When I first went to Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, most hotels were of the state-sponsored tourism variety:
Marked by cheap, broken furniture, dirty carpets, peeling paint and the ubiquitous stone-faced hall-monitor ladies in the corridors, watching everything and everyone suspiciously.
They were a study in shabby-drabby.
But what a difference a few decades make. These days, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and other eastern cities offer a sparkling array of hotels that charm and surprise – and are some of the best values in Europe.
On a recent trip to Poland, I encountered luxurious Old-World hospitality on the Baltic coast at the Neptune, a villa full of antiques and turn-of-the-century elegance, and a balcony that lets in the roar of the sea.
In Warsaw, it was small touches and playful quirkiness at an apartment hotel in the heart of the Polish capital: In SleepWell (yes, that's right), each room is distinctively decorated according to a theme and ours shone in browns with the splash of bright blue, with interesting touches such as a faux fireplace built into the corner wall.
In the medieval port of Gdansk, modern lines and sleek design was a top priority at the Hotel Grand Cru, replete with layered lighting and sliding hammered glass bathroom doors.
In fact, everywhere we put our heads down, the rooms were spotless, the bathrooms modern and shiny, and flat-screen TVs, fridges and kettles, and free wifi were the norm.
Best of all was service: welcoming, professional, accommodating, helpful, and in English. I wish I received that level of service regularly in Western Europe: There I more often than not encounter frosty smiles, rigidity and indifference, that "I'm-doing-you-a-favor" service attitude.
In the late 1980s, European friends of mine would often respond to my tales of visits to Romania or Poland in general disbelief: "Why would you go there," was the familiar refrain.
These days, tourism is booming in Krakow, Prague and Budapest as well as in the Baltics and in the Balkans and I have found lovely hotels in the shattered old town of Bucharest (reconstruction almost finished) and in often-forgotten Sofia, the capitals of some of the European Union's newest members.
One of my favorites is in Zagreb, the Hotel Esplanade, in Croatia, which joined the bloc last year. But then I am a sucker for art deco glamour.
And from Riga to Belgrade, boutique hotels are opening to add to those Grand Hotels that have received severe facelifts since the end of communist times and have for more than two decades served the business traveler along with local honeymooners.
Last week, I was sitting with a German colleague and he asked me about my latest trip to Poland. He said he had never been. I told him he was missing out, detailing the amazing creamy caraway soup I sampled at a hotel in the small, obscure town of Slupsk, in the north. Who knew that in a town far off the tourist trail that we would randomly end up in a hotel (the Pod Kluka) whose restaurant was voted one of Poland's top 100?
And while the region has modernized and adapted and changed since 1989 and caught up quickly to their Western brethren – and in some ways surpassed them, especially in terms of effort – some things have stayed the same, namely the importance of hospitality.
So come visit Malbork, Poland, and stay in a small hotel with a view of the giant Knight Templers castle across the river from your balcony. And in the morning, you'll feel Polish hospitality when the proprietor won't let you leave without having your breakfast. This is strictly an exclusive feature, reprints of this article in any shape or form without prior written approval from 4Hoteliers.com is not permitted. Jabeen Bhatti is a reporter and editor in Berlin, Germany. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, she has spent most of her career in hard news and currently manages the international journalism organization, Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA). She gets out of Berlin whenever she can, enjoying local nibbles everywhere and finding the perfect hotel room many times over. Also Read at 4Hoteliers.com
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