Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Bora and the Riviera

I take a bus from Pula to Opatija. I watch the scenery unfold – mountains, villages, one wound around a church like a French village, a huge scar of a factory, turning the river water bright green, and then it flows into the sea, turns blue again. We pass through several small towns by the sea, Lovran, Brseč, Ičići, before the bus pulls up in Opatija.

The young woman at the Tourist Office finds me a studio apartment in Volosko, 2 kilometers further on. The owner picks me up and drives me there. There are several small apartments, set around a small patio with trailing bushes. It’s delightful. Just beneath it is the main road to Rijeka and on the other side, the hillside leads into the old town of Volosko. It tumbles down the slope in a maze of narrow cobbled alleyways, that twist their way down to the sea. It has one main street, with grand old Venetian buildings that now house a Konsum supermarket and the Post Office on the ground floor. 


I slither down to the sea. This is where the great Lungomare begins – 12 kilometres of waterside walkway, with stone paving and elegant railings built at the turn of the 20th century, still in Franz Joseph’s time. 

And everything here has remained, resolutely, Kaiserlich und Königlich, the large icing-sugar-coated mansions and tall houses, the coves and bays, the trees lining the walkway, to give shade in the summer. This is where they came, in Franz Joseph’s time, the Emperor and Empress, their friends and their retinues, the Riviera of Opatija, heads of state and their attendants, the landowners, the statesmen, the wealthy and powerful, and those who were not powerful yet, but one day they would be.


The sun shines, but the bora still seizes the sea and rips it like a sheet, flings it against rocks and the promenade wall, where it breaks up into foamy fragments. In small pebble bays, the waves breathe up the slope of stones and then crackle like paper when they recede, hiss and snap, the stones tumble with loud popping sounds. The bora has turned the sea violent, overturned memories, emptied the love charms slipped between stones.

The Emperor who would reign forever and the Empire that would last forever. The bora shuffles its memories like cards in a familiar game of win and lose, with Fortune smiling on you or turning her head and her attention, out to sea.

The War came, tore up everything, the silks, the laughter and the wine, the damp paper treaties, paper money, paper notes of assignation, secrets, an undying love. The sea melts then swallows them.

So how come these memories don’t feel like shreds or fragments, but are bora-brought complete with light and shade, with tenderness of thread and stitch, with exultation of the rivets nailing into place this lane-along-the-sea, this shaded slipway, overlooking rocks, curving round each bay? Perhaps because it is built in homage – not to Queens or Emperors, not to power and structures of dominion but to the sea itself and the lacy decoration of the trees. The trees too, as they grew and bulged over their containing stones, look out over the water.

The bora blows, the chill wind from the sea. I feel I’m privileged to see the water like this, teeth snapping in the wind, waves ripping sheets of silk, throwing them on the stony beaches.

I meet other old friends, apart from Franz Joseph, who is everywhere. The Empress Elizabeth or Sisi as she was affectionately called, spent time here too. I first met her in Corfu, further down the Adriatic coastline, at the Achilleon which she had built as a retreat because she loved the pine trees that surrounded it, and the view out over the Ionian Sea. I met her again in Budapest, in the district named after her,
When the walkway reaches Opatija, I come across a plaque commemorating the Marshall, Józef Piłsudski; I’d first met him through Kazimiera, in Poznan. I wonder if she was with him too, at least some of the time. I could imagine her walking here, with her white blouse, long dark skirt, hat tilted at an angle, and parasol in hand. The plaque reads: (with thanks to J for the translation)

"Józef Piłsudski, a soldier and a statesman, the co-founder of Poland’s independence,
First Marshall and the Chief of the Polish State
Lived in Opatija 

On the eve of the Great War for the Independence of Nations
      - Polish Embassy in Zagreb, Polish Cultural Society “Fryderyk Chopin” in Rijeka"

And near the gardens of the Villa Angiolina, built in 1844 by Iginio Scarpa, a resident of Rijeka, I come across the statue of a stout man, hands thrust in trouser pockets. It turns out to be Miroslav Krleža. He is more of an acquaintance than a friend, as I have not yet read his writing, but I intend to. 

For even if they are no longer in bodily existence, I do count these people as friends, I feel I have come to know them either through reading or hearing about them, or reading what they have written or when I’ve been to places where they lived, places that were dear to them, and where their presence can still be felt. Their traces, their effects, their spirits. One of life’s mysteries. Why would we visit the graves of those dear to us or the places loved or lived in by writers or others who have had an effect on us, unless there was something that still has the power to move us?

Thursday, 29 March 2018

A Writers' Residency in Croatia

The garden at zvona i nari

Zvona i nari means bells and pomegranates and though it wasn't the season for fruit (Persephone is still lingering in the underworld, delaying spring) I heard plenty of bells. There are two churches in the village of Ližnjan, one of them dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours and their bells ring out every hour and half hour, with a particularly long carillion at 7 pm. Church bells, I find, anchor you reassuringly in space, time-marking seeming to be more an excuse for melody and music, than the purpose.

village of Ližnjan, clock tower in the background

Croatian writers Natalija Grgorinić, and Ognjen Rađen have created in Ližnjan near Pula, Croatia, what they call a 'Cultural Cooperative'. This involves writing, publishing, translating, editing, hosting a library, creating public events such as readings, and offering residential space to visiting writers. This 'residential space' was my home for 10 days in March, a beautiful house with tiled floor, a kitchen with a door opening into a garden, a living room with a writing desk and lined with books in Croatian, English, Italian, German and French, and a bedroom upstairs. The library and events space is truly lovely, with a high ceiling and wooden beams and on a sunny day, the light pours in.

Over 100 writers from all parts of the world have been welcomed here over the past 7 years of its existence. This is a peaceful place ideal for writing and in summer it must be idyllic, though this spring is notoriously cold and wild throughout Europe. But even in this blustery weather, I have so enjoyed my time here, the continuity enabling me to get on with a longer piece of writing.

Near the tip of the Istrian peninsula, Ližnjan lies between olive groves and pine woods, and the sea, which is in easy walking distance. I've walked along the coastline almost every day, from the near deserted coastal paths to the east of the village, 

to the bay at Medulin, where boats are tethered.

Natalija and Ognjen arranged for me to go to the Tone Peruško school in Pula one morning, to talk to one of the classes learning English. The building is gorgeous, with  marble floors and staircases, dating from Austro-Hungarian times I'm told, built in 1848, and the second oldest school in Pula. 

I thought I would talk about Scotland, its history, geography, culture and its writers, but after a brief comparison of the landscapes, (both countries have lots of islands off the coast) I didn't get any further, as the young students were full of questions, asking about my writing and my travels. They had been learning English for several years, and were confident in expressing themselves. Natalija had said to me beforehand that it was a rare experience for them to hear and talk to a native English speaker and their interest and enthusiasm was heartwarming. (Which countries have you been to, which do you like best, what languages do you speak, why did you learn French, do you read books in other languages, what do you feel before you leave home? etc etc).
at the Tone Peruško school. Photo credit: zvonainari

In Ližnjan I experienced almost every variety of weather (except snow). Sunshine, rain, a thunderstorm, and the bora, the chill wind from the sea. 

Thank you so much Natalija and Ognjen, so friendly and welcoming, for this chance to spend time there and to get to know a little, the landscape, history, and the people of Istria.

One of the last questions a student asked me was, Will you come back to talk to us again?  I wasn't able to promise, but I really hope that one day, I can.

Look at their website, to find out more about Zvona i nari, and there are photographs and information about the residency, and of my talk to the class at the Tone Peruško school.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Istrian Coastline

I never tire of looking at the sea. On my first walk along the Istrian coastline it was a warm and sunny day. A few boats in the bay, then I followed the coastal path, no boats or people, just one or two seagulls sitting on rocks. The sea surface was ruffled, its colours shades of deep blue with areas of pale green.

At one point, a deep chasm between rocks, and the water in the cleft is turquoise. Scarlet anemones are scattered round the opening like red buttons.

The next time I took a different route to the sea, coming out further along the coast. It's cooler and the sea is rougher too with some waves splashing against rocks.

It's a stony track, negotiable by cars. A large 4x4 passed me, avoiding the puddles, driving half up on the bank, as if he was in a hurry. Later, he's parked at the track edge. He had not got out to walk but was sitting in the car looking out to sea. Perhaps he was simply seeking the solace of gazing at the waves breaking on the rocks, the shifting water with its varieties of colours, and the hills on the other side of the bay, a fuzzy blue merging with the blue of the sea.

Some of the rock formations are thin layers piled on top of each other, pressed together like millefeuilles.

Today is a different mood entirely. It's chilly, windy, and the sea has white wave tips and waves crash against rocks. The surface is whisked, shifts, as if restless to get somewhere and there's a roaring sound, a mixture of wind and surf, a primordial growl, a fierce deep joy out of which come the individual thumps and hisses of waves crashing over rocks.

Tonight there is a wild storm, wind, rain, thunder and lightning.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

From Rivertrain to Rocktrain

The journey from London to Liznjan took 26 hours. I left my friends in Brentwood around 9 pm, took a bus to the nearest tube station on the district line, got off at Victoria, then took a bus to Stansted airport. There were lots of people stretched out on the floor and I did too but I didn't sleep. As soon as the desk opened I dropped off my bag - which you have to do yourself now, in front of a machine - then went through security. After a long walk through the duty free, there was a much-needed coffee. A train to the gate and a few minutes later we were boarding.

The flight lasted two hours, but as soon as we were up in the air - that wondrous everyday miracle - I fell asleep and only woke up just before we landed at Ljubljana airport. Where the fields were covered with a thin layer of snow. Not freshly fallen snow but old snow, grubby and worn looking but like a well-used carpet, it had established a relationship with what it covered and had become tolerated, accepted perhaps even viewed with affection.
I certainly did.

For old snow is generous, it has made its statement, when it wiped out pathways to the outside world and to the roads connecting cities and people and workplaces and provisions. It has expressed itself and brought our transport systems and our lives to a grinding halt. And now, relaxed, like an ocean after storm, it accepts our admiration of its stained calligraphy, its extraordinary ice works, which change every day as snow shrinks or is cleared and piled up, as it darkens and gathers soot and mud and general dirt from cities and their modes of transport - cars, buses, trains and their sooty exhalations.

      In the area beside the river in Ljubljana's old town, there are wooden cafe tables covered with awnings and there are heaters too, for the outside clientele. And between the cafe tables there are heaps of old snow mounds that have settled into artworks, each ripple of contour dotted or streaked with a darker decoration.

The entire landscape viewed from the window of the train from Ljubljana to Rijeka is old snow and black trees. Sometimes it seems the land falls away sharply from the train tracks into a deep valley but it's so mist-filled it's deceptive, depth is blurred, and I'm glad the train knows how to pick its way through the sliding land levels, glides through mountains and comes out the other side.

The River Train (which gave this blog its name) is what I called the train from Ljubljana to Zagreb which runs alongside the river Sava, faithfully following its curves and contours. This train cuts through mountains. The embankments it slides through are black chunks of rock topped with their blankets of snow, so this is clearly the Rock Train.

I didn't think I'd be posting any more photos of snow but I couldn't resist one or two. Taken from the train window, most are blurry and indistinct, but the one with the pylons captures the starkness of the landscape. By the time we reached the border with Croatia the snow had disappeared.

The train arrives in Rijeka at dusk. It's a short walk from train station to bus station. A flock of dark birds swoops across the sky and I feel I have truly arrived.

The final part of my journey is a bus to Pula where I'm met by my host and driven to the nearby village of Liznjan. I am in a wonderful apartment, full of books in Croatian, German and English.

I go to bed and sleep for ten hours.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

From Sea to Snow

By the river, 2 weeks ago

Between snow showers this morning the sky gleams blue, beaming with borrowed light. Then the grey cloud gathers like bunched silk, something languid, penitent almost, about this snow. It drifts in small grains, a barely revealed discovery of feeling, a timid emotion.

Silence, when I open the back door. No traffic sounds from the main road. Then one, just discernible, sounds like a plane. I can just see a lorry passing in the distance. Between snow showers I clear a path to the bird table put out piles of seed and fill the feeder. The birds are quiet this morning, dark specks pecking at the food. 

A crow call. Each sound is magnified. What’s this one? It really is a plane this time. Or is it the wind in trees? A train? Are the trains running? No, it is the wind. I have a pile of logs stacked by the fire. It is very peaceful.

The windows look like Christmas card windows, a dusty gathering of snow in corners. They never look like that at Christmas. But they do today, the last day of February.

Later I go out in the blizzard. The worst part is getting round the side of the house in the deep snow. 

Then down the hill where the snow comes up to the top of my boots. A tractor has recently gone along the back road and I walk in its tracks. The main road shows signs of some traffic having passed. 


A few days ago I walked along the clifftops at Berwick so I could look at the sea. It looked like this, welcoming the spring, no thought of snow.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Past - In Blue

On a recent walk among snowy fields these sculpted snow drifts made me think of the mountains of Afghanistan, similar in shape, with their smooth and sweeping folds, though entirely different in colour and size.

Later I think of the Alps, snow-covered mountains we crept up slowly, in blizzards, chains on the tyres. We left the little village near Grenoble, the big farmhouse with its log stove and its bare trees, a few forgotten pears squelching underfoot. What was the weather forecast? Were the mountain roads passable? This was a long time ago, long before the days of the internet. We talked to people in the village, listened to the radio, asked the people we were staying with.

There were different opinions, some in favour, some not. M was not the kind of person to be put off by other people’s fears or hesitations but no-one could tell for certain how bad the snow would be in the next few days. He decided to go for it. He got hold of some chains for the tyres, I forget how. We picked up some provisions in Chamonix, snow swirling in the streets. We were lucky, the roads stayed open, the car did not get stuck in the blizzards. We reached the Mont Blanc tunnel and on the other side, we were in Italy. It was night time, we pulled off the road and slept in the back of the car. We woke in the morning to sunlight and mountains and no snow on the road at all.

Seeing the sculpted snow drifts and thinking of the Alps reminded me that I had written a story and other pieces about that time in France and in Italy and made me want to find them, so when I got home I went into the cold attic to rummage around in various boxes and folders. And I unearthed the stories and some other things too I had quite forgotten I had written. Reading these stories again gave me the feeling of reconnecting with my past. 


Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Snow and cakes

It’s been snowing almost continuously all day. Just beyond the house gardens a fairly inconspicuous little machine like a small tractor with tank treads pulling a long trailer has continued driving slowly up and down what has become a tree graveyard. Its attachment, like a metal hand with many adjustable prongs, once the tractor has stopped, can open and grip several tree trunks and deftly swing them onto the trailer.  When the tractor is moving slowly and the metal hand is not clamping and lifting trees, it swings innocuously at the end of the trailer. 

I’m sorry for the driver, out in this weather. I am more sorry for the trees, whose presence and shelter I took for granted, and for the birds who lived in them. I put bird food out several times today. These birds, my regulars, live in the large and sprawling hedge in my front garden. Perhaps they will be cosy enough there, the snow and hedge branches forming a kind of igloo.

We humans are great story makers. We create stories or narrative tales out of – let’s say perceptual material. The creative substance being the imaginative faculty, that seems to arise in the mind, working with a mixture of sense perceptions and memory. We fashion stories out of our lives, from a journey to a destination, to a visit to a friend, whatever happens, we have the capacity to shape raw material into a story.

From a young age don’t we love to listen to stories or read them? I think that creating stories of our lives we engage that higher perceptual faculty or consciousness. I remember the first time I experienced that I was about 7 or maybe 8 years old walking on my own one morning beside cliffs and sea, during the summer holidays, going into the small town to buy rolls for breakfast for the family. Feeling a sense of joy in the early morning and my surroundings I discovered that there was also an observer present, which was also myself, describing what was happening at the same time as I was living it. 

I’m not sure what links these lovely edible creations with the snow and the logs and the tree-collecting machine other than contiguity in time. The hedge branches laden with snow lean over the garden, the snow piles up on the path and I wonder how I will get to the bus stop tomorrow. Beauty in nature and beauty in creation. These cakes came all the way from Poland, (thank you so much J!) so carefully packed that only one of them was broken, the little rocking horse on the bottom left 

 I guess the snow won’t last long and the cakes certainly won’t.