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Travelers Warming Up to Off-Season Europe


Beguiled by images of sunny Italy, a friend flew off to Rome one winter a few years back carrying only a light raincoat in case the nights proved chilly. He arrived in a snowstorm, slogged through slushy streets to his hotel and promptly came down with a bad case of sniffles that plagued him for the rest of his stay.

I had him clearly in mind when I headed for Europe for two weeks last winter on an off-season trip of my own, packing enough cold-weather gear to combat the next Ice Age.

Happily, it turned out to be excess baggage. A warm sun caressed the Continent, and I seldom had to wear anything heavier than a sweater.

Having toured Europe during almost every month of the year, I gradually came to the conclusion that the off-season is best--that is, if you prefer to pursue, as I do, the Continent's historic and cultural treasures. My wife fancies gourmet dining, and that, too, is a satisfying winter sport.

Southern Greece, France and Italy remain mostly sunny in winter, and temperatures are quite moderate. Without the searing heat of a summer day, you can explore the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete and other classical ruins more comfortably. Only the Alps are problematic in winter--unless, of course, you are a skier.

On a mid-January trip to London years ago, the skies poured steadily during my entire stay. It was my first visit, but I really wasn't all that disappointed. The gray, overcast days confirmed all my expectations of London as depicted in the movies. Had the sun been shining, I might have felt I had missed the real London. If you play these little mind games, travel is more fun.

The weather obviously is a major consideration when planning a winter trip on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. A certain self-discipline is needed to exchange the cold, dreary gray of a February morning at home for the prospect of the same thing in Frankfurt, Prague, Vienna, Brussels or London--all stops on my most recent itinerary.

A fresh snowfall can transform Europe's old capitals into fairy-tale fantasies, but the illusion disappears quickly when you wade through the inevitable slush.

Skiers obviously would be delighted to see the Alps buried in deep snow this winter. Other travelers, however, can only hope for balmier days, prepare for the worst and then count themselves lucky, as I did, if the sun beams down so warmly that an occasional restaurant is prompted to serve lunch at its sidewalk tables.

On one mild but breezy February afternoon, I spotted several sightseers sipping coffee and nibbling rich pastries at an open-air cafe on the Grand Place, Brussels' elegant old town square. If they felt a little chilled, they didn't show it. I, meanwhile, more sanely took tea by a roaring fire indoors.

Only toward the end of my trip did bad weather intrude briefly, forcing an expensive change in plans.

Fierce rain squalls hit the west coast of Britain and the Continent, canceling the ferry I had intended to take across the English Channel from Brussels to London. While the storm raged, I lingered in a warm and inviting cafe, eating heaping plates of fresh mussels and frites before flying to London. Unfortunately, the air fare cost $110 more than the ferry passage--but I had to move on.

Although Europe can't always promise gentle weather, winter has special compensations--as many travelers are discovering. A record 3.2 million Americans visited Europe during the 1988-89 off-season, a seven-month period extending from October through April.

By comparison, about 4 million Americans crossed the Atlantic during the 1990 summer (peak) season, the five months from May through September. Winter is catching on.

To be sure, many of these winter travelers went abroad on business. But European tourism officials are convinced that growing numbers of American vacationers make up a large part of the flow, many of them taking advantage of the considerably lower transatlantic air fares available in winter.

I paid only $336 last year for a round-trip Pan Am ticket from Washington to Frankfurt with a return flight from London. This year's off-season fares are somewhat higher--the soaring price of oil is one reason--but tickets right now are still up to hundreds of dollars cheaper than they were in summer.

Many winter travelers are eager to sample Europe's exciting cultural scene when the theater, opera, ballet and other performing arts are in full swing. Often there's something new.

In London, we got orchestra tickets to a delightful new musical, "Noel and Gertie," about entertainers Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. This winter, Copenhagen's famed Tivoli Gardens opens its gates for the first time in off-season for a series of musical performances in the Tivoli Concert Hall.

Because of the cultural activity, European tourism promoters call the off-season the "Lively Months." Even tour operators specializing in the Soviet Union are promoting the Russian heartland as an exotic off-season destination.

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