Check in for romance

For Valentine's Day, how about a night or two in a love hotel? MICHAEL BLEBY checks out some popular spots in Europe

Hotels the world over have long provided a way for people to meet for discreet liaisons, but in Europe, which gave the world D.H. Lawrence, Lady of the Camellias and the waltz, a select group specialises in it.

They aren't sleazy joints, but respectable, sometimes long-standing, establishments where couples go to find privacy and intimacy. And just as guests and their tastes vary, so do the services on offer.

Brighton, the seaside town an hour from London, has since Victorian times been a place where couples sneak away for a weekend of privacy. The town's freedom-loving spirit may also explain why it has become Britain's clubbing and gay capital, as well as being home to a thriving artistic community.

The Pelirocco is a hotel which capitalises on the town's saucy heritage and markets it with full 21st-century brazenness. No-Sex-Please-We're-British is a mindframe unknown here. The receptionist Katie spells it out: "We all know people come to hotels to have sex. This capitalises on it and gives them a fun way to do it."

There are 19 different rooms, each offering a different way to do it, it seems. Lenny Beige's Love Palace has a fake leopard-skin rug on the floor, fake animal skin bedspread and light brown carpet.

Instead of a Gideon's Bible in the bedside table lies a worn 1986 copy of the Joy of Sex.

Betty's Boudoir is dedicated to a pin-up star and Playboy magazine's January 1955 centrefold. As a young girl, Betty Page from Nashville, Tennessee, dreamed of being a Broadway star, but became a pin-up girl instead. In the room dedicated to her, aspiring starlets can undress behind a screen in the bedroom, and aspiring voyeurs can make use of a peephole cut into the bathroom door.

Owner Jane Slater comes from a public relations background and has created rooms that are sponsored and branded. Pussy, a local interior design store, designed a room with plastic lounges, pink walls and gleaming chrome surfaces. The most popular room, Slater says, is the O2 Suite, sponsored by a mobile phone company, that contains a 2.4m round bed with matching round mirror on the ceiling. The green-tiled bathroom has two side-by-side shower heads.

Despite its slick themes and bold humour, the Pelirocco is unmistakably still a British bed-and-breakfast and there are many delightful reminders of that. To get to the hotel's fourth floor, you can take the lift, or climb a steep, winding staircase covered in thick grey carpet, more reminiscent of a home with comfortable dressing gown and slippers than nights away with pure, unbridled passion.

At the top of the staircase is Room 18, the Nookii Room. A sign offering peep-shows, black satin bedspread and bed railings with shackles all suggest a wild stay. This kinky image is dealt a blow, however, by the bathroom that has no bath, just a shower, and a spare blanket in its sensible plastic cover in a rack next to the bed. (In case guests get cold during the night.) Would-be Casanovas can also take a break from their labours to boil a cuppa using the traditional kettle and tea cups that are thoughtfully placed in each room, along with sachets of Fair Trade tea and coffee.

Because of its proximity to London, the Pelirocco has a wide range of clientele, from couples who come for pure romance, to DJs visiting the local clubs, to heavily tattooed French businessmen in town buying jewellery to resell across the Channel. As with any B&B, all guests troop downstairs for their cooked breakfast (vegetarian option available) in the dining room. If you want privacy, however, or if you want to continue the romantic adventure, you can pay extra and have a Champagne or Bloody Mary breakfast delivered to your room.

IF the British take on a love hotel is upfront, the French approach is more subtle. Paris boasts the Louvre Museum, National Opera building and Eiffel Tower. It deserves its title of the world's most romantic city, however, for the experiences it offers visitors who look beyond the obvious.

A pleasure to stay in is the El Dorado Hotel, tucked away in the 17th Arrondissement, a quiet area to the west of the Sacre Coeur basilica, and off most tourist maps. Here, the 33 rooms with warm colours and images of distant lands encourage guests to create their own romantic setting.

There has been a hotel at 18, Rue des Dames for about 50 years but it was only when Anne Gratacos became manager in 1995, that the hotel took on its present form. Gratacos, a traveller herself, was dismayed by the poor state of cheap hotels, and set out to create a hotel that offered comfort and pleasure to people on smaller budgets.

The hotel with quiet courtyard lent itself happily to the transformation. The most popular rooms have round, satin cushions for lounging, inspired by visits to northern Africa.

In keeping with the spirit of subtlety, artworks dotted around the hotel's passageways recall stars of last century's dancing club culture. One of these is Josephine Baker, a black American who wowed dance theatre-audiences in 1920s Paris, worked for the wartime French Resistance and received as many as 1500 marriage proposals.

People make what they want of the hotel. With prices starting as low as €25 ($46) for a single room, and other rooms with a single bed as well as a double, it can be a welcome cheap place to stay for travellers or families. A travelling American wrote in the hotel's guest book that staying there made him feel sophisticated.

The hotel, of course, stirs plenty of people to romantic liaisons as well. Many come for lunch in the hotel's cosy cellar restaurant and check into a room for the afternoon, Gratacos says.

The low-key approach works. One "middle-aged married couple" testified in the guest book to the hotel's healing powers on their love life.

THE Parisian approach to love hotels is free and easy. Further east, in Vienna, however, things are more traditional. This is no surprise in the city that for hundreds of years was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Hotel Orient is a venerable establishment, around the corner from Stephansplatz. It began as a love hotel in 1896, originating in the same century as the waltz.

The hotel, of which Orson Welles was once a regular guest, is a tradition in a Viennese society governed by strict rules and a serious sense of Roman Catholicism. In a country where shops are prohibited from trading on a Sunday, the Orient is open for business 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

In this city, discreet liaisons between consenting adults are almost as established a tradition as coffee for breakfast. There is no registration and no names are taken. Guests rent rooms for three hours and no more. Overnight accommodation isn't available.

"We are living from discretion," says Markus, the thin-looking receptionist. "We have people coming for three hours, staying and leaving."

The building started life as a tavern in the 17th century. While styles and fantasies vary, tastes are conservative. Guests can choose from the Kaiser Suite, with bed enclosed in a red-velvet-curtained canopy, the floral-patterned Maiden Room, or the Mona Lisa room, which bizarrely has a dressmaker's mannequin standing in one corner.

All this fantasy is hidden behind a thick veneer of discretion, necessary for the politicians rumoured by locals to patronise the hotel. Its cream exterior gives nothing away. Double doors in the entrance make it impossible to see in from the street, guarding its guests, and their time inside the hotel, from the world outside.

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