Camaraderie, midnight raids on friends and colleagues, the clubhouse feeling: those who have stayed in a youth hostel as a kid have many of the same memories. But the other side of hostel life is rarely seen by guests.
Cologne's refurbished youth hostel is the biggest in the country
Generations of German school children know who provides the best and cheapest lodgings in the land and where you can get a bed in a large dormitory and a hot meal in a large dining room. After years of school trips, many know that when you need reasonably priced and friendly accommodation anywhere in the country, you head for the youth hostel.
One of Germany's biggest youth hostel is situated in Cologne. It is a gigantic building: seven floors high and equipped with 500 beds, it served over 130,000 travelers last year. On any single day, as many as several hundred guests come through its doors in the form of individual backpackers, school visits or tourist groups.
The technology explosion has helped youth hostels expand their reach: Most of those, who come to the Cologne hostel book online. The computer system has become a necessary part of modern hostel life. As well as making booking rooms easier, the data is stored at the hostel to help make sure everyone's special needs are catered for and that the chef knows how much food to make that day.
Feeding the several hundred
As a result of the increased popularity of the hostel, the kitchen has also grown in size. Everything is big at the Cologne hostel; massive pots bubble with delicious smelling sauces, huge slabs of meat steam on the carving boards, ready to be served. Managing such a large kitchen and turnover of clients is no mean feat.
"If you want to cook, for example, 40 kilos (about 88 pounds) of roast pork, you cannot do it in the oven," says the chef. "You have to cook it up in manageable chunks."
Serving at Germany's largest youth hostel is akin to working on an assembly line, says the chef.
"In the evening, there are, as a rule, between 350 and 400 people sitting down for food," he said. "Lunchtime is a little less busy because the groups are normally on the move then. However, there are still between 100 and 150 meals to prepare."
Time is of the essence when it comes to cleaning
Cleaning the rooms must be done quickly and efficiently
The kitchen is not the only area of the hostel which has to deal efficiently with the massive flux of people. The cleaning crew has to be on their toes to get rooms cleaned and ready for the next visitor, someone who might arrive at any moment. The cleaning has to be precise and to the minute.
"I think that it is normally 10 to 15 minutes a room," said one cleaner.
Ten minutes for each of the 160 rooms means a busy day, especially when each room contains at least four beds to change. Efficiency is the magic word when it comes to cleaning.
Reception acts as information hub
While the rooms are being cleaned and the kitchen buzzes with cooking, which would make an army detail look slack, the reception deals with the customers, who come to eat and sleep. It's not all checking in or checking out either. The receptionists have to act as tour guides, advisors and the finder of lost phones and cuddly toys.
Receptionists perform a number of roles at the hostel
"Every day we are asked to locate at least three or four things," said the duty receptionist. "We have a huge cellar room full of lost items waiting to be reclaimed."
Behind the scenes are the storerooms where mountains of cheese, lakes of milk and tons of meat are stored along with immeasurable amounts of fruit and vegetables. Each single item of food is stringently tested daily to make sure it is suitable for consumption. Every week everything is replaced.
The biggest youth hostel in Germany is a logistics miracle. This is the lesser known side of the cozy school trip romanticism, which many German pupils remember.