Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Quick Lit August 2018

Good to spend some time away from the heat of Koper and enjoy the English coast for a fortnight - and to finally get a stash of physical books (here's hoping that my luggage won't be overweight!). Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for a reading round up of the last month.

Oscar Wilde - De Profundis
I resolved just to read light books this summer as moving across the globe is stressful enough in its own right, but I caved in to my brain and finally got around to reading this short literary piece by a favourite author. Wilde wrote De Profundis as a letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, while serving two years of hard labour for a gross indecency conviction (a sentence which broke him and led to his early death). It is an exploration of sorrow as the only true, wholly integrated experience of life and thus the highest form of art and aesthetics. But this is Oscar Wilde, and one cannot help wondering if it is really a repudiation of his old life as a ˝symbol of [his] age˝ so much as a manifesto for his becoming a symbol for all ages.

Wilde and Douglas. Wilde was posthumously pardoned in 2017.
Sarah Perry - The Essex Serpent
From the blurb, I had thought this was a historical romance/ mystery, so I picked it up for light reading. I was pleasantly surprised to find it more of a literary novel, with strong, quirky characters, emotional intensity, developed subplots and compelling themes. Freed by widowhood from an abusive marriage, Cora takes a holiday in Essex where she can indulge her suppressed love of natural history. But the coastal villages are astir with rumours that the mythical Essex serpent has risen again, to wreak divine judgment. While Cora is eager to find the serpent and prove the existence of a living fossil, the Rev. Will Ambrose is equally determined to prove it does not, and quell the rising superstitious hysteria sweeping his parish. A strong subplot concerns a different evil lurking in the slums of London. But at heart, it is about the serpents in us all. Definitely a page turner for me.

Esther Emery - What Falls From the Sky: How I Disconnected from the Internet and Reconnected with the God Who Made the Clouds
I wanted to really like this book. I was interested in the premise, and the author and I seem to have a lot of character traits in common, but I just couldn´t get deeply into it. The main reason was the style, in the present tense in the form of vignettes, ironically (given the subject) more like a series of blog posts than a seamless narrative. The one thing that caught my attention (and I don´t think this is a spoiler) is that the author turned out to be the youngest child of Carla Emery, guru of the back-to-the-land movement of the 70s and author of the Encyclopedia of Country Living, a well-thumbed copy of which sat on our bookshelf for many years, up until our recent move away from the rural US. The background story of her mother´s pursuit of a dream at all costs was, I´m afraid, more fascinating for me than that of her daughter.

That tea cup was mine when I was child, and I still get served tea in it when I visit my parents!

Joseph Loconte - A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War
Written for a general audience, this explores the impact of the First World War on the beliefs, writings and relationship of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Loconte covers some seldom-discussed aspects of the lead up to the conflict, such as the conflicting philosophies of the period, and his descriptions of the battles and trench warfare are emotionally compelling, but the book petered out into a sermon. Interesting, but I would have liked more depth.

Sara George - The Journal of Mrs Pepys: Portrait of a Marriage
Leaning heavily on Samuel Pepys' own diary, this tells the story of the 1660s from his wife Elizabeth's point of view. Definitely more a diary than a novel in format, this was well written and fascinating, especially if you are a history buff. George was pitch perfect in capturing a seventeenth century voice, dealing dispassionately with Pepys' verbal and physical violence towards his household and his #MeToo antics. I swapped this with my mother for Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

I'm about to get back to Koper and try to get the last administrative problems ironed out before the new term, so reading might be quite thin in the coming month, but wishing you all good novels for the end of summer!



Monday, 6 August 2018

Thalssotherapy

As part of our eldest child´s visit, we planned a girl date to a new spa opened on the salt flats at Sečovlje. I have visited the salt flats themselves several times - it is one of my favourite nearby places. Right on the border with Croatia, they are otherworldly in their stark beauty. Cell phones and therefore my camera were banned at the spa, so I thought I would resurrect some photos of the salt pans taken by my friend on a visit ten years ago, which are much better than anything I could snap.




I agonized for a good while over whether to try a spa treatment because they began at around 30 euros, and, as I am on record as saying, communal nakedness makes me nervous. But my elder daughter was all for getting a salt scrub, so I booked one along with her. At least I would have moral support and I would actually find out if it was worth it (as my husband says, living here makes us feel obligated to know more about Slovenia than Slovenians).

Thalassotherapy, as I learned, apparently refers to the health benefits of the sea and its products, as well as being a fun word to add to your vocabulary. Slovenians are seriously into natural and alternative health treatments, and brine water and sea mud have been officially recognized by the Ministry of Health here as being natural healing products. In fact, you can even be prescribed a trip to a spa by a doctor, paid for by national health insurance. Personally, I always feel invigorated when I swim in the sea, but I was not convinced anything magical is going on outside my head. Maybe I was wrong, and I can feel vindicated for all those times my husband said I am insane for swimming in British (read: near freezing) waters.




The entrance fee got us access to the big salt water swimming pool and the Kniepp walking pools. The swimming pool was temperate and really salty and it was fun to be so buoyant. The walking pools were three long pools, each filled with a different size of stone, meant to be good for your feet. One was supposed to be a hot pool, but hadn´t heated up by the time we were there. You could pay extra to bathe in the brine pools (a by-product of the salt production here, denser than sea water and mineral rich).

After interminable days of hot weather, the morning started off cloudy with a threat of rain, and we ended up using our towels as blankets on the loungers and getting hot chocolate at the cafe. But the silence and the views across the salt pans more than compensated.

And so, it got around to treatment time. I roused elder daughter from her meditation on a stone, and we went to the front desk. A young man and women escorted us over to the treatment area, which was a series of open air cubicles. ˝I´m not having the guy do a salt rub,˝ I hissed out of the corner of my mouth to daughter, panic rising rapidly.

We arrived, and he handed us tiny packages with the words, ˝These are your thong underwear.˝ I am thinking, first, I should not be accepting thong undies from someone young enough to be my son, and secondly, that something more Mrs Slocombe would make me more comfortable. But I am in for the pennies, so I have to be in for the euros. Thankfully, he then left us to the ministrations of young women.

Those of you who watched the show know just what jokes I am avoiding right now :)

I sidled out of the changing room clutching my too small towel over as much of me as possible and tried not to look at the young couple staked out caked in mud as we made our way to our little booth with two beds - or at my smirking daughter who, she confessed later, was getting great enjoyment out of my discomfort. Then, at last, safely on a bed with a strategically placed sheet, I really did manage to close my eyes and enjoy the salt rub (a bit scratchy at times). Just as I had finally relaxed, the girl said ˝Okay, it´s done, time for a shower,˝ and pointed us to an open air shower right next to the mud people...

Emotional trauma aside, my skin really was much smoother afterwards, and the morning off mothering a toddler - with time to lie down and do nothing! - was regenerating. And that was way more than two minutes of bravery for introverted, inhibited me, so I get to pat myself heartily on the back. And never wear a disposable thong again.

Touristy stuff: Here are the websites for the Lepa Vida spa, the salt pans, and the salt pan products. I have already confessed to being frugal, so personally, I would plan a large part of a day here, and take advantage of the free entry to the salt pans that goes with the spa entrance fee instead of an expensive treatment. But if you enjoy communal near-nudity in the open air, slathered in mud and salt, then go ahead, you have found your people.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Piran

Recess in Saint George´s bell tower
Looking to get out of Koper for the day while elder daughter was visiting, but not wanting to bother with hiring a car, we decided to get the bus for the 45 minute trip to nearby Piran.

Piran is basically a (very) pretty seaside town, not much to do except stroll and relax, with a few museums/ exhibitions for rainy days. Its only claim to fame is that it is the home of the violinist Tartini, who has the main square named after him. Like all of the Slovenian coastline (which is not long, only about 46km), there is nothing that passes for a beach, just a tiny patch of stones right at the end of the town. This does not deter Balkan sun seekers. People just strip off and lie down anywhere: on patches of grass or tiny plazas, along the sea wall, perched on boulders that make up the barrier, feet from the road, even on the other side of the road.

This counts as prime sunbathing territory.

Feeling a little frugal, and not wanting to sit for over an hour in a restaurant, we took a picnic, and found a patch of shade under an old tower, part of an old lighthouse (we think), along with the other five people who apparently also care about not getting skin cancer.



After the three year-old had played in the sea a while, trying to sneak up on crabs, we walked up through the cobbled streets to the Church of Saint George perched up on the cliff. Unlike Italian churches, Slovenian churches tend to be locked outside of services unless they are major tourist attractions. We could have got into the nave if we had paid to go via the little museum, but we had already done that on a previous visit, so took photos through the bars instead. The church was originally medieval, but owes most of its present architecture to the Baroque period. Legend says that the original fell into such disrepair that the saint himself made an appearance to complain. Hope he liked the statue he got in return.



While everyone else played around the church grounds (hurrah for grass and shade on a hot day), elder daughter and I climbed the bell tower. The staircase was new, and each turn of the stair featured a different guardian angel, which was pretty, though I wondered why we needed them for the climb. The top of the tower was... small. You had to squeeze past pillars to get around the edge, which made me nervous, but the view was picture postcard perfect. Our toddler thought it was pretty fun to shout up to us from below.


When we got down, we found that teenage daughter was perched part way up the tower, contrary to my instructions not to do something that might damage the building, and was stuck. Eventually someone helped her down, but I tool some damning evidence first.



Wending our way back down to town, we looked for a cafe off the square (too expensive there) and found a little 80s themed bar in a quiet side street, with rubic cube decorations and Wham! music. Teenage daughter had a Slovenian iced coffee aka ˝that stuff with all the sh*t in it˝ (and no, we don´t actually say the word in front of the three year-old).

Re-reading, I suppose that makes us sound like cheapskates all round, but we think it is worth not throwing money down the drain if you can have a perfectly good day out a little more cheaply, and then splash out on something more special. After all, that´s how we saved the money to move back to Europe :)

Touristy stuff: If you have children who are the right age to enjoy an online guide, the free app Nexto includes what they call a guided story, ˝Legends of Piran˝ where you explore the city and its history with the help of augmented reality while gathering clues for a virtual souvenir (I think you can take the completed game along to the tourist office for some sort of real trinket). However, as well as the interactive stories, Nexto also has guides to major Slovenian attractions and cities, including hands-free audio tours using location technology that apparently just triggers the guide as you approach the relevant point of interest. I am odd in that I prefer to have an old-fashioned guidebook and not be distracted by audio and visual guides because for me it detracts from experiencing the actual place, but it might be just the thing for you.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

That stuff with all the sh*t in it

(And I don´t mean this blog. Read on to find out...) I am waiting for my daughter to write up an account of a cave tour. Her price was five euros and a jar of Nutella (The real thing. I keep buying the cheap brands because she practically inhales the stuff. But yay the kilo jar is on sale at Lidl this week so I can do that cheaply.). In the meantime, here is a quick round up a la the seven quick takes I used to link to.

1. Our children´s birth certificates finally arrived back from the United States on lucky Friday the thirteenth with apostilles attached.  Plus my husband´s work permit, which the post office has since informed us they are still diligently searching for. All several days later than the expensive service we paid for promised. But we discovered that the fine print said that actually, it was only 3-5 days to most locations (not Slovenia), and that tracking did not apply to all countries (like Slovenia). Why thank you again, US postal service. Then, we were told, they just had to be translated into Slovenian and bound with the originals before we could present them at the administrative office. And so it goes on...

2. I have been reading Courtney Carver´s little book, Mini Missions for Simplicity. One idea that I took to heart was being brave for two minutes a day. Believe me, that does not sound at all stupid if you are introverted and get social anxiety. It has turned into a little game I play with myself for moving forward here - as long as I am brave about something for two minutes a day, I have won. Some recent examples:


3. I tagged along with my husband to an opening reception for an exhibition on The Charm of Wood, sponsored by the InnoRenew Centre affiliated with the university, just to be collegiate and get my face out there, even though I prefer to hide in a corner. I could barely understand a word of all the speeches (they seem to like long, formal presentations here), but I knew the word I was waiting for: vino. The reward for standing in a stuffy, crowded room was good wine and hors oeuvres in the courtyard. The extra bravery was introducing myself to someone I needed to meet (American, so not too stressful). Just about everything was in cases under bright lights, which my cell phone camera abilities were no match for, but here are a couple of pictures anyway.



4. The bravest thing was this past weekend. We were leaving a coffee shop where we had sheltered from a hail storm, and heard an American girl arguing volubly with the waiter over getting the wrong order when she had asked for iced coffee. When she started swearing about all the ˝sh*t˝ that was in it, I stepped up politely to let her know that actually, that was what iced coffee (ledena kava) is in Slovenia, and we had made that mistake, too. Actually, it was more like 45 seconds of bravery, because I retreated before she could argue with me, too. My family agreed I did the right thing, but given her look and language, she probably now remembers me as the interfering bi*ch. And now, iced coffee is forever enshrined in our family language as ˝the stuff with all that sh*t in it˝.

The offending article...

5. Our shipping has actually shipped at last! And we can track it, with a little app that shows a boat icon moving across a blue screen. It is going past Canada and will be stopping off near my parents (Southampton) before trundling across to Koper. And after all that waiting, it is scheduled to arrive while everyone but my husband is in England. Then my husband discovered that you can pull up a maritime map of ALL the ships going around the world, colour coded by type, and spent the evening watching little icons move around the virtual ocean. Here is the link to marine traffic´s site in case you don´t have enough to waste your life on the internet.

6. We are now living a little less like campers, and a fridge freezer and cooker were delivered this week. As if all the newness was not already enough, we ended up opting for an induction hob. I don´t like electric hobs, and there is no gas line here. We would have had to have a canister sitting out next to the stove since we don´t have a fitted kitchen, and I didn´t fancy pitting it against our three-year old. So, more new tricks for these old dogs.

7.But as for the fridge... we plugged it in, and it didn´t work. The first time this has ever happened to us with an appliance, and it had to be in a place where we don´t speak the language. I have been getting by very well with the tiny loaned fridge that we can only cram with a few days worth of food, but now I am just staring at the large, broken fridge freezer that should have been full of all sorts of delights, and seething with resentment. Perhaps I need to add two minutes worth of zen meditation to my daily practice as well.




Sunday, 15 July 2018

Quick Lit July 2018

My reading has definitely slowed down since we moved. This is sort of odd since we actually have fewer obligations, but I suppose settling in takes a lot of mental energy. Maybe it is also because we are now in an apartment less than half the size of our old house and I can´t escape my husband to hide in a reading nook :) I am also reading e-books since I have not had time to hunt down sources for English books, so in lieu of amateur attempts at book styling, here is a photo of a crate I picked up from a dumpster at the market: the English student in me could not resist!


I did not dumpster dive for the food, by the way.


Helen Simonson - Major Pettigrew´s Last Stand
This was the only new book I brought in my suitcase, just for the comfort of holding a physical novel. Retired, widowed Major Pettigrew is the quintessential English gentleman in the quintessential English village, but a sudden loss propels him into a relationship with Mrs Ali, also widowed, who runs the village shop. Their interracial relationship makes waves both in the village and in their families. Romantic and sharply witty, this was an enjoyable read about both love in later life and the ways in which different cultures marginalize the older generation. The one irritation was the overly-detailed accounts of British life, and several cliches, a hallmark of the nostalgic expat (it takes one to know one). Nonetheless, by the end of the book I was too engrossed in the story to be bothered by them any more. I would definitely look out for Simonson´s other book, The Summer Before the War.



Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor - Travels with Pomegranates: A Mother Daughter Journey to the Sacred Places of Greece, Turkey and France
I bought this as a Kindle Daily Deal because I was intrigued on two levels: a journey set partly in the Mediterranean (I have moved to the edge of the Mediterranean), and the idea of facing new stages in one´s life as a woman. At the time of writing, Kidd is on the verge of fifty and at a loss how to cross the border into the latter half of her life in a way that welcomes new life and creativity. Her daughter, Taylor, has just graduated, and is entering womanhood, but an unexpected rejection from grad school and what she thought was her vocation has brought on a crisis whose roots are in her own sense of self-worth. Their travels take them to the sacred feminine places of Europe and within themselves. I am not very into feminist theology, and I nearly stopped reading after a few pages, but I am glad I persevered, because very soon I was drawn deeply into the more universal experiences expounded by Kidd especially (I am about the age she was then). I read this in about two days as I had a sick toddler who just wanted me to lie around with him - I think that must be an illustration of the phrase ˝guilty pleasures˝. As with Helen Simonson, more Sue Monk Kidd books are going to hover on my mental TBR list.

Margery Sharpe - Cluny Brown
Cluny Brown is a working class girl who refuses to know her place - daring to have tea at the Ritz and talking to everyone as equals. Her Uncle Arn, a respectable plumber, who definitely knows and is proud of his place, sends her into service at a country house in order to cure her, but where she, and a Polish guest, bring upheaval to the life of the house and village. A lighthearted, affectionate send up of the English class system in its last gasp before World War II. It reminded me of that old John Cleese skit on the classes:


Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy, and wishing a happy bookish summer to readers everywhere.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Rogla

After five, yes five, weeks we finally got our kitchen sink installed... and promptly celebrated by making for the mountains the next day, for a week-long PhD workshop, with our eldest child joining us from Boston mid-way through.



Rogla the area is a mountain peak in Zreče Pohorje (approximately ze-rech-ay po-haw-ye), north east Slovenia; we stayed at Unitur Rogla, a ski resort on the Pohorje mountain. And we couldn´t get there too soon for me, after all these heatwaves sweeping Europe, because the website promised me it never got past around 23 degrees up in the mountains. When we arrived, it was, thankfully, pretty much like an average British summer day: jacket weather, beautiful views, crisp air, and one happy lady.

Even though Rogla is mainly a ski resort (and apparently one of Slovenia´s most popular), there is plenty to do this time of year. We were told it is more a weekend destination in the summer, and the week was pretty quiet: apart from the onslaught of mathematicians, there were a few athletic teams, a small children´s summer camp, and older hikers, sometimes with grandchildren in tow (grandparents are often caregivers here).



The toddler´s favourite place to play was the children´s village, not because of the cute little houses, but because it was set on a large wooden platform, and, with the mini homes, made an impromptu crazy football course. Plus, on the way up, he got to see actual youth and professional football teams practising on the field because this is also apparently a standard place to go train. (I don´t know whether that is because of the altitude or merely because they built the facilities for extra income.) I think his next favourite thing was seeing the cow (compete with Alpine bell) and two calves who were on hand to be picturesque as you walked around the complex. Or maybe it was the huge breakfast and dinner buffets. He is the sort of child who, if you try to circumvent tantrums by offering, ˝Do you want a or b?˝, will say c and throw a fit. But here he could have whatever he wanted and he ate like he had hollow legs. Things he would never eat if I put them on his plate, he stuffed down, from veggie burgers to chicken, fish fillets and sausages. ˝I ate a PIG!˝ he announced proudly at breakfast.



Hiking trails are advertised as a feature of Rogla... to which all I can say is British readers should get down on their knees right now and thank the Rambler´s Association for championing our rights of way because, although the landscape was beautiful, the trails were poorly marked and the descriptions of the walks often ambiguous. On Monday, we took the ˝short˝ children´s nature trail, and I foolishly decided we did not need the toddler´s backpack carrier, which was the cue for much dragging of feet and whining that turned into tears and tantrums. The rest of the time was spent avoiding as many wood ants as possible. I wish I had remembered to take a photo of the giant ant hills that dotted the forest, but you will have to believe me that there were trillions upon trillions of them, swarming along the paths. At one point, the toddler plonked himself down on the ground in the middle of a trail, and the ants just kept going, right over him. At least this was not Mississippi and these were not fire ants, or we would have been dinner.



Somehow not deterred, and because I believe in healthy, fresh air activities, on Tuesday, we set out (with the backpack carrier), for a 2-3 hour walk, ostensibly past some ancient peat bogs and a lake. We began with a little diversion, unable to find the first starting point. After figuring it out, we made it down the hill to Pesek, where we stopped at the Alpine Hut restaurant for a drink and their specialty, blueberry strudel. And where the toddler tried to run away from some wood ants and fell smack on his face on the concrete, getting the second, but presumably not last, black eye of his life. He was a real trooper about it, too. We followed the road from Pesek until we got to the bit where we were supposed to follow cart tracks up the hill to the bogs. We started up the faint, overgrown tracks, which soon petered out. After bumbling uphill for  a bit in the same direction, we found another track leading to the right as stated and trudged on... until the Alpine Hut was in sight again. Maybe we should have cut our losses then and walked back. But no, we were game. We retraced our steps to another track. trudged uphill until we found a boggy marked trail... but the promised lake was nowhere in sight. Eventually we joined another marked trail down the hill because, as my daughter said, it had to lead somewhere, and we were going through what looked like the grassy plains of the hike description. An hour of trudging (with a break for food and for the toddler to ˝pee on wood ants˝ because revenge is sweet) brought us to a road - hurrah! According to the directions, we turned left for the hotel. Just to make sure, we asked the man sitting at the crossroads, ˝Rogla?˝  He pointed above our heads to the sign that pointed back the way we had come. I think that´s when adrenaline set in, because somehow I made it all the way back uphill for that hour, with Alcuin on my back, from where we picked up the path we knew would take us back to the Alpine Hut (time to stop and eat the last of the food), and then uphill almost another hour to the hotel. A total of five hours. I almost didn´t argue when my daughter said she refused to go on another hike that week. But at least we could say that, technically, we never got lost.

The swimming pool and sauna complex were a welcome break for tired muscles on Wednesday. There were six different saunas to choose from, including Turkish, Finnish, infra red, and one that had changing coloured lighting for some reason, with a plunge pool and jacuzzi to cool off in between. I am always torn over European saunas. On the one hand, I really enjoy them as a health and beauty treatment. On the other, I don´t go in for nudity. Usually, my strategy is to go in with my towel wrapped firmly around me, find a spot in a corner and close my eyes so I don´t have to see anything I had rather not. Here, thankfully, it seemed routine to ignore the no swimsuit sign and stay partially clothed. Teenage daughter took her babysitting fees in the form of an hour-long massage, which I think she appreciated but only said made her feel greasy and tired.



And the conference... well, they say that Americans work hard and play hard, but Slovenes know how to party Slavic style. (And, if anyone official is reading, I am pausing to point out that I paid the conference fee to engage quite legally in all activities.) Moreover, in Europe, free flowing free alcohol is pretty much a human right. So there was a fairly sedate reception the first night, a pause the second, an all-night pancake party the next (which I did not attend after the five hour hike). Then came music and dancing with a band flown in from Dublin. Put together a bunch of maths students, limitless beer and the Tetris song, and, well, you have something you can be glad for everyone´s sake that I did not video. But I even got my husband to dance with me for the first time in years, (NOT to the Tetris song, he would only swing), and we were not absolutely terrible.



 Only then, on Thursday, was it the actual banquet night. Five courses set out in one buffet, wine bottles (plural) on the tables and beer on tap. Slovene food should get its own blog entry at some point, but highlights included cheese dumplings, barley, crushed potatoes with onions, and apple and blueberry strudel. Whiskey and blueberry liqueur rounded off the feast and then it was more music and dancing. The band from Dublin again, plus a Slovenian band. To which I can only say, if you have not heard Billy Ray Cyrus´s Achy Breaky Heart in Slovene, you have not lived (or at least not lived in Slovenia). We slipped off before twelve, but it went on for several hours more. The next morning, several people were shuffling around the breakfast buffet, and my elder daughter and I caught a bunch of students lying around in the sauna instead of attending the final talks.



At the end of the week, my husband pointed out that next year, there is another Slovenian conference right before Rogla. I looked him in the eye. ˝I wouldn´t survive both,˝ I said.

But this is why I did not drink too much - having to negotiate these stairs each night.

Touristy stuff: Here is Rogla´s official website. I have noticed that Slovene websites in general tend to have a little less information and be a little less organised than most US or British sites, but most of the information is there (I was a little annoyed when it turned out that ˝laundry room available˝ meant a paid service, not a launderette). Another time (when we could come in our own car), we would bring more of our own supplies to avoid some high prices in the resort supermarket. And use GPS walking maps.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Predjama Castle



The view from the tournament field.
Without a car of our own yet (see the administrative office saga), we´ve been mini-tourists on the couple of weekends we rented a vehicle. When we were last here, we visited almost every place nearby that has a whiff of a tourist attraction, so it´s a case of debating what we want to see again after ten years. After an evening of agonising with an old travel guide in one hand and a laptop in front of me, we opted for Predjama Grad (grad means castle). Last time we visited Predjama (pronounced pred-yahma), it was pretty spartan - we tramped around empty rooms with a small brochure in hand. Still, it was impressive - how can a castle built into the cliff face not be awesome?

In the last several years, though, the experience has been jazzed up. Most of the rooms have some sort of recreation of a scene of life in the castle back in its medieval heyday, and audio guides are on offer in 17 languages. Plus, the cave system beneath the castle has been opened up for tours. When we were there before, all we could do was peer into the entrance.

(Note: The photos of inside the castle are sort of randomly arranged to break up the paragraphs, or I´d have to dump them all at the end.)



To get there, you have to leave the main road to wind (literally) through several small, picturesque villages up to the castle. At least, they were picturesque to me, who was not negotiating the hairpin bends and cliff edge. (Every time I go through these beautiful places, I have an urge to move out to the hills, quickly tempered by the obvious reflection that we would never be Slovene enough to fit in.)

The cave tour, as we knew before we went, was only for those six and up, so I had already elected to play outside with the three year-old. We threw a ball around the area used for the annual medieval tournament, complete with a viewing box for the lords and ladies that made for much climbing fun. This weekend, there was a break from the relentless heatwave, so playing outside in the afternoon for a whole hour was extra appreciated. We had only just retired to get coffee and ice cream when husband and teenager emerged from the cave.

According to them, the cave experience was pretty interesting because it was unlit except by their headlamps. It is also warmer than normal, meaning that stalactites and stalagmites grow more slowly. Oddly, it also has the record for the greatest number of bat species in Europe (15) - it´s closed in the winter to allow them to hibernate in peace. They pronounced it well worth the admission.



So, fuelled with our now traditional family refreshments of coffee, wine and ice cream, we made for the castle entrance. The castle is most famous for the knight whose name is linked to it: Erasmus (Erazem). Legend has it that he became an outlaw after killing a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor while helping avenge a friend. He fled to Predjama castle, from which base he lived the life of a robber baron (perhaps he would have approved of the two strategically placed shops within the castle designed to rob you of your euros.) Eventually, the Emperor sent the governor of Trieste to besiege the place. However, what the besiegers didn´t know was that there were secret passages leading out of the castle, which allowed those within to get supplies from the village. Things came to an end with an ignominious betrayal - a servant let the enemy know where and when Erasmus went to the toilet each morning (I suppose he was a man of habit) and he was killed by a cannon shot in the loo. I guess I should nix any cannon ball jokes right now.

The view from the main lookout point.
Visiting the castle is an adventure that has you winding uphill through rooms that are often part cave, until you reach the top (as far as is open to tourists, anyway), a cave chamber nearly at the head of the cliff. The recurring theme of the presentation was how life here was damp, cold and tough. Probably the warmest place to be was the torture chamber :) And it was chilly for us, even on a warm summer day. Water runs down the cave walls, collected ingeniously in channels carved into the rock and fed into wells and containers. Apparently there was another reason for this strategy: the spring that naturally supplied the area could be poisoned, but the water dripping down comes from a safe river source.



By the end of our visit, I was wondering two things. One: why does everything we do here involve slogging uphill (I pulled a leg muscle on one of the ginormous steps)? Two: how did any medieval mother keep her small sons alive - because, by the end of the adventure, our toddler was so psyched he was trying to jump down stone staircases and push his way through all the apertures to death below (look at the photos to see what I mean). Oh, and of course, we were almost at the top when he decided he had to pee. He and I were all for doing it authentically out of the window - what better way to give him a real understanding of siege tactics? Alas, we had to bow to modern convention and let him go in his pull-up. So much for potty training and historical re-enactment.

Yes, he did try to move those stones.

As we slowly made our way back to the car park, we stopped for a peek through the barred entrance to the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows, which dates back to at least the mid 1500s, consecrated by the Bishop of Trieste, later Pope Pius II. Unfortunately it was closed to the public - I would have loved to get a close-up look at the beautiful blue and silver altar.



All told, picnicking and coffee break included, we spent over four hours there, and it cost around $55 euros (counting coffee, wine and ice cream). We thought it was definitely worth the revisit.

Touristy stuff: the website for the castle is part of the same complex that also includes the most touristy cave in Slovenia, Postojna. If you are really fit and keen, you can book a serious, four-hour cave tour at Predjama that takes you beyond the tourist part, for about 150 euros, equipment included.