Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Night moves in the city of sisterly love

A brightly decorated young lady was reclining on a sofa in the window of the La Bada exotic club. When she hammered on the glass to get my attention, I wondered three things: how sad her circumstances must be; how unwise it was to walk through Vienna's red-light district at midnight; and how I had got myself in the position of declining offers from prostitutes when all I was searching for was an (empty) bed for the night.

You may be familiar with the concept of the "sister hotel". When a particularly popular place is full, prospective guests are "switch-sold": offered a room in a nearby property, which the proprietor may also owns. Last Saturday, I discovered the "distant relation hostel".

After a journey blighted by winter's opening salvo, I had arrived at the West railway terminus in Austria's capital much later than planned. Promising "pretty rooms, no curfew, kitchen and fridge", the nearby Do Step Inn sounded just right.

By the time I rang the bell and Did Step Inn, it was 11pm. The manager, Brigitte, welcomed me with a smile and the news that the hostel was full - but there was a bed at the sister hostel. Terrific, I'll take it.

Sibling accommodation, in my experience, is usually around the corner. But Brigitte produced a map and began to give complicated instructions for a cross-city expedition involving a walk, an underground ride, a tram journey and another hike. It was the London equivalent of making a late-night journey from Clapham to Cricklewood.

My heart sank. But rather than search for another hostel as the lights went out all over Vienna (except in the red-light district), I was prepared to defer the gratification of sleep. And the rate was a modest €29 (£21) a night.

Our negotiations were taking place not at the usual reception desk, but in what appeared to be the living room of a family apartment, complete with a large leather sofa left over from the 1970s. As I reached for my wallet to pay the bill, Brigitte asked: "Would you like a drink?"

A hostel manager offering alcohol to someone not even staying on the premises is a first for me. But with the clock ticking and my eyelids drooping, I knew the correct answer was "nein, danke".

TEN MINUTES later, Brigitte poured us another large peach schnapps. Knocking the stuff back in one go was the only way to tackle it, she insisted. By now, she was interrogating me about a part of the world she was keen to visit: the Isles of Scilly (which she sweetly insisted on pronouncing with a hard "c"). I could cope with explaining the trip by train and ship or helicopter, but when she demanded an assessment of the relative merits of islands of Tresco and Bryher, I changed the subject.

That leather sofa was looking rather welcoming. Might, I wondered, the €29 just about cover a night curled up on it?

"It's taken," she smiled.

Scilly me, I unwisely attempted to joke. It was time to go. Kindly but inexplicably, she awarded me a €2 discount on the room and sent me on my way.

ABOUT THE last thing I felt like was a sub-zero suburban skirmish with the U-bahn, the trams and the ladies of the night (though I must say I liked the look of the sofa in the window of La Bada).

When I finally tracked down the apartment block, the next hurdle was to remember the instructions for finding the light switches and using the three keys Brigitte had given me. A sequence that had seemed logical and manageable before the second schnapps now became an intellectual challenge to rival cracking the Enigma code. Six combinations later, I found my way into a room with the unlived-in look of an Ikea showroom (presumably few other travellers had made the journey). But Angelo, a jolly Italian, had found it - as, unfortunately, had his very well-travelled shoes, evoking the aroma of an Egyptian camel stable at daybreak. Never mind Do Step Inn; they were so pungent I thought they might Step Out on their own in search of sole mates. No more schnapps for me.

Do Step Inn, Vienna: 00 43 1 923 2769

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