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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.

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.

The Island That Time Forgot

At least once a month, a few dozen Amelia Island residents don Civil War uniforms, move into Fort Clinch and live like 19th-century soldiers and citizens. No one around here bats an eye, but then again this is an island of eccentrics. Lots of them.

“We didn’t have no mosquitoes down here,” explains merchant Bob Lannon, in a rich southern drawl, “before you Yankees started comin’.”

“That’s an interesting theory,” says Roger Esckelson, who runs the Book Loft, right next door, “seeing as how Bob’s from New Hampshire.” Then without missing a beat, Esckelson asks, “Want to see some of the mastodon bones I found this morning?”

Since 1562, northeastern Florida’s Amelia Island has been ruled by French and Spanish, English and Patriots, Confederates and Yankees.

At the turn of the century, Fernandina Beach was one of the most luxurious resort areas in the south. And the island’s American Beach was Florida’s only beach resort for blacks (see accompanying story).

But when Henry Flagler’s famous railroad brought wealthy Northerners farther and farther south, Amelia Island was left to rot in peace.

“Everybody just left,” said James Perry, curator of the Amelia Island Museum of History, the state’s only oral history museum. “It was a Pompeii-like flash – the boom was over and the town was frozen in time.”

Loving Restoration
The town was laid out in just the sort of Victorian style that makes entrepreneurs’ hearts sing, “What a place for a B&B!” Over the last 20 years, the town has been lovingly restored and a turn-of-the-century time-traveler would feel at home walking through the Historic Downtown District with its railway terminal, Palace Saloon and cobblestone streets.

Many area homes (including the one used in the 1988 Disney classic “Pippi Longstocking”) have been renovated and refurbished.

Today, those who make their home on Amelia are a tightly knit community. Non-residents are referred to as “off-islanders,” and residents are free to be as quirky and eccentric as they wish.

But what’s so arresting about the island is the open hospitality in every shop, restaurant, B&B and motel.

Islanders Bob and Karen Warner are used to people walking through their home, which happens to be the oldest hotel in the state of Florida. At various times and in various incarnations, their Florida House Inn (1857) has been host to Cuban freedom-fighter Jose Marti and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as to Rockefellers and Carnegies.

Today it’s a decadently comfortable B&B, whose restaurant is one of the best values – price, food and service – in the state (see “If You Go”).

They Visit, They Stay
Every year just before Christmas, the Florida House and eight other historic inns take part in the Amelia Island Christmas Tour. It attracts more than 1,300 visitors who listen to the histories, admire the restoration work, check under the beds and look into the closets for skeletons of a long ago past.

“I can name a dozen people who have stayed with us and then moved here,” says John Kovacevich, who, along with his wife, Rita, runs the Hoyt House, one of the B&Bs included on the tour. “And that’s not because of Rita and me or the resorts or the beaches, but because of the island – it’s so welcoming that it just grabs you.”

The Downtown Historic District is the main draw of Fernandina Beach, though other attractions are to be found on the island. The beaches are about two miles east of the city.

The Amelia Island Museum of History is in the former city jail (1879-1975). Volunteer-led tours are conducted Monday through Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The exhibits, while fascinating in and of themselves, are secondary to the oral history from the volunteers. Highlights are the Galleon Room, dedicated to Spanish explorers and gold ships, with not much treasure but heaps of artifacts, and the old drugstore soda fountain upstairs.

The museum conducts two-hour walking tours in the Downtown Historic District by appointment and strolls of Centre Street on Thursdays and Fridays at 3 p.m.

The neo-Gothic Episcopal St. Peter’s Parish (1881-1884) features impressive stained-glass windows and a magnificent Harrison organ. It’s at the corner of 8th Street and Atlantic Avenue. Great sign outside in a no parking zone: Thou Shalt Not Park.

Civil War Re-enactments
The U.S. government began construction of Fort Clinch, to the east of the town, in 1847. Today the fort is open as a state park, and re-enactors (whom most call authentic and whom others call nuts) hold open house garrison weekends, candlelight viewings and candlelight tours at least once a month, featuring demonstrations of the weaponry (the cannon are loud!), fireplace cooking, the fully equipped Civil War infirmary and the jail. The fort by candlelight is beautiful, and the re-enactors – who sleep in the fort during the garrison weekends to help them stay in character – are a treat, whether they’re playing Yankee or Confederate troops (they do both).

At the island’s southern end is American Beach, part of Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, a summer resort primarily for blacks but open to everyone.

At its heyday, American Beach catered to throngs of Northern blacks, who boarded buses that would arrive 40 and 50 at a time. Blacks owned the motel, the restaurants, the nightclubs.

Black entertainers performing at clubs in Jacksonville would head up to American Beach after their sets and play the rest of the night at the Ocean Rendezvous, then the resort’s largest nightclub. That club also hosted concerts by Ray Charles, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other stars of the day.

Ghost of a Resort
After desegregation the beach became less attractive than beaches closer to home, and business dried out. Though the resort remains open, it is a ghost of its former self. And surrounded by big business in the form of a multimillion-dollar resort complex, local residents worry that some of the 35 families who call the beach home will sell out to golf-course building developers.

You can visit for a tour any time. Resident and unofficial mayor MaVynee Betsch is always happy to guide tours personally, and she operates the American Beach Museum out of a small mobile home parked at the corner of Gregg and Lewis streets.

The most notable feature of the American Beach coastline today is the absence of the high-rise condominium and hotel towers that line the sand immediately to the north and south. Horseback tours, available at the southern end of Amelia Island, sometimes clop by; fishermen flock to this relatively deserted stretch, and camping is permitted in summer.

The stretch of coastline controlled by the town is, like the beaches on the rest of Amelia Island, made up of fine white sand that gets sprinkled with sharks’ teeth and fossils for about two hours before and after a tide change. You can almost always see locals out hunting and gathering these in the morning and afternoon.

Kindly, Fussy Bangaman (And Other Russian English)

Creative English is a worldwide phenomenon; Japanese tee-shirts or Indian shop signs written in it have been the subject of articles ad-nauseum.

But there’s a charm to the English spoken in Russia that must be mentioned. Often times – especially with names that go on forever – it’s simply a holdover from the USSR days: the ” Leningrad Order of Lenin Metropolitan Subway System Named After V I Lenin” springs to mind.

Sometimes it’s the Russian compunction when speaking the English to pepper the sentences with the articles so missing in the Russian: ” Tomorrow I am going to the Moscow” said one friend, whom we all dubbed ” The Daniel’.

But Russian English is its best when trying to be showy, especially in advertising. ” Two crumpled eggs served from the frying,” is how one menu (which gave a translator credit to a ” Dr of Philology’) temptingly described an omelette.

Pizza Pronto holds that it has a ” Comfortably and cozy atmosphere! Real hospitality of the personal!E’

Restaurant Austeria’s ad claims it’s ” probably the oldest resturant in the city and becouse of it “Austeria” suggesting you the traditional Russian cooking. Big choice at drinks and foods, not higt pricesure making “Austeria” a wonderfull places for lunch and dinner’

‘Bank MANATEP St Petersburg’, weE’re told, ” Invites to collaborate artificial personos and offers a wide range of banking services.’

Safety instructions are usually good for a laugh; the ” Rules of the Lift” in the lifts of the Pribaltiskaya Hotel warn that ” the cabin arriving at the floor produces both the light and sound signals; the light signal indicates further direction of the cabin but the direction of the cabin cannot be changed by pushing the buttons.’

Runner up for best Russian English appeared in the ” English’-language magazine St Petersburg Today. This is the introductory paragraph under the headline ” Our Advice” – not one word has been omitted:

“How is it possible then to know in which direction the numbers increase? Turn left of the building Number 20 and go straight. There is your building Number 40. Accordingly, if you are standing on the opposite side of the street, right side to the building, the beginning of the street is behind your back.”

But the winner in town is this sign, in the window of Pivnoy Klub, a small beer bar in Central St Pete, which promises the following:

“Only here country primitive kitchen all in the nature fire welcome to kindly fussy Bangaman.”

I collect these things, so if you find any more of these in your travels, please send them in to me.

I’m always on the lookout for the few new fussy Bangamans.

Blacks Fight To Block Developers, Save Heritage

When MaVynee Betsch heard developers’ plans to build a golf course and luxury housing here, she went to the media and stirred what has become a cauldron of local and national controversy.

During segregation this was Florida’s only beach resort for blacks. Betsch (whose first name is pronounced May-Veen) is the great-granddaughter of the beach’s founder.

“This place is a part of black heritage and culture, and they can’t just take that away,” said Betsch, exultant in the afterglow of recent sympathetic coverage on National Public Radio and in USA Today. The debate centers on a parcel of land sold during bankruptcy proceedings in the 1980s by the Afro-American Insurance Co., which provided the funding for the establishment of American Beach.

That land is owned by the Amelia Island Co., which also owns a nearby luxury resort, Amelia Island Plantation. The Amelia Island Co. wants to build 50 to 60 luxury single-family homes and a five-hole golf course.

But Betsch and other residents say the firm is trying to squeeze them off the land, thus robbing African-Americans of an important cultural and historic landmark.

American Beach is a featured stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, which, according to Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, is a guide to “landmark sites representing black contributions” to the state’s heritage.

Representative Bill Moore denies the Amelia Island Co. is doing anything discriminatory or unfair and cites compromises and reductions in scope of the proposed development. He points out that the development would be at the south end of the existing community of American Beach, not on it.

Amelia Island residents of all backgrounds are divided. One 17-year resident of Amelia Island Plantation suggests the fight is about publicity, and that the area is so unsafe and unsightly that development is essential.

American Beach homeowner Franklin Bell says he has nothing against development in general, but he “worries about encroachment and displacement.”

That worry is the crux of the argument: When does compromise become surrender? While Betsch and others call for a return of the land to the community, Moore points out that Afro-American Insurance did indeed sell the property, and that the Amelia Island Co. has every right to develop on it if the firm abides by local and state regulations.

But Rita Kovacevich, a Fernandina Beach resident, says she understands why American Beach residents feel that if they acquiesce now, they may lose everything later. And she agrees that preservation of the beach is important.

“This island,” Kovacevich says, “does not need another private golf course. It would be a shame to think that the charm that attracted us here at first – the homogenous, small-town feel with no one being pushed down – has disappeared.”

Meanwhile, Betsch is applying to have American Beach placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

An American Pilot In Europe

Flying over the verdant rolling hills of the Italian countryside, circling the ancient hilltop village of Urbino (birthplace of the painter Raphael), I looked at my wife, Corinna, and remembered just what it was that made me want to get that licence in the first place.

Every year, while thousands of licensed American pilots vacation abroad, few think of exploring the European skies. But in much of Europe, US pilots can easily rent a plane and make daytime VFR flights as Pilot In Command.

The linguistically challenged will be able to communicate: ATC, rental companies, instructors and even ATIS and AWAS all communicate in English.

A walletful of greenbacks doesn’t hurt. Anyone who’s ever filled up in a European gas station knows fuel prices over here are out of Mad Max: avgas runs about US$5.25 (you read that right, over five bucks a gallon). Hourly prices for plane rental can be almost double what they are in the States.

But what’s the price tag on an aerial trip up the Rhine, over Stonehenge, or around a castle? It’s the trip of a lifetime.

GETTING THE BASICS
The ICAO Chicago Convention says licensees from contracting states (including all European nations and the USA) are permitted to fly in other contracting states. The issue of national sovereignty is touchy in Europe, but if you have a valid FAA PPL and current medical certificate, you’re generally permitted to make daytime VFR flights.

In the UK and Holland, you can walk in to any flight school or Aero Club (as they’re called here) and after a checkout, rent a plane and zoom off into the sunset (though one zooms slightly differently over here. See Tips, below).

More rigidly legislated countries (like Germany, France and Spain), have red tape worthy of a Maastricht Treaty, but some advance work on your part can clear the way, at a minimum of fuss and expense, to recognition of your American PPL.

And good news: a certificate of recognition from any European Union member state is honored in all others.

So if you’re visiting, say, Germany, Spain and Italy, a certificate from one will be honored in any other. And best of all, the renter – usually a flight school or aero club that’s dealt with this situation before – will often assist with the paperwork as part of the rental fee. They will guide you through the process of getting a locally recognized “holiday license”.

You’ll usually need to send notarized copies of your PPL, medical, recent pages from your logbook, and your passport. Some countries, like Spain, also require a passport photo, so check whether you’ll need to send those.

Bring all of those items on your trip, too. And while we’re on what to bring, remember this: most planes here come equipped with just two headphones, so bring extra headphones if you’ll need them.

If you’re headed to the UK, Holland or Germany you can start checking into rentals and making reservations as little as a week before you arrive, but if you’re off to other countries start about six weeks in advance.

RENTALS
Renting a plane is almost as easy as it is in the USA, but there are differences. The best bet is to research using the search engines at flying websites, or by picking up flying magazines from the UK, such as Flyer (http://www.flyer.co.uk) or Pilot (http://www.hiway.co.uk). The back of these mags are packed with ads for flying schools, which almost always rent their airplanes.

Shop around! On a recent check of airports around Europe, I found major differences in rental prices, even in the same country. For example, I called Wycombe Air Centre (tel 011-44-149-444-3737), about 20 miles from Central London, and was quoted a price of 126 pounds (US$196) for a C-152 with an instructor, and 97 pounds (US$155) an hour for just the plane, wet, timing from brakes off to brakes on, including VAT (the notorious Value Added Tax). It was about US$10 extra for a C-172 with or without an instructor.

But a call to Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), about 10 miles from London’s Stansted Airport, got quotes of 89.50 pounds (US$143) with an instructor and 75 pounds (US$120) without for a C-152, and 102 pounds (US$163) with and 93 pounds (US$149) without for a C-172, on the same terms.

The Pesaro Aero Club in Fano, Italy (tel 011-3907-2180-3941), demanded the most I’ve ever laid out: US$210 for an hour and 40 minutes of flying, including 40 minutes with the instructor for the checkout, in a C-152.

The Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers, in Saint Maur, France, (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813) wanted 900 francs (US$138) with a (French language) instructor, and 744 francs (US$114) without one for a C-172.

But it can be cheaper (just a bit more than in the USA): Munich Flyers at Augsburg Airport, 45 minutes outside Munich (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761), gets DM240 (US$126) for a C-172 with an instructor, and DM 177 (US$95) without, including fuel, from wheels up to wheels down.

THE CHECKOUT
On that trip I took to Italy, I literally followed the low-flying planes I saw from the coastal road to the Pesaro Aero Club, on a grass strip just south of the city of Rimini. Showing my PPL and Medical at the flight school office, a teacher and I set off on a 40-minute checkout (really more of a brush-up on soft field landings and a lengthy description of the local airspace) and then I was off on my own, for a one-hour tour of the whole area.

A German instructor named Tom told me that he checks out people all the same way, even if it’s obvious they’ve been flying for years or are newly licensed.

“We do two traffic patterns,” he said, “to check their radio skills and landings, and then head for our practice area, where we do power-off and power-on stalls and steep turns. If they handle all that right, they’re on their own – and if not, they do an hour or two of brush-up lessons.”

I enjoy the rental checkride as much for the local air tour I get as I do for learning the different ways people teach flying in different countries (for example, in Germany, Tom wanted to see just the barest hint of an impending power-on stall, while my Italian instructor demanded – and demonstrated – something out of Snoopy and the Red Baron!).

The rental checkride is so important here because local regulations are dictated by many more idiosyncrasies and customs than in the USA. In the UK for example, noise abatement is so strict that procedures like, “On takeoff, make a right turn at 300 feet and head for the treeline before ascending,” and, “On downwind, approach from south of the village and then scoot round the village to the right and turn left again when you see the pub,” are more common than not.

And in Germany, where takeoffs and landings even on privately owned farms require clearance, strictly – even Germanly – regimented exits and entrances to the airport vicinity are required, using map points with names like Whiskey One and Echo One, as well as local conventions that aren’t even marked on the maps (see the box)!

The rental checkride’s good for learning all these, but even better is a visit to the tower. If you plan ahead, you can make the visit when you arrive – get off the commercial flight and head upstairs for a half-hour chat with the controllers. They’ll fill you in on restrictions, give you local flying tips, telephone numbers for weather forecasts, useful web addresses and tell you where you can buy charts of the area locally.

LANDING FEES
Most Americans are horrified to learn that practically every single airfield in Europe charges some sort of landing fee. In most airports it’s waived if you’re taking a local flight, but if you take a day trip to somewhere, be prepared to fork over anywhere from US$10 to US$25 in landing fees at the destination airport.

SOME TIPS
“The airspace is fairly restricted here compared to the USA,” said Carol Cooper, Chief Flying instructor at Andrewsfield Aviation.

“For your own sake, study the map, and the airspace where you can and can’t go – which is much different around here.

“Experience obviously matters, and radio navaids can help, but England’s a small place, and you’ve got to watch your proximity to Stansted, Heathrow and Gatwick,” she continued, referring to the fact that all those airports’ airspace is completely off-limits to VFR pilots in single-engine planes without a special VFR clearance.

Which you almost certainly won’t get!

Noise abatement rules dictate that you avoid town centers and other populated areas.

Radio work is also different, and Europeans seem to think the American practice of repeating the last three registration numbers as acknowledgment of an ATC directive just a bit too, well…American! You’re expected to repeat all the instructions given you by ATC, each and every time.

And finally, if you’ll be travelling outside larger cities, brush up on your soft-field landings and takeoffs: many airports have grass strips.

MORE INFORMATION
Note that anywhere in Europe your American license gives you the same rights at you have at home if you are flying in an N-registered (US-owned and registered) aircraft. Regardless of registration, you need no holiday license or any additional paperwork other than your valid PPL, valid medical and pilot’s logbook to fly as PIC from the UK or the Netherlands (Holland) – even if you land in another country.

For other countries you will often need a holiday license, recognizing your American license. The most straightforward agency to deal with in Europe is Germany’s Regierung Oberbayern Luftamt Suedbayern, Maximillianstrasse 39, 80538 Munich (tel 011-4989-2176-2523). Send them a letter, telling them the dates of your travel in Europe, a request for a Holiday License and photocopies of your PPL, Medical Certificate and the most recent page of your logbook, along with a copy of the data pages of your passport. The holiday license they will send you (Bescheinigung ueber die Allgemeine Anerkennung eines auslaenden Lueftfahrerscheins; allow four weeks for processing) is good for six months and costs about US$30. It is valid everywhere in Western Europe, allowing you to rent nationally registered planes.

In France, contact Direction Generale de l’Aviation Civile (tel 011-331-5809-4321, fax 011-331-5809-3636), License Office, 50 rue Henri Farman, 75015 Paris

Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), Saling Airfield, Stebbing, Dunmow, Essex CM6 3TH England

Munich Flyers Flugschule, GmbH, (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761) Hochederstrasse 2, 81545 Muenchen, Germany

Pesaro Aero Club (tel 011-3907-2180-3941) Via Dela Colonna 130, Fano, Italy 61032

Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813), 36250 Saint Maur, France

Warsaw’s Back. No, Seriously.

“How much,” I asked my travel agent in December 1990, “is a ticket to Warsaw””

She looked at me with an expectant grin and said, “I don’t know… . How much””

Back then, directly after the fall of the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe, traveling to Warsaw for pleasure was deemed as sensible as a current ski holiday in Sarajevo. But in the 2 1/2 years since, Warsaw and Poland have transformed to such an extent as to render them unrecognizable to returning visitors.

The bleak state-run shops half-filled with poor-quality foods have been replaced with sleek specialty shops offering inexpensive and high-quality products from Europe, Asia and America. The department stores, formerly unfilled with what P.J. O’Rourke once generously described as “Ken and Barbie clothes blown up to life size,” are now packed with the latest in European and, yes, Polish, fashions.

The buildings themselves are in the process of being cleaned and restored, bringing an instantly recognizable contrast to the dark, gray and dingy image that the name “Warsaw” conjured in post-war imaginations. And while Warsaw has not been known for its fine cuisine for decades, a proliferation of restaurants and cafes prompted even the normally reticent New York Times to run a recent article titled, “Dining Well In Warsaw … Yes, Warsaw.”

While it has improved to the point of being a viable and enjoyable tourist destination, it would be irresponsible to portray Warsaw as a beautiful city. True, the Stare Miasto, or Old City, was painstakingly and beautifully restored after World War II, but for the most part, Warsaw was reconstructed to the Soviet specifications that some would argue realized Hitler’s dream of forever eradicating the city from the face of the Earth.

Biting the Bullet
But walking through the Old Town, and witnessing the care and love that went into its precise reconstruction (teams working round the clock using original blueprints and even old paintings to match every detail as closely as possible), one can grasp a sense of the pride and love for a city that played such a crucial role in the Poles’ decision to “bite the bullet,” taking reforms in one fell swoop as opposed to the gradual measures employed in the rest of Eastern Europe and now in Russia.

It was as if no hardship could stop the Poles from reclaiming their city, even if half of it was not as they would have envisioned it. Once this is understood and felt, the visitor can see Warsaw as the sum of its parts and truly appreciate what the city has to offer.

Transformation
Today’s Warsaw is an exciting, vibrant city offering both cultural attractions and the draw created by its very transformation. And while some aspects of life here can still leave a Western visitor shaking his or her head and saying, “How can that BE”” these occasions are becoming rarer every day.

Service levels in hotels, restaurants, museums and shops are now essentially equal to those in their Western counterparts, and the currency is stable to the point that one will not be inconvenienced at all by the law requiring all transactions in Poland to be carried out in the zloty (while the country’s currency reform, which will slash four zeroes from the currency to put it on a parallel with the current deutsche mark’s value, has not yet occurred, the exchange rate hovers at a predictable level in the area of 16,000 zloty to the U.S. dollar).

Getting There
Warsaw’s brand-new and exceptionally sensible airport is served by almost every major carrier in the world, as well as by LOT, the state-run airline. LOT has now completely refurbished its transatlantic (and a good deal of its European) fleet with Boeing 767s, and in-flight service is quite good. Visas are no longer required for Americans (or almost anyone else, for that matter), so customs is no longer a lengthy procedure.

When getting from the airport to the city center, there are three options: Limousines can be booked inside the airport terminal at LOT Air Tours for about $50 U.S., taxis wait outside the terminal building in a line (average price from the airport to the city center is $15 U.S.) and for the more frugal traveler, a very reliable city bus makes the trip to the center every 15 minutes.

You must buy a ticket (billet) for each passenger and for extra baggage as well. They are available from the newsstand in the arrival terminal, and currently cost about 50 cents U.S. Walk outside the terminal, one lane past the taxi stand, and wait for bus 175. You must validate your ticket by placing it in the small, silver ticket punchers on the walls of the bus (Punch both ends). It’s basically the honor system, but plainclothes police officers regularly ask to see your ticket, and can impose an on-the-spot fine should you not have one.

Within the city an excellent public transportation network of trains and taxis makes car rental almost unnecessary. Bus maps are available at hotels and service is frequent and inexpensive. Taxis can be tricky, as most drivers don’t speak English and have been known to take advantage of a foreigner. Each of the luxury hotels has taxis with English-speaking drivers, but you will pay about double for the service.

If you know some Polish, or if you have your destination written down, getting a city taxi is very simple. All taxis are metered, but because of the collapse of the zloty, the number on the meter must be multiplied (currently by 600 times). Look for a sign on the dashboard indicating the multiplier to calculate your fare.

Where to Stay
Unlike many of its Eastern European counterparts, Warsaw is packed with hotel space, ranging from the downright cheap ($21 for a three-person room without bath in Hotel Harenda) to the spartan yet comfortable midrange ($50 for a double with bath and breakfast at the Hotels Warszawa, Metropol and Saski), to the frighteningly expensive (more than $1,000 for the Marriott’s Presidential Suite). The city’s luxury hotels, the Marriott, the Holiday Inn, the Victoria and the new Bristol, Sobieski and Mercure, offer Western service and appointments as well as fine restaurants, and all are equipped with satellite television and telephone. The Marriott and Victoria have been the hotels of choice for visiting businessmen for the last several years, but the Sobieski offers slightly lower prices and very comfortable rooms (double including breakfast, $226 per night). Reservations for these hotels can be made with the hotels directly or at U.S. offices of Orbis, the Polish State Travel Service.

Tourist Information
There are now two reliable English-language sources of tourist information and local news: The Warsaw Voice, a well-written weekly newspaper, and Warsaw What, Where When, a monthly tourist information magazine packed with practical information. Both are available in all hotels, and some restaurants catering to international clientele.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, and many organizations are offering tours of the Warsaw Ghetto; check with Orbis, LOT Air Tours or hotel concierges to find out exactly what’s on during your stay.

Warsaw’s main tourist attraction is the Stare Miasto, easily reachable by taking bus 175 to the end of Krakowski Przedmiescie. Maps of the city and the Stare Miasto are available in every hotel, and a full-color version is published every month in the centerfold of Warsaw What, Where When. The center of the Stare Miasto, the Old Town Market (Rynek Starego Miasta), is breathtakingly beautiful, and during the summer months the restaurants that line the streets spread out huge sidewalk cafes offering Polish specialties, good coffee and drinks.

Within very short walking distance of the Old Town Market square are castles, cathedrals, a synagogue and the Swientajanska Cathedral, which was spectacularly restored and houses catacombs that contain the remains of Polish royalty.

Walking from the Stare Miasto toward the city will take you down Warsaw’s most beautiful street, ulitsa Nowy Swiat, or “New World” street. This is a grand, gently curving boulevard that also has been restored to its pre-war splendor and is lined with fashionable shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes.

Shopping
Right in the center of the city, near the widely despised Palace of Science and Culture (a “gift” from the people of the Soviet Union), is a huge market packed with kiosks, selling everything imaginable from clothes to appliances to bootleg cassette tapes of Western music. Off to the side of this market is an amusement park with kiddie rides and two giant bunkers that look like tennis courts, which house a Western supermarket and more kiosks.

If you’d like to buy some Russian souvenirs, be they military paraphernalia or Soviet-made appliances, head out to Ten Year Stadium in Praga (on the other side of the Vistula river from the center of the city), where tens of thousands of Russians gather in a makeshift market to peddle everything they own. It’s an amazing sight, and a visit will offer an insight as to just how desperate the situation in Russia currently is. In all major shopping markets guard your wallet: Pickpockets are everywhere.

The city’s major department stores are located right near the center on Ulitsa Marszalkowska, and all are well stocked with Western and high-quality Polish goods.

Warsaw as a Travel Center
Warsaw’s location at the border of Eastern and Western Europe makes it an ideal travel base for jaunts into Europe, Eastern Europe or Russia. Air fares from Warsaw to the rest of Europe are very reasonable, and there is daily service to all European capitals and many European and Eastern European cities. In addition, Warsaw offers a major rail link to Eastern and Western Europe, with daily train service to many capitals. The daily overnight rail service to the Czech Republic, Vienna and Budapest is charming and enjoyable, on clean, well-appointed trains. It is worth getting a first-class compartment, which comes complete with a sink and closet. Currently, an overnight ticket from Warsaw to Prague costs about $50 U.S.

Air tickets can be purchased at one of the city’s new privately owned travel agents, through LOT at the Marriott Hotel, or though offices of Orbis. Train tickets can be purchased at POL-RES on Jerzolimskie Avenue 44 (near the Marriott) or at the Warsaw Central Train Station, directly across the street from both the Marriott and Holiday Inn hotels. If you go to the train station, walk upstairs opposite the main ticket counters (you’ll see the crowds) and look for a sign saying Medzonarodowicz Billety. If you get hungry while buying your ticket, there’s a Chinese restaurant right next to the ticket counter.

Warsaw has indeed come a long way in the last three years; it is, despite its economic and political problems, a genuine success story in the transformation from a Communist to a free-market society. And the change in the people themselves is readily apparent to anyone who visited two years ago.

Shops and restaurants now welcome potential customers with a cheery “dzien dobry,” or “good day,” as opposed to the stone-faced looks one used to receive. When shopkeepers don’t have a particular item, they no longer say “nie ma,” or “there isn’t any,” before looking away and dismissing a customer, but now say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t have it now.”

And Warsaw residents, always thoroughly proud of their city and their culture, seem visibly happier, now that they are once again able to show their city in all its wonderful, albeit somewhat scoffed, glory.