I spent all day yesterday climbing steps to Barcelona hotels and sorting through tourist propaganda fliers. As I research my guidebooks, it seems nearly everything I read is promotional — designed to get my traveling readers’ money.
Every town has 2,000 years of history. They all want to pump up their off-season charm. And anyone can claim a “vast gastronomy.” I pick up a pack of fliers at the tourist office, sit in the park and sift through it — putting all that advertising through my centrifuge and coming up with straight, descriptive material explaining a traveler’s options. At least that’s my hope.
When it comes to evaluating sights, I disdain the word “UNESCO.” I find that throughout Europe, places desperate to rise above the din of tourist attractions brag that they are on the UNESCO list of cultural treasures. It seems every time I reject a place, proponents of it come at me with the “We’re on the UNESCO list” line. I normally want to like the United Nations (something that really irks my conservative detractors). But in the case of mediocre destinations for travelers, I’m with them — butt out, UN!
Now that I have guidebooks covering all of Western Europe, I can no longer remember everything I’ve seen and reported on. I’m not sure if I should feel good or bad about a strange mental phenomenon that has been reoccurring at an alarming rate to me lately. I think I’ve discovered something new or found a new, clever way to better describe something. I write it up with great satisfaction. Then I turn the page and see that it’s already written up from a previous year’s visit precisely as I just did. At least my thought processes are consistent.
Reviewing 20 to 30 hotels in a day (average of four per hour if I get my ducks in a row smartly — and don’t let friendly proprietors kill my momentum with a drink), I run out of descriptors. With the dollar where it is, Americans need a frank description of their low-end options. There’s an interesting spectrum ranging from charming to characteristic to funky to quirky. Places can be: Old school. A slumber mill. Time warp. Professional-yet-friendly. Thoughtfully appointed. Minimal-yet-comfy. Gaudy in the city of Gaudi. They can have: “a bomb-shelter charm” or “the ambience of a locker room.” Popular with backpackers and dust bunnies. Warmly run by Juan and the man he thinks may be his father. If the starship Enterprise had a Motel 6, this would be it.
Occasionally, I need to defend a description. I called one place “uppity.” The next year, the manager there asked me what that meant. Thinking quick, I said, “elegant and proud.” One place didn’t like to be described as “one floor above the sex shop.” But that’s exactly what it is.
When I find receptionists I think I can trust for leads, I milk them. Many are so wired to sell things that if I ask for advice on the best flamenco show, they respond, “We sell tickets to this one.” “Best restaurants” are generally run by relatives.
Trends are fun to keep up with. In Barcelona, several hotels have replaced the mini-bars in their rooms with a maxi-bar (called tentempié bar) in the lobby. It’s stocked all day with cold drinks and light plates of food and fresh fruit, free for guests. Also, Wi-Fi is on its way to becoming standard as more and more people are traveling with their laptops. I don’t like a hotel that charges $200 a night for a double room and then nicks its guests with a Wi-Fi fee. (In my books, I only list Internet access and Wi-Fi if it’s offered for free.) Many hotels have their website run by a booking service (which takes a cut). They give you a discount only if you send an email direct, skirting their own website.
There are some wonderful, big, new, urban youth hostels — I just visited a great new 400-bed place in Barcelona’s ritziest zone. No membership or age requirements and dorm beds for $25 each…great news for traveling students. (My co-authors and I call these places “Andy beds” — for my son and his college-aged friends slumming through Europe as we used to.)
A decade ago, we had a page in our guidebooks for travelers to rip out and leave in the hotel bathroom if they didn’t want their towels changed. Then it became trendy for hotels to claim, “Help us be green…leave towels on the floor if you want them changed.” Today, I find hotels have dispensed with the token environmentalism and insist on changing your towels each day. We’ll reinstate our “don’t wash my towels today” page next year.
Speaking of washing — people are surprised I still wash my clothes in the sink. It’s faster than hotel service or going out, and hotel shampoo works just great as detergent. If I ring things really tight, they’re dry by morning. (I must be a quite a wimp though, because if I’m not careful, I can actually get blisters on my hands by wringing too hard.)
It’s fun to analyze chapters in my current editions to see what state I was in on my last research round. If I list a masseuse, it’s fair to guess I must have been really exhausted on my last visit.
(P.S.: I hope you can scroll down and enjoy some of the photos we’ve just added to previous entries.)