Dear Subscriber:

Are we now to feel guilty about traveling? Apparently. On a recent Sunday evening CBS took the entire country to the woodshed for venturing abroad. According to 60 Minutes reporter, Morley Safer, it seems that far too many of us are flocking to places such as the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, where at the height of the season, some 300 tourists per minute enter and leave the church. What Morley is worried about is that all these people aren’t holding their breath while inside the church. You see, carbon dioxide and other insidious particles that tourists (human beings, actually) exhale while gaping at the ceiling and wondering exactly where it was the Hunchback used to hang out, are eating away at the church’s old stones. He made it sound pretty ominous.kaisergruft

Other stops on the Safer guilt trip were Venice for pictures of garbage floating in the Grand Canal, and the South of France where telephoto lenses made expensive, crowded beaches look worse than Coney Island on a hot 4th of July. A bit more subliminal were snippets of Noel Coward lyrics about the “wrong people” traveling and the “right people” staying home.

The segment was 15-minutes of sweating throngs, from China’s Great Wall to the Caves of Lascaux, “slogging,” as Morley put it, “past the familiar” (familiar?). His final, incredible admonishment was that we should all stay home. But the tone of the piece led me to believe Morley actually meant “you,” not “we.”(These days he’s probably having to mingle with the “wrong people” on the Concorde or in the bar at the “George Sank.”)

All in all, it was an elitist pitch with the laughable conclusion that we curtail European travel. After a youth spent dreaming over picture books of the great sights of Europe, are we not to see them for ourselves? Now that we have the time and money (barely) to finally do it, are we to heed the scolding of an elitist, globe-trotting, TV reporter, who’s in Paris half a dozen times a year and only sees the flying buttresses of Notre Dame from the back seat of his limo? No way.

Indeed, many of the world’s treasures are the worse for wear, in part because of tourism. But it might surprise Morley to learn that even ordinary folk from middle America who, if they are lucky, might get to see Europe once in their lifetime, are also concerned that Venice is sinking and stinking.

The report, however, did serve to remind how uncomfortable it can be to visit major tourist attractions during high season. Historical significance is hard to grasp, and romantic feelings hard to catch when being herded in sticky heat with a group of 200 through an ancient chateau or palace. If you’re at the back of the group the tour guide is halfway through the spiel by the time you’ve squeezed into the room, and you’re so far away you’re lucky if you can hear it.

It’s a good argument for off-season travel. Some of our most memorable experiences have been out-of-season. I recall last April a slow drive through the vineyards from Lausanne to Aigle, where we spent an hour wandering through the castle with no more than half a dozen other visitors. One long ago October we arrived at famed Chateau Mouton Rothschild, home of one of Bordeaux’s greatest wines, hoping to see the Baroness Rothschild’s renowned wine museum. There was no one around except for a white-haired man in his 60s in a workman’s smock. After sizing us up for a moment, he motioned us to follow. He opened a heavy door with a key, flipped a light switch and watched our faces for the reaction he knew was coming. The room materialized before us, each exquisite piece bathed in its own pool of light. Breathtaking. The man motioned us into the museum where we roamed among the treasures. He spoke to us of the Baroness and of how she had collected and assembled the pieces. After about 15 minutes we expressed our admiration for the museum, our thanks to him, and left.

A month or so later in a wine magazine I came across a picture of our host and his boss, Baron Phillipe Rothschild. Our docent that afternoon was the cellar master (winemaker) at Mouton Rothschild—“the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say.

So if you have an unquenchable yearning to see, for example, the lovely German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and your only opportunity is in August, by all means do it. But if it is possible to go at another time of the year, say November or early April, you will find things much more relaxed and less crowded. The same goes for Venice, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Bavaria’s Royal Castles, Salzburg, the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and most of Europe’s most popular stops.

First Published 1992