A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO EUROPEAN HOTELS Mike Fishwick
After more than forty years of touring around Europe I remain addicted to France and Germany, not just for their weather, castles, scenery and technical museums, but also for the good value to be found in their hotels, their food, and the warm reception one always receives.
Heather and I have stayed in a variety of hotels over the years, some of which were expensive, others less so, and some cheap, but all represented value for money. The current exchange rate relative to the Euro means that Europe has become quite reasonable for us, but as with everything costs steadily increase. As a general guide, however, a good two-star hotel need cost no more than £30 per night for a double room.
Only a few of the very cheapest hotels do not provide an en suite bathroom. Some hotels, such as the Marmotte chain in north-east France, charge only £25 for an en suite room, making campsite fees for two people seem poor value. A good establishment in Germany seldom costs more than £40 per night, and often less.
Many hotels of the old DDR area of Germany have increased their prices without providing much improvement in facilities, but in most cases the forbidding rooms of the old Worker's Paradise have given way to modern Euro-standard zimmers with TV and en suite bathrooms.
It is a worthwhile experience, however, to stay in such as the Waldhaus Colditz to sample the style of the old Eastern Bloc. Their sumptuous dining room and excellent menu belie the basic rooms above, with linoleum floors and showers along the corridor! Prices in Germany are pretty uniform, and in the old Western area all accommodation is of a high standard.
France is filled by small hotels of charm and character (usually both!) where you will find wonderful food, good wines, and friendly people. Standards can vary rather more than in Germany, but the sheer number of hotels means that there is something for every taste.
Breakfasts are usually charged in addition to the room, at around £3 per person. Some hotels are described as ‘Hotel garni’ which means that they do not provide meals, but most provide breakfast.
Many people are over-concerned with being able to book their hotels in advance, but in the event of breakdown or other delay this can be a problem. I usually only pre-book for the first evening, or special hotel/date combinations.
It is usually possible to travel throughout Europe without advance booking - except in tourist areas. All one really needs to do is begin thinking seriously about a hotel by about 5 pm, and head for the centre of any convenient village or small town. You will usually find accommodation within walking distance of the inevitable church.
Don't be afraid to ask – in most cases people will be only too happy to direct you to the nearest hotel, or one hotel will direct you to the nearest place with vacancies – hospitality is the rule! Sometimes they will even escort you in their car.
Do not expect everyone to speak English, as in France and Germany this gift is mainly confined to the younger generation who have learnt it as a second language at school. On a recent nine-week tour, Heather and I met only five people who spoke English, not counting the ubiquitous Dutch! Do not however be afraid to try your fractured French or German, as this, coupled with an accent from ‘Allo Allo’ and little sign language, or maybe a sketch, will usually work miracles. Buy a basic phrase book, and concentrate on the ‘Numbers,’ ‘Hotel’ and ‘Menu’ sections.
When in France always find one of the many small hotels for which that country is justly famous. Do not be put off by the exterior, even if it looks like something from WW1 . . . it probably is, but you will usually find a genuine welcome within, and good food at realistic prices. Most German villages feature at least one gasthaus or hotel where you will find a warm welcome. Most will feature cold beer, immaculate rooms, and en suite bathrooms, with an overdose of oak and marble!
Those who feel a need to book in advance may find it easier when travelling in France to use the website of chains such as Marmotte, Premiere Classe, or Ibis. Such chains do not however have a monopoly on modern communications, and many small hotels use internet resources via the RESA hotel booking system (http://www.hotelswitch.com). These allow one to select hotels in a particular area, then to view the exterior, rooms, and often the menu too, before booking with a small credit card deposit. A similar system exists in the Logis de France organisation of small hotels, which are always a safe choice.
In Germany the village gasthofs/hotels are usually family-owned from ages past, but many now have web sites which can be found by links from the web site of the nearest town. In general, chains of hotels in Germany are more expensive and confined to the areas around cities. A good example of these is the Ringhotel chain. They are, however, considerably cheaper than similar establishments in the UK.
If booking in advance, always email, write or fax – don't totally rely on phone calls, and always send a confirmation. In many cases no reply will be sent, unless they are full. A almost foolproof method is to write asking for prices, then send a second letter confirming your requirement, and giving the names of all members of your party. If you will require an evening meal, say so in the letter, and, if you plan to arrive late in the day – after 6 pm. – tell the hotel.
The Germans, incidentally, are just as bad as the French when it comes to replying to your letters. Forget the stories of Teutonic thoroughness – it is a rumour spread by the Germans!
Many British travellers extol the ‘virtues’ of the french Formule 1 hotel chain, but I advise the discerning tourist to avoid them like le plague! Virtually all their hotels are sited adjacent to autoroute exits or out-of-town industrial estates, so providing plenty of noise throughout the night. Most of them do not have restaurants, leaving one to pay exorbitant fees for taxis, drive into town to dine sans vin, or subject your insides to the mercies of the inevitably close Macdonalds. The prices of Formule 1 are admittedly low, at around £15 per night for a room, but this does not usually provide en suite toilet and shower facilities.
If you prefer not to share these with garlic-sodden french white van men etc it is preferable to pay £20 at Première Classe or Marmotte, or occasionally even £30 at Ibis.
In neither France nor Germany will your plate contain vegetables as we know them, although they may be found in sauces or used by good French chefs for decorative purposes as part of a nouvelle cuisine presentation!
The French have a reputation for simple breakfasts – le petit dejeuner – but the basic croissants, jam, bread, butter and coffee are sometimes augmented by cereals, fruit, and a variety of bread and savouries. The inexpensive Hotel Marmotte at Laon, for example offers a breakfast buffet of some variety.
In general, the better class of restaurant, the more basic are the breakfasts! Evening meals – le dinêr – are usually taken from a choice of fixed-price menus, the middle price (about £12) often offering the best value and choice. The more basic establishments often do not offer a choice at all – le plat du jour – which is usually excellent. Avoid eating a la carte, unless you like spending money. Always go for the cheapest wine available (le vin du maison) and do not be afraid to try the most evil-looking cheeses!
Always avoid the temptation to try le steak, as this is usually very rare, very tough, and invariably cold horsemeat. The French reserve this as a punishment for the insular Brits and Americans! Lamb (agneau) or pork (porc) are usually very good, as are chicken (poulet) and duck (canard). Generally speaking, don't worry about what you are eating - just enjoy it!
The Germans are fond of large breakfasts (fruhstück) which can often include soft rolls, ham, cheeses, salami, boiled eggs, pumpernickel, and cereal. This is washed down with hot chocolate or coffee – perhaps the best coffee in the world. Breakfast is the bargain of the day, and will keep you going until the evening meal (die abendessen) but if you need a light lunch, try a strammer max (ham and egg over melted cheese on toast) or gulaschsuppe (spicy gulash soup).
Main meals are often based on pig, and vary from the basic to the highly imaginative, but are always delicious. Others may be based upon trout – fellen, salmon – lachs, chicken – hanchen, or veal – kalb. Always try the schnitzels, in Weiner, Jaeger, and Zegeuner styles. As one can imagine, obesity is a way of life!
Do not underestimate the Teutonic cuisine, however, for many German hotels offer a stunning range of dishes which would be the envy of many a French restaurant.
German wine is always excellent, while their red varieties are outstanding but almost unknown in this country. Their beer is of course excellent, as one would expect from a nation who have never deviated from ‘real ale.’
Parking at most hotels is generally outside, but theft and vandalism has not assumed the epidemic proportions which are common here. Take great care, however, when close to the old Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, as theft from – and of – cars such as BMWs is becoming a real problem, particularly in cities.
When it comes to paying, forget about Travellers’ Cheques and the like, which are seldom accepted in Europe unless one visits a bank. The French use a lot of le plastique and will usually accept Mastercard or Visa, while the Germans are slowly coming to grips with it.
Even in this post-Deutschmark era however, some German hotels do not accept die plastik. For this reason it can save problems if you have a bundle of Euros on you, or confirm that credit cards are accepted before you leave. Most village banks have cash dispensers, but remember to make a note of your credit card’s particular PIN which is necessary to obtain cash outside the UK.
In general, don’t be afraid to walk into any hotel and ask for a room, dinner, or even just breakfast. Forget about the old claims that the French hate the English, or that the Germans are rude, for you will find that they are normal people, who will do their best to please you. Above all, enjoy yourself!
Mention the good and bad of your hotel and B&B experiences here. One thread per hotel, please!
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