In a blissful dream, we drive over the border to an enchanted land where we stay at a smart hotel in a charming castle. The castle is on a small and pleasant island inhabited only by slender waterbirds, swans and ducks. And the island is in a gentle river set in scenic surrounds.
Dreams, we have read, may seem to last for a long time but they actually last from just a few seconds to 30 minutes. What’s more, they often disappear forever with a “pop” when we awake, lost beyond recall. Luckily this dream – the one about the castle, the island and the river – is real and won’t be forgotten for a long while.
It is a trip we have often dreamed about taking, since we first happened across photos of our destination: the castle on the island in the river. It looked fabulous. Now, at last, we are on our way and our drive has taken us out of Budapest and down the M7 motorway, and the border we cross is the one with Slovenia.
From there we head to the deep south of the country and, just as foreseen, there they are: the charming castle, the pleasant island and the gentle river. The island is reached by crossing one of two old narrow wooden bridges. The castle contains the five-star Hotel Grad Otocec. Did someone mention those words – over-used but apposite – “fairytale” and “romantic”?
This is The Budapest Times’ first encounter with what describes itself as the most prestigious hotel association in the world: Relais & Chateaux. The best translation we can find for “relais” seems to be “retreats”, though we were also offered “road houses” and “hunting lodges”. We settle for “Retreats and Castles.”
Their history dates to 1954, when Marcel and Nelly Tilloy, a couple of music-hall artists who owned La Cardinale, an apparently attractive hotel and restaurant on the right bank of the river Rhone, came up with the idea of getting together with seven other hoteliers under the slogan “La Route du Bonheur”, or “The Road to Happiness”.
Thus eight totally different properties, each with its own personality and located away from towns on the road from Paris to Nice on the Cote d’Azur, were all united to provide “a better world through cuisine and hospitality”.
With independent owners, maîtres de maison and chefs, the purpose, then and now, is to offer travellers top-flight hospitality in special places and combining the finest traditions of the world of luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants. Quite some claim but this is their philosophy, and they need to live up to it.
Today, 530 Relais & Châteaux members are to be found along 65 “Routes du Bonheur” in 64 countries on five continents. To give an idea, Germany has 24 such establishments, Austria 14, Croatia four, Slovenia two and Poland and Hungary one each (the latter’s being Hertelendy Kastély in County Somogy).
Hotel Grad Otocec can be dated back to a castle that entered written history in 1252. Originally it probably stood on the bank of the river Krke but onslaughts by invaders led to a canal being dug on the other side of the castle, creating the artificial island.
Hungarians can claim some of the “credit” for what is now Slovenia’s only castle surrounded by water: they along with Mongols and Croats are said to be among the bloodthirsty types whose ravages necessitated the canal.
Various nobility owned the property until it was burnt down by partisans in the Second World War, also destroying its historical records. In 1957 a decision was made to construct a Ljubljana-Zagreb highway. Otocec is half-way between the two, and the castle was partly rebuilt that year before being restored and redeveloped as a hotel with upgraded comfort in the early 1960s.
Now it is owned by Krke pharmaceutical company, which carried out a major renovation in 2007 to bring out its original character. Not surprisingly, the hotel has something of a faux medieval look, just like in days of yore. Arched hallways, dark wooden ceilings and heavy wooden doors are featured, with black iron hinges and door handles, knockers and studs.
A suit of armour sits in reception, electric “candles” illuminate and liquid wax torches are set alight outside as dark falls. Ivy climbing crenellated walls and circular towers, and cobblestones complete the picture.
The island is small enough to constantly see and feel the river but big enough for a bracing 15- to 20-minute walk around the edge, to the accompaniment of birdsong. Chop down a couple of the many trees (heaven forbid) and count the rings, and you would be well into three figures. On our visit, new-born ducklings outnumbered the preening swans and spindly-legged silver-grey waterbirds (cranes?)
Notable guests as shown in a photo display have included David Lean and Mr. And Mrs. Tito in 1963, Henry and Peter Fonda in 1968, Apollo 11 astronauts in 1973, Richard Burton in 1975, Francois Mitterrand in 1983, Albert II of Monaco in 2013 and two James Bonds: Pierce Brosnan 1999 and Roger Moore 2001.
Relais & Chateaux promise the celebrities and the rest of us an “unwavering quest for excellence”, the 530 sharing fundamental values but each remaining able to express their individual personality. Thus unspoiled surroundings rooted in passion for their own terroir.
Hotel Grad Otocec is cosy with just 16 bedrooms, plus a Hunters’ Room with crackling fireplace for winter, a Knights’ Salon for weddings and a courtyard for summer.
This is Europe, this is the good life. Perhaps it is what people fleeing war are dreaming of when they take to the sea in overcrowded and dangerous boats.
Hotel Grad Otocec