Monday 15 November 2021

QuickLit November 2021

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual. October was not a big reading month for me. One reason was this (sorry for the bad photo - it's from Messenger):

We bought this puzzle, Breughel the Elder's Children's Games, in the Kunsthistoriches museum, Vienna, in August, and I decided that the advent of autumn was a good time to get it out. It took my husband and I about a week, during which we neglected many other things (like reading). I also learned that a mathematician (husband) has a very different attitude towards doing a puzzle than an arts scholar (me). To me, it was about enjoying the emerging picture, to him, solving the problem as soon as possible. And P.S., if you like doing puzzles, I really recommend a puzzle mat.

The original for a better look.

The second reason was I felt unsettled for most of the month. Maybe it was the approach of the season where we tend to cosy up indoors, but I found myself dipping into two home-oriented books on my shelf/Kindle. Marie Kondo's The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up obviously sparks joy because I still have it on my bookshelf - honestly, I love it as a quirky memoir as well as inspiration for tidying. The other was The House Witch by Arin Murphy-Hiscock. It's new-agey, but I'm a little that way inclined myself, so I like contemplating the spiritual aspect of keeping the hearth, even if I no longer have a house with a physical hearth.

The final reason was my choice of audiobook: 

Jean Auer - Clan of the Cave Bear

I've never read this ground-breaking historical fiction from the 80s, but Chirp a dirt cheap deal, so I gave it a go. It took a little while to get into it, partly because the audio narrator did not seem especially suited to the book, and partly because the actual narrator is some sort of omniscient anthropologist, who gives all the technical and scientific details behind the story. But once I was into it, I was hooked. Usually, I have a reading book on the go at the same time, but I just couldn't think of anything that really complemented reading such a different book for me, so I stuck with this - over 22 hours of audio.

It tells the story of a Cro- Magnon girl, Ayla, rescued after an earthquake by a Neanderthal clan and adopted by their medicine woman and her shamen brother. Although loved by her adoptive family, she is always the outsider, her very DNA making her think and act differently than her new misogyistic tribe, and hated in particular by the clan leader's son. Through her we trace the final struggle taking place between these two branches of humankind. Interestingly, I've seen it described as a precursor to YA dystopias like The Hunger Games.

So there we go. Anyone else ever had the problem of not being able to pair a book and audio book? Are the others in the Clan of the Cave Bear series (Earth's Children) worth reading?

Friday 5 November 2021

Vienna: There be dragons

 Resisting the urge to title this "Oh, Vienna" or "Waltzing through Vienna"

St Stephen's Cathedral

Only the adventurous make international travel plans in 2021. Well, OK, going over the open border to Austria, the stakes were pretty low. There was one thing we were gambling on, though: that the rule stating that over-6s needed to have a negative test to visit many venues in Vienna, would be dropped for the school holiday period. It was not, but we vaccinated adults didn't let our son's discomfort get in the way of a family holiday.

To be honest, I have overlooked Austria as a travel destination, as it never really sparked interest. Somehow, it did not click with me that VIENNA WAS THE CAPITAL OF THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPIRE, even though I spent a lot of time studying said dynasty in school. But about ten minutes of internet research got me really excited about visiting.

We stayed in our usual sort of shabby-chic city apartment close to happenings in town - across the road from the underground and trams, and a few stops into the main tourist area. Also, literally next door to a Covid rapid testing centre.

I'm not going to comment too much on coronavirus restrictions, because hopefully you will read this in happier times, but, for reference, the Viennese were far more (although not universally) strict about checking our "papers" as our eldest termed it, compared to attitudes here in Slovenia. Rules for private attractions were also, strangely, stricter than for public ones. 

This was a short visit, and we chose a destination for each morning and afternoon of our full days there (Tue-Thu). I think in retrospect, we should have had at least an afternoon or morning to stroll or hang out in a park. To be honest, I'd been hoping our hyper-organised eldest child was going to produce a holiday spreadsheet for us, but she got busy, so we only got about 3/4 planned. Anyway, as opposed to a blow-by-blow account of each day, here are the highlights of our itinerary, in order.

Aquarium (Haus des Meeres)

(Don't ask me how to pronounce any of these names. I steadfastly refused to even think about it because I still have so much trouble with Slovenian.)

The aquarium was first on the list, partly to console the six year-old for having a stick shoved up his nose. It's built inside an old flak (anti-aircraft) tower, a pretty ingenious interpretation of "swords into ploughshares". This means twelve floors of exhibits, plus some amazing views of the city on the way up. Defintitely worth the price. The main draw for us were the Komodo dragons (on the 9th floor) and the gila ("heela") monsters, but we saw some pretty cool exhibits on the way up. On several floors, they have tubing going around the walls in which you can watch a colony of leafcutter ants going about their work. There were also some of the biggest anacondas I have seen, thankfully looking like they had just been fed. The open monkey enclosure was pretty exciting - you get to walk bridges and climb among monkeys, birds, and fruit bats! - I love bats! Only one phone got pooped on by our flying friends. Going one up on fish petting, they also had a tank full of doctor fish, where you could stick in your hand for a fishy manicure. We thought that was so cool that when we got back home, we went to a fish spa in nearby Piran and all got pedicures.

Why are you all lined up, taking my photo?

Saint Stephen's Cathedral

Like Milan's cathedral (so maybe there is a trend going), you could only access part of the cathedral as a tourist unless you paid or were attending a service. We had not planned for that, and would have had to wait too long for the option that interested us - a trip to the vaults - so we opted to leave and visit the  Imperial Crypt instead. On departing, I could not help but reflect that the cathedral now stands smack in the middle of Vienna's upmarket shopping area.

Imperial Crypt (Kapuzinergruft)

If you are a history buff, or like contemplating how "the paths of glory lead but to the grave", this is for you. Row upon row of ornate sarchophagi housing the remains of four centuries of emperors and empresses. Maria Theresa, of course, has one three times as big as all the others (she made sure of that before she died). They are apparently guarded by Capuchin monks, so we were a little disappointed not so see robed, hooded security here. Also, for lovers of history or old films, there is the tomb of Crown Prince Rudolf - remember Mayerling with Omar Shariff? Rudolf and his young mistress were found dead at Mayerling in an apparent suicide pact (the truth is still a mystery). The line of succession had to change to his uncle, father of the fated Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination launched the First World War. Also, there are enough skulls, skeletons and weapons decorating the sarchophagi to keep a small boy relatively interested, but only with the promise of cake to follow...

The rewards for Covid testing and boring crypt visits

Demel cafe

We went for one touristy experience that we knew might be overpriced: Vienna's eighteenth century cafe, and one of the places that lays claim to the invention of the sachertorte. Even in these times of Covid, there was a queue, but not long enough for total rebellion on the part of the small and hungry (i.e. all of us). As a bigger party, we were lucky enough to get a seat inside to enjoy the decor and see the bakers at work, when most people were being funnelled to the smaller outside tables. The drinks and food (including sachertorte, of course) were tasty - but served with plastic strips around the slices of cake, which rather detracted from the elegance. Also, the service experience was not as advertised online, and they make you pay at the till so that you have to walk through their shop. Call me snobbish, but it's exactly the same as has happened with Fortnum and Mason - now a parody of itself. But we are still glad we tried it. (Website.)

The Natural History Museum

On a par with London (not quite as big, and not multiple shops to strip you of money as you walk around). It has an animatronic allosaurus to scare and delight your little ones, part of a good dinosaur collection. The gemstone and mineral and the early human exhibits were pretty notable, too - who doesn't like staring at huge lumps of gold and shiny things, or human skulls? But we were dubious about having to walk through several rooms devoted to reducing waste. Middle child and I also spent time in veneration of the Venus of Willendorf. However, by this day two, Alcuin had cottonned on to the fact that he was getting lots of treats as compensation for having to be tested, so he started pushing to get to the gift shop pretty early in. It took some persuasion to prolong his education and make for the loot, but even we had to agree that we didn't have the stamina to see the entire upper floor. In his defence, most of us also bought stuff (yes, I have a mini Venus of Willendorf on my bookshelf now). And his (directed) choice of a tube of dinosaurs made for fun for the whole trip, and many a prehistoric battle across restaurant tables. (Website.)

Imperial Treasury (Kaiserliche Scahatzammer)

Not top of my list, but on my husband's and eldest's. If you like splendour, then you can ooh and aah at the imperial and ecclesiastical riches of the empire. Or spare a thought for the work that went into all that embroidery. We also spent a lot of time pointing out ceremonial weapons and reliquaries (body parts keep kids interested) - especially fun were the ones that were 'coded' with the saint's method of martyrdom. I was going to say that we escaped the gift shop, but then I remembered the red feather pen... (Website.)

Spanish Riding School

No, not even in Covid times, did we manage to get affordable tickets to an actual performance, but went for the popular and much cheaper morning training session (1 hour). The riders are still in costume, and you get commentary, so it's worth it. So was the chance to sit down after two days of walking. It did not occupy our youngest as much as we thought it would, but at least he didn't realise there was a gift shop. When you book tickets, be aware that the seating plan makes it look like it is all tiered, whereas the upper rows are in a balcony, so you don't get a 100% view of the arena (though close). And remember, the original stud farm is here in Slovenia, in Lipica, and well worth a visit.

Any by the way, if you're wondering why my descriptions are flagging as I go on, it's reflective of the fact we were wearing ourselves out, plus the memories are starting to blur.

Upper Belvedere

There are three museums in the Belvedere complex, two of which are part of a former palace complex, and the other is a Modernist building (the Lower Belvedere is currently shut for renovation).  We opted for the Upper Belvedere because of course you have to see the Klimt collection, even if The Kiss is ubiquitous. We arrived by tram, and enjoyed the tour of the city (OK, Alcuin complained a lot because he wanted to ride the underground - he'd evolved some ritual about the journey). There was almost a crisis when the children's activity material we promised turned out not to exist, but an audio guide saved the day, combining art and maths.  I admit to liking Klimt's Cottage Garden with Sunflowers best of the paintings on display. And of course, the museum houses (one of several copies of) Napoleon on his rearing horse.  Somehow we managed to persuade Alcuin to share a gift of Klimt origami paper with a sibling. I admit to a Cottage Garden with Sunflowers notebook just because. Fun and freedom afterwards running up and down the terraced Castle gardens.

Kunthistoriches Museum

This is the equivalent of the British Museum. It was the last morning, and we probably pushed ourselves too much, trying to do one last thing instead of heading home. But it was also Ted's birthday, so he got in free (and got a discount in the shop). Also, hurrah for a free children's audio guide. Sadly, a lot of the ancient civilisation exhibits that we wanted to see were closed for renovation. I went for the Breugel the Elder paintings, though, and was not disappointed. However, after about an hour we met in an exhausted heap on a bench, ready to go. We used the shop discount on a Breugal puzzle, which looks hard enough to tax our failing eyesight in the winter evenings. Update - I took so long to write this post that we did the puzzle - it took about a week of neglecting other tasks.

Somehow, we forgot to visit the Butterfly House, which was on our initial to-do list. Still, I expect we'll be back, though Salzburg is the next Austrian city on our list.

I thought I'd round up with favourites and tips from the family, since we're multi-generational. 

Me. Favourite: for intellectual satisfaction, the Venus of Willendorf and Breugel, but I have to admit that the aquarium was really fun. Tip: take time to hang out, even if you think you want to see it all.

Ted. Favourite: Dragons and monsters (Komodo and Gila). Tip: Be aware that Google Maps will not show you all the parking garages, and there is some cheap parking (see below); also, consider the Museums Card if you intend to visit a lot of them.

Eldest (20s). Favourite: Klimt collection in the Upper Belvedere. Tip: take the underground (subway)

Middle (teen). Favourite: Venus of Willendorf. Tip: have some basic German phrases, e.g. entrance, exit, train station, "May I have..."

Youngest (6). Favourite: Komodo dragon, of course, plus almost limitless loot. Tip: I'm guessing he'd say, milk parental guilt for all it's worth.

Our experience was that the main tourist areas were still quite busy, but step just a street or two away, and it was almost deserted. I recommend bringing a young adult who is used to negotiating maps and transport online - we just followed her around, and got on and off trains and trams as commanded.

Touristy stuff - I don't have specific recommendations, because there are lots of options depending on what you want to do, so I'd suggest making a list and then seeing what transport and sight-seeing offers are best for you. The sorts of deals offered include state museums, combined transport and sights, or transport. This site compares the current types of city cards. We scored big on a special discount for a federal museums card - only 19 euros instead of the usual 59 - you can buy that online or at the first museum you visit. We bought separate one-week travel cards for the adults (children of school age are free in the summer holidays). They were easy to purchase at the underground station (several language options at the kiosk). The public transport system was very good - easy to negotiate and with frequent trains and trams. I don't know how crowded it would have been in a normal summer, though.

Randomly, this was on the wall of one of the bedrooms. No nightmares were reported.

This was our AirBnb. For city breaks, we go for cheap and convenient over some penthouse experience, so we tend to end up in older apartments in more residential areas, which suits us perfectly. This was opposite a shopping centre/indoor market (which had a covered car park that was about half the price we normally pay for city parking in Europe), next to transport (as I said above) and with lots of restaurants close by. The apartment had three bedrooms and plenty of space for us. This is the city, though - you might want earplugs if you don't go to bed late, and are used to silence at night. We would stay there again.

Friday 15 October 2021

QuickLit October 2021

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual. For some reason, I got out of the habit of keeping up my list of books read. Not sure if it signals that I need to perk up my reading life, or just that I'm getting absent minded. Luckily, all my books are on my shelf or Kindle as I'm not living in an English-speaking country, so here's a round-up from last month.

Jennifer Robson - The Gown

This had been on my list of 'I'd read it if it came on sale' books - and my patience was rewarded. It's a three-way story, of two young women, Londoner Ann and Holocaust survivor Miriam who are embroidering the gown for Princess Elizabeth's wedding, and Ann's grandaughter, Heather, who is solving a mystery that Ann left behind.  Although the plot was built on what, to me, was a bit of a flaw (that Ann's daughter never tried to find out anything about her father), I enjoyed the story, particularly the re-creation of postwar Britain. The modern day story, I felt so-so about. The trope of 'person finds photo/jewellery/diary and uncovers mystery' seems a bit ubiquitous nowadays.

Barbara Pym - Crampton Hodnet

Barbara Pym never disappoints with her comedies of manners. This is an early novel, but it was set aside when Pym became involved in war work, and left unedited until after her death, as she felt it was dated. Now, of course, it is a perfect period piece, set in Oxford in the 1930s. Elderly Miss Doggett likes to think she has her finger on the moral pulse of Oxford. She is eager to promote the romance between her great-neice, Anthea and a well-connected young man - and to quash the budding affair between Anthea's father and a young student. But the one liason she does not see is going on right under her nose, between her companion Miss Morrow and lodger, the curate Mr Latimer. 

Barbara Pym - brilliant writer, and cat lady

Trisha Ashley - The Garden of Forgotten Wishes and The Little Teashop of Lost and Found

In a spate of mental exhaustion, I put my feet up with two light rom-coms. In The Garden of Forgotten Wishes, Marnie returns to the UK after several years in France hiding from her coercive ex-husband. She takes a gardening job in the little Lancashire village her mother had fled years ago, but decides not to reveal her identity. One of her employers turns out to be a former fellow student who has his own reasons to be hiding. After a thorny start, if you will forgive the pun, relationships, of course, are restored along with the garden. I liked this best of the two, savouring its quiet pace.

In The Little Teashop of Lost and Found, Alice is reeling from the death of her fiance. She decides to sink her inheritance and grief into the project of reviving a little teashop in Haworth, near where she was found abandoned as a baby. As she seeks to work through her loss and uncover answers about her life, she also finds herself attracted to her antiques dealer neighbour, who will inadvertantly lead her to the truth.

I've got books lined up until the end of the year, I think, so I've put a cap on Kindle purchases - unless of course, another TBR bargain pops up...

Wednesday 15 September 2021

QuickLit September 2021

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual. I skipped last month, as I spent August visiting and being visited by family, including a fun trip to Vienna! So here are some highlights of the past couple of months' reading (which looks better than it was, as I admit to zoning out with some 'brain-candy' novels, too).

At the Belvedere museum complex, Vienna

In order to snap myself out of the emotional funk caused by reading The Remains of the Day and Villette in succession, I went out of my comfort zone with the first two below, with mixed results.

Talia Hibbert - Get a Life, Chloe Brown

After a brush with death, Chloe Brown makes an effort to shake up a life defined by managing chronic pain, and creates a "Get a life" list. Her first achievment is to move into her own flat, where she meets superintendent Redford. He seems her polar opposite, but he may be just the man to help her get through that list. MMD described this as steamy. Honestly, I'd say there is another phrase for this: "Mummy porn" (that's a description, not a judgement on anyone's reading choices). It has an engaging premise and a sweet couple, sandwiched together with erotica. You are now forewarned...

Tobly McSmith - Stay Gold [audiobook]

In this YA debut, trans teen Pony goes "stealth" (presenting himself as a boy, not trans) in his new high school, and immediately falls for cheerleader Georgia, who is cultivating her popular girl image at the expense of what she really wants from life. Georgia seems to reciprocate his feelings, but what will happen when she finds out the truth? I enjoyed the romance element of this novel, between one person hiding what she is, and another hiding what he is not. I did not agree with the presentation of some of the issues - there is a lot of stereotyping - but it is written for teens, after all, who have a much more black-and-white outlook on life. Despite that, I got very invested in the story, and was in tears at the climax (there are some very dark moments in this book). I think the audio version, with different narrators for the two characters, really brought it to life. (P.S., if you have not guessed from the theme, I'd definitely say it is on the "A" side of YA.)

Ruth Hogan - Queenie Malone's Paradise Hotel

Another Hogan novel with quirky characters and a positive outlook on difficult aspects of life. Tilda leads a solitary existence, isolated by her ability to interact with the dead, and a childhood tauma she does not understand. When she returns to Brighton to sort out her late mother's flat, she discovers a circle of (live and dead) people who help her to uncover family secrets and venture into the world of the living once more. I really enjoyed this, as with Hogan's other novels.

Julie Berry - Lovely War

I gave each of my daughters a copy of this as an Epiphany present a couple of years ago, but neither read it (guess I need better recommendations for YA), so I eventually took it back from one of them - and I, at least, enjoyed it. It's based on one of the Aphrodite and Hephaestus myths: when Hephaestus captures his wife and Ares in flagrante, Aphrodite defends herself (but not to the end you think) by proving that love is the greatest power of all, with the story of two World War I couples, a British pair who met only a week before deployment, and a Harlem musician and Belgian refugee who find that music transcends all boundaries. While for me, it had the same lack of nuance as the YA novel above (all the 'good' white characters are somehow completely non-racist - in 1916?), the romances were compelling, and the writing often deeply affective. But it made me realise that I need to re-read mythology, as I've forgotten many of the stories I used to know by heart.

Maggi Andersen - Introducing Miss Joanna

Another Regency novella from my critique group partner (aside: how do some people write several books a year?). Newly minted heiress Joanna comes to London for the season, and meets the handsome Baron Reade, who is vehemently opposed to getting married. But he is also investigating a white slave trade ring on behalf of the Crown, and Joanna is pulled dangerously close to the investigation. Maggi dishes up her usual irresistible mix of attraction, love and danger in this new Once a Wallflower series.

I hope you had some good summer reading. I look forward to gathering some recommendations for the autumn from your linkups!

Thursday 15 July 2021

QuickLit July 2020

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual. In retrospect, it is quite clear why I ended this past month with no palpable desire about what to read next - I must have drained all my emotional reading resources with these two titles.


Kazuo Ishiguro - The Remains of the Day

I gave Ishiguro another go, even though I hated the ending of The Buried Giant. In this Booker Prize novel set in the 1950s, an aging butler takes a road trip to visit a former housekeeper, and along the way, reminisces about a lifetime devoted to the service of Lord Darlington. Beautiful, restrained prose makes this story of lost causes and lost love all the more bittersweet. And, thank goodness, a glimmer of positivity at the end. I've never seen the film adaptation, but reading this, I can imagine that Emma Thompson was perfect as the housekeeper.

Charlotte Brontë - Villette

Most of the month was taken up with re-reading Villette. I'd only read it once, decades ago, and pretty much just recalled the end. Wow. Its effect crept up on me gradually, but by the end I wanted to throw around clichés such as tour de force and masterpiece of psychological drama. Cast on her own devices, Lucy Snowe follows a whim and travels to Villette (a fictional Belgian town), where she finds work as a nanny and then English teacher at Madame Beck's school. Lucy occupies the invisible position of a working middle class woman. 'I am a cypher,' she says, and the tension in the story comes from the way she is labelled by others (passive, uncontroversial) and the passionate, opinionated person she is within. She is so used to hiding, that she even conceals facts from the readers at times, sometimes drawing us in, sometimes pushing us away. I was pretty exhausted by the time I finished it. Jane Eyre will always have my heart, but Villette has my respect.

And has anyone else read and re-read that penultimate paragraph, trying to will yourself into discovering a different ending?

I'll pad out this post with a favourite I bought for my son recently:

Linda Skeer - Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist

I spent much of my childhood on the Jurassic coast, so I've been fascinated by Mary Anning for decades. This is a colourful introduction to the fossil-hunting Dorset girl who relied on her own skills, studies and deductions to discover new species, and is arguably one of the founders of paleontology, even though, as a lower-class woman, she was often slighted by the men who came to rely on her expertise.

Looking forward to reading your reviews! Have you read a book that just exhausted you? Any recommendations to bounce back?

Thursday 8 July 2021

Blood in Bled


It was time for a short break between two big events - my husband finishing edits of a textbook for Cambridge University Press (Graph Theory - I know you're rushing to preorder it right now), and the 8th European Congress of Mathematics, for which we are both committee members. The rest of Slovenia was heading south for our region, so we went north to the area around Bled.

First stop, Radovljica (Rad-OW-leet-za). We visited the bee museum in this little town about a dozen years ago, and it was apparently such a seminal event that neither of our older children could recall the trip. With the museum renovated, and several years of beekeeping now under his belt, Ted wanted to revisit. Plus, we have a new British friend who retired to this region, so it was a chance to spend some time together.

After a little satnav trauma due to closed roads in Radovljica, we met up with Chloe, who conducted us to the old town and her favourite restaurant, Lectar, where she was greeted with hugs by the staff. A consequence of Covid is that their large staff has been reduced, and the family members are playing many different roles. Yet, we had personal service and a wonderful experience.

We had lunch in the courtyard looking down across the hills - and a pretty good lunch it was, beginning with an aperitif distilled from 15 herbs by the matriarch of the business. I am not a fan of spirits at all, but this was truly delicious. Home-brewed elderflower cordial complemented the main course. For me buckwheat pasta stuffed with what they call "young cheese", sort of a ricotta, with a mushroom sauce made from locally grown mushrooms. Alcuin made good inroads into beef noodle soup, and Ted had goulash. No, I didn't take a photo of my meal. Part way through, our waiter evolved into a musician and joined the restaurant owner to entertain us with a polka and traditional music. 

Here's our gingerbread that made it home - more on that below...

After lunch, we went down to the basement and their gingerbread kitchen/museum, where they make the traditional 'lect' honeybread or gingerbread ornaments. Our waiter changed hats again to give us a little historical and practical presentation. Apparently, the tradition dates from the late middle ages - the sentiment, we were told, is that the iced gingerbread represents love that will last forever, decorating your home, or within your heart if you eat it. A different take on all-consuming love. Mindful of Covid-19 losses, we cheerfully went overboard and bought a bagful.

On our way out, we were stopped by the staff for one more serenade in Chloe's honour - a lively rendition of 'Ain't No Cure for the Summertime Blues' with electric guitar and bass.

Second on the list for Radovljica was the bee, or apicultural, museum, which I think had moved from the last time we were there. It's upstairs in the town hall, along with the municipal museum. The exhibits are lively and well-presented, in Slovene and English, with a mix of information on the lives and ecology of bees, and the history of beekeeping and the beekeeping industry in Slovenia. Did you know that the Slovenian Carniolan bee is prized across the world for its docile nature? We actually had this breed in our hives in Mississippi! Slovenia is also famous for its painted beehive panels (see the gingerbread one above), and of course the museum has a good collection of these, along with the totem-like wooden figures carved to protect the hives. Also fascinating are the teeny-tiny bee cages for transporting queens.

Also of interest to me, tying in with our trip to Milan, I learned the legend that, while in his cradle, Saint Ambrose was visited by a swarm of bees who settled on his face without stinging him, leaving only a drop of honey on his lips, a sign of his later gift for smooth talking. Perhaps that explains how he intimidated the Emperor Theodosius. 'Ambrosia', as well as being the food of the gods, is the word for the mixture of nectar and pollen fed by worker bees to the larvae.

 The other reason for our visiting in early summer is that there's an observation hive in the museum, with a glass tunnel for the bees to go in and out. It's surprising to see the swarm (high) above your head as you enter! Another friend of Chloe's had worked on painting some of the bee hive panels for the museum.

Alcuin got a little bored after a while - but I think partly he was tired, and partly he wanted to get out and have an ice cream. I would not fault the museum for his ennui; there's a good mix of media and hands-on exhibits to entertain younger visitors. Eventually he got his wish, and we took ice cream to a beautiful lookout spot across the Sava River valley and Julian alps, which you reach by going down the street alongside the pharmacy and alchemy museum.

And that was just our literal and metaphorical taste of Radovljica. The tiny and pretty old town square is packed with several museums, an art gallery, and a newly opening studio of a local ceramicist to name only the few points I saw. I definitely plan to come back again. Maybe soon, as it's quiet without the tourists. It would make a good day trip if you are in Bled or Ljubljana and want to get away from these more touristy places. I also decided that if we turned up again, we should have badges with "Friends of Chloe" emblazoned on them.

Off to find our AirBnB next, in, Selo pri Bled, warned in advance by Chloe that the roads were narrow, and of course, uphill. At least there was only one road through the town, so finding the Airbnb was easy (review below). We were greeted by the American half of a young American-Slovene couple (you find us English-speaking people in the oddest places!). 

Middle child took a bite of gingerbread and pronounced it rock hard, so I gave Alcuin a glass of milk to devour his - I guess love is fleeting for the young. Only afterwards did I have the curiosity to check the label, to find that it stated, 'Not a food item. Made from non harmful natural ingredients.'  Oops.

After down time, we felt we should make something of the evening while waiting to see if Alcuin was going to vomit from his 'non-harmful' gingerbread, and took the short walk down to the Sava Bohinjka river. The village was quiet and beautiful, but I imagine it would be swarming with visitors in a normal summer, as basically every house seemed to offer holiday accommodation. Being summer, the glacial melt had turned the water a beautiful teal blue. And it was ice cold, at least according to our children. A lovely end to a fun day.


If you talk to anyone that knows about Slovenia, the chances are, they will mention Bled, which is perhaps the best known tourist resort. Nestled among the Julian alps, it boasts an iconic glacial lake, complete with a tiny island topped with a church. So, as we are not typical tourists, we made a lightning strike on the city the next day, for a lake trip and lunch. With the combination of a warm day, a young child, and a bad shoulder (Ted), we decided to pay extra to be rowed across to the island. Once there, our frugal natures came back to haunt us, and we decided not to fork out the 12 euros apiece to go into the church and ring the bell (a tourist tradition). Ted and Blue had already done this, and I wasn't going to pay up for Alcuin to spend five minutes in there before demanding to get an ice cream. Perhaps this was the moment we were doomed to be struck down for not supporting God's house. 

The exact version of what happened next differs depending on which family member you ask, but if anyone else wants their say, they can get their own blog. After (pretty good) ice creams in lieu of the church visit, we decided to walk around the tiny island before it was time to meet the boat again. The path runs along the bottom of a steep hill, and of course Alcuin kept clambering up despite my continued warnings that it was dangerous. 

When the rest of the family got involved in spotting giant carp, I separated from them to complete the circuit (which was honestly about 5 minutes). I rejoined them just in time to discover Alcuin sitting up on the slope, and screaming. The boat was about to leave, and, yes, admittedly, we parents started fussing at him to come down by himself. He wasn't budging. 'There's blood!' he yelled. We old folks let the sibling leap to the rescue, and together we persuaded a screaming child to let us wash out the wound, which looked, indeed, to be a bad scratch from a thorn or something. Of course we had no plasters, and he wouldn't listen to orders to clamp down on a tissue, so it was a fraught trip back.

Back on shore, Ted headed off for first aid supplies while I checked Alcuin's hand again. 'That was a bad thorn scratch,' I said. 'Oh no,' he said, 'it was sharp metal.' Cue retroactive heart attack and extra pouring on of water. Thank goodness, his vaccination record had been checked a couple of weeks before and we knew he was up to date on tetanus. Ted returned with two boxes of plasters so that his highness could have his pick. Was food poisoning or blood poisoning going to carry him off? The trip was getting interesting.

Vintgar Gorge

Once again, the satnav came up trumps - in taking us down the tiny road as opposed to along the motorway. But hurrah, we got to the gorge, where the Radovna river cuts its way through the hills. I find this a little mind-boggling, and probably a stretch of the truth, but the literature claims that the gorge was undiscovered until 1891. Now, there is a walkway and bridges covering a 1600 metre, currently one-way, hike. Pacified with a makeshift sling for his injured hand, Alcuin was ready to go.

If you ever studied late eighteenth century literature, you'll be familiar with the popularity of the "sublime" - the quality, especially of a natural phenomenon, that produces overwhelming emotions, often tinged with fear as well as awe. Well, this would have had those poets drooling because it was, indeed, sublime. Down inside the steep V of the gorge, skirting the sheer outcrops of rock, brushing past swathes of trees and wildflowers that had made a hold on the rock face, the deafening backdrop of surging water, whitewater foaming over the jagged river bed or pausing here and there in a glacial blue pool carved out in a corner of the ravine. The noise got too much for Alcuin at times, but he was also determined to parade along in his sling, so his sibling had to literally lend a hand to block an ear. At points you could even feel the cold air pushing up from the water's surface.

Of course, Alcuin eventually started up with the "When are we going to get back to the car?" questions, which I evaded. Not the time to tell him that he wasn't going to magically end up back in the car park at the other end. 

I don't usually fall prey to tourist traps, but the cafe at the end of the gorge was more than welcome, and necessary before the second half of the hike. And Blue and I agreed that by the end we were actually zoning out amid the onslaught of impressiveness. 

There was a shorter (45 minute) and longer (hour or so) route back to the car. The shorter route began with 200 steps and warnings not to go near the edge, beware of falling rocks, etc., and the longer one promised good views, so, with the earlier bloodbath in mind, we opted for the longer route. If you are tired out, and not frugal, you could climb the steps and get a taxi back to the car park for about 7 euros per person.

Of course, we still had to climb out of the gorge, so the trail began with an uphill path through forest to the church of Saint Katerina in Hom. Alcuin led the way at first, fortified by a PJ Masks ice cream of dubious blue hue, but he and I were soon lagging behind, reminding me once again that I'll never climb Mount Triglav. We turned from woods into the countryside at the church, and yes, the views were indeed impressive, looking down across the villages and up into the Julian Alps. Apparently it was also a good vantage point to spot invading Turks, as the church bell was an early warning system.

Alcuin demonstrated that he had not learned his lesson at Bled by insisting on walking the tiny track further up the slope, and of course took a tumble. Luckily the thick and soft ferns stopped him rolling all the way down the hillside.

It took way more than an hour, and quite a bit of carrying Alcuin on our backs, but we made it round to the beginning. All in all, we were more than four hours, so I'd say he was a trooper. This time, Ted figured out how to drive back via the motorway, only to be foiled by a diversion due, I think, to a fire we saw from the hill top. We fell back into the apartment early evening, tired out but feeling virtuous.

Dino Park

Sunday morning, as a  reward for going along with our plans, and for still being alive, we took Alcuin to Dino Park on the way home. Used to post-Covid, sparsely attended tourist attractions, it was a shock to see the queue of parents and small children and the cars piling up along the roadside. Alcuin was beside himself with excitement which, of course, burned out in less than 30 minutes. Thank goodness we got a discount on entry. The models are fun, with informative signs in Slovenian and English. But for some reason, there are other, random, prehistoric and early-history exhibits stuck in. It was like,  'Hey, we've got a space over here, let's put in something else. What's really old? Stonehenge, everyone loves Stonehenge. And what about some of those giant heads from Easter Island?'

"Where in history are we now?"

Of course, there is a park and cafe at the end, and Alcuin was keen to queue up for the zipline, even with one hand encased in plasters. Away he whizzed, hitting the end with such force he was flung off. Sometimes I feel that little boys should come with a warning attached. 

A last hurrah was stopping at Ljubljana on the way back for lunch. I want to give a shout out to the restaurant, Namaste, because the waitress remembered that she had forgotten to add a garlic nan to our take away order the previous week, and, of course, made it up to us. (Yes, we happened to be there last week, too. Maybe we like curry a lot.)

That evening, I asked Alcuin what his favourite part of the trip was, and he declared, "Giant carp, Dino Park and curry!" And staying alive, I silently added.

And P.S., the cut healed quickly and cleanly in a few days, but he certainly milked it. Until the following weekend, when he stepped on a bee...

Touristy stuff

Here's the official site for Radovljica, the Museum of Apiculture, and Lectar restaurant, hotel, and gingerbread museum.  Bled sites are ubiquitous, but here is the official portal. The lake is more beautiful in the summer, according to middle child who went with their sister a couple of winters ago. The website for Vintgar Gorge, part of Triglav National Park is here. The route is well signposted and it has a car park. If you have to go, here is the site for Dino Park. I'd avoid a weekend, or arrive early, but it's a good tool for bribing a younger child.

Airbnb review. We stayed in the Red Apartment in Apartmaji manglc, Selo pri Bled. It had two bedrooms (twin and bunk beds) plus a sofa bed. Plenty of room for a short stay. It was clean, bright and modern, and had the three main things I like in an Airbnb - plenty of towels and bedding, and a well-stocked kitchen - plus an essential washing machine. The hosts were friendly and easy to get hold of. It's well placed for several hikes, and a shortish trek (twenty minutes for adult walkers) into Bled if you want to leave the car where it is. The village itself is quiet and pretty, but has no businesses apart from tourist accommodation, which seems to be largely the whole village. We would stay there again, but I would plan for less driving, unless tiny country roads are your thing.

Monday 14 June 2021

QuickLit June 2021

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual for quick reviews. Someone seems to have flipped the switch from spring to summer here on the Slovenian coast. Sun cream (sunscreen to US readers - don't ask why the British still use an old-fashioned word!), sea bathing and gelato is the order of the day, plus hiding indoors to read when it's too hot. Here's my reading from last month:

Taylor Jenkins Reid - Daisy Jones and the Six

This is going to be one of my best reads of the year. I love rock music and the whole rock scene from the late 60s/early 70s, and Reid brought it to life so vividly for me, I felt I was reading nonfiction. Told in interview-style as an investigative journalism piece, it explores how Daisy Jones and the group The Six got together, rocketed to fame - and broke up just as they reached stardom. Part of the hook is figuring out whose version you are going to believe, and to what extent. I've been recommending it to anyone I know who shares my love of that music genre.

Ruth Saberton - The Locket

A dual timeline story that revisits characters from The Letter (review here), which I really enjoyed. I thought this was okay, nothing amazing, perhaps because it is very similar to the first.  Looking for something to occupy her mind while her son serves in Afghanistan, Alison finally begins sorting through her mother's belongings, and brings to light a hidden WWI love story between her upper class great grandmother and a photographer.

One of Martin's whimsical illustrations for The Art of Repair

Molly Martin - The Art of Repair

The title is a play on words - this is a little book both about how to repair clothes, and a paean to it as an act of love, peppered with stories of rescuing beloved clothes (or toys). I devoured it in an evening, but am still returning to it over and over again. If you are looking for a comprehensive manual, you'll be disappointed, as Martin uses a very simple approach with just 6 basic stitches, but if you want something more philosophical and whimsical, you might check it out.

Charlotte Bronte - The Professor

This was unpublished in Charlotte's lifetime, and she largely rewrote this early novel into Villette. She made a wise choice - this first novel quite clearly works out the homesickness and cultural shock she (and Emily) endured during their years abroad as teachers/pupils more than it is crafted as a great novel. Rejecting, and rejected by, his family, William Crimsworth takes a position as a professor in Brussels, where his English Protestant sensibilities suffer amid Catholic culture, until he meets the (Protestant) woman who proves a fit companion. Honestly, it was hard to sympathise with someone who, from a modern viewpoint, is a misogynist and bigot. But now I only have Villette to go and I have (re)read all of Charlotte's novels this year.

Maggi Andersen - Never Dance with a Marquess

This is the latest in Maggi's 'Never' romance series. Nicholas is determined to abide by the wishes of his late mentor and friend, Max, to become the guardian of his two younger children, and see the elder daughter, Carrie, safely through her London Season and into the arms of a suitable husband. But Carrie does not care for the marriage mart when she has discovered the right man under her nose. Can she break through the defenses Nicholas has erected after a youthful tragedy, and, together, can they protect her siblings from Max's ruthless brother? Maggi (a member of my critique group) has perfected the art of the romantic novella, so if you want a perfectly-sized romantic treat, I recommend this and any of her Regency books. Maggi also kindly reviewed my novel on her blog recently.

I'm hoping that I won't be around for next month because PM Boris will finally have let me get into the UK without quarantine. We shall see...

Thursday 10 June 2021

A Dorset Summer reviewed by author Maggi Coleman!

 US Today best-selling author Maggi Andersen has kindly featured A Dorset Summer on her blog. Maggi, a member of my critique group, has forged a very successful 'second career' as a novelist after raising her family. I so admire the focus that brought her plan into fruition! I also love her books, though romance is not the genre I usually turn to, because her characters are immediately engaging, and the plots usually feature a mystery/suspense element.

You can check out the review on her blog, or visit her website for information on Maggi's own books. Happy reading!

Maggi Andersen's newest Regency novella

Saturday 15 May 2021

QuickLit May 2021

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for the monthly review round up. Reading wise, it was a mix of champagne and cheap plonk for me this month - all enjoyable in its own way. Read on for my literary confessions.

Charlotte Brontë - Shirley

Following on from reading Jane Eyre last month, I tackled Shirley. I couldn't remember much of this novel, apart from the fact that it had an industrial background and that the eponymous character was a woman who had been given a man's name (yes, Shirley used to be a man's name). I'm going to have to admit that, while the narrative of this story was engaging, there were long sections that were tedious and moralizing. Some of the disjointedness is deliberate, I think. This is a socially aware novel, set during the times of the Luddite riots, and it throws the conflicting claims and assumptions of the British classes into stark, and not always favourable, relief. I am starting to wonder about Charlotte Brontë's flawed heroes, though - neither Edward Rochester, Robert Moore here, nor Paul Emanuel in Villette are actually commendable, when you think about it.

Nancy Warren - Stockings and Spells, Purls and Potions, Fair Isle and Fortunes (The Vampire Knitting Club, Books 4-6)

After two Victorian novels, and a third lockdown, it was time for some brain candy. Budding witch, Lucy, has inherited an Oxford knitting shop, and a lot of trouble, from her newly undead grandmother. Book 4 was pretty entertaining, with a Christmas market murder linked to a decades-old plagiarism case. Book 5 has a good premise, where a love potion gone awry brings rehearsals of A Midsummer Night's Dream to life, but it ended up annoying me for its lack of research into Oxbridge college theatrics. In Book 6, Lucy's cousin steps in as the fortune teller at a local summer fete - but her fortunes come true with deadly accuracy. Warren needs a copy editor, but she writes entertaining plots, and I'd buy more if they came on sale, so I suppose she has a winning formula.

Emily Brontë - Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights comes in second after Jane Eyre in the list of novels that captured my teenage emotions. It's hard to believe the sisters wrote side-by-side, since their style is so different. If you need me to tell you, this is the story-of-all-stories about a couple who cannot live with each other and cannot live without each other, and whose destructive passion brings down the lives of all around them. I think Cathy and Heathcliff top the lists of both the most famous and worst couple in literary history. My most vivid memory of this novel is that I once finished it around midnight in a storm. I won't being doing that again.

If you are my age, and especially if you are British, this probably popped unbidden into your head at this moment:

Balli Kaur Jaswal - Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Nikki takes a job helping widows at her local Sikh temple learn to write in English. However, this marginalised group of women quickly take off in flights of fiction, expressing the passions they are no longer supposed to admit. Soon, suppressed truths emerge that put lives in danger. Be warned: it does contain the erotic stories. I will never think of ghee in the same way again.

Last but definitely not least, award-winning romantic novelist and my valuable critique partner Maggi Andersen released the second novella in her Never series - Never Dance with a Marquess - on May 13. An ideal escape in this unseasonal weather we all seem to be experiencing! Happy reading!

Thursday 15 April 2021

QuickLit April 2021

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual for quick book reviews. I said I wanted to read more mindfully this year, and I achieved that in March, with a classic that needed close reading, and a long book - then I skimmed something meh while in the throes of a bad cold.

Charlotte Brontë - Jane Eyre

I always cite this as my favourite book - but I haven't re-read it in years. It got to the point where I was afraid to, in case it had lost its charm. So, I took the plunge and reader, I was not disappointed. I may see it differently in mid-life than when I first read it as a teenager, but the fierce, loyal, passionate Jane, who places her integrity above all else, will always be my ideal heroine. I wrote a longer piece about re-reading it here.

THE Mr Rochester - Timothy Dalton in the BBC series

Sarah Shoemaker - Mr Rochester

Jane Eyre prompted me to another re-read. I always think of this as my gateway Modern Mrs Darcy book, as it was the first recommendation I tried from the website. I really enjoyed it the first time I read it, but following straight on from the original did not make as favourable a comparison. It's Dickensian rather than Brontëan in tone, and the parts that don't intersect with the original pulled me in to Rochester's story. However, while I understand Shoemaker's dilemma in dealing with the 'Jane' part of the story, the decision to summarise most of it in reported speech means that we lose the spark of their duelling conversation.

I'll skip the meh book for a review of the latest chapter book I read with my five (almost six) year-old.

Eva Ibbotson - Not Just a Witch

Back when there was more of an outcry over Harry Potter, I'd often see US bloggers assert, "There's been nothing like this before!", when in fact, from a British point of view, Harry Potter comes from a long lineage of children's fantasy/school stories. In my opinion, the Austro-British Ibbotson is one of the finest authors in this tradition. Her books are imaginative, smart, entertaining, and down-to-earth. Heckie is an animal witch, that is, she can turn people into animals - but she is also a good witch. Following a misunderstanding with her best friend Dora, a stone witch, Heckie moves to Wellbridge, intending to Do Good by transforming wicked people. She recruits local witches and three children, particularly the lonely Daniel, ignored by his professor parents. But a local furrier, Mr Knacksap, finds out about Heckie's power and hatches a plot to deceive her into making him a fortune. 

This book is probably more aimed at middle graders for independent reading. My son loved it and made me read it twice over, though I did gloss over a few comments about human cruelty that I was not sure I wanted him to think about yet. (FYI, my all-time Ibbotson favourite is Which Witch?)

Any books you have shied away from re-reading? Wishing all reviving Spring or Autumn reads this next month!

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Koper's hidden sanctuary: Škocjan Nature Reserve

 This is technically a post of two parts, months apart because of the pandemic.

To be honest, I never knew about the wetlands reserve on the edge of Koper until a neighbour sang its praises. That is, I had heard the name, but confused it with the park area around the Škocjan caves, which is in a different municipality. Ted had heard of it, but never been in all his years coming to Koper. So, confined to our municipalities by lockdown, it seemed a perfect outing.

Signs of spring

Seemed. The first time, we walked through a sort of annex to the park, then traipsed to the main reserve to find it closed. I was flabbergasted - people can't walk safely in the open air? Then it became a bit of an obsession to follow the lockdown zones and restrictions to see when it would open. In February, we went into the orange zone, and hurrah, the reserve was open - but the first week, Ted had to work all weekend. The second, our son brought a horrible cold back from school and gave it to me. The third - our region was pushed into the red again and the park was closed. Fourth for the win!! 

To backtrack. For reasons I am not sure about, there is a shortish walk near the main shopping centre area of town that is part of the designated reserve, and we visited that back in October 2020. I'd never noticed it, though apparently my teenager knew all about it and had taken her little brother there unbeknownst to us. If you are going for the shopping/nature combo, or only some of the family can stomach shopping, I guess it's a nice outing. The layout is the same as the main walk, including a lookout tower, so I'll save descriptions for below.

The view from the short path

This past weekend was a coldish spring day in our shady town centre, but it turned out to be bright and sunny out at the reserve. There is a small car park, for maybe 20 or so cars. The visitor centre was, of course, closed. 

Near the entrance is a playground, and animal pen, which had one horse in it, though the reserve usually hosts several horses and native cattle. I suppose they were safely elsewhere for the winter/ Covid situation. The horse was pretty friendly - it gave me a horsey kiss then tried to eat my coat. There is apparently horse riding for children at certain times of the year.

Insect hotel near the entrance to the park

The wetlands are basically a lagoon, formed over the past century as the island of Koper was gradually joined to the mainland. It has enjoyed protected status since the late 1990s. According to their website, it is at various times home to around 60% of all bird species spotted in Slovenia, a nesting area for dozens of species, and a key stop on migratory routes. Apart from this, it harbours a host of insects and amphibians, and many mammals, small and large, from the Etruscan shrew to roe deer.

I have to admit, this is not a nature reserve as I am used to it. There is one, gravelled, circular walk around the perimeter, and most of the time you can't actually see over the embankment or through the reeds and rushes to the reserve area. Instead there are lookout points with information at frequent intervals. There is also an enticing observation tower which was still closed because of Covid restrictions. I assume all this is to encourage and protect the wildlife, particularly any nesting or migrating birds. 

(An aside: This is not a complaint about Covid measures in Koper or Slovenia in general, because I know the situation is similar in countries the world over. But why, in a time of health crisis, local and national governments are not prioritising opportunities to boost our physical and mental health, I do not know.)

It's far from barren, though. The perimeter is bounded by ditches and ponds (freshwater, from river channels), and planted with native species, which are labelled for identification (in Slovene, Italian, English, and Latin for the botanists). In our edge-of-the-Mediterranean climate, tadpoles had already become froglets, and Alcuin had the joy of trying to poke frogs with an endless supply of dried reeds. (Don't worry, we did not let him torment any frog for more than a few moments.) My nature spotting skills are not what they were in my youth, but among the species we identified were fritillary butterflies, damsel flies, coots, reed buntings, little egrets, and swans of course (resident here in Koper, you can even spot them off the coast).

The observation stations have clear information (in Slovene, Italian and English), which made the closed visitor centre redundant, at least when a child is in tow. Bright, illustrated field guides, scientific information and children's activities, not to mention welcome benches, invite you to stop and learn. It's strange to look out over the peaceful wetlands and see in the distance the multicoloured walls of shipping containers piled up at the port.

It took us 1 1/2 - 2 hours to meander around with a small child, during which, the same jogger lapped us five times. I would not go there in the summer - I imagine the lack of shade and probable swarms of mosquitoes would make it miserable, but it was very pleasant on the lion's end of March. We will definitely be back, and I'd like to bring my bird-expert Dad there. Sticks and water are pretty much all a small child needs for an afternoon's entertainment.

Note the port in the background

Touristy stuff: Here is the website, which they seem to keep up to date (and which, yes, I should have consulted the first time we tried to go). If you are feeling very fit, you can take a long walk there from the town centre, which we did the first time, but not the second. The path is all gravel, so I don't know how accessible it would be to wheelchairs.