U.S. tourists head for Europe Celebrations: Americans can enjoy the economic power of a strong dollar and major events planned all across the continent.

April 13, 1997|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Travelers, the force is with you.

The force, in this case, is the dollar, which this year has a lot more muscle than it had in 1996. That means Americans visiting Europe will get a much bigger bang for their buck at the currency-exchange window.

Last year at this time, the dollar was worth only 5.09 French francs. Today, it will put 5.70 francs in your pocket. The German mark traded at 1.48 to the dollar last March; today, you get 1.69 marks for the same dollar. Dinner in an Italian trattoria ate up quite a few lira last year at 1,564 to the dollar; you can put more pasta on your plate this year with the current 1,691-to-1 rate.

The dollar currently is sailing along at its highest rate of exchange in 2 1/2 years against the German mark, the French and Swiss francs and the Austrian schilling, and maintaining strong positions against other European currencies.

"The U.S. dollar is performing well," said Jackie Pate, a spokeswoman for Delta Airlines. "It's created quite a strong demand for travel to Europe."

Meanwhile, no major airfare increases are expected on trans-Atlantic routes, so the current strong bookings should produce a bumper crop of tourists in Europe this summer.

"Our summer bookings are running well ahead of last year," said John Lampl of British Airways. "We expect this to be a very good year." Recent trans-Atlantic travelers report flights are running mostly full. If that pattern continues, travelers may experience some difficulty in getting the flights they want on popular routes during the peak season.

This summer, nearly 60,000 people a day will board flights from vTC the United States to Europe, the European Tourist Commission says. All told, it said, Americans are expected to make 9.5 million visits to Europe this year -- the fifth record year in a row.

This will be an outstanding year in Europe for several reasons.

Europe's biggest transportation project since the Channel Tunnel, for one, will open this year in Denmark. It is the 11-mile-long, $8.5 billion Great Belt Fixed Link over the Sotrebaelt Strait that will create a land connection between the western and eastern parts of Denmark. The link will reduce train-travel time over the strait from 60 minutes to 7 minutes and the roadway will cut travel time for motorists from 90 minutes to 15 minutes.

Two tunnels and two large bridges are major elements in the project, which will open to trains June 1. The East Bridge motorway for cars, which will be the world's second longest suspension bridge, is to open next year. In 2000, another huge project will open to link Copenhagen and the Swedish port of Malmo across the Oresund Strait.

Meanwhile, a wide range of cultural offerings will be on tap in Thessaloniki, Europe's designated Cultural Capital for 1997. In this northern Greek city, home of Alexander the Great and site of some remarkable archaeological ruins, events will include performances by Athens State Orchestra under Mstislav Rostropovitch, a concert by the famed rock group U2 and an exhibit on Alexander and his ancient Macedonian kingdom.

And for the very first time, women -- long barred from the monasteries at nearby Mount Athos -- will be allowed to see the order's holy treasures in a new museum.

Poland has two major reasons for celebrating this year. First, Pope John Paul II will return to his homeland for a 10-day visit at the end of May. Then Gdansk, the port city where the opening salvo of World War II was fired Sept. 1, 1939, will mark its 1,000th anniversary. It was at Gdansk also that the Solidarity movement under Lech Walesa had its birth in 1980, starting a chain of events that eventually sounded the death knell of communism. The pope will also visit Prague in the Czech Republic during his tour.

Also celebrating its 1,000th year in 1997 is Trondheim, Norway. Most of its anniversary events will be staged during Millennium Week, May 30-June 8.

Tiny Monaco has already held several events to mark its 700th year under the rule of the Grimaldi family, headed today by Prince Rainier III. Ahead still are laser sound-and-light shows, the Monaco Grand Prix (May 11) and the International Fireworks Festival (July/August).

Other events

Ryder Cup: Usually, this prestigious golf tournament between the best American and European players takes place in the United States or Britain. This year it will be played at the splendid Valderama course in San Roque, Spain.

Brahms anniversary: Germany will mark the centennial of the death of composer Johannes Brahms with weekly tours of Brahms sites and a major exhibition in his birth city of Hamburg Sept. 5-Nov. 2, plus a festival in nearby Lubeck in April and May.

Schubert anniversary: Austria will emphasize the works of Franz Schubert, born 200 years ago, at several music festivals, including those in Vienna May 8-June 19 and Salzburg July 19-Aug. 31.

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