Home Again

A few years ago, a friend who is a very frequent traveler to Europe, sent me a New Yorker cartoon: In it a man is standing at a large window looking out over a big-city skyline while speaking into a phone: "It's us. We drank. We ate. We're back."

I guess it was our friend's way of saying not much happened on his latest trip that hadn't happened before.

When it comes to airplanes, airports and rental cars, nothing out of the ordinary is good news. That's the way it was with our April trip. Swissair did its usual bang-up job, the Zürich Airport remains the most convenient we've seen anywhere and the 1994 Ford Scorpio we rented had less than 2,000 miles on it. SR #107, a nonstop from Los Angeles, landed about 5:15 p.m. Our bags were on the carousel after a wait of less than five minutes, we loaded them onto one of those big, easy-rolling European carts that can negotiate escalators (unlike the rickety pieces of junk one pays $1 to rent in Los Angeles and San Francisco) and walked quickly out the "nothing to declare" door. A few steps into the garage from the car rental counter, on the same level, was our car; no shuttles, no hassle. We took a pretty backroad to Basel* and were checked into our hotel room and out for a walk by 7:15 p.m., some two hours after landing.

(One slightly confusing part of the process: to pick up rental cars, you must go to Terminal B. Once there you'll see signs pointing toward elevators to the car rental area at level #5. However, some elevators go only to level #4. If that happens to you, get off at level #4 and go up one more floor via the lifts to your right as you exit.)

For travelers headed downtown, trains run frequently to the Main Rail Station, a trip of 10-12 minutes costing about $4 one-way.

The rest of our trip had its moments: a drive in an April snowstorm through the Black Forest, a carriage ride in the woods above Zürich, an Easter Sunday visit to Basel's splendid zoo, a search for interesting hotels along the Swiss shore of Lake Constance (The Bodensee) and a stay at the posh Brenner's Park Hotel in Baden-Baden.

On our last night we realized and regretted that we had been dining much too high on the hog. Our usual routine is to eat simply most nights and do the white linen and candlelight gig about once a week. This trip, I'm sorry to say, it was the other way around. Which puts me in mind of the damnable habit upmarket restaurants have of selling one an expensive bottle of wine, opening it and then putting it somewhere out of reach. The wine—your wine—is then doled out as the waiter sees fit. Too often, conversation distracts the table and first thing you know, everyone's glasses have been refilled, including some who only wanted half a glass in the first place. But the waiter has done his job, the bottle is now empty and the host must order another. Excuse me, but low-rent as it may sound, when I spend $35 or more on a bottle of wine I want to have some control over it. At my table I know who wants only a little wine and who wants a little more. Cousin Mildred isn't the least offended by this, she doesn't like wine anyway. And Uncle Jack, who dearly loves the stuff, appreciates that he gets a larger portion.

While I'm warmed up here are a couple of more whines:

A pox on hotels who don't put real hangers in guestroom closets, instead substituting hangers which must be inserted onto a permanently attached device on the closets hanging rod. (Better yet, a pox on the jerks who stole enough real hangers that hotels had to take such measures.)

And as for those hotels (one, surprisingly, is Baden-Baden's great Brenner's Park) who charge for access to AT&Ts USADirect and similar services offered by MCI and Sprint—I can't find strong enough words of condemnation. Like many small business people, I call my office every day I'm in Europe. Sometimes that call spawns others. In the vast majority of European hotels access to USADirect is treated as a local call and at checkout doesn't even appear on the bill. One simply dials an outside line, then a code for connection to the AT&T operator in the U.S. If done from a pay phone, the charge is the same as for a local call. Of course, the call appears on your AT&T bill at a slightly higher rate than a normal U.S. long-distance call. At the Brenner's Park, however, one must not only go through the hotel operator but pay the hotel a 10 DM ($6) fee for each call made; a tidy sum if one stays for a few days and makes daily phone calls to the U.S. When asked about this, a Brenner's Park official indicated it was on a "trial" basis and anyway the hotel is not a business persons hotel and there aren't many calls placed to the U.S. by guests from the U.S. If that's the case, then there are two good reasons to discontinue the practice of charging for such calls: it's bad public relations and it doesn't produce much revenue. Charge as much as the traffic will bear for room and meals—even breakfast—but don't build a bridge where none need exist and then whack guests $6 every time they have to cross it. Perhaps I am unfairly singling out the Brenner's Park, because apparently this practice is SOP for Baden-Baden hotels. Shame on them all. We'll have much to say that is highly complimentary about the Brenner's Park in a later issue.

Did you know?

Much to the dismay and anger of neighboring countries, the Swiss have voted a total ban on trucks transiting the country. It will take effect in 2004. The concern, of course, is to curb pollution in narrow Alpine valleys. Switzerland plans to expand its rail system and rework transit charges to encourage shippers to choose rail over road. Part of the plan calls for two new fast north-south rail lines connecting Basel and Milan. The lines would pass through two new tunnels through the Alps, one under the Gotthard pass and the other through the Lötschberg south of Bern and then on to the existing rail tunnel through the Simplon Pass. It is envisioned that this will reduce the time of the rail journey between Basel and Milan by two hours. The Gotthard base tunnel will be 57 km (35 miles) long, comparable in length to the Eurotunnel. The tunnels and rail lines will not be finished prior to the truck ban.

The truck stop business in Switzerland would seem not to be a growth industry. RHB

The Backroad to Basel

You'll need Die Generalkarte Switzerland #1 or a comparable map for this little drive. Leaving the Zürich Airport, follow the green signs toward the Bern-Basel Autobahn (remember, in Switzerland the green signs mean Autobahn; in Germany and Austria, the blue signs signify Autobahn and the green signs mean regular surface roads). Do not take the Basel turnoff, but go one more exit to Oensingen. Go north and into Balsthal. In the center of town turn left at the Passwang-Ramiswil sign. At the outskirts of town is a sign that indicates whether the pass is open.

Once past several hairpin turns and through the tunnel in the mountain just below the summit, you will encounter some lovely views of the valley beyond. On the way down, the road narrows considerably and there are no guard rails.

Follow the signs to Basel through Breitenbach and Laufen.