Europe, Your Way
|Gargoyles Always Have the Best Views: Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral (PhotoDisc)|
Let's face facts: everybody goes to Europe. Rome is so romantic and, ah, Paris. Mais oui! And Switzerland, and Sweden, and Spain. Fifteen countries in 15 days! The culture. The arts. The craze. Who can resist the lure of un petit café and buttery croissant with 800 types of cheeses and meats with names like hackfleisch before setting out for a bit of wandering among the Alps? Ye Olde Country is popular for a reason.
But things can get ugly. Summertime in just about any European hotspotfrom the Loire to the line at the Louvreare typically jam-packed with you-know-who. Them. Those geezers with the white tube socks pulled to the knees who, bless their hearts, honestly think those kitschy cuckoo clocks would look great in the living room, that the Swiss speak Swedish, and come home with fists full of Nestlé bars because the chocolate is just soooooooo yummmmmmmy. Not to say that these travelers don't have their place; during this time of cultural xenophobia, anyone who travels to another country is someone trying to understand the world, which is a zillion times better than many of our compatriots. But let's face it. Sometimes to experience the true soul of a place means you have to go when the going's slow. Drop the pace down a few clicks and you have more time to seep into the cities, towns, or countryside. For Europe, that means going in the fall.
As with any trip during the shoulder season, you'll have to swap certain conveniences and opportunities for others. In exchange, new doors will open. The innkeepers might be more likely to share a bottle of wine with you. The trails are less likely to be swamped, but the weather might not be as stable. So what? You're not new to the outdoors. At the very least you probably own a jacket and good set of boots. So it's foggy one day. That's probably the best time to snap the perfect photo of a shepherd emerging from the mist with his flock. Rolling with it in Europe during the off-season is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to see the real Europe, like peeking behind the curtain before the show begins.
Just about any of Europe's countries have great things to dofrom paddling around Crete to checking out one of those one million Finnish saunas. Typically your best points of entry are going to be the major European economic centers, such as Paris, Berlin, Rome, Zurich, Amsterdam, London . You get the point. In the fall, airlines lower their prices as demand drops and bargains pop up left and right. Until the end of October, Swissthe airline formerly known as SwissAiris offering screaming deals from Newark to Amsterdam ($480), Geneva ($535), and even Budapest ($625). A friend just flew to Paris from Newark on Continental with a two-week advance purchase for $400. Lufthansa has nonstop flights from Portland, Oregon, to Frankfurt, Germany, for $572. Go from Boston for $435 or from Atlanta for $462.
Once you're there, Europeans have the public transportation system nailed. Trains are lovely and reliable, buses will take you from the station to the tiniest of outposts, and renting a car through a site like www.easycar.com can get you around on your own time for nominal Euros. But don't take Europe's ease and smaller geographic scale to indicate that you should spend just one day in each country. Patience has long been a travel virtue, so embrace that when designing your itinerary. Try to cram every Western Euro country into a three-week jaunt and the trip will be one big blur, but if you take your time, the places you do see will open up in ways you could never imagine. And that, my friends, is really what traveling is all about.
Given that Europe is chock-full of gastronomic, academic, outdoor-related, artistic, and decadent attractions, we've focused in on just a few of our favorite off-season retreats to whet your appetite. We've also outlined a few dreamland itineraries, and pulled together a reflective list of hip and happening, must-do, must-see attractions, from Alsace to Zermatt. So pack your boots, some warm clothes, and a camera. Just save room for that cuckoo clock.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication