Sep082015

Moravian Karst caves near Brno and why you will never see a tour like this in the USA

The Moravian Karst is a geological formation near Brno, Czech Republic with more than 1,100 caves. Four of these caves are open to the public for guided tours. The most popular of these caves is Punkevni Jeskyne, Punkva Caves, where the hour long cave tour includes a dry cave walk, followed by a boat ride on the Punkva River through underground caves. The tour cost 170 CZK or about $7 USD.

Punkevni Jeskyne-1-sm

Skip down about 2,000 words if you simply want to see more cave photos. This is a long piece.

I ended my Impressions of Brno, Czech Republic blog post yesterday stating I was going caving today, if I could get a ticket upon arriving at the national park. There are limited tickets sold online and the tourist information office in Brno told me I should have signed up at least two weeks in advance to buy a ticket. They suggested I simply go to the park and see if I could buy a ticket they hold in reserve for walk-up visitors.

Getting to Skalní Mlýn

Getting to Skalní Mlýn looked easy on the paper printout given to me at the Brno Tourist Information center. Overall time 48 minutes to travel 30 km by train and bus. Ticket cost for 5-zone travel was 42 CZK or less than $2 one-way.

After a longer night’s sleep than I had planned, but truly needed after a week of travel with no more than six hours sleep at a time, I woke up at 7:20 am with the bright sun shining in my face. I have slept at the Holiday Inn Brno for three nights and this morning was the first time I realized my room window faces east. There have been lots of clouds, but little rain.

I checked the Tourist Info printout to see the train leaves at 8:29am. I was out the door of Holiday Inn Brno by 7:49am with a 15 minute walk to reach Mendlovo náměstí, Mendel Square. The square is named for Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk and father of modern genetics.

My college studies in genetics captivated me and motivated me to change majors from water science to molecular science and microbiology. Mendel’s pea trait experiments were conducted 1856-1863 at St. Thomas’s Abbey, Brno. The other notable aspect of St. Thomas’s Abbey is it is the southernmost brick Gothic building in Europe, a style common to churches in northern Europe.

St Thomas's Abbey, Brno

St. Thomas’s Abbey at Mendlovo náměstí, Brno

The tram arrived at Mendel Square as I arrived. I had not yet purchased a ticket.

Brno transportation  ticket

Public transportation tickets in Brno are priced by zone and the more zones, the more time you have before the ticket expires. A 5-zone ticket cost 42 CZK (less than $2 USD). Two older men sitting on a bench saw the Nikon camera around my neck and were talking to me in Czech as the #1 tram arrived. Like numerous encounters this week when locals spoke to me, I had no idea what they were saying, except that I recognized some of the words were related to photography. I smiled, said, “I speak English and I have no idea what you are saying to me.” and boarded the tram.

Brno Streetcar

On the tram it became apparent that I was likely to miss the 8:29 train to Blansko, where I would transfer to a bus to reach the national park for the cave tour. The next train was 10:29 am. Each minute the tram sat at a red light on the city center streets of Brno added to my anxiety about missing the 8:29am train. In short, I arrived at the train station, located the track platform, jogged up the stairs as the clock read 8:31 and the train was still there. Ready to bounce up the train stairs, I saw a uniformed woman on the platform, and asked, “Blansko?” She motioned her head “no”.

I took a train 50km in the wrong direction from Copenhagen in July when I was heading to the airport for my flight to the USA. The train I boarded left the station three minutes before the train I needed to get to Copenhagen airport. After 20 minutes I realized I was headed the wrong direction from the airport. That mistake cost me a $45 taxi ride to Copenhagen Airport to make my flight back to the USA, so I was glad I asked the woman on the platform before jumping on the wrong train in Brno. After the train departed, the platform sign changed and showed the train to Blansko was coming in 5 more minutes. A late train saved me from waiting two hours in Brno. After five minutes the sign changed to 10 minutes.

Checking my Tourist Information transportation printout stated the bus in Blansko will wait 10 minutes for a late train from Brno. The scheduled bus departure time to Skalní Mlýn was 9:03. The train I needed left Brno at 8:39 and arrived at 9:14am. The bus from Blansko to the caves had already departed. The next bus to Skalní Mlýn departed at 11:03am. I hurried in the morning to catch the 8:29am train to Blansko, only to spend nearly two hours waiting outside at the bus station in Blansko.

Skalni Mlyn bus stop

One of the most difficult aspects of Czech Republic is reading the timetables for transportation. I usually have no problem reading time tables in foreign languages, but I find the Czech time schedules confusing. It looked to me like there was a 10:03am bus, but there wasn’t. The train station had a young woman who spoke some English and confirmed the next bus was 11:03am.

Blansko train sign

I found an English language information sign about the Moravian Karst outside the Blansko train station. It stated there is a walking trail to Skalní Mlýn from the train station. My Brno Tourist Information transportation printout showed the bus ride is 10 minutes. I wondered how far that is to walk?

Blansko train station   Blansko tourist info

Walking back across the bridge the second time from the train station to the bus station I noticed a taxi sign for a ride to Skalní Mlýn for 180 CZK. I hate resorting to taxi rides. It seems so bourgeois to me. The cost for the bus is 10 CZK and it was already included in my 5-zone 42 CZK ticket that had expired 20 minutes earlier, after its 2 hour time limit passed.

Blansko taxi

The electronic timetable outside the bus station finally showed Bus 226 departing from Platform 6 in 15 minutes. I had used my time between 9:14 and 10:03 to find a grocery store and bought lunch supplies including a banana, two bread rolls, a pint of blueberry yogurt, a package of sliced chicken and package of sliced cheese. That set me back 77 CZK or about $3.50 USD. After seeing no bus arrive at 10:03, I caught up on my missed breakfast.

The 226 bus pulled into space 6 at 11:01 am. A young Czech couple had arrived a couple minutes earlier and the three of us boarded the bus to Skalní Mlýn. They paid their 10 CZK for tickets and I showed the driver my expired 5-zone ticket and he waved me on. After seeing the ten minute bus ride uphill, I was glad I had not tried to hike.

Hotel Skalní Mlýn

Take It Easy

The point of so much detail about getting to the caves is to illustrate that you can have your plans all set and circumstances out of your control screw up your well planned travel. That is the nature of travel. Take it easy and try and manage interruptions without getting too stressed out.

I used the extra time sitting around Blansko to catch up on the breakfast meal I missed by rushing to reach the caves early in the morning. The food I bought was also my lunch and the dinner I am eating as I write this piece.

Punkevni Jeskyne Tour Ticket

The couple on the bus with me headed out on a trail after we exited in front of Hotel Skalní Mlýn. I walked over to the Information Center and purchased a ticket for the cave tour. It was 11:15am and I was given a 12:20 tour time.

There was a credit card machine at the counter and when I pulled out my credit card, the woman said it would be better if I paid cash. I paid 170 CZK for the tour and 40 CZK for a photography ticket. That was around $9 USD. The website says you need to buy a photography ticket if you want to take photos during the tour. Nearly everyone took photos inside the caves, but there were no checks to see if photographers had purchased a photography ticket.

There were trolleys at the Skalní Mlýn parking lot for the 1.5 km road distance to the Punkevni Jeskyne cave center, but they were not operating. The information center woman directed me to walk up the road to the caves. There was another young couple walking to the caves at the same time I made the trek. They were a different couple than the bus riders.

Punkva sign

Private cars are required to park at the lot across from the hotel. The road to the caves is restricted to park employees.

Cave road trek   Punkva Road-2

The Punkva River is a creek at this point.

I started to feel a sense of excitement as I saw the first cave opening in the rock beside the road. There were two guys who looked like they may have ventured into the cave entrance. I had time to spare before my tour and a flashlight in my backpack, but the last time I went caving in Pinnacles National Park near my home in Monterey, California last Halloween, I was hiking solo and on my knees crawling through a passage to the open light and tried to stand too soon and cracked my head on the rock roof. Later that night there was a flash flood in the area and I thought how bad that would have been if I had been knocked out. There is a reason you don’t cave alone.

Punkva Cave site

A little farther and a second cave opening.

Punkva Cave-2

There was another spot where the creek disappeared into the rocks for a hundred feet or so. Suddenly, there appeared the young Czech couple on a trail who had been on the bus.

Punkva Cave Tour boat

The first sign of the Punkva Caves tour site appeared s I approached the park center with the sighting of a boat exiting the cave. There is construction work happening around the park center. Much of the infrastructure looks newly built. There have been cave tours for over 100 years at this location.

Punkva tour center

No Credit Cards Accepted

Inside the Punkva Cave center are a ticket booth where credit cards are accepted, storage lockers, modern and clean toilets, and a souvenir shop where credit cards are not accepted. My biggest disappointment of the day was not having exchanged $20 USD for Czech currency. I figured I had enough money to get me through the day. Since I am leaving the country tomorrow, I did not want extraneous currency.

I walked into the souvenir shop and I was blown away by rock crystals that are scraps from the caves. I pulled one fist sized blue crystalline rock off the shelf with a price of 450 CZK ($20 USD). There were some large floor standing crystals priced over 20,000 CZK in the shop. There was also the cutest stuffed bat that folds. The clerk was wearing one around her arm, priced at 240 CZK ($10 USD). I was ready to buy, only to learn no credit cards accepted. How many visitors have 20,000 CZK in their wallet? My wife, a first grade teacher, would have adored that wearable bat and it would have been a hit with her students for Halloween.

I had enough money to buy an English language guidebook to the Punkva Caves for 40 CZK and read that in the 20 minutes I waited for the tour start.

Punkva Cave Tour

Waiting in line for the 12:20pm tour I heard American accents from a couple. Funny how four days of nobody around to speak English with had me gravitating to these strangers from my homeland. Mike and Rose, ex-pat retirees from Texas living in Brno, were celebrating their 31st anniversary. I was the party crasher on their special day and enjoyed their company and the insights I gained about life in the Czech Republic from some native American speakers.

The cave tour was entirely in Czech for the group of about 18 visitors. Judging from the laughter, the tour guides had some funny anecdotes and quips. I simply snapped photos and kept my eyes focused on the rocks for photos and collision opportunities.

Punkva Cave-3   Punkva Cave-4

Punkva Cave-5   Punkva Cave-6

In one of the first caverns, the lights were turned off to let us experience the natural darkness of the environment. In another cavern there were loudspeakers playing Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria. I think that is a moment I will always remember. My only suggestion for tour improvement would be to play Ave Maria while the lights are turned off in the cavern to fully immerse visitors in the sound experience.

Punkva The Needle

The Needle – Punkva Caves

Punkva Cave-7

My wife is someone who has a cave phobia after a childhood visit to the Pinnacles caves in California. There are parts of Punkva Caves that are narrow and claustrophobic.

Punkva-8

Immediately after this narrow passage the cave opens up to reveal the Macocha Abyss.

Macocha Abyss-1

Geologically, the Macocha Abyss resulted from a cave roof collapse. The significance of the abyss is the opening is 138.5 meters (454 feet) deep from the cliff top. There is a restaurant at the top of the abyss. The lower lake is another 49 meters deep giving the total abyss distance 187.5 m. or 615 feet from top to bottom.

Macocha Abyss-2

The opening to Macocha Abyss is 174 meters long and 76 meters wide.

Why You Will Never See a Tour Like Punkva Caves in the USA

There is a paved path and hundreds of stairs through the cave for the dry part of the tour. You have to be observant since there are many places where you can hit your head on rock. From recent experience at Pinnacles National park in California, I know that hazard. I also took a California Gold Country cave guided tour in Calaveras County, California last year. We were required to sign waivers and wear helmets. The dry part of the Punkva Cave tour wasn’t bad, except for the number of stairs, which were a bit strenuous for some. The real hazard was the boat tour.

Your natural reaction is to look around at all the scenery, yet at the same time you are in a moving boat traveling through narrow and low ceiling caves. The boat sat three persons across and I was on the left side constantly having to duck my head to avoid slamming into hard rock in a moving boat. The passengers on the right side had the same issue. You definitely need to stay aware of your surroundings since any second you could find your head slamming into the cave rock if you are not watching out.

No flash photography was permitted on the boat and the darkness prevented me from getting clear photos in a moving boat.

There is one point of the river portion where the boat stops to allow visitors to walk to another cavern with impressive features. The first photo in this post was taken at this point of the boat tour.

Punkva Cave-9

The boat exited the Punkva caves soon after.

There are two road approaches to the Punkva Cave. About 100 meters past the Punkva Cave visitor center is a cable car over the Macocha Abyss, built in 1995. The cost is 70 CZK one-way or 90 CZK round trip.

Macocha Cable car

Cable car over Macocha Abyss

The name macocha is a derivation of the Czech word “macecha’ meaning stepmother. There is a grisly legend behind it regarding a stepmother who attempts to murder her stepson in a belief his death will save her own sickly natural child. Upon coaxing her stepson to trust her holding his hand at the edge of the abyss, she lets go his hand and lets him fall. She returns home to find her own son dead in his bed. Meanwhile, her stepson landed on a tree branch and is rescued by woodsmen who heard his cries. In despair at her natural son’s death, she carries his body to the abyss and leaps to her death.

The Brothers Grimm fairy tales were taken from northern European folklore and the wicked stepmother is often villainized.

Macocha abyss

It is a long way down Macocha Abyss from the top. Good thing there is a railing at the viewing platform.

About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined BoardingArea.com in 2008.

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Comments

  1. Ric, I’m intrigued by these posts on Czech Republic! How did you figure out you wanted to go here? Where did you learnabout these sites?

  2. @bluecat – The primary reason I came to Brno was for cheap IHG Pointbreaks hotel at 5,000 points per night Essentially this made my hotel nights free since I already had IHG points. The cheap hotel combined with a $67 flight on Norwegian Airlines CPH-PRG and a $48 flight PRG-BGO Bergen, Norway on Norwegian. That allowed me to travel to Czech Republic for less money than staying in or around Copenhagen.

    I would have gone to Hamburg, but the IHG PointBreaks hotel was booked out after the first day of the PointBreaks release and before I had for,finalized dates for my travel itinerary.

    The second reason I came were two previous trips to Czech Republic that I enjoyed in 2000 and 2007. I think Prague is one of the prettiest cities I have seen. I call it Disneyland for Americans. Brno does not have as extensive an old quarter as Prague from what I saw, but there are plenty of old churches and beautiful architecture.

    Third reason is I like beer, specifically European lagers. Czech Republic is beer heaven for lager. I had 12 different brands of beer while here in Brno, and never paid more than 60 cents a bottle. These beers would be $4 to $6 per bottle, if you could find them in the U.S.

    Once I picked Brno, I soon learned about the Moravian Karst caves in the region as the highest rated tourist attraction for a day trip from Brno.

    I will be in Clermont-Ferrand France in a couple of weeks and that area is surrounded by national parks too. I have not studied them yet. I will probably find myself in one of those parks.

  3. Ha! Your rationale for going to Czech republic (cheap hotel stay) goes against just about every sense of how I travel or why. For me, it’s the “where and why” first, and the “how much” later. To be fair, you *did* mention your love of beer and your good experiences in the past, so I’m willing to cut you a modicum of slack. 🙂

    You are sooo lucky that it turned out well for you. Sometimes, you just get lucky. Right on!

    P.S. My French friends refer to C-F as the “armpit of France” (some even call it the “asshole”). There. I’ve set your expectations quite low, I hope. Now you can enjoy whatever there actually is to see there! 🙂

  4. Clermont-Ferrand is sandwiched between InterContinental Paris and InterContinental Geneva hotel stays.

    Budget is always a factor in my travels and life. I have never not had to consider how much I budget for discretionary spending.

    Overall, the only reason I am traveling around Europe this month is to complete AAdvantage Executive Platinum challenge. Other factors affecting where I chose to travel were where I could go within the framework of the dates for my three transatlantic tickets between California and Scandinavia.

    I have traveled to many ‘armpit’ places and nearly always meet some wonderful persons living there.

  5. Prague is beautiful but in the summer it is a most classic tourist tourist trap. I prefer Kraków (that is also quickly turning into a tourist trap) or Warsaw (that is becoming a lovely city but that has a decade or so before mass tourism will discover it).

    The Moravian Karst caves are a nice find – thank you for an interesting review! It’s curious that the name “Macocha Abyss” is derived from Polish “macocha” rather than Czech “macecha”. The Czech Republic is one of few countries in the world where the locals are happy to learn that I speak Polish – my mother tongue – rather than English. (Czechs and Poles can speak in their languages and understand each other.) Btw, in Poland English is almost universally spoken, even in the countryside.

  6. @Marek – thanks for your comment. Interesting about macocha being Polish. I took the information from the English language Punkva Caves guide.

    I want to go to Poland. That is the only country my wife has been to that I have not visited yet. I originally wanted to fly to Poland and travel from there to Czech Republic and Slovakia. Wife did not give me permission to be gone enough days for that kind of trip. Got to avoid trouble and strife with the wife.

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