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