Frank’s (not quite a) review of Schloss Neuchwenstein

For those of you who follow our Instagram account you will have seen that on Monday, the sun was shining down on our little piece of the planet, so us four weasels took a cycle across from our cosy little hidey hole in South Bavaria to the impressive dreamlike Schloss Neuschwanstein. Now rationally you might expect a review of the palace and the surroundings and that is what I had sat down to write. Instead I have ended up giving you a look into my head and some of the discussions me and Gemma had, inspired by this colossal beautiful folly.

We had taken the scenic route to Schloss Neuschwanstein, choosing to follow the winding course the shallow Vils Fluß as it joins up with the power of the Lech river. 

We took this route in part to soak in the breathtaking grandeur of the northernmost Alps as we crossed in and out of Austria and in larger part because my firstborn daughter, though bright and intelligent in many ways has all the road survival skills of a hedgehog and can often be seen happily daydreaming on a main road, bike vearing from side to side as she weaves her merry way along, mindless of cars and trucks hurtling past. So in order to prevent her from being flattened, or Gemma becoming so stressed that she bleeds from the eyes, we continued our cycling training away from the traffic.

When the sun is shining the November mountains are awe inspiring, the deep oranges and fiery reds of Autumn mixed in with the dark evergreen pines that cling to their slopes. Being an experienced mountaineer I understand the importance of a map and good navigation yet being a complete klutz I had neglected to bring one. So with the help of google maps on Gemma’s phone (mine was back with the map) we felt rather than navigated our way towards the castle. 

Thankfully the Germans are rather better organised than us and we soon found signs for the castle along a footpath that we rode along merrily enough, me and the kids on sturdy mountain bikes, Gemma on a rather striking blue bike that you might imagine an old lady cycling to the shops on to get a loaf of bread in 1920’s Paris. Fair play to Gemma though she kept up just fine on an increasingly treacherous footpath that was becoming narrower and steeper all of the time. Children have an inbuilt resistance to spotting danger so Izzy and Sam spent a good deal of time chatting as they rode merrily beside sheer drops and had to be ordered off of their bikes when the terrain became truly dangerous. We pushed our bikes therefore along what we had now realised was in fact a fairly challenging walking route, plowing on regardless (as is our wont) riding some of the down hills but pushing for the most part. 

As we progressed following the signs towards the castle we squeezed our way past better prepared german hikers with boots and poles etc and tried out our faltering German, to always be responded to in perfect English. During one of these conversations we were told “you cannot bring bicycles on this track” we thanked them for the information and were forced to immediately prove them wrong as by now we were a good couple of miles in and didn’t fancy turning back. 

This got us thinking about how we use language. ‘You cannot’ is often used when ‘I’d prefer you didn’t’ or ‘it is a bad idea to’ would be more accurate, but the latter would not have the moral force implicit in the former.

Gemma observed that there hadn’t been a sign which pushed us deeper down the same rabbit hole of thought. Had the nice German man with opinions about bicycles (who I will call Fredrik as I failed to get his name) been in a uniform would our reactions have been different? I think they could have been.

A sign, in this instance saying no bicycles would likely have been obeyed, but that sign itself would merely represent the wishes of another person or at most a small group of people. This drew our musings onto why we obey authority. What if there was a sign saying Fahrräder sind unter keinen Umständen erlaubt (no bicycles allowed under any circumstance). There is a real chance we would have turned back at this point. Yet the only real difference would have been that Fredrik would have taken the time to make a sign – it would show his commitment but would not really change the power of his argument.

We wrestled our bikes along the wholly unsuitable terrain and discussed the ways we change our behaviour dependent on how we regard authority when through the trees, glistening in the midday sun, we caught our first glimpse of King Ludwig II’s Castle. It is straight from the pages of a fairytale (deliberately designed to be so) designed for beauty rather than any practicality and like nothing I have ever seen or am likely to see again. Nestled near the top of a steep ravine its main spire reaches up high over its high walls and smaller conical towers all built of white limestone designed to catch the bright sunlight and throw it into the eyes of the observer. Gemma, who had come here as a child and cherished the memory amongst her most precious, actually danced a happy jig of joy and made noises that the English language does not have enough vowels to properly explain.

My thoughts however were still on the subject of power, of authority. This amazing gem of a building is there for one reason alone,  in 1864 a 19 year old boy called Ludwig became king of Bavaria and he wanted it built (along with other grand palaces) . It came at crippling cost, with credit being taken on top of credit to build his “authentic” (the word as meaningless then as it is now) medieval castle. It seems that everyone else involved in constructing this folly knew the project to be mad and ruinous but the man in charge said it should continue, so continue it did. 

This was at a point in Bravarian history where the state was in deep financial difficulty and poverty was rife and these extravagances were extremely unpopular and damaging to both the state and the people. Yet at every step the stone mason laid the stone because the foreman told him to, the forman instructed the builders because the site manager told him to, he worked for the architect who worked for the aide who worked for the king. Ludwig ended his days tragically committing suicide after being deposed due to insanity. 

It seems that good sensible rational individuals will come together and do entirely irrational things if they are told to by the system even if they understand it to be foolish and even if the system is headed up by a certifiable madman.

As I drank in the splendor of Ludwig’s idealised castle I couldn’t help but see these thoughts through the lens of the history of some of the places we have been. Back in Croatia we visited a village that had been massacred by the Serbs in the early 1990’s (when we had Britpop and shell suits they had shortages and war crimes) those crimes were horrendous but would the individual Serbs, if not taken into the apparatus of war, have murdered innocent Croats? Every person over the age of 40 could tell us stories of that ravaging civil war but without a man (and it does mainly seem to be men) in charge to say to start the killing would it have ever begun? 

Now I must confess to a bias here. I am an ex soldier writing this on Armistice Day, I swore an oath to the Queen and went abroad to do things, in other people’s countries that would be unconscionable in my normal life. The reason we went and did these things was simply because we were told to by other people. My thinking then went no further than that.

I’m not a total pacifist by the way, I don’t think that tyrants always respond to reasoned arguments and I’m pretty sure that no petition, no matter how popular, would have convinced ISIS to stop their campaign of terror. I just couldn’t help to draw the comparison between this extraordinary sky palace and the decisions we make and the people we unthinkingly obey.

Back in the 19th Century many still believed that kings and rulers were set over us by God and that their decisions were therefore the ones God planned and should not be resisted. Modern thinking has largely moved away from this view and most of us understand that it is an accident of birth that puts some at the top and some at the bottom but our compliance has not reduced. 

In the USA they spent the last 4 years with a president that most of the people hadn’t chosen and many thought was dangerous but in that great democratic empire they obeyed regardless. In Britain our prime minister won the votes of 43.6% of those who voted (the largest share of the since 1979) thus representing the choice of 29% of those eligible to vote: Yet we give him the authority to speak for all and can make laws to be followed and act in any way he sees fit on our behalf.

And here’s the bit that blew my mind, we all obey.

 A topical example, the responses to the Covid 19 pandemic have been a mix of reasonable precautions and lunacy. Those in charge of each country claim to “follow the science” but this is completely disingenuous. Science can tell you what is likely to happen to infection rates if teachers wear masks or if they move university lectures online and ban students mingling with each other. It cannot however tell you whether keeping infection rates low is more or less valuable than a future well socialised society.

 Science does not tell us if a generation of teenagers missing out on their social life and the life memories that come then is worth more or less than a given number of new infections and deaths. These are not scientific extrapolations from data, they are value judgments. Judgements made ultimately by people most of us have never met, nor are likely to.

Yet we obey, we comply and we do so without duress. 

There was no threat of violence that compelled the Bavarians builders to impoverish the regency and build that amazing turret, but they just got on with it. Not many had a clear view on why Saudi terrorists attacking the USA ended up with Britain invading Iraq, but off we went. It is not obvious why garden centres full of over 60’s are so much safer than nightclubs full of under 30s when tackling a virus that preys on the old (a cynic would say this reflects a mad king, protecting oil and the average age of voters and their interests).

This is not a call for anarchy, we were soaking in the glory of a splendid castle so obeying the rules can give us great things. We are told to drive on the left hand side of the road and this stops us all crashing into one another, society needs rules; but in an era where the home secretary is telling people to inform on their neighbors for not complying with laws passed on the hoof, when we are told to stop the things that make life rich and fulfilling in order to preserve quantity of life over quality it is at least worth stopping and asking the question why.

Homeschooling with Frankenstein

“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy one, I will indulge the other.” ~ Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Anyone who knows us will be shocked to hear that I am not a natural home-schooler. Frank is the teacher here; I am the one who hides in the bathroom when it’s all kicking off because Izzy doesn’t understand why she needs to know the area of a triangle. While Frank patiently outstares Sam when he doesn’t care who the Ottomans were or why they’re important, I am the one happily delivering drinks and snacks, saying something encouraging before scuttling back to my hole to utter up silent thanks to the homeschooling gods that a very small portion of this particular burden lies on my shoulders. I’m perhaps painting an unfair picture. Frank loves teaching. He gets joy out of all the ‘a-ha!’ moments and spends hours finding ways to teach that keep the kids engaged and enthusiastic. I am extremely invested in the whole process. Just… from down the hall.

Having said all that, I occupy one small corner of our home-schooling world, and yesterday I experienced some of what Frank must feel everytime the kids really get something that he’s teaching them.

I am a very keen reader and always have been. I love books more than TV or cinema or even shopping. I usually have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go simultaneously, as well as whatever I’ve bought from Audible to listen to when I don’t have time to sit down. Happily, this is a passion I (we – Frank loves reading too) have managed to pass on to both Izzy and Sam.

I heard once, a long time ago, that while the books children read themselves should be appropriate for their reading age, the books we read to them should be much more challenging. Reading more complex texts aloud to kids increases their vocabulary and allows them to find the story – even when it’s embedded in unfamiliar or complicated language. They comprehend so much more than we think they do.

Now eleven and nine, Izzy and Sam still end each day with one of us reading to them. Frank and I each have separate chapter books for the occasion and we read on alternate nights. Up until the last year or so, we’ve had favourites from Roald Dahl, Michael Mopurgo or Enid Blyton. We even have an impressive collection of Templar children’s classics (exquisitely illustrated and beautifully produced if you ever want a collection of your very own). We have loved reading every one of them; The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden – etc. Even when the text is challenging (I’m looking at you, Secret Garden), the kids get wrapped up in the story, excited about plot development and invested in the characters. And still, it hadn’t occurred to me that they might be ready for more.

For my own book consumption, I try to throw in a couple of classics for every three or four modern books I read. I have a list that I’m working my way through – something cheerful like ‘100 classics to read before you die‘ that I found on the internet somewhere. So back in August when I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Sam sidled up to me to ask what I was reading, I was surprised by how excited he got about it. I tried to explain that though it was a creepy, gothic story (they’re both very keen on cheap scares at the moment), it was also quite difficult to digest having been written in the early 1800s, with unfamiliar syntax and long swathes of figurative prose. Undeterred by this, Sam leapt off the sofa to tell Izzy that our next bedtime chapter book would be ‘Frankenstein.’

I’ll be honest, I could never have predicted their reaction to this story. Right from the beginning, where Walton rescues an exhausted and dying Victor from an icy sea, they were fully in. I read, expecting to have them stop me every few sentences to explain something, but what I got instead were exclamations – dismay at Victor’s selfishness, shock at the injustices delivered to the characters around him – we even had tears from Izzy at the end of the monster’s story, so fully invested was she in the misery and sadness of his life. At the end of each chapter we’d stop and I’d ask a few questions to get an idea of their comprehension – each time they told me exactly what had happened. Each time, they had opinions and incredulity – Frankenstein became the best thing I’d ever read them.

We finished the book a couple of days ago and after giving them a little time to digest the whole story, I jotted down some discussion questions – having my first real go (save for some seaside art lessons) at playing teacher. During a walk on the beach, I began to throw my questions out: What do you think Mary Shelley was trying to say with the story? What part does the monster play in Victor’s life? Is Walton a trustworthy narrator? What themes run all the way through the book?

Joy. Complete joy. They talked for ages. They discussed compassion and empathy; how humans treat things that don’t look like them or are in some way unfamiliar. They were insensed by Victor’s irresponsibility; his play-acting god, his refusal to accept that his actions had consequences – his performative outbursts of love for his family while his actions consistently told a very different story. No other book I have ever read them has provoked a reaction like it. So it looks like the kids will be completing my classics list with me.

If you’re homeschooling your kids – or even if you aren’t – I really recommend having a go at some of the more difficult texts with them. Our obsession with infantilising children gets in the way of their developing brains. They pick up complex and subtle themes so quickly and have to work much less hard at it than I do at 36. Comprehending stories is instinctive to the young brain and I’m ecstatic that not only do they a real love for them, they are getting real preparation for secondary school or even college-level English.

Don’t underestimate your kids, folks – they’re a lot sharper than you think they are!

5 Things to do in Zadar with Kids

If you’re anything like me, your daydreams of city excursions will consist of artisan bakeries with delicious coffee, lazy strolls down narrow streets, cocktails and fine-dining. If you’re a lot like me, these dreams will likely have been dashed by the realisation that you have a couple of kids in tow -and even if they could entertain themselves long enough for you to down a Mojito, your experience of it would likely not live up to the hazy, sophisticated picture you’d painted in your head.

When we stayed in Vir, Zadar was our nearest city. It doesn’t get anywhere near the attention of Split or Dubrovnik, but I think it’s one of the most charming and beautiful cities I’ve ever set foot in. Zadar became our go-to option if we wanted an easy day out; history just lying about the place, museums and icecream parlours and show-stopping sunsets. Izzy and Sam loved daytrips to Zadar as much as we did so it has gone down in the books as one of the stand-out locations of our trip so far.

There are obviously far more than this, but here are our top 5 things to do in Zadar with kids…


1. St. Donatus Church and the Roman Forum

I feel like I’m cheating by putting this all in the same place… but it actually is all in the same place. Whether you’re meandering along the sea-front, or exploring Zadar through its maze of narrow lanes, you will eventually see the Church of St Donatus (with the bell tower of St Anastasia Cathedral nearby) and the remains of the Roman Forum spreading out in front of you. The church, which was built straddling the 8th and 9th centuries, is unique because of it’s simple, circular shape (as was very much the style in early medieval Dalmatia). It is striking now because it looks so unlike any of its surrounding structures. The church itself was built using the materials gained from deconstructing the Roman Forum – the remains of which lay across the square, sprawling right down towards the sea.

For the kids, these old stone blocks and walls were the most fun. They were so entertained by running around, jumping and climbing the ruins that we got into the habit of leaving them to it while we slunk off to one of the nearby bars for a drink. In fact, if your kids are as impressed with the forum as ours were, you’ll even get away with having a full grown-up dinner at the tiny little Italian restaurant, Bello, whose terrace tables overlook the square. We did feed them too – I promise – and they were much more impressed by the giant pizza slices from the bakery than they would have been with fine Italian cuisine…

For a few kuna, you can go into the Church and have a good nose around. It’s an incredibly simple structure, but with so much history it’s difficult to wrap your head around. Since it was last used as a church, the building has worn many different hats; a warehouse, an archeological museum, an exhibition centre and music hall. It is preserved beautifully, with only a few sparse information displays within showing photographs and drawings of the building throughout the ages.


2. The Sea Organ and ‘Greeting to the Sun’

I could write poems about the sea at Zadar (don’t worry – I won’t). In fact according to the menu of our favourite sea-view restaurant, Tromonto, Alfred Hitchcock once described this particular stretch of coastline as ‘the most beautiful place in the world.’ Some of my very favourite memories are now wrapped up in either listening to soulful music while the kids joyfully leapt off the sea-wall into the vibrant teal water below, or sitting in a line snarfling pastries as the sun disappeared behind the mountains; water sparkling, soundtrack provided by nearby buskers, joining the crowds of people who flock here to fall silent and watch the day come to an end.

But if even that doesn’t convince you down to the seafront at Zadar, maybe the sea organ will…

The sea-organ is an intricate network of tubes which open onto large marble steps down to the water. It is an architectural sound art installation by Nikola Bašić, who essentially designed a musical instrument the sea could play itself. The waves, as they beat against the steps, push air into the tubes and down into an enormous underground cavern. The result is a haunting and beautiful panpipe like sound to sit and listen to as you watch the sea.

If you’re in this area at night, be sure to also visit Bašić’s ‘Greeting to the Sun’ (Pozdrav Suncu in Croatian) nearby which is a circular structure of three hundred multilayered glass plates built into the pavement. Light elements within the glass store up solar energy during the day, switch on to provide a stunning light-show when the sun sets. If we were ever in Zadar early evening, this was a must – the atmosphere is wonderful as all of the kids take to the solar-panelled ‘dancefloor’ as soon as it lights up.


3. The Illusion Museum

This museum is responsible for our funniest day in Zadar – principally because we couldn’t actually find it and had begun to worry that it was all an elaborate joke played on foreign tourists.

Google maps was absolutely no use, leading us down blind alleyways and into private gardens (Sam speculated that because it was an illusion museum, maybe its entrance was similar to that of Platform 9¾ – though unsurprisingly, no-one volunteered to run headfirst into the wall).

After much exploration (and happily seeing a lot more of the city due to our quest), we did eventually find the museum near the top of the city walls on a hill. I worried, given how small it looked, that we had spent the day trying to find what was geared up to be palpable disappointment, but I needn’t have worried. Full of fun activities, magic-eye puzzles, rooms that make you dizzy (or nauseous, depending on your age), logic games and much much more, we spent a good few hours here and had a wonderful time. Quite a lot of brain power was needed for some of the puzzles, so we even got to count it as an afternoon of home-school – huzzah!


4. Zadar’s Archeological Museum

As home-schooling parents, this place was an absolute gift. In the same square as St Donatus’s Church, this museum spans three floors and human history in its entirety.

Much like Greece and Italy, the climate here (and by that, I mean lack of severe rain and wind) means that the preservation of archeological and architectural relics is much more possible. The artifacts in Zadar’s Archeological Museum are beautifully presented and restored. Often, if only parts of an object have been recovered, the rest of the object has been created around it to give you a proper sense of what it would have looked like completed.

It’s best to work your way through the museum chronologically; starting on the top floor where you’ll find objects pertaining to Zadar’s history from Prehistory through to the first Croatian settlements. The floor below then details and gives examples of the expanse of the Roman empire, as well as smaller exhibitions on the goths, glassware, and the development of Christianity. The ground floor then covers the early middle ages, with impressive exhibitions of Croatian graves and stonework taken from the church while restoration projects were ongoing.

You don’t need a serious love of history to enjoy an afternoon here – it’s well thought out and engaging throughout. The kids really loved it and both picked out an artifact to write a fictional background for when we got home.


5. The Bell Tower of St Anastasia’s Cathedral

The hardest climbs are always rewarded with the very best views. Regardless of which city we’re in, we’ve made a habit of finding a high thing to climb so we can see the area from above. We were not disappointed with the view from the bell tower.

Hundreds of steps winding around the inside of the tower will take you up past the bells suspended inside an old wooden frame, and then eventually onto an outside platform. The view is breath-taking. Tiny red-topped houses, ancient buildings and intricate streets for as far as the eye can see, framed by the dramatic back-drop of the Dinaric Alps.

You can walk right around the top of the tower, providing you with a full 360 degree view of the city, the Adriatic and the islands in the distance. Well worth the cardio! The tower is open until late, so you can even climb the tower and watch the sunset.


So they’re our top five! Do let us know if we’ve missed anything blindingly obvious – we’re always looking for a reason to go back!

Homeschool: A wobbly start

From the very complementary description Gemma has put at the top of this page I feel like I am expected to write something sage, learned and profound about the unbridled joys of homeschooling. While I paint this picture, a warm glow should be swelling up inside of me as I speak fondly of the joys of imparting deep wisdom to my grateful and receptive angels. But that would ignore the tears, the tantrums (almost always from me) and the truth. 

So here I will lay out the ethos we are trying to follow with the kids’ education and will try and be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. I will dive deeper into specifics on future posts. I will also caveat it with the fact we have been doing this for about six months now, so we are really far from expert and would really value feedback on how best to overcome some of the hurdles we face.

As for many families around the world, COVID 19 gave us the unsolicited opportunity to practice homeschooling at a few days’ notice. Along with any parents who were part of that fun experiment in mass homeschooling our results were initially mixed. We tried hard to keep the routine of school going, getting the kids (Izzy 11, Sam9) up and dressed and out for a ‘walk to school’ first thing in the morning. We then pushed through the lessons we had for the day and were often finished by early afternoon. This worked fairly well for a while.

The kids’ school, Halton Community Combined School, is an excellent primary school and we received good support during this period but with our eyes set on leaving the rat race behind we had to find a way to turn ‘lockdown school’ into something permanent and sustainable. The National Curriculum followed in English schools is a great template for a group of children to follow and we began by trying to follow that remotely. That did not work. 

Falling on our faces

The children (who’s learning styles I will describe in much more detail in a future post) could certainly be encouraged/bribed/coerced into following lessons appropriate for their ages but  this proved to be miserable for all concerned. We ended up with fights and arguments most days. I would set lessons, putting the least popular (Maths) first, and the most engaging (Art/PE) at the end as something to strive towards. Inevitably one of them would refuse to engage in any way, and my day would then be a running battle of wills, often spilling over into the next day as I desperately reached for metaphorical carrots and sticks to use to move information and ideas from the page/screen and into their growing minds.

The focus on the one who had chosen that day not to engage meant that the one who was keen to learn was largely ignored while an arm-wrestle of wills was carried out between me and the reluctant one. This battle was complicated by the fact that my PTSD flares up when I am in conflict and turns the inside of my brain into a circus of noise and confusion which can go on for hours or days. This is not conducive to even being able to put a sentence together coherently much less educating children.

Something had to give, the children were keeping up but largely, by the afternoon days all four of us were exhausted and in no mood to look at each other let alone enjoy each other’s company. So we changed it up, we did some research and started preparing interactive lessons that taught the subjects we were focused on in a much more accessible way. We included walks and den building and hands on experiments in our day.

This involved a tremendous amount of work for us parents in the build up to lessons and initially led to a real improvement in engagement from all of us but quickly we fell back into the familiar routine of one of them disengaging and taking all of the attention while I again waved around my carrots and sticks: All the more frustrated because the adults would have poured hours of work into a fun exciting engaging idea that received no enthusiasm or interest from our scholars. On several occasions I ended up trying to coerce the children into playing ‘fun learning games’ that may work in classrooms but end up in frustration and tears at home.

A Realisation

When teaching something however it is rarely the students’ fault if they are not learning and  it occurred to me, as I pondered what new tactic to use to create engaged learning,  that carrots and sticks are for donkeys (if you are mean to donkeys that is) these are children. 

The classic carrot and stick analogy presupposes that the donkey does not want to go where you are taking it, it gives the animal no credit for intelligence, curiosity or wanting to understand the world around it. That is not the case with children. They want to know everything, they want to understand, they will pick at a problem until they understand it if it peaks their interest. We just have to enable that interest and give it the space to develop. This was so counter to how we were educated that we struggled to convince ourselves but eventually we made the jump.

A Different Way

So we stopped lesson times entirely. 

Instead we gave them broad ideas or projects to explore and helped them in their curiosity. This all coincided with us arriving in Croatia so an obvious avenue was the complex history of this incredible place. We stomped around museums, played in Roman ruins, walked through a physical timeline (on a path by the sea) and researched weird and wonderful things we came across. Nearly all of which was new to me and Gemma too. The change has been remarkable. 

The  conflict stopped. We give them tasks to do, based on what they are interested in at the time but allow them to do them how and when they see fit, inside broad parameters. 

After getting over the initial shock of freedom (in which they did nothing but swim in the sea and read books) they have both embraced the new way of learning with a passion we could not have instilled with a field of carrots and a bushel of sticks. The tears and tantrums subsided, each one will get on with their projects at different times and for different durations each day depending on how they feel (Sam ploughing on first thing in the morning, Izzy often staying up late to write).This has proven particularly useful for Izzy who is at an age where she feels like she wants to challenge authority. By making the projects hers and giving her the autonomy to research for herself there is no one to rebel against. For me also, if I am having a difficult day I do not have to feel guilty that I cannot help during ‘lesson time’.

For us, at the moment, it works.

What Next?

Honestly we are learning so much as we go along that predicting how this will develop is not something I am willing to do, I am open to all suggestions on moving forward and will finish off by saying that the best thing I did was take the pressure off all of us and give ourselves the space to really enjoy learning about this amazing, beautiful, exiting and complicated world we live in.

Kuterevo Bear Refuge



We’re going on a bear hunt,
We’re going to catch a big one,
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.


– Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen’s book was a firm favourite of all of ours when the kids were much younger and the old tattered and dogeared edition we read together so many thousand times is one of the few possessions I would never be willing to give up. Every reading of this book ended with a moment of sadness in which we would contemplate the fact that the much harassed bear had to go home without any dinner. So it was with enormous excitement that we visited Kuterevo Bear Refuge and to witness how happy these orphaned bears (that were not chased across woods and swamps) could be.

Kuterevo Bear Refuge is a little off of the beaten track in the Lika region of Croatia. To find it, you must journey down a succession of quaint narrow winding roads that should be taken at a steady pace and enjoyed for the stunning views. If you try to drive quickly on these roads you are liable to meet a car on the wrong side, a tractor, or a flock of geese (we met all) so take your time. The refuge is set in a valley so beautiful that it defies description and our cameras were totally incapable of capturing the magic.

The forests (home themselves to wild bears, wolves and lynx) stretch out in every direction, dark and mysterious – the deep green of fairy tales. We passed through the small sleepy village of Kuterevo and followed the hand carved silhouettes of bears to the top of a farm track. Here we had to stop because three tiny black piglets were fighting over a piece of discarded tinfoil in the middle of the road and trying their hardest to choke themselves on it.

We all piled out of the car and however chaotic you imagine four well-meaning people chasing three chubby piglets through a field to steal their chew toy is, I can promise you it was more ridiculous.

We are however nothing if not tenacious and I finally managed to confiscate the carelessly thrown sandwich wrapper before we continued the 50m down to the sanctuary.

Parking the car next to a long abandoned and well rusted Yogo (a small communist-era car) we took a few minutes to soak in the beauty of the place before walking down towards the bears.  We were met at the front entrance by a couple of volunteers and a Border Collie who were charming and knowledgeable and chased every stick we could throw respectively. We were told that the sanctuary had been started 40 years ago, originally as a rural-living community. The discovery of an orphaned bear-cub in the surrounding forest was the beginning of an eventual and complete transformation into the sanctuary it is today.

Our way to see the younger bears was impeded by a pair of geese and a chicken involved in a noisy fracas with yet more piglets.The piglets, it transpired, are a mere fraction of the offspring of a pair of particularly virile Vietnamese Potbellied Pigs that have added an unexpected and hilarious dimension to the Kuterevo experience, keeping the volunteers busy chasing them into or out of various places they should or shouldn’t be. 

Past these winged and hooved obstacles we finally made it to the large sleepy field that promised bears. And bears there were! 

Three of them, foraging and playing in the late summer sunshine. They took it in turns to climb and pose on the lip of their large earth and rock pool and came down to the fence to observe us as we watched them. Gemma and I sat transfixed as two bears pawed at each other and hugged in obvious affection mere feet from us. As you may expect Izzy and Sam were spending this magical moment examining an ants’ nest behind the rough wooden benches we were sitting on having “already seen the bears”.

We visited midweek during term-time in September, so had the entire place largely to ourselves. We took the time to sit with the bears and watch them gambol around in the sunshine before moving on. While the enclosures are large there are only 8 bears in the refuge and few exhibits but what there was was tasteful and in keeping with the rustic feel of the place. It’s immediately clear that the priority here is to provide a safe and happy environment for the animals – not keeping the humans on the other side of the fence entertained. 

The adult bears are some 300m from the juveniles with a very pleasant walk past fields of curious and friendly ponies. We were caught in a sudden and torrential shower half way up the track but took shelter in a beautiful old black wooden barn. We were joined here by Good Old Boy (the name we gave the playful dog we met) who adopted us for the rest of our visit. Once the rain relented we moved on up the hill to Bruno.

Bruno is a big old Brown Bear; somewhere in his early 40’s which is ancient by bear standards. He enjoys nothing more than to roll around in the long grass, rub against trees and dive into his large bath displacing a tidal wave every time.

Next along our trail, we met the final group of three full grown adult bears. They appear to be full of joy, foraging and bathing and grooming each other.

The peaceful tranquility of this scene was almost meditative. The only sounds, aside from the wind in the trees and the grunts of the bears, were gentle. The low hum of the  many types of insect rushing from flower to flower or dungheap to compost, chased by the noisey hoards of brown warblers, dashing about after them.

We stopped and, like Goldielocks, had a satisfying picnic lunch within feet of the three bears, who’s interest in our food led us to believe that not everyone observed the many ‘don’t feed the bears’ signs. The call of nature eventually moved us back towards the small café where we found no people but spotless toilets and delicious natural spring water on tap.

We had seen all there was to see but the place was so beguiling that ended our stay with an hour or so in which the kids wrote their impressions of the place (Sam a descriptive piece, Izzy a story about a dog) while me and Gemma passed a very pleasant hour in the company of Bruno and Good Boy taking the time to fully relax.

On our way out we stopped at the tiny gift-shop to sign the guest book and purchase some homemade Rakija (a traditional Croatian spirit which in addition to getting you fairly tipsy if you drink it, boasts many anecdotal medicinal properties) and left a donation (there is no entry fee). We spent some time chatting to the volunteers and left determined to return, and for longer next time hopefully to volunteer some of our time to help maintain this amazing place.