The Dirtiest Hostel I’ve Visited – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Wednesdays

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Elijah who asks,

Q. “Where was the dirtiest hostel you’ve ever been to?

A. – Ahh, time for a hostel horror story, ehh?  While the vast majority of the hostels I’ve stayed in have been pretty good, there have definitely been a few that were memorable for all of the wrong reasons. Typically, I manage to do most of my research ahead of time using Hostelworld or HostelBookers. The reviews on these sites really help with the booking process, especially because they both have cleanliness ratings. However, sometimes you just don’t get the chance to research ahead of time or have to try a hostel which isn’t listed. That’s what happened to me in Greece.

It was December 2007 and I was traveling through Greece with a good friend.  It was off season and most of the hostels and hotels had closed for the winter.  Luckily those that were still open were willing to negotiate price.  As a result we were able to stay in private hotel rooms for the same price or less than we would have paid for a hostel.  That all changed when we arrived in Chania in Crete. We found a hostel, and checked in eager for the opportunity to socialize.  Unfortunately, the hostel wasn’t listed on most of the main resource sites (with good reason), was a European HI Hostel (which always makes me nervous) and as a result we ended up checking in blind.

The entrance and reception area was spartan and boring, but that’s the way of it sometimes.  The hostel was largely dead, which was a bit of a let down as we were hoping for a social atmosphere, but again, that happens. Especially in off season. The rooms, however, and more specifically the beds were where the hostel really failed and failed miserably. Now, usually in most modern hostels they provide you with clean sheets and freshly washed blankets, or at least a blanket cover. Some of the less hygienic just opt for a clean top sheet and bottom sheet while periodically washing the quilt/blanket. Many  modern hostels also have a plastic under sheet over the mattress for added sanitation and stain prevention. Unfortunately, the hostel we found couldn’t be bothered with any of that.  They offered us one sheet to go with the shaggy brown blanket already on the bed.  The status of the mattresses was…let’s just say, suspect at best.  Lumps were the least of my concerns as I very carefully spread my flat sheet out and did my best to avoid touching anything.  Then, there was the blanket.  It was still somewhat warm in the hostel, but December in Greece is still December even if you are all the way down in Crete.  I looked at the blanket, which boasted more than a few questionable spots and cigarette burns and decided to throw it on the ground.  It seemed much healthier to sleep wearing every warm piece of clothing I could scrounge up.  I suppose theoretically the stains could have been permanent, and that perhaps they washed the blankets after every visitor.  Given the general state of hygiene around the rest of the hostel though, I highly doubt it.

Unfortunately, the rest of the place was equally disgusting.  The bathrooms were grungy and the showers did little to leave you feeling clean and refreshed.  I think the hostel serves mostly as a drunken crash pad during the summer months for beach goers and drugged out party animals. It likely takes a lot of abuse as a result, and the management seemed to have just given up bothering  with the maintenance side of things.

I was also fearful we’d pick up bedbugs as it was that type of place.  Luckily we escaped with only a few mosquito bites and a strong desire to take a shower and a long nap at the next place we stayed.

Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of the hostel.  Though I also can’t imagine it’s still there, or in business.

That was the worst one that comes to mind from a sanitary/dirty perspective.  I’ve stayed in half-finished buildings, in the middle of floors under renovation,  with slobs, braved group showers and of course had a naked old man towel off in the middle of the room…but when it comes to unnecessary filth.  That hostel is the one that stands out.

Still, even despite the occasional hostel disaster I find that I love them and will take them over a hotel stay in most situations!   If you’ve got a filthy hostel story of your own feel free to share it in a comment!

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Rethymno Part II, Iraklio and Knossos

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So, you know that crazy phenomenon that occurs when you’re about 1/2 through writing something that’s difficult to save, and as a result, has not been saved? Well, it struck last night as I was writing this blog update. Unfortunately, the insane thunderstorm that was raging outside knocked out the power not once but twice. It was also kind enough to wait until I’d gotten a day or two into the update each time…oh well. It’s not raining at the moment and I’m going to give it another go – wish me luck!

Castle Gateway

Rethymno is beautiful. Of the big 3 – Chania, Rethymno and Iraklio – I would say Rethymno takes the cake, though Chania is definitely a not too distant second. The difference lies in the city’s layout. Chania’s old city sits inside the Venetian walls but lacks a real castle and is much more cramped. Rethymno lacks the city walls, but still has an intact castle which is in impressive shape and crowns the tip of the peninsula. Between the new city and the castle the old city spreads out along the peninsula in a beautiful mixture of small, cramped, vine-covered alleyways and slightly larger cobblestone streets lined by shops, cafes and restaurants. One of the biggest differences between Greece and the states is the cafe culture. Because the whole town shuts down from 2-4 every day, a lot of people head to the cafes…it’s like our Starbucks…but different in that everyone actually hangs out, drinks their coffee and socializes instead of running off to their next appointment bolstered by their caffeine high. The cafes also take the place of bars in some of the mid-sized towns resulting in a much more laid back bar environment… one not especially geared toward socializing or mixing with strangers, but one great for a group out for the evening looking for a place to hangout and relax.

Castle Wall in Crete

After our first night in the crappy hostel, we decided to re-locate to a hotel. The hotel we found cost us each 3 Euro more. For the slight price increase we got a private room with shower, a TV, and we were one street back from the beach. Using that as a base camp we spent our first full day exploring the town, wandering up to the castle ruins and walking along the castle walls. The interior of the castle is mostly an open field, however, the castle walls are in great shape and have been restored. It’s a beautiful sight looking out from the walls, down over the jagged rocks and over the crystal clear water at the empty horizon. From the castle we explored the city in greater depth, wandering aimlessly through the tiny streets and taking in their beauty and spirit. We eventually found a place to stop for dinner and tried sampling some local cuisine which was delicious.

A Small Cafe in Spili, Crete

Our second day in Rethymno we spent exploring the city, before setting out into Crete’s interior. We picked a small city called Spili located in the heart of the mountains and caught a bus around noon. The town ended up being much closer than we expected and after a 30 minute bus ride across the countryside we found ourselves in a quaint little town that sat at the base of a large cloud-cloaked mountain. The town wrapped along the main road and overlooked a large fertile valley dotted with orange trees and olive groves. The weather was cold and we were forced to dodge a few brief drizzles, however the town in general was fun in a quiet simple sort of way. After exploring the town we had about 45 minutes to kill before our bus left from in front of one of the local cafeneons. We found a beautiful little restaurant cloaked in vines with hanging gourds in it’s rafters and ordered an odd beef stew meal to split. As we ate our snack, several kittens showed up and kept us entertained until it was time to leave.

Greek Kittens

We arrived back in Rethymno, explored the city a bit more by night, then turned in.

Spili, Crete Countryside

The next morning we woke up, found some food, and made our way to the bus station. The day was grumpy and rainy. Once at the bus station we had a 45 minute wait until the next bus left, that wait stretched into an hour and a half as the bus was late. A bit irritable (and soggy) we finally got moving and arrived in Iraklio an hour and a half later. By then it was already about 3:30, raining, and getting dark. We walked around a bit, found most of the budget housing closed, and eventually found a hotel with a room for 20 Euro each. From there we set out for food and to explore the city a bit.

Knossos Monument, Crete

Iraklio is a mess. The city might have had a lot to offer 80 years ago, but the war apparently destroyed a lot of it’s historic neighborhoods. What’s left is mostly run down and unimpressive. The city itself is a large port town with a lot of abandoned areas and ugly streets. A few of the main streets are interesting, but even those are just busy commercial zones. After exploring a bit we eventually found a restaurant that showed some promise. Because of the rain and the delayed bus we had not managed to eat much and were starving. The place we found was a fun little local’s hangout with a two page wooden menu written in Greek. Instead of taking orders, the servers left a pad of paper on the table where we could jot down what we wanted. The prices were great and the portions beautifully presented. Instead of ordering just one thing, it was set up so you could order several, then mix and match.

Eager to try something new, between the two of us, we ordered cheese-stuffed peppers, fried cod, snails and Greek olives. When the food arrived we set to it and were delighted by the food’s quality. Each plate had a distinctly different taste and everything was well prepared. The snails were a new thing for both of us (I’d had them once before but they were cooked differently). Full, we set off to find an internet cafe and quickly got rained in at the one (where the power proceeded to go out twice). Frustrated, we decided to brave the rain and head to a local cafe for a drink. Then, tired of trying to wait out the downpour, we made a wet dash back to our hotel where we called it a night.

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Today we woke up early and caught a bus to Knossos – the largest and best preserved Minoan Palace. Also the fabled home to the minotaur and it’s labyrinth. The ruins are impressive, if fairly plain. It’s obvious in the cement reconstructions and pathways that they have been tuned to deal with a lot of tourist traffic and as a result have a ‘polished’ feel to them. Despite this, they have a certain spirit…one reinforced by the rebuilt sections of the palace and reproductions of the fresco/mosaics which were excavated from the ruins. We spent a good hour exploring the ruins before catching a bus back to the city and heading to the Archeological Museum. Unfortunately, the museum is under renovation and all they have up is a temporary exhibit. Despite being very limited it still had most of the main paintings and a number of impressive artifacts which left us feeling satiated.

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From there we booked our ferry tickets and will leave tonight at 8:30 for an overnight ferry to Athens. Until then we’ll be exploring the city, trying to find a few books to tide us over on the long, uncomfortable ride, and probably locating some food!

Athens bound! Bye for now.

Chania Part II, Rethymno Part I and A Rome Flashback

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As I was walking along the castle walls here in Rethymno, I realized I forgot to blog about a fantastic experience I had in Rome. It’s amazing how things that would ordinarily be the highlight of the month have at times become almost daily travel occurrences and blend into the background noise.

While in Rome, Lander and I stumbled across handouts for several operas being performed in one of the cathedrals located near the central train station. Eager to mix things up and sample something different we selected the more diverse of the two programs and found our way to the church that evening. The building was beautiful. It had Moorish influences with a fantastic roof design painted to look like a starry night. In the dome over the dais there was a beautiful depiction of a non-crucified Christ accompanied by angels. Perhaps the most impressive part of the simply decorated cathedral was a small set of 2 thin-cut marble windows and another beautifully presented piece of thinly sliced marble at the very back of the dais. I’m not sure what to call it other than marble-like stained glass – but that’s deceiving. Where stained glass windows had once been there were thinly cut pieces of marble. Each window consisted of two pieces, one mirroring the other and creating winglike patterns. The central piece was the most captivating in that it was back-lit and a horizontal cut brought out the inner color and shapes in the stone creating what looked like a sunset with rays of light bursting through clouds. It was such an fantastic piece that it looked 3d.

The opera was good, though not incredible. There were 2 male and 2 female performers who took turns singing solo pieces with one or two mixed. Of the 4, one older gentleman was terrific, the other male was horrible and the two women, while not exceptional, were enjoyable. The total performance lasted about an hour and a half with intermission. It took advantage of the cathedral’s acoustics. All in all the experience was enjoyable. The music was enchanting and it was a great change of pace from our typical evening activities.

A Doorway in Chania, Crete

Back to Greece!

After finishing my last blog in Chania, Lander and I found dinner and then set out to hit up the town. The evening started fairly similar to the night before as we quickly got ushered into one of the bars by a street promoter promising free drinks. We struck up a conversation with one of the bartenders – a girl from Sweden working for a few months in Chania then traveling. Before long we built a decent rapport and decided to take a break to see if we could connect with the guys back in the states. We hit up the internet cafe, then Lander decided to turn in. I was feeling energized so I returned to the bar and picked up my conversation with the bartender. Time slipped by, I ordered a beer and had several more provided for free by the promoter or the bartender. A bit after 1:00, a few of her friends showed up with one of her co-workers who was off that night. The other two girls were Finnish and Swedish and the guy was from New Zealand.

Chania Harbor and Lighthouse

We all got acquainted and by 3:00 am, as the bar closed, after dancing for a bit (got some Latin in!) we moved over to the bar where Lander and I had spent the bulk of the previous night. There the Romanian bartender remembered me and demanded I join her for a drink. Afterwards we all socialized, danced and relaxed until about 5:30AM when the bar closed. As everyone put stuff up I decided to leave and hang out by the harbor to get some fresh air and sober up a bit before turning in.

I’ve never really figured out why (maybe it’s because I wear my watch on the wrong wrist?), but gay guys tend to hit on me fairly often. It’s never really phased me, if anything I take it as a compliment of sorts, but it still throws me off a bit. I only mention it because as I was sitting down by the dock sobering up a scooter pulled up with two guys on it. I’m a bit on edge because it’s late at night and I’m halfway expecting I’m about to get robbed. Instead, the two guys proceed to try and pick me up, then offer me drugs, before trying to pick me up a second time. After spending a good 5 minutes trying to get rid of them, they finally left. Slightly traumatized I decided to turn in and call it a night. Normally, I’d consider the story to be unblogworthy, but because of what happened in Paleohora the following day I’m gonna go ahead and include it.

Lander Dock Paleohora

The next morning Lander and I woke up fairly early and caught a bus across the island to a small town on the south shore called Paleohora, which we had been told had interesting architecture and was beautiful. Despite being less than 50km to the south, the bus ride took about two hours – which other than my hangover – was great. The bus ride wound up into the mountains and along the mountainside through several medium-sized gorges. The hillsides along the gorges were extremely steep but still terraced in many places. Any remotely flat areas were covered with olive orchards. Several of the steeper areas had also been cleared into fields where sheep grazed. The day was a beautiful partly cloudy dream. Large fluffy clouds regularly shot rays of light down onto the countryside. Because of the light and the somewhat glossy nature of several of the shrubs everything seemed a vibrant green, broken only by the jagged white rocks protruding from the shrubs and the golden-hued trees that dotted the small washes and dry river beds. A number of the small green bushes had berries which were a vibrant red and looked delicious. The rock formations were fierce looking…almost like a white lava. They are sharp…pitted by water, rain and snow in a way that leaves cutting edges and circular indents in the stone.

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Eventually we wound our way through the mountains and found ourselves at Paleohora. We disembarked on the main street and immediately had to make a decision. The sign in front of us read <–Beach–> and pointed in both directions. A terrible quandary to face ehh? As it turns out, the city sits on a peninsula and we had been dropped off about halfway up it. We chose left, which dumped us out on a beautiful pebble stone beach. The stones were all decent sized and there was almost no sand. As a result, as the tide washed in it would push stones forward, then as the wave pulled back out the pebbles would fall on each other creating a quiet thunder as they banged and slid back down. It was astounding and fantastically melodious. We paused, took it in, relaxed and then set off to walk out the peninsula following the coast road.

Pebble Beach, Palehora, Crete

After leaving the pebble beach we found a small market and picked up some fresh fruit and a tin of sardines. We walked out to the tip of a large cement dock and sat down to eat our snack. From our perch on the dock we were able to see down through the crystal clear water to the sea floor some 15 feet or so below us. Along the edge of the dock were several large schools of different types of fish. As we sat there throwing in small pieces of banana, orange, kiwi and sardines, the fish schooled to nibble at the food. About 10 minutes after we arrived an old Greek man appeared. This is where the story I was writing about earlier comes into play. He was dressed traditionally like most older Greek men, missing most of his teeth, and he walked with a cane. He hobbled up and said something in slurred Greek. Because of his missing teeth and the way he talked, I doubt I’d have been able to understand him even if I spoke Greek. Never the less, he gestured as we talked and we carried on a brief conversation.

From what we could piece together he was an old fisherman who had had to stop fishing because of an accident which damaged both of his knees, but, in his youth he had caught a lot of big fish out on the sea. We offered him a tangerine as we apologized in English for not being able to speak Greek – all of which was fairly normal and made for a good story. That’s where it got really odd, however. After his fishing story he pointed at the two of us, said something, made a weird inquisitive face then in response to our blank looks held out his two hands in pointer position, then rubbed the two back and forth in parallel side-to-side. Not sure what he was asking or getting at, I decided to play dumb, shrugged my shoulders, made an apologetic face, then said, “Oh, we’re American” – as usually when people ask something odd it’s a cultural question or they want to know where we’re from. He talked again briefly before ambling back up the dock to a chair in front of one of the houses a ways back where he sat staring out at the sea. It wasn’t until after he left, as Lander and I were walking back up talking about the old guy, that I asked him, “Is it just me or did he just ask us if we were gay and hit on us?” It turned out he had gotten the same impression. We tried to think of some other meaning behind the hand motion and couldn’t figure anything out. All around quite the odd day, that made two times in a 24 hour period I’d been approached in some shape or form on a dock…maybe there’s some unspoken Greek rule we should have been told about?

Anyhow, from there the road wrapped around the ruins of an old Venetian castle before turning into dirt at the point which was just open land with a small building or two and a number of goats and chickens. As we followed the track back around the other side, we passed the harbor and eventually ended up by the large sandy beach which was on the other side of the peninsula. There we paused before exploring the town and ordering a horrible meat plate. Disappointed, I pulled off a small piece of hamburger, wrapped it in my napkin and stuck it in my pocket to feed the cats later. As in Chania, there were cats everywhere, some were well fed, others looked fairly thin – despite this, as we left the restaurant and walked around (we had an hour to kill before our bus arrived) there was not a cat to be found. Amazed, I finally gave up and was complaining to Lander about how they had all vanished when I tossed my remnants at a large open trash bin. My aim was poor, it hit the side of the bin, teetered for a moment and fell to the ground. At the same moment there was a huge commotion and a cat flew, practically vertically, up and out of the dumpster. It turns out it had been rummaging inside for food and I’d scared it when I hit the can with the meat. Laughing at the irony, I unwrapped the rest and tossed it to the cat.

The next morning we got up and caught the bus to Rethymno. We arrived at 3 or so and made our way to a hostel noted in the book. By 5, we had two beds, though we were extremely disappointed by the quality of the hostel and atmosphere. Committed to one night, we decided we would switch back to a cheap hotel the next day. We explored the town briefly before finding a nice place for dinner and sampling some of the local cuisine. We found a reasonable restaurant and ordered a delicious meat & artichoke plate which was as tender as could be and came with a side of sliced potatoes. From there we explored the nightlife briefly before turning in and getting a horrible night’s sleep on the nasty hostel beds.

The rest I’ll have to pick up tomorrow. Until then!