Report from the "Field"

For the first time in 14 years, we took a trip to Europe that was more vacation than work. Usually the ratio is about 15% fun and 85% work-fun. This time it was 99% pure R & R. Longtime friends who had never before been to Germany, Austria, Switzerland had asked us if we would show them around.

Given Frank and Karen had never been before, and our knowledge of the area, it fell to us to set the itinerary for the four of us, a job more difficult than I ever imagined. Like everyone else, we were limited by time - 16 days - and, of course, geography. Immediately Liz and I discovered an overwhelming inclination to plan to see and do way too much. But how could we not visit Vienna? Munich? The Black Forest? The Mosel? The Rhine? The Wachau? The Tirol? Appenzell? Wengen? Kandersteg? Geneva? Graubünden? Ticino? Well, we couldn't. None of these made the final cut and we still wound up with a whirlwind tour. In doing so, we ignored much of the advice we so smugly pass out each month in these pages. We preach less is more but when push came to shove we were just like everybody else, trying to cram a 28-day itinerary into 16-days. Hypocrites.

Don't misunderstand, we enjoyed ourselves immensely - due in large part to our friends fun-loving, up-for-anything, take-it-all-in-stride, easygoing outlook - but our new watchword is "do as we say, not as we do."

We started in Berlin and finished in Florence, a place we had never been and one I hope you'll indulge me a few comments, even though it's out of our territory. In between, relying on both rail and car, we raced through Ceske Budejovice and Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, stopped long enough for an overnight in the Bavarian Forest, grabbed a cup of coffee in Salzburg, and had brief flirtations with Zürich, Brienz, and Lausanne.

One of the best parts of this job is that I get to tell you about our trips and you can't change the subject or excuse yourself to freshen your drink. So let's roll the highlights:

Berlin

Hotel Art Nouveau (tel. +49/030/327 7440, fax 327 744 40) has raised its prices but management, location and the big, airy rooms keep it high on our list.

• A magnificent stand-up lunch at Rogacki (Wilmersdorfer Strasse 145) for 7 cost just over $100 and included at least two glasses of delicious Australian white wine for everyone. Can't say enough about this place.

• It's free, but lines to see the Reichstag's new transparent dome are huge. Best go late at night or early in the morning. It's open until 10pm.

• The futuristic buildings of the new Potsdamer Platz are breathtaking.

Czech Republic

• The first 15 miles of road from any border entry are lined with scantily dressed hookers, cheesy bars, and crummy open-air souvenir stands. It's a sorry sight that makes an awful first impression.

• Wasn't quite so impressed with the food this time at Budvar Brewery in Ceske Budejovice. But still decent and very cheap.

Cesky Krumlov is a must for everyone.

Schloss Haunsperg

• A picture of Eike and Georg von Gernerth in front of their castle (Hammerstrasse 32, A-5411 Oberalm, tel. +43/06245/80662, fax 85680) should appear in the dictionary next to the words "hospitality" and "charm."

• Dinner at Hammerwirt, in the village, was not as good as on our last (1997) visit, however.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen

• Some things should never change and the dining room at the Gasthof Fraundorfer is one of them. Thankfully, all was as we remembered. Frau Fraundorfer still runs things with the command presence of General Patton, but with a sharper sense of humor; the food is as good as ever; Freidl's face is a bit rounder and redder, but the voice is still clear and sweet and goes down as easy as the Munich beer he uses to lubricate the vocal cords. Every night is great at the Fraundorfer, but we caught a special one. The full-house crowd got into it and near the end some patrons were standing on their chairs, singing and clapping. This place is a treasure.

Florence

• First off, it wasn't easy to get a hotel reservation in early May for Florence. After about a dozen turndowns I found the centrally located Hotel Astoria. After completing the online form, I printed it and faxed it to the hotel. Confirmation came a few days later at 520,000 lira ($243) per night double; far more than we wanted to pay, but this was Florence, which attracts more tourists per capita than any other destination in the world.

From Lausanne to Milan we rode the new Cisalpina, whose interior amenities are more airplane than rail car; small windows, limited legroom. At Milan we changed to a more prosaic - and not very spiffy - InterCity. We had a no-smoking compartment in first-class all to ourselves, but the air-conditioning was inoperative and we suffocated for about 30 minutes before moving to the dining car. At that point we were not very happy with Italy. But then came a hint of good things to come. To me, most train food is only marginally better than airline food. So expectations were not high when I ordered a small plate of tagliatelle. It was amazingly good. Sensational, in fact. The yellowish pasta looked and tasted handmade - buttery and full of eggs. It was sprinkled with chunks of delicious bacon and Parmesan cheese (about this time the train was passing through Parma from whence comes the cheese and the famous Parma hams, considered the true prosciutto).

Still hungry, we asked for a single plate of sliced meat for the four of us. We had no Italian whatsoever, our waiter no English, resulting in our being served not one but four plates of paper thin slices of salami, ham and something unidentifiable but equally delicious. There was a small dispute over our wanting to return what we thought we hadn't ordered. The meat had been sliced to order, but it was finally agreed we would pay for two but eat all four. The red wine was flowing, it was no problem, and all parted friends.

We were expected at the Astoria and everyone was most pleasant. Liz and I, however, were shown to a stuffy room (#101) whose only window opens onto the breakfast room! In addition, it's on two levels. The first has a couple of straight backed chairs, a table and the bathroom. That's it. Up a steep flight of stairs in a dark, cramped, windowless, airless space is the bed. This would not do. Back to the front desk. After some deliberation, we were taken to a double overlooking the noisy street. It was small, with beat-up furnishings, but the air-conditioning seemed to work and there was a window.

From the serenity and cool of Lausanne on the lake, to the heat, traffic, noise and armies of tourists that seem to fill every corner of Florence, is a culture shock: long lines to get into the Duomo, the Battistero, the Uffizi and seemingly every other attraction, of which this city has too many to see in a month; and chasing me everywhere...loud, smelly, motorscooters.

When evening came, however, the temperature dropped a few degrees, the traffic eased and about 9pm we straggled into a little trattoria chosen because it had room for us and our feet were tired. Our table in a small, overheated anteroom made us question the wisdom of our choice, but just then the restaurant's owner pointed a hand-held remote control device at an air-conditioning unit high on the wall and Florence was suddenly a better place. That little click not only cooled down the room but, like the turning point in a football game, it completely shifted the momentum of our Florence visit. The old city had begun to work a little magic.

The meal was a joy. We asked for white wine and a bottle was set on the table; no tasting ritual, no presenting the label, just bang, here it is, you pour. That we did. And drank it like water. There was good bread, splendid oil, a plate of marinated seafood, great pasta, and maybe a steak. Red wine, simple but eminently drinkable (as we proved so often), came the same way, thunk. Gelato for dessert. The cost for four about $75. I don't remember the name of the place but it's not important because there are hundreds just like it - and better - all over Florence.

Next day, the weather cooled, the lines to see the handful of wonders we had time for - Michelangelo's fantastic David, the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery - seemed more manageable, and our spirits lifted. We waited 15 minutes for David, 30 minutes for entrance to the Uffizi and about 10 minutes each for the Duomo and the Battistero.

We appreciated the controlled access to these sights. Allowing only a limited number of visitors at one time seems a good, reasonable policy, especially when your turn comes. We were able to comfortably spend nearly an hour with David, viewing the magnificent sculpture from different angles, even while seated at one of the benches.

That night we got a tip from a savvy American who has a second home in the nearby Tuscan hills. I'll pass it on to you. Walk across the Ponte Vecchio and take the first right. On your left, three or four blocks down, is Mama Gina's (Borgo Sant Jacopo 37, tel. 239 6009). Yeah, I know, it sounds like the tourist trap of all time, but the food...the food...words fail me. The best veal chop ever; amazingly succulent little lamb chops; more marinated seafood, only better; and prosciutti with melon that will make you think you've never had either before. A simple restaurant, more expensive than the first night, but a truly extraordinary meal of everyday Florentine fare. The final bill of $133 included two bottles of wine, dessert, mineral water, grappa, the whole shebang for four people.

Somewhere during that final dinner an important fact dawned on me. Not one person we had encountered in Italy; on the train, at the hotel, ticket sellers at David and the Uffizi, waiters in the most touristy sidewalk cafés, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, museum docents, no one, had been unpleasant to us at any time. We found none of the bored, jaded, barely civil attitudes one gets from behind-the-counter personnel in big cities all over the world. Quite the contrary, many seemed to go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. Good humor and a gregarious zest for life is almost universal.

On the other hand, we were advised, Italians are easily offended. Greeting a shopkeeper, waiter or desk clerk with a smiling Buongiorno definitely warms the atmosphere, but to withhold that greeting sends a subtle message of superiority and can result in a chilly reception. There are a couple of other cultural quirks worth passing on. In the market, one does not handle fruits or vegetables to evaluate them for purchase. And, in small shops and boutiques, window shop all you want, but when you enter the store there is an assumption you are a buyer. You will give offense if you do not purchase something.

Florence is noisy, crowded, full of American tourists, and, compared to Zürich, somewhat disorganized and not very clean. However, its buildings, its overwhelming art, its food and its people we all fell in love with. Well be back, but not when the weather is warm, and to a different hotel. RHB

May 2000