Twelve million Americans will visit Europe this summer. Our lead story is designed to help you avoid most of them by identifying great cities, sights, hotels and restaurants that are off the beaten track. Recommended destinations include Eastern Germany, Southern Bohemia, the Bavarian Forest instead of the Black Forest, the Mosel instead of the Rhine, Brienz instead of Interlaken, Bamberg instead of Rothenburg, and other not so well-known destinations such as Graz, Coburg, Rust and Lienz. Each includes recommendations for hotels, restaurants and sights.

By Bob Bestor

Americans are heading for Europe in record numbers. This month some suggestions on how to survive the mad rush for hotel rooms, rental cars and top sightseeing attractions.

Tourism officials on both sides of the Atlantic expect more than 12 million Americans to visit Europe this year, a new record. Most will go between now and the end of October.

A feeble Euro - and sinking with it in lock-step, the Deutsche Mark, the schilling, the French franc and other EU currencies - make Europe a more attractive destination, financially speaking, than it has been for at least a decade.

What this means to the traveler to Germany, Austria and Switzerland, however, is greater competition for airline seats, hotel rooms, rental cars, even tables at outdoor cafés. It also means the most popular destinations and sights are going to be crowded as never before. The charm and tourist-livability of motorcoach musts like Salzburg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and Lucerne will be tested on a daily basis. And those who must visit the best-known castles, museums, and historic buildings will be well served by patience, stamina and a pair of sharp elbows. There will be many a Stau (traffic jam) on the major Autobahn routes - Munich-Salzburg; Salzburg-Vienna; Frankfurt-Munich; Frankfurt-Basel; Bern-Basel, etc. - and rail travelers can expect to encounter plenty of fellow American passengers.

This month we're going to pass along some recommendations and advice that will help get you through the summer of 2000 as unruffled as possible.

Overall Strategy

Our main theme has always been; get away from the crowd. But if it's a first or second-time trip, and you must see such places as Salzburg, Rothenburg, the Rhine, Lucerne and Grindelwald, then grit your teeth and go for it. Book hotels as far in advance as possible and plan to visit the major sightseeing attractions when they first open in the morning. Use the afternoon for less popular attractions and for exploring on foot, with occasional stops at an outdoor café for a cool drink and a snack.

For those who have already seen the Salzburgs and Rothenburgs, or can visit such places in the off-season, there are dozens of great places to visit that won't be swarming with your friends and neighbors from back home. Later in this story we'll have some specific suggestions.

Auto Rental

The news from Germany just keeps getting worse. Prices seemed to have leveled off - you can still get a midsize car with air for $150 a week plus VAT and airport taxes - but for the first time in memory, there is an availability problem. Rental companies seem to have underestimated the summer demand. For example, at this writing, some companies cannot confirm a midsize car with automatic transmission until July.

Suggested Strategy: Our advice is book immediately. You can always change your rental or even cancel without a penalty.

Despite the increased rates in Germany, it is still cheaper to rent there than in Austria or Switzerland.

Car vs Train

There's nothing like a car to separate one from the tourist hordes. Pickup wheels at a major airport and in a few minutes you can be driving a nearly-deserted backroad feeling like you're the only tourist in the country. But for quick transitions, say Berlin to Zürich, or Vienna to Frankfurt, a fast train is the answer. Though it isn't so easy on the pocketbook, a strategy of using rail for long trips and a rented car to explore a region is the most efficient use of your precious vacation time and also the most comfortable. Recently, for example, we trained from Berlin to Dresden where we picked up a car and headed south into the Czech Republic. Three days later we left that vehicle in Salzburg and took the train to Zürich where we picked up another car which we kept for three days driving in Switzerland before dropping it off in Lausanne where we boarded a train for Florence. For four of us it would have been considerably cheaper to do the itinerary entirely by car but time was short.

Suggested Strategy: If you don't need to cover a lot of territory, a car offers ultimate flexibility and is the best way get off the beaten track, especially in Germany and Austria (almost all of Switzerland is accessible via rail, bus or boat with a rail pass). Those with a planned itinerary that will encompass a radius of more than 400 kilometers should consider a car-rail combination, unless time is not an issue.

Train Tip: If you're traveling on a rail pass we recommend waiting until you're in Europe before making seat bookings. From the U.S. you'll pay a minimum of $11 per person, per segment (example: Lausanne to Zürich is $11, change trains and Zürich to Frankfurt is another $11). Seat reservations in Europe cost only about $2.50 to $3.00 and can be made at most travel agencies and rail stations. Book as far in advance as possible.

Hotels

Our advice has always been to make hotel reservations prior to departure from the U.S. only when absolutely necessary - first and last nights of the trip; major cities during fair and convention times; special hotels and cities that are frequently fully-booked, i.e., Vienna, Salzburg, and Lucerne. This summer, however, traveling without advance hotel arrangements is recommended only for the most flexible traveler. We are hearing from readers and experiencing ourselves that hotel rooms are already in short supply, even into October.

Suggested Strategy: Book as soon as possible, being careful to understand each hotel's cancellation and change policy. See box on page 3 for suggestions on booking hotels from the U.S. and in Europe.

Those who want maximum flexibility should purchase the 2000 Michelin Red Guide for each country to be visited (none for Austria).

These books have the most complete listings of rated hotels and restaurants and, except for a wireless Internet access, are the single most useful in-country travel tools available.

Guidebooks like Frommer and Fodor cover 80 to 200 cities in a country and perhaps 800 to 1000 hotels. The Germany Red Guide lists some 10,000 hotels/restaurants in 3,300 different cities, towns and villages.

Can't get a hotel in Nürnberg? Use the map on page #854 to locate nearby towns with recommended hotels. In this case you'll find 20 such towns with at least one recommended hotel and restaurant within a 10 to 30-minute drive of the city center.

The guide has many other useful features and spending an hour or so familiarizing yourself with how it works will pay big dividends when you're on the road or even trying to make bookings from the U.S. It's designed for the motorist but rail travelers will find it almost as useful.

Alternative Destinations

Summer 2000

What follows are recommendations and ideas for summer destinations that are likely to be less crowded, with fewer booking problems, than the most famous stops.

Of course, big-city tourist destinations like Berlin, Munich, and Vienna are well equipped to handle large volumes of visitors. But in these towns it might be a good summer to explore more offbeat attractions.

Eastern Germany

More than 10 years after the fall of communism, most of old east Germany, in terms of numbers of visitors, is still a secondary tourist attraction. This fascinating area has much to offer. Explore its backroads by car using Michelin's Red Guide for Deutschland to locate accommodations on short notice. With it, advance reservations shouldn't be necessary. You might find pretty, historic cities like Weimar and Quedlinburg fully-booked but with the guide you'll be able to locate a good bed and dinner in a nearby small town.

• Don't Miss: Historic Weimar, a cradle of German culture and Europe's "Cultural City" of 1999 (millions were spent to restore it). It's still there in 2000.

• Recommended Hotels:

Wolff's Art Hotel & Restaurant Freiherr-vom-Stein-Allee 3a/b, D-99425 Weimar, tel. +49/03643/5 40 60, fax 54 06 99. Rooms from about $100.

Christliches Hotel Amalienhof Amalienstrasse 2, D-99423 Weimar, tel. +49/03643/54 90, fax 54 91 10. Rooms from about $60.

Romantik Hotel Am Brühl Billungstrasse 11, D-06484, Quedlinburg, tel. +49/03946/96180, fax 961 8246. Rooms from about $69.

• Tip: Count on Meissen, near Dresden, and its famous porcelain factory to be overrun with tourists this summer.

• Recommended Transport: Car

Southern Bohemia

One of the great, undiscovered treasures of Europe is Cesky Krumlov. Nestled in a curving, canyon of the Moldau and dominated by a magnificent castle, this medieval jewel will someday be a tourist destination on the order of Rothenburg, Mont St. Michel and Positano. Millions are being spent to restore the town, and that is good, but in the process a little of its authentic charm will be lost. See it now.

Also interesting is Ceske Budejovice with its huge town square and a brewery which makes the worlds finest beer, the real Budweiser or Budvar.

• Don't Miss: Exploring on foot the ancient cobbled lanes of Cesky Krumlov.

• Recommended Hotels:

Hotel Dvorak Radnicni 101, CZ-381 01 Cesky Krumlov, tel. 0337/711020, fax 0337/711024. Rooms from about $55.

Grand Hotel Zvon Nam. Premysla Otakara II. 28, CZ-370 01, Ceske Budejovice, tel +042/038/731 1384, fax 042/0 38/731 1385. Rooms from about $45.

• Tip: A massive, simple, tasty dinner or lunch at Budvar Brewery in Ceske Budejovice with plenty of that great beer will set you back about $10 per person.

• Recommended Transport: Car

Bavarian Forest

Less touristy, less sophisticated and less expensive than the popular Schwarzwald (Black Forest). The most interesting towns are Lam and Bodenmais, a center for crystal and glass. Excursions are possible to Passau, Regensberg and Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.

• Recommended Hotels: Romantik Hotel Bierhütte D-94545, Hohenau-Bierhütte (41 km north of Passau), tel. +49/08558/96120, fax 961270. Rooms from about $45.

Kur-und Sporthotel Adam Bahnhofstrasse 51-53, D-94249 Bodenmais, tel. +49/09924/94000, fax 7219. (Hotel has its own brewery.) Rooms from about $43.

• Tip: The Bierütte has an outstanding restaurant.

• Recommended Transport: Car

The Mosel

We think it's prettier than the Rhine and we know it's less traveled. Arrange in advance to visit wineries along the way. The German Wine Information Bureau (79 Madison Avenue, New York NY 10016, phone 212-896-3336) has free brochures identifying wineries offering free tastings (don't taste without buying, however). Visit Trier and its Roman ruins and explore romantic wine towns such as Bernkastel Kues, Zell and Cochem.

• Don't Miss: Burg Eltz one of Europe's great fortress/castles.

• Recommended Hotels:

Gutshotel Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, Balduinstr. 1, Obere Mühlbrücke 9, Neumagen-Dhron, D-96049, tel. +49/06507/2035, fax 5644. Rooms from $60.

Hotel Petrisberg Sickingenstr. 11, Trier, D-54292, tel. +49/0651/4640, fax 0651/46450. Rooms from about $55

• Tip: Hotel Moselschild (tel. +49/06532/93930, fax 939393) in Ürzig (10 km north of Berncastel-Kues) has a fine, affordable restaurant.

• Recommended Transport: Car

Bamberg

Beautiful, under-visited city almost as charming as Rothenburg. Walk the town at dusk, just as the lights come on to illuminate the old buildings, bridges and statuary.

• Don't Miss: Rauchbier ("smoky" beer) at Brauerei Schlenkerla Dominikanerstrasse 6.

• Recommended Hotels:

Hotel St. Nepomuk Obere Mühlbrücke 9, D-96049, Bamberg, tel. +49/0951/98420, fax 984 2100. Rooms from about $65

Wilde Rose Kesslerstr. 7, Bamberg, D-96047, tel. +49/0951/981820, fax 22071. Rooms from about $48.

• Tip: Dinner just outside of town in Gaustadt at Brauereigasthof Kaiserdom Gaustadter Haupstrasse 26, tel. +49/0951/965140, fax 9651444. Three-course meals from about $21

• Recommended Transport: Car

Lausanne/Montreux

Since no self-respecting tour bus ever misses Lucerne, here are a couple of on-a-beautiful-lake (Geneva) alternatives. Both cities are gorgeously situated and can be used as a base for excursions to the Valasian wine country, the cheesemaking hilltop village of Gruyères, Geneva and the Red Cross Museum, and to France, on the lake's opposite shore.

• Don't Miss: The Olympic Museum

• Recommended Hotels:

Beau-Rivage Palace CH-1000, Lausanne, tel. +41/021/613 33 33, fax 613 33 34. Rooms from about $275.

Hotel Elite 1 av. Sainte-Luce, CH 1003, +41/021/320 2361, fax 320 3863. Rooms from about $73.

• Near Montreux:

Hotel de Sonloup au Col de Sonloup, Les CH-1833 Les Avants, tel. +41/021/964 3431, fax 964 3480. Rooms from about $44.

Auberge De Chernex, CH-1822, Chernex, tel. +41/021/964 41 91, fax 964 68 57. Rooms from about $65

• Recommended Transport: Car or rail

Brienz

On the same lake as touristy Interlaken but a smaller, far more charming town. From here you'll find it almost as convenient as from Interlaken to explore the Jungfrau region and the villages around the Brienzersee and the Thunersee. For rail pass holders, there is frequent train and boat service.

In the town, make advance reservations to tour H. Huggler-Wyss (CH-3855, Brienz, phone 036/511679), manufacturer of wood sculptures.

• Don't miss: Giessbach Falls (accessible via lake steamer) and Ballenberg, the Swiss Open Air Museum.

• Recommended Hotels:

Grandhotel Giessbach CH-3855, Brienz, tel. +41/033/952 2525, fax 033/952 2530. Rooms from about $81.

Hotel Brienzerburli-Löwen CH-3855, Brienz, phone 033/951 1241, fax 033/951 3841. Rooms from about $64, though lake and falls view doubles are $140 and up.

• Tip: A great bargain is a double room with a forest view for 160 Sfr. ($93) at the immensely charming Grandhotel Giessbach.

• Recommended Transport: Rail or car

Graz

It can't match the majestic buildings of Salzburg or the glory of Vienna but this somewhat undiscovered old-world city, the capital of Styria, is definitely worth your time. Walk its old-town and pay a visit to the Zeughaus (arsenal), the Cathedral, the Mausoleum of Ferdinand II, the Stryrian Heimatwerk (craft store) and the Farmer's Market across from the opera house. On a warm summer night, grab a table at one of the outdoor cafés on Mehlplatz, center of Graz nightlife.

For a really off-the-tourist-track excursion, drive south to Ehrenhausen and explore one of Europe's unknown wine roads; the Südsteirische-Weinstrasse, along the Slovenian border. The tourist office in Graz can provide detailed information. Of course, another excursion would be to Piber, where Lippizaner Stallions of Vienna's Spanish Riding School are trained.

• Don't Miss: The façade of the Hof Backerei at Hofgasse 6.

• Recommended Hotels:

Erzherzog Johann Sackstrasse 3-5, A-8010 Graz, phone 0316/811616, fax 0316/811 515. Rooms from about $85.

Hotel-Restaurant Ohnime, Purbergstrasse 56 (on the outskirts), A-8044 Graz, tel.: +43/0316/39 11 43, fax 39 11 43 19. Rooms from about $39.

• Recommended Transport: Car or train

More Destinations

Coburg

Pretty town of gardens and historic buildings 47 km north of Bamberg. See the Veste, where Martin Luther once lived, and Ehrenburg Castle where Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, spent his childhood. The Hummel factory is in nearby Rödental. Try Hotel Blankenburg (tel. +49/09561/6440, fax 644199), rooms from about $58.

Rust

In the seldom-visited wine region of Burgenland, about an hour south of Vienna, Rust is on the reed-ringed Neusiedlersee, a 124 square-mile body of water only seven feet at its deepest point. Don't miss the Heurigen (wine taverns) for a snack and a glass of fresh white wine made on the premises. Hotel Am Rathausplatz (tel./fax +43/02685/6772), rooms from about $40.

Lienz

Charming 700-year-old Austrian town at the south end of Hohe Tauern National Park, about 25 miles from the Italian border. See Bruck Castle and the Egger Lienz Gallery. Visit Aguntum, once a Roman settlement. Picnic and swim at Tristracher Lake. Haidenhof Gasthof Hotel (tel. +43/04852/62440 fax 62440-6), rooms from about $35.

May 2000