End of the sabbatical

The past three months have been a huge blessing.  They have passed quickly and been full of interest and wonder.  Anne and I have visited some amazing places, met fascinating and helpful  people and had wildlife experiences that enter straight into our ‘Top Ten’.   Without doubt, the sabbatical was a great success; its purpose was to spend time simply enjoying nature and allow time to read, write and think.  The combination of time spent travelling in Europe followed by time at home before going to Greece worked well.

People are asking, ‘what did you learn?’ and ‘what did you enjoy most’.  This is hard to answer because there was so much that we enjoyed – hopefully reflected in our Blogs.

Anne and I both learnt a great deal, not only about the wildlife but also about the people, culture and history of places we visited.

We have tried to capture something of our adventures in these blogs.  We hope you have enjoyed reading them and looking at the photos.  We have been surprised at how frequently the blogs have been read and by people in different parts of the world.  We didn’t do much to publicise the blogs, initially they were just a way of letting colleagues, family and friends know what we had been up to – better than a postcard?

Writing the blogs was a discipline and made take time to reflect on what we had seen and learnt.  It gave Gary an excuse to take lots of photos as well.  Amazingly, we have written over 26,000 words.  The blogs will provide us with a record that we can look back on and reflect on how much we learnt and be re-inspired by the wildlife, people and places.  Maybe they will have inspired you to consider visiting some of the places described.

In conclusion, we both wish to thank you for reading this, to thank all the many people who helped make this a truly memorable experience but most especially to the Trustees and staff at Wiltshire Wildlife Trust who made it possible to for us to enjoy this sabbatical.

Thank you.

Gary & Anne

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A Greek Odyssey – Part 2 – Alonnisos underwater

Reports suggest that much of the Mediterranean is over fished, polluted and damaged by human activity.  The Alonnisos Marine Nature Park was established by the Greek Government in 1986 and around the rocky coasts of Alonnisos the water is stunningly clear and pollution free.  At the end of summer the water is warm and offers wonderful snorkelling.

As I found out with my blurry efforts last year, it is much harder than it looks taking good photos underwater.  Not only do the fish keep moving but so do you, making it very hard to hold the camera steady.  This year we gave the camera to our son Jonathan, a qualified diver and good at holding his breath underwater.  He did an excellent job.  Enjoy.

Much of the sea bed is covered in sea grass, an important nursery area for young fish.

A comber hiding amongst the sea grass

A painted comber hiding amongst the sea grass

The sandy bottom is where to look for flatfish, goatfish and mullet.

The flatfish have incredible camoflage

The flounders have incredible camouflage

I’m not sure what this fish, but its camouflage is very impressive!amazing camoflage - Copy

There are a number of different types of sea urchin – all to be avoided.Sea urchins seem to collect small pebbles.  This is the white tipped variety - the spines are just as sharp!

Display of sea urchin shells in Marine Nature Park offices in Patitiri

Display of sea urchin shells in Marine Nature Park offices in Patitiri

Damselfish are an incredible electric blue when young, but it fades as they mature.  You can see big shoals hanging in the water.Young damselfish.  The electric blue disappears as they mature

mature damselfish

mature damselfish

Amongst the rocky floor are many kinds of wrasse.


Wrasse are often brightly coloured

Holes in the rocks provide a home for Morey eels.  They have very sharp teeth and its advisable not to get too close.Moray eel - Copy

A ship wreck off the coast of Peristera (one of the uninhabited islands) has created an artificial reef, quickly colonised and providing sanctuary for small fish.Graveyard for ships - Copy The rusting hull becomes a new kind of reef

We always look out for octopus, but they can be hard to spot.

Octopus hiding inside the rim of an old tyre

Octopus hiding inside the rim of an old tyre

Octopus hiding under rock

Octopus hiding under rock

The  orange sea star (a type of starfish can be found in a variety of colours).

Red starfish

Red starfish

Orange starfish

Orange starfish

Seeing shoals of Barracuda can be a bit alarming; they have very sharp teeth and are deadly predators.  Large ones can inflict a lot of damage on people, but these juveniles are harmless to humans (hopefully) …shoal of young barracuda 2

Garfish are also predators, which hunt just below the surface.Garfish hunting just below the surface - CopyThere are many types of bream and some hybridisation seems to occur between the species.

Bridled bream

Banded bream

Cow bream lose their attractive yellow stripes as they mature

Cow bream lose their attractive yellow stripes as they mature

Do cow bream swim in a herd?

Do cow bream swim in a herd?

Invertebrates include sea cucumber, nudibraches and fire worms (a kind of millipede).

sea cucumber

sea cucumber



Bearded fireworm

Bearded fireworm

The marine life that can be seen just using a snorkel and mask is fantastic.  It turns every swim into a nature trek and adventure – you never know what you might see next.  The most incredible fish we saw was a ‘flying gurnard.  Well camouflaged, it sits on the sandy bottom, but when alarmed it spreads its specially adapted fins to create a wing.  The fish then more closely resembles an underwater butterfly!  The edge of the wings and some of the rays along the wing are an electric blue.  With its fins outstretched it then uses another pair of specially adapted fins to walk along the sea bed.  Unfortunately we have no photos but have a look at this picture (http://www.glaucus.org.uk/FLYING_GURNARD-JG.jpg).

Wearing a mask also help prevent accidentally bumping into a jelly fish.  We saw at least three different types.  Apparently, many don’t sting, but after our experience at Vernazza, we took no chances.

Maybe this one didn't sting, but it was big - about the size of a dinner plate

Maybe this one didn’t sting, but it was big – about the size of a dinner plate

Most people have a favourite fish.  We both love the ornate wrasse with its bright colours.   Gary’s favourite is the damselfish; although they are not the most colourful or active when mature, the young fish are an unbelievable blue.  Anne’s favourite is the banded bream; they are inquisitive and swim towards you to get a better look as you approach – they just seem friendly.Damselfish shoals can be found on every swim

Damselfish shoals can be found on every swim
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A Greek Odyssey – Part 1

In 1986 The National Marine Park of Alonnisos Northern Sporades became the first designated Marine Park in Greece and the largest marine protected area in Europe (approximately 2.260 Km2 ).   Anne and I first visited Alonnisos in 2009 with our sons, Jonathan and Joey, attracted by the prospect of some of the best scuba diving in Europe.

Most visitors fly to Skiathos, with its famously short runway built on a slope.runway at Skiathos 2

Most tourists remain on Skiathos.  From here you can take a ferry (or seacat) to Skopelos and then on to Alonnisos.

The evening ferry arriving at Skiathos

The evening ferry arriving at Skiathos

Skopelos is the largest of the three inhabited islands. The number of tourists visiting the Sporades increased dramatically after the release of the film Mama Mia, which was filmed there.  As the ferry approaches Skopelos, you understand what sailors mean about smelling the land even before you see it – the air is filled with the scent of the pines that now cover the island.  The ferry only pauses at the harbour.

Skopelos Town (taken from the approaching ferry)

Skopelos Town (taken from the approaching ferry)

From the upper deck you can watch the chaotic scenes below as people and vehicles scramble on and off in a seemingly random order.  It has to be seen to be believed.

The chaos mostly over and ready to depart...

The chaos mostly over and ready to depart…

There is a good chance of seeing dolphins on the journey between Skopelos and Alonnisos.  I have seen shearwaters, flying alongside the ship too.   The ferry again only pauses at Patitiri, the main town of Alonnisos before heading back.

Alonnisos (frequently spelt Alonissos or even Alonisos) is a small island and the least visited of the three main islands of the Sporades group.  Its about 12 miles long, three miles wide and has a resident population of about 3000 people.  Most people live by the harbour at Patitiri, but until the earthquake of 1965 most people lived in the old hilltop town, called Old Alonissos or Chora.  Many of the traditional houses in Old Alonnisos have now been rebuilt and it is an attractive tourist destination with many restaurants and a few tourist shops.

Sunset views from Old Alonnisos

Sunset views from Old Alonnisos

There is a strong British community and on Monday nights a rock band of ex-pats play at the taverna by the bus stop, with locals and tourists invited to dance in the street and join in the well-known lyrics of standards from the 70’s and 80’s.

... the dancers have to move away to allow traffic to pass..

… the dancers have to move away to allow traffic to pass..

This was our fourth visit to Alonnisos  and one of the nice things about returning to a small place is that you recognise people and they recognise you, offering a cheery greeting and welcoming you back.  Like many village communities, the pace of life is slow and the queue at the bakers is a good place to catch up on island news.

The Marine Park includes the island of Alonnisos itself, six smaller uninhabited islands (Peristera, Kyra Panagia, Gioura, Psathura, Piperi and Skantzoura), as well as 22 islets and rocky outcrops.  Originally established to protect the largest colony of the rare Mediterranean Monk Seals, the protection benefits a wide range of marine and terrestrial wildlife.

No sewage is allowed into the sea; all houses have their own cesspits.  The lack of pollution and the absence of sandy beaches means that the seas around Alonnisos are stunningly clear and support an abundance of marine life.

Ornate wrasse and comber

Ornate wrasse and comber

We arrived on Alonnisos later in the year than on previous occasions and were rewarded by empty beaches, silent siestas and quiet nights.  Birds were starting to pass through on migration and we were treated to small flocks of bee-eaters twittering away as they flew high overhead – too far away though, for even a blurry photo.  Spotted flycatchers and red-backed shrikes are common and Sardinian warblers can be glimpsed amongst the shrubs.

spotted flycatcher (bit blurry, sorry)

spotted flycatcher (bit blurry, sorry)

Red-backed shrike (juvenile)

Red-backed shrike (juvenile)

We saw several birds of prey that we struggled to identify, with the short list of resident species confounded by passing migrants.  Perhaps it was a honey buzzard?  Honey buzzardAnd did we see shags or were they cormorants?  I think the former, but I’m not certain.  They were too shy to get close and I couldn’t see the ‘shag’ or tuft of hair on the top the head.  But they more delicate than the cormorants I’m used to.

A shag?

A shag?

The birding highlight of the trip was seeing the Eleanora’s falcons.  In previous years we have sat on the terrace of our rented house as the daylight fades and watched them circle and hunt for insects high above the harbour.

Usual view of Eleanora's falcons, gliding high in the sky

Usual view of Eleanora’s falcons, gliding high in the sky

This year we saw only a couple of birds from the house; they had gone to nest on the sea cliffs.  Unlike most birds they breed in the autumn, later than any other bird of prey and timed to coincide with the migration of smaller birds that they hunt.  We hired a small motor boat and visited the nearby island of Peristera where we swam around the rusting wreck of a ship that had gone aground and now provided a safe nursery for countless numbers of fish fry and new habitat for a wide variety of marine life.



Heading back to visit a sea cave (the blue grotto) on Alonnisos we found we had picked up a passenger …

Preying mantis getting a ride on our boat

Preying mantis getting a ride on our boat

As we approached the sea cliffs on Alonnisos, first we heard and then saw at least a dozen Eleanora’s falcons flying around the sea cliffs and resting on ledges.  I had hoped to get some good photos, but had not reckoned on the challenger of avoiding camera shake while standing on a small boat rocked by wind and waves.  Enough excuses, here’s what I managed.Eleanora's falcon gliding past (2)single falcon Pair of Eleanora's falcons on cliff face

Spring is the best time to see flowers, but the day we arrived there had been a torrential downpour, the first rain for weeks.  Perhaps it was this that stimulated the cyclamen to flower.DSC04461 There was a tall asparagus like plant (we failed to identify), that shot up to produce a stalk of white flowers that we found on the edge of the pine woods and in the garden of the house we were staying in.

Any thoughts as to what this is?

Any thoughts as to what this is?

Alonnisos is a special place.  If Greece did eco-tourism this would be the place the start.  The view from the house looking across the harbour is fantastic.  On a clear day you can count nine islands amongst the sparkling Aegean Sea.

The view from the terrace across the harbour at Patitiri

The view from the terrace across the harbour at Patitiri

In the evening you can hear the cicadas, watch the geckos scamper across the walls and ceilings of the terrace outside and catch glimpses of bats flitting amongst the pines.  Scops owls call from the nearby olive grove and scrub land.

A gecko we found hiding in one of the hammocks..

A gecko we found hiding in one of the hammocks..

The house we stayed in is called Figtrees – for obvious reasons.  The ripe fruit attract the two-tailed pasha, a beautifully marked butterfly.DSC04014

But it is the marine life that draws us here.  This features  in our next blog…

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Walking in the (green) desert

In Cevantes novel, Don Quixote reminds Senor Don Montesinos, that he knows “very well that all comparisons are odious”.  But returning to England after a journey of over 4,800 miles around Europe it is hard not to make comparisons.   We saw so many wild flowers, insects and birds in the meadows, woods, even roadside verges that we began to take it for granted.  Across vast landscapes there was a profusion of colour, the air was scented and there was the constant hum of insects and birdsong.  It was uplifting, inspiring and exciting.  Of course, it wasn’t all like this and we passed some ugly places and areas were wildlife had been squeezed out, polluted or their habitats destroyed.   In Hungary and France we saw areas of intensive agriculture where, had we stopped, we might have struggled to find the abundant wildlife we had become used to.  But maybe we chose an excellent route or just got lucky, but most of our journey was through land that was rich in wildlife wherever we stopped.

Anne in meadow

Anne walking through colourful meadow in Viscri, Romania

How does Britain’s wildlife compare with the rest of Europe?  I shall have to try and find out if there are any data gathered that might help.  We are fortunate to live in one of England’s most beautiful counties and one of the most biodiverse.  Wiltshire is the 14th largest county and with a population of just 684,000 is one of the least densely populated (37th out of 48).  Nearly half of the county (45%) is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and just over 8% of the county is designated for its wildlife interest (SPA/SAC/SSSI).  In addition there are more than 1500 non-designated County Wildlife Sites covering a further 6% of the county, with more of these privately owned sites being positively managed for wildlife than most other parts of Britain.

These are impressive statistics, but compared to other parts of Europe that we have recently visited, we have lost so much of our native wildlife.  We have no top predators like bear, wolf or lynx.  Butterflies and other insects are in serious decline, the farmland bird index shows how we have lost 50% of birds in the past 40 years.  Species doing well  include nettles, pigeons, Himalayan balsam and signal crayfish.

Pigeons are doing well...

Pigeons are doing well…

The scale of the losses in the UK were laid out very clearly in the recent UK State of Nature report that showed that 60% of the species studied have declined over recent decades. More than one in ten of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing altogether. Nowhere has been immune from these losses.  Similar declines are being reported in parts of Europe.  As Dr John Akeroyd commented about the meadows around Viscri in Romania, ‘it may look great now, but it was even better 20 years ago’.

According to John, overgrazing of the meadows is having a big impact on the amazing meadows of Transylvania

According to John, overgrazing is now having a big impact on the amazing meadows of Transylvania

One of the dangers is that we forget what we once had.  We get used to the impoverished state of nature.  I can still just about remember how much wildlife there was when I was growing up, and even if I hadn’t been across Europe, I would still have a sense of loss.  But my sons never experienced the relative abundance of wildlife that I did; the diminished state of nature that they have grown up with has become their normal expectation.  There has been an extinction of experience and a shifting baseline of expectation.

Lapwings or 'peewits' were a common sight in my youth, but numbers have fallen dramatically

Lapwings or ‘peewits’ were a common sight in my youth, but numbers have fallen dramatically

A visit to see the abundance of wildlife that still exists in other parts of Europe, to observe the ambitious habitat restoration schemes and learn about the reintroduction of top predators is inspiring.  It helps resist an acceptance of a shifting baseline and instead raises our ambitions as to what can should and can be achieved in nature’s recovery.

But the challenge that we face is considerable as we found when our friend Lizzie visited and we walked on the Marlborough Downs.  It is a beautiful landscape, with wide vistas rich in history.  Our route was all within the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.DSC03278We passed through a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a National Nature Reserve and the Avebury World Heritage Site.  But as we walked each mile, we hardly added to our count of wildflowers, butterflies or birds.

The best of the wildflowers were found in the scruffy margin alongside the footpath

The best of the wildflowers were found in the scruffy margin alongside the footpath

It was perhaps not the best time of year to see the downland wildlife, but compared to the walks Anne and I had enjoyed in a similar landscape in the Carpathians, it felt as if we were walking in a green desert.    The many designations were no guarantee that we would find an abundance of wildlife.  The grass was green and probably provided a good crop, but it offered little for wildlife; we found few flowers, a few small whites and some small tortoiseshell butterflies.  We saw few birds; the most common were the ubiquitous crows.  We neither saw nor heard any skylarks.  The greatest interest was the family of kestrels and a pair of buzzards seen flying near an area of trees in a dry coombe.

kestrel hovering


But there is hope.  This part of the north Wessex Downs has been designated a Nature Improvement Area.  The Marlborough Downs NIA covers 10,370 ha of chalk downland and the farmers have committed themselves to a wide range of measures to enhance biodiversity.  It was awarded a government grant of £555,090 with additional resources provided of £505,149.  It is one of 12 pilots selected as part of a national experiment to see if we can aid nature’s recovery by a programme of concerted action in selected areas.  DSC03273


From dormant seed banks and wildflowers surviving along the field margins, the hope is that they will spread as part of nature’s recovery

It will be a huge challenge to aid nature’s recovery on the scale needed.  Nonetheless a start is being made.  We must not accept as our goal anything less than a fully functioning ecosystem and the quantity and diversity of wildlife that we could find, should find.  Nature’s recovery must not constrained by a shifting baseline of expectation.

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On our route back to England, we paused at a couple of places that helped focus our thoughts on climate change.  After stopping at Vernazza on the Italian Riviera, we came to Chamonix home of the highest mountains and glaciers in (Western) Europe.

The first time we visited Chamonix was 10 years ago, with our sons and friends Lizzie and Sarah.  The highlight of our visit was the cable car ride up the Aiguille de Midi – surely one of the most spectacular journeys to be found anywhere in Europe?

DSC03098 (1)

At 3,842 m, the Aiguile du Midi is the highest point accessible by cable car in the Chamonix valley. The last part is a verical ascent to to observation platform.

This was where Gary unexpected discovered he suffers from vertigo.  He was fine travelling up in the perspex gondola, but the moment the doors opened and he stepped out, he froze and could scarcely move as a result of vertigo.  Anne was the opposite, not enjoying the cable car ride but fine once her feet touched the ice.

The observation platform atop of the Aiguille (taken on our previous visit)

During our first visit we saw the Mer de Glace, taking the train up to the largest of the glaciers flowing down into the Chamonix valley.  It is a spectacular site, with amazing striations of rock particles bound up in the ice.  The Mer de Glace is just one of the many glaciers that are being monitored as part of a huge programme of research into climate change.

The Mer de Glace

Another of the glaciers being monitored is the Mer d’Argentiere.  You get a great view of the glacier from the car park at La Tour, further up the Chamonix valley, and an even better view as you follow the trail up the Col de Balme that takes you from France over into Switzerland.

View across to the Mer d'Angentiere from the trail up to the Col de Balme

View across to the Mer d’Angentiere from the trail up to the Col de Balme

We wondered how much the glaciers had changed in the ten years since our first visit?  Individual glaciers respond to the local conditions.  Casual observation is no guide and only precise scientific measurement and highly accurate photographic records can help reveal what is happening.  Chamonix is one of the focal points for such studies.  The website http://www.chamonet.com/chamonix/environment.html provides a link to some of the research.

Looking down the Chamonix valley with Mont Blanc and the Aiguille in the background

Looking down the Chamonix valley with Mont Blanc and the Aiguille in the background

The data clearly shows that the Alps are being affected by climate change and the world famous glaciers like the Mer de Glace and the Mer d’Argentiere are retreating.  But as always with nature, it is not a simple picture.  The overall message seems to be while a few glaciers are increasing, the majority are retreating and some may have disappeared by 2050.  Data for the Mer d’Artentiere shows that it was growing until 1985 but since then has retreated over 600m.  Similarly the Mer de Glace has retreated over 600m since 1984 (http://glacierchange.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/mer-de-glace-glacier-retreat-a-receding-sea/).

The Mer d'Argentier

The Mer d’Argentiere – the ice wall showing over the top of the rock face

It is easy to forget just how quickly the weather can change when you are high up in the mountains.  We arrived in hot sunshine but as we walked into Chamonix to sort out a place to stay for the night, thunder and lightning announced the afternoon downpour.  But almost as quickly as it started, it was over and we arrived at our hotel at La Tour in hot sunshine again.  We made plans to walk up the Col of La Balme the next day.  We woke in the night with a powerful electrical storm and in the morning there was low cloud and rain.  Undeterred, we decided on at least a short walk.

A slightly soggy Anne.

A slightly soggy Anne.

The views into Switzerland are wonderful on a clear day, but little could be seen through the cloud.  However, we did pause along the trail to compare the flowers here with those at Triglav at the other end of the Alps, (the Julian Alps in Slovenia). As we were at a higher altitude and up near the snow line here, flowers were blooming later eg common spotted orchids in flower in August.  We also saw flowers we had not noticed previously eg. gentians.  We could hear marmots calling (easily mistaken at first for the call of an eagle), something we hadn’t heard in the Triglav.

IMG_0412 IMG_0411 IMG_0408 IMG_0407

By the time we had returned to the hotel and packed the car, the cloud had lifted and the sun was shining again.

Our stay in Chamonix was brief, but it was enough to remind us of why this area is so special and the need to do what we can, while we still can, to slow the production of greenhouse gases, the primary cause of climate change.  Gary’s first stop on the sabbatical was Bonn to attend a conference on climate change and biodiversity.  Parts of Germany were just recovering from floods caused but excessive rain storms at the beginning of June.  The same storms caused record breaking floods on the River Danube in Hungary.  Flood defences and cleaning up afterwards cost billions of pounds.

Mitigation and prevention of the causes of climate change will benefit the alpine wildlife, benefit tourists like us, benefit the residents of many places (eg Vernazza), which have suffered the effects of extreme climate change and also benefit our economies dealing with the effects of extreme weather.

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Vernazza and the Cinque Terre

On our return journey back to England, we stopped off at Vernazza in north west Italy the site of a disastrous flood and mudslides less than two years ago.

DSC03073Vernazza is one of the five fishing villages that make up the Cinque Terre, part of the Comune of La Spezia in Liguria.   In 1997 the villages were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and two years later the Cinque Terre National Park was designated.

Part of the beauty of this section of the Italian Riviera is the mountainous terrain; the houses are concentrated along the valley bottom and perched on the rocks overlooking the harbour.

DSC03050Tourism has replacing fishing as the main source of income and when we visited, the village was buzzing with tourists.  The small beach and harbour walls were covered by sunbathers enjoying the sunshine, warm seas and beautiful scenery.  There was laughter and excited voices calling out as people poured on and off the ferry boats that link the villages and the city of La Spezia.  We were seeing the remarkable results of international efforts to repair and restore Vernazza.


It was hard to comprehend the terrible events that unfolded on the 25th October, 2010.  Heavy rain turned into  a terrifying storm, with tornado force winds and 21inches of rain falling in just a few hours.  As the water poured off the steep hillsides, the floods and mudslides destoyed everything in its path and four people died.  When the waters subsided, what remained was buried under 12 foot of mud, rocks and debris.

The Save Vernazza Campaign - it is woth enlarging to see the photos of the Oct 2010 floods.

The Save Vernazza Campaign – it is worth enlarging to see the photos of the Oct 2010 floods.

The Save Vernazza campaign was launched with support from the architect Richard Rogers (a regular visitor to the village) and others.  Government, residents and relief workers have achieved a huge amount, with acres of mud removed, services rebuilt and properties and streets restored.  There is still much to do.


But as we witnessed, tourists are returning, bringing much needed income.


As we sat and enjoyed a fabulous meal of locally caught sea bream and squid, watching the sun set over the bay, we were grateful to be be able to enjoy this beautiful stretch of the Mediterranean Sea and celebrate the fortitude, generosity and resilience of the people of Vernazza.


Looking at the photos and reading the accounts of people caught up in the events of that fateful day, we were stuck by the similarities with the 2004 flood in Boscastle, Cornwall.

Are we now experiencing more extreme weather events or simply more aware of them?  Certainly there seem to be many more examples of intense rainfall and flood events – a predicted consequence of climate change.  The scale and power of  disasters such as the flooding of Vernazza is a sobering reminder of the possible consequences of our pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.


While swimming in the sea we experienced another possible consequence of climate change – the increasing numbers of jelly fish.  During an evening swim, Anne received some nasty stings on her elbow – a bit like a bad nettle rash.  Fortunately the local pharmacist was open and able to provide an appropriate cream.  He told us he had sold at least 60 tubes of the cream.  Undaunted, the following morning we both swam but with snorkel and mask and so were able to see and avoid the few jelly fish we saw.

It is not certain why the numbers of jelly fish are rising so quickly.  Possible reasons include over fishing, pollution, and an increase in surface sea temperatures.  The UK Foreign Office has issued warnings this year about the rise of jelly fish in the Mediterranean. Once more we are reminded of the unforeseen consequences of human activity on the natural world.


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When we were planning the sabbatical we were challenged by the desire for it to provide renewal and inspiration for mind, body and spirit. Our friends Lizzie and Chris had recommended we visit Assisi as a place of pilgrimage and spiritual refreshment. 


 Assisi is a beautiful Medieval city of rosy pink stone on a ridge above the Umbrian plain on the side of Mount Sabasio, which rises out of the Plain like a giant turtle.  It also looks like a monks  head with a fringe of trees (hair) and a grassy (bald) top.  It sits with Subasio National Park, as does Assisi.

Assisi with Mount Subasio in the distance

Assisi with Mount Subasio in the distance.  It looks more like a turtle or Monk’s head from a different angle.

It was here that St Francis was born in 1181 or 1182AD and died 1226.  He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant who was in France on business, at the time of his birth.  He was originally called Giovanni but was re-named Francesco – literally “the Frenchman” because of his father’s love of France.  Inspired by God, he turned away from a life of a typical rich young man and instead began to challenge the church to return to its humble origins; to live and preach as Jesus did.  He quickly attracted devoted followers who became known as Franciscans; still one of the most influential Christian orders.  Interestingly, the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio on recently accepting the Papacy became the first Pope to call himself after St Francis.

 We were not certain what to expect so we booked two nights in a hotel in the old city.  After one night we were so enjoying the happy, friendly atmosphere that we decided to book an extra two nights as we wanted to explore more.

The view looking down the street from our hotel room

The view looking down the street from our hotel

Anne blames her father for the compulsion she feels that if there is a hill it should be climbed.  So after breakfast on our first day Anne set off with her sun hat to find a footpath up the 4,200 ft high Mount Subasio.

Mount Subasio

Mount Subasio from the edge of the tree line

Walking steadily up through the pines, holm oaks and sycamores, the path was hard and stony like the rest of the hillside, and, like a pilgrimage, it didn’t get easier but one became used to it.  St Francis and his friars would have walked on the same paths over this mountain.  Numerous butterflies such as white admirals and fritillaries danced in the clearings created by the path.  The hillside is wreathed with small roads and well used picnic sites – you can drive up part of the way but then you don’t see so much.

Chicory was very common along all the roads

Chicory was very common along all the roads and paths.

The following morning Gary woke early and decided to go for a stroll before breakfast and the heat of the day.  Firstly he walked through the deserted, narrow streets.  Without planning to, he found himself going out through an old stone gateway and along a track ascending through the woods.  Gary kept on going, at first following a trail marked with the sign of St Francis.DSC02882 (1) Meanwhile Anne had decided it was breakfast time and she wasn’t waiting any longer.  Gary kept on walking, enjoying the scenery and wildlife but getting a bit lost.  The morning was getting hotter and the path longer.  But Gary was blessed by the hospitality of the people he met, who generously shared their water and conversation.  Eventually, with the sun beating down and no shade for miles around, Gary reached the top.  The views were great and he could finally look down to see Assisi and the Umbrian plain.  To the north there were great views of the rest of the Apennine mountains.

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Assisi from Mount Subasio. You can see how Assisi is built along a ridge


Typical vegetation above the tree line.  Very painful if you are wearing sandles

Typical vegetation above the tree line. Very painful if you are wearing sandals!


Descending Mount Subasio with views across to the peaks of the Apennines

It was now midday and very hot and a long way back to Assisi.  By the time he returned back down to the treeline, Gary was more than ready to accept a lift, if only to get out of the glaring sun.  The first car that he stuck out his thumb to, in the universal hitch-hiking gesture, stopped and an elderly couple with their grandson, gave him a lift right back to the main square of Assisi.   This generosity was typical of the people we met, whether locals, people holidaying, relaxing or walking over the mountain.  It felt as if they were consciously or subconsciously acting in the spirit of St Francis, of helping anyone in need.

Part of the path on the mountainside, which we had both walked on separately, was a pilgrims’ way linking Assisi and the Vatican.  During our stay, we saw many groups of young people, including troops of scouts and guides – St Francis is their patron saint too. 


An impromptu open air short service in front of the Basilica of St Francesco

Whether climbing in the hot sun, singing outside the basilicas, picnicking on the mountainside, listening to a friar talking to them outside a church in the evening or playing noisy games in the main square at night, they all seemed to be enjoying themselves, giving Assisi a vibrancy and joyfulness not found simply in a tourist destination.

Whilst Gary was up the mountain, Anne decided to walk around Assisi and ended up walking through a stone gateway and out of the city along a steadily descending, narrow road to a small church. Toiling up the road, were a steady stream of young pilgrims carrying heavy rucksacks.   Anne soon reached the small, old stone church building of Santa Croce nestling in the valley.  The church was very simple inside.  Unusually it had just one large picture of an empty cross. 

Being a place of pilgrimage, Assisi has many church buildings.  As St Francis renounced any worldly wealth and goods and also, probably because Assisi city went through times of poverty during the centuries, the basilicas and the churches are generally fairly plainly decorated.  Many of the smaller churches are open all day for prayer and meditation, as well as services.  The churches gave a great sense of welcome; you were met with smiles even if you turned up in shorts and strappy tee shirt, (it was hot).  You were accepted for who you were (what was in your heart) and not how you appeared.

Sisters resting in the shade

Sisters resting in the shade

We attended evening services (Vespers) at three different chuches:  The Basilica of San Rufino which St Francis used to attend and preach in; the main Basilica of St Francesco and the Basilica of St Chiara (St Clare).


The cathedral church of St Rufino

The Basilica of Santa Chiara

The Basilica of St Francesco

The Basilica of St Francesco

All the services we attended were in Italian, so we understood very little.  But we appreciated the calm contemplation, unity of worship and friendly diversity of the congregation.  We noted that, unlike England where people wait quietly to be ushered up for communion, there was instead an enthusiastic surge forwards to the priest.

 We stumbled across the church of St Maria della Rose that had been internally modified to accommodate a display consisting of two large letters (alpha and omega) linked by 33 tubes.  Each tube held a small, identical wooden carving, a tactile representation of Mary, mother of Jesus.  Each carving used a different type of wood.  Here, the visitor was invited to sit and meditate or pray.  The statues were designed to fit into your hand and a number of ceramic copies were placed in the centre of the display for visitors to hold as an aid to prayer and reflection.

 Overall, we were struck by the lack of any general explanation of who St Francis was.  There were a couple of multi-language leaflets in the main basilica and there were always Franciscan priests standing around talking to people but for a general, uninformed tourist we wondered how they might learn of the enduring power of his message.

Friars on almost every street corner

Friars on almost every street corner

The message of St Francis, that there are more important things in life than possessions, was elucidated and expanded on by the American Franciscan priest who took the service at the Anglican Church which we attended on Sunday morning.  An excellent sermon, it was remarkably similar to what we had heard a few days earlier from Tomaz Hartman, Head of the State Forestry Service in Slovenia.  As we had walked with Tomaz alongside one of the few remaining examples of a Virgin Forest, he shared with us his concerns over the rise of consumerism and the impact this was having on people and on the environment.

We were so pleased to have sought out the Anglican Church.  Overall it was a wonderful, thought provoking service – as well as one which we could follow and understand.  At the end of the service the congregation was invited next door for drinks.  Then the lady from the restaurant across the street came in to ask how many would be staying for lunch.  It turns out to be a regular feature that members of the church have lunch together.  So, many of the congregation went across to a busy restaurant, full of local Italian families enjoying their Sunday lunch.  After everyone had ordered a simple meal – typically a pasta or meat dish with a salad, Gary was asked to say grace,  reading out (very loudly in this noisy restaurant) a short prayer giving thanks to God for the meal and for fellowship.  After the meal, the bill was split so that we all paid the same, except “the vicar” who did not pay.  Then we went up to the main square to sit in the shade having ice cream and coffee; what a lovely Sunday.

The main piazza; a great place to meet friends or sit and watch the world go by.

The main piazza; a great place to meet friends or sit and watch the world go by.

 It was great to meet and chat; we were a diverse mix; residents, pilgrims (one Scotsman had come on a gruelling walking pilgrimage and he sensibly wasn’t going any further) and a few were tourists.  Some regular members of the congregation had travelled miles to be there – on our table were two other couples who had driven 1.5 and 2 hours respectively to worship together and have fellowship. 

 In Assisi we ate lots of simple, straightforward Italian meals and they were all absolutely delicious; fresh pasta, olive oil, warm peaches.  For deserts, a local specialty was a cake – a bit like a cross between a apple strudel and a mincemeat tart, made using figs. I could go on but I’d better stop.

Temptation, temptation...

Temptation, temptation…

During the day the streets were full of tourists and pilgrims – and full of noise.  One morning about a hundred young pilgrims, led by a Franciscan priest walked past, singing, clapping calling out and generally having fun.  The next morning two to three hundred bikers on Harley Davidson’s drove through the street from the St Francis Basilica, below our hotel window.  As people lined the narrow street, waiting for them to pass, some waved, others applauded.  In return the bikers waved back or gave a quick blip on the throttle, creating a crescendo of sound.  Generally the streets were much quieter in the evenings, except Saturday which was an evening of Weddings. 

Looking at the map one late afternoon, Anne decided to walk along a route from the main Basilica which she had not been on.  This street was an oasis between two busy tourist routes; it was quiet and empty, no shops, hotels and restaurants.  There were a couple of nuns chatting happily on their way to the Basilica and further along a group of local ladies sitting on a bench under a plane tree, sharing conversation.  There were many different aspects to Assisi, waiting to be discovered.

The main basilica of St Francis has separate entrances for the upper church and the lower one where the saint is buried.  The whole basilica was badly damaged in 1997 by an earthquake which in particular destroyed the frescos or wall paintings.  Fortunately it has been possible to restore them.  The Upper basilica includes frescoes attributed to Giotto that illustrate the Old Testament, Christ’s life and that of St Francis.  Originally the pilgrims would have visited and marveled at the pictures interpreting them as we follow a television documentary today.  The message of St Francis can be seen in the frescos of the church and seen and experienced in the streets and environs of Assisi.

St Francis had a strong belief in social justice and care for nature.  Despite his wealthy upbringing, St Francis chose a life of evangelical poverty, humility and peacemaking.  He travelled to Egypt to intervene in the Crusades and surprisingly built a relationship with the Sultan and other Muslim leaders – seemingly based on a mutual respect, belief in God, the need for kindness to the poor and a desire for peace.   Back in Italy, he attracted followers from both inside and outside the church.  He travelled to the Vatican where he  was temporarily jailed as a result of delivering his uncompromising message.  St Francis’s mission was to share the good news about Jesus and God’s love.  His call for faith, prayer and selfless love was both simple and challenging, for poor and wealthy alike.  The influence of St Francis on the church was profound and his message as relevant today as it was in the 13th century.

PAX = Peace The lawn in front of the Basilica de St Francesco

PAX = Peace
Marked out by box hedging on the lawn in front of the Basilica of St Francesco

We thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of Assisi.   It was a lovely place to visit; a positive pilgrimage.   We could easily return.


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What can we write about Venice that hasn’t already been said?  We were on route from Ljubljana to Assisi and we couldn’t resist stopping off for a day in Venice.

As you are probabaly aware, there are no roads in Venice; the canals and lagoons are the main transport links.  Fire engines, ambulances and police boats weave between the multitude of buses, taxis, gondolas and cargo boats.  On the 1st August it was exceptionally busy.DSC02658We decided against staying in Venice itself, instead we found a lovely hotel set in large grounds just off the Autostrada in the town of Mestre.  Linking Venice and Mestre is a long causeway, the Via Liberta.A cheat - taken on our previous visit - but you can see the causeway very clearly as well as the Grand Cana, the Lido and Adriatic sea

A cheat – taken on a previous visit – but you can see the causeway very clearly as well as the Grand Canal, the Lido and Adriatic sea

We were able to leave the car at the hotel and catch a bus from the road outside to Venice’s Piazzale Roma.  From there we took the water bus along the Grand Canal.  We had been to Venice twice before, once in September for our 25th Wedding Anniversay, the other many years before on a damp foggy November.  Off season Venice was still very busy.  We wondered what peak season would be like and whether Venice might have lost its charm for us.  But within moments of setting off along the Grand Canal, we were lost in renewed wonder and delight.


The Grand Canal from L’Accademia Bridge

Of course we visited the main tourist highlights – how can you resist their pull.

The heat kept many tourists out of the centre of St Mark's Square

The heat kept many tourists out of the centre of St Mark’s Square

Gondolas queuing to pass under the Bridge of Sighs

Gondolas queuing to pass under the Bridge of Sighs

We laughed at the sight of an (illegal) street vendor selling fake Louis Vuitton bags outside the shop selling the real thing.  We wanted to take a photo but thought he might not take kindly to the publicity!


We hadn’t brought our swimming things, but Gary was inevitably drawn to the Mediterranean. As we took our water bus totravel across to the Lido, an impossibly large cruise ship left Venice to sail down the Adriatic Sea.DSC02779On the Lido we walked the short distance to the beach and sat drinking ice-cold aqua frizzante and people watching.DSC02789There wasn’t much wildlife to  be seen in Venice, grey mullet swimming in the canals, a few gulls, an egret and pigeons..DSC02734DSC02752We sought out a quiet restaurant for supper, finding one beside the Giudecca canal.  As the sun set we began chatting to a couple of young lads from Wantage who were ‘Inter Railing’ around Europe for a month.  Despite their appearance with tattoos, piercings and cap worn backwards they were a credit to British youth; well behaved, trying to speak Italian and trying out classic Italian foods.

Sunset over Giudecca

Sunset over Giudecca

As we set off back to Piazzale Roma,  in the moonlight we saw couples dancing together on the steps of Santa Maria della Salute, a loudspeaker perched on the steps to the church.

Taken at night from a boat - so a bit blurry, but if you look carefully you can just make out the dancers

Taken at night from a boat – so a bit blurry, but if you look carefully you can just make out the dancers

As we passed under the Rialto Bridge it was still busy, but much quieter than earlier in the day.

The Rialto is a favourite with tourists at all times of the day

The Rialto is a favourite with tourists at all times of the day

We had only spent 10 hours in Venice, but it was enough to satisfy.  For now….We hope to return again one day.

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Before we started the sabbatical, we knew little about Slovenia or its capital, Ljubljana.  Slovenia is a country about the size of Wales with a population of just two million and its capital, Ljubljana is smaller than Cardiff with a population of about 280,000.  After driving and visiting various parts of this lovely country we felt we should spend time visiting the capital.  All the Slovenians we talked to said it was a lovely small city which you could see in a day, so that’s what we did.

The Triple Bridge over the canalised river is one of the focal points of the City

The Triple Bridge over the canalised river is one of the focal points of the City

Ljubljana is on the marshy flat area in the centre of the country, between the Alps and the limestone karst.  Culturally it sits between the Germanic, Slav and Latin influences.

The fruit and veg market with a wonderful diversity of produce

The fruit and veg market with a wonderful diversity of produce

With just over an hours drive to reach either the Alps or the Mediteranean and with budget flights readily available, Ljubljana is becoming an increasing popular tourist destination.

The ornate interior of the Cathedral

The ornate interior of the Cathedral

In the centre of the old city is the castle, set high on a hill.


The castle seen from Cobblers Bridge (note the students old trainers strung up on wires)

From the top of a tower in the castle, there is an impressive view of the city and its setting; with Alps north and north-west, flat marshes to the south and wooded hills all around.

In the background is Triglav National Park

In the background is Triglav National Park

Slovenia is a relatively new country, it was formed after the 1st World War but merged with Yugoslavia after the 2nd World War and only achieved its present autonomy and statehood in 1990.  The old castle was interesting; it looked traditional with stone walls and towers from the outside but inside there were restaurants, cafes, open air theatre as well as a museum, virtual tour and chapel.  The old mixed with the new; a melange of Europeans sat in the sunshine with a sprinkling of Americans and Japanese.

In the evening the streets were filled by diners and revelers

In the evening the streets were filled by diners and revelers

Despite its size Ljubljana hosts various cultural festivals which attract international artists.  But perhaps the most popular venue is the riverside cafes and restaurants with their wandering musicians and bands.  On the evening of our visit, the area was full of diners and strollers.  The atmosphere was happy and vibrant.

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The Virgin and the Queen

When talking with Istok Ožbolt ( Head of the State Hunting Service), we had asked him about visiting the virgin forest in this area of Kocevje in the south of Slovenia.  We had learnt that there were still a few areas of forest in the countries of the former Yugoslavia that had never been touched by people and are entirely natural.  Two sections of the extensive forests of Kocevje region are still in this virgin state.  Their value has been recognised and are now protected.

He kindly arranged for us to meet with Tomaz Hartman, the Head of the State Forestry.  Istok introduced us to Tomaz early in the morning in his office in Kocevje town and Tomaz offered to show and explain the woods to us.

Coming from England, it is difficult to explain the predominance of the forest, it covered the hills, stretched through the valleys, everywhere you looked there were trees.DSC02363 (2)

This region is limestone karst where the surface water runs through sink holes deep into the rock leaving a dry, waterless rocky landscape.  But it is a natural landscape of silver fir (Abies alba) and beech forests with few spruce, maple, elm and lime trees.  The vast, quiet forests sustain a rich fauna including bears, wolves, red deer, Ural owls, fat dormice (Glis glis) and of course, ticks.  The lynx, the largest European wild cat, was reintroduced to the region in the 1970s.

A pair of Ural Owls recovering in the Animal Rescue Centre we visited previously in Mala Fatra, Slovakia

A pair of Ural Owls at the Animal Rescue Centre we visited previously in Mala Fatra, Slovakia

 The lack of water meant that the land was always difficult to farm and settle and had for many years sustained a relatively small human population.  In the 14th century, Germans had settled and cultivated, later there had been Turkish invasions.  By the nineteenth century about 35 per cent of the land in this area was forested and provided hunting estates for Hapsburg Counts but during the century people emigrated as the local agricultural market was depressed as in the most of the rest of Europe.  A steam sawmill had been set up in the forest to provide employment but proved uneconomic by the 1930s and many people emigrated.  The twentieth century saw a steep decline in the human population which meant that the woods remained relatively under managed.

We drove some miles from the town, deep into the forest and we passed a line of large wooden sculptures which reminded us of the stations of the cross.  DSC02469They ended at a clearing and chapel – the site of a series of mass murders that occured in 1945.

In 1990, tens of thousands gathered here for the first commemorative mass

In 1990, tens of thousands gathered here for the first commemorative mass

Amongst the limestone caves and chasms, thousands of Slovenians, Serbs and Croats  were secretly murdered by local partisans (communists).  Most had been members of the Slovene Home Guard captured in Austria and handed over to the Yugoslav Army by the British at the end of the Second World War. To hide the bodies, rocks around the hole were dynamited.

One of the mass graves - only discovered in the late 1980's

One of the mass graves – only discovered in the late 1980’s

There were a couple of such sites hidden, but not forgotten.  DSC02460Much of Slovenia was badly affected by the war, with many atrocities.  It resulted in a vastly reduced population, especially in this area.

Earlier, during the War there had been a hospital hidden in the woods, run by a New Zealand surgeon and local partisans, which had helped people.  The hospital had received supplies dropped by Allied planes during the time of hostilities.  Another facet of war and the conflicts that have blighted this region; throughout the forests have remained and grown.  Since the 1940s the forests had naturally regenerated with a woodland now covering of 95 percent.

Tomaz guided us further, deeper into the forest, showing us the a large clearing which was the site of the deserted sawmill.

Site of the old saw mill

Site of the old saw mill

All that remained of the mill was a heap of rubble covered in a profusion of flowers and a large deep circular concrete tank which had been used for storing water that provided the steam to power the engines.  The clearing had a pavilion, picnic area and interpretation boards for visitors.

As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, part of the forest had been owned by a Prince of Auersberg who had employed an environmentally aware, forest manager.  He had practiced selective not clear felling and so had preserved the ecological structure of the forest.  From the time of the sawmill only individually selected trees were cut down.   He had recognised the virgin forest and had left specific instructions that several areas of virgin forest were to be left untouched.DSC02521

One of the challenges Tomaz discussed with us was how to get the right balance between informing people about the value of the virgin forests and protecting the forest.  There had been a TV documentary about the virgin forest and this had led to a (temporary) influx of visitors.  After much debate the foresters and ecologists had agreed that an extensive buffer zone around the virgin forest should be created.  The buffer zone would be another area of non-intervention and would look similar.  People would be encouraged to walk along a trail through the buffer zone.

Tomaz led us along the trail through the buffer zone.  The route was marked by a bear print, painted on trees.  Originally coloured red to stand out, they had to be changed to green as people mistook them for a bear warning and to keep out.DSC02494

The buffer zone around the virgin forest looked fairly unmanaged to us, there were fallen trees and beech saplings in profusion.  But no fir seedlings as the relatively large population of red deer ate them all.  Growing under the thick high canopy  there was some under-storey vegetation of beech.  There were a scattering of slender fir saplings about four to five metres high.  Incredibly, Tomaz explained these could be 100 or 200 years old and just waiting for a nearby mature tree to fall and let in the light necessary for growth.  Of course, the majority of the seedlings and saplings die before reaching maturity.

Incredibly, this small fir may be 200 years old

Incredibly, this small fir may be 200 years old

We marvelled at the size and stateliness of the trees.  The beech trees generally grew tall and straight with the silver firs topping them by about ten metres so reaching up to 50 metres, tall.DSC02519

Tomaz has been studying all these woodlands since his student days.   He took pride in the health of the trees and the abundance of wildlife, it was a privilege to have such a knowledgeable and understanding guide.   Although 85% of the Kocevje Region is forested, in order to protect this natural landscape it has been necessary to create forest reserves where the habitat is left to develop naturally, no trees are cut and no dead trees or forest fruit removed.  We were interested to note that Tomaz considered that the forests were under managed and that that timber production could double without compromising the environment.

Virgin forest has never had any trees felled, but they contain a lot of fallen trees and deadwood.  A few trees might suffer from lightning strike, but most die from disease and old age.  A few are broken or knocked over when the 500 year old forest giants come down.

Tomaz and Gary at the edge of the Virgin Forest

Tomaz and Gary at the edge of the Virgin Forest

We walked in single file along the trail, the wind rustling leaves quietly in the canopy far above, an occasional bird calling.  It would be easy to get lost.

Tomaz walking along one the recently fallen beech trees

Tomaz walking along one the recently fallen fir trees

We came to a hollow with a fallen beech and holes of badger which is rare in these and the other woods, (in the Carpathians), which we visited.  On an earthy mound, were tuffs of badger hair and just one small piece of dark brown fur; had a bear attacked a badger we wondered?  Tomaz collected samples of the hair for further analysis.

To prevent meeting bears, foresters carry a cow bell in their rucksac to warn bears of their approach

To prevent meeting bears, Tomaz carries a cow bell in his rucksac to warn bears of his approach

Tomaz and others have made extensive studies of the woodlands, identifying and recording over time. Scientists have recorded about 130 different species of fungi many of which live symbiotically with the trees.  Ornithologists found 40 species of birds in the virgin forest and two extra species in the buffer forest which has a fraction more clearings.  We observed the fallen trees lying in any direction, moist and pungent, full of fungi and insect larvae -full of life.



Note how the fungi has continued to grow after the tree has fallen

Tomaz allowed us time to be still and quiet and just enjoy the atmosphere of this ancient place.  It was a great privilege.

The trees in the forest were big but lastly Tomaz took us to a giant of a silver fir called the Queen of Rog.  The mature firs were higher, thicker and older than the beech trees.  This fir tree of 51.5m high had a comparatively large trunk with a girth of 502cm and was reckoned to be about 500 years old.

Standing beside the Queen

Standing beside the Queen

What was most impressive was that it looked healthy, in its prime and apparently still growing, (though slowly).  As it was summer the beech trees and saplings gave a rich green.  The woods were cool and calm, walking through them one had a sense of timelessness.  Seeing the gently swaying canopies above, gave one pause to reflect on what are the important things of life.DSC02542

With sympathetic management, the woods and virgin areas remain.  We talked with Tomaz about the high levels of unemployment in the area.  He was sure the forests could provide more work; timber production could certainly double if a market could be found.  Gary discussed ways to try and add value to timber products and explained about the mobile saw mill used by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.  Another opportunity may lie in eco-tourism – the whole area is beautiful and has much to offer visitors.DSC02556 DSC02364

In the later afternoon we returned to Kocevje, refreshed by our day in the forest.

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