Like Castles? Go To Slovenia

castles, LjubljanaThe little nation of Slovenia is situated on a crossroads. On the southeastern edge of the Alps and on the way to the rest of the Balkans and to central Europe, it’s seen more than its fair share of invading armies.

No wonder, then, that this country that’s slightly smaller than New Jersey has some 700 castles. Many are in ruins thanks to those invading armies, while others were dismantled during the Communist era as “symbols of feudalism.”

Luckily many survive. The one most visitors see first is Ljubljana Castle in Slovenia’s capital. It dominates the city’s skyline from a high hill. This easily defended position has been fortified since prehistoric times. The present castle dates from the 15th century with extensive expansions and remodeling in later centuries.

For many years the castle was used as a prison, with important prisoners stuck in cramped, dingy cells while the less fortunate were put in a stone pit covered with an iron grille. Some were hauled out of their confinement to work the well pump, which was turned by a big wooden wheel in which the prisoners walked like human hamsters.

Just inside the front gate was another well, this one a fake. A little water at the bottom masked its real purpose, as a secret tunnel to the outside. A small crawlway in the side led to a spot just outside the wall, and just underneath the castle toilet. This wasn’t too pleasant for any messenger sent through there, but it did ensure that enemies wouldn’t happen upon the entrance.

%Slideshow-589%From atop the watchtower you’ll get sweeping views of the city and much of the country too. On a clear day you can see a third of Slovenia, even as far as the Austrian border, marked by a chain of jagged peaks to the north. Also don’t miss the 18th century chapel adorned with the colorful crests of the provincial governors.

One of the best places to see castles in Slovenia is Kamnik, a small town 45 minutes by bus from Ljubljana amid the foothills to the Alps. There you can easily visit three castles in one day and get a taste for some of the hiking Slovenia has to offer, all in an easy day trip from the Ljubljana.

Kamnik was an important town in the Middle Ages and had to be protected. On a hill at the center of town is Mali Grad (“Little Castle”), dating back to the 11th century. One square tower and some crumbled walls remain, as well as an unusual two-story Romanesque chapel with some Renaissance frescoes. On another hill at the edge of town is Zaprice Castle, built in the 16th century and more of a fortified manor house than a castle. Its sentry towers provide a good field of fire into town and during World War Two the Gestapo took it over as their local headquarters. Now it’s an interesting and child-friendly museum of the region’s history. The lawn has an open-air exhibition of old granaries.

Both are worth a visit, but the best of Kamnik’s three castles requires a hike up a steep hill close to town. Climbing a dirt trail through forest, every now and then the foliage breaks to provide views of the town and the Alps beyond. Then, after twenty-minute, moderately strenuous walk and a final switchback, you come across a castle gate nearly covered with greenery.

This is Stari Grad (“Old Castle”). Built in the 13th century, it has crumbled into an overgrown, postcard-perfect place offering the best views in the local area. The Alps take up a large swath of the view and the town and outlying fields are laid out below. It’s a quiet spot, and a perfect place to while away some time admiring the scenery and wondering about the people who once lived in these decayed ruins.

Note: the train is well marked for the entire route except for one fork in the trail, where the directional arrow is misleading. See the photo in the slideshow to know which way to go. If you go the wrong way (50% chance considering how clear the sign is) you’ll end up ascending an even bigger hill. It offers nice views too, but lacks a castle.

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

Coming up next: Lake Bled: A Tourist Trap in Slovenia You Really Must See!

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.

Scientists Confirm Remains Of King Richard III Have Been Found

Richard IIIArchaeologists from the University of Leicester have confirmed that they have found the remains of King Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England.

Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet kings and fought an epic struggle with the Tudors during the War of the Roses for control of England. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Support for the Plantagenet line crumbled and soon Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII.

After the battle, Richard III’s body was buried in the church choir of the Franciscan friary of the Grey Friars. Dr. Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist for the project, explained that the church’s location has always been generally known although the friary was dissolved in 1538 and soon all trace of the building above ground had disappeared.

Two trenches were dug at the site last August and human remains were found almost immediately. One male skeleton had suffered from scoliosis that led to curvature of the spine. It was also unusually slender and aged in its early thirties. All characteristics agree with contemporary descriptions of Richard III.

There are ten trauma wounds on the body. Eight are on the skull. One was from a bladed weapon that cut off a section from the base of the skull. A second injury, also on the base of the skull, cut through the bone as well. Both of these wounds would have been fatal. Several other blows shaved off pieces of bone or left pockmarks in the skull. It appears that Richard wasn’t wearing a helmet by this point in the battle.Two cut marks on the rib and pelvis also appear to have been inflicted after his armor was removed. The archaeologists theorize that Richard III was stripped and given “humiliation injuries,” a common practice with dead or dying victims in the Middle Ages. Historical sources state that Richard’s naked body was slung over a horse and brought to town after the Battle of Bosworth. It may have been at this time that the extra injuries occurred.

Richard III almost suffered another humiliation centuries later when the foundation for a 19th-century brick outhouse nearly cut into his grave.

Initially the archaeologists thought they’d found a barb, perhaps from an arrow, in the body but it turns out that this was probably a Roman nail disturbed from an earlier site. No other artifacts were found in the burial.

The next step was to radiocarbon date the bone. Results showed that they dated to the late 15th early 16th century. This was all interesting but still only circumstantial evidence. There was still no proof that they had found the lost king. There was also the troubling popular legend that an angry mob threw his remains into the River Soar after the dissolution of the friary. There’s even a historic plaque at the location where this was supposed to have taken place.

The university tracked down some descendants of Richard III who agreed to give DNA samples to compare with DNA extracted from the skeleton. This was the clincher. Project geneticist Dr. Turi King confirmed at a press conference today that, “The DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III.”

Dr. Richard Buckley added that they could now confirm that the body is that of Richard III “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Back in December, some of this information was leaked to the press, but today’s news conference is the first official confirmation that archaeologists have, indeed found a lost medieval king.

Richard III’s remains will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral early next year. A permanent exhibition about Richard III and the excavation will open in town at about the same time. The university has also launched a new Richard III website.

[Top photo courtesy University of Leicester. Bottom image of the Battle of Bosworth courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Richard III
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Goetz Of The Iron Hand: On The Trail Of Renaissance Germany’s Biggest Badass

medieval, Goetz of the Iron HandRenaissance Germany was a violent place. A patchwork of different kingdoms, principalities, and baronies with constantly changing allegiances, the land was wracked with near-constant warfare.

The people in charge were some pretty rough characters. By far the roughest was Götz von Berlichingen, also known as Götz of the Iron Hand. You can also spell it “Goetz” if your browser hiccups at the sight of an umlaut.

His last name, Berlichingen, was for many years used as a popular euphemism for the phrase er kann mich am Arsche lecken, which translates as “he can lick my ass.” This gives some insight into his character.

Götz was born around 1480 in Württemberg. As a nobleman, he was part of the vicious power play that was part of daily life for the rich and influential in Germany. He set off to war while still in his teens and fought in various conflicts, eventually forming his own band of mercenaries.

In 1504, while besieging the city of Landshut, a cannonball hit his sword, swung it around, and caused poor Götz to cut off his own forearm. Not one to be deterred by minor setbacks, Götz had a prosthetic arm made so that he could continue campaigning.

The arm was a masterpiece of Renaissance design, as you can see from this old manuscript drawing reproduced on Wikimedia Commons. It was strong enough to hold a weapon and precise enough to hold a quill pen. Various buttons and levers worked springs so that it had much of the range of motion of a real hand. You can see some images of it at work here, and a detailed look at the mechanics in the gallery. It was so advanced that it served as the inspiration for prosthetic arms for German physicians after World War I, more than 400 years after it was made.

%Gallery-177598%We know a lot about Götz’s exploits thanks to an autobiography he wrote. In it he estimates that he took part in 15 feuds on the behalf of himself and his family, and numerous others for allies. Goethe was so inspired by Götz’s violent story that he wrote a play about him. The one-armed warrior remained an icon of German manliness and during World War II the SS named a division after him.

You can still see some of the places Götz lived and fought. Hornberg Castle, in Baden-Württemberg, was his home from the time he bought it in 1517 until his death in 1562. The castle, shown below, has a museum containing his armor. The castle itself is now a hotel and restaurant that offers a “knight’s feast” with the hint that Götz himself may make an appearance and have a drink with you.

To see his famous hand, you need to go to Burg Jagsthausen, another castle-turned hotel and restaurant.
Renaissance

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

The Viking Ship Museum In Denmark

Viking, Viking ship, Denmark
The Vikings were the greatest sailors of their age. They built sturdy vessels that took them as far as Greenland and even North America. A few of these amazing craft have survived to the modern day.

The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, has five such ships on display. Fifty years ago they were discovered at the bottom of Roskilde Fjord, where they had been deliberately sunk to create a defensive barrier in the 11th century A.D. Silt and cold temperatures kept them remarkably well preserved and archaeologists were able to restore and display them.

Walking through the main hall of the Viking Ship Museum, it’s easy to imagine you’re in a busy Viking port. The ships are of various types, such as the knarr, a broad ocean-going trading ship. These were the ships that the Vikings took on their long voyages of commerce and exploration. The famous longship was for battle only and didn’t do well on the high seas.

There’s a longship here too, a 98-foot-long beauty that was probably the warship of a chieftain. Tree-ring analysis of the timber shows it was built in or around Dublin about the year 1042. The Vikings settled in Ireland in 800 A.D. and founded several towns, Dublin being the most important.

%Gallery-174000%There’s also a smaller type of warship called a snekke. Shorter than the longship at only 57 feet, it was still a formidable vessel and remnants of the shield rack and carved decoration can be seen on the side.

The best-preserved boat is a byrding, coastal trading vessel built of Danish oak. There’s also a small boat that may have been used for fishing or whaling.

After examining the displays – very well done and with signs in English as well as Danish – walk outside to the museum harbor. Here you’ll find reconstructions of some of the ships you saw inside as well as historic vessels from later eras of Denmark’s seagoing history. At the boatyard, you can watch shipbuilders using traditional techniques. The star attraction is The Sea Stallion from Glendalough, a reconstruction of the museum’s longship. It’s seaworthy, and tests have shown it reaches an average speed of 2.5 knots and a top speed of 12 knots when under sail. There are even a few surprises, like kayaks from Greenland and Borneo.

Some ships are actually used and visitors can go on boat trips around the fjord.

If you’re heading north after your trip to Denmark, check out the excellent Viking ship museum in Oslo, Norway.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]