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The Punkva Caves and Macocha Abyss: Mysteries and Legends of the Czech Republic
Story and photos by Lynn Rosen Additional photos as noted: Petr Zasjíček and Caves Administration of the Czech Republic archives
High on Adventure, July 2018

  Franz Kafka statue in Prague   Prague municipal building  
  This bronze statue by sculptor Jaroslav Rona, of Czech writer Franz Kafka sitting atop a headless/handless man, stands in Prague’s Jewish Quarter on Dusni Street where Kafka lived.   The Municipal House, the magnificent Art Nouveau building next to the Powder Tower at the entrance to Prague’s Old Town, is home to a multitude of concerts every day and evening.  

  Czech Republic Powder Tower   Czech Republic Charles Bridge  
  In Prague, the “City of a Hundred Towers,” the Powder Tower, part of the original 17th century city wall in the Old Town, was used to store gun powder - thus the name.   The pedestrian-only Charles Bridge, built in 1357, once the only link between Prague’s right and left banks of its Vltava River, now teems with tourists and street vendors. Note the similar tower designs.  

The Czech Republic is known world-wide for many people and places - Kafka, Dvorak, Smetana, Bohemia, Prague, the Miese van der Rohe Villa Tugendhat UNESCO World Heritage Site in Brno. Because Czechoslovakia was a protectorate of the German State before and during World War II, it was never destroyed by bombing. The preservation of its ancient, original castles, historic buildings and cathedrals and the most famous of all—the beautiful city of Prague—is the result of this ironic occupation by the Germans.

  Czech Republic St Vitus Cathedral   Czech Republic Brno Miese House  
  Construction of the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral began in 1344 inside the courtyards of the Old Prague Castle on the hill above the city and took nearly six centuries to complete.   The Villa Tugendhat, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Museum in Brno. Photo, courtesy of Villa Tugendhut.  

But who knew that deep in the bowels of the Czech earth were magnificent, eerie, stunning and beautiful caves in the protected Moravian landscape region southeast of that great city? About an hour’s coach ride north of Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city that lies southwest of Prague, is the Moravian Karst region, home to more than 1,000 known subterranean wondrous caves. Five of them are open to the public.

  Czech Republic road train   Czech Republic Punkva Caves map  
  Because of narrow roads and busy traffic, visitors park their cars and are then taken from the village, Skayní mlýn, by road train and then cable car up to the Punkva Cave cave entry.   Groundplan map of the Punkva Caves. The tour begins at the upper left and continues along the red line, then along the river and back to the surface above ground. Groundplan, J.Hebelka.  

The largest, longest and most popular cave system consists of the Punkva Caves and the world-famous Macocha Abyss. Due to heavy tourist traffic, visitors must park cars at the visitor’s center and board a road train and cableway that connect to the Punkva Cave information center and entrance. “It is indispensably necessary to book your tickets to the Punkva Caves at least one week in advance during the summer tourist season!” Each tour group is limited to 54, the number that can be seated in the three boats on the later “wet” part of the trip.

  Punkva Cave stairway   Punkva Cave first tunnel  
  Visitors carefully climb many steep stairways in diminished light.   Narrow, dark passageways often present low overhangs and damp surfaces.  

The tour takes about an hour and, although fairly well-lit along the walkways, can be dark in some sections, has a deep descent along the paved pathway, many steep stairs to climb and descend, has many low overhangs and is quite chilly and damp. Visitors must also climb into and out of boats a few times during the “wet” section of the tour—a cruise along the Punkva River. This is not wheelchair accessible nor advised for anyone with mobility issues.

  Czech Republic Punkva Cave stalagtites   Czech Republic Punkva Caves Stalagmite "Village"  
  As we all recall from high school science classes, stalagtites hang down from a cave ceiling.   Stalagmites grow up from the cave floor. This stalagmite formation is named The Village.  

This underground karst landscape is shaped by the dissolving action of water on limestone to form stalactites which hang down from the ceiling of the cave and stalagmites which grow up from the cave floor. A stalagnate is a column from the ceiling to the floor. It is formed when a stalactite and a stalagmite meet or when a stalagtite reaches the floor.

  Czech Republic Punkva Cave stalagnate "Angel"   Czech Republic Punkva Cave Front Dome  
  The Angel, an appropriately named huge stalagnate, towers over visitors on the pathway.   The Front Dome, one of the first rooms on the tour, is an extensive expanse of limestone formations.  

  Czech Republic Needle   Czech Republic limestone formations   Czech Republic dripstone formations  
  Stalagtite nearly meets stalagmite - the much-photographed Needle.
  Formations develop with an innocently artistic bent.
  Stalagtites and stalagnates - limestone wonders never cease.

  Czech Republic Punkva Cave cavernous room   Czech Republic punkva caves reflections  
Cavernous room with multiple formations.
Mirror Lake with interesting dripstone reflections.

Visitors first enter the “dry” section of the tour through a tunnel into the cave’s Front Dome, then pass a formation called The Guard and continue onto a man-made bridge for magnificent views of cavernous rooms with dripstones and minarets, way too many to explain and detail. At one stop for viewing, the audio system plays the melodious Ave Maria. The rich sound reverberates throughout the caverns—quite a moving fusion of nature with symphony and voice. Later along the paved pathway, one notably stunning formation named The Angel was formed by a huge stalagnate that quite resembles its heavenly name.

  Czech Republic Punkva Caves second tunnel   A second tunnel leads to the bottom of the Macocha Abyss, a gargantuan sinkhole, exposing the great reveal of the sky above with a spectacular view of the 453 Ft. rock wall across the water. While visitors take some moments for photos and observation, haunting Gregorian chants emanate from the sound system to surround this space.  
  Visitors make their way through a narrow tunnel carefully minding spectacular low overhanging stalagtites.      






Czech Republic Macocha Abyss

  Czech Republic Macocha Abyss opposite view  
  The "great reveal" of the Macocha Abyss from behind. Photo, Petr Zajíček   The Macocha Abyss from the opposite side. Photo, Petr Zajíček  

    Czech Republic Punkva Cave Masaryk's Dome  

A :30 video journey through the caves on the underground river.



Masaryk’s Dome, the most impressive dripstone formation in the system, named after the founding father of Czechoslavakia.

  Punkva Caves riverboat   Czech Republic Punkva Caves riverboat  
  An emptied riverboat is tied up to the landing at the end of the tour.   Toy bats are a favorite souvenier from the Punkva Caves.  

The tour finishes with a quiet, yet eerily soothing boat cruise through the underground caves on the Punkva River which slowly transports everyone into the cavern of the great Masaryk’s Dome and then back to the realty world of light, hustle, bustle and touristique trinkets.

  Czech Republic Punkva Caves pearl   Czech Republic Punkva Caves stalagnate  
  One unusual pearl pendant found among many at the tourist shops.   The Angel stalagnate somewhat resembles the unusual pearl.  

Personal note: I unexpectedly found a memento from the Punkva Caves - or rather it found me - in one of the many ordinary souvenir markets: a large pearl that had naturally formed into a shape remarkably reminiscent of the cave’s Angel stalagnate formation.

The story continuing below is the author's more personal experience and a further background explanation of the Macocha Abyss legend from a well-versed local Czech guide. Caution - this legend is in part, quite graphic and addresses the subject of suicide and dead bodies.






Czech Republic Macocha Abyss

  Czech Republic Macocha Abyss opposite view  
  The "great reveal" of the Macocha Abyss from behind. Photo, Petr Zajíček   The Macocha Abyss from the opposite side. Photo, Petr Zajíček  

I must take off my objective reporter hat and share a personal response to this experience. Upon arriving at the "great reveal" of the Macocha Abyss, unexpectedly and suddenly, an overwhelming surge of emotion—neither sad nor joyous, but extremely powerful—engulfed, overtook my being. Quite surprisingly, I found myself sobbing, and gave in to what appeared to be the beauty, the grandeur, the majesty and profundity of nature and of this collective moment. At that time, little did I know that there exists a well-known psychological syndrome called the Stendhal Effect, experienced as a response to the magnificent beauty of a performance, a piece of art, a sonata, a symphony, the sheer and utter wonderousness of the uncontrollable creativity of nature. And, at that time, also little did I know about the legend of this Abyss.

  Czech Republic Punkva Caves Macocha Abyss   Macocha Abyss from the bridge above  
  The chasm of the Macocha Abyss from ground level.   The chasm of the Macocha Abyss from the suicide bridge above.  

A short version of the historical legend of the Macocha Abyss is briefly told by the tour guide: Once upon a time, there lived a widower with his small son. By remarrying, he provided his son with a new mother and later a new baby boy was born. The first son was a healthy boy, but the second was constantly ill. The step-mother hated her step-son and took advice from an old woman herbalist who told her if the stepson died, her real son would get well. She took the stepson to pick berries by the steep abyss and pushed him in. However, he fell only to a nearby ledge and was rescued by some woodsmen who heard his cries. The stepmother had meanwhile rushed home in anticipation of finding a cured son only to find him stone cold dead. In despair, she took the dead baby, rushed back to the abyss and threw herself into the chasm below. Thus the abyss came to be known as Macocha, or “step-mother.”

Here is a more personal, riveting and current recounting of the legend as it relates to present times.

Hana Suchánková, our guide to the Moravian Karst region, has been working in the Czech Republic tourist industry for quite a few decades. Her knowledge runs deep and her sense of history and culture is wide. She shared the following stories about the Macocha Abyss and the “suicide” bridge above it. What follows is her own recounting of the sad and somewhat gory details about the Macocha legend.

Punkva Caves boatride artform
Striking formations along the underground river.

“Macocha is the deepest abyss in Central Europe – 138 m (453ft) below ground level. There are many legends but also sad and true stories. There are two bridges — the top one (453ft above the abyss) is where the suiciders jump from. They usually land on a stone at the bottom of the abyss — that is why it is called the “suiciders stone.” Even professor Karel Absolon, one of the investigators of the whole karst system, writes about that in his book. It is the target of suiciders from a wide region, often people who had not been there before. The “dry” way how to get to the bottom of the abyss was only discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century. Until then there had been an unpopular and unpaid job of recovering the bodies — the rescuer had to abseil down using the ropes. Prof. Absolon knew about two – Martin Kala and Josef Nejezchleb. They had various ways of getting the bodies up. Once one of them tied himself to the dead body, “embraced” it and was pulled up together with the dead person. They were tied face to face. When they were a  few meters above the bottom, a piece of rock underneath them collapsed. When they were near the top, the bodies started swaying and they nearly hit the rock face. But in the end he managed. A Styrian alpinist, Pucher, wanted to be the first one to climb down without using ropes. He collapsed, tried to catch on the little trees and bushes but without success and got killed. No one has ever managed to climb down like this.”

Czech Republic Punkva Caves artform
Formations along the underground river.

“So far all those who tried to kill themselves this way succeeded. The cave staff go through the tourist path every morning before they let tourists in, to check the lights, the rocks and also the possible dead bodies and so are the first to find the bodies. Once they got a text from a man who discovered a bike, leaning against the railing the whole day, which looked suspicious. On the camera system, they found a man climbing over the railing. The police and fire brigade were looking for the body the whole day. Then they called the divers and those recovered the body from the lake. There is a net above the lake to catch the bodies, but sometimes it is not enough. The lake looks like a puddle but is 50meters deep. The firefighters are called to help in difficult conditions. In 2016, a well-known doctor from a Brno hospital ended his life in the lake. His motives are unknown — he did not leave a farewell letter. One of the hypothesis was the burnt-out syndrome — he was spending whole days at work. Most suiciders jump during the night but there have been cases when their jump was witnessed by tourists. In 2013 there was a young man who was first saved — an employee noticed him standing behind the railing. He called the police. They managed to talk him out of that. But a week later there was no one around and he jumped.”

Czech Republic Punkva Caves artform
Stalagtite formations along the underground river.

The Punkva Caves and Macocha Abyss - a powerfully emotional and stunning center in the bowels of the Czech earth. The legends read like Grimm Fairy Tales, and like many fairy tales, are grim to be sure. It is fascinating to try to understand how historical legends such as these influence cultures.

For further information: www.caves.cz, www.moravskykras.net, www.topdestinations.cz

Lynn Rosen, co-author of “Camping Washington,” Falcon Press, Emmy award-winner, ski guidebook editor and writer, and theater critic, has a long history of both broadcast and print journalism.



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