Saturday, November 24, 2012

Affordable Europe? Small Budget Hotels We've Liked

Reading Diana Athill's 1962 memoir, I find myself copying out passage after passage, and I hope to write more about the book on my reading blog soon. I've been a fan of Athill's work since reading Stet ten or so years ago, and her recent books on aging make that process seem less daunting. Backing into her much earlier memoir, already knowing something of her life has unfolded, has been a rich reading experience.

This passage about travelling resonated with me immediately, as did so many of her meditations:

 Having too little money is an advantage in travelling which I regret losing. I am still far from being able to stay in really good hotels or to fly except on the cheaper night flights, but my standards are creeping up: cheap the flight may be, but it is a flight, and not a third-class train journey. It would be possible to travel more cheaply than necessity dictates, but fondly though I remember journeys made in less comfort, I feel myself reflecting a miniature image of the rich whose money forces them so inexorably into a certain manner of living. It seems an affectation not to take a room with a shower if I can afford it, although I know by experience that a hotel too small for showers will be less impersonal. I know that an excursion by local bus is more amusing and interesting than an excursion by taxi, in spite of the heat, the jolting, and the passenger who will vomit, but the money in my purse works a sinister distortion, emphasizing the bus’s disadvantages, highlighting the taxi’s luxury, so that against my will I find myself in the latter, and thus likely to meet other people of my own sort instead of the friendly, curious strangers in the bus. An insulating layer has been put between my naked self and the place I am visiting, and I have lost something by it. I can only be grateful that the layer is never likely to become thick.
Diana Athill, in Instead of a Letter (New York, London: Norton, 1962) p. 212

Paul and I could manage to stay in some "really good hotels" now, but we'd have to travel far less often to make that budget work, and we've come to love the luxury of an annual European vacation over the potential luxury of a gorgeous hotel room. Still, like Athill, we're no longer willing to do without a toilet and shower in our room (although we've shared a down-the-hall set-up at London's Alhambra for a few days, if nothing else is available -- more on that in a future post). But it's very true that for a greater sense of connection with the local experience, we've found it's worth seeking out a certain kind of small hotel -- often family-run, generally in an older building with some sense of character, nestled in a neighbourhood with a variety of residential and commercial activity.

Here, for an example, is the hotel room we stayed in last spring in Bordeaux, recommended by Lesley, a friend I'd only met virtually at the time, on her blog, Peregrinations. Hotel de l'Opera is brilliantly located, as its name suggests, right across from Bordeaux's sumptuous opera house, and there's always the hope of spotting some of the performers who apparently stay here, along with meeting other theatre-goers. We loved its proximity to Rue St. Catherine's shopping, to the fabulous wine bar across the street, and especially to the  great people-watching in the Place de la Com├ędie.

And we loved the price! Double room for under 75 Euros?!
Check it out:

 Above, Pater unpacks. Rooms in such hotels are often small, and we're always glad that we manage our European travel out of carry-on cases. Large wardrobes/closets are a rare luxury,at this price point.
 Spartan, yes, but clean, and comfortable enough
 Our own toilet, shower, and sink . . . a luxury compared to having to share facilities down a hallway. . .
 And speaking of luxuries, how about our very own opening skylight . . .

And even more impressive, a phone booth-sized elevator -- squeezing both of us into its claustrophobia-inducing interior (the glass walls help, but barely) proves again the wisdom of travelling with carry-on luggage only!
  Our hotel in Amsterdam, the Hotel Prinsenhof, by contrast, had no elevator, and Paul helped one couple carry their gargantuan bag down four flights of stairs. The room itself was pleasant, though, and more spacious than the one in Bordeaux -- we even had an extra bed to sort garment choices, and if we'd brought a snack back to the room, we could have enjoyed it at the little table.

 As for the bed itself, nothing about it promises luxury, does it? But again, all was clean, the bedding was sufficient, and there were the all-important reading lights for those ten minutes before we'd fall asleep, exhausted by another day's sightseeing.

And the breakfasts each day were in a pleasant morning room where guests from Europe and North America helped themselves to a buffet of meats, cheeses, breads, cereal, hard-boiled eggs, accompanied by coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.

Again, though, the price was probably the hotel's best feature:  around 90 Euros (although rooms were available for less, these required sharing bathroom facilities outside of the room) -- and given that I found Amsterdam hotels tougher to find that I've experienced with other European cities, this was a great bargain! The hotel is right on one of the canals, close to fabulous shopping and very good restaurants, but it also has the advantage of being nestled in a  residential area. To get a sense of its mellow vibe, check out the funky website -- no cookie-cutter bland here! And there was, after all, a very intriguing system for moving heavy luggage -- we never saw it in operation, but two older women we chatted with over breakfast one morning (fellow Canucks, from Newfoundland, enroute to visiting family in German), told us they'd used it to  pulley their (massive) bags up the stairs -- Paul was hugely relieved as he'd sensed himself being sized up as a potential bellboy. . . .

Both these recommendations, of course, come with the proviso that hotel management can change, and our experience is one-time-only, limited and lucky, perhaps. But over and over again, we've had very good luck at this price point. I've got a few more recommendations I'll share over the next while, and perhaps you have a few you'd care to share as well. Or offer your thoughts on your comfort level for hotels in Europe and how you balance that comfort with your budget.



14 comments:

  1. While chain hotels all over Europe offer a dependable standard, I find them bland and a bit depressing. It's so much more fun to stay in the smaller, family-run hotel, even if it means sharing facilities. That said, there's nothing as nice, after a long, hot day than one's own shower, basin and toilet! After lugging suitcases around Japan, The Great Dane and I vowed never again to carry more than carry-on. Traveling with a man with size 12 shoes does cut into the packing space though!
    Thanks for the interesting post.

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    1. Sounds as if we're on the same wavelength, although I'm lucky Pater has shoes small enough that I can borrow space in his case rather than the other way 'round. ;-)

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  2. I think you are wise to economize on accommodations as you spend such little time in there except to sleep. The cost of hotels in Paris is so daunting when one looks at the guide books!
    Most of my friends have let an apartment when they visit and say this is the way to go.

    The thought of sharing a bath is not something I'd take to easily.
    But given the choice to travel or not I am sure that I could be flexible!

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    1. We've rented apartments the last two visits to Paris, and house in Bordeaux, but I still like the small family-run hotels, and they can be found with a bit of work. Our friends' hotel in Paris is less than 100 Euros a night, quite charming in a residential area, near Metro, 20 minutes to the Seine. . .

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  3. I remember in my 20s staying at a hostel in Shanghai and it was very odd to see a woman in her, say, mid-40s staying there alone. From her clothes and demeanour it was clear she could have stayed at the fancy White Swan Hotel. She said she preferred the hostel because she loved meeting so many different people. I thought she was very cool, but I profess that I don't mind the comforts of a private shower these days! I always dreamed of flying by Concorde for breakfast in Paris and I'm disappointed that the service is now defunct.

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    1. She must have been an interesting woman -- wonder what she's up to now!

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  4. What great info. We always travel carry on only also. I do feel about 35 years too old to share a bath down the hall.
    BTW
    Award Q & A is on if you care to answer the call!!
    Jennifer

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    1. I don't care so much about having to share a shower down the hall, but hate having to tiptoe out of my room in the night or the early morning because my aging bladder can't wait any longer!
      I'll check out the award Q&A -- and thank you! -- just busy around here waiting for grandbaby . . .

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  5. Since you and your husband travel much, I understand that checking the hotels and their prices is clever.

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  6. As Steve Martin said, so long ago, you're only new once.
    That thrill of travel, with it's accompanying wonder of youth-on-limited-resources, in buses, in trains, in hotels of whatever origin ....cannot, absolutely cannot, be re-created for an experienced traveller-with-options.
    A pox on the House of Affluence that affords a private bath.
    The adventure becomes quite unattainable, without the mindset.
    It remains forbidden territory.....to anyone but the young.
    It cannot be otherwise.

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  7. We've stayed in the smaller, family-run hotels, but always want our own toilet and bathing facilities. We've stayed in three in Paris and one in Avignon and had very good experiences. We would rather spend our Euros on excursions and experiences than accommodations.

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  8. Ah, the joys of a phone-booth sized elevator!

    Diana Athill sounds intriguing.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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