaries left their mark on the Reka River valley history. For this purpose and mostly due to the gentle gradient of the Reka, the millers constructed many dams and millraces ("mlinščice"). Their millstones came from Istria. Many preserved buildings that testify to this activity located along the Reka River, from the Jernak Mill beneath the village of Podgraje to the mill in Ukne just before the Reka River sink into the Škocjan Caves, are protected as cultural monuments; for instance, the Dujčev Mill in the Škofelje area where the Reka River passes onto the limestone bedrock and begins to sink into the underground. That is why the millers had to plug the holes in the riverbed with wooden beams and rocks. The millers were often plagued by high water that damaged mill wheels and machinery, flooded mills, and demolished dams. Because of such floods and the then pursued policy, there are no longer any functioning mills along the river, although two have been renovated for tourist purposes, i.e. the Novak Mill beneath the village of Smrje and the Hodnik Mill in Ilirska Bistrica.
On the other side of the Reka River rises the flysch Brkini region. Numerous hills rise in this twenty-five kilometre long, seven-kilometre wide area, in some places reaching over eight hundred metres above sea level. This flysch terrain, which resembles a lonely island in the midst of the Karst landscape, is at several points split by deep ravines or wider valleys through which torrential waters flow following heavy rains; they sink in blind valleys under the Matarsko podolje on the southern side of Brkini while on the north they flow into the Reka River. On one of these streams, two water-storage reservoirs were created with dams – Klivnik and Mola – that serve the purpose of enriching the low waters of the Reka River.
A picturesque ridge road that runs on the top of Brkini connects many remote and clustered settlements of this economically and demographically endangered part of Slovenia.
Flora and fauna
Moderately acidophilic beech forests prevail here, and the intermittent grassy areas are mainly overgrown with upright brome grasses and Chrysopogon gryllus. Due to favourable climatic and pedological conditions, fruit grows extremely well here, particularly apples and plums; the famous Brkini plum brandy is produced from the latter.
One of the oldest protected archaeological areas in Brkini is the hill fort with a well-preserved rampart dating back to the Late Bronze Age near Jelšane (Sv. Katarina) that was settled by the Middle Ages. A putative prehistoric hill fort with unreliable traces of a medieval fortification that is badly preserved due to the flysch ground is located near Kozjane (Castle).
The medieval castle on Prem, reigning over a large part of the central Reka River flow, stands out with its strategically favourable position in Brkini. Today the castle houses a permanent exhibition of prehistoric hill forts. Another medieval castle in this area is situated in Podgrad pri Vremah. Završnik Castle dates back to the turn of the 11th and12th centuries. From 1398, the castle held the central office of the Gorica Authority and the judicial centre for the Karst and Istria, from Sežana to Buzet and Klana.
In addition to Suhorje, Prem is also protected as a settlement monument. The village, located on the saddle-shaped ridge, is squeezed into two lines between the castle and the 19th century Parish Church of Sv. Helena holding paintings by Tone Kralj in 1921. Buildings in this village date back to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. One of them is the former People's School and the birthplace of Dragotin Kette, a Slovenian poet active in the Slovenian literary movement known as "Moderna", that today houses Kette's memorial room (museum).
The Brkini region saw some heavy fighting during World War II. The formation of the 1st Battalian of the Istrian Detachment of the People's Liberation Army on Ostrovica deserves to be mentioned here.
The inhabitants of the Brkini region are known as people who love their traditions. Several choir and folklore groups are active here. Active within the framework of the Brkini Cultural Society are a dance group that revives old dances from the Brkini and Inner Carniola (Notranjska) regions and preserves the Brkini folk dress as well as the music group called Brkinska banda and many others. Let us mention also a typical Carnival masquerade – škoromati (scoromati) with typical characters.
Vremščica, Košana valley, Prestranško-slavinski ravnik and Sajevško polje
The north-western part of the area consists of the undulating and scarsely inhabited Karst world that reaches its highest point on the 1,027-metre Vremščica. To the east and northeast part of Vremščica, it descends into the Košana valley, the wooded Prestranško-slavinski ravnik and Sajevško polje, from which percolated waters flow underground towards the Reka River bed.
The oldest protected human traces in this area have been discovered in the cave site near Sajevče (Županov spodmol). They date back to the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, Iron Age, Roman Age and the Middle Ages. There are a number of hill fort areas and sites from the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age (near Čepno: Štirna; Gornji Košani: Gradišče; Mali Pristavi: Boljunc).
Church of the Visitation of St. Mary's in Gornja Košana (1666) is a true jewel. This is one of the most beautiful monuments of Late-Renaissance Karst architecture with a dominant role in the settlement that had the role of one of the oldest parish centres in the Trieste Diocese.
When talking about the cultural heritage of this place, we must mention a group of young local inhabitants who founded the Štirna Tourist Society, arranged the stonecutting educational trail that leads visitors through the village in time and strive to achieve the goal of local cultural heritage renovation. As they themselves say, the pond (kal) is known for its stonecutting craft trade in which several families were engaged in the 19th century. They are very proud of the exceptional reservoir, from the second half of the 19th century, built from carved stone that measures 17 metres in upper diameter and 9 metres in depth and into which leads a stone staircase, presently under renovation. The inhabitants of the village of Narin have called themselves a tourist village.
For many centuries, people here engaged in sheep farming, fruit cultivation, beekeeping and farming. Occasionally, they organize presentations of some rural customs, serve homemade products and organize guided tours along the nature science educational trail and over-night accommodation.
Škocjan Caves Park outskirts
The oldest protected traces of life in the Copper Age have been found on the outskirts of the Park. The most important site is the Jazbina Cave near Kačiče with finds dating back further to the Bronze Age. There are many protected areas from the Late Bronze Age where settlement continued into the Iron Age. Especially significant are the hill forts near Kačiče (Gabrova stran) and Famlje (Stari grad); finds discovered near Gradišče continue into the Middle Ages. The hill fort near Dane pri Divači (Volarija hill fort) dates back to the Iron Age, while the flat cremation burial site near Brežec (Dol) is from the Early Iron Age. Here, 322 graves have been explored and the finds discovered in the graves are presented in the archaeological collection of the Škocjan Caves Park. Human habitation has been constant throughout the millennia. Near Škoflje, it is possible to admire the protected remains of the medieval stronghold (Tabor).
In Vremski Britof near Gornje Vreme, the birthplace of the storyteller, writer of books for older children, publicist and psychiatrist Bogomir Magajna, there rises a magnificent Baroque-renovated Gothic Parish Church of St. Mary's Assumption by the Reka River. The church presbytery contains several frescoes from the second part of the 15th century and the church holds some quality paintings by the Gorizia-based 18th century painter Antonio Paroli.
The frescoes in the Church of Sv. Helena in Gradišče cover the nave walls. The themes painted in this15th-century Gothic-Renaissance church are the arrival of the Three Wise Men and the Passion cycle. The paintings are very similar to those of Hrastovlje and the works coming from workshop of the master Janez from Kastav. They represent the peak of creativity of a local Istrian group. The presbytery of the Gothic Church of Sv. Tomaž in Famlje is decorated with paintings in the style of the Northern Italian (Friulian) painting tradition of the early Quattrocento. The small Church of Sv. Brikcij in Naklo, an example of Karst Gothic architecture, contains quality wall paintings painted by the mid-15th century Friulian painting workshop.
With regard to folk building, only the former carriage drivers' inn in Vremski Britof with outstanding stonecutting details has been protected as a monument in this area. In addition to this wealthy homestead bearing No 9, there is another important one (No 14) in Naklo that has been declared a cultural monument of local importance. This one-storey two-room house with an inscription plate bearing the year 1772 is covered with slate tiles and has an outdoor stone staircase with balusters. A well dating back to 1791 is situated in front of the house on a slightly elevated and walled-in surface. This was a wealthy house, which was also the Naklo Municipal centre in the 19th century. Equally special is the ice pit near the house Kačiče No 27 which was built around 1860 and is almost entirely dug into a Karst sinkhole. Known as the ice factory, it is the largest ice pit in the area. It is 19 metres deep, cylinder-shaped with a diameter of 17 metres and with a central 32-metre high column that served as support for the cone-shaped roof. The roof was first thatched with straw and later covered with red tiles ("korci"). A wooden staircase led inside. In the courtyard of his house, the owner Mušič from Trieste kept a large pair of scales for wagons containing ice that he also bought from private farmers. After his death in 1906, the ice pit ceased to operate and started to gradually deteriorate. We could say that this coincides with the appearance of first cold-storage plants at the end of the 19th century.
One of the economic activities carried out in this area was also mining. This area is known for its black coal deposits. In the 19th century, a black coal mine called Timav was opened in the vicinity of Vremski Britof. The unit in Zavrhek was closed in 1955 and the one in Vremski Britof in 1964.
Prepared by: Darja Kranjc, Borut Peric
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