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There are many advantages to visiting Europe in the early spring


Even though spring is sometimes a no-show in April in Europe, it's still a great month to be there. At least for us. I'd rather not hear English spoken in the breakfast room; I like staying in an almost empty resort hotel; the crowds are thin even at the three-star sights, and a bowl of soup and a beer taste all the better after a two-hour walk on a chilly, rainy morning.

In Munich, we met a neighbor who's been living in Paris for a year but who had never been to Bavaria. We showed him the Wieskirche, that wonderful Rococo church in a meadow near Oberammergau, Munich's Nymphenburg Palace (especially the glorious carriages of the Wittelsbach family) and Linderhof, for my money the wackiest but most endearing of the three castles commissioned by the maligned Bavarian king, Ludwig II. (Ludwig wasn't "mad," by the way, simply different. Alive today, he'd probably be running a terrific little hotel - on second thought a terrific big hotel - in San Francisco.)

Over the past 17 years we have made at least half a dozen visits to each of these sights and never have we seen them with fewer visitors.

Our only al fresco meal was at the Wieskirche, where we had a lunch of Leberkndel soup, Würstsalat and beer at a table in the sunshine. Afterwards, however, our attempt to reach Garmisch-Partenkirchen via some very back (gravel), backroads failed because they were still under four feet of snow.

Sightseeing, local transportation, tours, day excursions from Salzburg

On the Attersee, in the town of Attersee half an hour east of Salzburg, we walked the villages nearly deserted streets in a snow flurry. Beaches and docks were deserted and in the little lakeside towns not an umbrella table in sight. But our room in the near-empty Hotel Oberndorfer had a cozy sitting area with floor to ceiling windows. Ensconced in easy chairs with feet up on the coffee table, we were able to see fish swim in the clear water below as snowflakes disappeared when they hit the water.

The first night in Vienna, a Sunday, featured a truly miserable cold, wet rain. Many restaurants were closed but a cordial young clerk at our hotel, the Altstadt, directed us to a busy, cheery nearby Beisl where we shook the rain off our hotel-provided umbrella and dove face first into various plates of Vienna comfort food. The restaurant in question is the Spatzennest, St. Ulrichsplatz 1.

Sightseeing, local transportation, tours, day excursions from Vienna

Besides cold and wet, I have one or two other impressions of our recent trip that may be worth passing along.

Gone are the days of carrying travelers' checks and worrying about having cash in a land where banks never seem to be open. ATMs have proliferated and can be found even in the smallest towns. We left with only $800 in traveler's checks (remaining from a batch of $1000 purchased in late 1994) and came back with $600. I exchanged $200 upon arrival at the Zürich Airport because, having forgotten to bring leftover cash from a previous trip, I had not a single franc.

By the way, if you absolutely must change money at an airport, make it a European airport. The exchange rate at the Los Angeles airport was 1.12 Swiss francs per dollar. Eleven hours later, in Zürich, at the end of our flight, the rate was CHF 1.17. At 1.17 you get an additional CHF 50 on a $1,000, exchange or about $43. But don't be in the position that you must make that exchange. Have enough local money on arrival to hold you until you can get to an ATM where you'll find the very best rate of exchange.

When paying for purchases use a credit card as much as possible: you get the top exchange rate; you don't have to come up with the money until later; and with the right card you'll get mileage. For the rest, use cash from the ATMs.

Austria's countryside offers the best hotel bargains in the three countries we cover. Everywhere we found clean, attractive rooms with shower or bath and toilet, in acceptable small hotels, some with charm, for from as little as $25 per person.

For Munich-bound travelers well have a report later in the year. For now, however, you should be aware that a couple of recommended establishments have slipped. First, we had bad meals at Zum Bürgerhaus, at Pettenkofer 1, near the Hotel Exquisit (still a strong recommendation in its price range). How bad? One word: microwave.

And, sorry to report, the Hotel Adria is becoming a little too worn around the edges to recommend strongly. The location is still excellent, quiet but not far from the action, and the breakfast is much improved, but at the price it is no longer a bargain.

Finally, we tried to see the Pension Am Market, near the Viktualienmarkt in the heart of city. We dropped in as tourists and asked to look at a few rooms. Sorry, no. We asked for a hotel brochure and were given a business card without prices. Next day I called the innkeeper, Harald Herrler, told him I would like to inspect the hotel for Gemütlichkeit and asked if it would be convenient to stop by later in the day. He said yes but with little enthusiasm. Upon arrival Herr Herrler first motioned toward the stairs saying "look at anything you want." He immediately changed his mind, however, and said we would be wasting our time because he never has any rooms available. When asked if the hotel was always fully booked he said yes. In the last 10 years I figure I've stayed in and/or inspected just under 1,000 hotels. This is the first one that wasn't interested in new customers. Draw your own conclusions.

Gas in Austria (the only country in which we purchased it) ranged from 10.94 AS ($1.03) to 11.4 AS ($1.04) per liter for the least expensive Bleifrei (unleaded), about $3.90 per gallon

Information current as of spring 1996