Monday, July 27, 2009

A Hotel Not That Far From Transylvania

A travel writer's encounter with a Bulgarian Hotel.

Visions of Count Dracula began to dance in my head. I half-expected the grand piano in the hall outside my room to start playing by itself.

Here's what I discovered, when I booked in:

1, The room rate is at least 30% over that quoted in the guides—now 139 euros. This happens, of course. Not necessarily sinister. Though quite a jump in one year...a year of recession...especially, with swine flu, in the travel business...

2. I seemed to be the only guest. In peak season, on a Friday night, during the Plovdiv Folklore Festival. Other hotels seemed to be full or close to full. This was downright eerie, especially given the top billing Hebros is given by all the big-name guides. Even eerier was the fact that

3. There was nobody at the front desk. Nobody when I arrived, and nobody for six or seven hours of periodic checking. I did get checked in; once I rang the front door bell, a woman appeared from the restaurant outside and showed me to my room.

4. The check-in procedure was very strange. She did not ask for a name; she just took my passport and ushered me to a room, saying they had been expecting me. This was creepy to the max, and suggested they were not anticipating any other guests.

5. To make things worse, the woman who checked me in did not return my passport. She disappeared with it. This was especially troublesome because it is actually illegal to be on the streets of Bulgaria without some form of official ID. I was then trapped in the hotel, for some hours, in a strange city, with no services, no sources of information, and no apparent way of contacting hotel staff.

You have to read the rest of what happened. It is incredible. The writer concludes:

It is sheer speculation, but I know something of the hotel business, and have a guess at what has happened to the Hebros. The same thing has happened to many hotels even in Canada, where organized crime is much less of a problem than in the Balkans.

My hunch is that its great reputation—not just the hotel, but the restaurant--made it overwhelmingly attractive to local individuals lacking just that particular commodity. It may serve as a respectable front for laundering large sums of money the provenance of which might otherwise be awkward to explain. The restaurant, which I did not have the opportunity to sample, may well still be legit—harder to disguise that, since locals probably patronize it. But a hotel that reports itself as always full can claim a lot of revenue; so long as real guests do not too often foul up the accounting.

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