The Discreet Charm of the Off Season

A cheaper and calmer Europe

My guidebook suggested allowing two hours to get through the crowds viewing the outstanding collection of Renaissance art at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Venice. Room IV, in particular, is "usually quite crowded," as it contains some of the museum's finest works. I walked straight in, found one other person who left within minutes, and had the della Francescas to myself.

I didn't get such exclusive access through connections. The key is that I travel to Europe in winter. I know what you're thinking: Isn't the weather a problem? Well, fact is, southern Europe rarely gets snow, and midday temperatures in January and February hover in the 50s and 60s, 10 to 20 degrees warmer than in New York. Even Paris, which tends to get colder, is very manageable. Days can be bright and crisp, and a moderately warm coat will free you to spend time outside.

Flowers are blooming everywhere, from Regent's Park in London to the Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome to beds of pansies in Strasbourg, France. And the outdoor cafés are in full swing. Most European cities don't have the high winds we get in New York, and many sidewalk restaurants are equipped with space heaters and large umbrellas in case it gets rainy. People- watching and hot chocolate make a great combination for a midday break. I found the perfect cup one January day in 1998 at a tiny café in the old Italian city of Verona. The spoon practically stood in the thick, creamy chocolate, and the taste was divine.

Visiting Europe in the off season has many other advantages, not the least of which is cost. January through early May is the low season for airfares from the U.S. to most European capitals. Airlines such as Continental and Northwest often drop their rates as of Dec. 25. At this time, next winter's round-trip fares between New York and London, excluding tax, are $375 weekdays and $433 for weekends. (Those, of course, are subject to change.) Package deals and online specials may offer bigger bargains.

In the 10 years I've been traveling to Europe in the off season, I've yet to pay more than $500 for round-trip airfare to any city, including London, Rome, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, and Milan. You needn't plan your trip very far in advance. Last December, I booked a $470 airfare for travel to Lisbon in January. Friends who had reserved a month earlier paid $70 more.

In addition, fares don't increase around winter school vacations or college breaks, so taking the kids along doesn't have to cost more. And frequent fliers may find it easier to get free seats than at busier times of the year.

Hotels are also discounted. Many offer unadvertised price breaks in the winter months and are more willing to negotiate than at other times of year. I prefer to reserve ahead, so I know I have a hotel room to go to as soon as I land. But if you're not happy with the accommodations--too noisy, no shower stall--you will generally have your pick of other rooms or hotels. To be on the safe side, however, just check in advance whether there'll be a large convention in town.

Once you settle in, theater, opera, and ballet tickets are more plentiful and dinner reservations are easier to secure. Plus, entrance lines to major museums and exhibits are virtually nonexistent. I sailed through the Vatican on a Saturday in January, 2000, the Jubilee year in Rome, and easily got a seat in the Sistine Chapel.

Outdoors, winter offers great photo opportunities. You actually have time to frame your shots without jockeying for position with all the other shutterbugs. In Granada, Spain, in January 1994, my travel mate visited the Alhambra three times in two days, since he practically had the place to himself. At Ostia Antica, a short train ride from Rome, the only other visitors taking pictures one January day were members of a wedding party.

CALMER HOSTS. Which brings me to the best part of winter travel: the authenticity of your experience. Unlike in the high season, when the only people you're likely to encounter are other tourists, the winter crowds, if any, are local. And friends or contacts who live there will almost certainly have more time for you than in the summer months. I spent a lovely afternoon in the apartment of a friend of a friend in Rome a few winters ago--and tasted home-baked panetone as it's meant to taste.

Like the natives, you can also take advantage of the winter sales. Saldi, Ventas, Soldes--whatever the language, I guarantee you'll recognize the signs. I bought two woolen suits of terrific style and workmanship for $75 each in Rome last winter; regular price was twice that.

As an antiques aficionado, I've also brought home wonderful treasures from outdoor European markets in January. Among my finds: mid-20th century paintings from Rome, a red metal milk-bottle carrier from Paris, and Art Deco glassware and 18th century tiles from Lisbon.

Winter travel has some downsides. As mild as the southern cities are, Northern European capitals can be very gray, damp if not snowy, and bone-chilling. So you may want to avoid Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, and Prague.

Check carefully before you go if you're interested in a particular museum. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice was closed for renovation in the winter of 1998. Likewise, the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon was shut down for repairs this past winter. Hotels also use the winter months to spruce up. In a pensione near Florence, stonecutters were working on the stairs outside my room.

It gets dark early, as it does at home, which may limit some sightseeing opportunities. I plan my outings for early in the day, and save museums or exhibitions for after dusk. But sunset over the Roman forum is as beautiful at 5 p.m. as at 8 p.m. And you're in a city--so there's plenty to do after dark, and taxis are abundant. One well-traveled friend swears that seeing an English-language movie in a foreign theater, with the prefilm commercials and snack bar offerings, gives you more insight into daily life than trying to read the local paper. It also can be something of a mental rest, she says, after wrestling with the local language all day.

All in all, a European city in winter gives you more space, far fewer tour groups to contend with, and a chance to gear up or wind down. Shopkeepers and restaurateurs are less harried, and "people are less irritable when it isn't full season," says Manny Kirchheimer, an independent filmmaker who has attended a film festival in Saarbrucken, Germany, near the French border every January for almost 15 years. Most of all, you'll come home with a sense of the cities you visit as they feel to the people who call them home.

By Jamie Russell

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