Posted by: 4initalia | October 8, 2011

Hotel Saint Simeon: You Can Czech Out, But You Can Never Leave

The opening line of Anna Karenina, (“All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”) also applies to hotels. Traveling to fifty cities in eight European countries, I can’t remember a single “nice” hotel. But the truly wretched ones are etched into my memory like roach trails on wet soap.

Hotel Kyook in Amsterdam was the most spectacularly awful place I’ve ever tried to sleep.  The walls audibly teemed with biota; I heard chants of “E-bo-la!” “Syph-ill-is!!” as strains of bacteria competed to colonize my toothbrush.  The Kyook had the allure of shabbily upholstered pus.

We stayed in other bad hotels, but the most charmingly horrid one was in London.  The hotel was named for an Eastern European ascetic who demonstrated his piety through self-mortification: for the forty days of Lent, he neither ate nor drank. In later years he upped the guilt ante by doing the whole thing standing up. When he tired of the luxe life of a monk, he built an unshaded 50 foot pillar, climbed to the top, and stayed there for 36 years.

Mortification and deprivation: Saint Simeon would have raised two shaky thumbs up to the London hotel that bears his name.

We went to London so Andy could give a speech at a veddy prestigious academic conference.  As usual we traveled by train, and rolled our luggage through roiling traffic that menaced from every direction.

The Saint Simeon was run by a Serbian family held together by unshakeable bonds of mutual resentment and simmering hatred. This created an ambiance much like an Eastern European version of Wuthering Heights.

The owner was engaging and warm, with the charm if a swaying cobra, and a grizzly-esque geniality. When we checked in, Serbio explained that of course we’d have to pay in advance for all four nights. Like Mowgli mesmerized by Kaa, the snake in the Jungle Book, we nodded in unison.

Of Course We’ll Pay In Advance For All Four Nights

Of course we’d pay in advance, once we learned that the policy was the unfortunate result of irresponsible Italians who, on visits to London, spend all their cash on clothing and food, so they had no money for their hotel bill.

Wait, you might say. “He told you that Italians, Italians would blow all their money on British food, and British  fashion? And because of that, he demanded that you pay in advance?”

“RUN, Goetzes, RUUUUN!!” you are shouting.  “He’s lying! Never pay a hotel up front!!”

Ah, such innocence. We were the babysitter in a slasher flick cluelessly opening the cellar door. Sure, we got that call asking us to check on the children, and we were puzzled by the caller’s jagged breath. Yes, we heard ominous sounds coming from the basement, and, saay, wasn’t that a bloody footprint on the mat when we first came in?  But we did not run away, and what happened next was our own dang fault.

Andy turned over our credit card, and one swipe later, we were czeched into the Saint Simeon Hotel.

The kids and I used the stairs, while Andy was trapped with the owner  in an asthmatic elevator the size of Saint Simeon’s perch. Serbio brought us to Room 14, or maybe he was offering a postage stamp. The room’s three beds and four towels all overlapped, and an armoire had the dimensions and heft of an upended Kleenex box. Eaves like obese stalactites jutted from the ceiling; at 6’4″, Andy would knock himself unconscious turning over in bed.  We weren’t convinced that room 14 was going to work, so Serbio graciously offered a larger room.

Room 18 actually had a ceiling, so we had already upgraded. The bathroom was clean and neatly tiled, and we were too tired to notice the lack of soap. Or that if there had been soap, there wouldn’t be enough room to close the door.  But there was a huge window overlooking the rooftops of London, the beds looked comfortable, and this was London, where a hotel room costs as much as a room in a London hotel.  Besides, we had already paid!!

The next morning we learned why the hotel was named for a martyr. The shower head didn’t attach to the wall. So getting clean required juggling water and shampoo while trying to fend off the shower curtain, which clung to my eyelids and flung every drop onto the bathroom floor.

Andy availed himself of the hotel’s only amenity, an electric plug. He plugged in his electric razor, it let out a puff of smoke, and to the kids’ delight, it exploded. Fortunately no one was hit by flying shrapnel, and Andy’s half-grizzled, half-shaved face gave him the rakish appeal sought after by London academics.

The day had a rough start, but Serbio had promised us a breakfast featuring the best of British and Serbian cuisine. When I got downstairs, Andy and the kids were already seated at a wooden table heaped with food. Well, it wasn’t exactly food, but there were a million little plates with odd looking items smothered under Saran Wrap. My arrival triggered a new volley of plate delivery, although in a week, the four of us couldn’t have eaten what was already on the table.

A single dish held three kinds of bread that looked and tasted like several grades of sandpaper. Splayed under plastic were slices of fruit from which all color and texture had been drained. Other dishes entombed antique donuts, prehistoric rolls, and slivers of gummy cheese that tasted more like medical tubing than milk.

A pale young woman brought fluids reminiscent of coffee, tea and hot chocolate, but they were diluted to tastelessness, and cold. I felt guilty for the food we tasted but couldn’t eat, and for her carpal tunnel syndrome from all that wrapping.

On the way upstairs, I was grilled about breakfast and agreed with Serbio that it was a bounteous repast. Andy attempted small talk, but the conversation quickly went north: “Who was your favorite American president in the last fifty years?” demanded Serbio. “Besides Kennedy. Everyone says Kennedy” Serbio growled. Andy answered: “Clinton.” “Clinton bombed my country” noted Serbio darkly. When we told him we had seen the Diana and Dodi memorial at Harrod’s, Serbio muttered “The Queen killed them both. It’s printed in the British papers, so it must be true.”

With no usable electricity or water, the Saint Simeon was a drain on our budget and our mood. His presentation over, and on the verge of his 50th birthday, Andy plotted our escape during our second plastic breakfast.

On his laptop, Andy found a mystical land just outside of London, where hotels had amenities, like soap. Two rooms for two nights at a boring corporate hotel, with tickets to Legoland Windsor thrown in, cost less than one room at the Motel Martyr.

But we had already paid for all four nights.

Andy approached Serbio warily. He asked for a refund for the two nights we wouldn’t be there, and Serbio explained that their cancellation policy required 48 hour notice. Andy pointed out that it was 48 hours from the 4th night, so he could refund one night. “No. You stay for four nights. This is good hotel, and you will stay with us.”

The next morning Andy went to pick up a getaway car while I wrestled with the shower. The kids had granola bars, but by 11 I was desperate for caffeine. To get to the dining room I’d have to pass the registration desk. At 11:45 Andy hadn’t returned. Should I tell them we’re checking out, and risk having our bags dumped onto the sidewalk? What if Andy didn’t get back for hours?

So I went downstairs, said that we were leaving, and asked what the hotel would prefer – should we remove our luggage so they could clean the room? “No.” Serbio Junior replied. “You’re here until Friday.” “Yes, but our plans have changed – my husband has rented a car and we’re going to Windsor. We won’t need the room.” “No, you don’t need a car. Windsor is 20 minutes by train. You stay here and take the train to Legoland. You have already paid.”

Trapped in Hotel Hell with no hope of rescue, I smiled demurely at the foolishness of my American husband.

“Could I have some tea?” I asked, as if a cup of tea would bring my husband to his senses; I knew it would work wonders for mine. “Of course, would you like breakfast?” “No, tea is fine.”

On my way back upstairs, Serbio stopped me. “Did you have breakfast?” “No, thank you, tea is fine.” “Take it up on the lift.” I walked onto the tiny elevator, and he stepped inside.

“Have breakfast!!”he demanded.

“No, really, tea is fine.”

“Should I wake you for breakfast tomorrow morning?”

“No, thank you.”

“Is there anything else I can get you?”

“No, really….”

Finally the doors wheezed shut and I sucked down the tea before the lift got to the second floor.

Andy got back around noon. When we brought down our luggage and asked for our money back, Serbio’s son demanded to know why we were leaving. Glaring at Serbio, he shouted: “Is there anything wrong? Tell me anything that is wrong with this hotel, why you do not want to stay here.”

Not wanting to star in an Iron Curtain episode of Family Feud, Andy demurred that we’d like to stay, but our plans had changed.

“See!! I told you!!” shouted Serbio. “This man speaks the truth!! He doesn’t bullshit!! He doesn’t say that this is broken, or that the hotel is dirty!! This man speaks the truth!!”

We escaped with one night refunded and a voucher for a free night at the Saint Simeon. Because I like you, and I know you like breakfast, that is our gift to you.

Apparently Simeon achieved sainthood for staying all four nights.


  1. I love hearing about your time in Europe! It always sounds like a real life version of the Griswold family!

    • Thanks, Lynn – there are so many stories…..

  2. read the first one – I wisd I could afford to stay in places like that- still, nice writing.

    • Thanks, Purnell. London is insanely expensive, but you can stay more cheaply in many places in Italy, and the euro is now a better deal. There are funny stories about living in Italy – I hope you check out some more!

  3. This post is so hilarious, nicely written, as usual.
    I had also some bad hotel experiences, once in a Bed and Breakfast in London in 1997, another one in Venezia in a Hotel very close to Piazza San Marco but it was horrendous in 1998 (we stayed only one night) and the latest bad experience we had in Washington, DC in 2010 and 2011!
    It was our first time in Washington, DC and booked a room for 5 (we were told that the hotel had rooms for 5) at the Windsor Inn. Actually the neighborhood was very nice, and the small building hat a cozy and intimate aspect. But this was all appearance… a few minutes after we arrived, we discovered that the room we got was a simple room with ONE queen size bed. We immediately thought the hotel manager had unintentionally switched the keys with another room and informed him.
    He confirmed that this was our room and apologized as he couldn’t understand where the sofa bed had gone (!?) and offered us two inflatable mattresses…
    I was mad…the big problem was…Washington DC’s rooms were all sold out, because of the Marathon, Gala events, Science Fair, etc. all scheduled during the same weekend (we were there for one the Gala events).
    We had no choice and I have avoided to take a further look at the carpets in our room…my poor kids. Somehow we slept, but I was so happy to leave the hotel.
    The breakfast was also another experience of its kind.
    One year later, in 2011, we had the same Gala in Washington, DC and this time we decided to go without kids and to stay at the hotel where the Gala was held at the Hilton.
    Actually we were so lucky this time (not really), because we had bad weather and snow! It was impossible to walk outside (I had also my hair style done the day before and the humidity is my hair’s enemy), so we just relaxed a little bit and got ready for the big event. As President Obama was expected for the introductory speech, the reception started one hour in advance for security check. We have waited for more than three hours (with Air conditioning blowing, but it was snowing outside) before we got a seat in the dining hall (it was freezing cold, too).
    As all speeches were done and the dinner finished, we got back to our room and immediately realized that it was freezing cold in our room, too. We had 60 degrees room temperature and it was almost 1am! It took ages for the technician to arrive, so I complained with the reception and got a new and finally WARM room. Having to switch with the luggage from one room to another at 1am is not really funny. We were exhausted.

    We may go in 2012 to Washington again. Hopefully we will be more successful with the hotel choice.

  4. See? Bad hotels make great stories! Switching rooms at one a.m. – you’ll never forget that trip. I hate the part about being cold, though – that’s awful.That Gala sounds like quite the party – now I want to know more about that. So many stories….some day we’ll tell them over a glass of wine. My state or yours?

  5. See…your Pavarotti link made me check back on the hotel trip horror stories, and here I found your reply (10 months later, better late than never). Sure thing, I am happy to tell more about our Washington DC adventure with Mr. The President last year. This year we decided not to go, but we made a trip to see friends in Nashville, TN, instead.
    Here in our little (less fancy) L/A (i.e. Lewiston-Auburn in Maine) we have some remarkable VIP watch, too. Yesterday I met Patrick Dempsey for the third year for an annual fundraiser he and his family promote.
    Is this enough to convince you to come and visit my State, Maine Vacationland? AND…I HAVE HOMEMADE ACETO BALSAMICO DI MODENA made by our former neighbors (at least 15 years old!), our 4kg Parmiggiano we got in almost finished, though.
    For now, let’s have a virtual glass of wine!
    Cari saluti a tutta la famiglia!

    • As if I need Patrick Dempsey to make me want to visit you in Maine! I just want to sit in your kitchen and hear about all of your adventures. – what a perspective you have! i know Lewiston – I lived there for two years, when I went to Bates. How I miss the fall leaves – how are they now? Going to check out your blog….! Wait – did you say…balsalmico…..? I’ll be right over!

  6. By the way…take a look at my blog…

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