Why break the bank?
Sean Dodson's guide to six European destinations
that offer a perfect weekend away for those on a budget
Saturday April 19, 2003
'There's often no correlation between a hotel room's
price and the pleasure it delivers," says Daisann
McLane in her recently published homage to cut-price
travel, Cheap Hotels. McLane is a specialist in budget
trips; for the past four years in her Frugal Traveler
column in the New York Times she has celebrated the
art of finding beauty in life's bargain basement.
McLane says that "part of this has to do with the
unevenness of currency values in the global economy".
But there's also something more. A cheap hotel or a
well-kept hostel or a friendly pension can make you
far happier than the greatest luxury. And now that it
has never been cheaper to fly to Europe, forgoing the
odd indulgence doesn't just mean that you can get away
a lot more often. It can also be good for the soul.
With cheap flights from Air Berlin, you can enjoy a
weekend in the German capital, including flights and
accommodation, for as little as £60. And what
a city. Fragments of the wall, bomb-damaged museums,
Norman Foster's renovated Reichstag, Daniel Libeskind's
Jewish Museum, and the architectural legacy of the GDR
make Berlin a city of extreme history and imagination.
Home to some of the best underground clubs in Europe,
the eastern half of Berlin has developed a legendary
bar and cafe scene since reunification. The nightlife
changes quickly, and temporary spaces appear at a bewildering
rate. But some places are always hip: so sip half-price
cocktails during happy hour (6-8pm) at Cibo Matto (44
Rosenthaler Strasse, cibomatto.de).
Then, head up the road to Delicious Donuts (9 Rosenthaler
Strasse, 2809 9274), an after-midnight cocktail bar
under Berlin's trademark red neon.
By day, visit any of the private galleries along Auguststrasse
(all free) that are among the most cutting-edge in Europe.
For spectacu lar views, head for the giant glass dome
on top of Sir Norman Foster's spectacular Reichstag
(free, expect to queue), or alternatively pay €5
to shoot up the Fernsehturm (berlinerfernsehturm.de),
the television tower in Alexanderplatz.
An endangered slice of East German history can still
be witnessed at the former parliament building of the
GDR. Now cleared of asbestos, the condemned Palace Der
Republik (Unter den Linden, free) is currently being
used as a temporary exhibition space and venue for avant-garde
musical happenings on Sundays. Its real treasure is
the three-storey stained glass window depicting the
communist history of Berlin. See it in the morning when
the sun shines from behind the glass to prove that social-realism
can be dazzling.
Cheap flights: Air Berlin(0870 73 88880, airberlin.com)
from £19 each way. See also BA (0845 7733377,
Where to stay: With 854 beds, some as cheap as €8
a night, the new Generator Hostel (Generator, 160 Storkower
is helping Berlin become one of the cheapest European
destinations. The sister hostel to the equally large
Generator in London, the building was once the corporate
headquarters of an East German engineering firm. Built
over seven floors (but only two lifts), the Generator
features 24-hour internet, self-service café
and free continental breakfast.
You can get a functional double for €20. All rooms
have card-keys. With a trendy circular bar and long
happy hour, it is a good place to hang out. With its
metal flooring and blue neon lighting, the lobby looks
more like the entrance of a nightclub than a hostel.
Situated three miles east of Alexanderplatz, the Generator
is a trek out of town, but it's opposite both S-Bahn
and tram stations, so get to grips with public transport
and you're away.
Impossibly neat, eternally chic and full of elegant
gilded statues and beautiful public spaces, Paris has
a reputation for being a very expensive city. It needn't
be. With a little care and planning, Paris can be as
cheap as pomme frîtes.
While Paris nightlife has changed a lot over the past
decade, drinks can be very expensive, so act like a
Parisian and club together for a bottle of spirits and
occupy a table all night. A welcome addition to the
Paris night scene is the WAGG club (62 Rue Mazarine),
a new venture set up by the owners of Fabric. WAGG stands
for Whiskey a Go-Go and it is rumoured to be the site
of the hotel where Jim Morrison died - hence the name.
With the money you saved on the flight and the hotel,
you can afford to splash out at an upmarket restaurant
such as Georges. Perched on top of Le Centre Pompidou,
it remains one of the most futuristic restaurants in
the world, despite being 25 years old. Book early at
weekends and request a table at sunset.
Cheap flights: bmibaby (0870 264 2229, bmibaby.com),
BA (0845 7733377, ba.com),
British Midland (0870 6070555, flybmi.com),
easyJet (0870 6000000, easyjet.com), Flybe (0870 5676676,
Rail alternative: Eurostar (08705 186186) from Waterloo
for £59. Minimum stay one Saturday night.
Where to stay: A stone's throw from the Place De Repuplic
is the Hotel Denevers (53, rue de Malte, 11e, +1 4700
a charming family hotel with three cats. It is ideally
situated nearby the trendy Bastille area, and doubles
start at €30.
Rome is at its best in springtime, when it is warm
enough to loiter outside but not too crowded with tourists.
Walking around the eternal city costs nothing, and where
else can you find such a concentration of ancient history
in one place?
The Pantheon (Piazza della Rotonda, free) is the best-preserved
ancient building in Rome. Built by Emperor Hadrian as
a Roman temple, it was consecrated as a Catholic Church
in 608. It is nearly 1,900 years old and almost entirely
intact. Just like the Pantheon, every church in Rome
is free to enter. Most have world-class examples of
sculpture, mosaics and paintings. Other sites such as
the Spanish Steps, Trevi fountain and Roman Forum cost
nothing to visit, either. Nor do the best views of the
city. Head towards the Capitoline Hill for the best
views. Alternatively, stroll around the Villa Borghese
with its beautiful parks or hunt for bargains at the
Porta Portese flea market on Sunday.
Cheap flights: easyJet (0870 6000000, easyjet.com),
Ryanair (0871 2460000, ryanair.com), BA (0845 7733377, ba.com).
Where to stay: Situated in the area between the Coliseum
and the Spanish Steps, the Yellow Hostel (44 via Palestro,
Rome, +39 06 49 382 682, yellowhostel.com)
is a communal, lively and friendly little place. Recently
renovated, it features a big screen TV with DVD, free
lockers, large kitchen, free internet access, high ceilings
and no curfew. All for £11.40 (price in a bed
in a 6-10 dormitory room).
Amsterdam is full of cheap hotels, but most are best
avoided. Haarlem, a short train ride away, is a cheaper
and cleaner option. The two inland ports of Noord Holland
were great rivals during the Dutch Golden Age, but while
Amsterdam became a modern metropolis, Haarlem stayed
much as it was.
Haarlem is definitely worth a weekend in itself, but
you could consider using it as a base to explore nearby
Amsterdam, trains to which are frequent and run practically
throughout the night. The journey takes 15 minutes.
Haarlem itself is a wealth of historic buildings, hidden
courtyards and, with the Frans Hals museum (€5.40,
under 19 free, franshalsmuseum.nl),
home to one of the best galleries in the Netherlands.
The main square is dominated by the Grotekirk van St
Bavo church, which offers some very good organ recitals
every Tuesday and Saturday. The 5,000 pipes of the Muller
organ (where Mozart and Handel once played) are well
worth a listen.
Haarlem has a bohemian atmosphere (the first Dutch "coffee"
shop opened here) with a rich number of elegant bars
and cafes - most inexpensive, particularly at lunchtime.
Other cheap activities include hiring bicycles from
the station and riding through the sand dunes to the
nearby seaside resort of Zandvoort.
Cheap flight: easyJet (0870 6 000000, easyjet.com)
flies to Amsterdam from £33.45.
Where to stay: The Hotel Carillon (27 Grote Markt, Haarlem,
+31 23 531 0591, hotelcarillon.com)
is a delightful, friendly hotel overlooking the main
square. If you don't mind a bit of noise, ask for one
of the rooms overlooking the Grote Markt. Singles/doubles
Perhaps the most nocturnal of the great European cities,
Madrid remains one of the most inexpensive. A city synonymous
with art galleries, bullfights, bar culture and alfresco
dining, Madrid is perfect for the summer months and
small enough to be sampled in a couple of days.
For bargains, head towards the huge flea market every
Sunday. The Rasto is held in La Latina area - one of
the oldest parts of the city - and is a mixture of clothing,
jewellery and junk stalls. It is noisy, busy and a lot
of fun. For the locals, the Rasto is a social event
as much as a shopping extravaganza, and the bar scene
during and after is great, especially in the summer.
Madrid has a range of restaurants to suit frugal pockets.
For hearty Castillian fare, try the Casa Marta (10 C
Santa Clara, +91 548 2825), a converted tavern and tapas
bar hidden up a side street. For friendly service, good
music and delicious vegetarian food, head for El Estragon
(10 Costanilla de San Andrés, +91 365 8982),
situated near the -recently restored Plaza de la Paja.
Alternatively, Elqui (18 Buenavista, +91 468 0402) is
an excellent self-service vegetarian restaurant and
arty hang-out. Main courses from €3.
Madrid is famous for one of the premier museums in the
world, The Prado (Paseo del Prado, €3, museoprado.mcu.es),
but visit on Sunday when it's free. Other cheap attractions
include the Teleferico de Madrid (€2.80, free Wednesday),
a cable car that spans the Casa de Campo.
Cheap flights: BA (0845 7733377, ba.com),
British Midland (0870 6070555, flybmi.com),
easyJet (0870 6000000, easyjet.com).
Where to stay: At €83 for a double, the Hotel Paris
(Puerta del Sol, 2 Calle Alcala, + 91 521 64 91) is
at the top end of the budget range. But it overlooks
the spectacular Puerta del Sol, so book well ahead for
a room with a view. The rooms are a little basic, but
the fabulously grand lobby makes amends.
If your image of Brussels is one of bureaucrats, beer
and buckets of mussels, it's about time you tasted the
rejuvenated Belgium capital. In the 1960s, Brussels
was considered to be the ugliest city in the world,
but it has been transformed over the past decade, especially
since it was cleaned up when it became a European City
of Culture three years ago.
There are a number of budget activities in Brussels.
Explore Le Botanique ornamental gardens (free); climb
the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (free) for a spectacular
view of the city, or visit the impressive Museum of
Modern Art Koningsplein (free). The latter is built
around a central light well, which is cut seven floors
underground. It features an impressive collection of
Delvaux and Magritte.
The Grand'Place - still one of the most beautiful public
spaces in Europe - remains the main tourist attraction
of the city. Wander around the beautiful buildings,
or sit down on one of the many terraces and enjoy a
Belgian beer. Outdoor concerts are organised throughout
Cheap flight: Ryanair (0871 2460000, ryanair.com)
flies Stansted-Charleroi from £33.28. Also see
bmibaby (0870 2642229, bmibaby.com),
BA (0845 7733377, ba.com),
British Midland (0870 6070555, flybmi.com),
Flybe (0870 5676676, flybe.com).
Rail alternative: Eurostar (08705 186186) for £59
from Waterloo. Minimum stay one Saturday night.
Where to stay: A 10-minute walk from the Grand' Place,
the Comfort Art Hotel Siru (comforthotelsiru.com)
is a class apart from most budget hotels. The Siru's
owner persuaded 130 of Belgium's contemporary artists
to decorate each room and some corridors with a work
on the theme of travel. The works vary from enormous
wall murals to fake granite blocks hanging from the
ceiling above the bed. It also features a pleasant onsite
brasserie. Singles from £35.
· Cheap Hotels by Daisann McLane is published
by Benedikt Taschen Verlag at £9.99.