Secret Toilet Discovered In Scottish Castle

castle, Drum Castle
Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists working on a conservation project at Drum Castle near Aberdeen, Scotland, have discovered two secret chambers, one of which includes a medieval toilet complete with its wooden seat.

Drum Castle features a 13th-century castle keep that’s the oldest intact example in Scotland. Besides the hidden toilet, the team found a second secret chamber that’s reputed to have been where one of the men of the clan hid out for three years after the defeat at the Battle of Culloden. The chamber with the toilet was hidden by bookshelves installed in the 19th century, while the second chamber was a real-life safe room for rebellious Scots. Both were found in the medieval keep.

From 1323-1975, Drum Castle was the seat of the Chief of Clan Irvine. In addition to the keep, the property features Jacobean and Victorian additions. It is now open to visitors and is only 10 miles outside Aberdeen. Visitors can see the historic interior and stroll through the surrounding ancient oak woodland, a rare survival of primeval forest that’s been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Lake Bled: A Tourist Trap In Slovenia You Really Must See

Lake Bled
Sean McLachlan

If you don’t already know that Lake Bled is the most popular tourist attraction in Slovenia you’ll know it the moment you arrive. There’s a casino. There’s a Shamrock Irish Pub. There’s even one of those tourist buses made up to look like a choo-choo train. It’s horrible.

But look out across the emerald-green water sparkling in the sunshine and all that disappears. Instead, you see a storybook landscape – a lush little island with a church spire peeking out over the greenery, snow-covered Alps beyond and, on one shore, a steep cliff atop which looms a formidable castle. It’s like something from Wagner.

The best way to see Lake Bled is to take a slow stroll around it. A path makes the entire 3.7-mile circuit. Most of the hotels and nearly all the businesses are clustered into one small town, so you soon leave the noise and people behind. Much of the walk is shaded and you can admire the lake from all angles. At one point there’s a sign for Osojnica hill. A moderately challenging 15-minute climb will reward you with fine views of the island and its church.

Most visitors head up to Bled Castle, one of the most impressive of Slovenia’s many castles. It’s a 16th-century fortress/manor house built on 11th-century foundations. While picturesque from afar, I’d recommend not visiting it because you’ll spoil the illusion. As soon as you enter the front gate someone shouts, “Smile!” and snaps your photo. When you leave they’ll offer you an image of yourself looking slightly surprised and confused for only €6.50 ($8.60).

%Slideshow-599%Once you make it past the photographer, you can visit an old-style print shop, where you can buy handmade prints; or you can visit the wine cellar, where you can buy wine; or you can visit the smithy with its fake forge and array of metalwork for sale. The only redeeming spots are the fine little castle church with its 16th-century frescoes and the views over Lake Bled. Since you can get just as good views from Osojnica hill for free, there’s really not much need to come here.

While Bled Island and its Church of the Assumption are equally touristy, they feel slightly less spoiled than the castle. At least people aren’t trying to sell you something all the time. The approach is nicer too – instead of slogging up a steep hill, you’re rowed across the lake on a gondola. When I went to the lakeside to catch a boat, a tour bus pulled up and disgorged a huge crowd of South Koreans, mostly women in their 50s with a couple of camera-toting husbands in tow.

We all piled into three gondolas and set out. The women in one of the boats started singing and their voices carried nicely over the water. I shared the stern of my boat with two ladies. Everyone thought this was funny for some reason and started snapping photos of us. The lone Korean man in our boat stood up to take a shot and, figuring I’d give him something to talk about back home, I put my arms around the two women. They started giggling. For them, at least, I’m still a young man.

The photographer gave me a wide grin and took our photograph. After he sat down one of the women turned to me and said, “That’s my husband.”

Oops.

The man must have overheard because he laughed. Then he pointed at me and said, “You kimchi.”

I swear to God that’s what he said. “You kimchi.”

Maybe Gadling’s resident Korea expert can shed some light on this?

Once we got off the boat, the oarsman grumpily announced that we only had half an hour. That’s plenty of time because the island is tiny. A quiet little path goes around the edge. It took me barely five minutes to make the circuit even though I kept stopping to take pictures. Then I rejoined my temporary travel companions in the church.

The church has some lovely 14th-century frescoes but that’s not why people come here. They come here to ring the bell. There’s some local legend about how it gives you luck for some reason or other. I didn’t bother to write it down since it was probably made up for tourists anyway. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance for some good luck and I got in line with the rest. A sign on the floor gave strict instructions not to swing from the bell rope. Most of the women did anyway.

That bell rang and rang. Since a steady stream of visitors passes through the island, you can hear that bell ringing from early in the morning until sunset. It hardly ever seems to stop. Lake Bled has a lot of luck to give.

The women thought I was very strong because I could ring the bell without swinging from it. Thanks, ladies! Maybe that was the luck the bell had for me – the admiration of a crowd of middle-aged South Koreans. It’s not much, but how much magic do you expect from a tourist trap?

Despite all this nonsense, is Lake Bled still worth a visit? Oh yes. It is simply beautiful. Even in a steady downpour it had a majestic quality to it, and when the clouds broke it became one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen in 25 years and 34 countries of travel. I would suggest visiting Lake Bled but actually staying at the less-visited but equally beautiful Lake Bohinj in Triglav National Park. More on that in the next post.

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Hiking in Triglav National Park!

Gorizia: Italy’s Overlooked Historic Border City

Gorizia, Italy
Sean McLachlan

Visitors to Italy tend to skip Gorizia. Tucked away at the northeast edge of the country on the border with Slovenia, this small city tends to get bypassed on the way to Trieste or Slovenia.

I would have never gone there myself except that I was a guest author at the city’s annual history and book fair, the èStoria Festival. Now in its ninth year, the festival is drawing visitors from all over Italy. International visitors are few because the talks are mostly in Italian; mine was translated by a shockingly intelligent fellow who grew up speaking four languages and went on to learn a dozen more.

When I wasn’t needed at the fair I took some time to slip away and check out what the city has to offer international visitors. I found that this overlooked destination is definitely worth adding to your itinerary.

The city is situated in the verdant Isonzo river valley. Slovenia is just to the east, marked by steep green hills. Heading upriver towards the Julian Alps, mountains rise precipitously from both banks. It was here that the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies fought the dozen Battles of Isonzo in World War I. Several tour operators offer visits to the battlefield and we’ll be looking at it in the next post.

The most obvious attraction within Gorizia can be seen from all across the city. Gorizia Castle sits atop of hill in the center of town and was the residence of the Counts of Gorizia and Tyrol, a powerful dynasty that owned much of the territory hereabouts. The first castle was built in the 11th century and was constantly expanded and updated, most recently to accommodate artillery. The castle got badly knocked about in World War I and was lovingly restored in the 1930s.

%Slideshow-86%From the battlements you get a fine view of the surrounding countryside and the distant snowcapped Alpine peaks. Inside the castle you’ll find the usual arms and armor as well as an excellent little museum on medieval music. Some of the rooms are adorned with faded frescoes showing religious themes. In the hamlet adjoining the castle you’ll find an excellent First World War Museum, the Museum of Fashion and Applied Arts, a picture gallery and the Archaeological Museum.

If the climb up the hill made you hungry, you’re in luck. Gorizia has several fine restaurants serving both Friulian regional cuisine as well as Slovenian dishes. Friuli is the northeastern region of Italy and as such was influenced by the cuisines of Hungary and Austria. Meals tend to be heavier, with more emphasis on meat. There’s plenty of pasta and pizza too, though. Slovenian cuisine has its own distinct style that I’ll get to in a later post as I explore that fascinating little country.

My favorite restaurant in Gorizia is Alla Luna at Via Oberdan 13 with its cozy interior crammed with local arts and crafts and its menu of regional dishes. Tre Soldi at Corso Italia 38 is a more formal affair that also serves regional cuisine. If you want pizza, try La Tarantella at Corso Italia 99/101 with its dozens of varieties. You can even order a “surprise pizza” and see what you get. For something more informal, try La Cicchetteria ai Giardini at Via Petrarca 1/A. It offers salads, paninis and other snacks. It’s a great place to go in good weather because they have outdoor seating right next to a park, where you can see the sun shine through the leaves and listen to the laughter of children at a nearby playground.

So if you’re looking for a quiet, undertouristed Italian destination with some good attractions, consider stopping off at Gorizia for a day or two.

Archaeologists Digging At Lincoln Castle Uncover Early Christian Community

Lincolnshire County Council

Archaeologists excavating at Lincoln Castle have discovered the remains of an early Christian community, according to a Lincolnshire County Council press release.

The team, which was digging inside the castle to clear the way for an elevator shaft, found the remains of a church that dates back at least 1,000 years. Inside a sealed niche in the wall they found human bones. They had been wrapped in finely woven cloth and while the cloth has long since disappeared, it left its impression on the surrounding mortar. Excavators theorize that these may be the remains of a holy person, as it was common to put relics in church walls and altars in order to make them holy.

An even older find included several skeletons and a stone sarcophagus. The archaeological team is planning to put an endoscopic camera into the coffin to see what’s inside without disturbing it.

%Gallery-188672%Both the cemetery and church date to the Anglo-Saxon period, when England was a patchwork of different kingdoms before the Norman conquest. Lincoln had been a walled Roman town. The Romans left Britain in the early fifth century and were soon replaced by Anglo-Saxons coming from Denmark and northern Germany. They took up residence in Lincoln and many other Roman towns.

The present castle was built by the Normans in 1068 on the foundations of a Roman fort. William the Conqueror, after defeating the English King Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066, built this castle to control the important town of Lincoln and its surrounding area. While the castle has been modified over the centuries, it’s still one of the best-preserved Norman castles anywhere.

The typical Norman castle has a tower on an artificial mound at the center and with a wall encircling it. Lincoln Castle has two mounds, each with its own fortification and a long wall encircling them both. This tough fortification was besieged twice. The second time, in 1216, was during the Baron’s War, which led King John into making concessions to the nobility in the form of the famous Magna Carta. One of the original copies is on display here.

Back in 2010, an earlier excavation uncovered a secret tunnel at Lincoln castle. Excavations continue at in the castle grounds.

If you visit the castle, also check nearby Lincoln Cathedral, a beautiful Gothic building from the 11th century.

Smithsonian Channel To Air Special King Richard III Discovery

The Smithsonian Channel will soon air a documentary about the remarkable discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III in a parking lot in Leicester, England.

“The King’s Skeleton: Richard III Revealed” premieres Sunday, April 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The two-hour show was produced by the only team allowed access to the scientists, the excavation and the lab tests used to determine the skeleton’s identity. The documentary has already aired in the UK and attracted five million viewers. This will be the first American showing.

Gadling received an advance copy of the show. For some background, read our article about Richard III and the discovery. Also check out these amazing photographs from the dig. Our review follows and contains some spoilers. Of course, everyone already knows how the story ends!

%Gallery-185896%The documentary follows the quest of Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society to find the king’s remains, said to have been buried the now-disappeared Greyfriars church in Leicester after he was killed by Henry Tudor’s forces at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Research with old maps revealed it to be under a municipal parking lot. Langley raised money from society members and spent years convincing the local council to allow an excavation.

Langley tells of how when walking through the parking lot she felt certain that she had found the spot where Richard lay. Remarkably, the letter “R” was painted on the very same spot. The documentary fails to mention that this R was a symbol for Reserved Parking. Once the excavation begins and a skeleton is found, there’s a sudden downpour. This normal English weather is given a spooky significance by the producers.

Once the paranormal silliness is dispensed with, we get to the real meat: the excavation and meticulous examination of the body. One interesting sequence is of an art historian talking about how later painters commissioned by the new Tudor dynasty made Richard look deformed, which then was considered a sign of moral corruption. This was the origin of the Shakespearean Richard with the hunchback and withered arm.

Then comes an interesting sequence where members of the Richard III society get their say. They’re dedicated to rehabilitating the king’s image, denying he killed his predecessor’s young heirs and denying he had a hunchback. Their main objection to his having a deformity is that he couldn’t have worn armor. Anyone with a passing knowledge of medieval warfare knows that knights and royalty didn’t go to Ye Olde Shopping Mall to buy armor off the rack; it was made to their specific measurements. Try wearing metal plates on your body that aren’t shaped to your dimensions and see how well you can move! This obvious rebuttal wasn’t mentioned in the show, although surely the producers were told this by their scientific advisers. It seems narrative tension is more important than historical clarity.

While I found some segments of the show distracting, historians and archaeologists get plenty of airtime and we learn a bit about how bones are analyzed and how a DNA match with one of Richard’s descendants proved it was him. There’s also some gruesome detail about all the wounds on Richard’s body, including demonstrations of some of the weapons probably used. The army of Henry Tudor repeatedly hacked at Richard and appears to have humiliated his corpse by stabbing him in the rear end. It was a grim end to a short reign.

My wife, a scientist with no special interest in medieval history and perhaps more representative of the target audience than a former archaeologist like me, commented that the documentary could use some more historical background to place Richard III and the Battle of Bosworth into context. This could have been easily done by shaving off some of the more frivolous segments.

Despite these reservations, we both thoroughly enjoyed the show for its stunning imagery, clear narration and scientific detail. We recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the archaeological discovery of the year.