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Germany (I)

germanyI co-wrote this monster of a guide along with Andrea Schulte-Peevers, Steve Fallon and Anthony Haywood.

I covered Bavaria, the ever-lovely Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, half of Lower Saxony (maybe the bigger half), half of Baden-Wurttemburg (the smaller one), Saxony and Saxon Anhalt.

And while Steve covered Berlin, I wrote the Trabant joke.

All told, probably my favorite parts of the country were the ones I thought I’d least like: Saxony – Leipzig is one of the hippest cities I’ve ever visited, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where they grow trees along both sides of the road so that in summer it canopies all the highways.

This originally protected the horse-drawn fish carts as they made their way from the Baltic to markets in Berlin.

Florida

Florida_2Tackling the entire state of Florida with your wife is a great way to test the strength of a marriage, and Corinna and I had not just one but two books – this and Lonely Planet”s Miami – to do!

We managed not only to stay married, but to produce one hell of a guide – if we do say so ourselves – to a state most think offers little more than South Beach and Disney.

We went crazy on the outdoor activities, museums and art galleries to try to get away from the golf courses (which we didn’t include at all), condo-lined beach resorts and the madness of Kissimmee.

As a bonus, we ticked off loads of people who felt different – Jay Clarke roared in the Miami Herald that we’d inexplicably excluded the city of Naples from our guide (we left it out because it’s a golf-course packed, condo-lined beach resort), though he relented a bit and said that our book offered “more than most”

Golly, thanks, Jay

But the second edition of the book promises to be a kinder, gentler, Florida. There’s improved coverage of native American activities and history.

And of course, newly updated sections on all the state has to offer, from Disney to Drag Queens.

And yes, we’ve included a nice fat section on Naples which, truth be told, is a perfectly lovely city with some exquisite restaurants.

Brazil

brazil-2What a blast. I covered the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, as well as updating the history, flora and fauna, and all that stuff in the front of the book, while Andrew, Chris, Robyn and Leo tackled the rest of the country.

The basic assignment I got was, “Cut the book by half the length. And make it funnier.” That’s the kind of job I love. So I went. I’d always wanted to go to Brazil, but by the time I got there I had been writing LP books for about five years, and frankly I was burned out. I called my wife from a pay phone in Minas Gerais state.

“How’s it going?” she asked.

“Yeah, well,” I said, “basically everything is the same here as it is everywhere else, except that here I get to look at beautiful girls on the beach while I plod by with all my crap, as opposed to looking at ugly people in a city. So not much difference.”

Brazil, though marked the first time that I wrote a book entirely on the road, using a handheld device of the sort that used to be called a Personal Digital Assistant and is now called a “phone”. It was a WinCE machine that allowed me to type all my notes and corrections into the chapter file at the end of each day and send it via Internet home to Spain. For the first time, I wasn’t lugging all my notes and guidebooks and pamphlets and magazines.

Just half of them.

What, Me Worry?

Steven Caron has time on his hands, and with unique reason. For with all the talk in the U.S. media about the dangers of Russia and the “Mafia-controlled businesses” there, the congenial 26-year-old Californian entrepreneur has such reliable Russian business partners there’s not enough to keep him busy.

“It runs itself,” Caron says of Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism, a joint venture among Caron and two Russian friends. “I mean, I can go in to work and putter around a bit, but we’ve got such a great staff that I’m not really needed there anymore.”

Caron went to Moscow in 1990 to sit in on classes at the Moscow Art Theater, a move meant to advance his first love, a career in acting. But on a visit to St. Petersburg, he found himself spellbound by the 17th-century city, so he decided to transfer there and study Russian in earnest.

Over the next 1 1/2 years Caron, along with two administrators from the Moscow Art Theater, Nikolai Travinin and Oleg Dzanagati, formulated a plan to create the first youth hostel in the Soviet Union that would operate under Western standards.

In February 1992, an exceptionally good lawyer slashed through miles of what was still the Soviet Union’s red tape and registered the joint venture in a record two weeks.

Booked Solid
Caron’s Russian Youth Hostel officially opened in June 1992, and was semi- filled throughout the year as word of its existence filtered through the backpackers’ grapevine. But most important, it opened in time to be included in budget travel guides aimed at young travelers. Since 1993, the hostel has been booked solid.

While his partners ran the day-to-day business, Caron began the gargantuan task of insinuating his hostel into the worldwide hosteling network.

“On my first visit to the hostel in Helsinki,” says Caron, “I found out that some Estonians had just set up a hostel in Tallinn. I met with them, and we all decided that we should get together and promote that route – Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Estonia – as a Baltic Triangle.”

Establishing the Triangle was fortuitous in more ways than one: While Caron insists that the Mafia in Russia is in no way as bad as it’s made out in the Western media – that it concentrates on local businesses, not tourists – it still poses a real enough threat.

“We have to be extremely careful,” he says. “We don’t advertise in the city, but we advertise in Moscow and Helsinki and Tallinn, as well as in guidebooks; anything that the ‘no-necks’ won’t read. It’s a constant battle of promoting the hostel in the West but not gaining too much publicity here in town.”

But a far greater threat than the Mafia to the hostel’s existence are the Byzantine tax regulations imposed on businesses by the fledgling Russian government.

“If they stick another tax on me, I’m going to jump out the window,” says the otherwise preternaturally calm Californian.

Big Obstacle
The tax situation has long been one of the biggest obstacles to foreigners doing business in Russia. Laws change so suddenly and frequently that accountants use the day’s newspaper to determine what taxes their clients are required to pay.

Enforcement is organized, with tax police empowered to raid businesses’ books, make arrests and freeze bank accounts. And there’s a great incentive for the tax police to find new ways of catching non-payers: They work on commission.

“One friend of mine owned a cafe in town,” says Caron. “One day the tax police pulled up outside his place driving BMWs and wearing expensive suits – they had more money than he’d ever seen!”

So far, though, the tax situation hasn’t been enough to stop Caron.

Last year he established another joint venture, with the state museum that operates what has become St. Petersburg’s trademark: the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Caron now operates concessions within the fortress, providing sorely needed food and beverage stands as well as stands selling T-shirts. And Caron is hopeful that his company will be St. Petersburg’s first distributor for Ben & Jerry’s when the Vermont-based ice cream giant begins sales in the city (the company is currently operating in Petrozavodsk, about 100 miles north of St. Petersburg).

True to Hostelling
But over time, hosteling remains the purpose to which Caron is true. He’s upset by what he considers to be unfair reporting of the dangers in St. Petersburg, pointing out that “in two years of doing this, I’ve had two guests have serious trouble on the streets; both were drunk, and both were out very late at night walking in deserted sections of town.”

Indeed, security in the city has never been tighter. Police were on practically every street corner to keep order during the Goodwill Games in July, and there’s a plan to create a “tourist police” force, similar to those in Egypt, Indonesia and, more recently, Miami, composed of multilingual police officers to assist visitors.

For his part, Caron uses his “down time” to organize hosteling in Russia and improve St. Petersburg’s tourism infrastructure. He was instrumental in creating the Russian Youth Hostel Federation, which is composed of five hostels – his own and ones in Moscow, Novgorod, Irkutsk and Petrodvorets.

Caron’s energy seems endless, and if it ever does falter, he has a precious resource from which to draw in the community of foreigners living in St. Petersburg. In a city of more than 5 million, the expatriates have managed to create a community as tight as any town of several hundred, and they all get involved.

“The ex-pat community is larger than it was, but it’s still very small and very tight,” he says.

“The American Business Association here now has a sports committee and a social committee, and we see each other all the time – it’s amazing how close we all are, and how much we support one another.”

Obvious Western Influence
To guests at the hostel, the Western influence is readily apparent. The clean, well-lighted, five-story brownstone is guarded not by hulking security guards, but by grandmotherly types who admonish those who arrive too late at night.

Inside, while the Russian staff keeps things clean, backpackers from all over the world gather in the lobby area to do what hostelers everywhere do: drink coffee, laugh, share war stories and travel tips and make connections at the hostel’s crowded bulletin board.

To understand how Caron achieved his dream in a system fraught with pitfalls and booby-traps designed to thwart his every step, one need only look at how he relates to people.

When Caron bought an apartment last year, the seller, an emigrating Russian, took very little cash up front and Caron’s word to wire the balance to an account in the West. When the Russian arrived at his new home, the money was waiting for him.

IF YOU GO . .
The Russian Youth Hostel is near St. Petersburg’s Moscow Train Station off Ploschad Vosstaniya. Reservations can be made by calling Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism in Redondo Beach at (310) 379-4316 or in St. Petersburg at 011-7-812-277-0569. There is a $10 one-time reservation fee. Rates at the hostel are $15 a night including breakfast. Russian Youth Hostels also arranges visas for hostel guests.

Russian Cooking Comes Of Age

Russian-Borsch-Recipe-Me-cookingAs fodder for guide book humor, Soviet cuisine led with its chin. It’s not that there wasn’t any good food available in the country, it’s just that you had to search long and hard for it. In between looking and finding, visitors were faced down by enormous portions of overcooked vegetables, potatoes slathered in vegetable oil, mystery meat and the occasional pancake with sour cream.

And at Moscow’s middle-eastern restaurants, one would wondered whether ” belly dancing” meant theirs or the dancer’s.

Now days, with availability of high-quality fresh ingredients from around the country and the world at an all time high, Russians are cooking up a storm. And despite their reliance on just a tad more fat then most Western chefs, they’re pretty darn good at it.

The newly-slicked-up Russian Television stations – and their sponsors – have not been slow to capitalize on this trend. One of the most popular cooking shows on Russian television is Smak (which sort of translates to ‘Pleasant Taste’), sponsored by Uncle BenE’s rice and hosted by Andrey Makarevich, former lead singer of the famous 70’s and 80’s-era rock group Time Machine. Now a bit older, a bit paunchier but still as charming as ever, Makarevich’s show features recipes from and appearances by famous (and not so famous) guests.

On May 8, the day before Victory Day, Smak featured cartoonist-cum-television commercial actor Ufimtsev, proffering his recipe for what he calls Baked Chicken and I call ‘Victory Chicken Statue on a Bed Of Wild Rice’ (you’ll get it when you see the recipe).

In a halting, slightly nervous but mostly confident manner, Ufimtsev set about chopping garlic, mushing butter and generally being the elder statesman about the kitchen.

And lo and behold, as the thing started to take shape, I realized that this was the Russian version of the chicken my fat- and-cholesterol-fearing father prepares in New York using a metal contraption that looks something like a Tonka super sex toy, designed to hold the chicken upright during cooking so that the evil fat drips away from the meat. ‘Boy, this is terrific’, says dad, and judging by the looks of things on Smak, Russians think so, too.

UfimtsevE’s Victory Chicken Statue

(From Smak)

Chicken:

one medium-sized chicken, washed

small bunch of dill

several (6 to 8) cloves of garlic

1 cup water

one stick softened butter

1 thick 500 ml or 750 ml glass Bottle (such as a European beer bottle)

Rice:

One cup wild rice

two cups cold water

one tablespoon softened butterv
dash salt

Chicken

Fill the bottle about a quarter-full with water, and add about two cloves of crushed garlic. Impale the washed chicken on of the bottle so that it looks sort of like a chicken statue. The chicken should reach almost, but not quite, to the bottle bottom.

Spread the softened butter all over the chicken, using your hands, followed by crushed garlic. Place the chicken statue on a cookie sheet (to catch fat) in a pre-heated 200°C/400°F oven for about an hour or until done.

The fat drips from the outside of the bird onto the cookie sheet; from inside into the bottle, steaming water infuses the chicken meat with garlic aroma. The contents of the bottle are later discarded.

It didn’t explode on TV, so I don’t see why it would at your house, but for the attorneys’ sake, I should say that the whole thing is AWFULLY DANGEROUS and should all have a warning label and don’t try this at home unless you’re a professional. Use as thick a bottle as you can. If you’re still worried, you’re probably the kind of person who thinks that baseball bats should have warning labels.

Rice

In a small pot, place the rice into the cold water, add butter and salt, bring to a boil; stir briefly and reduce to a simmer and cover the pot for twenty minutes or until the water is gone and small steam holes appear in the surface of the rice on the pot. Don’t stir during cooking and for God’s sake don’t overcook it or keep opening the pot to see if it’s done all the time.

Spread the rice out on a serving dish large enough to accommodate the chicken. When the chicken’s done, place it on the bed of rice (Smak, of course, prefer that it be Uncle Ben’s!). Um, before you do that, it’s probably good to remove the now- filled bottle – grasp it, with the aid of a pot holder, and pull the chicken off the top carefully with two forks.

Chop finely the bunch of dill and three cloves of garlic, and mix the two together in a small bowl. Pour some of the pan drippings on top of the chicken, then sprinkle the garlic-dill mixture on top as a garnish.

You can modify this recipe to be Fatly Correct by ditching the butter and not garnishing with pan drippings; the inside of the bird will still be sumptuous and moist. If you’re really into it, remove the skin, but AFTER cooking. Come on, live a little.

How To Read A Guidebook

Near the registration desk at Jakarta’s most famous youth hostel, Wisma Delina, I watched with growing disbelief an exchange between the owner and an angry backpacker.

“A room,” the owner said, “costs 13,500 rupiah per person.”

“No it doesn’t,” insisted the backpacker, fervently jabbing at a listing in his well-thumbed guidebook, “it says right here that it costs 12,000.”

A traveler who expects a guidebook to dictate pricing policy to the hotel industry is in for a shock. As the guidebook market has become more competitive, publishers have been going to greater lengths than ever to convince readers of their thoroughness, accuracy, and authority. But you can’t forget that a guidebook is intended to be just that – a guide.

“I’m glad I’m in the book,” the owner told me later, when the influx of shelter-seeking backpackers and tapered off. “But I have that same argument 10 times a day. People don’t seem to accept that I set my prices – the guidebook doesn’t.”

He’s right. And it’s not just prices; some travelers take a listing the guidebook to be the word of God – and then become incensed when the book’s wrong.

“A traveler standing on street corner, shifting his eyes between a guidebook and the empty spot where he expects to see something the book describes,” said Berkeley screenwriter Natalie Cooper, “has a deer in the headlights vacuousness that I think is incredibly funny.”

As a guidebook writer I know that all guides, even the great ones, have their inaccuracies. A typo can put museum on the wrong side of town. An off the beaten path site or attraction that appears in a book may be teaming with tourists a couple of months later.

A good write-up in a popular guidebook sometimes results in a price hike. And a cheap bus from A to B go out of business or be taken over by thieving greedheads by the time you ask for your ticket.

But it shouldn’t stop you in your tracks.

Rolling With The Punches
Rolling with the punches is the key to enjoying yourself on the road. Even the best guidebook can’t prepare you for everything you encounter. Even if it could it would take away much of the delight of traveling. When I’m on the road I expect surprises – in fact that’s one of the main reasons I enjoy traveling.

Sometimes the surprises books bring are even pleasant. “The super shuttle,” writes Tony Wheeler in Lonely Planet’s San Francisco City guide, “costs 11 dollars.” Well, my driver charged me $10 for the drive and if anyone thinks I argued with her and pointed in my guidebook they’re nuts.

Travelers can get the most out of their guidebook by carefully selecting a guide that suites their needs.

“One of the quickest ways to see if the book’s right for you,” said Bill Dalton, who founded the Moon handbook series in 1973, “is to look at the index and the table of contents together; play them against each other and from those to you can surmise the breadth and scope of the book.

That’s key. Before you do that though, you’ve got to decide just how much information you want. When researching in Russia, I used the excellent Blue Guide to Moscow and St. Petersburg for architectural and historical information. But for just visiting the city, I’d probably want less detailed history and culture and more general and practical information.

Watch out for books that loaded down with features you don’t need. When I went to Costa Rica for two-week vacation all I wanted was bare bones practical information on how to get to the nearest beach. But on a recent trip to Munich I looked for something to give me a broad range of information like history, culture, architecture and entertainment.

Getting at What You Need
My colleague, Tom Brosnahan, author of Lonely Planet’s Guatemala, Belize and Yucatan guidebook, stresses information accessibility.

“A good guidebook is a knowledgeable, insightful, well informed friend who’s been to the place before you and is helping you get through it,” said Brosnahan, who suggests that you read some paragraphs and see if you can get all with the author’s “voice”. Does it sound friendly” Pithy” Florid”

That’s very important. Peter Moore, who writes about travel on the Internet and speaks about it on radio, said: “choosing a guidebook to accompany you on your travels is as personal a decision as buying a new pair shoes or a new coat. If you’re not comfortable with it, you’re going to have a terrible time.”

“Wherever possible,” said Fred Hornbruch, owner of Philias Fogg’s Travel Books in Palo Alto, “I compare the information of an area I’m familiar with to see if the author covers it as accurately and completely as I want.”

That’s not a bad strategy. When I plan a trip to place or region where I’ve been before, I loiter in book shops looking at every guide they have, looking up off the beaten path places I remember. The book that has the most of them listed – and described well – usually comes home with me.

Some key points:

Prices change. Prices, if listed, are there as a guide to costs at the time of research. They’re not intended to be accurate forever, or even spot on when you by the book. What they are, though, are generally accurate representations of price ratios relative to each other. If you notice that the prices you encounter are, say, 5 to 10% higher than those quoted in the book, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be similarly higher elsewhere in the country. But a hotel that’s 10% cheaper than its neighbor will likely retain that price advantage.

Things change. Good places go bad, bad places go broke. As a traveler, your instincts are what you should be following; use the guidebook to hone them.

Get what you need, not what’s prettiest. Check the proportion of color photos to text to see if what are looking at is primarily a picture book with text or text complemented by pictures. Three pages of photos to one of text is a distinctly leaning to a coffee table book!

Do your homework. Even if you have a loyalty to a particular guidebook series, check the competition is well. All publishers have a couple of books that they’d just as soon forget about – books that aren’t quite up to the series standard for one reason or another. It’s your responsibility to find the best book for your trip. You may find that you want to buy more than one book to cover all of your interests.

And when you do find a mistake or a piece of dated information, perhaps you’ll find it some consolation that, while it may have annoyed you for a minute, we’ll be getting mail about it for the rest of our lives.

Checking Out The Russians In The Hoosgow

The unique thing about St. Petersburg’s new Holiday Hostel kept distracting me as I walked through, checking for bugs under the beds or other tell-tale signs of sloppiness (I didn’t find any). What I was hearing was shouting, and it was coming from…right…next…door. Look at it as a selling point or a travel agent’s nightmare, but it’s certainly unique that the Holiday Hostel’s building is adjacent to St. Petersburg’s Kresty Prison.

Kresty is St. Petersburg’s main holding prison; if you’re busted here, Kresty’s where they take you to await whatever it is that awaits you. And while news reports of a Mafia takeover of the 18th-century City on the Neva are preposterously overblown, crime has increased to the point that Kresty is doing brisk business indeed.

But what distinguishes Kresty from, say, New York’s Riker’s Island, is that Kresty is located on a main boulevard, and prisoners can get to the windows. Russian families are quite close, and in true Russian style, the families of the accused line the street outside, bonding with their inmates.

On any given day, you can see dozens of these well-wishers lining Arsenalnaya naberezhnaya. Mothers, fathers and sometimes even drunken friends stand crying. Wives and girlfriends stand close to the concrete fence, moving their arms in what may look like complicated dance moves, but what is in fact a crude code, known to inmates and prison guards alike.

The prisoner, let’s call him the receiver, makes himself known by holding an article of clothing out the window (they stick their arms through the bars or through holes in the steel mesh). When the sender, down on the street, identifies their man, they start waving their arms about, tracing Cyrillic characters in the air. The receiver waves up and down to signal “I understand”, and side to side to signal “repeat”. Under this method, after three or four minutes of waving, one can clearly discern the message, ‘I-c-a-l-l-e-d-y-o-u-r-f-r-i-e-n-d-M-i-s-h-a’!

The process, understandably, is time consuming (a message like ‘I called your lawyer but he was out to lunch’ could take half an hour or so), but the family and friends on the street below (again in true Russian style) bring along sausage, bread, cheese and thermoses filled with hot tea. Of course, some bring along a bottle of vodka – just to pass the time.

As I left the Hostel, I walked past some of the families waiting to send messages. A black Mercedes-Benz was parked outside; next to it stood an attractive Russian woman in a revealing dress. She was looking towards the prison window and waving. But this woman didn’t need no stinking codes: she was speaking into a cell phone, and as she looked across the prison yard, a tear formed in the corner of her eye.

This was written for Lonely Planet Online in 1995 and subsequently an edited version ran in Lonely Planet’s St Petersburg city guide. That version subsequently made it into the second edition of Lonely Planet’s Russia, Ukraine & Belarus guide. In the latest version, the author who updated the text said that the prison was currently running tours for a fee.

 

Infineon Posts Eighth Straight Loss

Infineon Technologies AG on Tuesday posted its eighth consecutive quarterly net loss – E328 million ($356.5 million), triple its year-earlier loss – despite a 13 percent rise in revenue to E1.48 billion.

The company is the second-largest semiconductor manufacturer in Europe. Infineon and rivals in its main business – making memory chips for personal computers – have suffered through two years of depressed demand and falling prices. In the market for memory chips, only Samsung Electronics Co. has shown a profit for the most recent quarter.

Ulrich Schumacher, Infineon president and chief executive, told analysts during a conference call that while the company had improved its revenue and market share, it could not compensate for the dramatic decline in prices of memory products.

Infineon said that demand from computer manufacturers for memory – which accounts for more than 40 percent of the company’s sales – had picked up. But analysts warn that the outlook is dependent on corporate replacement cycles and increased investment in infrastructure.

Analysts said the results were laced with higher-than-usual extraordinary expenses, especially those for inventory depreciation. Onetime charges totaled E157 million in the quarter.

Andrew Griffen, a Merrill Lynch Co. analyst, said that when viewed on a “clean basis” – that is, without extraordinary charges – the loss per share was about 24 cents, or a slight improvement over the 25 cents Merrill had predicted.

“The revenues were better than analyst consensus,” another analyst for Merrill Lynch said. “We had expected E500 million in memory division revenues, which actually came in at E609 million.”

Viktor Dammann, financial analyst at Bank Vontobel in Zurich, said the “good news” was that the cost of making a 256-megabyte chip – including research and development, depreciation and sales channels – had dropped to E5.40, 50 cents lower than expected. “This was mainly due to a steep increase in production,” he said.

Infineon said memory-chip productivity had reached more than 6,000 wafer-starts per week after upgrading its state-of-the-art 300-millimeter facility in Dresden, which accounted for 40 percent of its dynamic random-access memory production in the quarter.

Journey To Prague

American pilots in Europe are constantly amazed that, in a Skyhawk, you’re often just two hours away from another country. (See related story on how an American with a PPL can rent and fly airplanes in Europe.)

Ten years ago, at the dusk of the Cold War, a trip from Munich to Prague, one of Old Europe’s most beautiful and elegant cities, would have been unheard of. But on a recent sunny autumn afternoon, two friends and I made that two-hour flight. It was both a piece of cake and the thrill of a lifetime.

The Route From Munich to Prague direct is just under two hours, but I’d thought up an interesting little sidetrip to Ceske Budojovice (Budweis). This would be both a leg-stretcher as well as a pilgrimage of sorts to one of beer-lovers’ most holy spots: birthplace of the Czech Budweiser brewery. I figured on a brief stop there, and then we’d depart for the 35-minute leg to Prague.

The return flight would be direct. Nothing could be simpler.

Red Tape
In Europe, the radio work is still in English, and Jeppesen makes the maps in English, too. But the Red Tape Factor was becoming a supreme worry in making my flight plan, as I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer to the procedure for crossing the German/Czech border. Something about a NATO Identification Zone kept coming up, which sounded mildly alarming to say the least!.

In the end, after many phone calls and several blind leads, it turned out to be as simple as a flight from Miami to the Bahamas: a simple filing, in English, of an ICAO International Flight plan form.

Okay, the Czechs are a bit more procedural than their Bahamian counterparts, but it’s essentially the same thing: the plan must include your exact time, altitude and the place where you’ll cross the border. A little nervous about getting all that right, I held off on filing my plan until I picked up my plane at Munich Flyers Flight Club in Augsburg airport, just west of Munich. There I got a final weather briefing (confirming the predicted clear skies and 20kt headwind at 10,000 feet), and faxed off the plan.

I’d verified my intentions by phone with Prague Flight Information regarding the stop in Budweis, and had meticulously noted checkpoints along the entire route to ensure I crossed the border just where I said I would, about four miles north of Philippsreut, a village nestled in the Bavarian Forest.

I phoned Munich Flight Information right after filing my plan, and they assured me that everything was okay. With that, I got out Cessna D-EHMB, a 172, and was in the process of fueling when the airport loudspeaker blared, “Pilot of Cessna Delta-Echo Hotel Mike Bravo, contact Munich Information!”.

My flight plan, it seemed, had been ixnayed by Czech Authorities, who now said that there were no customs officials in Budweis – it was direct to Prague or nothing. The idea of hours of flight planning down the commode and then hastily planning a direct route to Prague while sitting in the cockpit didn’t strike me as particularly pleasant, but we reached a compromise: keep the original flight plan, but turn left over Budweis and head up to Prague.

Munich Airport – Europe’s busiest during peak hours – doesn’t provide flight following services as such, but would give me a transponder code and keep vague track of my progress, ensuring I didn’t venture into restricted airspace or veer glaringly off course.

And, I’m almost sad to report, the flight was almost extraordinary in its ordinariness.

I’d secretly hoped for bizarre instructions, exciting NATO complications and cloak-and-dagger intrigue – perhaps the odd MiG scramble at the border. But the flight was as routine as they come. Well, there was something: finding checkpoints was difficult because each and every town we flew over looked identical! Cluster of red-roofed houses with a church in the middle? Why, that’s clearly Dingolfing..or Straubing.. or Deggendorf ..or possibly Ingolstadt!!.

With the help of a goond flight plan (and, okay, a great GPS and the help of two very keen passenger/navigators), we reached the border transition area spot on time. Munich Flight information handed us off to Prague Information, who gave us permission to climb to 11,500 feet and cross the border. We were in!!.

To save a bit of time, they let us turn left heading 06 degrees on a beeline for Prague, rather than subjecting us to the farce of overflying the now forbidden city of Budweis.

Flight Level Five Five
English may be the language of the skies here, but you’d best speak very slowly and clearly: controllers are used to conversing with non-native speakers, who use a more formal – if stilted – version of the language.

Transition levels in Europe are different from those in the US, where it is above 18,000 feet. About 15 minutes south of Prague, at 9,500 feet, I had a little moment of confusion when the controller then told me to “descend to flight level five five.”.

I replied, thinking I was being clear, “Mike Bravo, leaving niner thousand five hundred for flight level five five, that’s five thousand five hundred feet”, and got back, “Cessna Mike Bravo, I say again, Flight Level Five Five.” .

Allrighty. “Mike Bravo is leaving niner thousand five hundred for flight level five five, that’s five thousand five hundred feet,” I said, slower and even clearer.

“Cessna Mike Bravo, I repeat again,” he said, audibly put out by my rebellious behavior, “descend to Flight Level Five Five.” .

We probably could have gone on all day like that had I not just shut up and said “Roger, Flight Level five five!” And descended to 5,500 feet.

Turns out that was the right thing to do for the wrong reason: As my friend Michel McAloon wrote to correct me, “In most ICAO countrues the published transition altitude may be as low as 3000 feet. Pilots when climnbing through the transition altitude are expected to change their altimiters to the QNE standard of 1013.25 hecopascals (29.92 inches Hg).

Buzzing The Rooftops
Despite that hiccup, things were going swimmingly, and having abandoned my flight plan I was happy to quit looking at the map and let the Prague controllers call my every turn. Prague Info handed me off to Prague tower, and I saw the city just ahead, but I hadn’t ever landed there and couldn’t see the actual field, so I was a bit trepidatious. But I’d figured that, since they had me heading 06, I must be on a straight-in approach to runway 06, right?.

“Cessna Delta-Echo Hotel Mike Bravo, descend to maximum 2000 feet, QNH 1023 and turn left bearing 310 degrees”.

Hmm. Confirm the altimeter setting and..that seems a little, uh, low, as I’m about 500 feet above the ground at this point. My front seat passenger, a Brit, says alto voce “I can see bloody dogs on the ground we’re so bloody low!”.

He’s right, but this is seriously fun; actually instructed to barrel in low over the hillsides and rooftops, with the city of Prague now off my right wing and my passengers boisterously humming Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries.

The hills dropped away and we were now at the relatively sane height of about 800 feet above the rooftops. I finally saw the airport just ahead, but we were number two after an Austrian 737. The tower asked us to, “make now a left turn for one orbit” (more controllers’ stilted English), then to fly right along over runway 31, turning left just past it to enter the left downwind for runway 06.

I’ve gotten used to shorter, European airstrips so I put it down gently right on the numbers. I was in the midst of telling my passengers, “On behalf of Air Nick, I’d like to welcome you to Prague” when I noticed we could have taken off and landed again in the distance it took for us to trundle over to Taxiway Charlie – Runway 06 is 12,188 feet!.

And then began the rock star treatment: the Follow-Me car was a nice touch, and our plane was met by a minivan bearing the gracious Mr Vlastimil Sovak of the Czech Airports Authority Handling Agency who cheerfully offered hotel booking assistance, information on getting to town by taxi or public transport, and then whisked us off to our own private customs and passport control while our plane was refueled. He even made the exchange office employee cut short his lunch hour so we could get busfare to the center!.

Prague is a spectacularly gorgeous city, and it’s so old its “new town” dates to the 15th century. Alas, flying directly over the spectacular city center is forbidden.

20 minutes after leaving the airport, just outside the Staromestska subway station, we were treated to a sweeping view across the Charles Bridge to the magnificent Prague castle, home to Czech royalty since the 9th century. It seemed that around each corner was another architectural masterpiece!.

We spent the evening wandering Prague’s ancient cobblestone streets, and shopping for the justifiably famous Czech glassware. That night, while I caught up on sleep, my two passengers set out to do the town’s lively bars and clubs, sampling the famous beer and, I’m told, getting treated to several on the strength of the tale of their journey.

The next morning we headed back to Augsburg with no barreling, no low passes, and nary a MiG to be seen. With the exception of a slight detour over a restricted area just inside the German airspace I’d somehow (ahem!) overlooked in my flight plan, the return flight was, technically, eventless.

Isn’t it amazing how technically eventless flights can leave you with memories for a lifetime?

An Autobahn Experience

With the dollar so far down against the Euro, it feels as if the only favorable exchange rate left to Americans is one of distance: you still get 1.6 kilometers for every mile.

When the crowds of the Oktoberfest have taken their toll, and you’ve just about overdosed on museums and local sights, it’s time to head out on your own.

The famous autobahns, the freeways that make up Germany’s wonderful highway system, and the country’s compact size mean that within a half-hour of Munich’s center you can be driving through rolling green hills with the Alps practically at your feet.

And when you consider that Chiemsee, Salzburg, Vienna, Baden-Baden and Strasbourg are all within day-trip reach, the proposition gets even more attractive.

But while Americans are among the world’s most dynamic drivers, covering incredible distances each year by car, many here find themselves facing a whole new set of baffling rules and practices that amount to an entirely different driving culture.

Passed At 110
“I was going about 110 mph – fast enough to be dragged away in handcuffs at home,” said Mark Walsh, a Chicago native living in Munich, “and I got passed by a guy on a motorcycle with a passenger!”

An American driving on the autobahn is very likely to have just that sort of disconcerting experience 10 or even 15 times during an hour’s drive. On U.S. highways, getting from Point A to Point B may be the primary objective, but in Germany, it’s not just getting there, but how fast you can possibly do it.

Here’s How It Can Be
A black Mercedes appears in my rear-view mirror. It wasn’t there when I looked a second ago, and now it’s bearing down on me with great vigor. An angry flash of headlights – it’s almost on my rear bumper! I swerve frantically into the right lane and the black beast accelerates past me as if I were standing still, leaving swirling exhaust fumes and a turbo whine in the air. I glance at my speedometer: It reads 180 km/h – 113 miles per hour.

“Every German driver is convinced of two things,” says Munich native Oliver Bengl. “First, that they are an excellent driver, and second, that everyone else on the road is an execrable one.”

Bengl is exceptionally qualified to comment – he’s been a professional driver on Germany’s roads and autobahns for 10 years, in everything from Munich taxis to long-distance freight trucks, from film company vans to one of Bavaria’s most beloved vehicles, beer delivery trucks.

Wind in the Hair
Bengl suspects that Germans, who behave extremely conservatively in everyday life and business, simply need the release of high speed and feeling the wind in their hair – even if that wind is just the light puff of their car’s air conditioner.

“The average German,” he says, “spends his day in close contact with very conservative people. When he gets into his big car at the end of the day, he reverts to a Stone Age hunter mentality – he’s King of the Road.”

This assertive on-road demeanor has resulted in gesticulation (at best) and sometimes even physical fights at the roadside. It is for that reason that it is now a misdemeanor in Germany to “gesture obscenely or shout insults” at other drivers, punishable by a large fine.

Speed aside, driving on the autobahn is a very enjoyable mode of transport that can even be cheaper than public transportation if you’re traveling with someone. And contrary to public belief, there are speed limits on about 85 percent of the autobahns.

Speed limit signs are red-ringed circles containing a number. On autobahns it will usually be 110 or 120 kilometers an hour (70-75 mph). Speed traps occur rarely, but they do happen. If you don’t see a sign, there’s probably no speed limit.

All other road signs are international symbols and almost always instantly understandable.

One key exception is the puzzling circle containing a striped black slash over a blank white background.

This means, basically, “Any sign telling you not to do something before you saw this one is now overruled.” For example, the “slash” sign can end a no-passing zone.

The Kreuz
The Kreuz – the German version of a cloverleaf interchange – can be very confusing, too, even to veteran German drivers.

Modeled after, it would seem, Los Angeles’ most confusing transfer points, a Kreuz connects several highways. Signs are not what they could be, and it’s best to slow down and pay attention: Exits come up fast, and if you miss yours, it’s usually a long drive to get to where you can turn around and try again. The best strategy is to stay in the middle lane until you can figure out which way is off, then get there fast.

And Bengl adds one warning: “No matter how fast you go, someone’s going to be faster; no matter how clear your rear-view mirror is, check again… . There’ll be someone there.”

While traffic is outwardly more orderly than in the States, there’s vicious competition for passing lanes, usually from taxis.

The best bet for inexperienced drivers is to stick to defensive tactics, staying slow and safe and letting the taxis do what they wish.

There will be a far higher number of bicyclists on the streets than you may be used to, and while they usually have a separate lane, be on alert. Motorcycles and scooters are also more popular than in the States, and it’s considered very bad form indeed to sideswipe any of them.

Finally, remember that there is no right on red law in Germany.