It has been a tough day on the travel trail. The all-night train from Venice was a riot of soccer fans. In Barcelona, a gypsy tried to pick your pocket while pinning a rose on your lapel. The tourist office is closed. A hard rain is about to fall.
The prospect of spending the night in a cheap hotel or pension, under a dim light and peeling paint, provokes a panic you haven't felt since you were lost at age 3 in the shopping mall. Fortunately there is an alternative. Four blocks from the train station, adjacent to one of the world's prettiest urban parks, is a youth hostel. Inside, 15 travelers from half a dozen countries are sharing a kitchen and telling outrageous lies. It is cozy in there my friend, with showers that never run cold. And, despite the name, it is open even to an aging yuppie like you.
There are few items in a budget traveler's backpack more valuable than an International Youth Hostel card. For an annual fee of $20, it provides entry to more than 5,000 inexpensive accommodations in 62 countries. The hostels, the greatest number of them in Europe, can be as spartan as an old Irish farmhouse or as magnificent as a restored castle in Italy. Most have the warmth of an international travel club. A few are ruined by managers who impose a Prussian discipline. But with rates that range from just $3 to $8 a night, hosteling is always a low-risk gamble.
During an 11-month trek across Europe that ended in February of this year, a friend and I stayed in more than 80 youth hostels in 10 countries. Whether we traveled by bicycle, canoe, train or foot, we could usually find a convenient hostel at the end of every day. In remote backwaters and big cities, almost everywhere in Europe a traveler would wish to go, a youth hostel was nearby. The price, of course, was right. But so was the camaraderie we generally discovered there.
In a youth hostel you can always find someone to tell you about where you're going in exchange for information about where you've been -- the cheapest way to get there, the best places to eat, secluded beaches, perfectly crowded cafe's. In a youth hostel, you can pick up mail and traveling companions, cook a meal, wash some socks and, perhaps most valuable of all, hear adventure stories that remind you why you came.
You can also fall in love.
Her name was Donna. She was 21, had short blond hair, apple cheeks and a small photo album of her parents and dog Tweeter, posing in the back yard of their Washington state home, that she produced at the slightest provocation. His name was Pierre. Like Donna, he was 21, in Europe for the first time and eager to talk about his own home in French-speaking Quebec.
One night in a youth hostel in Sagres, atop a cliff on Portugal's southwest coast, the two shared ingredients for a bastardized spaghetti dinner and engaged in shy, leisurely flirtation.
"You should really see southern Spain. I've heard it's the friendliest place in Europe," said Pierre, whose wild black hair was tamed by calm, smiling eyes. "We could hitchhike. You'd be safe with me. We'd meet the real people."
Many youth hostel romances begin on such a businesslike basis. People travel together for the mutual advantages, which include lower individual rates for double rooms in places where youth hostels are either unavailable or inconvenient. There is no pressure beyond biology to become intimate and no strict rules of courtship except one -- either partner can bail out at any time. Ironically, if love does bloom, most youth hostels, which segregate bedrooms according to sex, then become an impediment to the relationship.
Donna and Pierre's affair lasted two weeks, considerably longer than average. The normal stress of foreign travel, especially on the cheap, was intensified by the effort to be both passionate and polite with someone who was essentially a stranger. And always there.
"I'm not sure what happened," said Donna, alone at a youth hostel in Seville, Spain. "We really liked each other. But I kept feeling like I wanted to escape. He finally told me he wanted to travel alone again. I've got his address. Maybe I'll write when I get home."
On a bitterly cold January night in Vienna, a dozen travelers sat around a youth hostel table, listening to an Australian named Peter tell his tale.
"My first mistake was to travel third class on a Moroccan train. I saved less than a dollar and had to ride in what basically was a boxcar, with goats and chickens," said Peter, pausing to let the scent he had conjured fill the room. "My biggest mistake was to tell the Moroccan bloke who reached over and took a cigarette from me without even asking, to do something to himself you should never tell a Moroccan to do."
For nearly an hour, according to Peter, he was threatened with death by a crowd in his train car. He was offered a choice -- be thrown from the moving train or hung. Someone draped a rope, with a noose already tied at one end, over his shoulder.
Australians are not necessarily the best storytellers you will meet on the youth hostel circuit. But they do have, without question, the best stories to tell. An Australian who travels for less than three months is considered a short hitter. Many leave home for three years at a time, working odd jobs to keep themselves solvent. As a result, when hostelers begin exchanging stories, the Australians in the crowd -- and there are always Australians in the crowd -- are accorded special respect.
But almost everyone in a hostel has at least one funny or harrowing tale to tell. The best storytelling sessions usually occur in remote hostels, where travelers tend to congregate in the common room after dark. In the big cities, most people investigate the nightlife until curfew, which can be as early as 10 p.m. or as late as 1 a.m.
That night in Vienna, because of the sub-zero weather, the common room was packed. We heard tales about getting lost during a hike on the Greek island of Crete, an after-hours raid on a pub in Ireland and a delicious interlude with a farm family in southern France. Peter's story earned the greatest attention, despite the friendly skepticism its telling provoked.
"So what did you do?," Peter was asked.
"I just started talking, telling my side of what happened. And the more I talked and passed out cigarettes, the more friendly everybody got. By the end of the ride, people were actually apologizing and shaking my hand." The mood change, explained Peter, had less to do with what he said than the accent he used to say it.
"I believe at first they thought I was an American."
Fifteen minutes by local bus from downtown Florence is a youth hostel that stuns the first-time visitor. Set on a hill overlooking wine vineyards, surrounded by ornamental gardens, a fountain stocked with goldfish and acres of thick woods, the Villa Augusto Righi is an 18th-century villa that has managed to retain much of its grandeur despite serving as a hostel for 20 years. We stayed in a dozen European hostels in the same or nearly the same class, places you might pay the cost of lodging -- in this case about $4 -- just to visit.
On the first night at the villa, as a mild breeze blew through open windows, I climbed into one of a dozen bunk beds, feeling utterly content. But just minutes later, after the lights had been extinguished, a hosteler in the bunk beside me began to snore. This was no ordinary snore. It sounded like a chain saw cutting through oak knots. And it seemed to get louder with every tortured breath. My only hope for any sleep that night was that someone less civilized than I would suffocate him with a pillow.
Hosteling is not for everyone. If the thought of brushing your teeth beside half a dozen strangers each morning is appalling, if mandatory curfews and morning chores, regulations prohibiting alcohol and lockouts during the day sound barbaric, you will want to pay the extra cost of a hotel.
The hostel movement -- begun 52 years ago by German schoolteacher Richard Schirrmann, who was frustrated by the lack of low-cost accommodations for his student hiking groups -- was never intended to satisfy creature comforts. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to promoting international understanding through travel and cultural exchange. But when a hostel is overrun with Parisian school kids, the communal concept can seem a bad idea.
On the other hand, for the flexible traveler who not only tolerates a bit of uncertainty but enjoys it, the drawbacks of hosteling are minor. The morning chores are never more strenuous than a five-minute sweep of a dormitory room. And most hostel managers attempt to segregate student groups to alleviate noise problems. The daily lockout at most hostels, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., can be more annoying. But who comes to Europe to sit all day in a bunk bed?
There can be a problem during the months of July and August finding a vacancy in a hostel, particularly in popular cities such as Paris, London or Rome. But it is possible to make advance reservations, and many hostel managers can be persuaded to find floor space for late arrivals. During our trip, we were turned away from no more than half a dozen hostels because of overcrowding.
There is also a concern in some hostels with theft. In 11 months, we had just one item stolen, a passport case that fortunately contained only an address book. But others we met were not as lucky. In Lisbon, for example, half a dozen hostelers reported thefts during our three-day stay. The most petty was a woman's blouse taken from a laundry line. But a fellow cyclist had a camera stolen, and a West German woman lost a purse that contained her passport, a plane ticket and $150 in traveler's checks. Most hostels have a safe room for storing valuables.
Cape Clear Island is a small, emerald chunk of Ireland set a few miles off the country's southern coast. It is steep with hills and wet with lakes. And if you have ever seen a watercolor landscape hanging in an Irish-American living room, you have some idea of the island's soft green look.
One night in July, three of us decided to execute a pub crawl. Since there were only five pubs on the entire island, it didn't seem a difficult task. As we left the hostel, we saw two French travelers we had met in Italy a few months earlier. They joined our group. On the long and winding road to our first Guinness stop, the French met some Canadians they knew from an English hostel. Our group grew larger.
It is impossible to describe a "typical" crowd at a youth hostel. The range in age and geographical origin can be extreme. In general, the 19-to-26-year-old age group is best represented. In Bavaria, an area of southern West Germany, only travelers 26 years and younger are allowed to stay in hostels. But everywhere else it was rare to visit a hostel that did not have at least a few visitors in the 40 and older category, and some were older than 60.
And not all hostelers arrive bearing backpacks. Self-propelled travel, as in hiking, biking or walking, is celebrated in the introduction to the hostel guide. But there is no rule prohibiting hostelers from arriving by car.
Luckily, that night in Cape Clear, we had arrived by ferry. Because by the time we left our last pub at midnight, there were 16 of us, all more or less inebriated. It was an hour past the hostel's curfew.
"Not to worry," said an American who had spent a few days at this hostel. "I know a window that is never locked." Unfortunately the window was 20 feet above ground, and the drain pipe our friend climbed to reach it the night before was dislocated in the process. There was only one solution. We had to form a human pyramid.
Up we went and down we tumbled, laughing hysterically all the while. Max, a 59-year-old West German, was supervising the construction. Roberta, a 19-year-old Swede and the smallest in the group, had volunteered to be the point. Before we achieved that shape, however, somebody decided to try the front door. It was open. With exaggerated stealth we climbed the stairs to our dormitory rooms, adults caught in an adolescent adventure, and happy to be there.