That’s not a typo – I meant to write ‘Coming Home’ twice. I played around with the title for this post, but that was the only one that made sense (or will make sense to you after you’ve read the post – if my rambling doesn’t immediately prompt you to hit the ‘back’ button on your phones…)
The First ‘Coming Home’
A figurative home-coming; how it feels to be back in Germany – particularly Bavaria – after some 30 years away. These forests and mountains that frame so many of my childhood memories now seen again as an adult – the experience is joyful, powerful and disquieting all at once. It’s like I blinked and all of those interim years happened in the time it took me to open my eyes again. Moving back to the UK, finishing primary school, starting and finishing secondary school, college, university, career false-starts and mistakes; friends made, loved, lost, weddings, funerals, birthdays and Christmasses. So much life has happened since I last stood on these hillsides and wondered at these views; so much that it all seems dreamlike and unreal now.
Having had two weeks here to contemplate it, I can’t quite decide if Germany provokes this nostalgia in me because I spent a good deal of my childhood here, or because of its enduring place in the folklore of fairytales – or a combination of the two. I had forgotten how deep and rich this country is in breathtaking natural beauty and magic. The Brothers Grimm gave us all of our most popular children’s stories; Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretal and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and so many more. Their inspiration was largely the German countryside; forests dark and silent where the pine trees are so densely packed together that no light makes it to the forest floor, mountain lakes and peaks that are at once beautiful and intimidating depending on whether the clouds have moved in to cast everything into shadow. It feels magic here. Houses are painted with intricate frescos and wood carvings are a way of life. At any given point on a walk in the middle of nowhere, you can expect to be surprised with the sudden sight of a children’s play park, blending flawlessly into its surroundings; so creatively designed that even Frank and I can’t help getting involved in whatever game the kids dream up. Frank has said more than once that despite never having been to this area, it feels familiar. Like the landscape for those fairytales became more like real memory than simple bedtime stories.
I have so loved watching my children react to Bavaria. They are utterly enraptured by it all and don’t even complain when we tell them we’re hiking up yet another mountain just to see the view from the top. Consider southern Germany for your next family holiday – I promise you will not be disappointed. You may, however, never want to come home!
The Second ‘Coming Home’
It wasn’t the original plan, but we’re excited now to be heading back to the UK for Christmas in early December. The Love side of our family have had their roughest year to date (even by 2020’s standards) and we’re all feeling the draw to come home and seek comfort in our own little traditions as December 25th gets closer. It will be a month full of making decorations and gingerbread houses, watching Christmas films and playing games – a very welcome wind-down after months of adventure before the next bit starts in January. With a bit of luck our planned month in Rome will still be possible, but if coronavirus makes that unlikely then we will probably head off into the Balkans for some exploring instead.
I imagine Christmas will be hard for everyone this year, with so many norms having been scrapped for the necessity of infection control. I can only tell you that in order to counterbalance the disappointment I intend to cover literally everything in fairy-lights, wrap myself from head to foot in tinsel and drink Egg-nog while watching The Muppets Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life on repeat. I suggest you all do the same ❤
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 sayingFahrräder 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.
I am excited to write about Nin for two reasons. Firstly it was an amazing place to visit with the family with its large safe beaches and history reaching back as far as humans have been in this part of the world. Secondly, when we stayed near here and the pressure of the four of us in a small apartment became a little too much, it is to Nin that I would scuttle to find some space to read or write or have a conversation with someone not in my immediate family.
Old Nin itself is a small islet only 500m or so across and surrounded by a beautiful grey stone wall typical of this part of the adriatic. Artifacts, dwellings and bones have been found here showing that it has been continuously inhabited for at least the last ten thousand years. The current town predates the founding of Rome and is a joy to explore if you have even a historical bone in your body. Once you’ve explored, if the weather is nice there are beautiful beaches with sun loungers and every watersport you can think of.
Going through the town allow time to be surprised at the thousands of years of history that will fall out at you as you move from place to place, explore the alleyways and admire the views. These are the things I loved most and I have laid them out in an order that would be natural to do them in on a pleasant summer’s day.
Branimir and Gregory
When you arrive at Nin, I would recommend parking in the car park to the West of the historic centre you will have a chance to see Nin in all its petite glory. In front of you the old walls 16th Century arched gate with a small bridge leading to it. Guarding this bridge on the mainland side is an enormous 9 ft statue of Prince Branimir of Croatia, a 9th Century duke. Created in 2007 the statue itself is not historically important but the man is. It was under the protection of his sword, prominently displayed, that Croatia inched its way towards becoming a country in its own right, receiving official recognition from the pope (as close to being recognised by the UN as they had back then).
Once over the bridge and through the archway head straight on 200m through the beautiful narrow streets and past the bakeries, cafes and ice cream sellers, and you will see, just past the church tower, the imposing Ivan Meštrović statue depicting Bishop Gregory of Nin. By all reports if you rub/kiss his much worn toe it will bring you luck. As we visited while the COVID 19 virus was still prevalent around Europe my suggestion is that the good luck of kissing this fine toe may be outweighed by the rather worse luck of coronavirus. But I am a cynic.
Church of the Holy Cross: Smallest Cathedral in the World.
Having topped up on homemade icecream from one of the numerous sellers and luck from our good and holy friend Gregory, head North just 100m to the seat of his diocese, the Church of the Holy Cross. This 9th Century former Royal Chapel holds the claim of the smallest cathedral in the world.
Pedants may note that there is no incumbent bishop resident at the Holy Cross so technically it is no longer a cathedral and I accept that but where is your sense of the dramatic? Also, this was the seat of Gregory of Nin, arguably the most influential bishop in Croatian History, the man who stood up to the pope and had church services changed from Latin to Croatian thus cementing both Christianity and the Croation language in this burgeoning country. I would argue that its long history as a cathedral earns it the right to keep the title. And I suggest that when you see how impressively small this ancient cathedral is all your thoughts of ecclisastical pedantry will fall away at the simple joy of the place.
Queen’s Sand Beach and mud bath
If you are getting hot by now head over to Queen’s beach, a 15 minute walk away. This is a sand beach (a rarity in the area) and is broad and shallow making it difficult even for a parent who is focused on buying a pina colada from the bar to lose their children permanently. If you enjoy windsurfing, paddleboarding, kitesurfing or kayaking there are plenty of watersport options available during the summer months.
Typically for us though we found the most fun to be had in the mud baths to be found just behind the beach in a shallow pond. The locals claim it revitalises your skin and I can report that anything that smells that pungent must be good for you. It is a lot of fun to slither like ells in mud then allow it all to dry for half an hour while you walk like a slowly rusting tin man. To be fair to the local assertions my skin did feel amazing after we finally washed off.
1st Century AD
Roman Temple Ruins
Once you have finished cleaning the cleansing mud from your now silky smooth skin and have completed your seaside frolics you should walk back to the historic centre and spend some time in the ruins of a Roman temple. If you are not from the Mediterranean area you will doubtless be astounded by the way that history in this part of the world is just lying around the place. These first century ruins (the largest this side of the Adriatic) are no different with a corinthian still standing and beautiful carvings, the blocks laid out to show the original floor plan.
The area is grassy and spacious with plenty of room to walk about and admire the beauty and revel in the 2000 years of history you are touching. If you have kids this is a great place for a picnic or a game of hide and seek (if you are visiting on your own I don’t recommend this people will think you strange) or just to allow them to burn off some of the pizza they had for lunch.
The harbour at sunset
Finally, as the summer sun sets slowly over the Adriatic, make your way to the low harbour area where scores of small wooden fishing boats and the occasional flash speedboat bob quietly on the calmest of seas. You can start at the northern end, by the extremely impressive and brightly decorated graveyard (worth a visit if you share my macabre streak). There is a wide footpath that will allow you to skirt the town and watch the sky sea and mountains take on the burned orange colour of the sky. Eventually the sea will be the darkest of blues and the sky a deep crimson and you should be back at the bridge you entered that morning.
From here there are numerous eateries and bars if you wish to continue into the night or you can depart, having enjoyed a pleasant day in the birthplace of Croatia.
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 alot 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!