So Long 1900s

Forget the Millennium, the big milestone is that this month we close out 13 years of Gemütlichkeit, this is the 156th issue. So how, I have been asking myself, should we mark this solemn event?

Conventional newsletter/magazine wisdom says readers like lists; top 10 nude beaches for senior citizens, 15 budget garbage skow cruises, 101 reasons why smart animals won't eat airline food, and so on.

Thus, over the past 12 years we have sifted through past issues and each December regurgitated for you the various "bests" of the past - best hotels, best meals, best values, best beer, most gemütlich places, etc.

You're still going to get some of that this month - we couldn't wrap up a whole Millennium (or even 999 years) without noting a few of the highlights - but in an abbreviated way.

Aside from that, however, it's business as usual, starting in this space with some thoughts about next year and a rundown on our trip earlier this month.

Year 2000 Planning

I recall a few months ago, in a moment of overheated fervor, calling 1999 a "golden age" of travel to Europe. If so, 2000 will be a "platinum age," because things are better than ever.

Airfares: Except in the highest season, transatlantic airlines have too many seats to sell. Meaning prices should stay low. There have been some astonishingly low air fares this winter. At press time, for example, Swissair was offering deals that would get two persons to and from Zürich for as little as $336. That's right, $168 each. Though transatlantic carriers seem willing to lower fares to whatever level is needed to fill all seats, planes in late November and early December were still flying half empty.

Prices should remain soft into the late spring and summer fares will likely be about the same as last summer.

Car rental rates: Have been climbing since late summer, particularly in Germany. Upgrades are gone and we know not when or even if they will return. In the past 18 months airport and rail station pickup fees have risen from 17 DM ($9) to 12% of the total rental. Do the math: on a $400 rental they'll nail you for $48 if you get the car at an airport or rail station. At the moment, some companies are holding at 6% and some cap the so-called "premium station" charge at 100 DM ($52), but long-term renters ought to give thought to picking up at an in-city location. And remember, you can still drop the car at an airport or rail station for no extra charge.

Even with the increases, Germany rentals are still the lowest in Europe and, for two or more traveling together, the cheapest way to get around. There are other positives: most cars from the compact category on up are now routinely air-conditioned, and premium rates to take cars to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic are largely a thing of the past.

Recently we drove an Opel Vectra for four days. A sweet car. It had 32,000 km (20,000 miles) on the odometer but was still comfortable, tight and responsive. On the Autobahn we were relaxed at 140 to 160 kmh (88 to 100 mph) and there was double the trunk room needed for our two suitcases and hefty fold-over hanging bag plus odds and ends. The steering wheel was adjustable and a liquid crystal display showed the time, outside temperature, the radio station playing, etc. Very handy.

I almost preferred it to the Mercedes C220 diesel that we drove for five days later in the trip. At double the price, it had a smaller trunk, but more gadgets, and might have been a little more solid at high speeds. If the price is the same I'll take the MBZ, but at half the price the Vectra is a no-brainer.

By the way, the new San Francisco Airport auto rental procedure will make you appreciate the Zürich (and Munich and Frankfurt) airports. Haul your bags onto a jam-packed shuttle and ride 10-minutes through a maze of freeways, overpasses and industrial streets. Get off at the rental building and again drag the bags to the rental counter of choice. Paperwork and car keys in hand, schlepp those bags one more time to an elevator and up into the huge parking garage where you'll find your car in the dim light (the better to hide the dents you get charged for when you bring it back). Return the car - pray you don't miss any of the "rental return" signs approaching the airport on the freeway - and do the whole thing in reverse.

Rail: Here's a novel idea, Eurail and Europass rail passes will not increase in price for the year 2000. Let's hear it for Rail Europe.

The Dollar: Stronger than at any time since the mid-80s. With the Deutsche Mark over 1.9, the Swiss franc near 1.6 and almost 14 shillings to the dollar, Germanic Europe is palpably cheaper.

December in Germanic Europe

Earlier this month we spent a couple of weeks in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In the months ahead you'll be reading about Neuchâtel, the medieval town of Murten and its great Hotel Vieux Manoir au Lac, Eichstått just north of Inglostadt in Germany, the Austrian winemaking province of Burgenland, and a little taste of Munich.

Here are a few impressions.

  • Switzerland is now a country of roundabouts. You know, those circular drives that replace intersections? It seems to me thousands have blossomed over the past couple of years and most Americans aren't used to them. Actually, they're a great idea. The secret to not getting T-boned in one of them is to yield the right-of-way to cars already in the roundabout.
  • We are not advance reservations advocates for most situations but it's a strategy that sometimes didn't work so well. December weekends in Christmas market towns like Salzburg, Vienna and Munich attract thousands of out-of-towners and the hotels and restaurants fill up. We had big trouble finding hotels and restaurants in all three cities. In fact, even hotels in small towns near Salzburg laid that unwelcome "fully booked" phrase on us.
  • In Munich, we lucked out when we remembered the Asam Hotel (see September, 99) was new and perhaps not yet well known. We liked the hotel very much; nice people, super location a block from a pedestrian-only street that leads to the center, great restaurants in the neighborhood, excellent beds and bedding, tight but well-equipped bathrooms, quiet, good breakfast in an attractive room. We had room Number 32 for two nights and paid 310 DM ($161), which I think is a bit pricey, especially considering breakfast is an additional 22 DM ($12) per person. Still, this is an ideal Munich headquarters.
  • Munich Musings. December 3. The Marienplatz and its pedestrian-only feeder streets swarm with shoppers. The main attraction is the Christmas Market, a series of booths selling Christmas decorations, handcrafts, the traditional Glühwein, food, and a lot of junk, much of which I'll wager is made not in any European craftsman's workshop but someplace in Asia. Nonetheless, it's a great atmosphere.

    From the street window at Donisl, Weinstrasse 1 on the Marienplatz, we fortified ourselves with delicious hot dogs on round, crunchy rolls for 3 DM ($1.50) and meandered along Odeonsplatz, where a French horn quartet played Mozart. Then to Max-Joseph-Platz where stands the south façade of the Residenz and the National Theater, home of the Bavarian State Opera. In the arcaded buildings that line Maximilianstrasse, and in nearby streets, are some of Munich's finest shops and galleries. Ready to drop 100Gs on a piece of art or a couple of thousand on some handmade riding boots? You can do it here. But American tourists with more modest credit card limits might want to look in at Wallach (Residenzstrasse 3) for German handcrafts; shop the high brow ski wear store of yesteryear Olympic star, Willy Bogner; choose from what is reputed to be the world's largest stock of Loden wear at Loden-Frey, Maffeistrasse 7-9, and of course there is the mouthwatering food and wine store, Alois Dallmayr at Dienerstrasse 14.

    We stopped in the late afternoon for a beer at Spatenhaus, Residenzstrasse 12, the most elegant of all Munich's beer restaurants. The clientèle here lays to rest the fat, red-faced Bavarian stereotype. Spatenhaus is a lot more Rodeo Drive than Fritz's Beer Garden.

    Later, we wandered across Max-Joseph-Platz to pay 3 DM ($.150) to see the Altes Theatre in the Residenz. Worth the money and spectacular but Michelin has it right when they assign it one star (interesting). The Church at Wies, the breathtaking Zimmerman rococo masterpiece in the countryside between Füssen and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, is properly rated two Michelin stars (worth a detour).

  • Advance reservations are advised on ICE and EC trains between major cities, especially in Germany. An EC from Basel to Mannheim was about half full and 95% of the first class seats were occupied on a weekday afternoon ICE Mannheim to Munich run. Wait until you get to Europe to reserve, where the per person cost of a reservation is about $3 instead of the $11 you'll pay Rail Europe in the U.S. We were traveling on the Europass.

  • Gasoline these days is about $3.15 per gallon. Diesel fuel is under $3 a gallon. RHB
  • December 1999