european hotels

I remember my first wine tour in Europe over 25 years ago. It was an importer trip to Germany in the spring of 2000. I traversed the country with a group of U.S.-based sommeliers and buyers for over a week, visiting major wine regions and tasting hundreds of Rieslings from the just-released 1999 vintage. The schedule was exhilarating but exhausting: four winery visits a day including lunch and dinner. In short order, I had to learn how to balance stimulants and depressants–one of the keys to adulthood.

No surprise I had to reschedule an appointment to have my teeth cleaned when I got back. My dentist—and dental hygienist—would have been alarmed. There is nothing quite like dental shaming. Regardless, one of the learning curves from that first trip to Germany was acquainting myself with European hotel rooms, and understanding all the subtleties that make them so different from hotels in America.

All the previous returned in the form of wicked flashbacks just last week. I was in Portugal for the annual Wines of Portugal Challenge. Over the course of five days, teams of winemakers and international judges, including your humble author, tasted over 1,300 Portuguese wines blind. At the end of the week, some 39 of the best wines were announced at a gala dinner.

It was a fantastic experience to be able to taste so many outstanding Portuguese wines, and to visit wineries large and small. And yes, I got my fill of bacalao—which is delicious. But then there was my hotel room. After three flights and 24 hours to get there, it didn’t disappoint. And I was immediately reminded of all the little things that make a European hotel a temporary home away from home like no other. Here’s a list of some of my favorite quirks about my room.

Lobbies: the lobbies in European hotels vary from modest to uber-posh. But more often than not, they feature some kind of low key techno music playing in the background on a small flat screen TV behind the check in desk. The TV is tuned to a random news channel showing footage from some place in Africa you’ve never heard of. The music sounds like Brian Eno got scolded by a middle school teacher and then decided to write dance tunes. Even the newscasts feature catchy synth music that sounds, well, almost cool.

Elevators: the amps the band used in This is Spinal Tap may go to 11, but the hotel elevators go to 0. So if you want to get back to the lobby, you must go to 0. If not, you’ll be wandering the second floor (listed as the first) for all eternity, trying to find the source of that haunting techno music.

Breakfast: no tacky buffets with crusty waffle makers here. Instead, tables filled with platters of cold cuts and cheeses along with pastries, sliced fruit, and full-fat yogurt. The high tech coffee makers are a favorite with touch screen options that can dial up anything from a macchiato to a double espresso in a flash.

Room key slots: Want power in your room? Gotta’ slip the key card in the slot next to the door. Otherwise, no juice. I like this feature because you always know where your key is when you leave the room. It’s one less reason to make you late when meeting your posse downstairs for a Negroni.

Duvets: we don’t need no stinking blankets–just cozy duvets that wake you up in the middle of the night because your internal temperature has reached broil.

Tiny trash cans: this one still mystifies. Metal trash cans the size of a Clorox bottle with a foot pedal to open them. Maybe the powers that be are trying to tell us we shouldn’t throw anything away. And if we’re heartless enough to discard something, we’re going to have to work for it. Which means that unless one is dexterous, knocking the trashcan over with a loud clang on the bathroom tile floor happens more often than not.

Tricky toilets: with square-shaped toilet seats that turn your south-forty into the likeness of a Luden’s cough lozenge if you sit too long looking at your phone. There’s also the two button flush system, with one for trickle and the other for biblical flood.

Mini-bars of soap: so small they’d annoy Barbie. The ones in my room were also impossible to open without a sharp instrument. Oh for the sake of humanity and clean hands.

Concrete floors with skinny carpeting: I do a stretching routine in the morning and before bedtime. However, the dingy gray carpeting in my room covered a concrete floor, meaning I had to do the routine on the bed. Either that, or it would have been like doing asanas in the parking structure.

Closets filled with wonky hangers: in my jet-lagged state, I almost had to call the front desk to figure out how to remove them from the rack.

Unfathomable showers: the one thing on this list that can get you into trouble. When checking into a room, one must study the shower in detail. Above all, one should never, ever, wait until the next morning to unravel how the shower works, especially when time is of the essence. Otherwise, rushing a shower will only result in chaos and human pathos.

The shower in my room last week was a simple handheld unit that the maid kept raising up so far on the water pipe that I could barely reach it. I think she wanted me to work for it, as they say in contact sports. Thankfully, this particular shower only featured one handle and a pullup button that converted from bath to shower function. Getting the water temp right, however, was anything but exact science. Once I dialed the handle past noon, it went from cold to better check the temp on the poultry, with little margin for error in between.

I have to mention two final features about the shower/tub. First, it was one of those commonly-found Euro set ups with a half-glass partition that swings out (see above photo). The half-partition is a half-baked idea at best. Odds are you will end up flooding the bathroom floor on your first go. I did exactly that, muttering “oh what the $%@!,” when I saw that the tide had come in while washing my hair.

Second, the surface of the bathtub itself was slippery. That combined with the fact I had to step up to get into the tub meant entry and exit had to be done with extreme caution. The towel rack was right there for support, but it was precarious at best and would have come right off the wall with the slightest provocation.

These are just a few of the endearing features of my hotel room last week. Though some were irritating—even confounding, all reminded me of the joys of international travel. And how the rest of the world doesn’t view a hotel room as an extension of disposable culture. Otherwise, it may be time for a macchiato. Or maybe a Negroni. Saúde!