Archive for Sunday, October 31, 2004

Eating, art draw teens into European vacation

Boutiques, museums a hit with young visitors

October 31, 2004


— When my husband and I began planning an ambitious trip to five European countries, friends encouraged us to go without our teenage daughters.

"Leave them home!" they exhorted. "You deserve it." "They'll be fine."

We never considered that option. We've taken at least one family vacation a year since the girls were born, including trips to England, Scotland and Italy. With our older daughter off to college this year, our time as a foursome was running out.

We tried to involve the girls in planning the trip. But that was about as easy as getting them to stop instant-messaging while doing homework. We left tourist books around the house and discussed the trip during dinner. And although they expressed interest -- even excitement -- about going, it was impossible to get them to participate in the planning.

So my husband and I spent countless hours on the Internet, researching precise routes, daily itineraries, cultural and historic sights -- both must-see and off-the-beaten track -- as well as lodging, car rentals and airfare. We ended up with an 18-day journey, starting with six days in Paris, then a taste of the Loire Valley with its magnificent chateau region, and a slice of Alsace-Lorraine. Our itinerary also included the Bodensee (lake) district of Bavaria; Vienna and Salzburg in Austria; and Prague, in the Czech Republic.

Of course we planned with an eye toward what would appeal to our 17- and 13-year-olds. But we were pleasantly surprised to learn, once we got there, that our interests were not that different, provided two ingredients were in the mix: shopping and eating.

Memorable menus

Certainly our girls were old enough to appreciate museums and cultural sights. They even asked to see some not on our list. But we were more surprised by their interest in Europe's culinary scene. In fact, finding the perfect place for dinner became an enjoyable daily ritual for us. We did consult our guide books (especially Rick Steve's) for recommendations, but it was more fun to pick our own from menus posted outside the endless restaurants.

We should have been less surprised by their desire to shop. After all, what teenage girls wouldn't, especially in Paris? My husband and I made concessions for short and long dives into stores to help make their European experience even more memorable. Although they gawked at Paris' Galeries Lafayette and Samaritaine, whose opulent interiors are more opera house than department store, it was in the 200-odd boutiques of Paris' ultramodern Forum Des Halles that they made most of their purchases.

Accommodations presented our biggest challenge. Often we thought we had found THE place over the Internet only to be tempted by inviting images on yet another Web site. As a family of four, we quickly discovered that renting a furnished apartment -- for stays as short as three days and starting midweek -- was a sensible and money-saving alternative. Our apartment in Paris was just a block from the Pompidou Centre, and gave us a chance to eat like Parisians -- by looting the local patisserie and boulangerie for breakfast back at the flat, and even making dinner at "home," as we twice opted to do.

Our teens also made us aware of another important ingredient for a successful family trip: the need for downtime.

Artistic delights

Despite our packed itinerary, the girls gave high marks to the sights we picked. In Vienna and Prague, we focused on seeing as much Art Nouveau art and architecture as possible, a style known there as Wiener Werkstätte and Jugendstil.

In Vienna, our must-sees included the vast Belvedere (castle) museum for works by Schiele, Kokoschka and Klimt. In Prague, the opulent Obecni Dum (Municipal House) left the girls in awe, especially the Alfonse Mucha-designed mayor's room, resplendent in the decorative motifs of the Art Nouveau. It had our older daughter exclaiming: "I never want to leave this room."

Our girls were not familiar with this home-grown Czech artist, best known for his stunning theater posters, many of Sarah Bernhardt, and exhibited at the small but comprehensive Mucha Museum. In Vienna, they were introduced to the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt and his exquisite mosaiclike paintings of intertwined figures. To say they were enamored of both early 20th century artists would be an understatement.

Another thrilling surprise was Salzburg's Hellbrunn castle, where a 400-year-old trick water garden has unsuspecting visitors squealing in delight from the spray of fountains hidden in walkways, sculptures and benches. The pavilion featured in the 1965 film "The Sound of Music" also is found on the estate grounds.

In Paris, the girls loved the Louvre and stood a full 15 minutes in front of the Mona Lisa. The Musee D'Orsay's magnificent collection of Impressionist art was an even bigger hit.

They also were fascinated with Paris' Rodin and Dali museums. In fact, they loved Dali so much that when we found another museum dedicated to the Spanish artist in Vienna, they insisted on seeing it.

Two French chateaux, Chenonceau and Amboise (where Leonardo da Vinci is buried), exposed them to the different styles of the French monarchs, while "crazy" King Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein, near Fussen, Germany, offered a whimsical contrast -- a fairy-tale schloss situated on a hilltop over a lake and reachable by horse-drawn buggy.

Favorite trip-planning Web sites: Visit, call (888) 268-1148 or see for apartments, farmhouses, chalets and villas. Auto Europe, or (888) 223-5555, offers deals on rental cars, Eurail passes, airfares and more.Guide books: Rick Steves' city and country guide books offer no-nonsense advice (and humor) on what to see and skip, and where to eat and stay. Also Rick Steves' foreign language pocket-sized phrase books are easy to use and carry around. DK Eyewitness Travel Guides are a tad heavy but offer street-by-street walking tours. Knopf CityMap Guides contain small fold-out street maps with lists of attractions.Passes: Multiday museum passes, obtainable on the Web and in museums, save money and allow you to skip long entry lines.

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