MADRID — We're not the only Americans whose vision of a youth hostel is one of sexually segregated, dormitory-like quarters where backpack-laden young travelers stay quite cheaply in exchange for putting up with numerous house rules and doing minor chores.
Such communal living doesn't appeal to the average traveler, and must be why so few bargain-conscious Americans are booking into the hundreds of inexpensive hostals in metropolitan Madrid. What a mistake.
The Spanish hostal is simply another hotel alternative, with no similarity whatsoever to youth hostels, aside from near-identical spelling and incredibly low prices. More than a third of the 50,000 available beds in Madrid are in one-, two-, or three-star hostals , different from hotels only in that they share a common building entrance with other businesses (often other hostals ) and have an owner/manager living on the premises.
The profusion of hostal signs on the Gran Via alone makes it easy for a first-time visitor to head directly to that major shopping street and find a suitable vacancy without a reservation. Simply go from building to building and from floor to floor, armed with a pocket dictionary or a few pertinent Spanish words.
Rated by Government
Hostals , like hotels, are rated and priced by the government. The higher a stellar designation, the higher the price. Hotels are rated up to five stars, hostals only to three. A higher listing doesn't necessarily guarantee a more pleasant stay. Some owners prefer to keep rates down and occupancy up by refusing to request inspection for a higher rating.
Competition is keen, particularly in the one- and two-star categories, where you have almost 400 one-star and 175 two-star choices. European tour operators recognize the bargain and book their groups into these accommodations, but we rarely saw Americans other than the canny students and teachers who generally seem to spread travel budgets into longer trips, lowering hotel standards as a concession.
For the more demanding traveler, a three-star hostal might be the best initiation. All have elevators, telephones in the room, heat and full baths. Some have optional rooms with washbowl only, at a lower price. Be specific in a request for full facilities.
Most three-star hostals offer desayuno (breakfast) at an average cost of 200-400 pesetas and a few serve comida (lunch) or cena (dinner).
Prices last year for a double with bath ranged between 2,800 and 6,000 pesetas year round, with a median price of 3,800 pesetas ($28) during the high season, about June 1 through September, and during holidays.
Although most hostals maintain one rate all year, it's best to clarify when booking to avoid any surprises. Even so, the price of the highest ranking hostal will be between $20 and $45 including taxes. That's for a double.
The majority of two-star hostals have heat, elevator, optional private baths, and many have phones in the room. The average high-season price for 1986 was 2,277 pesetas ($17). Continental breakfast, when available, is less than $2. A few serve dinner, but with the profusion of cafes, bars and restaurants throughout Madrid, and with tapas everywhere, it seems a shame to consider eating in the hostal .
The ultimate bargain, recommended to adventurers only: the one-star hostal , where the going rate for a double averages less than $9. We spent a month at the immaculately clean Hostal Residencia Nuestra Senora de la Paloma, where ours were the only gray heads among the students and English teachers who keep this hostal filled via word of mouth.
Typical of one-star accommodations, baths and water closets are down the hall. Each room has a washbowl with, again typically, only cold water. One hot bath is included in the price and each time we requested hot water, Senora Basalo would hurriedly but thoroughly clean the entire room before notifying us that the bath was available. She would also wash and iron a small packet of our laundry each week. No charge!
The La Paloma has its drawbacks, as do all one-star hostals . But what do you expect for $9 a night? We rented by the month, which worked out to $5 a night--for two.
In Europe, one flight up is called the first floor, equivalent to our second. La Paloma is a long three-flight walk-up. Staircase lighting is regulated by timers that leave you in the dark unless you hurry along.
Bare fixtures with 25-watt bulbs hang from bedroom ceilings and few of the inexpensive hostals provide bedside lamps, so don't plan to do much late-night reading unless you pack light bulbs.