Places to stay in European capitals, with the accent on low prices

BARGAIN BOOKINGS

April 14, 1996|By Gary A. Warner

The floorboards squeak a bit at night and the murmurings of the couple next door are audible -- if not understandable -- through the walls. There's sometimes a wait for the bathtub down the hall -- unless you hike down a flight of stairs to an open bathroom.

Breakfast is solid if not spectacular, served by the sometimes chipper, sometimes bored family of the proprietor. The family dog darts between your legs, hoping for a few scraps from the table.

But there are fresh-cut flowers on the windowsills, a big fluffy comforter on your bed and the morning coffee (or tea) is strong and tasty. It's a clean, central and, above all, cheap headquarters for your explorations.

Finding a good budget hotel is something of a grail for visitors to Europe. It's too easy to book a dank and dull bed and breakfast in a tourist ghetto or pay $250 and up for what would be a nice motel room in the United States.

Here then are 15 of my favorite budget hotels in the three most popular European capitals: London, Paris and Rome. For as little as $40 and no more than $125, you'll get a charming but cheap headquarters for your explorations.

Please be forewarned -- leave your American expectations at home. These are not your local motor inns. Most are family-run, in older buildings. All exude the characters (good and bad) of their cities.

If you need big rooms, big televisions and a big bathroom in the room, these hotels aren't for you. Best to look to the chain hotels and be prepared to spend $200 and up per night for a room that might as well be in Des Moines.

Note: Where applicable, I have given the name of the closest subway stop to each hotel.

Now on to my choices:

LONDON

Price-gouging has become so common in London that the government has formed a commission to look into the problem. You'll pay more for less here than just about anywhere in Europe. It's not uncommon for "mid-priced" hotels to charge more than $200 per night, and even $300 doesn't guarantee a large room at some of the pricier establishments.

But there's hope. Head to Bloomsbury, home of the British Museum, the University of London and the city's best collection of quality budget hotels. Avoid the tourist ghettos in Bayswater and the overpriced digs in Kensington.

Harlingford Hotel (61-63 Cartwright Gardens, 011-44-171-387-1551; doubles from $110. Tube stop: Russell Square). This is the finest of the many nice small hotels along Cartwright Gardens, a beautiful Bloomsbury crescent of old buildings fronting a small park.

Rooms are small but cozy, with thick comforters and electric teakettles. Tiny singles go for as little as $60 but are little more than shoe boxes with beds. Breakfast is served in an airy ground-floor dining room.

The biggest plus is the neighborhood, with two good pubs, several Indian restaurants, a laundromat, supermarket and the North Sea Fish House on Leigh Street, one of the city's best fish-and-chips parlors.

Jenkins Hotel (45 Cartwright Gardens, 011-44-171-387-2067; doubles from $115). My second choice on my favorite London street, the Jenkins has a pretty columned entryway that leads directly via the staircases to rooms above. The floorboards creak a bit and the rooms are small, but the beds are cozy and warm and the English breakfast among the best I've ever had. Sadly, the family's portly terrier, Oscar, has passed away -- perhaps victim to too many of the blood sausages he begged off guests. But a new Labrador retriever puppy has been brought in to fill the old boy's role as resident character and mooch.

If the Harlingford and Jenkins are full, try any of the other hotels on the garden -- my other choices would be the Crescent and Avalon.

St. Margaret's (26 Bedford Place, 011-44-171-580-2352; doubles from $75. Tube stop: Holborn). If you've never been to Europe at all, try to book a room in this little Bloomsbury hotel near the British Museum. It's run by a charming Italian family, whose friendliness may give you the bug to explore their homeland. The hotel is spotlessly clean, with nice touches such as fresh-cut flowers. Some rooms look out on the Duke of Bedford's Garden (the neighborhood was once part of the lord's vast holdings). As usual, the cheapest rooms are those without a toilet in them.

Aster House (3 Sumner Place, SW7, 011-44-171-581-5888; doubles from $110. Tube stop: South Kensington). If your tastes run more to shopping than museum hopping, head to South Kensington. It's an easy stroll or tube ride to Harrods and the other mercantile meccas of Knightsbridge and Chelsea.

Sumner Place is a formal Georgian street right out of a London picture book. With its orderly rows of white-columned buildings, you'll have to look closely to pick out the hotels from the residences -- ostentatious signs are strictly a no-no here.

The award-winning Aster House features small but well-appointed rooms. There's a beautiful garden in the rear with a fountain and statuary, a great place for sitting out on a warm summer day.

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