Eurolog XI: Arches and Turrets

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Otočec Castle

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Packed everything up after breakfast and checked out of the hotel.  Got a cab down to the difficult-to-find car rental agency and when we found the door we found it locked, with a phone number taped to the window from the inside.  The main frustration that arises from travelling without a cellphone: everyone assumes you have one.  Fortunately another customer came up to the locked door and whipped out her cellphone (which is how these problems are always solved).  Five minutes later the man was handing me our car keys.

(Because I declined insurance the guy ran a 5,000euro deposit/charge on my Amex.  Good thing I recently upped my limit!)

The car had GPS, something I am normally loath to use but with no maps available (another thorn in my luddite craw) it would have to serve as our primary directive.  As we started out of the city I quickly noticed that the car would shut off its engine when we were stopped at a traffic light.  All I had to do was take it out of gear and take my foot off the clutch and so long as we were fully stopped the car shut down; as soon as I touched the clutch it started up again.  The traffic lights in Slovenia give out a quick amber before the green light which gives plenty of time for the car to start up.  I loved it, and the next car I purchased had this eco-feature, though it seemed like pretty much everyone in Slovenia was already on board because I saw/heard/smell basically no idling anywhere in the city.  Just one of the many reasons why Ljubljana is considered the Green Capitol of Europe.

Out on the highway we found the roads good and fast.  The speed limit was 130kms/hr on the highways and most people stuck to it.  I noticed little or no speeding at all.  If there was any deviation it was the occasional car that drove a little slow, but most vehicles stayed locked on the limits.  Mine did.

When we crossed the border into Slovenia the previous week I had noticed a sign that listed the country’s speed limits: 130kms/hr on highways, 90kms/hr on roads, and 50kms/hr within town and city borders.  It was lucky I saw that sign because speed limit signs were virtually non-existent on the roads.  Rather, there would be a sign indicating when a road would become a highway and the same sign with a line through it to indicate that you were leaving highway status.  This would be the only indication that you were allowed to speed up from 90kms/hr to 130kms/hr and vice-versa, though the differences between roads and highways was generally pretty obvious.

What was less obvious were the signs indicating a slowdown to 50kms/hr.  It took a while for me to realize that whenever I saw a sign with the name of a town on it, that sign was also (rather secretively) telling me that the speed limit had now decreased from 90kms/hr to 50kms/hr.  And just like the highway signs, when leaving said town there would be the same sign, this time with a line through it, telling me I could speed back up to 90kms/hr.

What took even longer to figure out were the occasional speed limit signs that I would see on the roadside.  Occasionally I’d notice a sign telling me to slow to 60 or 70kms/hr and and before you knew it I would have a line of impatient cars trailing behind me.  I would never, ever see a sign telling me I could go back to my previous speed.

Finally I noticed that all of these speed limit signs also included indicators of why we were slowing down, like an upcoming bridge, a school zone, or maybe a sharp curve ahead.  It finally dawned on me that once I passed said thing I was free to resume my speed, no sign needed.  That was a big “Aha moment”.

That said, I rarely hit 90kms/hr even when it was allowed to; the roads were just too winding, narrow, and picturesque. 

Our first stop was the town of Celje.  We parked and walked through their Old Town and stopped at McDonald’s for a snack, of all places.  I had seen ads everywhere for their new 1955 burger and I wanted to try it.  The main feature was caramelized onions and it made a significant difference.  Most notably, after ordering at the counter as per usual, the food was delivered to our table, restaurant-style.  Another difference: packs of ketchup were quite large – at least triple the size of the ones I’m used to – and they cost extra; you had to order them.

(Maybe it’s because my first legit job was a short stint at a McDonald’s in Richmond Hill when I was fourteen years old, I don’t know, but I’ve always been interested in the consistencies and differences between different McDonald’s’s.  Some serve beer.  I’ve seen McSquid on a menu, and poutine and lobster rolls.  In Russia the Happy Meals still come in a box.  I once had a hot dog at a McDonald’s.  There’s still an outlet in Florida that makes McPizza.  Big Macs can vary significantly in texture and taste and yet the McChicken tastes the same everywhere.  It’s fascinating research and it comes with lunch.)

We strolled through town and checked out some cool graffiti, stopped in a shop and bought some souvenirs and drove up, up, up the hill to visit the town castle.  With such amazing vistas we hummed and hawed about whether or not to even get out of the car to check out the fort-like castle and in the end we poked our heads inside for a quick lookabout.  The castle was small but nifty.  It had been converted into a community centre and included a fun sound installation and a small concert/theatre space in the courtyard.  

Soon enough we were back on the road, and what a road it was.  The drive was just a spectacular experience from start to finish, winding hither and nither over hill and dale through countless picturesque villages.  When the road came to a town it would inevitably snake through and around buildings that often jutted out into the road itself.  Clearly the houses, barns and shops have been around much longer than automobiles so when roads were eventually built they were forced to find a meandered path through every town and village they encountered, which is all of them.  The end result made me swoon with every community we slowly traversed.

At one point between villages we were following endless curves through the lush hills when I thought aloud, “What a great place this would be for a little swoon break”.  M’lady responded that she thought we’d find somewhere to pull off “right around here,” and around the very next turn we discovered a marble bench and table sitting in an immaculately manicured clearing surrounded by forest.  It was almost Disney-esque – made even moreso when we noticed that the marble was engraved with local animals and scenery – and eerily perfect.  We pulled in and swooned.

When we resumed our stellar drive our target was the castle at Otoçec.  As we drove over the bridge to the castle a collection of white swans swam underneath.  We parked at the castle’s front gate and walked in, our necks craning at the wondrous ancient walls and perfect turrets.  We found the front desk and stated in eager unison, “Checking in, please!”

That’s right: we were booked to spend the night in a 15th century castle that had been renovated into a five-star hotel, m’lady’s treat.

The woman at the desk smiled broadly and poured us each a glass of sparkling wine while she booked us in, then she walked us up to room 28, one of just fourteen rooms in the place.  We insisted that we could retrieve our luggage ourselves and she left us.  I cast open the large window to the back half of the gorgeous island outside.  Oh, did I mention that the castle had been built on a man-made island?  It’s the only “water-castle” in Slovenia and it’s on one of only four islands in the entire country.  Matter-of-fact, “Otočec” means “small island”.  The bottom line is that there was basically a moat around the castle and everything.  In the bathroom I cast open the other window which showed another side of the island – we had a corner room.

We went to the car and grabbed our luggage but before we went fifteen feet our desk lady was on top of us, insisting that she carry our bags upstairs.  She did; she was strong.  She must have seen us struggling with our bags on a closed circuit camera.  I made a mental note to watch out for them.

Back in the room I opened a beer, basked in the view and revelled in the fact that we were staying in an actual castle.  I was absolutely thrilled and I tell you, I enjoyed every minute.  

The room was as elegant as you’d imagine, as were the grounds within the castle walls, which were perfect for drinking, dining, or just relaxing.  Outside the castle we walked the entire island, first slowly walking the waterline that is in view of our room, and later crossing the road in front of the castle and along a path under the more-treed and larger other side of the island.  We sat on the sole bench that we found at the tip of the island and and swooned yet again as live music wafted over from a campground that sat just over the water, not 300 metres away.  

The sun started to set as we watched the swans puttering around in the distance.  We held hands and sighed together as the accordion music drifted to us through the warm evening air.  M’lady had just uttered the words “It’s magical” when three swans flew by not fifteen feet over our heads..  I’m not sure I even knew swans could fly.  Eventually a pair of swans swam right up to us and drifted around in the water just a few feet away.  

A flying swan.

When we couldn’t take the bliss any longer we rose from our bench and walked back to our castle, just a few hundred feet behind us.  We arrived back at our room and I called for my fiddlers three, I joke I would use freely for the ensuing hours.

We had dinner reservations at 8pm (again, m’lady’s treat) at the castle’s very, very fancy Grad Otoçec restaurant.  We were escorted to our table – which sported a placard with our names written in perfect calligraphy – and were presented with very exciting menus.  

After much consideration m’lady ordered the smoked salmon with leeks for her starter and beef and mushrooms with roasted potatoes for her main.  I went with a pumpkin soup and chicken fillets with bacon, tomato and zucchini.  M’lady and our extremely professional waiter consulted deeply on the most appropriate wine while I gaped around at the 500-year-old walls.

Soon a woman (not our server) brought out a plate and set in front of m’lady.  At first glance I was quietly horrified, thinking that this was her entrée.  In the centre of the large, white plate sat the tiniest, I mean one little sliver of flesh and a one-inch round of…was it cheese?  A moment later she plopped the same in front of me – it turns out these were our welcome-palette warmer uppers of ham and truffles.  It was tiny and it was delicious.

My soup was amazing, and along with the chicken and roasted potatoes it made for a pretty super supper.  We shared a traditional nutty cheesy dessert that was also really great.  As was the bottle of wine.

After dinner we grabbed beers from the room and walked the grounds some more.  Though the band at the nearby campground was done for the night we could hear the musicians jamming so we walked over to see if we could inject ourselves into a campfire sociable.  Just as we arrived at the closed gate (that we could have easily gotten around) the music stopped.  We waited there in the dark for about ten minutes but it seemed like things had shut down for the night so we opted not to trod in and try to make friends.

More strolling the castle grounds, more mead…In the end I went to bed a wee bit drunk and slept like a king.

(As if our stay at the castle wasn’t great enough, it was basically free.  Several months before m’lady had spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone resolving an issue with the booking site she uses.  After significant frustration she finally found a customer service representative on the line who not only resolved the original problem, but who also tacked on an extra couple of hundred dollars worth of hotel credits to make up for all the time m’lady had spent trying to make things right.  The credits covered our entire reservation.)  

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