A Grand Tour On The Cheap

Take advantage of currency bargains in Europe without fighting the crowds

Fly right over London. Skip it. Go straight to the Continent this summer. The euro has been in a dive (chart), dropping almost 25% since its launch 18 months ago. With the euro now about 90 cents, prices in the 11-country euro zone, from Ireland to Italy, are raging bargains. Einar Gustavsson, chairman of the European Travel Commission's U.S. arm, expects a record 12 million Americans to head for Europe this year. "The euro's going to help," he says. "It's a bonanza."

You can get a glass of beer in a Madrid bar or an espresso in a Paris bistro for less than a buck, if you stand at the counter. Because euro coins and bills won't circulate until 2002, visitors still must switch currencies each time they cross a border. But the old national currencies are now permanently fixed to the euro, so they've all been dragged down with it. The French franc is at 7.2 per dollar, for example, the Italian lira at 2,132, and the Spanish peseta at a bargain-basement 184.

Cheap prices aren't the Continent's only allure. This is Jubilee Year in Rome, a celebration of Christ's 2,000th birthday. It's also the one year every decade when the Bavarian townspeople of Oberammergau, Germany, stage their famous passion play, an all-summer performance that invariably attracts hordes. Robin Tauck of Tauck Tours in Westport, Conn., notes that tourism to Europe last year was dampened by anxieties over Kosovo. With those war worries past, she says, European travel arrangements through her agency are up some 25% over 1999. Add in the fact that many Europeans will be kept home by their weak currencies, and the Continent's bound to be teeming by June.

So where do you avoid the throngs? Even in tourist magnets such as Paris, Rome, or Venice, if you just wander a block or two off the beaten track, crowds diminish and prices drop. In Paris, for example, stroll down Avenue Friedland from the Arc de Triomphe, and you will find brasseries with everyday low prices. At Le Friedland, on the corner of Rue du Faubourg St. Honore, the lunch menu includes a generous salad, a large plate of chicken with gravy, potatoes, and beans, and two glasses of house wine for $12.25, including tip. Coffee's another $1.65.

SAVVY SHORTCUTS. Unfortunately, lots of tourists feel they have objectives to meet and monuments to climb. They wind up in long lines--hot, thirsty, and worried about finding bathrooms. The solution is either to skip the tried and true, or find shortcuts. Settle for the second level of the Eiffel Tower. The view is prettier than at the top, and you'll miss an hour of waiting as all the lines converge into one for the elevator to Level 3.

Better yet, skip the tower altogether and head for a restaurant with a dramatic view of it. For this, the intimate Monttessuy, on Rue de Monttessuy, is unbeatable. The menu runs about $26 for a hearty Lyonnais cuisine, featuring rabbit and the pungent andouillette sausages. Cap it off, if you still have room, with crme brulee. Make a point of sitting outside. It's a quiet street with a view right up the tower. At night, it shimmers. A step or two up up the culinary ladder, on nearby Rue St. Dominique, is La Fontaine de Mars. Try the duck and an appetizer of artichoke hearts and fried foie gras. With the cheap euro, two can dine there, with a bottle of Chteauneuf du Pape, for $120.

If you're planning to visit the French countryside, a good option is Burgundy. The vineyard region is flat enough for easy bike touring. Beaune, the wine center, is charming but busy. You'll have better luck finding a hotel in Dijon, which, among other things, boasts a fascinating mustard museum.

Rome is usually even more crowded than Paris. What to do? Check out the Hotel San Anselmo. Surrounded by orange groves and magnolia trees, it's a peaceful alternative 10 minutes from the center, next to Circo Massimo on one of Rome's famous seven hills. Singles now go for $105 (39 06 5783214; fax 39 06 783604; www.aventinohotels.com). Savvy tourists in Rome also know to sidestep museum rush hours. One good bet is the recently reopened Capitoline Museum. Tours bypass it, but this museum boasts a wonderful Renaissance collection, including the original statue emblematic of Rome, the she-wolf suckling Remus and Romulus. Enjoy an aperitif and light snack on the extraordinary terrace with a view of the Roman Forum. Slip into the Vatican museums on Wednesdays when the Pope has his audience. Although the square is jammed, the ticket lines are short.

STUNNING VIEWS. To save money and avoid throngs, visit Germany, where the natives join the rush into Italy, France, and Spain. Tourists who stay in Munich can take short train trips south to the fabled castles of the eccentric King Ludwig II. One of his out-of-the-way lodgings is Herrenchiemsee (www.herrenchiemsee.de). Set on an island in a lake near the Austrian border, it resembles the Chateaux of Versailles and offers something the Sun King's French digs lack: stunning views of the Alps.

In Belgium, you'll want to visit picturesque Brugge, a city of canals and art museums under a half-hour by train from Brussels. But skip the Riviera, which is packed and scandalously priced, no matter how cheap the euro. And if you don't already have reservations nailed down, stay clear of regions that inspire best-selling travel books, notably France's Provence and Italy's Tuscany. Save those two sunny regions for September.

Instead, consider Spain's north. Rioja and Navarra wines are terrific, prices are low, and the weather much more pleasant than sweltering Andalusia. Standing on the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago is a government-run hotel, known as a parador, at Santo Domingo de la Calzada. It's in a 12th century hospital next to the cathedral. You'll see plenty of modern-day pilgrims coming through, on foot and bicycle, and your hotel concierge can recommend plenty of local Rioja wineries to visit. A double room goes for $95. Check out the Internet (www.parador.es) for this and dozens of other paradores.

END OF THE EARTH. A trail of paradores leads west through Spain's green and mountainous north all the way to Santiago. This is in the region of Galicia, a linguistic and cultural cousin of Portugal. In addition to the baroque cathedral, it offers scores of fishing villages on fjords, called "rias," where you can sip the white Ribeiro wine and order plates of the shellfish that people carry in big baskets. It's so remote that one coastal town is called Finisterre, the end of the earth.

For the ultimate relief from tourist hordes, head south into Portugal. Lisbon is a wonderful and oft-ignored European capital. Stroll through the narrow hilly streets of the Alfama, the old Moorish quarter. With its views of the Tagus estuary, Lisbon feels like a 500-year-old San Francisco. Down in restaurant row, Restauradores, you can buy a dinner of grilled fish and wash it down with white wine--or Portugal's famous vinho verde--for $12. And don't forget to visit the maritime museum in suburban Belem.

One special Lisbon hotel is the York House, on Rua das Janelas Verdes, 32. A mile-and-a-half from downtown, this 17th century converted convent has a garden terrace with a view. Rooms run $108 to $160. Reservations can be made via e-mail to yorkhouse@ila-chateau.com. The euro's so cheap right now that you might even consider the Ritz, a Four Seasons hotel perched atop Lisbon that offers three-night packages in August for $324. At the Ritz, like everywhere else in the euro zone, a weak currency softens the hit.

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