European bathrooms can be quirky by American standards. Your hotel's WC may come with luxurious heated towel racks — or a rattling fan and leaky sink. Just keep an open mind, and remember that nothing beats a good bathroom story when you get home. No matter what, my advice is to wash up quickly and get out and about in the place you came to enjoy.
First, don't expect big spaces. Over the years, hotel owners have carved out chunks of elegant bedrooms to shoehorn in prefab private bathrooms — and they can be very tight. Counter space is often limited, and showers can be surprisingly tight, especially if you're a larger person. Be careful bending over to pick up a dropped bar of soap — you might just hit your head on the toilet or sink.
Even in top-end hotels, I find some things poorly designed. Once, I used a particularly narrow shower stall with the hot/cold lever directly in the center. If I nudged it accidently while washing, it would either scald or freeze me. And even worse, there was no place to put soap but on the floor or balancing precariously atop the sliding door. In Montenegro, I stayed at a trendy hotel on the Bay of Kotor. My bathroom was far bigger than many entire hotel rooms — but the toilet was jammed in the corner. I had to tuck up my knees to fit between it and the sink cabinet. The room was dominated by a Jacuzzi tub for two. I'm certain there wasn't enough hot water available to fill it. I doubt it will ever be used, except for something to admire as you're crunched up on the toilet.
In some bathrooms, you may see a mysterious porcelain thing that looks like an oversized bedpan. That's a bidet. Tourists who aren't in the know use them as anything from a launderette to a vomitorium to a watermelon-rind receptacle to a urinal. Locals use them in lieu of a shower to clean the parts of the body that rub together when they walk. Go ahead and give it a try. Just remember the four S's — straddle, squat, soap up, and swish off.
When traveling in Europe, you may need to lower your towel expectations. Like breakfast and people, towels get smaller as you go south. In simple places, bath towels are not replaced every day, so hang them up to dry and reuse. This is also catching on with bigger hotels — even fancy ones — which, in an effort to be eco-friendly, post a sign explaining that they'll replace towels left on the floor, but not those that are hanging to dry. In my experience, pricey hotels rarely stay true to this promise; your towels will probably be replaced no matter where you leave them. On the other end of the spectrum, dorm-style accommodations don't provide towels or soap at all, so you'll have to B.Y.O. Also, most European hotels don't supply washcloths. If a washcloth is part of your bath ritual, pack a quick-drying one in your suitcase.
Americans are notorious (and embarrassing) energy gluttons — wasting hot water and leaving lights on as if electricity were cheap. Who besides us sings in the shower? European energy costs are shocking, so many accommodations try to conserve where they can.
Most of the cold showers Americans take in Europe are cold only because they don't know how to turn the hot water on. You'll find showers and baths of all kinds. The red knob is hot and the blue one is cold — or vice versa. Unusual showers often have clear instructions posted. Study the particular system, and before you shiver, ask the receptionist for help.
There are some very peculiar tricks. For instance, in Italy and Spain, "C" is for caldo/caliente — hot. In Croatia, look for the switch with an icon of a hot-water tank (usually next to the room's light switch). The British "dial-a-shower" features an electronic box under the showerhead — turn the dial to select how hot you want the water and to turn on or shut off the flow of water (this is sometimes done with a separate dial or button). If you can't find the switch to turn on the shower, it may be just outside the bathroom.
No matter where you are in Europe, get used to taking shorter showers. Some places, especially modest accommodations, furnish their bathrooms with little-bitty water heaters that are much smaller than the one in your basement. After five minutes, you may find your hot shower turning very cold.
In Europe, handheld showers are common. Sometimes the showerhead is sitting loose in a caddy; other times it's mounted low on the tub. Not only do you have to master the art of lathering up with one hand while holding the showerhead in the other, but you also have to keep it aimed at your body or the wall to avoid spraying water all over the bathroom. To avoid flooding the room, you may find it easier to just sit in the tub and shower that way.
Hostels and budget hotels can offer interesting shower experiences. In some places, the line between shower and bathroom is nonexistent, and there's no shower curtain. The water simply slides into a drain in the middle of the bathroom.
A few hostels and budget hotels actually have coin-operated showers. If you run into one of these, it's a good idea to have an extra token handy to avoid that lathered look. A "navy shower," using the water only to soap up and rinse off, is a wonderfully conservative method, and those who follow you will more likely enjoy some warm Wasser (although starting and stopping the water doesn't start and stop the meter).
The cord that dangles over the tub or shower in many hotels is not a clothesline; only pull it if you've fallen and can't get up. (But if the cord hangs outside the tub or shower, it probably controls the light — good luck with this.)
The cheapest hotels often feature a shared toilet and shower "down the hall." To bathoholics, this sounds terrible. Imagine the congestion in the morning when the entire floor tries to pile into that bathtub! Remember, only Americans "need" a shower every morning. Few Americans stay in these basic hotels; therefore, you've got what amounts to a private bath — down the hall.
Over the years, I've observed that even the simplest places have added lots of private showers. For example, a hotel originally designed with 20 simple rooms sharing two showers may now have been remodeled with private showers in 14 of its rooms. That leaves a more reasonable six rooms rather than 20 to share the two public showers. Those willing to go down the hall for a shower enjoy the same substantial savings with much less inconvenience.
Finding Places to Shower
If you are vagabonding or spending several nights in transit, you can buy a shower in "day hotels" at major train stations and airports, at many freeway rest stops, and in public baths or swimming pools. Most Mediterranean beaches have free, freshwater showers all the time. I have a theory that after four days without a shower, you don't get any worse...but that's another article.