Santa Father Granpa Frosty Christmas Claus

31 December, 2006

Slovenia, geographically located in the middle of the European continent, politically located somewhere between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ (whatever they are), historically located at the crossroads of feudalism, socialism and capitalism, has not one but three Grand Old Men of the winter solstice:

Miklavž (“Meek-lauwsh”), the Catholic version, the equivalent of our Saint Nicholas, Holland’s Sinter Klaas, and the American Santa Claus; he brings presents on December 6

Dedek Mraz (‘Grandpa Frost’), the pagan version first banned and later appropriated by the Soviet Communists and popular in all the Slavic countries; he is usually a bit slimmer, and wears a grey, fur-inside decorated-outside leather coat and a round fur cap. He is active throughout December and may bring presents on January 1

Božiček (“Bozhi-check”), the equivalent of our pagan/puritan/marketing confection Father Christmas, who brings presents at Christmas Eve but sells them from October on

Remarkably, all three seem to be on the best of terms.

All Slovenian children expect their good behaviour to be rewarded by all three, and fair play to them. 🙂

Venice (warning: this post is off-topic and way too long)

27 December, 2006

I went to Venice for Christmas. 🙂

And it completely knocked me out. Venice is ridiculously, improbably, insanely beautiful. Fantastically impressive, and improbably old. A 100m x 100m square taken at random from any part of the island probably contains more exquisite and original C14th – C16th architecture than all of Amsterdam, for instance.

Now I could show you all the photos I made of these beautiful buildings, canals, bridges, gondoliers – but I decided not to.
I have decided instead to give you the side of Venice the guide books don’t show you: the dogshit and the pigeonshit, the filthy water, the grafitti, the touts, the Long Dong Michelangelo’s David apron stalls, the toothless Romanian beggar women, the countless hordes of Japanese tourists, the interminable building sites…

….OK, just kidding. But if I posted everything my blog would be full up, so this is just the edited highlights.

Venice’s front door (the campanile, the Doge’s palace, and the two columns) is just the most spectacular visiting card you will ever see:
Venice’s front door

Nothing speaks more eloquently of the fact that Venice was a world power for four hundred years, using superior ships and weapons to control the worlds’ trading routes, just as Amsterdam did later in the 1600s. Walking between these enormous, exquisite buildings and into the huge Piazzo San Marco is a breathtaking experience and one which you must have at some point in your life. So, book it now, before Venice rots away into the rising seas. And go at Christmas, when it’s warm and sunny and nobody’s there. 🙂

The sinuous Canal Grande, the one navigable route through the city, is naturally where the richest merchants and princes vied to build the largest, grandest and most beautiful palaces. There are countless images of these stunning buildings online so here are just a couple:
Canal Grande 1

Canal Grande 2

Canal Grande 3

Canal Grande 4

Canal Grande 5

With side streets
side street

and alleyways

giving tantalizing glimpses of the inner city. And yes, I know that ‘tantalizing’ is a stupid tourist guidebook word. The fact is that Venice reduces you to a quivering mess of these sorts of clichés. Sorry, but it can’t be helped. Anyway….

The natural climax to this orgiastic display of civic pride and wealth is the Rialto Bridge, for many years the only crossing over the Canal Grande and therefore the natural site for a market. The stone, non-lifting version was built in 1570:
Rialto bridge 1

Oh, and by the way, it’s fucking huge too:
Rialto bridge 2

Rialto bridge 3

But what really beggars belief is the level of exquisite detailing in combination with the scale of the buildings and the whole city. Can there really be this much beautiful ornament and detail in a single city? No wonder it got Ruskin‘s rocks off. Here’s a random corner.
corner detail

And here’s a random bit of wall with a gallery behind it.
someone reading something somewhere beautiful

But what do the inhabitants actually do all day? It turns out that since the decline of Venice’s military and naval might in the 16th century they have spent most of their time perfecting the art of window dressing. Two little examples out of literally thousands of tourist-tempting displays:
a glove shop

a fish restaurant

Well, alright, here’s a third, for Ella – yes, that’s a full-size Harley Davidson in wood:
a wooden thingy shop

Hey, nobody said it had to be tasteful – it just has to sell to the Japanese.

Right, on to the gondolas. These look so at home:
gondolas parked up at the Piazza

gondola plying the Canal Grande

And the gondolieri are a cheerful lot:

But historically it’s a dying trade; there are only 401 gondolieri today, when there were at least 10,000 in the 1600s. Well, what do they expect, at €75 a throw? No wonder the only customers are Japanese, and even they invariably look glum.

Venice is only one island out of lots that are dotted round about. It’s well worth taking a 2-minute ferry to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, whose Palladio-designed church of the same name has a belltower you can go up (in a lift, they blocked the stairs) for €3…
San Giorgio Maggiore, from whose belltower…

…and enjoy a wonderful view of the whole of Venice, with the incredible Piazza di San Marco, columns, belltower and Doge’s palace seen from yet another stunning vantage point:
…you can see Venice’s front door from above

It’s worth remembering that much of Venice’s fabulous wealth came out of the barrel of a gun. From 1400 onward its Arsenale
the Arsenale gates

(derived from the Arabic word Dar al Sina’a, ‘dockyard’, and which gives English the word ‘arsenal’) was the world’s most important shipyard, eventually employing 16,000 men and assembly-line techniques to turn out a ship a day (!) and to invent and produce new, state-of-the-art warships and weapons. Like Holland in later centuries, Venice simply saw war as a logical extension of commerce.

The 1934 Ponte degli Scalzi, “barefoot bridge”, is great:
this footbridge over the Canal Grande is beautifully slender…

…impressively wide and high…

…has nice detailing…

…and offers lovely views of the water. Just one bridge: Venice has more than 400

Calatrava is supposed to be building a fourth bridge somewhere, apparently, but I saw no sign of it.

After a hard day’s walking about doing nothing but gawk openmouthed at stuff, it was time to head off to one of the parks to snooze in style. I wasn’t alone:

OK, that’s enough ordered exposition. Here are a bunch of unconnected photos. The mouseovers should tell you all you need to know…
the view from my hotel window

lots of the doorbells look like faces, clearly on purpose

Macdonald’s once again proving that Americans have taste

that’s a 24-hour clock - and a (16th century?) working ‘digital clock’ above it

lovely 1960s taxi boat - straight out of a James Bond film

And here are my tips for those of you planning a visit:

– park the car on the mainland at Mestre. Buses and trains will take you cheaply right into town. The convenience of the car park at Tronchetto doesn’t really outweigh its €20/day rate.

– nobody ever checked my €20 ticket on the ferries. Not once.

– there’s a COOP supermarket conveniently sited between the bus station and the train station. Essentials (like tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, olive oil and ham – duh!) are all cheaper than in Amsterdam. Stock up there rather than pay the restaurants’ mad prices.

– bring along a nice bag to take the supermarket stuff in, rather than toting plastic COOP bags all day looking like a cheapskate dork like I did.

– and a knife and spoon. Jesus, I’m way too old to be learning this kind of stuff now…

a musical evening in Ljubljana

26 December, 2006

Maja invited me to a music evening at the local community theatre, at which her accordion group would also be playing. It looked like this:
a Ljubljana accordion group

Very polite and proper. After the show we were invited to a crypt under the building, where a table had been laid with food and drink. A couple of accordions came with us, and soon the real performance had started:

And for those of you who know Maja, just to prove that she really does play accordion:
Maja, and someone else who couldn’t stop playing

religion in Slovenia

26 December, 2006

I’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth touching on again: religious life is actually meaningful here.

Slovenia is Catholic – or rather, compared to Holland it is overwhelmingly, enthusiastically and publicly Catholic. The young might scoff, but calendars always list the Saint’s Days; every house has a Mary, a Jesus or a cross on the wall; practically all 30-year-olds are baptized; votive candles burn at all hours in all the churches; and everyone, young and old, seems to know the prayers and the Rosary.

Roadside shrines are often better lit and maintained than the roads whose fatal accidents they commemorate:
roadside shrine near Ljubljana

The cemetaries deserve special mention. Here are some snaps from žale, Ljubljiana’s principal cemetary.

Naturally, fervent Catholic and golden boy Jože Plečnik built loads of it:
Plečnik’s entry building at Žale

one of several Plečnik mausolea

Get this: an automatic candle/flower dispenser. Your grave-visiting needs are met 24/7:
candle and flower dispenser

No expense has been spared to provide superb monuments:
Zale tree columns

And the graves are lovingly maintained both by day
neat cemetarial rows

and by night…
Žale tombs at night

The hundreds of candles around the chapel presumably commemorate those who died – or were buried – elsewhere:
Žale candles

Krvavec; (try Kruh-váh-vits)

22 December, 2006

Wednesday we had fantastic weather and I was going stir crazy in town, so I jumped into the car and headed for the hills to see whether I could feel some snow and stretch the sunshine hours. And I got such a treat…

The Alps loomed praeternaturally above the flood plains of the Sava. For some reason you never see this in Holland:
the Alps lurching up out of the ground again

I followed my nose and then the signs to a ‘gondel’ – and at the very foot of the mountain, there it was, a cable car…
the ‘gondola’

Mock me if you will, but this was my first ever cable car trip, so for the whole journey my heart was in my throat, I was staring in all directions and shouting ‘Fuck! Fuck!‘ again and again, while snapping photos like a man possessed. OK, I know you all felt the same way the first time you rode a cable car, admit it.

up and away

some more up and away

even more up and away

yet still more up and away… how high is this mountain, anyway?

Finally the car stopped climbing and I emerged, blinking, into another world:

ah - the top, nearly

Which wasn’t the top, but it nearly was, and that was fine. The air was fresh, the snow was a foot deep, and the views were incredible.
Krvaveč, the ski resort

mmm, nice views

This was good. But to my amazement I was the only one there. And I had no idea what to do or where to go. I had never been to a ski resort before so I had no idea what any of the buildings were. I felt lost and disoriented.

A noise broke the stillness and a guy appeared out of nowhere on a skidoo, with a trailer full of trash bags. I’d never seen a skidoo before so I took his picture.

The passenger got off and the driver made to leave. There was only one thing for it. I asked him for a ride. “Where are you going?” “Anywhere, I just want to have some fun. I can help with the trash bags.” “OK, jump on!” And we were off…
we’re off

Christ, those things are fast – we were doing about 80kmh…

but the views were soooo beautiful…

and as night fell everything got dreamy… we seemed to be going even faster… through a sort of motorized Narnia… hey, I’ll never ski, but I could use one of these skidoos.
night-time skidooing

I was the last one down on the very last cable car. High above the snowy trees, in the deep red and purple of a gorgeous sunset, and in utter silence, the pod floated gently down the mountain. It seemed to take for ever.

I wonder how often people get up to no good on these things?

Roasted chestnuts

22 December, 2006

They are a roadside staple here in the autumn months: ‘kostanj’, roasted chestnuts. The sweet, slightly acrid smell of the smoke is everywhere. Some of the sellers have licenses granted by Maria Theresa, C18th Empress of Austria (and therefore also of Slovenia). But there can’t be much of a living in it: a small bag costs about 1 euro:
roast chestnut seller

chestnuts roasting

Mmm, yummy!


22 December, 2006

A medieval town (with a silent ‘j’) half an hour north of Ljubljana. I’d passed it on the way in and went back for a closer look. Nestled close in under the south side of the Alps,
Kranj beneath the Alps

it lies on an escarpment at the confluence of two rivers, the Kokra and the Sava (which goes on to Ljubljana and to Zagreb, eventually joining the Danube at Belgrado):
Kranj’s old town bridge (well, 1950s then)

A cracking (literally) example of Socialist-era cheapo concrete infrastructure.

Besides the usual medieval centre (narrow, twisting, flagstoned streets, etc) it offers some interesting architecture, like this wonderful instance of timberframing done in 1950s concrete:
timberframe in 1950s concrete

Delightful, no?

Slovenia’s most celebrated poet, France Prešeren, spent his last few years here and the fact is commemorated by a massive statue of him, designed (of course) by Plečnik:
Franče Prešeren

The proportions are a bit funny, though, aren’t they, given that Plečnik knew his stuff? The story goes that some dork at the municipal planning department did his sums wrong: the statue was too tall to get under a bridge and into town, and his neck had to be shortened. 🙂

I wandered over to some interesting-looking modern buildings and skaters in the middle of town
Kranj skaters

And noticed some socialist realism statues in the square:
Kranj statues 1

They don’t make statuary like this any more, although a whole lot of it has apparently been bunged together into Szobor Park in Budapest. So before this lot gets melted down to make into more cars, here are all three groups:
Kranj statues 2

Kranj statues 3

Kranj statues 4

Kranj statues 5

Kranj statues 6

Looking at these wonderful statues I caught myself feeling nostalgic; it’s been a very long time since anybody idealised communal effort and aspiration in this way (though, to be fair, these people are all carrying rifles rather than farm implements). These days, if you want a better world you just buy yourself a Mercedes.

the Jože Plečnik house

18 December, 2006

Master Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik‘s house has been turned into a museum of his life and work.

If you like architecture at all you will love Plečnik. Creative, original, daring, determined, popular and well connected, he left his mark on Ljubljana (and Prague, and Vienna) with dozens of extraordinary buildings and public structures.

His (self-built) house and garden exudes a quiet, sober composure that must have marked Plečnik himself; he was by all accounts a religious, gentle and hard-working man, who had a few female friends but who never married. No, they don’t make them like that any more.

Here’s the house from the back:
the Plečnik house, from the back

You’re not allowed to take photos inside the house (on the grounds that the shop is full of Plečnik catalogues, which turned out to be untrue), but here are some closeups of the beautiful (and convection-heated!) conservatory.

The trees inside are still happy and I reckon those are recesses for glass covers (‘cloches’) outside, which one might expect, but what comes as a surprise is the really thin reinforced concrete window framing (ca. 1918), still in good condition. The ‘Venetian’ floor uses lots of polished marble, granite, concrete and other bits and pieces, probably offcuts:
Plečnik conservatory 1

Plečnik conservatory 2

Plečnik conservatory 3

Plečnik conservatory 4

Plečnik conservatory 5

Plečnik, who found much inspiration in classicism, tried out all sorts of alternative column shapes in reinforced concrete, keeping one or two of each in the garden for reference:
reinforced concrete column

And as the city’s favourite son he had prime access to the Roman archeological remains that were constantly being dug up during his building projects. He was given so many Roman water pipes that he used them as edging for his garden paving:
Roman water pipes

These pipes are concrete, of course: the Romans built lots of fantastic stuff with concrete:
Roman water pipes, 2000 years old and still in practically perfect nick

Now, take a good look at these objects, if you will. They were inside the house but after begging on bended knees I was granted permission to photograph them. They are allegedly Roman:
Roman, apparently - but what on Earth are they?

but if they are indeed Roman, what on Earth are they? They are made of stone, 40 – 50cm high, and three of them (especially the one in the foreground) actually look machined; that is to say, they are so perfectly smooth and regular that it is hard to imagine they were constructed using anything other than an extremely precise mechanical technique.

The only application I can imagine so far is as non-return valves in a water transport system, but I’m guessing. Anyone know?

another Citroën freak

18 December, 2006

Meet Grega Tasič and his 1969 Cimos ID 19:
Grega and Grega’s ‘Cimos DS’

The Cimos was the name by which Citroëns were made and sold in the former Jugoslavia; strictly speaking Tito didn’t want his countrymen buying actually ‘foreign-made’ cars, but there was a factory on the coast at Koper that shipped Citroëns (2CVs, Amis, GSes, DSes, CXes and more) in, tagged the chassis, finished the trim, put the tyres on and flogged them to design-minded Jugoslavs in Gregor’s dad’s generation.

The car is hard and dry and looks pretty low-mileage. The trim is very similar and yet slightly odd; there are lots of extra buttons in odd places, and for some reason the vinyl goes right over the airvents:
Cimos DS dash

It has been lovingly restored, with new trim and seat covers and everything very shiny indeed:
back seat

back end

Grego’s nerdiness goes right through to an original box of the Opera chocolates (beloved of the 1960s DS-driving classes) on the hat shelf
back shelf

and the fact that Gregor plays only 1960s Slovenian songs on the radio when he takes this car for a spin. 🙂

For the hardcore Citroën freaks out there, here’s a shot of a chassis plate you’ll never see on a ‘Western’ DS:
Cimos chassis plate

Grega mailed me afew days ago to say that he just bought a 1200cc CIMOS production 1977 GS Pallas, in excellent and original condition, beige with biege/brown interior and a sunroof (standard equipment on all CIMOS GS Pallases, apparently). For less than you’d pay in the Netherlands, since you ask.

So I want to know two things: where does Grega find all the money, and more importantly, can he get me a low-mileage DS Break? Grega, you know where to find me…

Everyone else: I know where to find Grega. 🙂

a Zagreb theatre experience

13 December, 2006

I must tell you about the theatre piece (W. & T., by Branko Brezovec) I saw at the Frakcija anniversary celebrations… it was just incredible.

A tiny, triangular space; a steep rake; a tall, black metal framework with perforated steel sheet panels along one wall. Operatic music gradually swelling. At the back, a TV shows a man shaving. Lights. Two men start an identical monologue: one, standing on a table, in Croatian; the other, lying on the floor, naked but for a knee brace, in simultaneous Italian.

Doors, windows and shelves in the metal framework swing open, five actors/actresses appear at various places in it, naked but for bits of prosthetic support in odd places, and singing, really well and really loudly. Others come on stage, some in soldierly clothes, others naked, either playing scenes, singing, or shouting, in simultaneous Croatian and Italian. There are eleven of them.

Every five minutes the metal framework is moved, sometimes right to stage front, parts of it actually overhanging the audience. The actors are often literally at arms’ length, naked or otherwise. I can see their fillings. I can smell them. Those of us in the front three rows are getting drops of their spittle, their sweat, on our legs and hands.

They use text, song and music, natural and abstract movement, simple cardboard props, a few costumes, and video. Most of them are never dressed. They are so physical with themselves and each other that by the end of the performance they are covered in bruises. They dance, shout, weep, drool, sing, fight, beg, fuck, and kill.

The scenes, being in Croatian and Italian, are hard for me to follow, but seem to revolve around themes of love, loss, loyalty, patriotism, violence, mercy, war, rape, madness, protection, abandonment, redemption, cannibalism and hopelessness.

This goes on without respite for over an hour and a half. It feels like the theatre is running out of oxygen. It is exhausting, overwhelming. It is not Alan Ayckbourn.

One image that will probably stay with me for ever:
six actors hold up boards, together forming a military wall map. Next: they lie down with the map above them, forming the actual country. Next: a seventh actor wriggles inbetween the boards, in order to enter/disappear in/be buried in that country. Next: all the actors leave but one, who in complete silence, punctuated only by gasps of pain or ecstacy, uses the boards to slice his own body into sections…


Afterwards I talked to various people to try to understand more about the themes, but most of them were unable to talk about it. 🙂