Spacal, Štanjel, & Facing Me


It all started on the day I walked into Galerija Hest, in Ljubljana, came face to face with it, and stopped dead in my tracks. My eyes beheld it and my heart knew it. The layers I’d been peeling away little by little during my existential crisis were staring back at me. My eyes travelled down, down, down, layer by textured layer. You have been progressing, they proposed. Yes, I agreed, these recent days had been something of an epiphany. At that moment I knew the Lojze Spacal print transfixing me was going to be making a long journey back to Australia. That was in 2012. And I carried it all the way.

Five years later, the Spacal print still lives with me on a daily basis and I am on another journey. A pilgrimage if you like, to the village of Štanjel in Slovenia where a large collection of Spacal’s work is on permanent display at Štanjel  Castle. It’s a journey I feel compelled to take. There’s not exactly a direct route from Ljubljana, it involves one train change and a wait there and back, but it’s do-able in a day. With planning.

Once out of the Štanjel  train station area, I figured I had to head in the general direction of the castle on the hill, clearly visible. So that involved a climb. And I couldn’t help thinking how everything new and unknown that we tackle involves a climb of some sort, whether it be through hoops, up rock faces, or out of the depths of darkness. The climb was a good opportunity to notice everything around me. I stopped to admire the view more: the funny molded concrete picket fences broken here and there (were they remnants of the days of Communism, I wondered), the lush green summer field grasses and smiling flowers, the wood-stick low fences, stacks of timber ready for winter fires, and pomegranates, walnuts, figs, apples, vegetable plots. It was lovely and the climb subsequently diminished in enormity.

As I sat under the large beech tree and some neighbouring pines in the castle courtyard, preparing to encounter the Spacal collection, the church bell of St Daniel chimed 12 midday. The ‘angelus’ call, how timely!

The stairs were wooden and they creaked, so I couldn’t really sneak up on him! Neither could I approach my encounter in silence. I can’t tell you what it was like, to be surrounded by so many of his works arranged in order from his earliest to his latest. When I gazed at them it was like being inside his head. I so get his thinking. I so see how he sees, because that’s how I view and experience the world around me. I always look at shape and line first, and a feeling always surfaces. I can easily reduce a complex scene to its basic forms. And I did delight in his offerings, to see his world, his landscapes, as he expressed them: scenes from his home life, the Karst, and the coast, and especially the salt pans which must have held an added attraction for him. I found it so affirming to be time-warped amongst them and I had an impulsive urge to learn about woodcuts, for they express his style so admirably. His early works are stylised and simple two dimensional forms, with more colour on the whole. Then he moved into a period where he added much more detail, even though he kept to line and shape. Less colour there. Those are very complex. And then later he moved back to simpler forms beautifully arranged, with maybe just one or two strong colours. They are his crowning glory.

And so if we can reduce what we see around us to its most elementary form in art, isn’t there a lesson here? Why do we hold and carry so much clutter in our heads, our lives?  Why do we feel the need to do this? What can we reduce to simplify our lives, to really notice what’s around us, and in us? To acknowledge it, and own it? As I enter a phase of my life where it feels important to be stripping away non-essentials I receive and hold Spacal’s offerings even more.

I mused on those things as I walked the Fabiani path around the Štanjel fortifications, sallied in the Ferrari Gardens, and entered a more wooded, enveloping laneway past a paddock full of donkeys to the village of Dolnji Kobdilj, typical of Karst villages. I had to smile. The donkeys weren’t a bit interested in me. They had it all worked out. They were perfectly content just being donkeys, and doing what donkeys do. Couldn’t be simpler!

Some notes on Štanjel itself :

Stanjel, especially the castle area, is one of those intriguing places that appears to be suspended in time. While the castle hill has been settled since prehistoric times, the main part of what can be seen today started out as a fortress to protect the locals from potential Ottoman attack in the 15th Century. As with all places of strategic importance, it underwent various changes over time! And it’s these changes, the hidden and surprising delights, that make the experience such an enjoyable one.

Between the two World Wars a resident architect, Max Fabiani, who also happened to be the Mayor, was instrumental in the legacy of Karst influences that remain and are evident throughout the buildings in the town. Unfortunately, towards the end of WWII, fire destroyed part of it and much damage occurred. Today there are still workmen busily restoring this beautiful piece of the past. I was intrigued with the stone gutters suspended along the edges of slate roofing, and the large fountains into which the water drained.

The Ferrari Gardens were designed by Fabiani to complement the villa of one Dr Ferrari from Trieste who planned it as a sanatorium for people suffering with lung diseases. And in and around the main square, the village of Kobdilj boasts three “spahnjenca”, typical of the Karst region. They are kitchens, separated from their main buildings, with distinctive tall chimneys. Apparently quite rare. The Fabiani Path, which I walked, links all of these places.


around Grosuplje – gems lie waiting off the beaten track


Pull up a map of Slovenia, pick a spot, and I guarantee that you will find a path with enough cultural and historical treasures to fill at least a day, if not more. Engage a Tour Guide from the Association of Regional Guides of Slovenia (ARGOS)* and your time will be truly value-added.

Case in point: the countryside surrounding Grosuplje, just a stone’s throw southeast of Ljubljana and within the shadow of Magdalene Mountain, a prehistoric site of ancient dwellers. From the highway heading in the general direction of Novo Mesto I’d passed the signs to Groslupje many times, but never imagined what was lying in wait!

There’s something intriguing about encounters with food. Especially when those encounters reach back into times gone by, times when people ate only what they grew or raised, and made the best possible use of the excess by preserving it in some form. In the village of Gradež,  just a short distance east in the general direction of Turjak, villagers have restored Sušilnica sadja Gradež (a fruit drying house), now something of a rarity, and revived the associated food and drink traditions of the region. A summer walk through the village revealed fruit trees in their plenty: apples, pears, and plums – with dense dark green foliage   and fruit ripening to fullness. Come autumn it will be cut and dried, without additives, on large wooden trays inserted into a giant closet. A fire of oak and birch will be lit underneath and the fruit will dry slowly until it is ready for consumption. “Trubar’s Meal’, a staple from days gone by, is offered in the heritage-furnished rooms behind the drying room and it was indeed an encounter of a special kind.

Visually Trubar’s Meal spoke of simplicity: a ceramic bowl of millet porridge, a wooden spoon placed carefully next to it, and a tin mug of dried fruit-infused tisane. Texturally the millet had a grainy consistency. A sprinkling of sugar added a crusty layer of crunch with the first mouthful. As the spoonfuls disappeared inward another surprise awaited: the softened leatheriness of plump boiled prunes, adding natural sweetness and contrasting smoothness. A perfect pairing indeed!. Soul in a bowl! A basket of dried fruit bread completed the offering. For someone not raised on millet it was a unique experience, not to mention discovering the many ways that dried fruit was utilised in the everyday diet.

Just a little to the east, and at the end of a narrow winding track snaking off from the road between Grosuplje and Škocjan is a building of rare occurrence in Slovenia. It is Tabor Cerovo, a small fortified church sitting proudly at the top of a hill within a thickly wooded forest. The pretty little church itself dates from the 12th Century, the fortifications were added in the 15th Century to shield the locals from attacks by the Turks as they forged their way north towards Austria, and the frescoes of such ageing clarity were added in the 16-17th Centuries. A climb to the top of the tower revealed why the positioning of little church was one of such importance. Like pushing one’s head above the clouds, it takes in views above the treetops of the rolling hills of Doljenska, a great advantage for ‘receiving’ news, potentially un-welcome, in times without Internet!

A short distance south of Tabor Cerovo one finds Županova jama  (Mayor’s Cave). The familiar white Karst rock peeps above ground here and thrusts upwards there, mosses and tiny ferns grow in crevices and on impossibly vertical surfaces, and the forest trees cast their protective arms over the whole scene. While the caves of Postojna and Škocjan are well known to tourists and locals alike, this lesser known cavernous treasure of 8 halls is also part of the geological structure of the Slovene Karst. 610 metres of viewing path within the 8 halls reveals sinter pools, stalagmites and stalactites, columns and flowstones. It is also a really cool place to be on a hot day, which it was when I visited!

From the confines of thickly forested hills to the open spaces of Radensko polje there couldn’t be a greater contrast. With tractors moving about like giant red beetles, and crops growing almost before our eyes, it was hard to imagine the unpredictable nature of this specific natural phenomenon that stretched out before us. These fields sit on Karst country, and they come complete with sinkholes, springs and estavelles synonymous with karst. Water from river and spring sources fills the polje, and just as quickly it disappears only to rise up kilometres further on, feeding the Ljubljanica River to the west, and the Krka River to the east. I could only hope that the farmers get their timing right when it comes to sowing and reaping. Imagine the heartache if they didn’t! Then again, the vagaries of the polje are well known.

*More information about these places and more in the area can be found by contacting local guides at this link ARGOS



An Historic Pathway – Ljubljana in the Communist Era

A sense of curiosity seems to come naturally to me, especially for those things I have never experienced directly. I would put Communism in that category. As I move around Slovenia I experience the country as it is now. The books I read give me some glimpses into the difficult days spanning pre-WWI, through WWII and into the struggle for independence: The Tree with No Name, Northern Lights, Joyce’s Pupil (Drago Jancar), Murisa (Feri Lainscek), The Hidden Handshake (Ales Debeljak), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce), Fuzine Blues (Andrej Skubic), and the poems of Srecko Kosovel. An opportunity to learn more, experientially, presented itself in the form of the Ljubljana 4-Hour Heritage of Communism Tour, the brainchild of Lidija Deu and Mateja Kregar Gliha, both of whom grew up in post-WWII Yugoslavia – Lidija in Ljubljana, and Mateja a stone’s throw from Ljubljana. Through their eyes and memories, stories and anecdotes, I came closer to understanding life and living during the days of Tito’s leadership.


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Resplendent in blue caps and red neck scarves, we took part in a ceremony re-enacting the graduation of elementary school students to the status of Pioneer.  This ceremony, on  the Day of the Pioneers, was carried out on September 29 each year from 1947 until 1989/90. The caps and scarves were prized possessions, worn on all special occasions.


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The beginning of the Sixties saw intentional urban development modelled on neighbourhood planning methods via Sweden. Walking through one of these communities was certainly an eye-opener. Savsko naselje, Lidija’s home as a child, comprised approximately 2,000 apartments and housed 7,000 people. Down every street, and around every corner, she burst with enthusiasm and happy memories of the time she spent living and playing with her neighbourhood friends. Everything was included in the planning: shops, services, schools, day care, sports facilities, playgrounds. It is a very green area, with grass and tree-lined streets. Each neighbourhood includes unique car parking arrangements. I’d always wondered what purpose those structures served. Now I know! With its level of greenness and its proximity to the centre of Ljubljana, Savsko naselje is a desirable address today and maintains its property values.


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A wonderful display of manufactured products from the era is housed in the Museum of Contemporary History. Some of the goods continue to be produced to this day, others are lovingly remembered and stored in memories of the past. The production of milk over time, and its related purchase cost, was visually represented with coins. It’s a good thing we have paper notes now, or our wallets would have to be monstrous! Another insight was the vast number of badges produced as incentives to employees for commitment to their work. Both Lidija and Mateja reflected on their personal collections of these. Gamification has all kinds of applications! And an encouragement to save was represented by an array of money boxes from metal and clay to plastic.


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All senses were catered for. Even taste! This came in the form of a “Communist” snack. First of all there was a bottle (original packaging) of Cockta, a soft drink that went onto the market in 1953. Made from dog-rosehip and 11 secret herbs and spices, it’s not unlike but beats Coca Cola handsdown. In my opinion! For the sweet-tooths there was a packet of Kiki candies. And for savoury lovers there was a bread roll, zemljica, together with Kekec (he’s a character from children’s literature)brand speadable paste. What more could anyone want during an absorbing afternoon of immersion in all things communist?


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I was really surprised to learn that the Parliament Building dates back to the late Fifties. The clean lines, contrasting textures and colours, and the arrangement of figures around the entrance I find particularly appealing. In the same way, the simplicity and style of the Gallery of Modern Art entirely suits its purposes, and this building, too, is a product of the Communist era. Not quite in the appealing category, but no less significant are the ‘twin towers’ on one side of Republike trg. They were the HQ for Iskra, one of the largest Yugoslav workers’ self-management systems – capitalism under the red banner – a system created by Edvard Kardelj and epitomising Yugoslavia’s specific economic and ideological path. An example of one of their enterprising items was the telephone…so advanced for its time that it was chosen as the means of communication for the Moscow Olympics.


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Every society remembers its past and its figureheads with monuments dedicated to their memory and contribution. And Slovenia is no different. What characterises her public works is a sense of solidarity. This manifests itself in the materials, styles, sombre colours and the subject representations. The most significant are clustered around or near Republike trg (Republic Square) where independence from Yugoslavia was announced on 25 June 1991.


Pathways Around and Beyond Crni Vrh

I am in Crni Vrh. Or am I on Crni Vrh? Crni Vrh translates literally as “black peak.”


A very small, somewhat elongated  village, it is to the west of Ljubljana, Slovenia, about one hour by bus. Elevation is approximately 800 metres. The view, from my traditionally-styled, timber-structured accommodation is to the south, with the sun rising to my left and setting to my right.

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Immediately below me, and down a very steep incline, a small valley opens up.  A stream, thickly forested on either side, snakes its way around the undulations within the valley. The road to Polhov Gradec weaves its way ever downwards, playing hide and seek with the trees and smaller sloping hills. Clusters of farm buildings occupy lush, cleared areas where agribusiness prevails.


Tractors haul gigantic bales of fodder from fields to farm sheds, chainsaws make short work of fallen timbers for winter heating, the last of the summer fruits are gathered, and gardens are being prepared for the winter season. Here and there cows dot the landscape, moving slowly as they graze on grass and carry out their roles as milk-making machines. The scene looks like a giant golf course, the only difference being that the bunkers are green, and the players are vehicles and animals.


Beyond the valley receding rows of hills and ranges, there must be at least five that I can count, stretch into the hazy distance – probably into Croatia. At night I can see the lights of Vrhnika which lies on the road to the coast. By day I can count three churches perched precariously on distant hilltops. If I walk to the top of the hilltop nearby where, you guessed it, there is a church, I can count another two looking in the opposite direction. Time passes and things change, but it is said that from any vantage point one should be able to see seven churches. And that’s across Slovenia!

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So why am I here? Well, it’s all because of a story. And even before I get into that story, I happened upon a quote from Jungian analyist, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, just this morning: “. . . go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you . . . work with these stories from your life . . . water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.” It couldn’t have been more timely, or more appropriate.

This world, in Crni Vrh, is all new to me, except for what I know from Ted Setnikar’s book, The Lacemaker’s Son. I am re-tracing some of his steps while creating a story of my own: two vastly different periods in time, and two different sets of circumstances. Even so, we all share a common purpose – to find ourselves.


As I lie in a warm, cosy bed staring out at the sun-bathed landscape that was home to Metod (Ted) in his formative, early years, I am reminded that his bed was the best he could construct with hay and rags in a farm out-building. It was just after the end of WWII, and things were tough. His working day, as a child, began before dawn. And in the bleak days of winter, rags tied around his feet served as shoes. Nature, and in particular the forest, became his friend, his retreat, and his sanctuary – places where he found peace for his troubled soul.

I wondered what would unfold for me as I ventured out towards the village. As I began the ascent the first of my sensory experiences was the unmistakeable, earthy smell emanating from a dairy. The next was a friendly greeting from one Golden Retriever who decided I was to be his friend for the day, or at least for as far as he decided he would accompany me. This was followed, at the junction of my path and the main road, by an exchange of pleasantries with a smiling, elderly lady busy in her garden (planting asters, actually). I spied the school, the three-storeyed building perched neatly on its rock-solid base at a bend in the road – the school that saw less of Ted rather than more, for reasons that the book explains – and which I will not spoil! On I went, looking this way and that. Round this corner and the next. I wondered which house was the Priest’s, the Priest who would not share a slice of bread for a hungry child. And where was the store? Not there anymore. A crumbling shed caught my attention. It’s timbers were giving in to the elements. But it had character. It spoke of a life well-lived, and not quite over yet.


I passed the bus stop, where someone had installed an upholstered seat from home. I smiled.


At the next road junction I was drawn to the church. Does a church on a hill have magnetic appeal? A hidden force with a beckoning come-hither? This one did. Up I went, around the hill until I reached the top and 360 degree views. For how many people has this been a place of worship over time? Who were these people? How did they view their life here, in this one small part of the world?


Back at the junction I could see Mt Triglav, Slovenia’s reference point. And I walked in that direction, ultimately drawn to a forest path where I found my own place of solitude. No agenda. Just a place to be open. And to receive. To feel connectedness with the ebb and flow of life all around me, and the energies and vibrations of the universe.


Ted moved on. Over the years he watered his story, and to quote Pinkola Estes, “burst into bloom.” His story has touched the lives of countless people, including mine. It takes time and it takes courage to journey within, to let go, and to find one’s true self. And it can start in any place. A place like Crni Vrh.


Piero Della Francesca’s Balconies

Normally, and naturally enough, our eye is drawn to the subject of a painting and we don’t always pay a great deal of attention to the background.

Correspondingly, when we are in the countryside we are often transfixed by a scene that we might call picturesque or even sublime. But do we think of it as the possible site or making of a masterpiece?

During the Renaissance, an area know as Montefeltro straddled parts of what is now Emilia Romagna, Marche, Umbria and Tuscany. An art research project has identified 7 sites usied by Pierro della Francesca as backgrounds in 8 of his paintings. These sites, or balconies (cultural and panoramic viewpoints), are moving towards pilgrimage status.

Here’s one of them…Portrait of Battista Sforza. In the background the valley of the Marecchia River.

Battista Sforza

And here’s another one. Portrait on a Bad Hair Day. Same location, haha!

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Wanderings in Rimini

Shrouded in a pale grey veil. Colour and place come to life as the sun emerges victorious: blocks of glistening marble on the Roman bridge, painted houses squeezed tightly into narrow streets, bobbing yachts on the Marecchia, a still Adriatic stretching and merging with the horizon, the ‘wedding cake’ Grand Hotel,…

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Roman remains…

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Yarn bombing…

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Interesting places…

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Public spaces…

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Sette Colli Della Romagna

Seven Hill Towns of Romagna:

Picture a relatively flat, agricultural landscape populated with villages and towns painted in numerous shades of pinks, golds and rusts with a generous supply of rustic clay bricks thrown into the mix.

Picture that landscape merging into a more densely populated coastal plain that finds its ultimate relief to the East in the Adriatic Sea between Rimini and Ravenna.

Picture a series of rolling hills rising from that same landscape to the northwest, west and southwest. And those rolling hills receding back to the horizon, layer beyond layer, in ever lightening and hazy shades of deep to light blue/grey. And ultimately merging with the Appenines.

And among those rolling hills, picture spectacular rising, rocky peaks dotted here and there, high above their hosting hills. And on each one of those peaks a town (or is it a crown!), clinging for all its life to the rocks and crags from which it appears to seamlessly emerge. Picture them on a windy day when everything receives a work out and a battering from trying to withstand the force of the horizontal lampooning.

Picture those towns in the process of being constructed. The effort, the energy and the labour that it would have taken to construct the maze of buildings making up each one so many centuries ago. Imagine the challenges taking in supplies. And the headaches involved in planning for and incorporating at a later date, services we take for granted – like running water, power, communication cabling…and these are thriving towns!

San Leo

How cars navigate the narrow winding streets of hilltop towns is a continual source of amusement for me. But navigate they do! And with determination and perseverance there is usually a parking space to be found somewhere. San Leo unravels from the main square via a maze of winding stone steps up and down the spur. There’s no point in trying to follow a map! Best be open to every possibility a doorway, archway, corner or opening offers. And unfold they do! Described variously as an art capital, San Leo bears testimony to that descriptor in past and present indicators all over. Home for approximately 3000 people, the buildings are mainly Romanesque and Renaissance. It was a place of passage for St Francis and for Dante. It was a place of imprisonment for the Count of Cagliostro and for Orsini. And Piero Della Francesca used scenes from the surrounding countryside as “balconies” in at least two of his paintings.

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Signage at the entry point to Montebello describes it as the city of honey, “Le Citta del Miele.”Apart from this descriptor the only other reference to honey that I could find was a point of sale at The Armoury in the Castle. Montebello has one other claim to fame: the legend of Azzurrina. A little girl, Guendalina, was born to her parents and lived a cloistered life because she was an albino and the subject of much superstition. In an attempt to hide the distinguishing features of albinism, her mother used natural dyes to mask the colour of her hair. On one of these attempts, Guedalina’s hair turned azure blue, the very same colour as her eyes, and so she became known as Azzurrina. One year, on the summer solstice, she was playing in the castle with a cloth ball, because the weather was bad outside. She fell through a trapdoor into the annals of subterranea and was never seen again. However, she is known to still be within the castle somewhere because on every summer solstice year that ends with a 0 or a 5 her cries can be heard.

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If you were serious about protecting yourself from invaders, the rocky peaks certainly made brilliant observation points. Not to mention places from which all manner of deterrents could rain down on the enemy. Torriana is one such place, and the fortress dating from the 15th Century was part of a system of fortresses that basically barricaded the region.

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This was an interesting one to navigate! Ways that seemed impossible always led to a surprising outcome. The town of 9000 people is clamped to the top and immediate downhill slopes of the peak. Verucchio has a system of ever-winding cobbled pathways winding back upon themselves, interconnected with steep flights of stairs that stretch forever upwards and downwards. And it has the BEST aperol spritzes! These are essential for recovery. (But not recommended for tackling further flights of steps until the effects of the alcohol have well and truly passed.)

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Imagine being there during late afternoon, with the sun casting its last golden rays of the day, and with everyone emerging from their shuttered apartments ready to socialise, shop and play. It’s a city of 20000 overall, mostly sprawling outwards from the base of the hill, but the Old Town of Santarcangelo clings to the hilltop and is a veritable smorgasbord of buildings and picturesque streets enclosed by a 15th Century walls. Many of the buildings are enjoying sympathetic renovation with sections of wall exposed to reveal previous centuries’ finishes. Others are still in their rustic state, with roughly cut wooden shutters and doors. There’s a sense of peace and calm among the churches, towers, fortress, archways and winding steps. And the whole town sits atop a maze of 150 grottos thought to have been constructed by the Romans. Today many are used to store wine, but the jury is still out on their original purpose. Architecturally they are quite extraordinary.

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Sant’Agata Feltria

Sant’Agata Feltria is home of the annual white truffle fair, held on each Sunday through October. And the stalls laden with fresh truffles, truffle infused oils, and truffle condiments snake their way through the piazzas and streets of the old town. The wines of the region are show-cased alongside the truffles, cheeses, chestnuts, mushrooms, honey and herbs  – regional specialties. The fortress perched on the peak is one of the most beautiful. It could have stepped directly out of a fairytale. And as with all of the hill towns, the buildings have an essence of their own, giving each place its characteristic feel.

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Over the Pass from Sant’Agata Feltria, Pennabilli is built on two rocky outcrops and has a Medieval feel all of its own. There’s poetry in the air, thanks to the legacy of Tonino Guerra – writer, poet and screenwriter. His Places of the Soul  (see previous blog #2) make Pennabilli even more worthy of exploration! These places include the Refuge for the Abandoned Madonnas, the Road of the Meridians, the Path of Thoughts, the Sanctuary, the Flight of Thoughts, and the Garden of Forgotten Fruits, a collection of different fruits that once grew spontaneously in orchards dotted around the Apennine countryside but that are no longer cultivated.

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