Here we stand, eyeball to eyeball with winter. In Europe, only the hardiest boulevardier still sips his coffee outdoors. Most of the leaves have fallen and table umbrellas are being put away all over the Continent.
Still, it's a great time to go. Opera companies and symphony orchestras are up and running full throttle. The great museums, always an indoor activity, are a lot less crowded at this time of year. And the Christmas season, celebrated in Europe as nowhere else, is about to launch. Most Christmas markets will be open by the end of November and hot drinks like Glühwein and Weihnachtspunsch will soon be for sale in restaurants and on street corners.
And the best part is...a trip to Europe doesn't cost as much in winter.
Roundtrip airfares are available from the low $500s from the East Coast and the high $600s and low $700s from the West.
Car rental companies are also running promotions. Through DER Tours (phone 800-521-6722), Hertz and Sixt-Budget are offering two free days with any one-week rental. At that rate, an Opel Astra, perfect for a couple, is just a little over $15 per day for nine days, including German Value Added Tax.
Many hotels have established winter discount rates. The Sofitel group (800-763-4835), for example, is offering rates of $118 to $138 per room, per night at more than 50 European hotels. Resort hotels, hard up for customers between the summer season and the midwinter ski rush, are ready to deal. Smaller hotels, too, cut their prices, especially those in the countryside. Or, you can really save money by renting an apartment or condominium for as little as $250 per week (see Gemütlichkeit, August 1985).
This time of year in Europe, I have the feeling I'm seeing the countries as they really are, not as in summer when everyone is whipped into shape and braced for the tourist invasion. In November, that little restaurant on a side street in Zürich can't be a tourist trap because there are no tourists; the patrons are all locals. A European trip now is like visiting Disneyland with the park's employees as its only customers.
But is it as much fun when the trees are bare and the streets windy and cold? Speaking for myself, ducking into a cozy Gasthof on a chilly day for a bowl of soup and glass of beer is just as appealing as a summer lunch at a sidewalk table.
I'm not putting down summer travel. Each time of the year has its own charm; but all we have now is winter. And lower prices.
Another Uncle John Report
This month we turn the rest of "Dear Subscriber" over to John Bestor, for the past nine years a member of the Gemütlichkeit advisory board, and a man who can find his way around Germany, Austria and Northern Italy as well as anyone we know. Heed his words.
In prior years we traveled in Germany, Austria and Northern Italy almost entirely by car. I think auto travel in Europe creates the tendency to bypass the center of some of the larger cities. This year we used rail the first two weeks of the trip and took the opportunity to spend three nights in Dresden and several in Cologne.
In Dresden, we were primarily interested in seeing the buildings and sights in the historic center and our hotel choice was the Terrassenufer (Terrassenufer 12, D-01069, tel. 02508/440 9500, fax 02508/440 9600). Our double room for three nights, including one dinner, was $394. Recently constructed, it is close to the Elbe river and about a 10-minute walk to the town center.
While in Dresden we took a day-trip by train to Meissen to see the porcelain. The train ride was interesting but the porcelain showroom at the factory was overly crowded and difficult. We would not go back to Meissen.
Dresden's historic center is fascinating with considerable evidence of reconstruction and cleanup since reunification. The Dom, the Schloss, the Swinger Galleries and the Opera House are restored and ready for visitors. The jewel collection at the Albertinum is fantastic. Reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, which was completely destroyed in that one last gigantic bombing raid before the end of the war, is just starting. The pieces of the bombed church have been carefully numbered, labeled and stored on numerous metal racks in the nearby area. Completion of the restoration of the Frauenkirche is scheduled for some four to six years after the turn of the century.
In the town center are two large, expensive hotels, the Dresden Hilton and the Grand Hotel Taschenbergpalais. The Hilton complex includes several restaurants and sidewalk cafés. A more traditional German restaurant, the Paulaner, is adjacent to the Steigenberger. We enjoyed two meals there.
Cologne was wonderful. Of course, the Cathedral is awesome, and there are many other places of special interest.
During the first three centuries after the birth of Christ, Cologne was a Roman city and during part of that period, it was the capital of the Roman government for that part of Europe. The old city, a semicircle facing the Rhine, is literally built on Roman ruins, some of which can be visited below street level. My wife, "H," calls it an "archaeological smörgåsbord." The existence of these ruins continues to delay construction of new buildings, subways and underground garages.
We spent most of the day going through the two large museums near the Cathedral. One of these is loaded with items uncovered during the excavations, including a large mosaic floor. So many artifacts have been recovered that many of them are stacked on racks in other buildings close to the museum.
We stayed at the Altstadt Hotel (Salzgasse 7, D-50667, tel. 0221/257-7851, fax 0221/257 7853) which we chose primarily for its price and perfect location; a short walk to the Cathedral area, the Hauptbahnhof (for the International Herald Tribune) and the Altes and Neues Rathausen. It is also very close to the restaurants, bars and all the other activity along the river-front area.
Our double room at the Altstadt was on the fifth floor facing a small square in the back. It was quiet and the price was $100 per night. This is modest compared to the other hotels in the downtown area.
One problem was the hotel's rooms are located in two adjoining buildings and our fifth floor room was in a building with NO LIFT! Access to our room was by climbing a very narrow circular staircase. Oxygen stations are not provided. We would return to Altstadt but only with a guaranteed reservation in the building with the lift.
There are a large number of restaurants along the river but our top choice was La Colombe, located in a quiet area near Gross St Martin Church. The meals were excellently prepared, and we were served by the owner, Rosemarie Hahn. One evening we had lamb and rabbit and it was such a pleasant experience, we went back a second night for Hirsch medallions and quail.
Large Rhine cruise boats docked within two hundred yards of our hotel, and we took a day cruise up the river to Bonn. This was a break in tramping through all the Roman ruins we could find. The boat left at 9:30 a.m. There were very few passengers either going to Bonn or on the early evening return trip. It was a weekday, and the waiter on the boat told us that over the holiday weekend there had been as many as 2,000 people on the boat.
The scenery was pastoral. Dinner on the return trip was excellent. Service was very personal and with so few passengers, we were the only diners. The entire trip was most excellent.
Bonn has a lovely market square in front of the Rathaus but, unlike Cologne, does not make extensive use of the river-front. Beethoven's house was closed for renovations.