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.

Tuesday 16 March 2021

I am Jane: On Re-reading Jane Eyre


'Reader, I married him.' 

Four words in English literature that never cease to send a thrill up my spine (and threaten a tear). I discovered Jane Eyre around the age of fourteen: I was instantly captured. Those were simpler days, pre-YA literature, at my all-girls' grammar school. Our surging adolescent emotions found expression in the Brontës and Georgette Heyer, while a few more daring readers devoured Mills and Boon novels. I fell in love with Mr Rochester, of course, and would have been off to France with him in a trice. When the BBC fortuitously put out a Sunday tea-time serial of the novel, my best friend and I watched it religiously. After the episode when Jane leaves Mr Rochester, we phoned each other and sobbed down the line, much, I suspect, to the amusement of our parents, who got to listen in because of course there was only the one family telephone at that time. (Timothy Dalton is, by the way, Mr Rochester. No other.)

Fast forward several decades. I had not re-read Jane Eyre for maybe fifteen to twenty years, yet I still cite it as my favourite novel. This began to nag at me – I should pick it up again. But fear held me back. What if, in middle age, it disappointed? Could I bear to lose those feelings? On the other hand, after a year of pandemic, what was left to crumble around me? I took the plunge.

Reader, I was not disappointed. Jane is still the archetype of every heroine for me. She possesses a fierce integrity that supports her whatever her outward circumstances, and she refuses to relinquish it for anything, even the love of another human being. It's a quality that one cherishes perhaps even more in one's fifties than teens, when time and the world has buffetted you on the outside, and got part way under your skin. As an adolescent, I may not have not appreciated the full import of Jane's refusal to be a man's mistress in the Victorian age, nor did I understand Mr Rochester's failing of locating his integrity outside himself (if that's not a tautology), in Jane, but her acute sense of justice spoke to my own.

But more happened as I plunged anew into Jane's world. I began to realise, with astonishment, and not a little shock, that Jane Eyre has been the blueprint for my life. How much was I drawn to a character that fitted me so perfectly, and how much is her influence? At this distance, I honestly don't know. As mentioned, the integrity at the core of her being has always been central to me, a childhood sense of justice that has not deserted me. On a less elevated level, my idea of romance has remained Brontëan: the brooding hero, the seemingly frail but inwardly strong heroine, gothic situations. And, my standard marriage advice for my daughter is, 'Make sure he doesn't have a mad wife in the attic.'

On a disconcerting note, the novel's style has apparently influenced my own. Though I recalled no specific scenes when writing my own modest novel, A Dorset Summer, I did reference the novel a couple of times, since my heroine is a governess. Apparently, that awakened a subconscious memory, because I can now see several passages that owe their style or content to Charlotte Brontë. Incidentally, it makes me wonder whether Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, so clearly a rewriting of Jane Eyre, is also a subconscious homage. Du Maurier certainly never admitted it was a conscious decision.

Further embarrassing confessions. I married an Edward, although he has always been a Ted. And, yes, my son's two middle names are Edward St John, but, I swear, St John is also a name on both sides of my family, and I was honouring a favourite uncle, not a literary character.

Jane Eyre not a perfect novel. In my older years, I am uncomfortable with the fact that Mr Rochester must essentially be emasculated in order to learn his lesson. And, admittedly, some of the dialogue strays too far into Victorian dialectic. But oh, in these depressing pandemic times, my heart is soaring once again with Jane.

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you,–and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;–it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,–as we are!

Monday 15 March 2021

QuickLit March 2021

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual. Strange to recall that about a year ago, I was feverishly reading Anne's new book, Don't Overthink It. My son and I were set to fly to the UK to visit family in two days' time, and there now seemed every possibility that once there, we might be stuck. The advice in the book helped me think through plans that gave me the confidence to go ahead and enjoy my visit without being overwhelmed by anxiety. 

It may seem small in the scheme of things, but many readers will be looking back over a year of rather different reading lists or reading habits. Dark or emotionally harrowing books have been (mostly) off my list. On the other hand, finally purchasing a new e-reader after a few years of reading on a large phone screen (for frugality and practicality) refreshed my reading experience. I'm just sorry that I didn't fork out the extra money for a waterproof one now that we have a bathtub.

Oh yes, actual books: I tackled a couple of books for research this month, so my leisure reading list is smaller. Here goes...

Daphne Du Maurier - Myself When Young

Breezier in tone than I expected, but it soon drew me in. Du Maurier draws on the journals she kept from an early age to trace her life and development as a writer up to the point of her marriage. It's frank, and, be warned, includes an exploration of the emotional incest that infuses her later novel, The Parasites. MMD readers will be delighted to know she also shares the reading lists she kept from those years!

Alan Bradley - The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

I'd read one of these Flavia de Luce mystery novels out of turn and, though I didn't really take to it, decided I would give another one a go. This is the first in the series, set around 1950 in Britain: eleven year-old Flavia finds a dying man in the grounds of her family's mansion - a man whom she had heard arguing with her father the night before. Blackmail, poison and a decades-old crime: just the excitement to feed the brain of a precocious, chemistry-obsessed girl. On paper, Flavia is a character I ought to relate to: intelligent, socially awkward, probably on the Asperger's spectrum,  but I just can't empathise with her. I think one of the problems is that, in both books I have read, the American author uses a British phrase or allusion in a way I would not, which throws the world of the novel off-kilter for me. Sorry, Flavia fans, but please, convince me to read on if you can :)

Corfe Castle, 1950s. Credit:

Eric Benfield - Dorset

I'm ending with this, not particularly as a review, but as a little paean to vintage guide books. In researching Dorset in the first half of the twentieth century, my eyes have been opened to the charms of second hand books I would normally have passed over as pointless: old regional and travel books. I thought I'd be ploughing through outdated material, but ended up hooked - it's like time travelling from the comfort of your armchair. If you really want to get to the heart of a place, I recommend ditching the modern history and scouring the local second hand book shop for outdated guide books, written by a native son or daughter of the area. It's the first section I'll be heading for on my next trip.

Wishing you compassion and hope this anniversary, and books that will carry you through.