Trip Notes

Earlier this month we returned from another visit to Germany, Austria and Switzerland, with even a side trip to the Czech Republic.

We enjoy traveling in the off-season because of the lack of tourists and because prices are often lower. For example:

* As you will read in this month's lead story about Schloss Haunsperg, we and another couple traveling with us, were the only guests in the hotel.

* Salzburg, in the first two or three days after Easter, was as deserted as I've ever seen it; meaning the Getreidegasse looked like a normal busy street instead of its usual summertime impersonation of St. Peters Square greeting a new Pope.

* Arriving after 7:00 p.m. at the Ramada Hotelin Freising near the Munich Airport, we were given a room for 235 DM ($138) instead of the rack rate of 355 DM ($209) and also upgraded to a "junior" suite. Though it turned out to be just an oversize double and we had to ask for both discount and upgrade, such concessions are still a sign of the season.

Here are a few more random impressions and comments relating to the trip:

"Last Night" Hotel

I wish I had a crackerjack hotel near the Munich Airport to recommend but, alas, I do not. Unfortunately, the previously-mentioned Ramada (tel. 08161/9660, fax 08161/966281) is a charmless, modern, U.S.-style, airport hotel. And, at the rack rate price plus a 25 DM ($15) gouge for breakfast its poor value. Even at the discount we were given (no doubt because it was late in the evening and there were many empty rooms) it's hardly a bargain. Worse than the Ramada, is the Hotel Isar in the same city. Double rooms have tiny, low, cot-like twin beds and the place smells like an entire posse of Marlboro men just spent a month there.

Road Permit for Austria

Like Switzerland, Austria now requires motorists to display a "vignette" on the windshield of their car. Essentially, it is a ticket or pass to drive the country's Autobahns. Unlike Switzerland, however, a visitor needn't purchase the full year pass. We got a one-week sticker at the Autobahn border crossing between Munich and Salzburg for 70 AS ($6).

On the Road

Driving in Germany, Austria and Switzerland is a pleasure mostly. Unlike California, drivers are polite and predictable; nobody passes on the right and everybody signals. Also, over the last few years I have noticed a reduction in the number of macho, left-lane, speed demons who flash their headlights to clear the way ahead. There are still plenty of fast drivers in Germany but they seem to be more gracious about asking slower ones to move over. In fact, I'm now noticing a new Autobahn maneuver that seems downright friendly.

Let's say you're in the right lane traveling at 140 kph (87.5 mph). A few hundred feet ahead is a slow truck you will soon have to pass. Your rearview mirror reveals a slightly faster vehicle in the left lane about to pass. There are two choices: brake and let the left lane pass, or and this is neither legal nor polite move into the left lane and force the closing vehicle to break its speed. Such situations in California often result in gun play. In Germany, however, the recriminations are usually confined to gestures and hand signals. Recently, however, I've seen the faster car often lower its speed slightly and swing into the right lane behind your slower car. This is an indication that the faster car is willing to follow you around the truck and not force you to brake behind it. Of course, when you've passed the truck, etiquette requires that you immediately move to the right and allow the faster car to pass. Don't expect such consideration, however, if your right lane speed is substantially lower than the closing vehicles.

But European drivers, Germans in particular, remain the world's motoring busybodies. Screw up on a German highway and they'll let you know about it. Consider this little Autobahn tableau that occurred earlier this month.

We were in the left lane between Munich and Salzburg, going maybe 130 kph (too slow). As we passed a sign imposing a 100 kph speed limit, I noticed a much faster car running up behind us. There was no room to immediately move over, however, so in order to get out of the way quickly I accelerated to about 140 kph, passed a car and moved to the right lane where I slowed down. But as I did, the 50-ish man in the $90,000 black Mercedes roadster I had passed shook a disapproving head and finger at me and then flashed a small replica of the 100 kph speed limit sign.

That's right, he had it somewhere in the car with him and pulled it out to show me through the driver's side window. Advance planning is admirable, but this was over the top. He probably has an entire set of these little signs ranging from 30 to 130 kph in some kind of holder strategically placed so he can quickly grab the appropriate one when he spots yet another scofflaw.

It also occurs to me that perhaps somewhere in Germany, these little shame-on-you signs are for sale. Meaning there is a market for them. Meaning there are lots of folks out there just waiting to let you know, in a graphic way, when you're not doing it right.

After following us for about three kilometers and shaking his head from side to side (this guy was really worked up), he roared around us with another scolding look and head shake, then disappeared into the distance well before the 100 kph control was lifted. The incident had this effect on me; for the rest of the trip I was very careful to observe those 60, 80, 100 and 120 kph Autobahn slowdown zones. Doing so, I was passed by hundreds of cars.

Rental Car for Four

We get calls about which car to rent when the traveling party is three or four persons. Midsize cars such as the Opel Vectra are a great bargain at about $18 per day (in Germany) plus tax but there seems to be a general skepticism about the legroom and trunk space. But stepping up to a car larger than that is expensive. The small Mercedes at twice the price offers less trunk room and about same passenger space. A full-size Opel Omega is $57 per day plus tax.

As I have mentioned here before, we do not travel light. Neither do the other couple who joined us for a few days on this trip. We each had a car but decided to turn in their BMW 316i when we discovered the Vectra would be fine for the four of us. It seemed larger all around, with a much bigger trunk that accommodated two very large folding garment bags, two rolling 22" suitcases, one large duffel, one small duffel, a small backpack and one large briefcase. There was a sunroof, a terrific high-tech radio, a dashboard liquid-crystal screen that displayed the time, the radio station currently tuned in and the outside temperature. Though it was no great hill climber with its load of four adults and luggage, the plucky little 1.6 liter engine purred along easily at 150 kph (94 mph). Driver leg room? I'm 5-11 and was able to slide the drivers seat so far back that I couldn't properly operate the foot pedals.

Wrapping it Up

* Forget carrying a lot of cash in Europe. Using a Visa or MasterCard with a PIN (4 digits only) at an ATM will get you the cash you need; virtually anywhere, anytime. I left the U.S. with about $400 cash, no traveler's checks and returned with the same $400.

* Carts at the Munich Airport cost two marks, but you can pay in several other currencies. They are free at Kloten Airport in Zürich. Hey, Switzerland's a bargain.

And finally, since we've already offended readers of German decent with insensitive stereotyping of their driving habits, we may as well insult the rest of Europe with the following politically incorrect definitions of Heaven and Hell. We found them posted in the reception area of the Hotel Butterfly in Zermatt. RHB

Hell is...

* German cops

* British cooks

* Swiss lovers

* French mechanics

* All organized by the Italians

Heaven is...

* British cops

* French cooks

* Italian lovers

* German mechanics

* All organized by the Swiss

April 199