Category Archives: Plants

Istria – or Slovenia and Croatia to you and me.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Istrian Peninsula – and learnt a lot!  The Peninsula looks like a triangular pennant suspended in the Adriatic just below Trieste.  A horizontal strip of land at the top of the triangle now forms part of Slovenia and the rest belongs to Croatia. Our visit included some of the towns along the West coast of Istria from  Portorož down to Pula, with its stunning amphitheatre,  at the southern tip of the triangle.
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So first  stop – Portorož (Port of Roses) This turned out to be an attractive strip of  hotels stretching in a ribbon along the seafront – no ‘beach’ as such, more pebbles and ladders straight down into the water – would bathers disappear without trace?  Well, no, the water only seemed to be waist deep in most places so perfectly safe, if a bit chilly!
Portorož has been established as a health spa since the late 19th century and boasts some fine architecture – one example of this is the Palace Hotel, built around 1912 in what was known then as the Austrian Riviera. It was extensively renovated around 2008 but retains its magnificent facade and is testimony to the popularity of the area as a health resort back in the day.  There is a real Art Deco vibe about the place and lots of magnificent black and white photographs on the hotel walls illustrate the grandeur of a bygone era, which inspired me to take some sepia photos on my walk along the sea front towards Piran.





Every hotel in Istria has a Wellness Centre, indeed Slovenians and Croatians place a lot of emphasis on healthy living. On our tour I struck lucky every time – my room was right next door to the Wellness Centre! This meant that, unlike other guests who had to make their way along endless hotel corridors and into and out of lifts dressed in their fluffy white hotel robes to get to these facilities, I only had to pop out of my room and round the corner and there it all was – the plunge pool, the sun terrace, the jacuzzi, the  salt water swimming pool and all the wondrous treatments on offer – like mud baths, Thai massage with myriad combinations of lovely infused oils, facials – etc!!
As a linguist I was also interested in trying to pick up some phrases in Slovenian and Croatian – and was encouraged by the fact that all the road signs were in Slovenian or Croatian first and then Italian, and sometimes German too.  As I speak Spanish, the hop over to Italian is not so far – but the next hop over to Slovenian proved more of a chasm – didn’t get much of a toe hold, although the girl welcoming us in to dinner tried to teach me a few things – ‘dobro jutro’ (good morning) ‘dobra večer’ (good evening) ‘volim te’ (I love you !! – that should come in handy!) ‘hvala ti’ (thank you)  ‘molim’ (please) ‘račun molim’ (the bill please) and on the hotel television I even caught an episode of Gardeners’ World with Monty Don dubbed in Croatian.  Even so, progress was slow!!
Back to being a tourist.
Piran is a small town at the top of the Istrian Peninsula. Its links with Italy through the salt trade are evident. On the walk into the town we came across some curious buildings which turned out to be disused salt warehouses, now being used as exhibition spaces and the like.  
Views out to sea from the city walls were beautiful and the town itself is very picturesque.

 
 
 
 
 


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We were taken on a trip to the salt pans and a museum where we learnt how the salt panners lived and worked.
           
         


Our next trip was to Groznjan, which is inland. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very good but we could still appreciate the beauty of the countryside and sample some delicious truffles and mistletoe brandy – not sure about the brandy! We also learned that Istria has several symbols – one is the goat, one is the dolphin and ……the other will come to me in a second!
 



The climate as you go further south turns more Mediterranean, with lots of vineyards and olive trees and for the first week of our holiday the weather was pleasantly warm – around 25º. But things changed dramatically en route to our second destination of Poreč – in fact, there was a terrific storm and when we got to the hotel they were busy mopping up – leaks had sprung everywhere – outside the main entrance a little man in waterproofs was standing knee deep in water, pumping out and inside they were juggling guests whose rooms had water running down the walls – mops and buckets everywhere!
Built along the lines of a giant Butlins holiday camp – I don’t think these hotels will stand the test of time – more ‘Lego’ in construction – definitely the cheap and cheerful end of the market.  This conglomeration was built around several lagoons just outside the town of Poreč, which, once the hordes of weekend visitors had died down, felt much more welcoming. As luck would have it, the storm (which was bad enough to make the national television news) had abated by the next day and we were able to see a  medieval fair which they had postponed – so ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ as they say.

Pula, in the far south of the peninsula, boasts a magnificent amphitheatre, with the usual gruesome history of gladiators and blood and gore. Nowadays, the arena is used as an open air concert venue, attracting the greats of the musical world such as Andrea Bocelli, Norah Jones, Tom Jones and José Carreras.  Personally, I found the Roman artifacts in the museum below the arena every bit as interesting as the arena itself.
We barely had time to see Pula and even in late September, towards the end of the holiday season it was very busy. The Venetian influence is evident in its buildings and I loved the little alley ways down to the water’s edge which seemed to drop straight into the sea. Definitely a place to go back to.


    


Butterfly, Flutter By

As well as the natural attractions of the landscape of the Wye Valley, at Symonds Yat  there is a butterfly zoo.  A tiny piece of steamy, tropical forest, recreated indoors where conditions are simulated to mimic the natural habitat of tropical butterflies.

Palms and vines compete for space with lilies and milkweed, as these beautiful creatures flit from plant to eye catching plant, looking for food.


In the wild a lot of tropical butterflies eat rotting fruit (just the job!) and here in the zoo the staff had thoughtfully put out platefuls of overripe bananas – yum!

You can see why the striking creature below is  called the Owl Butterfly.

The markings on its hind wings provide it with excellent camouflage.

In fact, it is said to be more moth-like in behaviour as it is crepuscular i.e. active at dawn and dusk, whereas butterflies would normally be seen in the daytime – here it was certainly the most static and easiest to photograph!

The Blue Morpho, native to South and Central America, proved the most elusive, hardly settling at all. It was the biggest butterfly in the collection and in the wild can have a wing span of between 13 to 20 centimetres. It was a stunning sight, and the iridescence of its shimmering blue wings is said to confuse its predators as it has the effect of making it appear and reappear as the light catches them.


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The Malachite, which ranges from the southern United States down to Peru, Argentina and Bolivia, is much smaller, with a wing span of 8 to 10 centimetres.


The next butterfly is I THINK! a Wood Nymph. I say ‘think’ because, although we were given some pictures to help us identify them, a butterfly can look very different with its wings folded as opposed to outspread! And another confusing thing is that some appear to be known by several names – this being a case in point – is it a Wood Nymph or a Paper Kite? Or something else entirely!

What is interesting is that the Wood Nymph, from South East Asia,  feeds on milkweed, those tiny yellow and red flowers, and they contain toxins. The butterfly fills up on the toxins to put would be predators off eating it for supper – clever, eh?!
For such fragile creatures, some of the butterflies seemed to be carrying damaged wings  – this swallow tail, for example,
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or, even more noticeable, this Owl butterfly. 
I don’t know to what extent this would affect them, perhaps they’re tougher than they look!
It was a joy to be so close to these lovely creatures and to see the colour and variety, not only of the butterflies themselves, but also the sweet shop colours of the exuberant, outsize tropical vegetation that they call home.


 


 

I am a Tree Hugger – but if I could be a tree…….

It’s starting to feel like Spring and what better way to celebrate than getting out into the fresh air to hug some trees! Nature has a way of persuading us to leave the comfort of a warm sofa and brave the elements – the first sighting of Spring lambs, for example – aahhh!! ,

and the promise of some stunning country views and the trees – there they are again – they just seem to weather anything winter throws at them.
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After Spring comes Summer, for some of us a chance to sit under a shady tree and do a spot of fishing,
   
     

while others prefer to  sit outside  and contemplate the trees in the far distance, or silhouetted against a glorious sunset.

 
 
 
 
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Photography makes you more observant – it’s a fact! You start to see everything in a new light (no pun intended!) – new angles, interesting juxtapositions, the way shadows fall, including your own! and how colours  interact.   Old hands tell you to look carefully, but not just in front of you. No! Look up!  Look down!  Look around! And this is never more important than when you are photographing a tree. Some have exposed roots at your feet, then there’s the lacework of leaves swaying overhead. Some are laden with nuts and some have nests tucked away in the upper branches. I always feel I should be able to identify more trees. Can you identify a tree from its bark? or its shape in the distance?
   
Ah, but what if I were a tree? Autumn would be the season I would enjoy most. Bedecked in that stunning autumn foliage  – it must be like getting ready to go to the ball – and to choose from that palette of  bronzes, gingers, rusts, corals, ochres and russets. I don’t understand those evergreens – they just refuse to get dressed up !

  
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Trees are there for us all – human or not – kids climb them, big cats use them as pantries, small cats stalk along their branches to hunt birds (as if!),  people sit under their shady branches,  lovers etch their initials in the bark, they provide us humans with food, timber to build a house, firewood to keep us warm – and for the animal kingdom it’s much the same – cover, habitat, stores to see them through hibernation.  Quite apart from all that, trees are beautiful to look at at:  whether it’s a solitary oak spreading its branches in the middle of a field or a whole forest, dense and mysterious and a bit scary. Dense forests have been the setting for fairy tales and stories with speaking trees, trees with magic powers, trees that walk and scare us to death! Very often you can look at part of a tree and see in it someone or something – and some are just so old and gnarled they seem to have their life story written into the bark for us to read.
What do you see here?



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And so to Winter. Trees make an excellent subject to photograph in winter – the images you capture can be really atmospheric – bare branches, stark against the winter sky. Even a fallen tree has a beauty to it – the way it is slowly but inescapably being reclaimed by lichen, forest ferns and fungus and decomposing back into the soil that once nurtured it.


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There is such a variety of trees.  Gardeners say there is a tree to suit any garden, whatever climate it is subject to and whatever size it is – so no excuse! we could all have one!
 
And if I were a tree?  Maybe an oak but I can’t really be a tree so I’ll do the next best thing and plant one.