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.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Signed, sealed and ???

The advice given on a faculty website here for overseas students and professors is that you have to approach official business in Slovenia with a sense of humour and patience. It´s realistic advice. Here we are, nearly four weeks into our move, and the only person whose registration is complete and underway is me. The children, as EU citizens, should be easy - but they were born in the US, and the administrative office wouldn´t accept their birth certificates without an apostille. So we´ve had to send them (the certificates, not the children) back to the States for the appropriate stamp. This means no official ID number (EMŠO) that you need to do things like buy a car, no health insurance cards, and no kindergarten (nursery) place for the younger one.

Husband? Well, the US postal service helped by losing his work permit. Eventually it got forwarded to his brother´s home, torn and covered in grease (we´re guessing it slipped down inside the sorting machine). Thankfully, a scan was enough to get him officially employed, and the man in the administrative office almost caved in and accepted that... but then it turned out that his permit wasn´t ˝in the system˝ yet. I´m getting used to that particular shake of the head and slightly repressed smile that means something like, ˝Sorry, come back and enjoy queuing another day.˝

I´ve decided this is why coffee and wine are so cheap here, because all you can do is shrug and go for a drink. And trust me, it´s not always much simpler for Slovene citizens, either. Every administrative office has its own rules and attitudes towards them. (The last time we were here? No apostille - no problem!) Slovenes particularly like official stamps, hence the apostille issue. In recent years, the government has been trying to simplify matters and require fewer stamps. Apparently it´s hard to wean people off the habit - there is now a stamp for documents to state that you are not using a stamp.


Friday, 15 June 2018

Quick Lit May-June 2018

It' s lucky that there was no Quick Lit link up last month, because I haven´t looked at a book since we moved about three weeks ago. So here´s my pre-Slovenia list from the end of the Spring, linking up as ever with Modern Mrs Darcy.

Elizabeth Von Arnim - The Enchanted April
Four Englishwomen, strangers to one another, come together to rent a castle in Italy for a month. Each brings her own emotional burden (two in loveless marriages, one a society girl haunted by her beauty and status, and an old woman with nothing but her memories to live for), but slowly, the castle works its magic on each. I'd be interested to see how they made a film of this, since the novel is almost entirely internal dialogue. Gentle, and genteel, escapism, a little marred for me by the abrupt ending. But don't buy the cheap Kindle version - it's riddled with typos.

Courtney Carver - Soulful Simplicity: How living with less can lead to so much more
I got this as soon as it was published, around Christmas, and read it straight through in a few days. And since I felt I needed some mental calm after last month's reading marathon, I decided to go back and re-read it more slowly, pencil in hand. I'm a long-time reader of Courtney's blog, Be More With Less. This is a gentler version of a self-help/minimalism book. Courtney tells the story of how an MS diagnosis was her wake-up call to reform her life step-by-step, not to reinvent herself, but to uncover the real person underneath the stress and stuff. At the end of each section, she offers plenty of suggestions for you to create your own road map to your true self. I'm tempted to put this in my suitcase instead of the shipping box when we move, so I can have it to hand to keep oriented in the stress of transitioning to a new life.

Octavia E. Butler - Kindred
When I taught literature, Butler's short story "Bloodchild" was a staple on my syllabus. It's a story about humans who are refugees on a planet inhabited by insectoid aliens, and the accommodation that humans make to stay there. I wanted to read more Butler, but I'm not big on sci-fi, so her time-travel novel seemed a better bet, and appropriate to read before I left America. Dana is a black woman living in 1976, who suddenly - and repeatedly - finds herself thrown back in time to pre-civil war Maryland to rescue the son of a plantation owner. It quickly emerges that they have a connection which means saving his life preserves her own. Like "Bloodchild", Kindred addresses inter-racial issues in an intelligent and thought-provoking way and lays bare some uncomfortable and realistic answers to the question: what would you really have done if you were living in a slave state in the nineteenth century? Butler was a rare phenomenon - a black, female science fiction writer - and a very good one at that. Her untimely death was a loss to literature.

Sigrid Undset - The Snake Pit (Vol II of Master of Hestviken)
It's difficult to say much about this without spoiling the first volume, but here goes: After many years of separation, Ingunn and Olav are finally able to wed and make their home in Hestviken. But Olav's years of outlawry have incurred terrible consequences that seem to have cursed their future. A brooding Nordic novel (even too brooding for me at times, and I'm a professional at it) with a stark portrayal of a man forced to live by the rules of one culture (pagan) but be judged by another (Christian).

Sigrid Undset- In the Wilderness (Vol III of Master of Hestviken)
I wanted to go ahead and read this so I didn't have to ship it. Necessary spoiler alert: after his wife's death, Olav finds himself in an emotional and spiritual wilderness. He leaves his homestead for England, half hoping to recapture the years of youth he lost to caring for an ailing wife, but still he is haunted by the acts he committed to protect them both. His chance finally comes in a bloody reckoning to protect all he tried to run from. There´s a fourth book in the series, but, frustratingly, the library sale room only had the first three.

Jacqueline Woodson - Brown Girl Dreaming
Winner and finalist in several awards, this is a memoir in free verse of growing up in both the north and the south during the civil rights era of the 60s and 70s. It was in our library's juvenile section, but it's pretty ageless in terms of audience. Woven into memories of Woodson's life is also the story of how she became a writer. Coming to the end of twenty years in Mississippi, the stories of the south were both familiar and uncomfortable to me, a way of life I recognized, but an oppression and racism I can honestly say I've never seen.

Barbara Pym -  Excellent Women
Pym is a mid-twentieth century author, usually a good bet if you prefer your novels without strong language or extraneous sex scenes. This comedy of manners explores the life of Mildred Lathbury, one of the excellent women of the title: the genteel, unmarried woman with the genteel, part-time job who is always on hand to arrange things for the genteel men of her world, and is assumed to be in love with the local vicar unless she is his sister and is keeping house for him. This is Mildred´s world, until a new young couple move into the flat below her, the husband a smooth-talking, flirtatious naval officer, and the wife a career woman – a trouser-wearing anthropologist, no less. Then Mildred´s best friend (the vicar´s sister, naturally, keeping house for her brother) offers lodgings to a pretty clergyman´s widow, and the network of relationships is thrown into a chaos that, of course, the excellent women are supposed to resolve. Seen through Mildred´s eyes, the story is both funny and poignant, a portrait of a way of life and class of women that was slipping into oblivion after the Second World War. I enjoyed it from the first page. 

Leo Lionni - A Color of His Own
This short book got the adults in the house debating. Is is a story about finding your own tribe? A coming-out fable? A manifesto for magic mushrooms? Regardless, it has simple, appealing pictures and text, and our toddler liked it. If you're okay with books about chameleons who may or may not be seeking same sex relationships or recreational drugs, then this is for you.

Jill Murphy -  A Quiet Night In
I was surprised and glad to spot this British book on our library shelves. Murphy's humorous stories about the elephant family Mr and Mrs Large and their four children manage to show both the adults' and children's perspectives on family life. All In One Piece sits on the shelf of grandchildren's books in my parents' house and has been delighting children, parents and grandchildren for years. In this one, Mrs Large is planning a romantic dinner at home for her husband's birthday with the children in bed early, but all goes - well, pretty much as you might expect for exhausted parents of four young children.

Lesley Harker - Annie's Ark
A cute retelling of the Noah story through the eyes of his granddaughter, in lyrical prose. Life on the ark is busy for little Annie, rocking lambs to sleep, rescuing Uncle Shem from the monkeys, disentangling the snakes from her Grandma's knitting. And, for secular readers, without any religious references.

Robert Kraus - Leo the Late Bloomer
The story of a little tiger who can't do anything right, but whose mother has faith in him. Apart from the funky 70s illustrations, what struck me in reading this was that you don't get to hear about children being allowed to be late bloomers much any more. They're all probably diagnosed with developmental disabilities, whether or not they actually have them. (That, and puppy fat. Does any kid have puppy fat any more?)

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Škocjan Caves

After Saturday´s surfeit of wine and food, Sunday was more penitential. Following an early lunch (no wine), we took off for Škocjan (pronounced roughly shkots-yahn), around thirty minutes from Koper, notable for its cave complex and park. We´d visited a couple of times back in 2008 when we lived here, by ourselves and with family, but thought it was worth a revisit after ten years.

As soon as we arrived, our teen pointed out that her dad had taken her back there in 2015 on a  Slovenia/ Italy trip. Oh well, she likes geological formations. After a drink and ice cream, we gathered to wait for the guide. She turned up in the courtyard promptly at one, called, ˝Tour this way,˝ and set off at a brisk pace before we had time to get the toddler in the backpack, so it was a long, hot and hurried walk carrying him between us to the cave entrance where, thankfully, we got to recoup.

The caves are a a Unesco cultural and world heritage site, both for their geological significance and for the history of their exploration, which began in earnest in the early nineteenth century. The caves are natural, created by the Reka river, which sinks underground to flow for about 34 km before resurfacing in Italy. The whole area is known as the Karst, a vast limestone plateau that is ideal for cave formation- in fact, Slovenia is about 1/3 caves under its surface.

Over millennia, the river has created some of the biggest natural chambers ever discovered in Europe, as well as fascinating stalagmites and rimstone pools. It´s the sort of otherwordly scene you´d expect in a fantasy or sci fi film. A cave tour is pretty much part of a complete visit to Slovenia, and this is a good choice, not totally touristy, and interesting even if caves aren´t usually your thing.

Actually, I´ve had a lifelong phobia of caves. It´s about being stuck in the pitch dark with tonnes of rock over your head (that and being scared by the stone witch in Wookey Hole when I was very small). But we visited so many caves the last time we lived in Slovenia that I pretty much got over it. However, that was a decade ago, so I admit I had to fight a little panic as we entered and began the walk down the narrow passage to the point of no return.

The main tour is about 3 km and includes 700 steps, up and down. The guide stopped about four times to give an overview of the section we were about to tramp through. A little more information and more time to look (read:rest) would have been nice, but I suppose that was for the sake of the caves, not just business.

There´s a long part where you walk along a narrow path overlooking a gorge, with the river rushing far beneath you, and cross the sort of bridge on which Gandalf fought the Balrog. Interesting for my husband, with a toddler on his back and a fear of heights. He trudged along, hand on the rail a firm arm's length from the edge. ˝No wonder I forgot I´d been here three times,˝ he muttered. ˝I was staring at my feet the whole time.˝ The toddler, on the other hand, tried to push his sister over the edge. Apart from that one homicidal episode, he was pretty good, because riding in the backpack carrier is always exciting. After learning about how stalagmites and stalactites are formed from drops of water, he thought it was great fun to monitor the drips falling on our heads. All that proved too much stimulation, though, and he fell asleep before we reached the exit.

After 3 weeks of walking uphill, capped by a hike, this is about how I felt on Sunday.

At the end, the guide announced that there was the quick, easy way up via the lift, or the scenic 30-minute walk up past waterfalls. Since the cashier had confirmed the lift wasn´t working, and my husband had apparently lost some of his reason, he voted for the scenic tour. Honestly, it was more like an endurance course, but would have been lovely in cool weather not carrying a sleeping child. Time for more drinks and ice cream when we made it back - I think we more than walked off the calories. We´ll be returning to hike in the park another, cooler day.

So there you have it: a hike through an underground gorge when between us we are afraid of both heights and caves. Does that make us a) brave; b) foolish; c) cultural snobs; or d) compulsive nerds? I think it´s abcd.

Touristy stuff: The caves are open year-round for regular tours. Current times and prices on their website. It´s not for anyone who has trouble with mobility, and you´d do best to be ready to follow the guide before the appointed tour time (see above). The surrounding park (also hilly terrain) is free to visit and has suggested trails. The visitor centre has modest, but full amenities, including a restaurant and bar.

Monday, 11 June 2018


We hired a car over the long weekend, most importantly to visit our daughter´s new school over the border in Trieste, Italy, and to make some large purchases (hello, Ikea) but also to do a couple of touristy things.

On Saturday, myself, my husband and the three year-old headed off to Hrastovlje, a short, twenty-minute drive from Koper. It´s one of the little towns that dot the hills and mountains of Slovenia, distinct clusters of terracotta roofs among the green of the trees, usually punctuated with a church tower. If you´re interested, the rough pronunciation is Hras-toe-lee-ay (the v acts like a w if it comes before a consonant, excepting before r, and j is like y as in yak).

First stop was Gostilna Švab (pronounced Shvarb) for lunch. A gostilna is equivalent to an Italian trattoria, usually a country inn that serves home-style dishes. We began with half a litre of wine (of course – it´s cheaper than non-alcoholic drinks). Well, OK, not quite began for me because I had a free sample of wine at the supermarket in the morning. Living in Europe can be tough. We shared a salad, and the waiter brought out a loaf of very hot, crispy bread. I had ravioli with cheese and grilled mushrooms, and my husband had pork chops with potatoes and dried peas cooked with garlic and other spices, but we shared everything between the three of us. All of it was good - hearty, simple and satisfying. I managed to ask for an extra plate in Slovene, and the waiter told me ˝Bravo!˝ (they use a lot of Italian expressions here on the border with Italy). We rounded it off with coffee, which comes very strong in a tiny cup, ice cream for the toddler – and then the waiter brought us complementary drinks with the bill, blueberry liqueur for the adults and lemonade for our son.

Then it was a short walk up the road to the main tourist attraction, the Church of the Holy Trinity. It was built in the later fifteenth century, and, like many churches in the mountain villages, was not just a place of worship, but doubled as a fortified sanctuary against Turkish raids. Inside the little church are almost intact fifteenth century frescoes depicting the days of creation and the story of Adam and Eve, Christ´s passion, and, most notably, a fine example of a Dance of Death. Just what we needed to contemplate after all that gluttony and wine-drinking. Alcuin was very well-behaved while we examined the frescoes, and even momentarily excited when he thought he was going to see a painting of Jesus and his twelve opossums. But of course the real excitement was running around the courtyard looking out of every arrow hole, and piling up rocks. I wonder how many three year-olds helped fight off Turkish raiders over the centuries?

Note the man on the right trying to bribe Death!

It was a pretty hot afternoon, but my husband wanted to be sure he wasn´t under the effects of the lunchtime wine before he drove home, so we gamely walked around the outside of the fortifications, which seems to be a popular dog-walking place for the locals. Then we popped back to the church to buy a bottle of the local wine for sale (see the vineyards in the photo) – 4 euros for a bottle of mušcat, a dessert wine – because it´s important to support the local economy.

Home for as much of a rest as one can get with a manic three-year old, who thankfully went to bed early, leaving us to enjoy mušcat on our balcony.

Touristy info: Entrance fee to the church is three euros, and includes an audio presentation in several choices of language while you look around. It´s open during the most obvious visiting hours, but there´s a phone number posted on the gate to call if it´s shut. The menu at Gostilna Švab is in several languages, even if the English version is... interesting. But you´ll get the gist of it. The online menu is only in Slovene.

Saturday, 9 June 2018


Well, we made it to Slovenia. Dobrodošli - welcome! Somewhere vaguely in the back of my habitually anxious mind there´s a feeling that I should be panicking that this huge move might be a colossal mistake. But I sit at the kitchen table and look out of the window over the shimmering sea at Italy just across the bay, and peace sweeps over me.

It looks even closer from where I sit.

Which is just as well, because it´s been a bit of an adventure these past two weeks (Yes, two. I´ve not been online much because we´re still waiting for internet to be hooked up). Our apartment was finalised by the university a nail-biting week before we arrived. It was suggested we stay in a hotel for a couple of weeks while we furnished it. We decided against that immediately, as the stress of a slowly disappearing life (pets rehomed, possessions sold) was telling hard on our toddler. We needed a home, even if it meant sleeping on the floor and eating sandwiches.

The point was taken when we arrived. In Slovenia and surrounding parts of Europe, it turns out that ˝unfurnished˝ means ˝no kitchen˝. As in, not even a sink, just the connections in the wall. Luckily, it does not mean ˝no bathroom˝.  I´m getting pretty used to doing dishes in a bucket in the shower while we await the arrival of a sink. And did I mention still waiting for internet? Things in Slovenia move... slowly. We did at least get a washing machine within a week, which was a relief, because it´s hard to do everything in the shower.

Another reason we´ve not got much done is that we arrived a couple of days before a conference my husband was involved in. It was as if friends from all over the world had come to greet us – and the receptions, banquet and winery tour were part of our own celebration. But we got to sing for our supper too – the Dean of the Maths and Science department (FAMNIT) pulled us aside at a reception and told us that we were ˝just˝ going to be interviewed on camera for the city´s website. My husband is used to this and has a little speech about why he comes here. I bumbled. I haven´t even dared look at the video yet.

Anyhow, that´s the short version. Every sentence I write seems like it needs its own blog post. I´ll catch up slowly, the Slovene way, maybe drinking good, unbelievably cheap, coffee in a cafe by the sea :)