Once upon a time, I used to stay in youth hostels as they were a cheap way to travel. I didn’t let that cheesy horror flick from the early 00s deter me. However, as I’ve grown older, I’d prefer to pay a couple of euros more and have the privacy and tranquility of my own room. (And in Spain, it’s not that hard to find a cheap pensión or “hostal” (hostel is “albergue”, false friends) After a couple of horror stories, one can imagine why. As I prepare for the Camino de Santiago del Norte from Santander next summer, I am somewhat apprehensive about the albergues after some of my experiences.
Most of the time, things are fine and people are somewhat normal. They tend to be young university students who are looking to party or interesting older folks who want to see the world in a cheaper way. One of the better experiences I had was in Santiago where I met a guy about my age (I was 27 at the time) who was traveling to see the world, and we went out and had drinks and enjoyed the night. The same happened a few months later in Madrid with a French guy who spoke flawless English and Spanish. In Mallorca the following year, on my worst holiday ever, I met a Brasilian guy living in London who tried his best to seduce me. I turned him down, but we did go out that night. I was so angry I was the only one in the group who knew Spanish and who wanted to meet, you know, locals. Wherever I travel, I am always wanting to meet locals and learn more about the place than I am other tourists.
This spring, I returned to staying in hostels due to Ireland being super duper expensive and a bunk bed in a shared room is more expensive than a private room with a private bath in most Spanish cities. I met some friendly people, but I was on Spanish time (meaning I woke up way too early despite Ireland only being an hour earlier than peninsular time). The hostel in Cork was located a good 20-minute walk from the centre of town, and being there on a weekday meant there was absolutely nothing going on. In Dublin, I shared a room with someone who worked there and an Indian guy who was awake no matter what the time was and on his laptop even more than me. No big problems.
In Pamplona, there was hardly anyone at the hostel except angry German pilgrims doing the Camino Frances who did not understand the Spanish, English and German on their e-mail stating in bold letters that if you cancel a reservation the day of, you will be charged the full night. This is standard procedure in most places in Spain if not Europe. By failure to cancel, the hotel/albergue/pensión misses out on selling a bed, and they need that money in times of crisis. I tried to help explain what the desk clerk was saying in Spanish, and they went off on ME for taking their side about something that had been previously said. The customer is not always right. Lucky for me, the only other person in the room I was in was a madrileño, who in typical madrileño style, did not understand why I ever left Madrid for Bilbao and slept late, missing his important doctoral class he was in town for in the first place.
Another fun time was when I was in Barcelona and went into the kitchen to fill my water bottle and got screamed at by an American “DON’T DRINK THE WATER!” Apparently she thought as Spain speaks Spanish that the water must be like Mexican water and carries with it Montezuma’s revenge. After asking if there was a boil advisory or something, which can happen anywhere, and the girl shrugging saying “You don’t ever drink water in Spain!” I went ahead and filled it up and drank it in front of her. Another American who, like me, lives in Spain rolled her eyes at the tourist and asked me about Valencia versus Barcelona. By the way, I was fine drinking the water. The water from the Mediterranean cities can be a bit hard so many people prefer bottled water, but it is perfectly safe to drink.
In Amsterdam at the age of 21, I just remember the shower leaking through the entire room and me spending as much time as possible outside the hostel.
My first hostel experience was in Barcelona that same year, at 21. It slept about 20 to a room for 10 Euros or so a night. The desk clerk was horrible and unfriendly, and they still had lock outs. So I slept about 2 hours when I arrived at 7 am, and that second night I was nearly pickpocketed and robbed on the Ramblas. Don’t ever walk alone on the Ramblas at night. Now that I’ve spent more time in Barcelona than any other Iberian city that I have not lived in, I just avoid the Ramblas all together.
The best story, and by best I mean HORRIBLE, DISGUSTING, SO BAD IT HAS BEEN FICTIONALIZED IN MY SECOND NOVEL…happened in Rome when I was 26. It was my first Christmas in Europe, first Christmas away from my mom, and I was traveling through Italia for the occasion. I was staying at a pretty famous hostel in Rome. I believe it was the 26th or 27th, my last night in the city. I had seen all the tourist sites and even saw the Pope give Midnight Mass on the 24th. I was tired and ready to go on to my next destination, Milan. At about 5 in the morning, I was suddenly awoken by a drunk guy stumbling in. A few seconds later, there was screaming from the others in the room. WHAT THE **** ARE YOU DOING??
What was he doing? Why mistaking suitcases and the floor for a urinal, of course!
We all rushed downstairs to complain to the desk clerk, who did her best to calm us down as they sent someone to clean the room. When everything was clean, I considered myself lucky that all my stuff had survived the night dry. However, the guy had absconded with some of my rings and bracelets. A small price to pay.
Of course, this is the one experience that sticks with me most about nights staying in hostels…
As the Spanish say, mejor estar solo que mal acompañado.
What are your most memorable, for better or for worse, hostel/albergue experiences? Are they a nightmare for you, or do you love them?