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Originally published May 9, 2013 at 9:51 AM | Page modified May 9, 2013 at 1:57 PM

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“Haute” hostels: Budget lodging gets fancy but stays affordable

All around Europe, hostels are undergoing a classy rebirth

The New York Times

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With the wine tasting in the lobby bar approaching, I rinsed the green-tea shampoo from my hair, grabbed a towel from the queen bed and settled into a Philippe Starck chair, espresso in hand. A flat-screen TV flickered in the next room of my suite, but I was more captivated by the view that lay just beyond the glass doors of my balcony: the orange tile roofs of Lisbon, washed in the glow of a setting sun.

Was this really a hostel?

It was hard to believe that these expansive private quarters and this late 19th-century town house that was formerly the Swiss ambassador’s residence really belonged to a genus whose name evokes backpacks, bunk beds, shared showers and the amenities of a local jail.

The business card on the vintage writing desk dispelled my doubts. “Hostel,” it read, just underneath the name of the 2-year-old establishment, the Independente. “Hostel & Suites,” to be precise.

The two seemingly mismatched words are a testament to the astonishing evolution in European hostels. From London to Lisbon, from Iceland to Istanbul, hostels are undergoing a classy rebirth.

A rooftop Jacuzzi at Bunk in Istanbul; a cinema room at Design Hostel Goli & Bosi in Split, Croatia; a sleek basement nightclub in One80 Berlin: Whether they bill themselves as “design hostels” or “boutique hostels” or “hostel and suites,” these new accommodations are striving to raise the standard of an institution that was once the lodging equivalent of a Greyhound bus.

“We need to redefine hostels,” said Carl Michel, the executive chairman of Generator Hostels based in Britain, whose mission statement declares its intention to “dispel the hostel myth with boutique hotels that are stylish and contemporary, central, safe and affordable.”

Once a family business with two traditional hostels in London and Berlin, Generator was bought in 2007 by a European private equity firm, Patron Capital, and now exemplifies the haute hostel boom. With an iPhone app and a brand-name chief designer in Anwar Mekhayech (whose resume includes clients like Soho House), the group has opened splashy hostels in Copenhagen, Dublin, Venice and Hamburg over the last few years. Barcelona and a second Berlin site will make their debut this year, and more locations are in the works.

“The idea is to roll out about 12 to 15 hostels by 2015,” said Michel, a former commercial director for British Airways.

Other hostel enterprises are building at a similar clip.

“We are in the watershed period at the moment,” said Kash Bhattacharya, the author of a guide to high-end hosteling called “Luxury Hostels: Europe,” which will be downloadable as an e-book from his site, budgettraveller.org, this month.

The catalyst has been Europe’s slumping economy, which, Bhattacharya explained, “has led to falling commercial property prices and plenty of vacant building spaces in key city-center locations.”

Simultaneously, he said, the recession has created new types of travelers.

“The rise of mature backpackers means that hostels are no longer the preserve of 20-something backpackers,” he said. “Hostel owners are now realizing that they can upgrade their facilities to cater to a wider audience.”

“Mature backpackers”

Four years ago, my colleague Jennifer Conlin reported on these “mature backpackers” and the upgraded hostels that had trickled into Europe. The trickle is now a flood. During a whirlwind week, I slept in and sized up haute hostels in Paris, Lisbon, Barcelona and Berlin: palatial suites and shared cramped rooms; immaculate bathrooms and group showers; convivial communal dinners and lonely solo meals; elegant welcome gifts and unwelcome odors.

The goal was to travel incognito and put each haute hostel (indeed the whole concept) to the test. Could these new crash pads provide classy, comfortable, affordable alternatives to hotels? Were “design hostels” worthy of their grandiose labels?

On a January afternoon, I ambled past the Asian grocers and halal butchers of the Belleville neighborhood in Paris when a gigantic work of urban art on the side of a building flashed into view.

“Il faut se mefier des mots,” shouted the huge script. “Don’t trust words.” Yes, I thought. Somebody up there has divined my quest and sent this warning. My destination, a year-old hostel down the block, displayed a particularly, well, lofty name tag: the Loft. As I searched for my room in a hallway lined with funky calfskin patterns, I scanned the hostel’s effusive brochure: “The spanking new Loft boutique hostel is clearly the reference for the best design boutique hostel in Paris.”

My small shared room (29.90 euros per night per person, about $38 at $1.27 to the euro) was in bachelor-pad style: walnut-panel floors; black spiderweb plastic chairs; trompe l’oeil wallpaper depicting tufted gray cushions. A fuchsia door led to a black-and-white bathroom. Only one thing spoiled the vibe: bunk beds, two pairs of them.

The bachelor pad received its other three bachelors with the arrival of my roommates, boisterous Australian university students: Simon, a stocky, friendly fellow; Dushan, wiry and sarcastic; and Kai, an aloof, half-Asian guy wearing headphones. They jumped onto their beds and started teasing one another.

“When you wake up in the middle of the night, I will shave your eyebrow,” Simon said to Dushan.

“You do that and I will punch you in the face,” his friend replied.

Suddenly, I, a 43-year-old man, felt like I was back in college. Soon the three were telling horror stories about past hostel stays.

Kai said he spent a night in an Australian hostel that was “like a slum,” with one small bathroom for him and 11 other guys.

Simon remembered being in a hostel in Rome, where, he said, “some guys tried to steal my luggage from under my bed.”

Later, in a lobby cafe done in 1920s-style industrial décor, young guests passed the evening drinking San Miguel beer and chatting in various languages, competing with a speed-metal soundtrack. I fled across the street to Krung Thep for Thai food, and climbed into my bunk at midnight. The pillow, I noticed, was yellow with sweat stains. The blanket was streaked with long black hairs.

Nothing makes you feel less adult, less independent, less cool than bunk beds. The very structure is dehumanizing. In the bottom bunk you’re a beast in a cage. On top you’re a fool on a hill. They are storage space — not furniture — for human bodies.

Lisbon’s upscale hostels

The faded squares, hilly streets and clanging old cable cars of the Portuguese capital are a somehow natural backdrop to the haute hostel movement. Created in 2005 by four artist friends, Lisbon Lounge was the first hostel in the city and, Bhattacharya said, the first true haute hostel in Western Europe. Soon it was followed by other such places, many of them also founded by artists, like Lisbon Poets’ Hostel and Travellers House.

Since then, Portugal has turned out a stream of stunning hostels. Every year the country scoops up armfuls of Hoscars — annual international awards presented by the booking site Hostelworld.com, complete with a ceremony in Dublin. This year Lisbon hostels claimed the top four spots in the Best Worldwide Hostels vote: Yes! Lisbon Hostel, Home Hostel, Travellers House and Living Lounge, in that order.

Along the cobbled pedestrian streets of Baixa, Lisbon’s commercial center, I found the lovely 18th-century town house containing Lisbon Lounge, the pioneer. From the moment I entered the bright, airy interior, I understood the hostel’s celebrated appeal. Impeccable kitsch-cool taste pervaded the double-height common room, where a mounted cardboard moose head peered over white couches and low circular tables made from washing-machine cylinders.

My private room (48 euros) was a minimalist white space with a clear plastic chair and a welded-metal rack filled with architecture magazines. There was no private bathroom, but the shared bathroom was just steps away.

“I don’t think the owners had been to any hostels before they made this place,” said Henri Paget, a transplanted Australian employee of Living Lounge, at the night’s communal dinner. “I don’t think they even knew what a hostel was.”

Pedro, the hostel’s chef, laid out dried sausage as Paget explained that three of the four owners were fashion and art photographers. As Lisbon’s first hostel, their creation had no precedent to follow.

“No one told them that you have to pack 12 beds into every room,” he said.

We plowed through the meal (broccoli soup, lasagna, chocolate cake and unlimited wine); afterward Paget organized a tour of music bars in Bairro Alto, the night-life district.

The next night I checked into the Independente, the 2-year-old hostel in the majestic town house that once housed the Swiss ambassador. Climbing the sweeping stone staircase, it seemed as if I was ascending to some sort of hostel heaven. A skylight filtered white light as I passed through a soaring lounge deployed with Barcelona chairs and an Arne Jacobsen swan chair. My top-floor suite featured an impeccable bathroom. Standing on the outdoor terrace high above Lisbon was like perching on a cloud. Portuguese vintages waited in the lobby bar, and slow-braised pork cheek beckoned from the restaurant. True, I had shelled out 80 euros. But I have paid twice that amount and received half as much at many conventional hotels.

At the wine tasting at the bar, a cozy spot adorned with vintage typewriters and wall maps, I met Elaine Corets, a 53-year-old “urban farmer” from Seattle. It was her first time in a hostel since a 1987 trip to Bangkok, she said. Though she was in one of the 11 shared rooms, she was upbeat.

“I’ve got a superclean comfortable bed,” she said. “The room is long and wide with a high ceiling, and you can see the sunrise through the big windows.”

Boomtown Barcelona

If Lisbon is the pioneer, Barcelona is the boomtown. Innovative hostels are popping up all over the Mediterranean city of Gaudi’s buildings, tapas bars and street art.

Sant Jordi Gracia is a self-described “boutique hostel designed for the cosmopolitan hipster and fixed-gear bicycle aficionado.” It joins the Sant Jordi Sagrada Familia, from the same chain that trumpets itself as “the first skateboard themed hostel in Barcelona.” And near the lovely stone facades and luxury boutiques of Passeig de Gracia, I found Generator Barcelona, which opens May 14. Occupying a tall 1960s office building, the hostel was still a chaos of forklifts and plaster dust when I visited. The roof was being readied with solar panels and a panoramic sun deck. The top floor would contain accommodation “that could host a rock star visiting for a weekend,” in the words of Michel, Generator’s executive chairman.

My hostel, Violeta Boutique, was hidden in the middle floors of a 19th-century stone building near the shopping boulevard of Avinguda del Portal de l’Angel. Created last year, the place represents a subtrend in haute hosteling: an off-site annex of swish private rooms set up by an established traditional hostel — in this case the Violeta Hostel.

My room (75 euros) was painted in sea-foam green and cool gray, enlivened by a bright orange private bathroom. Best, a glassed-in sunroom beckoned with cushioned chairs. It was the ideal spot to savor my welcome gift: a chilled bottle of cava.

But other than the pop of the cork, all was quiet. Too quiet. No lobby bar awaited with a wine tasting. No restaurant offered a convivial group meal. No city tours promised to reveal hidden Barcelona.

“We tried to make Violeta Boutique far from being a standard hostel,” the website, violetaboutique.com, informed. And they had succeeded, but only by jettisoning all the trappings of a hostel, both the dismal (shared rooms, shared toilets) and the delightful (group events, lively public spaces). My 75 euros landed a well-equipped hideaway with no connection to other travelers or to Barcelona.

Partying in Berlin

Two days later, the 10-lane boulevards of the former East Berlin led me past boxy Socialist-era high-rises to a huge, modern, year-old hostel called One80 (DEGREE). As the crowded lobby and pounding rock music made clear, this place was indeed a 180-degree about-face from Barcelona.

“Happy hour starts in half an hour,” said the British receptionist, her nose ring gleaming as she handed me a key card in an envelope bearing a photograph of two young couples dancing wildly.

A basket of condoms for sale hung over the desk, and a flier announced the themes of parties scheduled in the hostel’s nightclub, including “Singles Bash” and “All I Need Is You.” As Guns N’ Roses resounded through the gray industrial-chic lobby, a young woman scrawled the daily drink special (Mai Tai) on a blackboard near a glass cooler packed with beer.

I could have used a drink upon seeing my room (32 euros). Almost bare, it held a sink, mirror, two cube stools, kitschy wall art — and, alas, bunk beds. Worse, the unkempt upper bunk bore rumpled sheets. There were no towels. (You can rent them for 2 euros.) Down the hall, the communal bathroom and showers looked as if they had been pilfered from a health club.

But two-for-one prosecco restores a man. Sunk in a plastic armchair in the lobby, I observed the young crowd poring over drinks menus, which offered this advice for avoiding hangovers: “Stay drunk.” How to reconcile my dismay over the bunks and bathrooms with my appreciation for the undeniably social lobby? When “Should I Stay or Should I Go” blasted from the sound system, it summarized my ambivalence toward the hostel — and about the haute hosteling concept in general. Only the Portuguese, it seemed, had nailed it.

Then, on the final day, came Plus Berlin.

As I relaxed in its sauna after a long week, my faith was restored. The dizzying pace of budget-airline journeys, the indignities of bunk beds, the cheap beers at lobby bars, the sickening Nutella breakfasts — all melted away. The toxins were doubly cleansed with a dive into the indoor pool. Had it been Tuesday, they could have been further expunged with a free yoga session.

It seems that Plus Hostels — an Italian chain that also has hostels in Rome, Florence, Venice and Prague — believes in detox. Nearly all have a pool, sauna or gym.

Here at the Berlin branch, which opened three years ago in a former East Berlin textile design school, another ingredient enhanced the restorative mix: art. In a purple hallway I found rows of lampshades embossed with images from Gustav Klimt canvases. Upstairs, an immense hall exhibited digitally generated images of classical Italian cities thrust into the future — red Martian skies, spaceships soaring past — by an Italian artist, Andrea Felice.

Before returning to my room (a pleasant chamber with a high ceiling, two comfortable single beds and a private bathroom, for which I paid 32 euros), I crossed the cold courtyard and entered the hostel’s art studio.

Abstract paintings and moody drawings crowded the walls. An American man with flyaway gray hair explained that the artists had formerly been based at Tacheles, an iconic Berlin artist squat that was shut down last year. The hostel had donated the gallery space along with lodgings for some of the displaced creators, including himself, he said. “They don’t just serve the guest but the neighborhood as well,” said the artist Tom Puiwa, a Key West transplant.

Night was approaching, and windows flanking the courtyard offered views inside the vast reception area. The guests here were very different from those at the other hostels on my journey: well-dressed middle-aged women; three families with dads in Converse high-tops; fashion-forward couples with gray hair.

Opposite, in the cathedral-size restaurant, servers laid out cutlery while chefs prepared ingredients for pizzas, pastas and German dishes. Bartenders rinsed glasses against a glowing rack of bottles. It dawned on me that a single factor elevated certain hostels from mere warrens of design into exceptional experiences. The hostels that welcomed me in Lisbon and here along Warschauer Platz possessed it: soul. The spots in Paris and Barcelona did not. This intangible quality — generated by some blend of friendliness, thoughtfully conceived interiors, artistic and decorative touches, group events, cozy common spaces and investment in the community — made the difference.

Soul, and real beds, not bunks.

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