Where Robin Hood was caught with his pants down

In a quiet part of Slovenia sits a spectacular castle with a great story.

The 12th Century Predjama Castle is nestled in the mouth of a cave, under a 123 metre overhanging limestone rock face close to the Italian border.

Predjama Castle’s sheltered position has helped preserve the remarkable structure.

But it’s a tale from 1484 – complete with heroism and more than a little humor – that has made the castle famous world-wide.

A rebellious Knight, Erazem Lueger – known as Slovenia’s Robin Hood – holed up in the impregnable castle while regularly robbing caravans passing between Vienna, Austria and The Italian port of Trieste.

The fed-up governor of Trieste finally laid siege to Predjama Castle, in an attempt to starve out Lueger.

However, the robber baron used a hidden path through cave tunnels to go out for food – and taunted the besieging soldiers by throwing them scraps.

Eventually, a servant was bribed into revealing the castle’s only weakness – it had a toilet located outside the main walls on the upper level.

That servant fed Lueger some dodgy meat and then signaled to the Italian forces that our hero had made a run for the loo.

The soldiers fired one ball from a catapult, hitting the target – and catching their nemesis with his pants down.

Exit Slovenia’s Robin Hood.

The castle survived, however, and is now one of the most spectacular such attractions in Europe.

Predjama castle is in Slovenia, north-west of the town of Postojna.

Off the highways, it’s on a route that winds through mountains and green hills.

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airways.

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Predjama Castle Slovenia

Creativity forged in pain and sorrow

“The blood in these streets made us who we are”.

These words might have sounded fanciful in any other place – and coming from anyone else.

But we were sitting outside the tavern Skalomata in Anogeia, Crete, a village destroyed three times in its turbulent history.

And the speaker was the contemporary Cretan singer, songwriter and author, Loudovikos ton Anogeion.

Tavern owners, Barbis (left) and Yarnis (right) watch modern-day teller of the Anogeia story, Loudovikos, (second from right)

Credited with describing Anogeia as “the first place you meet when you descend from heaven,” Loudovikos was explaining how tremendous suffering had shaped the culture of the village.

Anogeia was twice destroyed by the Ottomans in 1822 and 1867 – and then by the Germans in 1944, in retaliation for resistance activities.

“Pain and sorrow is the heritage of Anogeia, but so is resilience.

Tavern Skalomata in Anogeia, Crete,

“In World War II, people were massacred here and almost every building was destroyed, only to be rebuilt.”

To underline this point, Loudovikos played his song The Colour of Love, which beautifully explores the theme that you cannot love if you have not suffered adversity.

Creativity borne from ashes

If resilience and fiesty independence are in Anogeia’s DNA, so too are creativity and artistic expression.

 Loudovikos is only one of a disproportionate number of talented musicians to emerge from the area onto the Greek and world stage.

The village is also known for its folk art, including a weaving industry developed largely by the widows of men killed in the World War II massacre.

Whether this burst of creative spirit is a direct cry from the bleeding heart of Anogeia’s painful past is up for speculation

The church of St John the Baptist, Anogeia, Crete

The concept of the ‘Tortured Artist’ has long been debated in society and many books have been written on the subject.

However in Anogeia, where stories of pain are still raw,  the people have a deep respect for its story tellers.

Loudovikos simply picked up his phone, hit a few numbers and I was talking the mayor of the village.

He spoke in glowing terms of the singer songwriter’s mission to explain the collective community spirit of Anogeia and how that spirit has been shaped by a past as tragic as anyone could imagine.

Anogeia’s mayor also stressed that confronting the horrors that happened in the village was considered a key part of the process.  

A simple yet moving memorial – featuring an Unknown Soldier statue – stands in the centre of Anogeia

The exact order given to German forces in 1944 is engraved in marble on one side of the memorial.


Each August, Anogeia also holds a day of remembrance, featuring community activities centred on the memorial.

Residents are also quick to point out that  Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, the German commander who ordered the razing of Anogeia, was captured by the Red Army in 1945 and met a grisly end.

Anogeia sits at an altitude of 738 metres in the Idi mountain range of central Crete, an area dominated by Mount Psiloritis, the highest mountain on the island.

It is a charming village, with a cobblestone Main Street and an array of taverns, coffee shops and cafes where friendly locals gather beneath spreading trees and grapevines trailed across trellis.


Despite Anogeia’s treatment at the hands of foreigners over the centuries, the residents are welcoming and quick to offer the hospitality for which Crete is known worldwide.

During our talk with Loudovikos, the owners of the tavern Skalomata insisted that we sample the local cheese, Rakki, fruit and bread.


Anogeia is connected by public bus services from both Heraklion and Chania Crete’s two biggest cities.

We caught the bus into the hills, leaving Heraklion in the early morning and weaving through the awakening suburbs until we reached the narrow, winding road into the rugged mountains.


It was easy to see how the terrain  helped Crete’s famed resistance fighters to ambush and harrass both the Occupying Turks and Germans.

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airways.

Anogeia Crete

Awkward incident in Italy

There’s a certain hotel at Sorrento, Italy, that we won’t revisit.

To be fair, a toilet cistern perched two metres up the wall is definitely a trap for young players.

We’re hardly young and, in all honesty, we should have realised that the cistern would take quite a long time to refill after each flush. But it just didn’t register.

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That day dawned fine and clear in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

And, in 15 minutes, our bus was scheduled to leave on a trip of a lifetime to the fabled emerald  Isle of Capri.

It was our first visit to Capri and Sue had used the bathroom to apply her cosmetics – a totally unnecessary chore in my biased opinion. It’s like trying to improve on the Mona Lisa.

Ten minutes before departure, I finally got to the bathroom ….. and suddenly the previous night’s huge pasta meal didn’t seem like such a good idea.

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Eight minutes and counting – and I make a dive for the toilet.

Instant relief!

Of course, in my haste, I completely forgot that the cistern was probably still re-filling from earlier use.

Those who have been in my position will know too well that sinking feeling when you pull the chain to no avail.

Just as the bus arrived.

Ice buckets full of water and even a few kettle loads failed to achieve the desired flush.

As Sue tried to stall the bus, my dilemma seemed to come down to two options:

  1. Miss the trip while waiting for the cistern to fill, or
  2. Miss the trip

I opted for Capri and have always cringed at the thought of the poor room service staff on that fine Italian day.

And, as mentioned, we will never revisit that particular hotel.

Humorous

Daisy the cow and the night Chicago died

As you walk down North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, it’s impossible to miss the old water tower.

And, more than 140 years after the Great Chicago Fire, the tower is one of the few remaining links to this momentous event – along with the story of Daisy the cow.

The 47 metre limestone tower was one of only a few structures in the area to escape the inferno of October 1871. It’s now an eye-catching art gallery.

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Information board at the Chicago Water Tower

Mrs O’Leary’s cow wasn’t so lucky, but whether Daisy actually played any role in the fire that killed 300 people and destroyed three square miles of the city, is debated to this day.

City officials never discovered the exact cause, but a popular tale in Chicago blames Mrs O’Leary’s cow for kicking over a lantern in a barn off DeKoven Street.

Another theory is that men were gambling inside the barn and knocked over a lantern.

What is certain is that two-thirds of Chicago was made of wood and tar; that the area needed rain badly; and that southwestly winds carried embers into the heart of the city.

And whatever actually ignited the blaze, it spread rapidly through the timber buildings, wooden sidewalks and even some wooden roads.

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Photo courtesy Chicago Tribune archive

Once flames jumped the Chicago River and destroyed the waterworks, the mains apparently went dry and little could be done.

Within a couple of days, more than 100,000 people were homeless.

In the aftermath of the blaze, Chicago promptly began to rewrite its fire standards and soon created one of the country’s leading fire-fighting forces.

At the same time, business owners and land speculators quickly set about rebuilding the city, helped in no small part by generous assistance from across the US.

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Memorial at the spot where the fire started

The story of Mrs O’Leary and her cow continued to grow, despite denials by the family itself and a later newspaper confession that the tale had been fabricated.

In fact, it became so engrained in local lore that Chicago’s city council officially exonerated the O’Leary family —and the cow—in 1997.

Since then, it has also been suggested that the blaze – and others across the Midwest of the US – may have been sparked by a meteor shower – or that ‘Pegleg’ Sullivan, who first reported the Chicago fire, may have ignited hay in the barn while trying to steal milk.

Or perhaps Daisy acted alone.

Chicago Features

Don’t miss this New York City oasis

It was a sunny Autumn day in New York City when we came across Trinity Wall Street.

Striding briskly through the frenzy of the city’s Financial District, in lower Manhattan, we were unexpectedly faced with an extraordinary sight – an old burial ground of tilting headstones, manicured green lawns and shady trees.

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Alongside this green oasis – in the shadows of surrounding skyscrapers – stood a magnificent old stone church built in the classic Gothic Revival style.

We meandered along the stone pathways of the graveyard to discover that we’d stumbled upon a venerable American institution – Trinity Wall Street Episcopal church and its famous 300-year-old cemetery.

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Photo courtesy: Village Voice

Apparently, the church site dates to 1697 when it was earmarked by the English King William 111 as the Anglican seat in the capital city.

There have been three church buildings on the site – near the corner of Wall Street and Broadway.

The current structure was built in 1846 and has been designated as a national historic landmark because of its architectural significance and place in the history of New York City.

We were told that, at the time of its completion, the 281 foot Neo-Gothic spire, surmounted by a gilded cross, dominated the skyline of lower Manhattan and was the highest point in New York until being surpassed in 1890 by the New York World Building.

Trinity became a welcoming beacon for ships sailing into New York Harbor.

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Pausing in the shady cemetery, we also discovered that the two-and-a-half-acre yard contained the tombstones and memorials of notable 18th Century New Yorkers, including many leading participants of the American revolution and the early years of Republic.

We were also intrigued by the obviously more modern bronze sculpture of a tree alongside Trinity Church.

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Apparently, the base of the sculpture is made from the roots of a huge sycamore tree that had stood for almost a century before it was flattened by falling debris from the nearby World Trade Centre after the September 11 terror attacks in 2001.

During the attack, people took refuge in Trinity from choking clouds of dust.

The tree sculpture carries a credit to artist, Steve Tobin.

Heading back into the busy Manhattan Financial District, we marvelled at the enormous contrast of such an oasis of calm and tranquility amid the hustle and bustle.

From Central Park to the High Line and Turtle Pond, such contrasts are not uncommon in New York City, where a special kind of beauty can await around almost any corner.

Main photo courtesy  Gigi alt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

New York City Upper West Side