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Not Austria Day Thirteen – Lakes and Mountains

View of London from Kenwood on Hampstead Heath

Dear Readers, there has been something noticeable missing from my attempt to replicate my annual holiday in Austria here in London under lockdown.

‘Why, Bugwoman’, I hear you ask, ‘Has there not been more walking uphill?’

And in order to correct this, today I headed off to Hampstead Heath to see if I could conjure up some vistas. The one above shows the City of London in all its splendour. You can see the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, and a small forest of cranes. Admittedly it’s not quite the same as the snow-capped peaks of the Dolomites as seen from the top of the Hochgurgl lift, but Dear Readers, it’s home. This is probably the longest period of time in my adult life that I have not ventured into central London, and I miss it sorely, but am still reluctant to risk public transport while the number of new infections is still so high. Hey ho. Hopefully things will improve at some point.

Hampstead is a hot spot for dog watching – there was a Bernese Mountain Dog and a bear-sized chocolate Newfoundland – but what I loved was the smell of linden blossom from a nearby lime tree. It always takes me back to the magnificent tree in Mum and Dad’s village, and the brief moments I would spend underneath it, inhaling the scent, as I took a few moments between errands. I think it might turn out to be my ‘signature scent’.

Linden blossom

And then, to balance out the mountain, we headed off to the ‘Lake’ – the model boating lake to be exact. I wasn’t expecting to see this, though!

This fine model ferry was chugging along, and we got talking to its creator, John. The ship is a scale model of the Vecta, which was a Red Funnel ferry sailing from Southampton to Cowes in the Isle of Wight during the 1950’s. John grew up in Southampton, and used to take the ferry as a child, so he got the plans from Thorneycroft (the boat builders) and created this wonderful ship, complete with passengers.

What a lovely man! He only lives around the corner from the Heath, and so I imagine he pops the Vesta under his arm and brings her down to the lake for an airing every so often. I do so love an enthusiast.

As we watched, swifts were circling around and diving down to the surface of the water to snatch a drink. There was a great crested grebe or two on the other side of the lake too.

Great crested grebe

There has been a lot of work on the lakes at Hampstead recently to reduce the risk of flooding, but one fortunate side-effect has been extensive planting at the edges of this formally rather bare place. I am in love with wild carrot, and there was plenty of it coming into flower. I love the way that the early blooms look like little nests.

Carrot flower just opening

And then, when they unfurl, they often have a single red flower in the centre – it’s believed that this mimics the appearance of a pollinator, encouraging other hoverflies and bees to pop down for something to eat.

We wandered around the back of some of the smaller ponds – there’s a lot in flower at the moment, and the lesser knapweed is looking particularly splendid.

Lesser knapweed

Plus I love the drifts of purple loosestrife and lesser knapweed and various hawkbits. As you know from previous posts, I do love a good drift.

And it is going to be a sensational year for acorns. If I was a jay I would be getting very excited.

More than anything, today felt like the smallest of steps back towards some kind of normality – the cafe was open, the toilets were open, and people seemed a tiny bit more relaxed in themselves, though the vast majority of folk were still being scrupulous about social distancing. Of course, it’s a weekday, and I have no doubt that on a sunny Sunday the place will be heaving. But today, it was nice to just sit on a bench and watch an emperor dragonfly hawking for insects. We were briefly accosted by a small, fluffy magpie, who gave us a hopeful look though sadly we were all out of sandwich.

And then, as the clouds were gathering, we headed home, trying to keep a few steps ahead of the rain, just as we do in Obergurgl. We don’t always manage it, but usually we stay dry. And if you think there’s a metaphor in there, you’re probably right.

Not Austria Day Twelve – Wednesday Weed – Five Favourites

Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum)

Dear Readers, I know that you are not supposed to have favourites, but I must admit that there are five Alpine flowers that always lift my spirits when I see them on my annual ‘pilgrimage’ to Obergurgl. They are plants that I don’t see at home, and so, in an age when there is so much homogenisation, they remind me that some flora are so superbly adapted to their surroundings, so in harmony with the soil and the climate, that they cannot be moved anywhere else. I would no more think of trying to grow these plants at home than an Austrian would think of importing fish and chips.

One of these plants is the alpenrose, which is not a rose at all but a rhododendron, albeit a well-behaved miniature one. It grows in acid soils just above the tree line, and I can always tell what kind of winter Obergurgl has had by the condition of the plant. Some years, after a mild-ish winter, the flowering is almost finished when I arrive in early July. In other years, the alpenrose is still in bud. It has a close relative, the hairy alpenrose (Rhododendron hirsutum) that grows higher up and thrives on limestone.

Now, I know that the alpenrose has a special place in the hearts of the people of the Tyrol, but what I didn’t know was that the song ‘Alpenrose’, by Swiss singer Polo Hofer, was voted the ‘most popular Swiss song of all time’ in 2006. You can watch it at the link below, and I recommend you hang on until at least 38 seconds in when Mr Hofer does his modern dance interpretation of the song. See what you think.

Arnica (Arnica montana)

The Austrians have a fine, long tradition of herbalism, particularly in mountain regions where getting to a doctor would be expensive and difficult. Much as in the UK Comfrey was used as a poultice for all manner of bruises and sprains, in the Austrian Alps this plant was extensively used for the same complaints in both animals and humans. Arnica likes very poor, acid soils, and it is not common anywhere – I know of one or two spots around Obergurgl where it can be found, but it is grown commercially in France and Romania to make the ointments that you can buy in the chemist. The plant is also (like the alpenrose) moderately toxic.

One of the places that I’ve found arnica is also a reliable spot for marmots. You can often see these hare-sized rodents sunning themselves outside their burrows.


You can often also hear them telling the local Haflinger horses off. Not that the horses pay a lot of attention.

Now, my next plant is definitely not the prettiest thing that you can find in the Alps, though from a distance it does look like a small pool of concentrated sunlight. Close up, unfortunately, it is generally covered in flies. It is a plant of the bleakest, stoniest slopes. And the fact that it’s Latin name means ‘the most spiny’ just about sums it up. Whenever I see spiniest thistle, I know that I’m in the mountains. I notice it most when I start heading towards the scree slopes of the side valleys at Obergurgl. I reckon that once I’ve seen a spiniest thistle, I’m at least 45 minutes walk from a Almdudler and an apfel strudel.

Spiniest Thistle (Cirsium spinosissimum)

The Rotmoos valley, home of many spiniest thistles

And of course, it wouldn’t be the mountains if I didn’t mention a gentian. There is nothing in nature that I’ve ever seen that is a truer blue. There are various species of gentian, but this one, the spring gentian, makes me stop in my tracks every year. It puts me in mind of the tenacity that is needed to survive harsh conditions, and how these plants have evolved to not just live through the snow and wind, but to thrive, turning their faces to the sun the instant that it appears. If there is one single reason why I love the Alps, the gentians are it.

Spring gentian (Gentiana verna)

But when I come to think about it, there is one plant that I love even more. It is found for just a few weeks when the snow starts to melt. Some years, when the spring is late, I find it in abundance in the valleys that are still blocked with snow drift. Where the edges of the snow are starting to melt, they reveal the sodden, yellow grass underneath, but these flowers are just opening. These are Alpine snowbells (Soldanella alpina), and with their fringed cups they remind me of the hats that elves are often pictured wearing, though their Latin name actually means ‘little coin’. If the winter has been mild, and the snow is already gone, I won’t see these flowers  – they will have already bloomed and died back. But on a late year, they will be found in some of the side valleys, their heads nodding in the freezing breeze, waiting for pollination by some intrepid passing bee. They make the climb worth the effort, and they relieve the anxiety that crossing a snowfield always causes me. There are tiny, low-growing rewards everywhere in the Alps, scattered across the scree like a handful of precious stones.

Alpine snowbells (Soldanella alpina)

Do you have a favourite flower? Now I’ve started thinking about it, I could list at least a dozen UK plants that I love, and I’m sure it would always be changing. Plants can be so charged with memories of places and people. Some people love the flowers of their childhood, some love the plants of their homeland, and some see something in a plant that seems to capture a value that they hold, or a quality that they admire. Let me know! I love the connections that we make with the natural world, and with one another, through plants.

Not Austria Day Eleven – The Sunday (Alpine) Quiz – The Answers

Photo One by By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Dear Readers, this was obviously a busy week for everyone – no one had the time to attempt the whole quiz, but hats off to Anne, who managed to get all ten of the Alpine birds correct! Next week I shall go for something a little more user friendly. Do have a listen to the song of the wallcreeper though, it’s extraordinary….

Dear Readers, here are the answers to Sunday’s quiz.

Part One – Name the Bird

Photo One by By Lefteris Stavrakas - Βουνοσταχτάρα Alpine Swift Tachymarptis melba, CC BY-SA 2.0,

1)f) Alpine swift (Apus melba)

Photo Two by By Jarkko Järvinen - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

2)i) Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Photo Three by By Shah Jahan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

3)g) Lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni)

Photo Four by By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

4)j) Eurasian nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes)

Photo Five by By I, Malene, CC BY 2.5,

5)b) Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Photo Six by By Kookaburra 81 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

6)c) Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria)

Photo Seven by By Paco Gómez from Castellón, Spain - Acentor alpino (Prunella collaris)-2, CC BY-SA 2.0,

7)e) Alpine accentor (Prunella collaris)

Photo Eight By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

8)h) White-winged snow finch (Montifringilla nivalis)

Photo Nine by Public Domain,

9)a) Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)

Photo Ten by By Cuculus_canorus_vogelartinfo_chris_romeiks_CHR0791.jpg: Vogelartinfoderivative work: Bogbumper (talk) - Cuculus_canorus_vogelartinfo_chris_romeiks_CHR0791.jpg, GFDL 1.2,

10)d) Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

Part Two – Bird calls

I think I’d have recognised the cuckoo, the lesser kestrel and the barn swallow out of this lot, but the rest would have been really tricky. I think the snow ‘finch’ sounds pretty sparrow-y, and the Alpine swift sounds a bit swift-y, but I’d have been stumped by the wallcreeper’s haunting call if I hadn’t been lucky enough to hear it in real life. And don’t eagles always sound a bit feeble considering their size? I always expect them to roar.

i) Photo 2 – Golden eagle

ii) Photo 9 – Snow bunting

iii) Photo 10 – Common cuckoo

iv) Photo 1 – Alpine swift

v) Photo 6 – Wallcreeper

vi) Photo 5 – Barn swallow

vii) Photo 7 – Alpine accentor

viii) Photo 3 – Lesser kestrel

ix) Photo 8 – White-winged snow ‘finch’

x) Photo 10 – Eurasian nutcracker.


Photo One by By Lefteris Stavrakas – Βουνοσταχτάρα Alpine Swift Tachymarptis melba, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two by By Jarkko Järvinen – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Three by By Shah Jahan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Four by By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Photo Five by By I, Malene, CC BY 2.5,

Photo Six by By Kookaburra 81 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Seven by By Paco Gómez from Castellón, Spain – Acentor alpino (Prunella collaris)-2, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Eight By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Nine by Public Domain,

Photo Ten by By Cuculus_canorus_vogelartinfo_chris_romeiks_CHR0791.jpg: Vogelartinfoderivative work: Bogbumper (talk) – Cuculus_canorus_vogelartinfo_chris_romeiks_CHR0791.jpg, GFDL 1.2,

Sound File i) by Stelian Bodnari, XC504827. Accessible at

Sound File ii) by Timo Janhonen, XC514050. Accessible at

Sound file iii) from Bodo Sonnenburg, XC572326. Accessible at

Sound file iv) by Jordi Calvet, XC544109. Accessible at

Sound file v) by Stanislas Wroza, XC569274. Accessible at

Sound file vi) by Alain Verneau, XC560258. Accessible at

Sound file vii) by Jarek Matusiak, XC531036. Accessible at

Sound file viii) by José Carlos Sires, XC388647. Accessible at

Sound file ix) by Stanislas Wroza, XC569246. Accessible at

Sound File x) by Vincent Palomares, XC545508. Accessible at

Not Austria Day Ten – A Return to Barnwood


Dear Readers, one of the great pleasures of walking in Austria is finding a little patch of woodland as you come down from the higher, sunnier, more exposed slopes. I am lucky in living close to two small areas of ancient woodland , but there is a special place in my heart for one tiny patch of trees that was, until recently, a wilderness of brambles hidden away behind a fence. You might remember that back in November 2018 I paid a visit to Barnwood, a community forest garden just off Tarling Road in East Finchley. I had heard that there had been a lot of new planting, and that the site had been the scene of numerous community events since then, so I jumped at the chance for a visit when the opportunity presented itself last week. As the gate was unlocked, it was like stepping into another world. There have been new paths laid all around the site, a new hedge containing over a dozen wildlife-friendly shrubs has been planted, and the air was full of the buzzing of bees. The teasel has certainly set up home, and I have no doubt that in the autumn it will be covered in goldfinches.

There are a number of well-established fruit trees and shrubs, and there are plans to have foraging events for families, and maybe even a jam-making workshop at some point. There are some lovely old plums:

And the beech tree is full of nuts (either hazelnuts or cobnuts, depending on your view), though if it’s anything like the small saplings in my garden, the squirrels will be after them with great enthusiasm.


The volunteers at Barnwood have planted lots of berry bushes too, everything from exotic Goji berry to raspberries via loganberries and jostaberries. There’s a black mulberry  to honour London’s long association with the silk trade. This is especially welcome as these venerable trees are being grubbed up all over London to make room for luxury flat developments.

The oak tree is covered in acorns this year too, and I’m told that jays breed in the wood.

Look at all those acorns!

The site attracts a lot of insects: we saw a fresh-minted comma butterfly sunning itself on the brambles.

And a beautiful red-tailed  bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) seemed especially drawn to the bristly oxtongue, evidence that the best plants for pollinators are not always the showiest.

I loved seeing the smaller flowers too: there was some cut-leaved geranium with its tiny cerise flowers, and the tomato-red faces of scarlet pimpernel.

Cut-leaved geranium (Geranium dissectum)

I also love finding a plant that I haven’t seen before, and this one went to prove that although I’ve learned a lot through researching the Wednesday Weed, I still have a long way to go.

I saw this poor plant, which had been blown over, and cheerfully declared that it was caper spurge. 

And then I had a look at the flowers, and was so taken aback that I actually picked it up because I couldn’t believe that there were yellow daisy flowers attached to what I was so convinced was a euphorbia. Hah! That’ll teach me. It’s actually a prickly lettuce (Latuca serriola) and I definitely feel a Wednesday Weed coming on.

Barnwood manages to squeeze an extraordinary variety of plants into a small space. There is a fabulous guelder rose which is absolutely covered in hips this year.

Guelder rose

There are some Indian bean trees (Catalpa bignoniodes) in full flower – the friend who was showing me round said that they reminded him of foxgloves, and I can see exactly what he means.

And among the interesting shrubs that are being grown there is a medlar (Mespilus germanica). This close relative of the hawthorn has been eaten since Roman times, but the fruit needs to be ‘bletted’, either by frost or by being left in storage until the flesh becomes as soft as apple sauce. Apparently this isn’t the same as letting the medlar rot, though those unfamilar with the process often think that this is what has happened. In fact, the sugars in the fruit act as a preservative. The medlars can then be used to make jelly or medlar ‘cheese’, which resembles lemon curd.

Medlar fruit

So, it was lovely to revisit Barnwood, and to hear about the different events that have taken place. Holocaust Memorial Day has been honoured both with the planting of spring bulbs and fruit trees. There was a petting zoo event, which has led to a fine crop of oats and other cereals. There has been a mindfulness and relaxation event, and the socially-distanced trustees meeting took place in the woodland circle in the middle of the site. A flower-meadow is planned, and all in all it feels as if Barnwood is becoming a fantastic resource for the community. I shall certainly be reporting back on how things are going in the future.

Leftover grains from the petting zoo.

You can read about Barnwood on their Facebook page here or on Twitter here.


Not Austria Day Nine – The Sunday (Alpine) Quiz

Photo One by By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Dear Readers, although the Alps are a wonderful place for plants and invertebrates, other animals can be few and far between because the conditions are so harsh. So, this week I’m concentrating on birds that you might see during a walk in the mountains. And, to add an additional frisson, I’d like you to match the bird calls to the birds too (you all did much too well last week). So, here we go.

Part One – Name the Bird

All the birds pictured below can be found in the Alps for at least part of the year. Can you match the name to the photo? So, if you think bird 1 is a snow bunting, your answer is 1) a)

Hint: there are three little brown-ish birds here. Maybe the beak shape will help you out?

a) Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)

b) Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)

c) Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria)

d) Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

e) Alpine accentor (Prunella collaris)

f) Alpine swift (Apus melba)

g) Lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni)

h) White-winged snow finch (Montifringilla nivalis) NB this bird is actually in the sparrow family, so is not really a finch. If that helps. NB 2 It might also help you with the bird calls 🙂

i) Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

j) Eurasian nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes)

Photo One by By Lefteris Stavrakas - Βουνοσταχτάρα Alpine Swift Tachymarptis melba, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Photo Two by By Jarkko Järvinen - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Photo Three by By Shah Jahan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo Four by By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,


Photo Five by By I, Malene, CC BY 2.5,


Photo Six by By Kookaburra 81 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo Seven by By Paco Gómez from Castellón, Spain - Acentor alpino (Prunella collaris)-2, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Photo Eight By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,


Photo Nine by Public Domain,


Photo Ten by By Cuculus_canorus_vogelartinfo_chris_romeiks_CHR0791.jpg: Vogelartinfoderivative work: Bogbumper (talk) - Cuculus_canorus_vogelartinfo_chris_romeiks_CHR0791.jpg, GFDL 1.2,


Part Two – Bird calls

Now, I love you all but I think it was a wee bit too easy last week, so have a bash at this. If you manage to get three out of ten I think you’ll be doing well 🙂

So, if you think bird 1) is responsible for call i), your answer will be 1)i). That way even if you didn’t match the right species to the photos, you could still get a mark if you manage to match up the song.

Good luck people! I think this really is a stinker.












Not Austria Day Eight – Going Out

View along the Gaisbergtal valley, Obergurgl

Dear Readers, at this time of year, I would normally be gearing up for some of the harder walks in Obergurgl (having run out of all the easier ones). The walk in the photo, for example, is a long, punishing walk, uphill all the way. Some years it’s difficult to find the path because of all the snow, and we’ve crossed icy snowfields while listening to the rush of the hidden river underneath. In the middle of the photo you can see a little hut – this was where the customs post was, so that people entering Austria from Italy could ( in theory) pay their customs taxes. It is well documented that sometimes entire herds of sheep would pass this point without being ‘noticed’, and I do wonder how many bottles of schnaps passed hands in order to enable this to happen. 

Splendid Italian Tyrolean sheep

These sheep can hear the rustle of a lunch pack from a kilometre away, and think nothing of sticking their heads under your arm to grab an apple or a cheese sandwich. They sometimes give birth up here too – you sometimes see the most delicate of lambs leaping from rock to rock.

But this year, I am finding that I have become extremely nervous about going anywhere new, even as the country is being urged to come out of lockdown, and I am wondering if anyone else is feeling the same. I have gone from intrepid traveller who went off to Borneo only a few months ago to someone who is feeling ill at ease at the prospect of a trip to Kentish Town this afternoon, just a few tube stops from East Finchley.

In some ways, this fear is perfectly reasonable – I have no confidence that Covid-19 is under anything like control. It will mean going on public transport, something that I’ve been avoiding. I haven’t technically been shielding but I do recognise that, at 60 years old and with a genetic propensity to developing deep vein thrombosis, I am at more risk than some other people. Since I travelled to Weymouth for Dad’s cremation, I haven’t been further than the High Street and our local woods. But in the absence of anything like sensible guidance, we in the UK  will all be having to make our own risk assessments over the next weeks and months. For me, there are dangers associated with staying in while my world gets smaller and smaller, just as there are risks in going out. I do not want my world to shrink to the point where I only really feel safe at home. I want to travel again and to explore my city once the dangers posed by Covid-19 have reduced to a manageable level (whenever that is). But I need to be able to make short journeys without having palpitations, and so, mask on and social-distancing radar in place, I shall do this little trip, and then later next week I’ll be doing some others.

My Mum became, to all intents and purposes, housebound for the last few years of her life. A trip to the doctor’s surgery became an event. Dad was no longer really capable of driving safely. And so, her world shrank and shrank. She became terrified of going outside. Once, we went to a local DIY store to buy tiles for the wet room that they were having installed (neither Mum nor Dad could stand up in the shower anymore, and it was too small for a seat). Mum had a full-blown panic attack, felt dizzy and breathless and had to sit in the little office with a cup of tea to calm down.

‘All the walls seemed to be coming in’, she said, when trying to explain how she felt.

Dad, meantime, announced that he liked sitting in his reclining chair and watching endless re-runs of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ because it made him feel ‘safe’. If he had a doctor’s visit on the calendar he would worry about it for days, checking the date and making sure that transport was in place. I remember him sitting in his chair, tapping his fingers endlessly as if playing some Mozart piece. When he came home after an appointment he would tumble into the house like a rabbit disappearing into its warren – in fact he had more falls tripping over the step on the way in than in any other place in the house, such was his panic and his relief at returning.

And so, one of the first things that occurred to me when ‘shielding’ was announced that there was going to be an epidemic of something like agoraphobia when people were finally allowed to go out.

I am lucky – I am feeling trepidation, but I have no doubt that I will push through it, however uncomfortable I feel. This is not the same as the real panic and distress that my Mum and Dad felt. People who have been shielding for months and who are truly vulnerable to the virus may well need support if they feel that they want to start venturing out. We must not underestimate the effect that the pandemic has had, and will continue to have,  on people’s mental health. I feel as if our society is fragile, with divisions between those who have seen or experienced Covid-19 first hand, and those who still think that it’s ‘not worse than the flu’. Some people will bust out and go to the pub at the first opportunity that they get, and others will continue to shield, terrified of the implications if they get the virus, and sensing that the world is full of dangers. Plus, with 65,000 excess deaths in the UK alone, with jobs lost and businesses ruined, with hopes dashed and plans in tatters,  we are a nation of mourners, and we are raw and exposed and full of grief.

If ever there was a time for being gentle with one another, for being kind, this is it.

Not Austria Day Seven – My Favourite Austrian Novel

‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler

Dear Readers, when picking a favourite Austrian novel, it really was a choice between two. For those of you wanting to understand the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its demise, I have no higher recommendation than Joseph Roth’s Radesky March. I’ve read it several times and it never fails to engross me with its sweep of history, its characters, and its cinematic quality. I love this book, as you might have gathered. But I have an even greater love for Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, maybe because it is centred on the Austrian Tyrol, and because in its  it tells the life of one ordinary man, Andreas Egger, who survives a brutal childhood, finds love, is swept up in to the Second World War, and returns to see his village changing.

Translators are often forgotten when reviewing books by overseas authors, so a shout out here to Charlotte Collins, who manages to capture the clarity, the poignancy and the humour of Seethaler’s prose.

The book starts with an incident.

‘On a February morning in the year 1933 Andreas Egger lifted the dying goatherd Johannes Kalischka, known to all the valley dwellers as Horned Hannes, off his sodden and rather sour-smelling pallet to carry him down to the village along the three-kilometre mountain path that lay buried beneath a thick layer of snow’.

And as the story unfolds, you might think that you are about to enter one of those magic-realism worlds. Fortunately not. Although there is much that is uncanny about these first few pages, the novel is grounded in reality.

‘A cable car was to be built. An aerial cable car powered by direct-current electricity, in whole light-blue wooden cabins people would  float up the mountain, enjoying a panoramic view of the whole valley.Cables twenty-five millimetres thick and intertwined like pairs of mating adders would slice through the sky across a distance of almost two thousand metres…..With the cable car, electricity too would come to the valley. Electric current would flow in along buzzing cables and all the streets and houses and barns would glow with warm light, even at night. People were thinking of all this and much more as they threw up their hats and sent their shouts of delight into the clean air. Egger would have liked to cheer with them, but for some reason he stayed sitting on his tree stump. He felt despondent, without knowing why. Perhaps it had something to do with the rattling of the engines, the noise that suddenly filled the valley. Nobody knew when it would go away again, or whether it would ever go away again‘.

Heading up in the Hochgurgl lift

As a child, Egger is deposited with a relative in the Tyrol following the death of his mother. The farmer who he is left with treats him viciously, but this a tale completely without sentimentality: Seethaler tells the story with a keen eye for a telling detail.

‘Once, he saw a mountain  start to move. A jolt seemed to pass through the side in shadow, and with a deep groan the whole slope began to slide. The mass of earth swept away the forest chapel and a couple of haystacks, and buried beneath it the dilapidated walls of the abandoned Kernsteiner farm, which had been empty for years. A calf, separated from the herd because of an ulcer on its hind leg, was thrown high up into the air along with the cherry tree to which it was tethered: it gawped out over the valley for a moment before the scree surged in and swallowed it whole’. 

And so, Andreas grows up in the valley, as strong as the proverbial ox, but with a limp from an encounter with his ‘guardian’.

‘He thought slowly, spoke slowly and walked slowly; yet every thought, every word and every step left a mark precisely where, in his opinion, such marks were supposed to be’. 

Andreas finds work, and love. I defy anyone to read about the way that he proposes to his beloved and not be moved. But, be warned, it pays not to be too attached to anyone in this book. Like the calf in the avalanche, Andreas finds himself caught up in the great sweep of history. He ends up in the Caucasus during the Second World War:

‘It was as if in these pitch-dark Caucasian winter nights, when shell-fire blossomed like blazing flowers over the mountain crests on the horizon, casting its light on the soldiers’ fearful or despairing or blank faces, any thought about purpose or the lack of it was stifled before it could be formulated’. 

And, as tourism comes to the valley, he reinvents himself as a tour guide:

‘He always led the way, with an eye on potential dangers and the tourists panting at his back. He liked these people, even if some of them did try to explain the world to him or behaved idiotically in some other way. He knew that during a two-hour uphill climb, if not before, their arrogance would evaporate along with the sweat on their hot heads, until nothing remained but gratitude that they had made it and a tiredness deep in their bones’.


Towards the end of his life he takes a trip on the post bus for the first time. When he gets there, he is utterly overwhelmed and confused, until the bus driver sees him.

‘”Where exactly is it you want to go?” the man asked. Old Egger just stood there, desperately searching for an answer. 

“I don’t know,’ he said, and slowly shook his head, over and over again. “I simply don’t know”.

In the end, Andreas is very much a man of the valley, a particular soul from a particular place. But so much of his story resonates with me, especially now, after all that has happened personally during this past few years, and in view of what is going on in the world. This is a book about living through history, and about making meaning out of the hand that you are dealt. I read it in a morning, and will remember it for the rest of my life.

He went on along the narrow path up to the mountain, all the way to the Pichlersenke. Up here the ground was soft and the grass short and dark. Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marvelled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung so tenaciously to the blades of the grass, only to fall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air’.



Not Austria Day Six – Mountain Food

Photo One by Benreis / CC BY-SA (

Tiroler gröstl (Photo One)

Dear Readers, it’s just as well that I only go to Austria once a year, and that when I’m there I’m exercising vigorously. The food of the Tyrol is highly calorific (as befits people who spend a lot of their time outside, in all weathers). It tends towards root vegetables, pork products and copious quantities of dairy food (from all those lovely Alpine cows). It is just the thing at the end of a slog uphill in freezing rain, but it doesn’t always translate to a more sedentary London existence. However, I am going to attempt my own version of Tiroler gröstl tonight, as I have spare potatoes, spare cabbage, spare onions and a number of eggs to use. As I am vegetarian I shall spare the bacon, though I should point out that, for once, this isn’t typical – normally in Obergurgl it’s made with leftover beef , maybe from the tafelspitz shown below.  Austrian cooks are nothing if not resourceful.

A lot of Tyrolean cooking features things that my parents would have recognised. They have their own version of boiled beef called tafelspitz, for example, served with boiled potatoes and carrots and creamed spinach plus horseradish (essential). I’m sure my grandmother would have loved it. Like a lot of cooking from the region, it uses cheap cuts of meat, cooked slowly. The beef in a tafelspitz is normally soft enough to cut with a spoon.

Photo Two by Karl Gruber / Wikimedia Commons

Tafelspitz (Photo Two)

As Obergurgl is on the border with the Italian Tyrol, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Tyroleans have developed their own form of ‘pasta’ – spätzle. Normally served with meat ragout, or in a sauce stuffed full of cheese and cream, it sometimes feels like it might be the final straw for my grumbling gallbladder (though it has never actually caused any problems). spätzle is made with a dough similar to that of Italian pasta, though heavier in eggs – the traditional formula was to add one egg more than the number of people who would be dining. Traditionally, the dough is scraped into long, thin strips and added straight to boiling salted water, though you can use a proper spätzle maker to form the shapes (spätzle means ‘little sparrow’ in German, as the dough can also be made into little cushions that more closely resemble the bird). Once made, it can be turned into a savoury dish, as described above, or mixed with apples or cherries to form a dessert (though I’ve never seen this in Obergurgl, where they like their spätzle as a main course).

Photo Three by Takeaway / CC BY-SA (

Käsespatzl (spätzle with cheese) (Photo Three)

Dumplings are also a staple food. Known as knödel,  – they can be popped into soup, accompany a main course or be served as a dessert. In the Tyrol, you can find speckknödel (dumplings with bacon), spinatknödel (with spinach) or leberknödel(with liver) along with plain old knödel. Often these turn up in one of the clear soups that the Austrians are so fond of, but a big slab of fried knödel may turn up next to your goulash (Hungarian being another big influence on Tyrolean cooking what with it being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for all those years) or to a hearty pork stew.

Photo Four by Kobako / CC BY-SA (

Pork stew with dumplings (Photo Four)

How I love the sweet dumplings of the Tyrol, though! They come in all shapes and sizes, and again I’m sure my parents would have recognised and loved germknödel, a massive steamed dumpling with poppyseeds and ‘vanilla sauce’ aka custard. Mum was a life-long advocate of the steamed pudding as a way to cure all ills, and I’m sure she was right. Although this looks as if a normal human being wouldn’t be able to eat all of it, I can assure you that it’s much lighter than it looks. Plus, you can always have a nap afterwards.

Photo Five by FakirNL / CC BY-SA (

Germknödel with vanilla sauce (Photo Five)

And I fell in love with the tasty little apricot dumplings that turn up occasionally – these are usually crispy on the outside, slightly tart on the inside, and come with custard. Known as Marillenknödel, these are so exquisite that a trip to Austria doesn’t feel complete without a plateful. Photo Six by fotogoocom / CC BY (ödel (Photo Six)

And finally, on the dessert front, there is kaiserschmarrn, named in part for Franz Joseph I and in part for the German word for ‘mess’. What a strange dish this is! A baked pancake with rum-soaked raisins in it is torn to pieces and then served with apple sauce or jam. In my book on Alpine recipes, it stipulates that kaiserschmarrn made with 3 eggs would serve ‘one advanced eater or two beginners’. It is certainly a hearty dish, though if you can manage a germknodel on your own I’m sure you’d be able to manage this.

Photo Seven by Takeaway / CC BY-SA (

Kaiserschmarrn (Photo Seven)

And finally, what to wash it all down with? The traditional after-dinner drink of the region is schnaps, which comes in dozens of varieties – the Tyrol tourist board is now offering a schnaps route that takes you to the many local distilleries, though driving home along those mountain roads might be something of a challenge. A very local Tyrolean version is zirbenschnaps, made from pinecones picked in the spring which have been soaked in grappa for a couple of months. This came as something of a surprise to me, as I had always assumed that it was made from the fragrant pine needles, but no.  After all that fat and sugar, you might as well commit yourself completely with one of these. I can guarantee that you’ll fall unconscious as soon as your head hits the pillow.

Photo Seven from

Zirbenschnaps (Photo Eight)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Benreis / CC BY-SA (

Photo Two by Karl Gruber / Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Takeaway / CC BY-SA (

Photo Four by Kobako / CC BY-SA (

Photo Five by FakirNL / CC BY-SA (

Photo Six by fotogoocom / CC BY (

Photo Seven by Takeaway / CC BY-SA (

Photo Seven from

Not Austria Day Five- Wednesday Weed – Why Do Some Alpine Plants Make Such Successful Urban Weeds?

Yellow corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)

Dear Readers, I have long wondered why it is that some of our most successful urban ‘weeds’ are those that come originally from alpine regions (those between the treeline on a mountain and the upper limit of vegetation). Whilst most of the ‘weeds’ that I’ll talk about here also come from the Alpine region (i.e. in the European Alps), some of them come from mountainous areas on other continents. Interestingly, as far as I know none of our native alpine species have made the transition to urban life, but let me know if you can think of any examples. The plants below have mostly come into the UK as garden plants, but have made their way off the rockery and onto our walls with great enthusiasm.

For example, yellow corydalis (pictured above) comes from the foothills of the Alps in Switzerland and Italy. This attractive plant, a member of the Fumitory family, is the twelfth commonest ‘weed’ to be found on urban streets.

Trailing bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana)

Trailing bellflower comes from the Dinaric Alps in the former Yugoslavia.

Ivy-leaved toadflax

Ivy-leaved toadflax is found all over the Mediterranean, but has a great fondness for the Southern Alps.


And then there’s Buddleia of course, from the foothills of the Himalayas.So, what do they have in common? There are a number of things that make some mountain plants well adapted for life in the big city. Firstly, they have to be able to withstand exposure to a lot of light and wind. Secondly, they have to be able to manage in thin pockets of soil. Thirdly, they need to be able to withstand the drought that often happens in a place with non-permeable surfaces and not a lot of available water. And finally, in order to persist, they need to find a way to reproduce that enables future generations to survive.

Let’s have a look at these plants in turn. Yellow Corydalis is nearly always found growing on walls in London – I have a splendid example nearby, where the yellow of the plant often offsets the yellow of the graffiti. However, I often wondered how come it ended up there. My Alien Plants book by Stace and Crawley points out that the seeds of yellow corydalis contain something called an oil-body – this is irresistible to black ants, who gather the seeds and take them back to their nests. Often the ants have nests behind crumbling brickwork.  They eat the oil body, and then the plant germinates in the nest, presumably busting through the mortar. I imagine that yellow corydalis has a similar relationship with the yodelling, clean-living ants of the Alps, and it finds that the niches in the tatty walls of Kentucky Fried Chicken remind it of the gaps between the rocks in its mountain home.

Trailing bellflower is another mountain specialist, and has again taken to our walls with gusto. It was only introduced to our gardens in 1931. By 1957 it had been recorded in ‘the wild’, and now it is even commoner on our London streets than yellow corydalis. It has a low-growing, straggling habit which protects it from the scouring mountain winds, and as it inches along the gaps between the brickwork in search of moisture and rootholds, I can just imagine it doing the same in the Dinaric Alps. It loves the stone steps of the Victorian homes here in East Finchley, and in Islington it popped up in the Georgian basements.

Ivy-leaved toadflax is a favourite plant of mine: I love the three-lobed flowers, and the way that the plant thrives in such hostile places. There is a fine collection on a very run-down wall locally, much favoured in the old days by men who were ‘caught short’ after a few too many pints and felt obliged to water it.

Ivy-leaved toadflax is another very successful muraphile (‘wall-lover’, though I think I might have just invented a word).  It reproduces both by stolons (long stems that spread out from the mother plant and take root when they find moisture), and by seed. The flowers grow towards the light until the plant is pollinated, but once the seed matures, the flower turns and points downwards, so that the seed will hopefully drop into a moist niche in the wall. What many of the successful mountain ‘weeds’ have in common is the ability to maximise the chances of their offspring’s survival, whether by finding a damp place to pop the seeds or persuading ants to take them away.

Ivy-leaved toadflax

And finally, that most successful and flamboyant of mountain ‘weeds’, the buddleia. In Alien Plants, Stace and Crawley remark that the buddleia is one of those rare plants that has found a ‘new’ niche for itself – the gaps between the bricks in urban buildings, not at street level but high up. I well remember noticing a buddleia that had seeded itself some thirty feet above the ground, on the grimy walls that led into Liverpool Street Station. It had grown into a substantial bush while gripping on to what must have been the tiniest of recesses. While all of our plants have managed to make a living on walls, none takes it to the extreme that buddleia does. It generally seems to love the railway lands, which remind it of the scree slopes of the Himalayas where it originated, and on a trip to Dorset I used to love to see the forests of buddleia as they advanced along the sidings, the airy-light seed having been blown there by every passing train.

Photo One By Noebse - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Buddleia beside the railway tracks at Dusseldorf-Zoo station (Photo One)

Buddleia is superbly adapted to city living – watching the one outside my window being blown almost horizontal by the wind without breaking, I can see how it can hang on even when the substrate is very thin. It produces a veritable sandstorm of pollinated seed, both because it is so popular with insects and because the flowers are perfect, containing both male and female parts, and so the plant can self-seed (something that yellow corydalis does too). And here, a quick word about buddleia’s value to wildlife – although we all know about the popularity of the flowers, it has recently been noted that the caterpillar of the Mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci) sometimes feeds on buddleia as well, which will be a relief if you’re trying to grow verbascums. What a magnificent caterpillar, though and, if the comments from my gardening friends are anything to go by, it’s having a very good year.

Photo Two By Bobr267 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Mullein moth caterpillar (Photo Two)

So, the alpine plants that have made the switch to city living seem to have a number of things in common: they thrive on exposure and thin soil, they have switched from rock-crevices to walls, they have seed mechanisms that increase the chances of the next generation, and they can survive drought. However, not every alpine plant is able to survive in the harsh world of the city: I don’t see gentians popping up (unfortunately) and I’m not tripping over edelweiss. Many alpine plants are slow-growing and extremely specialised, growing in tiny microniches. In all my years in the Austrian Alps, I have never seen the aforementioned edelweiss growing in the wild, because it likes rocky limestone above 3000 metres, it has no tolerance for disturbance or pollution, it is always scarce, and it is also extremely short-lived. It has grown a coat of hairs to protect it from the cold, aridity and exposure of its chosen habitat, and has become the symbol for rugged alpinism. I admire the alpine species that are all around me in North London, whilst recognising the precarious foothold that plants like the edelweiss have in their native lands. How vulnerable these extreme mountain specialists are, living on the very edge of what is possible. As global heating changes their environment, they will have nowhere else to go.

Photo Three By Böhringer Friedrich - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum) (Photo Three)

Photo Credits

Photo One By Noebse – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two By Bobr267 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three By Böhringer Friedrich – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Not Austria Day Four – An Alpine Flower Quiz – The Answers!

Flower meadows outside Obergurgl

Well, Dear Readers, you all outdid yourselves this week, with FEARN, Sarah, Alittlebitoutoffocus and Fran and Bobby Freelove all getting 12/12, so I will have to scatter the gold stars around with complete abandon! I imagine that Mike at Alittlebitoutoffocus is feeling especially relieved, what with him living in Switzerland and all. Thank you all for having a go, and next week I am going to have to come up with something Very Tricky.

Dear Readers, here are the answers to Sunday’s quiz.

Some of these plants are very common, but others are vanishingly rare in the UK.

Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) is limited to a few sites in the Midlands; it needs short, species-rich turf over chalk or limestone, and is often found on ancient earthworks. In the Austria Alps it grows in abundance.

Early marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata) is not uncommon as orchids go, but it does have very specific requirements: it loves wet, marshy meadows and fens.

Round-headed rampion(Phyteuma orbiculare) is another chalk-lover, found mainly on the South Downs.

Spring gentian (Gentiana verna) is found in two spots of limestone grassland in Upper Teesdale and the Burren in Western Ireland.

Although the UK is an international hotspot for mosses and liverworts, its flora is somewhat impoverished following the Ice Ages, which scoured a lot of our plants from the landscape forever. All the more reason to hang on to what we have, I think.

1) e) Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris)

2)i) Wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus)

3)h) Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

4)g) Early marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata)

5) a) Kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)

6)j) Round-headed rampion (Phyteuma obiculare)

7)c) Melancholy thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum)

8)k) Spring gentian (Gentiana verna)

9)d) Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium)

10)l) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

11)b) Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

12)f) Wood cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum)