City Parking Woes

You folks at Gemütlichkeit often sing the praises of traveling by car, especially on the back roads, and I generally agree. But, after returning from a car-based trip to Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria, I would like to offer a note of caution. If you are visiting European cities, do not drive. Take the train; if you are visiting countryside and cities, stay in the suburbs, leave the car there and take the commuter train.

We rented an Opel Vectra at the Frankfurt airport. The rental process itself was exemplary but each time we drove into a city, complications beset us.

Finding the parking lot for Würzburg's Residenz was a snap; figuring out how to get out was not. It was our first experience with the automated parking lots which predominate in the cities. If the lot is large enough, we learned, there was a manned - or womanned - cashier's office where you could pay with some ease. Otherwise, you had better have change. The size of the Residenz's parking lot did not justify a human presence so, in a way, it was a good first lesson. I will relate the steps for readers who may first approach this adventure as ignorantly as I.

  1. Stop at the gate and push the button for a ticket. The machine will hand you a ticket with a magnetic credit card strip on its back. Do not lose that ticket. If robbed, offer your passport first. Crossing borders without papers, especially within the European Union, is far easier than exiting these parking lots without this card.
  2. Before leaving the parking lot, find the payment area, be it man or machine. If machine, examine the machine carefully to see what denominations of money it will accept. The machine may or may not be multilingual - the human lot attendants usually are not - but invariably the coins and bills are also pictured. Don't return without an ample supply of the coins or bills which it will accept and they rarely accept bills. Use your bills to buy cheap postcards at the nearest gift shop to be sure you have enough change.
  3. When ready to leave, go to the machine and insert your ticket magnetic strip up. The amount you owe should light up at eye level and you will be invited to insert coins/bills until the number becomes zero. Then, the machine returns your ticket.
  4. Grasp the ticket securely in your hand - it represents freedom - and return to your car. At the barred exit, you will be invited to insert the ticket. Do so; again, magnetic strip up.

The machine should then accept the ticket and the gate should then lift up, freeing you to enter the mad city traffic.

The reader will probably conclude that if any one of these steps fails you will have a disaster. This conclusion is correct. For example, one morning when leaving Bamberg - a place I did not want to leave in the first place, although the hotel (not a Gemütlichkeit recommendation) was disappointing - I found that I had inserted the ticket into the pay-machine the wrong way. At least, that is what it told me, in German and in English. Then, it told me this again. And again. And again. Of course, there are only four different ways of inserting a ticket.

After a dozen tries, I decided that I, although an Auslander, was not at fault this time. I looked around. There was no way out and there was no human to plead with. I walked around the lot, searching for ways to drive out without paying (you know, by jumping the curb or driving over the sidewalk). The efficient Germans must have expected this, for there was no other way out.

As luck would have it, this parking lot was a half block from the Concert Hall and, although there was no concert at 8am, I did see a man loading a bass drum into the back of a station wagon. I ran over and asked him for help, explaining my plight. We mulled the problem over together without success until he asked, in English, if I was an American. So was he, or at least was twenty years ago. He suggested bypassing the pay-machine and taking the unprocessed ticket directly to the gate. That usually works for him. When it did not work for me, he referred me to someone in the Concert Hall - security, apparently - who required 13 DM ($8) to encode or decode the ticket after I solemnly swore to him that I had parked overnight only. Whatever incantation he intoned over the ticket, it worked and the gate lifted for me.

That day we drove into Karlovy Vary, whose underground lot, hallelujah, had human attendants. Anticipating that his patrons would not know Czech numbers, the cashier had written various combinations of numbers on a card and pointed as needed. However, I found that the "parking lot shuffle" must be a relatively new dance, because, while conversing in sign language with the cashier, I observed several Germans futilely trying to pay at the gate as they tried to leave. They were typical for that day, since, on my way to the car, I was asked by two other Germans whether they had to pay before returning to their cars.

The next stop, Prague, posed a different hazard - the local police. Although assured by the hotel that we could park next to the building so long as we had a hotel sticker and, although the sticker was prominently displayed, the police immobilized the car with a primitive, but effective, "boot." The hotel, the Sidi, was very apologetic and accommodating, but asked if I could just leave the car there until the day we were leaving, because "we can call the police and pay the fine, but they'll just put the shoe back on your car in 12 hours."

This was my third visit to Prague. My first was not long after the 1968 Russian invasion. (Picture, if you can, an empty Charles Bridge, a deserted Old Town Square, no entry to St. Vitus's Cathedral, or any of the other churches, no gift shops, no street musicians, and ghastly, inedible food.) I found that one thing had not changed in Prague from the corrupt, repressive Communist days - the police. In the old days, it was said that the Czech police traveled in groups of three: one to interrogate the arrestee, one to write down the answers, and the third to keep an eye on the two intellectuals. They still travel in threes, but now it is to watch each other so that everyone gets his fair share of the bribe, which is what it took to have the boot removed.

When Hotel Sidi called to have me un-booted, a bullnecked unshaven young thug in blue showed up, named his price (5,000 crowns/$174) and radioed for the boot-remover. (Note, as I did, that I was not directed to some central parking authority to pay a fine and return with a receipt.) His call was overheard by two of his colleagues who arrived to watch him and the car until the boot-remover arrived and freed us. I did not wait around to see how the loot was divided.

Nothing else so melodramatic occurred during the rest of our trip, but invariably parking the car in a city, any city, was dicey, even when I found a legal spot on the street. There is, as you often point out, no substitute for seeing the countryside in a car, but fly or train into the city and rent one there. When you're ready to see the bright lights of München or Wien, find a hotel garni or pension near the commuter rail line and leave the car there. Enjoy the city's vibrance without any car-induced hassles.

Christopher Kelleher,
Bedford NH

Hotel Near Stuttgart

While traveling near Stuttgart we encountered a small hotel which proved to be very satisfactory in all respects. The room was very comfortable and quiet; the staff was very friendly; breakfast was delicious; and the food in the restaurant was outstanding.

The Hotel-Restaurant Kirchner (Leonberger Strasse 14-16, D-71229 Leonberg-EItingen, tel. +49/07152/6063-0, fax 60 63-60) is located in the southeast Stuttgart suburb of Leonberg, just off the A8 Autobahn. It is run by Thomas Figge (Geschftsführer). Mr. Figge spent a few years in the U.S. and speaks very good English. We intended to spend only one night in the Stuttgart area (primarily to visit the Porsche and Daimler-Benz museums), but we were so pleased with our accommodations that we eventually spent three nights there.

Daniel E. Cordray,
Peoria IL

International Driving License

I have been driving to Austria for more than 30 years. During this period I have been stopped by the police for various checks and even a speeding violation.

Recently I was stopped within 500 meters of the Hungarian border in a routine traffic check. The officer wanted to see my car registration papers and my driver's license.

After I produced my Wisconsin license he indicated that I needed an International Driver's License. He advised me that since I had none I had to pay a fine of 500 Austrian schillings ($40). I protested but he said it was the law. We talked a bit and finally he told me that the old fine had been AS 100 ($8) but was increased on January 1, 1998.

You might remind Gemütlichkeit readers that carrying an International Driver's License may be worth the $10 investment.

Ed Raether,
Waukesha WI

October 1998