Back to Basics

Earlier this month we returned from two weeks in you-know-where. For the first time in several years we decided to "wing it;" no reservations (except for the last three nights in Berlin) and no itinerary. In fact, we chose our first night's destination during the last hour of our San Francisco to Zürich Swissair flight.

Back in the 70s and mid-80s, before there was a Gemütlichkeit and trips began to entail note-taking, appointments and checklists, this was standard operating procedure. We'd usually have some vague idea of what ground we wanted to cover, but only reserved hotels in the major cities, booking those no more than 24 hours in advance. When we found a town or a hotel we really liked we'd simply extend our visit a day or two.

This time, in Germany's Hunsrück region, we found a terrific little hotel hidden away in the countryside which we decided to use as a headquarters for automobile day-trips to the Mosel and Rhine valleys. What a luxurious feeling of freedom to be able to decide one evening at dinner to stay an extra night.

This trip made us realize all over again how liberating it is to travel without a schedule. It can be done by train, but it is the automobile that provides absolute freedom and flexibility. This time we did both.

You won't feel so free and flexible, however, if you plan on spending a lot of time in big cities. A Salzburg-Munich-Nürnberg itinerary, for example, is not very car friendly. In each city you have the difficulty of driving in and out of the town center and the expense and inconvenience of parking.

One of the keys to this "free and easy" concept is to keep to the countryside. For this, the car is much better suited than the train. Pull into a small town in the afternoon and if you don't like what you see, or can't find a hotel to your liking, drive on to another town.

Using the Michelin Green Guide, we chose the Swiss town of Einsiedeln for our first night off the plane in Switzerland. We had rail passes and the trip from the airport is about 75 minutes with one change. The hotel we picked from the Switzerland Michelin Red Guide, however, had a new phone number and when we called to book a room we got a recording we couldn't quite decipher. We decided to go on to the town, anyway, and let the chips fall where they might. There were other hotels in Einsiedeln.

It all ended well. Arriving in the early evening at the rail station, we obtained the hotel's new phone number. They had a room and were, according to the woman who answered the phone, only four minutes walk from the station. Four minutes maybe for Carl Lewis. For us, with luggage, in sticky 85-degree heat, it turned out to be more like 10 minutes mostly uphill. But the hotel was fine and dinner that night extraordinary. You'll be hearing more about the Hotel Linde, its restaurant, and the town of Einsiedeln in a later issue.

(As train travelers, we would have at the very least been inconvenienced had the hotel not been open or been fully booked. Our options at that point - 7:30pm - would have been to find another hotel in the town or get back on the train.)

But this footloose style of travel is easier by car and two essential tools are needed : good maps and a reference for hotels.

Our hotel reference of choice is the Michelin Red Guide. Frommer's and Fodor's guides and their ilk simply don't cover the deep countryside. The Karen Brown books are reliable but most of the approximately 140 hotels listed in her Germany book can found in the Michelin Red Guide for Germany (look for the hotels whose symbols are in red), along with about 10,000 others. Use her book for Austria, a country for which there is no Red Guide.

Another useful book available only in Europe is Der grosse Restaurant & Hotel Guide 1999. At 1500-plus pages this guide rates approximately 5,000 establishments in Austria, Germany and Switzerland'. The text is in German but English-only travelers will still find it helpful. Using a system of symbols, it imparts the same type information as Michelin's Red Guides except it has the advantage of including Austria and you get all three countries in one volume. Another advantage over Michelin is that the distance to the nearest rail station is noted for each hotel and restaurant. Unfortunately, most of the listed restaurants are in the fancy-expensive category. We paid 48 DM ($25) for the book at Hugendubl in Berlin and saw it in other bookstores as well.

Another way to find a hotel is through the local tourist office. Make it the first stop when you arrive in town, explain the kind of accommodations you seek and in many cases they'll make the booking for you.

The $33 Vacation

As you know, most of Germany, and large portions of Austria and Switzerland, are archipelagos of villages and hamlets connected by complex networks of roads. You can get from here to there by a variety of routes. Don't even think of trying to navigate such roads with anything less than 1:200,000 scale maps. Michelin's series of 1:400,000 scale maps for Germany is good for an overview of the regions they cover, and are o.k. if you stay on the Autobahn and the major federal roads, but they simply don't have enough detail for backroads travel.

The ADAC Maxi-Atlas for Germany is the ultimate map for this sort of travel. At first, because of its size (11.5 inches wide, 15.5 inches high and 3/4 inches thick) we were skeptical about hauling it to Europe and back. But it proved so useful and handy we will never again drive Germany's highways without it. In the past we relied on the individual ADAC Karte (1:150,000 scale) and the Mairs Die General Karte (1:200,000 scale). Of the former, it takes 24 maps for the whole of Germany and a dozen of the Mairs maps to cover the entire country. If you don't know in advance where you're going, which ones do you take along on the trip? In the past we often ended up buying new maps along the way, thus duplicating what we already had at home. The Maxi-Atlas, on the other hand, covers the entire country at a heavy-on-the-detail 1:150,000 scale. At $32.95 it is a terrific value. If you wait to buy the book in Germany, you'll even save a few dollars. I call it the "$33 vacation" because, with the wealth of information provided, its special markings for interesting towns, and the scenic roads edged in green, it is a kind of travel guide in itself - one that can direct you over Germany's most beautiful backroads to pretty, historic towns that aren't even mentioned in guidebooks.

Using the Maxi Atlas, we explored some of the narrowest, more remote tracks in the former East Germany in the area between Bayreuth and Quedlinburg. In three days of driving we went through dozens, perhaps hundreds of towns. We got lost (even with the Maxi-Atlas); saw farmers still using draught horses to pull wagons and farm implements, and came upon odd, decaying little villages that look as though it could be 50 years before they catch up to their counterparts in the west. We stopped to explore charming half-timbered, recently-resurrected walled towns unknown to most guidebooks. We saw little traffic and almost no tourists.

All the way, the Maxi Atlas was our lifeline. Wife/Navigator Liz used a large metal clip when she had to flip between two pages at once. She also marked our progress with a yellow highlighter pen to provide a record of our exact route.

Last month we said there is no travel experience quite like riding a European train. Still true, but there is also nothing quite like puttering down a quiet European country road wondering what's just over the hill or what we'll find in that little town just two kilometers up ahead. Until the time - not too long from now - when all cars are equipped with GPS (Global Positioning System), the Maxi-Atlas for Germany is a fantastic, liberating travel tool.

Trip Notes

* Public telephones in Switzerland no longer accept coins. Instead, get a phone card available at rail stations and many stores or, from certain locations, use a credit card.

* Second-class travel on German ICE trains is very much first-class. If only Amtrak could offer such quiet, comfortable, beautifully air-conditioned cars.

* Regional and local trains in Germany, however, are often not air-conditioned.

* Cologne needs (and is getting) a new rail station, but for now it's a mess; too many people, too little space.

* There is a car rental war in Germany. Via upgrade, you can now rent a Mercedes Benz C180 for about $130 per week before taxes, the best price I've ever seen. The Opel Vectra, a similar sized car, is less than $100 via upgrade. When pre-war pricing returns - about $130 for the Vectra and $260 for the Mercedes - keep in mind the Vectra is a much better deal.

* I would not, in my wildest dreams, try to fit six or seven people in the 7-passenger vans for rent in Europe. Nor would I attempt 7, 8 or 9 person in a 9-passenger van.

* If possible, drive in and out of major cities on a Sunday or holiday, usually there's much less traffic.

* Duty-free shopping in the EU ends July 1. Ho hum.

* Not having been there for a few years, we made a two-hour stop in Nürnberg to take a fast walk around the Zentrum. It was a holiday and our old favorite, the Bratwurst-Häusle, was closed so we tried nearby Bratwurst-Röslein. It has a big main room with scrubbed-wood tabletops and servers dressed in Trachtenmode. (traditional dress) that are almost too-friendly. We wandered into a cozy, paneled side room and ordered the house speciality, six each of the marvelous, not-too-greasy, Bratwurst with terrific fresh horseradish and potato salad. Price: 9.8 DM ($5.21). Half liters of smooth, delicious Tucher Helles cost 4.55 DM ($2.42). For 22 DM ($12) one can feast on pork shank, Bratwurst, duck, two kinds of Kraut, and two kinds of dumplings. Bratwurst-Röslein is hereby recommended. RHB

June 1999