365. “St Harriet”

IMG_6556 (480x640)My first attempt at the Vatican was a definite failure. As it turns out, one does not simply visit the Vatican on a whim in the middle of summer whilst wearing a summer dress. I got myself a modesty scarf and decided to chance it (the lines weren’t too long by then). But alas, I was still deemed too slutty and denied entrance.

Round two was much more successful, this time I managed to be appropriately covered, but in some kind of divine revenge for even thinking I could enter with my knees bared, it was a 40 degree day. I don’t think I’ve ever been in anything more than 38, and even then I was feeling faint. Conveniently, there were enormous crowds on my arrival too. Standing in a gigantic line that went all the way around the courtyard (the line kind of wiggled around so as many people were in the shade as possible) it was going to be at least a few hours of incredibly slow movement. I was not fortunate enough to be one of the ones in the shade either.

About the stage where my vision was getting blurry and I had long since run out of water (tourism in that heat is just exhausting), a nice old woman came along to pitch the “skip the line tour.” I’d already been haggled multiple times for those tours and had written them all off as totally unnecessary expenditure. But by that stage I was already thinking about quitting on the Vatican and finding the nearest establishment that could put ice and water in a glass and give it to me. This woman told me that for €25 I could skip the line, go straight in and have a guided tour and I thought bugger it, I didn’t come on holiday to spend two hours in what felt like an inescapable sauna. I got her down to €20 and off we went. Sadly my feeling of relief was very short lived. First we had to go in to a nearby shop and sign up (they have to register names as a group apparently). Waiting around happened. Then we went back outside (at least we were in the shade) where the tour started with an incredibly long winded explanation of the history of the Vatican and the square out front. More waiting around happened. We did get to sneak round the back and get photos with the Swiss guard in their hilarious Uniforms, which was possibly one of the only perks. Then we were back out front again, more waiting, in to another shop to pay (you guessed it, more waiting), more “history” and explanations and finally we went around to the museum entrance. I would say it was probably almost an hour and a half before we were actually looking at anything inside the Vatican, and it was an enormous ruse so the tour guide could keep adding more and more people. Worst of all, when we got to the Museum entrance there were no lines whatsoever, and by then I was really annoyed at myself for not doing a bit of research.IMG_6553 (480x640)

Like the thousands of people queuing out front, I had no idea that if you just go via the museums there’s almost no line, it spits you out at St Peter’s Basilica, and the museums/Sistine Chapel are where all the good stuff is anyway. The guide was also fairly useless, rushing us through when there were loads of things to see, and she only really knew about the few key things that she stopped to explain, and couldn’t answer basic questions about other things. For instance, when I asked what the enormous and rather out of place modern sculpture smack-bang in the middle of the courtyard above the Sistine Chapel was, she didn’t even have the decency to make something up! It’s quite the noticeable eyesore, looking like a giant, gold poké-ball. You’d think someone going past it twice a day would have some idea. Especially when they are meant to be an expert in the subject.IMG_6431 (480x640) IMG_6430 (640x480)

So I wound up paying some serious 40-degree-heat-induced foreigner/idiot tax. I will never again do one of the “skip the line” tours or turn up at something ridiculously famous in the peak of the tourist season without doing my research!

On the bright side though, whilst waiting for far too long out the front, the guide pointed out the names of the saints around the Colonades that matched those in the group. Apparently the one pictured above is Saint Harriet. Sounds fairly dubious and I haven’t been able to verify if that is actually true (the closest I’ve found is that it could be St Hilarion or St Hyacinth) but I don’t really care, I’m just going to assume that it’s true as it was probably the only interesting thing I learned on the tour. Ignorance is bliss.IMG_6557 (640x480)

260. Airbnb Disaster

When searching for hostel accommodation in Amsterdam I was pretty shocked to find some rooms were going for $50 a night! It was just ridiculously expensive, but I guess Amsterdam is pretty popular in July. We had a look around at some hotels, but it was for this stay we thought we would check out Airbnb.com, which is a site where people can rent out spare rooms/entire homes while they are away, and they can be booked as though they are a hotel. It’s like couchsurfing for people who want a real bed, or who think there is no such thing as a free lunch, or think they are less likely to get murdered that way.

After a bit of careful research we found a room rented out by a fellow called Dan Miller, advertising a “Centrally Located, Great Room.” It was one of the more detailed listings, and it appeared we had our own lockable rooms, it promised a large kitchen and laundry (having been backpacking for a while the laundry was a particular selling point) and most importantly it was in the centre of town. From reading the listing, and the back and forth emails, it seemed like one guy lived there and rented his spare rooms to travellers throughout summer to make a bit of cash. We quite liked the idea of staying in an actual apartment as a break from hostels and thought we would go for it.

Of course in a situation like this there are always alarm bells in the back of your head, but the comforting factor was that even though you book online with a credit card, the site holds your payment for 24hours so if it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, or you arrive and find you are at Charles Manson’s house, you can get your money back and get out of there.

Well, we arrived at the specified address, in the centre of town. The directions ended with:

“Spuistraat 56 , when you reach there just push on the top buzzer , or ask the bike shop right next door 🙂 ! My phone number is: +31645312665

As it turned out, that address belongs to someone completely different, so naturally when no one answered we asked at the bike shop next door. At this stage we were met with a barely coherent man, absolutely baked out of his tree, and took a wee while to ascertain what was going on. Once we had established who we were, that we had booked a room online and did they know where we could find Dan Miller, the story all came out. Dan Miller, is in fact a fake name, and the owner of the bike shop has rented out a bunch of flats around town, which he (most probably illegally) sublets to travellers via airbnb.com. A number of the travellers live in the flats more permanently, and work for him running pub crawls and bachelor parties and things. Luckily for us, one such traveller, a really nice Swedish girl, was there and was actually coherent. She was living in the apartment we had booked a room in and took us there. Although it wasn’t what we expected, we though there’s no harm in checking it out, and if it was awful we could use the wifi there to book in to a hostel.

It was a 30 minute walk from the centre of town, not 5 minutes and was not the “large, spacious apartment” advertised either. Infact, it was three very small rooms, one of which was stacked full of bunks and had 5 people sleeping in it. The couch also had a couple sleeping on it, which made for a very awkward moment at one stage where they decided to forget the lounge was a public place.

Worst still, there wasn’t even a kitchen, just a bar fridge with some plates on top. Our promised laundry facilities weren’t there either, which we learned as we sat there for one and a half hours waiting for them to take our sheets to the laundromat.

In defence of the place, we had two bedrooms all to ourselves, with lockable doors, and the people staying there were actually really lovely. So while it was pretty much the exact opposite in every way of what was advertised, we decided to stay, as it was four walls and a roof, and still cheaper than a hostel. The others staying there were all young travellers who had decided to stay in Amsterdam and work/party. They’d found the perfect job for it, by running pub crawls through town. After a day or two of staying there, reading between the lines of conversations and from certain things we didn’t have much of a choice but to overhear, it seemed like they too were getting a little screwed by this “Dan Miller” fellow – they get paid on commission for the amount of people they get along to the pub crawl, and I think they also had a discount for staying there, but I definitely got the feeling they weren’t too happy with their living arrangements (not too sure who would be, crammed in to a tiny room with bunks, travellers coming and going all the time and no kitchen) but the pay wasn’t really enough to get themselves out of the situation.

All in all we had a perfectly fine time there, and were safe, but the whole situation was definitely a scam, and has put me well off ever using Airbnb. If the ad had described exactly what the place was, we probably still would have stayed there, particularly with accommodation being so expensive in Amsterdam, but being so vastly different from what was advertised we felt pretty duped.

I contacted their customer service representative to let them know they had some false advertising on their site, and their response was that they would “follow up” and to offer us some credit to use the site again. Later on I responded once again, informed them that I would be writing about what had happened and would like to include a resolution of how they dealt with the situation to maintain the integrity of their site.

Their response was this:

“Hello Harriet,

Thank you for your followup. To ensure user privacy we cannot disclose the activity of another user’s account. However, please know our diverse team is actively working towards educating hosts and incorporating tools to better ensure future reservations go as smoothly as possible.

We appreciate your outreach and feel free to contact us again if you have any questions or concerns.

Warm regards,

Daniel G
www.airbnb.com/help

Translation: ‘we sent them a courtesy email by aren’t actually going to do anything.’ “Dan Miller” is still advertising rooms on Airbnb, and when I clicked on the link from my original reservation, there a photos from another place, and although it now says that guests will be staying on a couch (thank god we weren’t) it still advertises the following:

“The flat is shared with one other tenant (and a very cute cat) and is located in the very center of Amsterdam, just a 5 minute walk to Central Station, and just 10 minutes to the Red Light District.

The apartment is shared with a newly renovated kitchen and a large bathroom with both a bath and shower.

The apartment is equipped with free wifi and a washing machine for all your laundry needs. Very clean fully refurbished apartment located right in the center of Amsterdam. Less than a 5 minute walk to Dam square and Red Light District, it doesn’t get more central than this!
Amsterdam central station is just a 5 minute walk away.”

Luckily we had approached the whole situation with a degree of scepticism anyway, but my advice for anyone in future, if you want cheap accommodation in Amsterdam and don’t care what it is, definitely contact “Dan Miller,” but just as hostels can turn out to be completely horrible, you run a much higher risk of that with a site like Airbnb, as hostels have thousands of people staying at them and providing reviews, where airbnb only has a few. It is definitely worth a look on booking.com for hotel deals, they can often be cheaper than hostels, and work out especially well if there are two of you who have no problem sharing a bed. Airport hotels can also be really cheap and some offer free transport to town. And finally, safety always trumps money! Always a better choice to get outta there and pay a bit extra for a night of accomodation somewhere else rather than regret being stingy while Mick Taylor chops your limbs off.