Eccentric England: The Headington Shark

Headington Shark
Henry Flower

Once again, I’m back in Oxford for my annual summer working holiday. I love this place. This quintessentially English city offers beautiful colleges, the world’s coolest museum, even the chance to bump into the Queen.

But all this pales in comparison to the sight of a giant shark crashing into a roof.

The Oxford suburb of Headington is a bit dull, so local resident Bill Heine at 2 New High Street decided to commission sculptor John Buckley to create a 25-foot shark to adorn his roof. It was put up on August 9, 1986, the 41st anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. As Heine explained, “The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation … It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki.”

The clipboard Nazis in the local council were not amused. They tried to have it removed as a pubic hazard. When their engineer said it was perfectly safe, they tried various other excuses. Much legal wrangling ensued.

Decades later, the naysayers are all gone and the shark is still there. It’s a much-loved local landmark, a modern folly. I see it every time I come in on the bus from London and enjoy pointing it out to newcomers. There’s even a Headington Shark Appreciation Society on Facebook with more than a thousand members. So if you’re coming to Oxford, pop on over and see the Headington Shark.

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!

Touring The World War One Battlefield Of Isonzo

World War One, Isonzo
Sean McLachlan from public domain image. Original photographer unknown.

Like every other nation involved in World War I, Italy suffered terribly. It joined the war in 1915, throwing its lot in with the Allies against the Central Powers. Italy’s most immediate threat was its neighbor the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The border was mostly in the Alps and soldiers on both sides carved out ice caves from which to snipe at one another and used artillery to fire above each other’s positions in over to create avalanches. To this day, almost 100 years later, bodies of dead soldiers are being found frozen in the ice.

The most active part of the front was along the Isonzo river valley, the border between Italy and what is now Slovenia. For most of its length it cuts between steep mountains on either side.

I toured the Isonzo front with an organized bus tour from Gorizia. Without a car it’s the only way to quickly visit this long and rugged battlefield. Unfortunately, the pouring rain that had been plaguing northeast Italy and western Slovenia for the previous few days didn’t let up. In the higher latitudes it turned into a driving snow. This meant that except for a few glimpses of the terrain, the tour was pretty much a washout. At least we got an inkling of what it was like to have been stationed up here, and we did get to visit the excellent Kobarid Museum in Slovenia.

This is one of the best military history museums I’ve seen anywhere. While there are the usual flags and uniforms and weapons, the bulk of the exhibition is a vast collection of period photographs. These bring the visitor face to face with life on that terrible battlefield where half a million men lost their lives. Both armies are treated impartially and instead of glorification of the war there’s a frank, human look at the people involved.

%Slideshow-82%We get to see them at the front lines, perched high up on alpine peaks or hunkering down in trenches carved into snow and ice. A great amount of detail goes into how the vast armies were supplied, with displays on everything from cooking to handling horses. We also see the soldiers’ more relaxed moments, writing letters home or goofing around behind the lines.

There are some surprises too. One small display is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, who was a Red Cross ambulance driver at the front and who fell in love with a nurse there. He used these experiences to write “A Farewell to Arms.”

The battles were mostly bloody stalemates, with the Italians making their only significant gains in the sixth battle when they took Gorizia. That was all undone in the 12th battle, better known as the Battle of Caporetto, when the Austro-Hungarians and their German allies shattered the Italian army. “Caporetto” has entered the Italian lexicon as a word signifying any horrible defeat, from a politician losing a landslide election to a football team getting spanked by their rivals.

The museum doesn’t shrink from the true face of war. In one grim display, we see photos of the dead lying unburied on the battlefield, and the grim portraits of some of the mutilated survivors. Some of these images are included at the end of the slideshow here, preceded by a warning. They are not easy to look at but I included them because I think it’s important for civilians to see what war really looks like.

Anyone with an interest in military history will want to see this museum. While visiting the remaining trenches and bunkers along the Isonzo front gives a feel for the terrain, a visit to the Kobarid Museum is essential for putting it all together and understanding the terrible waste of World War I.

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.

World War II Bomb Closes Berlin Rail Station

World War Two, Berlin
Berlin commuters got an unwelcome reminder of their city’s wartime past today when a bomb from World War II was discovered near the city’s main railway station.

The Hauptbahnhof was closed for several hours as bomb disposal experts dealt with the device, the BBC reports. Flights to and from Tegel airport were diverted.

The device was a 220-pound Soviet bomb and was discovered at a building site a mile north of the train station. While this may seem to be too far away to cause concern to those using the station, German bomb disposal experts are extra careful, especially after three of their number were killed while attempting to defuse a wartime bomb in Gottingen in 2010.

The bomb has now been defused and taken away. All transport has resumed.

Berlin was hit hard in World War II. As you can see from this image taken by the British army shortly after the war, the city was pretty much leveled. Nearly half a million tons of ordnance was dumped on the city and an estimated one in eight bombs didn’t go off. While most explosive devices were cleaned up in the months after the war, they’re still being uncovered on a regular basis.

Germany isn’t the only country that has to worry about wartime ordnance. In 2001, workers found a World War II grenade near Gatwick Airport in England.

Last year the BBC published an interesting interview with a German bomb disposal expert.

[Photo courtesy No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Wilkes A (Sergeant)]