There was no sign for the hotel on the frontage, just a flashing neon sign which read “24 Hr Spa”. In case that was too subtle, a smaller sign read “men only” and – lest anyone still not get it – pulsating red lights traced the outline of the silhouette of a woman on the door.
I looked again at the email from the booking site, thinking that I had made a mistake, but the street number was right. I looked again at the frontage and this time spotted the word ‘hotel’ – отель – on one of the top-storey windows.
I was stopped at the door by a thick-set, close-cropped man who growled something in threatening Russian.
“Ugh. Hotel on fourth floor.”
It was an old, tall St Petersburg town house with a stone staircase which spiralled up the middle of the building and originally led off to apartments. On the landing of the second floor, there was a life-size cardboard cut-out of a smiling girl holding a sign which offered massages to men on the fourth floor. The fourth? On the third, there was more flashing neon, an arrow and the words “erotic massages for men” in English then Russian then English again. On the fourth, the signs pointed right to a spa and left to a hotel.
I turned left with misgivings, because the name was different from the one I booked and because I have never seen a hotel with a row of girls sitting in a corridor instead of a reception desk. But it was the wrong place anyway. They sent me across the landing to the spa, where there was a girl behind a bit of a desk in a bit of a dress and heels so high she probably had to have lessons in them.
“Reach-ad?” she said.
A girl slinked down the stairs and loitered there until the ‘receptionist’ sent her away.
“This is the hotel?”
“Da,” she said, as if it had not been a stupid question. “This is hotel. I show you room. ”
I followed as she clattered down the corridor past empty rooms with open doors and little inside except king-sized beds. There was one of those in my room, and a table, a kettle, an en suite and air con which, all in all, is a lot more than I am used to these days. Did it really matter, I reflected, if it was a knocking shop on the side, or perhaps more to the point a knocking shop which was a hotel on the side? In any case there was not a lot I could do about it now, except waste money on another hotel and waste time looking for it. So long as the extras were not compulsory.
The location was good, the room was comfortable; and the doorbell chimed throughout the night and the girls walked on the wooden floors in their heels and doors opened and shut and there was noisy braggadocio, hiding nerves, from the clients in reception, but earplugs shut all that out.
Then, on the last night, I was woken at five by hammering at my door and opened it to a burly drunk in late middle age and a vest. I guessed he had got the wrong room, but I slammed the door in his face and locked it again before he could state his business.
And people imagine travel to be glamorous.
© Richard Senior 2015
Image: Massimo Catarinella (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons