Saturday, January 1, 2011

Tales from a Hostel Bunk: Vienna

Paris' Gare du Nord: pretty, but very cold
after dark in February, mostly due to a large
surplus of windows and open doors.
Photo credit: Evan Bench/austinevan
February 2006, Vienna, Austria. Yanking my suitcase over a crack in the pavement, I exchanged a look with my friend as we neared the address of our hostel for the next few days. Maybe it was the hours of waiting at Paris' freezing Gare du Nord late the evening before or the long overnight train ride to Vienna, but the neighborhood didn't seem particularly welcoming and I was starting to wonder what we'd gotten ourselves into. Neither of us had ever stayed at a hostel before and, though we'd taken the precaution of booking a female-only room, I was nervous. What if it was awful? What if our roommates were mean, or wanted to party at 3am or poked through our things?

The image in my mind's eye of the unknown hostel took on a dark, sinister quality and by the time we'd found the building, the next few nights had begun to seem like the rest of my life. Then we stepped into Wombat's The City Hostel - "The Base" and I started to relax. In a lobby furnished with a bright red phone booth straight off of a London street corner and a reception desk that looks more like it should be setting up adventure tours than handing out room keys, it's difficult to be nervous about your surroundings. And once you talk to the friendly staff (who further endear themselves by handing you a voucher for a drink at the basement Wombar), glance at the spacious, colorful breakfast room and arrive in front of a bright blue door decorated with a fiercely pink sign declaring the room beyond it a "Pink Wing" (female-only room), it's all but impossible not to feel at home.

The Riesenrad, a Vienna landmark since its 1897 construction.
Our "Pink Wing" was a four-bed room. One of the other two women was also American, spending several months touring Europe, and the other was an Australian winding down two years of traveling the world with a base and a part-time nursing job in Britain. The four of us found that we had quite a bit in common and within an hour were heading out in search of dinner, with our Australian roommate - who spoke German - leading the way. It was a fun evening, with conversation ranging from favorite places visited to languages spoken to the plastic content in Australian money. And the neighborhood turned out to be quiet, rather than creepy.

The next afternoon, after a day of chilly sightseeing and lots of coffee, we followed our Australian roommate's directions back from central Vienna - straight up Mariahilfer Straße back to the neighborhood where the hostel was located - with no problem.

One of Vienna's tributes to Mozart, in the
Burggarten, which I would have loved to see in
the spring, with the flowers planted in the treble
clef in bloom.
Vienna wasn't entirely what I had expected and, although it's home to some beautiful fine arts, I didn't feel much of a connection to the city or its people, which was unusual for me. I enjoyed seeing Mozarthaus Vienna, drooling at the display of grand pianos behind the window of Steinway-Haus, having a cultural excuse to drink coffee and eat pastries and wandering through the vast and impressive Oberes Belvedere, but the feeling of a temporary home, of instant connection to the culture and the people that I'd grown used to in traveling through France, Italy and England was missing. (The one significant connection I felt in Vienna was when I saw Gustav Klimt's painting, Der Kuss, in the Oberes Belvedere, and was able to spend as long as I wanted standing in front of it, absorbing the emotion and the incredible combination of colors and patterns in the painting.) Without the genuinely warm and welcoming atmosphere of the hostel to go back to every evening, the whole experience might have felt rather soulless.

Instead, I had friends - old and new - to eat dinner with, write postcards and debate literature and politics with in the Wombar downstairs in the evening and eat breakfast with in the morning before braving the bone-chilling February weather. Wombat's The City Hostel - "The Base" in Vienna is one of my two favorites out of all the hostels I've stayed at, and I feel very lucky to have had my first visit to a hostel be in such a clean, well-run, comfortable and welcoming one, with people who showed me what a great experience a hostel stay can be.

Wombat's The City Hostel - "The Base" is an easy ~2km walk or a short subway ride from Vienna's city center. Rooms range from private doubles and triples to six beds, and female-only rooms are available. Each room has its own ensuite bathroom with shower, and bed linens, luggage storage and in-room lockers are provided free of charge. The hostel is open 24 hours, with no lockout or curfew, and there are both pay-as-you-go computers with internet access and free WLAN connections available. What my friend and I were most amused by was the vending machine in the lobby that sold everything from t-shirts to condoms. There's also a coffee vending machine that makes warming up on chilly days much more pleasant! I don't remember what we paid, but room rates seem to have stayed very reasonable, currently ranging from €12,00 to €20,00 per person per night for a four- or six-bed room, depending on the season.


Heather said...

I remember my first hosteling experience and feeling somewhat of the same! My youngest sister and I arrived in Sydney after a long trip and got to the hostel at 10:30pm. Our 2 male roomies were already fast asleep as we entered with our bags and we nervously and sleepily made the top bunks. The guys were SO nice and fun and our worries melted away quickly. Still love that hostel and stayed there on this trip whenever I was passing through Sydney (before I got the flat).

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

I'm glad you also had a positive first hosteling experience, Heather! It's made such a difference for me, knowing how great a hostel stay can be. There have been other times when I've thought "I'm SO glad this wasn't my first experience at a hostel, or I'd be terrified of them forever." I think Americans view hostels differently than a lot of other nationalities do, because they just aren't the norm in the U.S., so the idea is a little bit scary, since we aren't sure what to expect. It's nice to be able to share the good experiences as a way of encouraging people to give them a shot. What was the hostel you stayed at in Sydney? I'd love to have the name of a good one on hand!

25BAR said...

My first experience of staying in a hostel was at Paris and it was awful. A couple of weeks later, I checked into one in Prague, at Tyn and that has got to be the best hostel in Europe!

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

I'm sorry your first hostel experience was so bad, but I'm glad the second one made up for it! You just never really know with hostels until you get there.