A recent phone conversation with a longtime reader and veteran of many European trips reminded me of a fundamental reason why I return to Europe again and again and again
By Bob Bestor
Our reader mentioned he was considering a visit to Burgenland and from there planned forays into Hungary because, as he said, the region offered one of Europe's few remaining Old World travel experiences. Immensely popular destinations such as Provence and Tuscany, he feels, are not only expensive but, worse, overrun with American tourists, which has contributed to a loss of Old World charm.
With one offhand remark, that savvy Mississippian opened my eyes to a bedrock motivation for my own European travels. I, too, seek the Old World experience...whatever that means to you.
My sense of Europe began to take shape while growing up in a little town outside Omaha. There was a war on (I was seven when it ended) and much of it was fought in what the oldest members of my family referred to as the Old Country. While my father was away and my mother worked days for the government in Omaha, I stayed with my grandmother, whose parents had emigrated from southern Bohemia. One neighborhood of our little city was called "Bohunk" town where names such as as Ptak and Svoboda were stenciled on the mailboxes. Grandma had an ancient (probably only in her 60s) wispy-haired, cleaning woman we all called Missy Hollis. She had about three teeth in her head and frightened my friends. Missy Hollis was from the “Old Country,” about which, in my grandmother's house, there was much discussion. I had to eat all my food because of the starving children in the “Old Country.” People from my family and from our town had gone to the “Old Country” to fight the war. At the local movie house, where I was a frequent patron (I was allowed to watch the cartoon and the cowboy movie that preceded the main feature), I saw the “Old Country” in newsreels. It seemed to be mostly smoky, ruined buildings and piles of rubble.
It actually took a couple of postwar decades of movies shot on location in Europe before my newsreel images were replaced by green hills, sidewalk cafés, sleek trains and cozy hotels. All this resulted in a curiosity about the Europe that existed before World War II and, even later, before the mass arrival of American tourists. What, for example, was Berlin like in the '20s, Vienna in the great days of Empire, Garmisch-Partenkirchen during the '36 Winter Olympics? Fragments and flickering glimpses of those times remain today, and catching a fleeting whiff of them is always a satisfying part of every trip.
As you can see, I'm most interested in the recent past. Perhaps my idea of Old World (OW) is best understood by example. Vienna is the most OW city in our three countries; Geneva probably the least. On my OW quotient scale of 0-10, Vienna is a 9, Geneva a 2. Of some influence is the volume of tourists; it's hard to find Old World among all those buses. Rothenburg ob der Tauber gets a 5, but Bamberg is a 7. Graz is a 7, Lucerne a 4.
Among our three countries: Austria is the most OW, followed by Germany and Switzerland. Of course, eastern countries, like the Czech Republic would score even higher. It would be hard not to give 10s to places such as Prague and Cesky Krumlov.
For some reason, perhaps it's the relentless tide of tourists, in an overall sense Salzburg isn't very OW. However, some of its sights are, notably St. Peter's Cemetery and the Cathedral.
But perhaps I should say what is, rather than what isn't OW...at least in my opinion. We've already mentioned Burgenland which I consider a throwback and as OW as any region in our three countries. This is entirely subjective, but the wine villages, the lower prices, the proximity to Hungary, and a look and feel I simply can't put into words, somehow fit my idea of Old World. So do Graz and the wine country south of it along the Slovenian border.
Vienna, of course, reeks of OW. Have dinner at Restaurant Beograd (Schikanedergasse 7), walk the streets of neighborhoods outside the Ring and eat at a dingy Beisel few tourists ever pass by, much less enter. The neighborhood where one finds the Hotel Altstadt (Kirchengasse 41) is a good one to prowl.
In Germany, for some reason, I get more of an OW feel in southern Bavaria than in the Black Forest. The Romantik Road holds little romance for me, though Rothenburg, Dinkelsbühl, Nördlingen, and Donauwörth are all interesting towns with OW patches.
Though Berlin was virtually blown to dust, it is a town in which I find much OW. I saw the battered Reichstag in a '40s newsreel; then up-close-and-personal in 1980, deserted and surrounded by weeds; and now, of course, in its reborn, glass-domed glory. Very OW.
On the other hand, OW is not easy to find in Munich. It's in the Augustiner Gaststätten but not the rowdy Hofbräuhaus. Actually, I find more OW in Hamburg than Munich; the fish market, the great port, and some of the old-time restaurants and bars like the Commercial Room (Englische Planke 10), the Ratswein Keller (Grosse Johannisstrasse 2) and the hole-in-the-wall Alt Hamburger Bierstube (Gerhofstrasse 40).
Some of Germany's best OW is in the regions of the former East Germany in towns like Quedlinburg and Weimar. In this area, however, Old World is best found by hitting the backroads where you'll come upon villages that have changed very little in the last 50 to 100 years.