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VACATION MEMORIES : Not-So-Young Couple Explores the Continent

This is one of a continuing series on memorable vacations that appears occasionally in the Travel Section.

May 05, 1991|GUS STEVENS | Stevens is a free-lance writer living in Prescott, Ariz.

When we stopped at the gas station in Sapri, a remote mountain town well south of Naples on the west coast of Italy, we were lost. Terribly lost in the rugged cliffs that leap up from the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was getting dark. Would we end up sleeping in the car?

We asked if anybody knew the whereabouts of the Mediterraneo Hotel. It was the only listing in our Michelin red book. Immediately two policemen, smart in their gray uniforms, pointed up the road. Then they pointed to their motorcycles. They would, they were telling us, show us the way.

Engines thundering, they escorted us straight into the courtyard of the little hotel, where the proprietor herself was clipping her roses. She started in amazement at our motorcade, but she nodded at our question. Hurray! She had a vacancy! We had found a home for the night, with the help of strangers. Another little triumph, exclusively ours.

We had set out in the beginning to prove something: that senior citizens (that's us) can survive, even flourish, on their own as tourists in Europe, without surrendering to hold-your-hand guided tours.

It wasn't easy, especially when we got off to a bewildering start at Frankfurt airport. It was simple enough adjusting to the manual clutch of our little rented car, but getting in and out of that airport never has failed to dismay us.

My spouse and I circled the loop road only to return to the same spot outside the terminal again and again, unable to find the secret to getting on the Autobahn to the Rhine. The police woman who gave us directions each time we drifted back to her spot on a corner was highly amused, but we were sweating.

If we couldn't handle a ring road, how could we survive the terror of the 100 m.p.h. autobahns? Eventually, weeks later, we learned we were not alone. A younger, tougher and smarter American driver and his wife admitted that they had suffered through the same Frankfurt maze, as lost as we.

Despite our early blunders, we did prove that a not-so-young couple can make it in Europe with their own car, despite the hard work, the many frustrations, the agonizing decisions and the daily doubts. Even if they're over 65 years old. (Our combined age is 143, which is as precise as my spouse will allow me to be.)

We spent five weeks on the Continent, reserving only our car and a hotel for our last night at the airport. We never ran out of gas, never got lost for more than an hour, always slept in beds in hotel rooms with adequate facilities and only three times were we turned away from fully booked hotels. (We always found other rooms minutes later, a few steps down the street.) We gained weight, despite our bouts with unreadable menus. And we remembered to take our pills.

We made our goal, a trip through Germany to Luxembourg, through eastern France, across Switzerland, down the length of Italy all the way into Sicily, back through Austria and Germany. We also made it well under budget, bringing back almost half our traveler's checks unspent.

We had budgeted, after paying for our air tickets and the car in advance, $300 a day. Sounds like a lot, perhaps, but some friends shook their heads at our economic naivete. Didn't we know about the cost of European hotels and food? Didn't we know gas is $3 a gallon? And all those ripoff tourist traps? Hadn't we heard about the anemic American dollar?

Sure we had, but we figured our income is greater than that of most Europeans and, if they can find the secrets to low-cost travel on their continent, why couldn't we?

We spent about $150 a day, as it turned out, including $600 for gifts that we carried home for ourselves and friends. It was a great feeling to put money back in the bank when we got home. A strong down payment for our next trip.

About those difficulties, frustrations and blunders. They do exist and they're more difficult to handle than they were when we were 30 years younger. We did get lost--but we also got lost 30 years ago. It was exhausting work to leap from the car to ask strangers for directions, especially when some turned their backs on us. But most were helpful and anxious to please.

We did worry about finding hotel rooms, especially on weekends, but we were careful to travel after the summer crowds were gone, starting after Labor Day. We never were without a bath or shower and only once without our own toilet. (That night we went across the hall, which was easy because we were the only guests in the small Swiss hotel.) We learned that roadside signs reading "Zimmer w/d/wc" means rooms for rent with shower and toilet. Nobody handled our luggage for us, but there was no autocratic tour leader ordering us to have our bags outside our door at 7 a.m. each day.

Security? Despite stories of muggers and thieves, especially in southern Europe, we traveled 4,000 miles without ever really feeling threatened by anybody--except for European drivers, who can be fearsome.

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