Archive for the ‘Op Keo’ Category

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Hotel Heaven

December 30, 2006

Do you believe in karma? If so, them this might amuse. If the Sanatorium was Hotel Hell then as we left Innsbruck we were heading to Hotel Heaven.

Leaving Innsbruck we managed to get horribly lost. Mands, our trusty navigator, was heard to swear on more than one occasion. However, we eventually broke free from Innsbruck and headed for the Brenner Pass. Strangely just before we left England Mandy’s father mentioned that he’d once walked the Pass during his Army days. The story revolved around scheduled leave, free rail tickets and a sense of curiosity. Those of you who know him will see how these things could fit together :-)

The Pass itself was fairly unremarkable. It’s a good road, the scenery is wonderful but, in all, it just was. So, from Austria and into Italy, country number seven according to Ian’s notes!

We were booked into a hotel on the west shore of Lake Garda. As with all of our overnight stays, Mands had booked this online before we left. It, and the other hotels were checked, cross-checked, price-checking and reviewed via independent sites any booking was made.

This hotel was, well, odd. The price was high, but then Lake Garda is. The photos were fantastic. The reviews were almost non-existent. There was a slight nervousness about the lack of reviews, but those photos …….

Image from the hotel’s website
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We got lost finding the hotel, that was obviously the theme of the day :-) When we found the place they said they used minimal signage to stop people finding the place by accident. OK said we. Later we understood.

The hotel turned out to be a converted monastery with less than 20 rooms. The owners had bought the property almost ten years previously and had spent a significant amount of time restoring it. They’d opened as a hotel only three months ago. The remains of original frescos lined the stairs, sleeping labradors snored gently by the front door. The receptionist picked up a walk-about phone and took us on a tour of the hotel. She asked us to think of the place as our home rather than a hotel. She was perfectly serious.

Our intention had been to use the hotel as a base for exploring the area. We wanted to look around Lake Garda, people had spoken highly of Verona and Padua so we planned to spend time there also. In the end we did none of these things, in fact we didn’t leave the hotel for the full two days. Other guests said the same sort of thing.

Well, we’d planned to go and see things but it was so nice here that we just stayed.

Instead we slept, swam, gossiped with other guests, slept more, ate, explored the olive groves, ate some more and then slept.

Just off the dining room
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Much of the food came from the grounds. All of the olive oil came from their annual single pressing of the olives. Strawberries and blueberries from the kitchen garden appeared each morning for breakfast. Early pumpkins and courgettes must have been in season as starters of fresh pumpkin ravioli and a courgette mousse were on the menu. Don’t be concerned, we didn’t turn into vegetarians. A balsamic steak with parmesan and pine nuts followed on one night, and a pistachio crusted rack of lamb on another.

One oddity on the dining side was a lack of wine list. On ordering food we were asked if the manager could select an appropriate wine to accompany the meal. We agreed, if a little nervously. The wine turned out to be wonderful and from a vineyard within 5 miles of the hotel. When we checked out and got the bill it was certainly a reasonable price also.

We reluctantly checked out two days later, vowing to return at a later date. Next stop, Venice.

The view from the hotel
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The Two-Night Week

December 30, 2006

So, after a week of one-night stops we changed the pace for the second week of the trip. The plan was to spend two nights in three locations that we particularly fancied; Innsbruck, around Lake Garda, and in Venice.

Trip Advisor proved it’s worth for all three locations. For Innsbruck we’d chosen a central location but had read that, in that particular hotel, the noise levels at the front of the hotel could be a problem as the hotel fronts onto the main pedestrian area. When we checked in we asked if it was possible to have a room at the back of the hotel. The receptionist was surprised to be asked, but agreed and we had a wonderfully peaceful two nights in a, small, room with fantastic views over Innsbruck and the Alps.

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We spent out two days exploring and wandering. We took time out to watch some of the World Cup football on a gigantic screen set up by the city. The river Inn was almost in flood, but we found that this is often the case. Japanese tourists seemed to have invaded the place, but we were still able to see over their heads to see the sites. We saw the Golden Roof (pictured below, with the entrance to our hotel), and later went hunting for the “best park in Europe” but wouldn’t recommend you bother.

More than anything we enjoyed pottering and exploring and having a break from the Drive-Find Hotel-Unpack-Have Dinner-Sleep-Pack-Drive routine.

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The Sanatorium

December 21, 2006

From dictionary.com

ho·tel
–noun
a commercial establishment offering lodging to travelers and sometimes to permanent residents, and often having restaurants, meeting rooms, stores, etc., that are available to the general public

san·a·to·ri·um
–noun
a hospital for the treatment of chronic diseases, as tuberculosis or various nervous or mental disorders

With definitions like that it would be hard to confuse a hotel and a sanatorium – wouldn’t it?

Like all of our hotels, the one in Fuessen was booked online before we left. The description sounded pleasant, the location was perfect. We arrived in the late afternoon having driven part of the Alpenstrasse from Stein am Rhein. The building looked pretty, in a Swiss/German-chalet way.

The first indication that something was amiss was the reaction from the eight German pensioners sitting on comfy chairs by the entrance. They seemed perfectly normal – though prime candidates for God’s waiting room – but they looked at us as if we shouldn’t have been there. It turned out they were right.

The second sign was the reaction of the receptionist when we tried to book a table for dinner at 8pm. She was confused, even unsettled, by the request. Perhaps the restaurant was fully booked for 8pm we thought? Not a problem we said, later is fine. Now she looked even more uncomfortable and reluctantly admitted that they didn’t actually make reservations as dinner was in the form of a buffet and finished at 7pm.

Still bemused, we headed for our room. Simple and basic, small bathroom, a little balcony overlooking the pond and woods, twin beds, 24 hour emergency medical alarm……

Whilst Mandy was taking all of this in – and looking for the mini-bar – Ian was busy reading the “hotel” information. Random phrases, roughly translated from German, floated across the charged-atmosphere of the room and looked, optimistically, for a atom of reality to cling onto. Gems from the “hotel” rules included;

* Buffet dinner between 6pm & 7pm
* No bar, no alcohol permitted in the rooms
* Lights out by 11pm
* Wine with dinner, but only if approved by matron
* Quiet time between 2pm and 3pm each afternoon

The Rules - Page 1

Yes, this was a German sanatorium/care home/rest cure, not a hotel. However, they had obviously decided that they could supplement their takings by offering rooms to the public. We were now booked in for the night and matron was sure to know if we tried to escape. We decided to make the best of a bad situation, have an early dinner and make a break for it in the morning.

We’ll spare you the detail (believe us, we suffered enough for all of us) and just say that the dinner was, without doubt, the worst of the trip. Matron approved our wine so we indulged in 500ml of appallingly bad local red. At 7pm we headed up to the room and broke out a bottle of single malt and a packet of cashews and indulged with gay abandon.

Matron must have known though and planned her revenge as the next morning all the hot water was turned off. When we complained we were told that an engineer was working on a fault with the system so the supply had been disconnected. The clear implication was that had we be up and showered by 7am, like reasonable residents then this wouldn’t have been a problem. Obviously, we had brought this on ourselves.

As a final insult they charged us 35 Euros for dinner. Mandy later took great, great delight in posting reviews to the online travel sites :-)

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France, Germany, Switzerland

December 21, 2006

So, from the wish list of places;

WWI battlefields
This was well worth doing. Both of us were hugely moved by the whole experience. It brought the scale of the carnage into context, but was also immensely moving in these cynical times to see the care and attention still being paid to the memorials. We spent time at Thiepval which commemorates the 73,357 who have no graves as there were no bodies to bury. The white marble sections you can see are the photos are engraved with the names of the missing. The names are small but there is little spare space. We knew that Mandy’s great-grandfather lost his leg on the first morning of the Somme, but we were both surprised at the number of references to both our surnames on the monument.

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing

A rewarding, but somber, first day.

Over the next four days we motored across country through France, Belgium, Luxembourg and then to Germany to drive the Mosel and Rhine valleys. Both rivers were splendid, fantastic scenery, and some very pretty towns and villages. At this stage we were covering about 150 miles each day – our longest had been getting from Arras to Trier at the head of the Mosel – around 300 miles all in.

From Southern Germany we turned right and dropped into Switzerland to see the Rhine Falls. Schaffhausen, just over the German/Swiss border is home to the highest upstream point to which the Rhine is navigable. The Rhine outflows from Lake Constance, and some twenty or more miles further on drops over the Rhine Falls. What a stunning location; and Stein am Rhein, where we stayed was just picture postcard Swiss! We had dinner the first night in the village square just surrounded by 13c buildings – beautiful…..

Rhine Falls

From there we took a ferry across lake Constance and travelled along the German side of the Alps to Fuessen. Stunningly pretty scenery – freshly laundered cows all with obligatory bell. Only spoiled by a 40 seater coach from Poland that had seen better days about 20 years ago and was being “challenged” by trying to drive the Alpine roads. Fortunately, the 10 years we waited to get past only lasted 30 minutes or so….. and then we were on to a real treat – Hotel Wiedermann.

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Last Weekend in England

December 21, 2006

An odd weekend of extremes.

We left our now-deserted home and headed to our local Travel Lodge to overnight, allowing us part of the Saturday to tie up loose ends such as handing over keys to the Estate Agent. As economical as Travel Lodges are, they don’t really pass muster on Mandy’s nice hotels criteria, especially when situated right next to a main railway line! Though, to be fair perhaps this is the sort of standard she needs to become accustomed to?

Jobs complete, we headed off to our second hotel of the weekend. An old favourite in Surrey, which was conveniently placed for Monday’s EuroTunnel trip. It had two additional plus points; it was five star and was free, courtesy of some old loyalty points that needed using up before we left England.

Five star & free. Five star & free. Five star & free. Five star & free.

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Now there’s a phrase to make Mandy smile!

The hotel, true to past experience (although we didn’t spend time with Brad Pitt this time), was wonderful. This was to be 48 hours peace to enable us to recover our breath after the packing week and to get us ready for the trip.

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The Packers

December 21, 2006

So, by the first week in June we’d reached our last day of gainful employment. The house was on the market, but not yet sold, and we had one clear week before we were due to vacate the place. The departure date was driven by the International Relocation shippers.

My, there is a scary concept. The plan was for them to pack the contents of the house, less the bits we needed for the trip and the first month or so. That had to fit in the car, and in such a way as to not be visible on our travels. A team of three packers arrived on Tuesday morning of our last week and began to wrap all our worldly effects in bubble wrap. This is, apparently, the way it is done – once wrapped it was all to be stacked in a 40 foot container for shipping by sea, so it has to be properly packed. The general rule seemed to be that if it was stood still it got packed.

At first we didn’t appreciate the speed at which these people moved. Once they’d packed all of Ian’s shoes, apart from the pair he was wearing, we wised up. We retreated with all we needed for the trip and camped out in one bedroom, leaving the packers to wrap everything else.

The container duly arrived Friday morning and took over the whole car park – what else do you do with an artic and 40 foot trailer which needs to be close to your front door? The next six hours were then spent loading the container in a way to ensure nothing could move during the three weeks at sea.

At two o’clock the container headed off to Felixstowe – and that was that – empty house, car and contents and us. What an interesting moment that was!!

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Op Keo

December 21, 2006

Back in 2005 we began to think seriously about our current lifestyle. We both had demanding jobs, one Docklands and one City. In 2004 Ian’s ongoing back issues culminated in a diagnosis of two ruptured discs in his spine and three months off work. Whilst he recovered enough to return to work it became clear that a routine of leaving the house at 7am and not returning ’til 8pm, coupled with extensive international travel, was not ideal.

Round about the same time we were starting to spend more time in Cyprus and began to realise that quitting work and moving out there might be a possibility. Admittedly our income would drop by about 90% ………

So, Operation Keo was born. Named after the local gin it seemed like a good omen. The master plan was to sell the London place, leave work and head to a sunnier climate. One evening we talked about driving rather than flying, giving us a chance to see “those bits of Europe” that we’d never had a chance to visit. The conversation developed with us both taking turns to put, virtual, pins in a map and then plan a route from there.

As Mandy had no intention of sleeping in a tent some fairly detailed route planning was needed.

The first draft of the places to see list included;

* WWI battlefields
* Mosel valley
* Rhine valley
* Rhine Falls
* German fairytale castles
* Italian lakes
* Venice