The Best Single Piece of Advice?
Somewhere in my long-ago, nearly-forgotten corporate past I recall one of those motivational seminars in a dispiriting airport hotel meeting room at which the moderator set forth the following scenario: because of a massive paper shortage, you can only send your customers a single article this year. What would its topic be?
Now, these many years later, that dreadful day of sitting around in a suit and tie, taking notes I would never review, is the inspiration for this month's homily.
What indeed, I recently wondered, would my "message-of-the-year" be to folks who hanker to spend an occasional few days or weeks in Germany, Austria and Switzerland? Would I extol the grandeur of the Alps? The liberating feeling of backroads driving? The romance of rail travel? The charm of small, family-run hotels? Worthy candidates all, but much too obvious and not very specific. The more I thought about it, the more a dark-horse entry in the "message-of-the-year" stakes race crept into my tiny but busy cerebrum. So now, hurtling down the stretch its, ta da, the Michelin Red Guide.
That's right, a mere guidebook is our VIM, very important message. A guidebook series, actually, as there are 11 Red Guides, including one for Germany and another for Switzerland. (For reasons not known by this space there is no Michelin Red Guide for Austria, only the Green Guide for sights.)
Except for the Internet, which so far we are unable to fit in a suitcase or access from a wide spot along a Black Forest backroad, Michelin's Red Guide series produces the most useful and amazing travel books around. For the countries they cover, the Red Guides are the world's best collection of essential travel information. Not only are they always with us in Europe, at home they are a travel reference we consult virtually every day.
The traveler who sticks to the best-known destinations Munich, Salzburg, Lucerne, Rothenburg will survive with a garden variety, all-purpose guide like Frommer or Fodor, but for those who want to take even one step off the beaten path, Michelin has no peer. Want to find a place to stay in the Baden-Württemberg town of Leonberg (15 miles out of Stuttgart), for example? Probably not, but just in case, Michelin can tell you. Forget Fodor or Frommer. For them, Leonberg and more than 1,000 other towns covered in the Red Guide, don't exist.
Even for a major city like Munich, Michelin rates about twice as many hotels and restaurants as Frommer. In fact, the Michelin Red Guide for Germany lists some 2,500 towns and cities and around 10,000 hotels and restaurants.
But, as you'll see below, Red Guides are more than an extensive listing of hotels and restaurants. Much more.
(In describing the Red Guide series, we use Germany as our example, though the other guides, including Switzerland, are just as comprehensive. We have starred those features we find particularly useful.)
City Info & Maps
For each city listed, Michelin supplies a wealth of information: postal code, telephone area code, altitude, population, number of chair and ski lifts, tourist office address plus phone and fax numbers, the availability of recreational activities such as golf courses and major tourist attractions like museums, castles, etc. For those using separate Michelin maps, the correct map number is noted along with coordinates for locating the town on the map.
One feature worth the price of the book is the approximately 150 city maps. Spotted on them are the hotels and restaurants listed in the guide. In a city like Munich that can be 200 or more. You can imagine how handy it is to have the location of your hotel marked on a map of the city you're driving into for the first time. Also noted on these city maps are the major tourist sights with map coordinates found in the city listing.
"Best Places" Locator Maps
Near the front of the book 11 pages of maps show towns in which Michelin finds particularly pleasant hotels and restaurants. An auto traveler can quickly determine which of them is within an easy drive. It is then a simple matter to go to the alpha list of towns to find phone numbers and call for reservations.
The listing for some 40 major cities is accompanied by an area map that shows nearby towns with Michelin-approved hotels and restaurants that are within a 30-minute drive of the center of the major city. Let's say, for example, that you're in Freiburg im Breisgau in the southwest corner of the country; there's a convention in town and the hotels are booked. A quick scan of the area map for Freiburg shows some 50 towns with Michelin-rated hotels and restaurants within a 30-minute drive of the town center. These area maps also highlight the location of restaurants Michelin ranks in its top four restaurant categories.
Distance Between Cities
Charts show driving distances between the major cities of both Germany and Europe. When one combines these with the individual town listings in the main part of the book, which note distances from each town to a few nearby and/or important towns, one can approximate the distance between virtually any two cities in Europe.
This chart has telephone codes for European countries, including the U.S. and Japan.
List of Events
Festivals and principal events in 35 of Germany's largest towns.
Five pages in the back of the book show Germany's network of major roads. Want to get somewhere fast? These pages quickly tell you if there's an Autobahn or major federal highway between you and your destination. Another page shows the Autobahn network throughout Europe.
Listed for Germany's major cities and regions.
On another map, the country's wine grape regions are highlighted and there is a listing and description of the major grape varieties of each region. A short description of Germany's four major wine categories will help the reader decipher German wine labels.
Of course the main business of the Red Guides is to help the user to find hotels and restaurants.
While Michelin is famous for its ratings of expensive restaurants, of greater value to the ordinary traveler is the notation of simpler, cheaper places serving good food. The guide identifies four major restaurant categories; one, two and three-star establishments plus the "Bib Gourmand" designation which uses the work "Menu" in red and the "Michelin Man" (Bib) symbol to identify "moderately priced restaurants offering good value and serving carefully prepared meals, often of regional cooking." There are five three-star restaurants, 14 two-star, 184 one-star and 375 "Bib Gourmand" restaurants. Other restaurants, which "serve simple meals for less than €14 are marked with a tire symbol.
If you don't want to flip through the pages to find the best restaurants, there is a list of them, alpha by city, near the front of the book.
There is no text describing the hotels, but a mountain of information is communicated via symbols that are explained in English and other languages at the front of the book. The symbols of especially pleasant hotels are printed in red. The rocking chair symbol is for quietly situated hotels. A red rocking chair is an especially quiet or secluded hotel. Particularly pleasant or notable hotel features such as a view or extraordinary interior decor are highlighted with red markings.
The fact that Michelin chooses to include a hotel in the book is itself an endorsement.
Take time to learn to use the guides and they will return their cost many times over. RHB.
Unfortunately, the Red Guides take a little getting used to and some first-time users are intimidated. They communicate a vast amount of information almost entirely via symbols and maps. Virtually the only text is an explanation of how to use the book. In the guides for Germany and Switzerland, some hotel and restaurant listings may include a few words of German to point out a particularly attractive feature or a special dish.
Take time to learn to use the guides and they will return their cost many times over.