Some years ago, just prior to one of our frequent trips to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, before I started writng about European travel, a young woman at a cocktail party inquired about our destination.
When I said Germany she got a funny look on her face and asked a simple question—why? She was curious in the same way that one might wonder why someone would go swimming in Lake Michigan on New Year's Day. Through body language and a careful choice of words, she intimated no one in their right mind would pick Germany or Austria for a European vacation. Switzerland might be OK, but the Swiss were pretty cold fish and boring besides. France and Italy were the places she and her friends planned to visit.
Realizing the conversation was a lost cause, I quickly retired.
Since then I have had enough similar exchanges and tepid "Oh, how nice" comments concerning our choices of European destinations to now fully understand that Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are not, at least for many people, fashionable.
Friends get misty-eyed over Italy and destination droppers slip place names like Provence and Tuscany into the conversation. The likes of Bavaria, Graubünden, and the Tirol are "simply not done, my dear."
German Life magazine once asked us to do a short piece on the advantages of travel in the German-speaking countries. Here's what I came up with:
First Things First
A good place to start is with breakfast. The German, Austrian, Swiss (let's just collectively call them G.A.S., for now) buffet is a marvelous collection of the very freshest dairy products, rolls and bread, sliced meats, jams and jellies (often house-made), various juices, often fresh fruit, usually a variety of cereals—including a pre-mixed concoction of müsli and yogurt to which I am partial—and coffee or tea. These are just the basics; at more expensive hotels the spread can be a lot more elaborate and include such things as omelettes, fancy baked goods, and so on.
The G.A.S. breakfast often included in the price of the hotel room is the most bountiful we have experienced in Europe; much superior, for example, to the French continental breakfast of coffee and a croissant (admittedly an excellent coffee and croissant) or the Italian morning repast which sometimes is just coffee.
Road or rail, no European transport system can match G.A.S. Let's start with Switzerland's rail system, hands down the best on the continent—maybe the world; 1800 stations in a country the size of Maine, all scheduled to mesh beautifully with the country's huge complex of light rail, boat, and bus networks. Of course, there is rail service to both Geneva and Zürich airports. At the end of a trip earlier this month, we needed to get from Brig, near the Italian border, to the Zürich Airport in the north to catch an afternoon plane to San Francisco. It was snowing heavily and we had to get over, around or under the rugged Bernese Oberland. After an 8:30am breakfast at our Brig hotel, we walked through the snow five minutes to the station, to catch a 9:57am InterCity. Even without reservations we had no trouble finding a pair of facing window seats which we never left until just after 1pm when, right on time, we rolled into the Zürich Airport. There were almost three hours to kill before our flight.
Germany's 160mph ICE trains are another high-tech wonder and Austria's rail system is also first-rate.
For all the jokes about it, and the average U.S. tourist's wariness of it, Germany's Autobahn system is another marvel. But perhaps the best thing about G.A.S. roads is that even the smallest, most obscure country lane is meticulously maintained. They get the highest marks from this veteran California pothole dodger.
And where are the least expensive car rentals in Europe? Germany, of course, where at this writing you can reserve a Mercedes C-Class (or similar) with free GPS for about $34 per day including 19% VAT and airport tax.
Sorry, Italy, France, Scandinavia, Benelux, Balkans, Iberian Peninsula, but we've got most of the big hitters. Sure, we love guys like Grieg and Sibelius (Scandinavia); Debussy, Ravel and Faure (France), Vivaldi, Puccini and Verdi (Italy), and Russia, of course, is understandably proud of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but the heart of the G.A.S. batting order is Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. Plus, with the likes of Frank Schubert, Gus Mahler and the Strauss boys, Joe and Dick (no relation), we have an extremely deep bench. A fella like Franz Lehar is just a pinch-hitter for our side. We've got a few decent orchestras, too, like about 15 really top-flight ones in towns like Vienna, Berlin, Salzburg, Zürich, Munich, and even Bamberg and Bern.
Well, maybe there you have us. The food in Italy and France is awfully good. In fact, if I had to choose just one cuisine for the rest of my life, it would be Italian. Pasta every day would be no problem. Even so, I consider the Germanic elements of GAS cuisine (there's a phrase to whet the appetite) to be underrated. Use of the freshest ingredients is the norm and dishes most of us don't find in the U.S. are commonplace; wild boar and venison, for example. The tender calves liver that melts in your mouth in a GAS restaurant is entirely different than what one finds at most U.S. restaurants (provided it's even on the menu) or grocery meat counters. Intensely-flavored wild mushrooms are used by even the most unpretentious restaurants. Simple, tried and true comfort dishes some "foodies" disdain, such as Swiss Rösti, Austrian Schnitzel, and Eisbein (pork shank) in Germany, may not be the latest "California Cuisine" but are, in the hands of the right chef, delicious. And, of course, if you want to eat Italian, just head for the Swiss canton of Ticino. For Michelin-starred French cookery try the Swiss canton of Vaud.
Beer & Wine
I find beer superb in both Austria and Germany and merely "very good" in Switzerland, which is a wine-drinking country.
When it comes to wine, G.A.S. doesn't get the credit it deserves. The everyday bottles of all three countries measure up to any country in the world, including France and Italy. When it comes to the pricier stuff, Germany, at least, is a world-class player. No white wine anywhere is quite like the luscious nectar produced on the banks of Germany's Mosel, Saar and Rhine rivers. And, though not in the class yet of great vineyards of Bordeaux or Burgundy, red wines from Baden-Württemberg have improved dramatically in the last 20 years.
As for Austria, I refer you to the Wachau Valley, Graz, and Burgenland just south of Vienna whose desserts wine are now challenging France's best Sauternes.
Overall, Switzerland, may be the best wine-maker of the three countries, but since there isn't enough to export, few know or care. I have had extraordinary white wines from the vineyards of the Vaud along Lake Geneva, and delicious, complex reds from the Rhône Valley in the Valais.
Taken as a region, G.A.S. offers mountains, lakes, islands, a variety of seacoasts, four languages, several cuisines, and climates that range from almost subarctic in the north of Germany to nearly subtropical in Switzerland's Ticino canton.
This is where the wicket gets a bit sticky—at least for those who have never visited G.A.S. In contrast to the post-WWII attitude regarding the Japanese, the media has cast German speakers as virtual cartoon characters. Think about it, when was the last time you heard or saw an advertisement in which a Germanic character was not a caricature? Ads and movies almost always portray persons with German accents as uptight, inflexible martinets; fat, fun-loving, beer-swilling bumpkins, or elegant but terrifyingly evil Gestapo interrogators. Are there Germans like that? Of course, but imagine the outcry in this country if a TV ad caricatured the Japanese.
If you've spent some time in the Germanic countries you know such portrayals are inaccurate. It is always a mistake to characterize an entire people. In little country towns throughout G.A.S. visitors are almost always met with warmth and friendliness—just as they are in small-town America. In big cities, encounters can be more brusque just as in New York or Los Angeles. But we should remember that hospitality in the Germanic countries is part of the culture. It is ingrained in the families who run the thousands of small hotels and restaurants throughout these countries. Gemütlichkeit, after all, is both a German word that doesn't translate to other languages and a welcoming concept unique to Germanic countries.
Probably I'm not wholly objective in these matters; and the fact that you are reading this says you, too, are a G.A.S. fan. In the end, it comes down to what gets your heart into high gear. RHB