From the past

Historical overview
On 7 December 1884, a contract was signed between the Primorska Section of the German and Austrian Mountaineering Society and the Naklo Tax Municipality by means of which the latter leased the Škocjan Caves to the Society for a period of five years, starting from 1 May 1885. On the first anniversary of the entering into force of this lease contract, the Society organized a festive opening of the caves, entitling it "Grottenfest" or, in English, the Cave Festival. For this occasion, the trails leading to the Schmidl and Rudolf Halls were arranged. This practice was followed in the following years. Visitors were attracted to the Cave festival by newly established trails in 1888, 1889 and 1891.

In 1904, visitors from Trieste were attracted to the caves by means of an advertising poster made by the self-taught painter and dentist Robert Hlavaty from Trieste, who was Srečko Kosovel's (renowned Slovenian poet) roommate in the Oražem Students' Hall in Ljubljana during his student years. In the same year, a special train was organised that transported visitors from Trieste at a reduced price during the Cave Festival. Between 1901 and 1904, the number of visitors rose to an estimated six hundred, perhaps a thousand. The number of visits, however, declined after 1908, the reason being heavy rains. A decision to abolish the festival was adopted in 1911. The festival took place every year between 1886 and 1911, except in 1895; in total twenty-five times. It was organized in the first half of May or June, taking place on Whit Monday from 1894 to 1900.

Gombačeva gostilna

In 1914, World War I began and, in 1918, these parts came under the Italian occupation. In 1920, the remaining Section of the German and Austrian Mountaineering Society organized the Cave Festival again after many years. This would be the last time in its history. In 1923, the festival was celebrated for the first time under Italian rule, symbolically marking the authority of the Italian society. Promotional activities included the already proven approaches, such as bus transportation from Trieste. Moreover, in 1933, a bridge across the Hanke's Channel was built. According to the available data, this festival under the auspices of the Italian Mountaineering Society took place eleven times between 1923 and 1933 on the first or second Sunday in May. No written records about this festival exist after 1933. Janko Gombač, who still remembers the festival well, says that the festival was organized once more after the war in 1946, when the cave was managed by a special agency called "Kraške jame Slovenije" (Slovenian Karst Caves) from Postojna. "It was illuminated for the last time in that year."

Concealed in this sentence is the people's perception of the festival. According to Gombač (born in 1917), the son of Matavun inn-keepers, on the occasion of the cave, the name "belajtnga", from the German "Beleuchtung", was used which means illumination, lights, lighting and is thus connected with the illuminated cave that used to be the festival's main attraction.

Organisation of the festival
The cave festival was always organised by the society that managed the cave. The festival represented a means of popularizing the cave among nearby sightseers who mainly came from Trieste and its surroundings and, consequently, among tourists. The festival was also attended by locals, albeit in smaller numbers. The locals remember the festival as a day of merry festivity on which people were able to walk around the cave on their own, without being accompanied by a guide. The recollection of the informants goes back to the time of Italian authority, therefore we cannot state with certainty that on this day during the German and Austrian Mountaineering Society's management that the visits were guided or not.

skocjan caves kraji dogodki 1The main attraction of this festival was unequivocally the cave's illumination. Let us not forget that this was when the cave was not yet electrified and was visited with candles, acetylene lamps and magnesium pieces. Records show that on this occasion the cave was lit with 3,500 candles in 1903, with 5,000 candles in 1905, while in 1908 other forms of illumination were also used, i.e. a special illumination programme reaching all the way to the end of the Silent Cave. "The great illumination of the cave" remained the key element of the festivity under the authority of the Italian Mountaineering Society as well. The cave was illuminated with candles that were arranged on the ground along the trail at some distance from one another. Special acetylene lamps in wooden barrels with burners (dial. "bren'rji") provided more light at larger intervals. Such an acetylene lamp in the shape of a star was burning in front of the Silent Cave, preserved in the photograph made by professor Ivančič and published in the book, Two Thousand Caves (in Italian "Duemilla grotte") by Bertarelli and Boegan from 1926. Also mentioned was the acetylene lamp in the form of "fascia."

Under the Italian authority and probably even before that, the local inhabitants were included in the preparation and realization of the festival. Janko Gombač claims that, in addition to the persons employed around the cave, other locals were also involved. In general, the Italian society was not very much involved in the organisation of the festival itself as the festival was well established. They simply notified the date on which the festival would take place and the locals would arrange the candles and lights around the cave. Guides and locals would then stand in the cave, replace burnt candles with new ones and make sure that visitors would not stray off the trail. The event was something that was taken for granted and part of daily life of the inhabitants in this area.

In addition to cave visits, a merry festivity was organized on this occasion in the village of Matavun. People put up ash tree or beech tree maypoles on the opposite sides of the road, booths along the road attracted visitors, there was a merry-go-road in the Nan't' backyard in front of the stables while a dance floor on a wooden platform (dial. "brjar") was each year put up in different corners of the village that had to be as flat as possible and in the vicinity of the main road. The Gombač Inn yard was filled with four-metre collapsible tables on trestles with benches. The villages of Škocjan and Betajna were not decorated as nothing was happening there.

The festival under the Italian authority was not marked by speeches, recitations or similar programmes. The main attraction was the cave visit and a modest festivity before setting off home.

Some thirty-six years of tradition, perhaps even more, is not little. Why invent new things when the history offers us a solid record of a festival so inextricably connected with the Škocjan Caves? This is why the Park's Management has decided to take the initiative of reviving this festival with the aim of connecting the management and locals in a joint Škocjan Caves Park Festival.

- BAK, Albina, 1927, Škocjan, Žvank'va.
- FEDRIGO, Milica, 1923–2006, Matavun, Prelužc'va.
- GOMBAČ, Janko, 1917, Matavun, Jan'zou.
- GOMBAČ, Milka, 1924, Matavun, Janz'va.
- ŽNIDARČIČ, Anton, 1930, Škocjan, J'kpinou.

Prepared by: Darja Kranjc

Sources and literature:

  • BERTARELLI, Luigi, Vittorio, BOEGAN, Eugenio, Duemilla grotte: Quarant' anni di esplorazioni nella Venezia Giulia, Milano, Touring Club, 1926.
  • KRANJC, Darja, TZ 72/2002, Matavun.
  • KRANJC, Darja, TZ 117/2005, Škocjan.
  • KRANJC, Darja, TZ 120/2005, Matavun.
  • KRANJC, Darja, TZ 134/2006, Škocjan.
  • KRANJC, Darja, TZ 140/2007, Matavun.
  • PRIJATELJ, Anton, Robert Hlavaty, zobozdravnik in slikar. ISIS, Zdravniki v prostem času, št. 6, 1999, /23. 2. 2007/ (več o tem...)
  • PUC, Matjaž, Škocjanske jame pri Divači, Kronika raziskovanj in turističnega obiska, 1999. (tipkopis)

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