A friend remarked recently that I’d lived my life the wrong way round, and I have to agree that’s true in some ways! It’s certainly true that I’d stayed in quite grand hotels before “poverty” made hostels the norm. One advantage of doing it that way round has been that I now feel quite unfazed by any type of accommodation – so long as it’s reasonably clean. Still, I had my list of doubts about whether it was a way of traveling with which I would be comfortable.
It took a long time for the penny to drop, and that partly because, despite (or because of!) the zillions of blog posts I’ve read over the last nine years or so, I still had an image of hostels as being full of swinging teens, partying their way around the world. I thought that, at 60+, I would be the fish out of water, the square peg in the round hole, that I would stick out like a sore thumb.
My first hostel experience, in Guildford, England, was only around three years ago, and I was very hesitant about it. I was nervous that everyone else would be 40 years my junior; I was nervous about the safety of my laptop and camera (let’s face it, if I hadn’t bought the camera I might have been staying in a hotel & not a hostel that time!); and I was nervous that the name YMCA meant what it said – that my booking would be refused when I arrived, and they saw I was neither male, nor young, nor Christian! (OK they might not be able to see I wasn’t Christian, but don’t they have some sort of spiritual antennae or would there be some sort of test, knowledge of the Bible, perhaps?……but it was the only hostel in town, so there wasn’t any choice. I was far too nervous to book a dorm, so I splashed out on a private room.
The very best thing about the hostel in Guildford is that it is just around the corner from this idyllic scene, and it’s lovely to take sandwiches & sit by the river & feed the ducks & just enjoy.
As it turned out, they didn’t look at me as if I was the freaky old woman down from the hills when I checked in – first relief! The attitude wasn’t what I’d read about though. Where were these friendly young receptionists, probably travelers themselves, earning a crust to see them on their way? I stayed there a couple more times over the next few months, and don’t believe I ever saw a smile. I felt guilty. That feeling that I shouldn’t be there was reinforced, although there were folk of every type coming and going. Perhaps they really did think I was some frugal old broad too mean to stay in a hotel? The room and the shared bathroom were both very basic and very worn, but also quite clean. It was, in short, just the sort of place I’d always thought hostels were like before they became trendy. It wasn’t my worst nightmare by any stretch of the imagination, but I hated it. It was depressing. I felt as if I was a nuisance any time I asked anything at the desk, and it made me feel kind of faceless and grey, but my laptop was still there at the end of the day when I returned at least, having left it quite unprotected in my room.
Happily, that was the worst experience. The next was far better. It was almost everything a good hostel experience should be, although, it was Sevilla, and who wants to hang around the hostel when you’re in Sevilla?! Maria and I had a double room in the Samay Hostel. It was colorfully decorated in a kind of hippie meets IKEA sort of way, and the location couldn’t have been better, slap bang in the middle of the historic heart of the city, so we were able to walk absolutely everywhere. Our room was located around the corner from the main building overlooking a leafy square, full of that old city sort of charm. The bathroom was immaculate. The staff were the young travelers I’d expected, but they were knowledgeable and helpful. Atop the main building was a delightful azotea, where we imagined would be a great place for hanging out and meeting other travelers. We didn’t simply because we kind of had a schedule to keep. There was generally a queue for the computers, so we went around the corner to a very nice café to use the wifi, and it turned out to be the place to go, as it was obviously widely used.
Via the hostel we arranged to go on a walking tour, and that was when the penny dropped, and some of the illusions I had about hostels fell away. Our guide picked up first at Samay. We were the only customers that day, and we then scuttled around the other hostels in the area, collecting more punters, and as Filipo, our guide, emerged from each doorway with people in tow, I realized just what an eclectic bunch we were. I probably wasn’t even the oldest! There were all nationalities, all types, all ages. It was a personal eye-opener that there were folk of my age, and that there were folk who really wanted to know about the culture of the city. They were interesting to talk with and already well-informed about where they were – totally unlike hotel experiences I’d had in the past with people who only wanted to boast about their own lifestyles, and who hadn’t a clue about where they were, let alone anything about its history.
Heartened at last by this great experience I booked a dorm (ok, let’s go for it!) for my next-but-one destination in York, England. If I was going to have a true hostel experience it was time to get realistic, not to mention that funds were dwindling! The great thing about booking hostels or anything else today, is that you can get an idea from the internet as to what to expect before you arrive, and with two differing experiences now under my belt I was curious about my next. It really helped the still-nervous me that it came recommended by a fellow blogger, Barbara from HoleintheDonut, a far more widely traveled lady then I.
The Ace Hostel in York proved to be an altogether different experience again. For one thing it has oodles of history, dating back to 1753, so despite the fact that you share a dorm with 9 other people it still has a touch of that grand hotel feel about it. In fact, it deserves a post all of its own one day, so I won’t make this one any longer by describing the charms of Micklegate House. Micklegate itself is one of the city’s main, historic streets, and the original Roman wall lies just a couple of minutes from the hostel’s door, and just about anything else you might want is just a hop, skip and a jump.
Whilst my vast age has taught me to be reasonably confident in most situations, I can go a bit shy faced with a host of other people, so that first time I entered the key-coded room a bit tentatively. I’d chosen girls only. I’m pretty sure that I could never face a mixed dorm, although I stand to be corrected as experience grows and money dwindles! I needn’t have worried. The dorm of ten beds, was pretty full, but everyone was friendly, and if anyone wondered about a woman of my age being there no-one made it obvious, plus, later that evening another “mature” lady arrived, and down in the bar there were several people in my age bracket too. The beds were immaculate and comfy, and the staff friendly. I’ve stayed there three times more since then, using a private room when I thought arriving at 3am might disturb a dorm, and I swear I don’t know where those cleaning fairies come from, but it’s always spotless. The wifi’s pretty cool too, not in the rooms, but ample in the assigned room.
So – would I recommend women my age to forget their inhibitions and try a hostel? Absolutely! I appreciate that I have yet to experience hostels on other continents, but I think it was good to dip my toe in the water first. Just in the same way that if you have doubts about traveling solo you should start by taking yourself out for a solitary meal to test your reactions. The thought of less modern plumbing etc doesn’t worry this child of the late 40s at all. What would have worried me, had I not given them a try in Europe, is that I would have been a bit intimidated, and been made to feel my age – something, apparently, I rarely do in the course of normal life. But it appears that there are thousands more of we, “mature travelers” having exactly the same experience, so that is most certainly crossed off my list of doubts. For sure there are more under 30s than over, and some are perhaps not over-friendly, but then, again, isn’t that typical of life in general? I’m sure that just as with life the exceptions will more than make up for the rest, and the opportunities for meeting folk, swapping stories and even making new friends are certainly more abundant than when you stay in a posh hotel…….not that there is anything at all wrong with a bit of luxury when you have the money and the inclination to truly wind down.