That’s the title of the very brief slideshow above composed of a handful of images from a recent hike around Slovenia’s Lake Cerknica, or Cerkniško jezero, one of Europe’s largest intermittent lakes.
I was a kid when I first heard about this mysterious disappearing lake, an animated tale I listened to during a summer visit to Yugoslavia, told by the oldest man I had ever seen. His face was round and nearly as red as the wine he was drinking, his delivery deliberate with every third or fourth syllable pronounced with a delicate urgency, like a clasped fist gently pounding a table.
“Then one day you’ll wake up to find all the water gone,” he said, “and see fish jumping and dancing in that crisp morning air — hundreds of them, thousands! There for the taking! We wouldn’t go to school! What a feast we’d have!”
I’ve visited several times since in the ensuing years but never caught a glimpse of school boys and girls skipping school to snatch fish flailing helplessly in the air. But I’m sure that’s only because I’ve never passed through when the lake was at its driest.
It appears –or more accurately, exists– about eight months of the year on a wide plain, or polje, that blankets a series of collapsed karst caves that are connected to the surface by siphons and sinkholes. When heavy rains in autumn and thaw in the spring produce more water than the outflow can handle, the fields turn into Slovenia’s largest lake.
It’s situated just south of the town of Cerknica, the settlement that gives it its name, between the Javorniki Hills (1268m/4160ft) and the Bloke (pro blo-keh) plateau to the south and east, both of which, along with the Stržen River, are also sources of its water.
The lake has appeared on maps of Europe since the 15th century, and Dante referred to it in his Inferno, nearly a millennium-and-a-half after the Greek geographer Strabo mentioned it in his work Geography as a “marsh called Lugeon”.
Given that company, it belongs on your to-visit list if you’re searching for day trip options from Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, just 50km to the north.
When full, it’s also the largest lake in Slovenia, in some years reaching up to 38 square kilometers (15sq mi). More typically, a sprawl of about 30 square kilometers is considered a ‘high water’ period; in ‘normal’ periods, it covers about 20 square kilometers, and during especially dry times, it’s nearly non-existent.
Animated local fish tales notwithstanding, its biodiversity is exceptionally rich. So rich that, like the Ljubljana Moors to the north, it’s part of the European Union’s Natura 2000 network designed to protect habitats of rare and vulnerable birds, plants and animals.
Lake Cerknica is a major attraction for birds, with 276 species –half of all European species– observed in the area. Some numbers via the Notranjska Regional Park website, a protected area in which the lake sits:
Number of bird species observed at Lake Cerknica: 276
Number of bird species nesting at Lake Cerknica: 100+
Number of migratory bird species: 150+
Number of qualifying bird species to designate Lake Cerknica as a Natura 2000 site: 33
It’s also home to 45 mammal species, again half of all European species (including the brown bear Ursus arctos); 125 species of butterflies, about a third of those in Europe; and nearly a third of the continent’s amphibians. If your luck is running exceeding high, you’ll spot a Eurasian Lynx, Grey Wolf or Ural Owl in nearby forests.
Fishing and birding are obviously popular, as are hiking and canoeing. Bicycle is probably the best way to see it in its entirety. Another option? Notranjski Regional Park staff can help arrange a bear-watching excursion. If you come in the height of winter –meaning traditions sub-zero (C) temperatures– bring your ice skates to experience one of the largest natural ice skating rinks in this part of Europe.
NOTE:I’ll be regularly updating this post with notes, images and video from subsequent visits. Those can’t stop until I finally see those flailing fish. Maybe in the late spring.
From the Ljubljana-Koper motorway, exit at Unec. You’ll pass through the village of Rakek before arriving in Cerknica. As you approach the center of town, look for signs directing you to the village of Dolnje Jezero; you’ll turn right just after crossing the bridge over the Cerknišcica River. About two kilometers down the road you’ll reach the park’s recently expanded main parking areas.
Lake Cerknica Photo Gallery
I’ll begin the photo gallery with the eight images that appear in the slideshow/video above, taken during unseasonably warm conditions in mid-February 2017.