Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Toilets and Tubs and Bidets, Oh My!

Get the Lowdown on Bathrooms in Europe

When traveling for the first time, the cultural differences can catch you off guard. If you’ve done your research, you’ve probably heard of the big ones, like differences in tipping customs, for example. But the little things that you never expected to be different can really leave you at a loss. From sinks that are operated with foot pedals to toilets with fancy controls, a trip to the bathroom can be the most unexpected “tourist trap”. Here are some tips to navigating toilets, tubs and showers, and bidets abroad.


Public Toilets
For clarity’s sake let’s define a public toilet as any toilet outside a private home or your hotel room.  Public toilets vary greatly from country to country in Europe. I’ll try to break it down by toilet type, starting with the best and moving to the worst.

Highway Rest Stops
Super-Clean Highway Toilets - https://www.sanifair.de/
These are usually the cleanest facilities you’ll find anywhere.  Normally highway restaurants are spaced every 100 km or so along major four-laned limited-access highways. In France and Italy, you’ll be expected to give a tip or even pay an entrance fee to use these toilets.  The usual cost is fifty euro-cents to one euro per person, so be prepared to have a few euro coins available.  In Germany and Austria, you’ll be expected to pay an “admission” fee of a euro or so to enter the toilet area.  Upon entering you’ll receive a ticket, be sure to keep it because it can be turned in at the cash register in the store or restaurant for a credit against items purchased.

Toilet facilities can vary widely in restaurants and my general rule is to stay out of them if you can.  Most restaurants, especially in towns and cities, are located in century-old buildings which were not originally built with toilets in mind.  Consequently, they have been retrofitted with bathrooms that range from disgusting to adequate. The toilets can be especially lousy in restaurants found in France and Italy where they are usually located in a basement or cellar.  The worst toilets date from the early 20th century and are basically a simple hole in the floor with a foot rest on either side.  Simply step up, aim, go, and drip dry. Others can be a bit more user friendly initially, but flushing can become a problem.  The best solution is to look up for something to pull, look down for some to push, or look around for something to lift up or push down.  Of course there are clean and modern toilets too, but you’ll need no help with those.  Unless it is one of those fully automatic models, in which case you’ll need to move quickly!

In Amsterdam there are public urinals unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  Imagine a pristine canal-side scene: swans floating serenely, bikes cluttering bridges, little boats floating by with couples in love, pastel classical buildings lining the lovely canals, and you’ve got a front row view from the public “pissor”!  These public urinals date back a hundred years to the age of art nouveau and the turn of the 20th century.  I can’t imagine turn-of-the-century gentlemen needing to go so badly that these things just had to be out canal-side, but who knows? 
Keep in mind, this description is for real!  In Amsterdam (and in Brussels too, I’ve been told) there are public urinals for men.  These urinals, known as “pissors” are constructed of thin sheet metal, painted green in color, and divided from the ground up into thirds.  The lower third is uncovered and exposes the subject’s (a.k.a. the pisser’s) legs up to the knee.  The middle third is constructed of thin, but solid sheet metal covering the “pisser” from the knees to the waist.  The final third of the “pissor” is made of sheet metal with small cut-outs in a “plus-sign” design to enable the “pisser” to look out (and the passersby to look in).  What a concept!  Now for you guys, let me explain what’s going on inside—other than peeing that is.  Basically, you walk into this “nautilus” shaped contraption.  Once to the center you encounter a flat piece of steel, on which you are to pee, and below is a simple hole in the ground.  So while you are standing there doing your business, your pee is splashing all over you, but you’ve got a grand view of all of Amsterdam!  There is nothing like it.  Try it once just for the thrill!

self cleaning toilet in FranceAutomated Toilets
These public toilets are usually found in big cities in France or Belgium and cost about a euro to use.  The entire toilet complex is a kiosk which is normally clean and pretty sterile.  Here’s how to use these toilets: look at the control panel beside the door; determine if the toilet is occupied or vacant; once vacant press the button and enter; do your business; exit the toilet kiosk.  Once you exit, the kiosk will go into self-cleaning mode and spray water, cleaner, and disinfectant all over the interior.  Then the entire interior is blown nice and dry.  Once the cleaning cycle is completed, the outside door panel will display that the toilet is ready for another customer.


Bathing is necessary and we tend to take it seriously. I mean, how many of you go more than a day without a bath or shower? Well that’s a whole different story in Europe, where daily bathing has just come into vogue in the past few decades. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood on crowded subways or buses and been stifled by body odor. So… it’s no wonder that not much thought goes into planning European bath and shower facilities.

Today, most newly constructed two-star hotels in Europe have private baths locate en-suite. Most all three-star hotels (old and new) have private baths en-suite.  This simply means that sometime in the past ten years, a hotel owner has taken an already small room with no bath or toilet facilities and added an even smaller room with a sink, toilet and tub or shower. But for American travelers, those en-suite facilities are essential.  So, here is my “run down” on bathing in each country.

I travel in Europe over 100 days a year sleeping in a different hotel, guesthouse or B&B every other night.  It is interesting to note that there is absolutely no standardization in shower and tub water controls.  On a recent tour in Scotland and Wales, my travel partners and I had a laugh each morning when we discussed what type of water controls we encountered the night before.  Twelve nights and twelve totally different faucets and controls!

Just last week I was checking out some hotels in Italy and ran across a bathroom that had a sink and toilet, then on the same level there was a curtain dividing the shower area. Now having the shower on the same level as the rest of the room is common for Italy. I often laugh because in an Italian bathroom, it is possible to use the toilet, brush your teeth, and take a shower all at the same time. Well this particular “shower area” had a bidet sticking precariously out from underneath the shower curtain too. Talk about multitasking!

Bathrooms are generally small in France.  As with Italy, many of the hotels have retro-fitted bathrooms into already small bedrooms.  Most often you’ll find a shower, sink, toilet and bidet.  Newer hotels come equipped with modern showers and sometimes even tubs.

Think of Italy without bidets.

Germany and Austria
Bidets are not common here and you’ll also find a better selection of tubs.  In many of the larger cities that were destroyed during WWII, you’ll find relatively new and modern hotels featuring bathrooms similar to those back home.

Like France, many of the UK’s hotels are older properties dating from a time when en-suite baths were not common.  You’ll find city center hotels similar to those in France.  The UK is loaded with B&B’s.  These are often private homes located in rural areas that the owners have opened to rent out a room and serve breakfast.  These offer a great value and usually come with up-to-date bath facilities.  Although it is still common to find “bathrooms-down-the-hall” in B&B’s, it is usually well publicized so you won’t be caught off guard.

Here you’ll find mostly up-to-date hotels and B&B’s.  Yes, there are exception, so be sure to look at the sales literature or website before booking.

Now certainly there are exceptions to every rule.  Every country mentioned sports fancy four- and five-star hotels with huge rooms, marbled baths and air conditioning.  You’ll pay extra for this style, but for some it is worth it. 


Most of us Americans get a kick out of an encounter with a bidet.  To many, it’s often intriguing, entertaining, funny, or even sexy in an odd sort of way.  But in many parts of the world, it’s a normal fixture in the bathroom.  In French, bidet comes from the word for “pony.”  How appropriate, because you ride a bidet much like you would a pony.  That is… straddling it.
I take a lot of Americans around Europe and believe me, I’ve heard lots of “bidet” stories.  Here are some ways in which my tour members have utilized the bidets in their hotel rooms:

·         a foot washer
·         a water fountain
·         a urinal
·         a place to shave one’s legs
·         an object for “truth or dare”
·         a replacement for bathing
·         a laundry
·         a dishwasher
·         a cooler for beer

Bidets originated in France several centuries ago as a means to wash after using the toilet, after having sex, or even after a day at the office.  In short, its purpose is to maintain clean personal hygiene without taking a full shower or bath.  So, now you know why lots of Europeans think they are clean when their pits smell to high heaven!

Here’s how to use a bidet:
1.      Test the water controls before getting on!  Some bidets have high pressure jets that squirt up to the ceiling if turned fully on.  Others have a faucet similar to a sink.  Some have hot and cold water valves while others have just one water valve.  The point here is to SLOWLY test out all the knobs, valves, and controls before getting on.
2.      If you are wearing pants, you have got to take them off!  Otherwise hike up your skirt or dress. Then straddle the bidet, facing the wall, so you’ll have full control of the knobs, controls, and valves.  Then, by positioning yourself and the faucet, direct the water to the area you want to clean.  It’s ok to use soap and your hands.  Some people prefer to face away from the wall and manipulate the controls in a contorted manner.  I ran across this hilarious video on YouTube that shows you how to do it from a Spaniard’s perspective.  Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cunTYbi9yM
3.      Once finished, use toilet paper to dry off.  The towels hanging by the bidet are to dry off your hands after the whole procedure.  Don’t stick the towels down there to dry off, or you’ll hear it from the maids the next morning!

My Toilet Story

I was at a restaurant along the Autostrade in Italy where we’d made a stop for lunch.  These restaurants are located conveniently every fifty kilometers or so along the major highways in Europe. They have great food, either from a buffet or from a selection of fresh-made sandwiches, and they offer clean bathrooms.  When making a tour bus stop, the first thing everyone does is rush off the bus and head to the bathroom.  These restaurants (branded as Autogrill) usually have the bathrooms downstairs which are maintained by a female attendant who keeps the bathrooms sort of spotlessly clean.  This “cleanliness” usually comes with a compulsory fee of fifty to eighty euro cents per visit to the toilet, but it’s a small price to pay for a clean toilet! 
Well, this particular day, the restrooms were booming with business and the lady attendant was having a tough time keeping up with collecting her “tip” and keeping the bathrooms clean. So when I went downstairs and deposited my change in her dish, I noticed the ladies’ line for the toilet was about twenty deep.  There was no wait for the men’s room, which I guess you ladies will say is typical. 
I walked in the men’s room and headed for the urinal which was just a ceramic tiled trough against the wall.  It was “backed up” with guys “going” so I did have to wait here!  While waiting, there was a commotion in the hallway.  Women were speaking loudly in rapid-fire Italian. only some of which I could understand.  But the general tone and message was, “We’re not waiting out here any more, let’s overtake the men’s room!”  Moments later, the men’s room was invaded by several Italian women looking for an open stall.  Well I had to go, and now it was my turn!  So up I stepped, down with the zipper, and …uhmm you get it, right?  OK, now I was ready to go, but all the confusion behind me had caused a momentary “blockage.” So there I stood doing nothing!  Concentrating real hard and focusing on the wall right in front of me, I began to go… relief!  Then to my horror, I felt something hitting my shoes.  Had I missed?
Looking down I saw a grey mop being swished back and forth between my feet, and behind me holding the handle was the lady attendant going about her business of keeping the toilets tidy!


I hope this article has given you the confidence to boldly face the bathrooms in Europe. Just remember, public toilets vary in quality. Your best bet is a highway rest stop or a fully automated toilet on the street. The more modern your hotel, the more likely you will encounter the bathing facilities you are used to in the US. Be sure to check the website before booking to ensure your hotel or B&B has private bathrooms. In some countries, the bathroom will also have a bidet, which is meant for cleaning your nether regions.

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Do you want to learn more about painted sheep and traveling to Europe? There is a wealth of information and special discount pricing on my tours at http://davidmcguffin.com/.

David McGuffin is Founder and CEO of David McGuffin’s Exploring Europe, Inc., based in Middleburg, Florida. You can connect with him on TwitterFacebookGoogle+, LinkedIn and YouTube. David spends his time in Europe organizing and leading small group and independent tours to European destinations. In business since 2001, David has provided exceptional travel opportunities to several thousand satisfied customers. You can find out more about David and his European tours at his website, http://davidmcguffin.com.


  1. If you think Euro toilets are confusing, you should try Japanese toilets. You practically need anb engineering degree to figure them out and forget about reading the instructions.

  2. If you think Euro toilets are confusing, you should try Japanese toilets. You practically need anb engineering degree to figure them out and forget about reading the instructions.


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