Architecture

London: Red House

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Well, here’s another William Morris related property (It’s been a while though!  I think all that leaves is Kelmscott Manor, which I’ll probably have to hit up the next time I’m near Gloucestershire).  Even though it’s still technically in Greater London (really only about 18 miles away from where I live), we’d been holding off on visiting because we’d have to drive from one end of South London to t’other to get there, which takes an annoyingly long time.  But on an unpleasant rainy weekend where we’d already spent the Saturday trapped inside, riding in the car on a Sunday seemed preferable to just sitting in the flat all day again, and at least we could explore a cool house when we got there.

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Red House is a National Trust property (I’ve been pretty good about not including those for a while, but I’ve got another one coming up next week.  I purposely didn’t write about a few smaller sites I visited to save you the boredom of reading about them.  You’re welcome), so we waltzed right in, otherwise it’s 8 quid, which I would be hesitant to pay, if I were in your shoes (also, the National Trust recently redesigned their website, and I hate it!  It’s a pain in the ass to navigate, and when you click on things, they just pop up over the same stupid screen instead of having their own address, so whenever I try clicking the back button, out of habit, it just takes me back to Google or whatever I was on before their website.  It’s awful).  Red House is a bit weird in that they offer guided tours until 1, and then after that (and only after that), you’re allowed to wander the property on your own.  So if you want to avoid a guided tour, show up at 1:30 or later, otherwise get there as early as possible to get your ass on a tour.

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I know I like to bitch about getting ignored by National Trust volunteers, but that was not the case here at all.  Someone greeted us as soon as we walked in the door and gave us a detailed tour of the entrance hall, and volunteers in other rooms were equally anxious to fill us in on all things William Morris.  (I’m not going to go into much background here, because I’ve done it before on other William Morris posts, but by all means look him up if you’re not familiar with his work.)  And this was during the “free flow” time!  The house was commissioned by William Morris, and designed by his friend Philip Webb to showcase Morris’s Arts and Crafts aesthetic.  It was completed in 1860, and Morris moved in with his wife, Janey, and proceeded to have two children here in short order, but moved out only five years later when the commute to London became too much (the surrounds being countryside at the time, in contrast to the ugly urban sprawl that exists today).

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Because Morris lived here for a relatively short time, much of the decor was left unfinished, like the ceilings that had pin pricks painstakingly marked out as a guide for painting patterns on them (alliteration), where only a small section ended up being painted (later owners filled in more of the design, but it’s still far from complete).  The walls are papered in Morris & Co prints, but that too was done by the later owners; Morris himself seemed more into painting the walls with his artist friends like Edward Burne-Jones and Lizzie Siddal (Pre-Raphaelite model and ill-fated wife of Rossetti).  There also isn’t much furniture, but thanks to all the small Morris-y details, these limitations aren’t terribly noticeable.

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The incredibly detailed room guides also help with that, as do the unusually effusive volunteers.  Even though the house isn’t that big, you can still spend a fair amount of time in each room just reading or listening.  And there’s a couple rooms with activities (if looking through wallpaper samples can be called an activity; I reckon it can.  That’s how I used to pass the long, boring hours trapped in home improvement stores with my parents.  What can I say, wallpaper samples are a hell of a lot more interesting that bathroom taps or cabinet handles). There’s also some Lego stuff, and some sketchbooks where you can share your William Morris inspired art; my boyfriend drew a crackin’ wombat, but failed to snap a picture.  Wombats are a recurring theme throughout the house; one was recently discovered inside one of the Burne-Jones paintings, and they even have Christmas workshops where you can make your own wombat ornament.

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There’s lots of delightful painted stained glass throughout the house (more on that later), but there are three main actual paintings here worth speaking about.  The first is a cabinet in the entryway, painted by Morris himself.  He was, by his own admission, pretty crap at painting people, especially his wife, but he still did a much, much better job than I could ever do, and the detailing on their clothing is beautiful (you can see it in the third picture in this post).  The second is a mural that was hidden behind a cabinet built by previous owners, and was only discovered in 2013.  So I think they may still be working on restoring it, but it is based on figures from Genesis (the book of the Bible, not the band, though I would think it was hilarious if someone had a Arts and Crafts style Phil Collins painted on their wall.  And I would totally get an Arts and Crafts Departure-era Steve Perry on mine), and though it’s very faded, you can make out some of the details, particularly the figure of Rachel, who is believed to have been painted by Lizzie Siddal, when she was staying with the Morrises for a time when she was ill (I guess with her laudanum addiction?).  The third is a sort of medieval banquet mural painted by Burne-Jones, and judging by the animals hidden throughout the picture, I suspect this is the one with the wombat in it.

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This latter mural was in a room with a cool little stage in it, built for Christmas plays, apparently, though I probably would have hauled a bunch of cushions up there and built some kind of a fort.  With books.  And candy.  Also upstairs is one of the few sections of the ceiling where Morris actually finished the painting; hidden in one corner is a little smiley face, which a volunteer showed us with her flashlight.  It’s neat to think it was painted over 150 years ago by Morris or one of his friends, since smiley faces seem like more of a modern thing (I like to think Philip Webb painted it; he’s my favourite).

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One of the guides made sure to point out to us that all of this was done when Morris was in his mid-20s, as were his friends, which really made us feel inadequate.  I mean, my boyfriend and I are both 30, and we can’t even afford to buy a house, let alone have one built for us in a style we invented, and hand-paint all the features inside it, all whilst running our own business.  So I suppose it is somewhat gratifying in a schadenfreude kind of way that Morris quickly became overwhelmed, and had to abandon the place to move to London (and never returned, as the sight of his dream home would have caused him too much pain).  On the other hand, it’s a shame he never got to finish it, because it really is a beautiful home (much as I tend to prefer the overly ornate style of Victorian architecture.  I want a house with a turret).  I’d kill for that staircase and balcony, or the bird windows downstairs.

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Yep, I’m a complete sucker for a chicken (I found these amazing chicken plates at Anthropologie a while back, but I didn’t buy them because I have enough trouble storing all my dishes as it is.  I still regret it).  I liked all the stained glass, but the chicken windows (actually, the one I really like is a rooster, I think) were my favourites by far (painted by Philip Webb, who was also responsible for drawing most of the animals in Morris’s wallpaper designs.  No wonder I’ve always loved Trellis and Strawberry Thief, which has particularly derpy birds in the pattern).

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The final room was a museum room, with a timeline of Morris’s life for the years he lived in Red House, some objects donated by Philip Webb, who outlived Morris by nearly twenty years (Morris “wore himself out,” apparently, and died in his 60s), and the awesome caricatures by Burne-Jones pictured above.  Webb’s possessions included Morris’s snuffbox, which was given to him in Morris’s will, and a pistol he carried everywhere with him.  I guess he was kind of paranoid in his old age?

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The property also includes a small garden, a shop, and a tearoom, which had a Christmas wombat peeking out of the kitchen window.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the house, given the small amount of furnishings, and the National Trust-ness.  It’s certainly not worth 8 quid, but if you’re a National Trust member, I think this is one worth checking out to see all the whimsical touches (seriously, I love that damn chicken/rooster. I even bought a postcard of it in the gift shop.  They also have stuffed wombats, though I resisted temptation in that case).  3.5/5.

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I also got to do something else I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, while we were sort of in the area: see the Pocahontas statue in Gravesend!  You see, after Pocahontas married John Rolfe, and returned to England with him for a visit, she (inevitably) picked up one of the many European diseases she hadn’t had a chance to build up an immunity to (possibly smallpox or TB) and died in Gravesend, en route to a ship back to Virginia.  She’s buried in St. George’s Church here, which has irregular opening hours that aren’t posted on their website, so we didn’t get to see the inside of the church, but we did get to see the statue next to it.  Gravesend is not really a nice place to visit, but the statue and church are pretty damn cool, and only about a 20 minute drive from Bexley.

Oh, and ’tis the season I guess, so Merry Christmas everybody!

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Isle of Wight: Osborne House

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At long last, I finally made it to Osborne House, which certainly lived up to my expectations of Victorian splendour, but also provided an unforeseen number of annoyances (though I’m not sure why they should be unforeseen, when most everything generally irritates me).  All you really need to know about this place (to convince you to visit) is that Queen Victoria lived, and more importantly, died here, but obviously I’m going to go into way more detail than that.  Osborne House is near East Cowes, in the north of the Isle of Wight, and is plopped down on a huge plot of land that encompasses gardens, woodlands, and a private beach.  The Italianate house itself is similarly massive, though only a small section is open to the public.

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This is another English Heritage property, and they were quite aggressive with their membership spiel when we entered the gift shop/admissions.  I was tempted to tell them that I  frequent the National Trust far more than English Heritage, so there was no way I was coughing up their membership fee, but I held my tongue, and simply paid the £13.40 admission.  The main attraction is of course the house, but the whole estate served as a summer home for the Royal Family, and was where Victoria retreated to after Albert’s death, so there are a number of outbuildings, some designed primarily for their nine children. We decided to first head to the Swiss Cottage, which Albert built as a place for the children to practice their domestic skills.  I wasn’t kidding about the size of the grounds; the signs claimed it was a kilometre away, but as it took us a good half hour to walk there (and I’m usually a pretty fast walker), I think that was a lie. Never fear, there is a sporadic shuttle bus for the less intrepid. This supposedly “child-sized” cottage was bigger than most actual chalets I’ve seen, with “rustic” furniture that was still incredibly ornate.  Only the upstairs part is open to the public, as half of the lower level has been converted into a tearoom, so we trekked slowly behind a gaggle of elderly people through the handful of rooms.  I don’t wish to disparage the elderly, as I generally prefer old people to young people, but damn, these people moved so slowly that they had caused an unnecessary queue, (this is not a criticism of their walking pace, which I know they can’t help, but of the time they spent gawping at things) and had no qualms whatsoever about completely blocking my view, something which would prove to be a common theme throughout the visit.  I suppose I shouldn’t be so hard on the poor dears; some of the older ones probably remembered the latter years of Victoria’s reign, and were simply reminiscing.

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Fortunately, we next progressed to the museum holding the Royal Children’s collections, which was excellent!  Being royalty, the objects they casually collected is the kind of stuff that would take pride of place in any normal museum; instead, it was all crammed together in dusty cases with rather terse captions, each curiosity more fabulous than the last.  There were extensive Egyptian and Native American collections, a taxidermy section that included a five-legged deer, and various rocks and minerals, but my favourite bit was the mishmash of oddities in the case to the right of the entrance.  Here I found a piece of wood from George Washington’s coffin (no dentures though!), a set of hand grenades taken from a lady anarchist who was executed on the street after being found with them, and a little doll made by a prisoner from wax and “partially masticated bread.” Honestly, after seeing this museum, I wouldn’t have minded if everything else was a bit crap.

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Around the Swiss Cottage, there were gardens interspersed with a miniature fortress with cannons, the entire deckhouse from the ship that carried Victoria’s body back to the mainland after her death, and a shed with wheelbarrows and wagons for each of the children.  After viewing all this, we decided to next check out the beach, as it was said to have ice cream for sale, and we were feeling peckish after all the walking (we’d visited Carisbrooke Castle that morning, so we weren’t just being lazy at this point).

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Access to the beach was via the “rhododendron” path, another twenty minute walk through (you guessed it) a rhododendron lined trail.  Not being much of an outdoors person (understatement of the post, as evidenced by my pasty complexion), or having any inclination towards gardening, I wasn’t even that sure what a rhododendron was until taking this trail.  I’m still in the dark about what those terrible bushes are that smell like vomit, but which every rich person in Wimbledon puts in their garden.  Can anyone enlighten me as to what those stink bushes are, and why people seem to love the foully odoriferous things so much?  Anyway, the wooded trail suddenly opened up into a compact little beach, and we emerged blinking into the rare English summer sun.

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It wasn’t really warm enough that day to go wading (though that didn’t stop a few other people from swimming), so we promptly made tracks for the ice cream hut.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that they offered knickerbocker glories and sundaes (only one type of sundae, it is still Britain, after all, and we can’t be having all those choices) in old fashioned sundae glasses, but they were big sundaes, and unusually for me, I didn’t feel like I could put that much ice cream away right then, so I went for two scoops, which still turned out to be enormous for the price, at least by London standards, and topped it with the free (!) syrups on offer.  After wolfing that down, I took the time to pose in front of Victoria’s bathing machine which had a suspiciously narrow door for her aged portly frame.  I think only she was modest enough to bother with a bathing machine, as the children learned to swim in a netted safety contraption designed by Albert (I wish I could say the same; I had the fun of almost drowning during lessons at the Y, and still can’t swim properly).

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Fortified by the ice cream, we felt up for another lengthy walk back to the actual house, somehow managing to bypass the Ice House, which was meant to be somewhere on the way to the Swiss Cottage.  I felt like I’ve seen enough ice houses elsewhere that I wasn’t terribly bothered, plus my feet hurt and I wanted to spare myself the backtrack.  However, approaching the house from the rear gave us the opportunity to investigate the well-manicured gardens, which were especially lovely, and all the flowers were in bloom, another bonus!

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Upon entering the house, we were asked to present our tickets, so keep yours handy to avoid having to embarrassingly sort through the entire contents of your bag in front of the admissions lady.  Photography wasn’t allowed inside the house, so you’re just going to have to use your imagination for the next bit (or have a peek at the website).  The state rooms on the ground floor of the house were just as imposing as I’d imagined; the hallways were lined with classical busts and exquisite tiles (I assume they were imported, rather than being made at Jackfield, but you never know), and others were full of paintings, most with a religious or mythological theme. There was a Council Room, wherein Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone for Victoria, a Billiards Room, and a Drawing Room that was a bit too yellow for my tastes.  Downstairs, we got a brief view of the servants’ quarters in the form of a servery and china cabinet/room, with a handwritten list of menus on display.  (Isn’t servery a gross word?  It makes me think of disgusting cafeteria food.)

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We were then directed upstairs to see the family rooms, several of which were filled with a nice exhibit on Victoria’s descendants (the vast majority of European royalty), complete with photographs of everyone, from dissipated old Bertie, to haemophiliac Leopold (and some good portraits of the Royal Family, including one that made Louis IV of Hesse look far more dashing than he did in real life (he was unpleasantly beardy, but here he was shown with his handsome youthful mustache)).  Unfortunately, I couldn’t properly enjoy them because some mother insisted on dragging around her bratty child, who wouldn’t stop snivelling.  I get that children lack self-control, but surely the mother could have had enough sense to take him outside until he calmed down, instead of subjecting us all to his shrieks, whilst remarking to her companion how articulate he was (yeah, it’s great that your small child can remark how he hates everything, but it doesn’t make up for his obnoxiousness!). Even the staff were giving them dirty looks. She wasn’t the only person who got under my skin at Osborne House; also up there was a lady who decided to park her capacious ass in front of the “Horn Room” for literally ten minutes, completely blocking the door with her wide frame so that no one else could hope to see inside.  I thought the agreed upon social convention was to look for a minute or two, and then graciously move aside when it becomes clear that other people are craning their necks to see around you.  Well, this lady clearly didn’t get the message. Ugh, all right, rant over (for now).

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Moaning aside (and I do love to complain), there were plenty more delights to behold inside the house. I adored the statue of Albert as some sort of ancient Greek, clad in a revealing tunic.  Though I seriously doubt (and photographs back me up on this) that he was that muscular in real life, it is a testament to the privacy and degree of comfort Victoria must have felt here that she prominently placed such a sexy statue in full view of the staircase.  Also upstairs were Albert’s private office and bathroom, and most poignantly, Victoria’s bedroom, site of her death.  It was closed off immediately afterwards for some fifty years, and thus preserved as a sort of shrine, so you can still see the actual bed she died in, which includes a secret plaque (intended for her eyes only) in remembrance of Albert, and has a large plaque above the headboard that her children added after her death, in memory of her matriarchal role.  All the paintings in the room were behind the bed, so I hope someone had opened the curtains on the day she died, so she wasn’t just left staring at a blank wall.  I guess it says something for the mood of the place, that it left me feeling quite sympathetic towards Victoria.

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Looking around the house probably took somewhere between an hour to ninety minutes, after which we went to look at the walled garden, followed by a trip back behind the house to see John Brown’s bench, which we missed the first time around.  John Brown as in her trusted Scottish servant, that is, not the notorious American abolitionist.  After a brief swing by the gift shop to pick up some postcards, we headed to the bus stop, subject of another beef (though I stress, this is in no way the fault of Osborne House).  The bus from Osborne House to Ryde (where the hovercraft and some of the ferries come in) runs only once an hour, despite the fact that the house shuts at 5, and the grounds close at 6, so clearly quite a few people are going to be taking the 5:30 bus.  We got there twenty minutes early, which made for a boring wait, (even Kendal Mint Cake wasn’t an adequate distraction, but then I do prefer fudge, but it turned out to be lucky we did as only the first six people in the queue were allowed on the packed bus (we barely squeezed on).  Seriously, most of the other buses I saw on the Isle of Wight were double deckers, so why on earth would they send a normal bus during what is obviously a peak time? There was a long queue of people behind us, who presumably had to stand there for another hour, or try to get a cab.  The situation was pretty ridiculous, and I don’t understand why they can’t at least run a bus every half an hour, especially towards the end of the day.

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Well, I clearly had some issues on the day of the visit, but none of them were really the fault of Osborne House (other than the pushy men at the door trying to sell memberships, but you get that at every English Heritage and National Trust property), so I won’t let it detract from my score, which is 4.5/5.  The house and grounds were gorgeous, and whilst I wish more of the house was open to the public, I realise the upkeep must be an enormous undertaking, so I can understand why it’s not. But I can see why Victoria and Albert loved it so.  A grand outing, and surely a must-see for lovers of Victorian architecture, and of the royal couple themselves – just be aware that the other visitors might cause extreme annoyance (though blogging seems to be a good way to vent those frustrations!).

Lake Bled, Slovenia: Summer Tobogganing, Bled Castle, and an Insanely Photogenic Lake

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This isn’t strictly a museum post, although we did visit a museum inside Bled Castle (of which more later), but my trip to Lake Bled was amazing, so I couldn’t resist sharing some of it!  As you can see, the lake is stunning, but scenery alone does not a day out make.  Truthfully, one of my main motivations for visiting Lake Bled was the summer toboggan run I’d read about, and it did not disappoint!

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I first spotted the toboggan track from across the lake, and was honestly kind of intimidated.  It was situated on the side of a huge, steep hill, and actually looked pretty scary, not least of all because the cars you rode on appeared to be made of plastic.  I pressed through the fear for once, because it did look super fun.  You can either walk up the hill, or take the chair lift, but since the ticket price includes the chair lift, why in the hell would you choose to walk?  Though the views from the top are fantastic, you don’t really have much time to appreciate them once you get strapped in to your little yellow sled, as you’re too busy concentrating on not dying.

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Seriously, the cars aren’t attached to the track in any permanent way; they just kind of slap them back on the rail after they get detached at the bottom and sent back up via the chair lift. And you control the speed yourself, via the brake/accelerator attached to your sled.  Despite all these perils, I can’t recommend this highly enough.  It was probably some of the most fun I’ve ever had.  I only got to go down the hill twice, but I could have happily stayed here all day if the tickets weren’t so damn expensive.

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The other main activities around Lake Bled, other than eating ice cream (which I of course indulged in) are taking the gondola (or row boat) out to the island to see the church, or walking up a steep-ass hill to see the castle.  Surprisingly, despite my distaste for exertion, we opted to see the castle, as they were packing the gondolas full to bursting, and I didn’t much fancy a sweltering boat trip whilst boxed in by sweaty strangers.  The long slog up the hill was helped somewhat by the ice cream vendor conveniently situated at the bottom of the trail.  A generous scoop of chocolate hazelnut gelato can even turn a hike into less of a chore.

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Upon reaching the castle, we were greeted with even more steps, plus an 8 euro admission charge.  Having paid (there was no way I was just going to walk straight back down again), we then proceeded into the small museum housed within the castle.

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Despite the presence of terrible wax figures, the museum wasn’t really anything special.  I think most people just come for the view, so the museum was a bit of an afterthought.  There was a section about geology, and then some information about the history of the region, which was accompanied by wax representations of peoples who had lived in the area.  The most interesting part for me was a room upstairs with a video about the history of the spas at Lake Bled, with accompanying photographs.  Nearly everything in the museum had an English translation, so there weren’t any language issues; there just wasn’t a whole lot of stuff there.

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Naturally, if you’ve made it up the hill, you’re going to want to take some pictures of the view, which we duly did.  There are a few shops and restaurants in the castle area, including a wine cellar, but the only other attraction we visited was the print shop (where I totally got suckered into buying a print. The paper was handmade!  I couldn’t resist!), which also featured a wax preacher at the top of some stairs, and a small exhibit about the history of printing in Slovenia.

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Strolling back down the stairs was markedly more pleasant than trudging up them, not least because I got the pleasure of passing panting people (how’s that for alliteration?) on their way up.  There was an attractive church at the bottom of the hill, and of course, more ice cream.

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As we could hear distant thunder, and the threat of rain was upon us, we didn’t linger too much longer in Bled.  I feel slightly guilty about not visiting the island or trying the famous cream cake, but I suppose it just gives me an excuse to return.  Though I still might pass on the cream cake, as it looked more like a slab of custard topped with whipped cream than an actual cake, and I have a special loathing for non-frozen custard.

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The views, lake, and toboggan run all get 5/5.  Perfection.  The castle museum only gets 2/5, but like I said, I don’t think people are hiking up there for the museum, and I’ve no complaints about the view from there.  This will be the first post in a series on Slovenia and Graz, Austria, so expect to hear a lot more about the area in the coming few weeks!