The heavy wooden door creaked like those of the castle in any Hammer Horror movie as I leant my weight against it. Beyond lay a narrow corridor redolent of damp and rotting wood. However, this was obviously going to be a temporary state of affairs as in the dim light I could see the passageway was also an obstacle course of builder’s ladders and piled high stacks of cement bags.
Manoeuvring my bags I penetrated the gloom until I reached the lift cage and pressed the button to call the antique cage. The mechanism groaned and made curious whining noises, but eventually reached me and the diamond lattice cage doors stuttered open and let me enter. With me inside the mechanism’s rattles sounded like the death knell of the industrial revolution, but manfully managed to hoist me to the third floor. There I encountered another door; this one stained dark with unpolished brass fittings. It opened and there stood a small, portly man with no hair and dressed in only trousers and a vest. A cigarette with an inch of ignored ash was stuck to his lower lip.
“Welcome Señor to the Hostel Bxxxx.” This was Paco, a Cuban who ran, as far as I could find on the internet, the cheapest Hostal in Madrid.
The décor was drab and the furniture second hand in the days of Alfonso the tenth, but Paco was sprightly and very jolly. His English was rudimentary and as, then, my Spanish was non-existent, we communicated with sign language. He took my passport and a pitiful amount of money and showed me to my room. It contained a bed, a sink a TV and a ceiling fan seemingly made from the rotors of a Blackhawk helicopter. I switched it on and lay on the bed watching it circulate above me and turned it off again, afraid of how many pieces it would chew me into should it fall. Above the headboard a window opened on to some internal passage and carried quite clearly the voices of people on the other side. I closed it and made sure it was locked. I dumped my bags, scanned the stations on the TV, (there were five and all in Spanish – no BBC or CNN), checked I still had some money and went out to eat. This was my initiation into the Hostels of Madrid.
Before I found my own apartment I stayed at quite a few hostals and have my favourites, which I returned to many times if they had rooms available, and there are a couple on my blacklist. In other words, the quality varies.
I have slept in tiny, immaculate boxrooms, rented a partitioned room of three which had once been one grand salon and gazed at ceilings wondering if the flaking paint above me would decide to fall tonight. Yet, with one horrible exception, I would happily stay in all of them again. Yet it would be true that you do not always get what you pay for and rooms in a single hostel can differ quite considerably.
I used three rooms in the Hostal Txxxxx and they were all different. One square, one rectangular and another was a long narrow triangle, so keen were the management to utilise even the smallest area. (The radiator flooded the first, and a booking error had the management asking if they could move me. The new room was better, so I naturally agreed.) The Hostal Mxxxxxxx has the ricketiest wooden spiral staircase I have ever climbed, yet the receptionist returned my e-mails with alacrity and with my first name. I think she was in love with me! And they have free wifi. Hostal Cxxxxxxxxxxx is superbly placed, but has decayed rapidly over the past two years and the hostal PA aways put me next to the laundry where I could lay in bed in the early morning and learn new examples of Spanish profanity! But the welcome was tremendous. The hostal O is clean and cheap, but I didn´t feel safe in its narrow back street. And in Seville, the advertised hostal turned out to be a three star hotel that was short of bookings and had cut its rates. The bathroom alone was as large as some of the other rooms I have rented. It´s a bit pot luck really!
So how can you tell, as a first time visitor that you will get a good one? Well, Hostel Bookers and a few other display client´s comments, which can be a help. Out of desperation I once picked a place that had bad reviews to find they were all deadly accurate. So I never went there again. And some Madrid based websites often give recommendations.
Now that I have become a resident of this wonderful city and rent my own place and hostals have become a thing of my past. I will miss them. But my sources reveal that three years on, the cement bags and ladder are still a feature of the Hostal Bxxxx.