Tagged: hostels

Accommodation follies and some fine architecture: Florence part II

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15th century Villa Camerata in Fiesole: an unlikely hostel

I sure was in a sticky situation when I woke up on my first morning in Florence.  Events from the night before having impeded me from booking a hostel for the next night, and my morning scouring of the internet having been unsuccessful, I hauled my tired and panic-y self and implausibly heavy little suitcase off to the tourist information office.

Florence was not forgiving on that first morning.  I hadn’t been prepared for the narrow streets, and it was with some dismay that I noted the sheer amount other people dragging around suitcases on that Saturday morning.  It seemed as if hostelworld.com hadn’t been lying to me after all, and the city really was full to capacity.  Not wanting to stay too far out of the city, or in another criminally bad hostel I was even psyching myself up that this may in fact be the time for a hotel room.  Ouch!

On arriving at the tourist information office the man behind the reservation desk eyed my luggage sadly, apologised, and confirmed that the city was indeed booked out due to an international conference.  When I asked about hotels he regrettably informed me that the cheapest he had was €130 a night, and that, even in his personal opinion, was too much.  For me it wasn’t just too much but just totally out of the question.  I was swimming in panic and cold sweat at this point as I crossed the road to the train station to think.  It was at this time that I started musing on how nice it be to not have to solve this problem ALONE.  Travelling alone might have a plethora benefits, but two heads are always better than one in a crisis.

I considered getting a train to another town close by (Pisa is not too far) but realised of course I would be in the same situation there – nothing booked.  Or, I could give in to my fears and book one of those forgotten-or-undesireable-even-on-the-busiest-weekend-EVER hostels I had been avoiding.  I ducked into a cafe with wifi (luggage in tow) and made my peace with this decision.  The clock was ticking and it was mid afternoon by this point, the ONLY priority for the day was to have somewhere to sleep.  It was with tearful reluctance that I got a taxi to hostel 5km out of town.

I was dismayed beyond belief when the taxi turned off onto a endless potholed drive that led up to the hostel, past campsite and vineyards.  I felt liked I had been deposited in the middle of nowhere, and all my defences had well and truly been worn down to the point where I couldn’t even appreciate the beautiful entrance hall (shown above).  I feel quite sheepish admitting to this now, especially considering my warm and tender feelings towards this place by the end, but after I’d checked in and gone to my room I cried for the first and only time during my independent travels.  Aw.  I briefly convinced myself that I would leave Florence on the first train I could get the next day, and draw a line under the whole nightmare.  But luckily, food, a shower, a nap, some new friends and quite a lot of wine are great revivers of weary travellers spirit and in just a few short hours I decided that I would stick around after all and absorb all Florence had to offer.

After initial scepticism about its distance from the city centre I fell completely in love with Villa Camerata and ended up staying almost a week before finally switching another hostel in the centre so I could enjoy some city nightlife.  For a girl who likes her architecture this was an absolute delight to come home to every night:

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I couldn’t help myself from doing some research on the building (it’s prime dissertation material, if you want my opinion – I’ll be waiting – History of Architecture students) , but I wasn’t able to turn up that much.  Apparently the villa was a meeting place for the Accademia degli Svogliati, a 17th century association of writers in Florence.  I couldn’t have thought of a better base for my stay in the city.  Aside from the stunning marble in the entrance hall, the peaceful veranda with occasional sketching artist, the nearby vineyards, the manicured gardens, what I will remember most about this hostel will probably be the people.  I met some wonderful people here, and I really was very sad leave in the end.  I think this is a tribute to an unconventional choice gone right (as opposed to wrong, which has also happened a multitude of times).  Villa Camerata would not have been my first choice, but it will be next time.

Would you like to stay at Villa Camerata?  Summer months are highly recommended so you can drink wine and draw on the veranda.  Bring insect repellent.  I can assure you 100% that I am not being paid for such shameless advertising (more’s the pity) but you can book here.

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Lots of life but not much art: Florence part I

I had been in Florence two days before I was able to bask in front of the glory of the Duomo, and almost a week before I set foot in the Uffizi.  I was a History of Art and Architecture graduate on virgin territory, and I was on a mission, so what went wrong?

A whole lot of LIFE as it turns out, a.k.a that scythe that cuts through everything when you’re making other plans.  When the story left off I was in Verona where I had opted to stay for only one night as it was fairly small, and I had struggled to find cheap accommodation.  This problem had persisted when I had attempted to book a hostel for Florence, irritated and pressed for time I booked a less than salubrious looking hostel in the city centre for just one night (as it was fully booked after this . . . as was everywhere else), under the assumption I would have time in the evening to book something for the following nights.  I wasn’t sure at this point if Florence was just fully booked for the weekend or if Italy in general wasn’t particularly forthcoming with cheap accommodation.

Determined to do a quick loop of Verona during the day time, I forget my hostel woes, dropped my case at the station and headed off for a whistle-stop tour before my afternoon train.  Sightseeing was successfully accomplished, minus one battery dead camera and some mosquito bites, I headed back to the train station.  So far so good.  But then: my train got delayed.  Then it got delayed a bit more.  Along with every southbound train out of Verona (including, I was amused to note, the Orient Express) my train was delayed for a full 3 hours – longer than the actual journey was supposed to take.  So a 3 hour delay plus a few hours on the train meant I arrived in Florence after dark.

From experience I know that major train stations tend to be in unsavoury areas, and I have heard many a hostel tale about bags being stolen at stations – so I was less than happy.  As a girl travelling alone I try my best to avoid arriving in unfamiliar places after dark.  But there I was in Florence long after nightfall, at a train station that did not appear to be the central station (in fact it was the secondary out of town one, which was a pity, because my hostel was within easy walking distance of the other one – possibly its only good feature).  I was panicking a bit at this point as it was after 9 with no apparent taxis or buses, and my hostel had strict check in hours up until 10pm.  When I had called ahead from my delayed train to let them know I would be late, they said it was no problem, up until 10pm . . .

But then I did get a taxi, and arrived tired and slightly unnerved just before 10pm.  What I then encountered might be described as The Worst Hostel I Have Ever Stayed In and perhaps The Worst Hostel In Florence.  I’ve stayed in lots of hostels, so I don’t use this description lightly.  This place was the pits.  The furniture was flea market, but not in a good way – and so was the mish-mash of old blankets and bedding.  My ageing iron bed was made up with an old, badly stained throw of indeterminate colour which may or may not have been better than the old sleeping bags on the other beds.  The dorm I was in was a through room to bathroom as well as the 4 bed room next door which didn’t seem overwhelmingly reassuring to me either security or sleep wise.  The guy running the place gave a perfunctory tour but didn’t offer any maps or information on the city or hostel, but I wasn’t terribly bothered by this at the time as I just wanted to decompress and book a room somewhere else for the next night.

10pm comes and goes.  ‘Reception’ is locked up and the staff leave.  I have no idea if this is common or not, but I haven’t encountered this before.  The doorbell begins to ring.  Then the phone in the (locked) office begins to ring.  Then the doorbell again, then the phone.  Lots uncomfortable looks exchanged between hostel strangers.  Finally, standing awkwardly in front of the hostel intercom emblazoned with the note ‘Do NOT respond to the doorbell, guests will be let in by a member of staff’ I make the call to answer the intercom and let what it presumably a very upset new guest into the building.  It’s maybe 11pm by this point and I’m feeling pretty strung out myself, but also full of empathy because I know very well that it could have been me ringing doorbells and phones to no response if the hand of fate had delayed me just a little more.  The thought of this REALLY freaks me out by the way, I have no idea what I would do in an alien, booked up city late on a Friday night if my accommodation had disappeared/closed entry etc.  I hope I am never in this situation.

Anyway.  I checked the new guest in after guiltily asking to see his reservation and apologetically showed him around the hostel.  By this point it was looking less like an actual hostel and a lot more like a load of second hand beds crammed into an old apartment.  This place was astonishingly unprofessional.  As all of the keys were locked up in the office and the new guy urgently needed to go and meet a friend I handed over my keys and he promised to leave them in a plant pot in the morning for me to pick up.

Excitement momentarily over I sat down with my laptop to finally start scouting out some hopefully better accommodation for the next night.

I was seriously tired by this point.

Then.  The doorbell began to ring again.  Then the phone, then the doorbell.  So we let this person into the building as well – and yes, it’s another new guest.  Incidentally both of these guys had emailed the hostel in advance to let them know that they would be arriving late, but I guess these messages had BOTH been ignored.  This is uncaring and unprofessional almost beyond belief.  Most hostels will still charge for the first night regardless of whether a guest turns up or not, but the money is the least important part of this.  Ignoring emails and refusing to cater for the arrival time of your guests, especially when they warn you in advance is a bad and irresponsible way to run a business.  Irresponsible behaviour like this could put young travellers after dark, on a budget, on unfamiliar ground, laden with luggage etc. in a very dangerous situation.

Anyway.

I was really, seriously, reaching-the-edge-of-my-limit-tired.  But the night wasn’t over yet.

I was still trying to book a hostel.  But everywhere that wasn’t an inconvenient amount of km out of the city, or reviewed as a flea infested basement with triple bunks, was fully booked up.  Even some of the poorly rated hostels like the one I was currently in were completely full for the weekend.

Around this time a guy who I was sharing a room with started talking to me.  I decided to give up on the hostel booking until the morning when I could approach it with a clear head.  It turned out that my talkative roommate was a sculptor who was aiming to hit up Florence’s finest art, architecture and sculpture.  Now, I’ve worked alongside sculptors in the past – and my roomie also showed me photographs of some gilding work he had done (I have also some experience of this which I blogged about) and I can happily talk about art and architecture for hours.  The conversation was flowing despite a few creepy vibes from the guy, but I was unbelievably tired.  The time was pushing 1.30am and I really needed to sleep so I made my apologies and said I must go to bed.

I wash, change, put on a jumper as the room is so cold,and turn out the light.  The two girls also sharing our room have gone out to a bar.  Despite being so exhausted from the trials of the day my mind needs a little longer to shut down, and also the cold is kind of distracting – not to mention the enduring mosquitos.  I toss and turn a little bit.

* THREE GUESSES WHAT HAPPENED NEXT *

‘Angela, are you awake?’

Mistake caused by the mind fog of tiredness here I actually answered.

‘Angela, I have a question for you,

I would very much like

. . . . to kiss you?’

So!  Yeah.  A guy who I had only just met hit on me WHEN I WAS IN BED.

A rejection and an awkward conversation followed, coupled with some total disbelief on what had just happened.  And I have to say I only managed to fall into a deep, but not particularly restful sleep after the two girls returned from the bar.

The escapades continued the next day, but I’ll pick up on that in my next post.  Safe travels!

Ugly Salzburg, myth and reality

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Kudos to you if you are able to identify which scene from the Sound of Music this shot features in: view of the Hohensalzburg Fortress as seen from the gardens of the Mirabell Palace

Imagine ‘Salzburg, Austria, in the last golden days of the thirties’ we are told in the open scenes of The Sound of Music, just after the bit where Julie Andrews is warbling and frolicking in the mountains.  To me Salzburg looked a lot like a place which had started life in a fairytale and somehow hatched into a real town.  An improbably picturesque town nestled in the Alps, birthplace to Mozart and home to some wedding cake worthy iced baroque and renaissance buildings, Salzburg was a sweet little stop on my journey.

On my first short walk (Salzburg is quite small) around town I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.  Every single street I wandered down, square I turned into, alleyway I cut through was the most charming, attractive, fairytale-esq thing I’d ever seen.  If there was a place I could stand in the historic centre and not take a beautiful photograph, then I didn’t find it – everything here was gorgeous.  I think something that might prove my point best would be this photograph of a Mc Donald’s sign:

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This photograph was taken on the historic shopping street Getreidegasse where each shop was obviously under strict orders to comply with rules about appearance to keep it looking like a dream.  On a whim I sent this photograph to my friend who promptly informed me that Salzburg has a high suicide rate; it’s so beautiful in comparison to the mundane drudgery of everyday life that it makes people want to kill themselves, apparently*.

While I was wandering around it occurred to me that historic Salzburg can’t look that different to how it did in the 1930s, from the horse drawn carriages and the ornate signs to the well heeled bourgeois tourists planning to go to evening Mozart concerts, Salzburg is a perfectly preserved pearl.  If you want to maintain the illusion make sure you don’t go anywhere near the train station a.k.a the ‘real’ part of town which I arrived into.  I kind of already knew this anyway, but my rail travels in Europe have confirmed the fact, that train stations are almost always in seedy parts of town (and this is an absolute guarantee if you are arriving after dark, alone, or in a place you have never been to before).  Salzburg was no exception with it’s ugly modern blocks of flats and train station drunks, but that’s ok, because these things are what make a place real – not just some sickly sweet illusion of a town.

I was only compelled to photograph the good stuff on this occasion though, so here we go:

I have to give a shout out to my hostel here for playing The Sound of Music every single night at 7pm, every single time to a rapt audience in a packed room.  I don’t know if there was something rewarding about spotting the sights we had been rambling around during the day on a big screen, or if it was the tunes, the universality of the (historically inaccurate) story amongst an international crowd . . . but it was thoroughly enjoyed by all present, and not in the least an amusing prelude to schnapps in bar.

*I’ve just done a little googling on this subject out of curiosity and I came up with this excerpt from ‘The Voice Imitator’ by Thomas Bernhard which suggests that, ‘As is well known, Salzburg has the highest suicide rate among schoolchildren in the world.  The more highly thought-of the beauty of a city is . . . the higher the suicide rate, and not, as previously assumed, the reverse.’  Beauty comes from within, it seems.