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Around Europe in hostels, Airbnb and more...

Living in shared accommodation makes for intimate, lasting memories

brunch Updated: Oct 01, 2016 19:58 IST
Bratislava’s Stare Mesto (Old Town) may be small, but makes up with its quaint old-world charm.

Living in shared accommodation makes for intimate, lasting memories

It was an old-fashioned room right out of an Enid Blyton book. High ceilings and wooden flooring, bright yellow walls, a green wooden table, and two comfortable sofas with red pillows. The tall white windowpanes overlooked the quiet street outside. Sunlight poured in.

Six bunk beds lined the room. I grabbed one of the lower berths, while my younger sister took the top one.

The door opened with a creak and two fellow travellers walked in – a tall man with a variety of piercings and a young girl who, going by her time-turner pendant, loved Harry Potter. With smiles and firm handshakes, lunch plans were made.

“You know, this is the first time I’ve seen Indian girls in a hostel,” confessed Arnold* over bowls of Elk soup and pork patties. “Do you guys travel much?” Mouths stuffed we could only nod. “You stay in hostels?” Nods. “This is definitely new,” he exclaimed, himself a wanderer, but currently teaching English in Moscow.

Chance meetings, friendships that go beyond social networks, gossiping late into the night and discovering new places together. Would you have had this experience if you stayed in a hotel? Unlikely.

Visiting Lithuania’s legendary Trakai castle should be on the list when in the country. (Getty Images)

The hotel vs hostel/Airbnb debate

As frequent travellers, the question we always have to deal with is: ‘how can you afford it? It must be so expensive to stay in hotels’. Thanks to Hollywood, hostels are viewed as places for drugs, sex, rock ‘n’ roll and axe murderers. Hotels, on the other hand, are for decent folks.

Living in hostels is a unique experience. With the advent of social media, all experiences, likes and dislikes are out in the open. Deciding to stay in one over another comes after reading honest reviews and seeing the facilities offered.

Budget travelling means spending a limited amount of money over weeks, which should include food, transport and accommodation. So dorms are economical. Knowledge is shared, new places are discovered, friendships are made and sometimes, summer romances make the place more worthwhile. You just pray no one in the dorm snores!

But there are negatives too – the occasional dysfunctional shower; unclean beds and sometimes odours that make you wonder ‘why am I putting myself through this?’

That’s why many budget travellers now prefer Airbnb. According to a recent survey, there’s a 115 per cent increase in Airbnb listings in India alone, and over five lakh Indians have used the services. Getting your own room, kitchen facilities, and sometimes wonderful conversations for almost the same amount as a dorm bed, is a steal.

The sister and I stayed in hostels and Airbnbs extensively on our recent long Europe trip. With two backpacks, cameras to capture the beauty, and a thirst for adventure, we travelled to England, Scotland and then from Estonia down to Croatia. It wasn’t a cakewalk but no trip ever is. Visa issues forced us to cut our trip short, one of us fell ill and we destroyed a door (truly an accident). But we had summer crushes, discovered new cultures and cuisines, and met new people.

How we discovered the Sanskrit-Lithuanian link

The sister and I stayed in an Airbnb in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. “You are staying in our daughter’s room,” said Valeria*, a government worker, as we sipped hibiscus tea and gorged on the apple-cinnamon pancakes she had made for us. We had a gorgeous two-bed room which had a piano, and the full use of the kitchen and living area for only Rs 1,300 a night. Her husband Olaf*, a linguistics professor, was ecstatic to meet us. “I’m going to practise my Sanskrit on you girls,” he exclaimed, and was aghast on hearing neither of us had learned it.

He’s published a scholarly book on the link between Lithuanian and Sanskrit. “Ours is an archaic language and the similarity with Sanskrit is immense,” he said as we listened in awe. He went on to give us examples. “Sunus (son) in Sanskrit is the same in Lithuanian. Dhumas or smoke is Dumas here. The link between the two languages was discovered in the 19th century.”

The historic city centre of Vilnius was about 40 minutes away by trolleybus, but the journey was never a bother. We explored the city and on Olaf’s recommendation, went to Trakai castle, Lithuania’s old capital, which is on an island. We were their first Indian guests and apart from sharing recipes (Olaf loves spices and if he had his way, he would put curry powder even in Valeria’s home-baked cakes), we formed a bond which I’m sure will stand strong.

Morning shock in Bratislava

“Well, I wanted to see how far it would go,” laughed the sister. Let me explain. We were staying in a six-bed mixed dorm in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. The hostel was impeccable. Clean wooden floors, great atmosphere, free Wi-Fi and a wonderful breakfast spread for just Rs 2,000, just five minutes away from the imposing Bratislava Hrad (castle).

I don’t like early mornings unlike my sister who wakes up at 5 for yoga and running. Though she was unwell, the body clock woke her up as usual, and she saw another traveller come into our room. She didn’t think much of it but when he came near my bed, it piqued her interest. Reeking of alcohol, he took off his shoes and sat down by my side, groaning. He thought my bed was his! When he realised his mistake, he jumped off and fell hard on the floor. The sister saw it all and later pointed out to me at breakfast, “That’s him!” much to the young Russian’s embarrassment.

Our dorm had a young Polish couple. In between conversations about how pretty and cheap the country is, the man asked about our next destination — Budapest. “Don’t waste money on transport tickets. I’ll give you,” he said, as he handed over two travel passes. “We didn’t use all of it, you guys can.” A very generous offer indeed. In return, we told them how to travel to Vienna from Bratislava, from where we had come and they were headed.

Poland’s Pierogis

Engineering student Maya*, our Airbnb host in Krakow, had her third-year examinations on, yet that didn’t stop her from spending time with us. Conveniently located about 20 minutes away from the bus station and Old Town, Maya’s place is a fantastic modern apartment. She has been hosting guests for about six months and her place is popular. For just Rs 1,500 a night, which includes all modern amenities, her place is always booked.

Krakow’s Stare Miasto boasts of the largest medieval Main Square in Europe. Everyone stops by St Mary Church which is right at the start.

“Do you girls like to experiment with food?” she asked. On hearing yes, Maya insisted we try Pierogis, a Polish delicacy. “I’ll tell you the best place to find them,” she conspired, as she was on a diet. They are dumplings, similar to momos, with a variety of fillings, ranging from sweet to savoury. They can be boiled, deep fried or baked and are delicious.

Maya loves Krakow. “It is quainter than Warsaw,” she said. We found it true. The Oskar Schindler factory is on the other side of the Vistula and a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau is very popular. The legend goes that Krakow was founded on the defeat of a dragon, so soft toys of the mythical creature are much in demand among tourists. The sister fell so much in love with a purple one that we simply had to get it.

Laziness in Zagreb

Crossing the Hungarian-Croatian border was an experience. It took a very long time and all of us on the bus thought our passports had been confiscated. We were mistaken of course, but the experience was extremely intimidating.

As we reached Zagreb’s main bus station, the heat and exhaustion had us wanting to dive into a pool and stay put. “Why don’t you head to the lake?” Denny* said, looking at our exhausted faces. “Check in later, seems like you guys need it.” Rosa*, a guest from Glasgow, was supposed to be at the hostel for two days two weeks ago. She never left. “It’s just so relaxed here that I don’t know when I’m going back.”

Bundek Lake in Zagreb is perfect for an afternoon dip.

Zagreb’s Jarun Lake is a popular hang-out. “No no, that’s too touristy. We go to the smaller one,” Rosa said on the tram. Getting off four stops later, we walked through green fields, crossed a flyover and saved ourselves from snarly cats. Bundek Lake appeared like an apparition and was a sight for sore eyes. With only a handful of people sunbathing, we ran up and dived right in. It was pure bliss! Hours later, we realised what Rosa meant. Zagreb’s laid-back atmosphere, hidden gems like the lakes, cheap food and alcohol make it a paradise for budget travellers.

*Names have been changed.

(All Airbnb/hostel prices are for two people per day)

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From HT Brunch, October 2, 2016

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First Published: Oct 01, 2016 19:57 IST