In search of accommodation in a new land, where English is not widely spoken. A case of travel booking gone awry…
On arrival: An electric ‘rickshaw’ waits in front of Hannover railway station
The speedometer touched the 150-km mark several times before the taxi stopped at the corner building of the visibly residential Alte Dohrener Street. It was past 3 p.m. and Messequartetier Hannover, MQH for short, was to be my place of stay. But the building did not look anything like a hotel. It was more an apartment block with no name board. From across the road, a woman loading her purchases into her car stopped by to help, but the intercom did not respond. I once again tried the hotel telephone number but could not get through. I needed a local telephone line. “Down the street, on the main road,” explained the woman. I moved on, pulling my two-wheeled suitcases along the tiled pavement, making a rattling sound that was embarrassing.
At the main road, sign language worked. “Apothecary,” pointed out an old woman on a bicycle who I had stopped.
Apothecary must be doctor or chemist, I surmised. It was the latter. The chemist and his daughter were extremely pleasant and helpful. The girl called the number and told me the recorded message said the ‘hotel’ I was to stay at opens only on Monday mornings from 9 to 12 noon! Monday was three days away!
My room had been booked by my friends a fortnight ago, through a Holland-based business contact. I had tried the contact number of the ‘hotel’ without success. I had e-mailed them confirming my trip, but significantly there was no reply. But the Holland company had e-mailed me that the room had been prepaid and therefore I should not pay. In desperation, I called my contact in that company. No luck. I called up my Chennai headquarters: only the previous night I was asked if I needed a room that had become surplus and I had said no. Now, when I badly needed it, I was told that it had been surrendered just half an hour ago.
In search of a hotel room
Try the Central Station, there are lots of hotels around, the father suggested, and dialled for a cab. The cabby couldn’t say where a room could be got as an important trade fair was on. “All hotels are full, but try the tourist office”, he said.
The woman at the tourist office was all smiles and sympathy. She had just one option to offer: a room for €450, over Rs 30,000 for a night. “Try this tourism agency,” she said, pulling out a map of the city. Lost as I was, the map reassured me. Down two streets I marched, in search of Prinzenstrabe 12, my suitcases rolling along in synchronised music. The sun was hiding behind the stately buildings of the city square and I did not have a room for the night. I took in the Main railway station – my likely rest-place for the night…
A homestead in Ulm village run entirely by an elderly couple that offers clean rooms, sumptuous breakfast and warm hospitality at a reasonable price.
The first building on Prinzenstrabe Street was a hotel. But no rooms! Onward my noisy caravan moved, tracing building numbers. But no sign of 12 — after 10, it was No. 20. On my third and more desperate walk along the street, I saw a young boy on a bicycle. I sought his help. He took off on his bicycle and in a few minutes returned with a triumphant smile. He spoke into the intercom and I was let in.
On the second floor office of the tourism agency, the young woman was sympathetic.
“English,” I asked.
“I am in a spot of trouble. Can you help me?” Her nod was enough encouragement for me to pour out my story.
“We have a mansion, but let me check if it is free,” she said. “Actually the mansion is free, but it is not ready. Someone just checked out and the owner does not want to offer it till it is ready”.
“It is okay, I will take it,” I protested, but to no avail.
More phone calls… the sunlight ebbing out between the stapled buildings. “You know, we have to close at 5 — that gives me another seven minutes. Let me try this,” she said.
Despite the cold air, it was getting hot under my collar. The YMCA, if there is one here, seemed the only alternative to the railway station. But then, I had closed my membership around the time Indira Gandhi declared Emergency.
“There is this lady in Ulm village who keeps some rooms, but the washroom is common”.
“Great. I will take it,” I said. As the girl got on the phone to confirm, my mind went back to my lodging days. I remembered the typical series of rooms connected by a verandah, leading up to a row of toilets and bathrooms. Here, in Germany, things must be clean, I assured myself. Then, another fear gripped me. I visualised a matronly German in a dimly-lit building in some streetlight-less German village, keeping rooms with interesting extra services. If push comes to shove, I will plead frigidity to survive the night, I decided. But that was not sufficient to not get robbed in some remote village. Even though €65 a day was suspiciously low, I readily agreed, noted the address and proceeded for my tryst with destiny.
Homestead in the hinterland
The taxi-driver entered the address on his GPS and took off. Wanting another person to know where I was headed, I called my friend who was coming by a later flight, but his phone was switched off. The taxi stopped in front of a picket gate beside a dimly-lit narrow street that turned and headed towards a row of houses, all tall and dark. Past the pathway through a garden, I reached the front door of a two-storey house. Knocking on the open door, I called out. A slim woman in her early 50s introduced herself as Mrs Feldmann. Her smile was genuine, but not her English.
My room was on the first floor, up the wooden staircase. The room was clean, dominated by wood, like the rest of the house. Dinner was not part of the deal, so Mrs Feldmann told me that on the main road, half a km away, there was a choice of restaurants. My hooded jacket on to hide my identity, I reached the main road, walking fast past the row of parked cars and the houses, now partially lit but remarkably silent.
Soon after I returned to the house, my friend arrived. After speculating on how our hotel booking went awry, we retired to our rooms.
I woke up peacefully and opened the window curtain. Within reach were apples, red and full! In the faint light of the early morning, I stepped out to explore. The two-storey mansion was surrounded by an orchard and a vineyard, with a rose garden in the front. The lawns at the rear led to a small water pond. All around the house were artefacts, including figurines in clay, glass work and potted plants.
I had a wonderful stay, enjoying the hospitality of Mrs Feldmann, starting with a sumptuous breakfast, half-a-dozen top brands in chocolates on my table and restrained exchanges with other inmates in the other five rooms. The gentleman I passed on the staircase turned out to be Mr Feldmann, an architect who had designed his own house with passion. He could just say ‘Hello’, in English, with both hands raised in a gesture of generosity and friendship. The Feldmanns lived on the ground floor, which had a well-stocked library. Breakfast for all guests was in the common dining room, but none strayed beyond that.
One day, when I returned to my room in the afternoon to charge my camera, Mrs Feldmann was herself cleaning the rooms in what my experience has been one of the best-kept houses.
Meticulous planning is the normal prescription for wonderful, memorable trips. Having raced against a setting sun in an unfamiliar German town without throwing in the towel, gives me a plank to contest that.