Sometimes, people just don't know what to do with us. We arrived at Magura Cave to find a sign posted near the entrance. It stated that all visits must be on a guided Bulgarian-language tour which leaves every hour on the hour. It was twenty to, we don't understand Bulgarian and when the ticket seller asked "group?" we shook our head and figured we'd totally struck out. After more was said that we couldn't understand - we shrugged, she sighed, smiles all around - she ripped two tickets out of a book, told us the price and pointed to a staircase. Down we went, not knowing that we wouldn't emerge for almost an hour and, when we finally saw light again, it would be overlooking a lake somewhere that was clearly not where we'd parked our rental car.
The cave is very, very big - a series of galleries and halls which span 2.5 kilometers. It is dimly lit and slippery, devoid of metal staircases and colored lights. Let's call it a more naturalistic approach to tourist infrastructure. For a few moments, I was worried we were going to get lost. Even a movie theatre aisle gives you more direction via runner lights than parts of Magura. But, caves have a certain serenity to them and being on our own, it was easy to just forget about the outside world (and the fear that we would never again see it) and get swept up at the wonder of our surroundings.
Magura Cave is famed for its cave drawings. Painted in bat guana, they
depict people dancing and hunting; there are instruments, plants,
animals, and a solar calendar which some say is the earliest one ever found
in Europe. The cave art dates back to the Epipaleolithic, Neolithic
and Bronze Ages - a collection and layering of drawings that span
thousands of years. We kept looking out for them, not knowing whether they were open to the public or not.
It seemed unlikely that they would have just let us spelunk unsupervised with the paintings just out in the open. We never did find them, but a random bench set up facing a beautifully craggy wall made me remember that everything we were looking at was art in and of itself. Sure, we may not have seen dung paintings from 12,000 years ago - but we saw formations that began to get sculpted 15 million years ago.
As it turns out, the "Art Gallery" is in a wing of the cave that is now closed to visitors due to renovations. Magura Cave is on a mission to earn UNESCO status, which probably accounts for the sprucing up. Hopefully, when the drawings are once again publicly accessible, the rules will change about flash photography and smoking in the caves. The smell of cigarettes and a flutter of camera bulbs up ahead informed us that we were not alone after all.
Our fellow cave people were IBM employees on a bus trip from Sofia. It was a large group which included a convivial fellow who struck up conversation with us and translated a few bits and pieces of the tour guide's spiel. There was information about a sanatorium which was opened inside the cave in 1989, but closed just a year later. No one knows why. There was the mention of a wine cellar in a wing we hadn't visited, which produces sparkling wine which is said to taste very similar to bubbly from Champagne. A big stalagmite that looked like a mushroom was identified as "The Mushroom."
I wish we could have understood more. I happen to be fond of cave tours. The dates and geological details never quite stick in my memory, but stories about first discoveries and expeditions, folk legends about certain features and charmingly hyperbolic statements about the country and its cave are all wonderful parts of any spelunking experience. And even though it feels more adventurous, more magical and more exciting to explore a cave on our own, there's a unique, quirky, community vibe that comes with being underground with a bunch of strangers.
We laughed along with jokes we didn't understand. We passed along alerts about a particularly slippery spot. We joined in when everyone began to place coins on this special wishing stump. Sometimes, it's pretty easy to figure out what's going on without knowing the language. Speaking of making a wish... Yesterday was Merlin's birthday and a high school friend sent him this greeting: "Happy bday!!! Don't get lost in a cave, or go OD on yoghurt." He knew we were in Bulgaria where both things are very, very possible. (He also sent this amazing Bulgarian birthday song which is too good not to share).