Winging It on the Backroads of Europe

While not quite an adventure on the order of exploring the Orinoco in a dugout canoe, those who can live with a little uncertainty find that travel without reservations and an itinerary carved in granite has its rewards. Others, who absolutely must know before the trip exactly where they will stay each night, where they will eat and what they will see, cannot abide such open-ended madness.

Though we make no judgments about either style of travel, Gemütlichkeit favors the former. More than once we have landed in Europe and not decided until we were actually in the rental car whether to first head north, south, east or west. (These trips were always born of spur of the moment urges to escape for a few days to a less structured environment. Throwing a few maps and guidebooks in the suitcase was the extent of trip preparation; which is too bad, because planning the trip is one of the most enjoyable aspects of travel. So let's revise that headline to "No Reservations, Loose Itinerary.")

There are several advantages to "winging it," mostly related to flexibility. You can easily extend your stay in a hotel or town that turns out to be more attractive than anticipated. On the other hand, if a place doesn't meet expectations you can vacate it in a hurry. You also can easily and quickly move up or down the luxury ladder. For example, if you've spent several days in simple Zimmer Frei lodgings and suddenly get the urge for a night or two of the hedonistic pleasures of one Europe's finest hotels, you aren't encumbered by reservations or previous plans. Of course, the reverse is also true. If you're spending too much money in a chic resort or a major city, it's no problem to head for the simpler, cheaper countryside.

Germany, Switzerland and Austria are compact enough that most spontaneous travel urges can be satisfied in just a few hours. One afternoon a few years ago we were puttering along a back road north of Nürnberg when we began to reminisce about a particularly good time we'd had on a previous trip at the Gasthof Fraundorfer in Garmisch-Partenkirchen - lots of good food, beer, music and gemütlichkeit. Why not go back? Why not tonight? We called the Fraundorfer to reserve a table, hopped on the autobahn and were there in just a few hours.

The best part of this kind of travel is the sense of freedom to do exactly as you choose; to be able to give in to the impulse to turn down an inviting country road or to wake up in the morning and know that you may sleep that night in a town you've never heard of before. Another time we decided after lunch to drive Austria's Grossglockner Road which twists its way to a height of 12,457 feet. Following another sudden urge we elected to stay in a hotel at the summit thus turning a summer drive into a winter experience.

Two factors which make this mode of travel so effortless in Germany, Austria and Switzerland are the plethora of hotels in nearly all price categories and the extensive network of excellent, scenic backroads.

Naturally, there are variations on this theme. One doesn't need to be completely unstructured. If you dread looking for a place to stay at four or five in the afternoon you can choose a new destination and hotel a day ahead of time. The hotel where you are currently a guest will gladly phone ahead for a reservation, or you can do it yourself. Even in the summer you'll get your first choice of hotel most of the time. And who knows, you're second or third choice might turn out to be something special. It's been known to happen.

No matter how loose your itinerary, some preparation and certain materials in the way of maps and guidebooks are required.

Hotel Guides

In Germany, the Michelin Red Guide is essential. Perhaps a more contemporary title for the guide would be "10,000 Good Places to Eat and Sleep in Germany." That's right, about 10,000; all listed and rated, with prices, phone and fax numbers plus extensive information communicated through symbols on the facilities and features of each establishment. The meaning of the symbols is provided in several languages. This book has so many terrific features we can't list them all but here are a few:

• Maps of the larger towns (nearly 150). On them are spotted the hotels and restaurants listed in the guide, and in a major city like Munich that can be 200 or more. (By comparison, Frommer's Germany contains less than 100 hotel and restaurant listings for Munich. And, of course, Michelin rates establishments in literally hundreds of small towns and villages that simply aren't even mentioned by Frommer or Fodor or any of the rest of the well-known, all-purpose guidebooks.) You can imagine how handy it is to have a map of a city you're driving into for the first time, with the location of your hotel marked on it.

• Distance tables in kilometers for the major cities in both Germany and Europe. In addition to the tables, the listing for each town, even the smallest, shows the distance to three or four important cities in the region. Under Heidelberg, for example, is the distance to Stuttgart (122 km), Darmstadt (59 km), Karlsruhe (59 km) and Mannheim (20 km). This can be very useful in locating small towns on maps and for determining driving times. For example, to determine the distance from Frankfurt to Garmisch-Partenkirchen (about 489 km), start with the table in the back of the book which shows 397 km from Frankfurt to Munich. Under Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the main body of the book one sees the distance from G-P to Munich is 89 km. A look at a map shows one can choose to drive the autobahn virtually all the way. At a moderate speed of, say, 130 km/hour, allowing for traffic in the Munich area, one could safely predict a driving time of around four hours for the 489 km. Of course, if you follow the drift of this story, a sensible driving time is more like four days than four hours.

• Locator maps for special hotels and restaurants. In the front of the book are several pages of maps which display the names of towns where Michelin finds notable hotels and restaurants. A person on the road using the guide can thus quickly determine which of these special places are within easy driving distance of his or her location. It is then a simple matter to look up the hotel's or restaurant's phone number under the town listing and call for a reservation.

• Restaurant finder. In France, winning a third Michelin star (three stars is the highest), is a restaurant's greatest honor and a virtual guarantee of success. On the other hand, to lose a rosette is to be disgraced. While Michelin is famous for rating expensive restaurants, of even greater value to the ordinary traveler is its marking of simpler restaurants which serve good food. In the listings, restaurants with the word "Menu" in red type indicate "moderately priced menus that offer good value for money and serve carefully prepared meals, often of regional cooking." Other restaurants, which serve simple, inexpensive meals are marked with a black bullet.

• City information. In Germany, Michelin lists about 2500 cities, towns and villages and supplies a wealth of information for each: postal code, telephone area code, altitude, population, number of chair and ski lifts, location of the tourist office, availability of recreational activities such as golf courses and a listing of the major sites are just some of the notations for each town.

Unfortunately, Michelin only publishes guides for France, Italy, Spain/Portugal, Great Britain, Switzerland and the Benelux countries as well as a guide for the major cities of Europe; so we must make do with other resources in Austria.

The tourist offices of both countries (Germany, too, for that matter) are happy to provide travelers with free hotel guides. These guides contain extensive lists of hotels which belong to that country's hotel association. The establishments are arranged in order of classification; five stars being the highest and one star the lowest, although Switzerland has a special Landgasthaus classification for small, simple, country hotels with a restaurant. These hotel association/tourist office guides make no qualitative judgments as does Michelin. The star classifications refer only to the level of services provided. However, using symbols in a style similar to Michelin, much information is provided about each hotel.

If you arrive in town without a reservation the local tourist office is usually ready to help arrange accommodations that fit your budget or, of course, you can always find a zimmer frei sign on a likely looking house and simply knock on the door.

The Right Maps

(See also Driving a Rental Car in Europe: GPS vs. Maps)

As we have said many times before, if you intend to travel the backroads of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, you must have suitable maps for the job at hand. These countries are a maze of country lanes and to rely on a map that doesn't show every one of them is a mistake. For off-the-autobahn driving we recommend maps of the scale of 1:200,000 (1 centimeter equals 2 kilometers or one and a quarter miles).

Mairs publishes such maps for Germany, Austria & Switzerland and Michelin has them for France. The ADAC Karten for Germany are scaled are at 1:150,000. Obviously at this scale it takes several maps to cover an entire country and you may spend more for maps than you planned. Maps less detailed than the foregoing are suitable for planning purposes only, though the 1:400,000 will do in a pinch.

The maps published by Mairs, for example, can be particularly helpful to the wandering traveler with no set itinerary. They display all roads, from autobahns to footpaths. We find the most interesting to be those marked in yellow. According to the legend they are "main roads." Red or "federal roads" are more direct and carry much more traffic, particularly trucks. Autobahns are marked in orange. What the legend refers to as "minor roads" are marked by parallel gray lines. These roads can also be tremendously enjoyable though sometimes you'll wind up on a gravel surface.

Here are some of the important features of the Mairs maps:

• Scenic roads are edged in green and panoramic views along the way are marked with a purple rosette. A wine route has the word Weinstrasse in purple.

• The names of picturesque towns are enclosed in a purple box.

• Places of interest are marked by a purple dot. Some are coded as being of "particular interest" and others of "considerable interest." What the legend refers to as "other curiosities" are simply printed in purple.

• There are many other symbols used to mark such things as golf courses, chair lifts, rack railways, youth hostels, waterfalls, churches, cemeteries, toll roads, tunnels, bridges and so on.

Legends on ADAC, Mairs and Michelin maps are in English. On the reverse side of most Mairs maps are color photos of important sights and towns along with some descriptive text in German.

With the proper maps, enough reference materials to help locate your style of accommodations and a willingness to fly just a little bit blind, winging it on the back roads of Germany, Austria and Switzerland can be a wonderfully rewarding and relaxing travel experience.

See also Travel Europe Without an Itinerary