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.