Ljubljana, Slovenia - Who'd have thought that a dark and dingy former Communist prison could start a revolution in budget travel accommodation? Creative, stylish and utterly original, the one-year-old Hostel Celica (pronounced cell-eetz-a) in Ljubljana changes all perceptions, raises all standards and creates a benchmark that will be difficult to match elsewhere.
The abandoned prison, built in 1882 and used by both the Nazis and Communists to lock up some of Slovenia's best and brightest, is now a "space of freedom," according to Ira Zorko, the architect behind the project.
The hostel took 10 years to complete, and local and international artists and architects worked for several years without payment, for love of the concept.
Each one of the 20 first-floor rooms has been designed by a different artist or architect according to his or her own artistic vision, their only limitation the 10-by-8-foot cell dimensions. Shared washroom facilities on this floor have been designed for both practicality and aesthetic appeal.
The second floor consists of shared family or dormitory rooms for four with a washroom in each and a communal kitchen.
The night of our arrival, my father gets to the room early. When I arrive later in the evening, I'm stunned to find the room empty - no television, no beds, no Dad, just a small table and two matching closets. Then I glance up to find two beds suspended more than 8 feet in the air - my father, of course, tucked into one of them.
The decor in the cells ranges from busy to - in my father 's words - "extremely focused," in other words utilitarian. Some highlights include Cell 119, with suspended beds, blond wood furniture and a glass floor under which armies of clay soldiers battle.
Cell 114, designed by a Turkish-Danish artist, has colourful photos of all the world's most spectacular destinations. A stairway leads up to the beds, which are connected by a glass bridge.
Another window has been added to all the cells after former prisoners told the artists that one of their difficulties during incarceration was the lack of light and an inability to see the horizon.
Several rooms have been designated as public exhibit spaces for local artists. There is also a prayer or meditation room where several relics and icons represent the world's major religions, plus a small empty space for the undecided.
Even the bar has artistic significance: sculptures, photos, Philippe Starck chairs and a stone floor that is said to correspond to the stars. There is even a great outdoor patio surrounded by prison walls, where locals and artists sip designer drinks and take advantage of the hostel's many musical evenings.
On my last day, I bump into the architect giving a tour for his friends. "The bar," he explains, "is divided in two. The western half is more Western, more European. The eastern half is more Oriental: shoes off, floor seating, etc. All cultures are represented here." However, sheeshah water pipes are available in both halves.
The same attention is given to the hallways. The first floor's hall is convex, "like a Roman road, which leads people to their rooms on the next floor." The second (sleeping) floor's is concave, "giving privacy to the rooms by keeping walkers in the centre of the hall."
When I visit, the "dungeon" is still under construction, a fresco in progress.
Although Celica accommodates all age groups, high-end clientele should look elsewhere. The rooms have no televisions, telephones or other luxuries; only one has disabled facilities.
If you're looking for someplace unique, check out www.souhostel.si.