Winter offers scenes from a storybook, no crowds



Teeny flakes of snow were dropping steadily in Prague at the beginning of my winter journey to Europe. Snow is a blessing for winter sports, but I was trying to tour like a summer nomad, visiting parks and museums and churches and restaurants.

In the late Prague afternoon, I walked outside my hotel, into a fine white cloud. My friends had told me I was bonkers for touring Europe the first week of March. They were vacationing in places where the sun was actually able to warm something - the Caribbean Sea, for instance. I would have none of it. I wanted low-cost airfares and easy-to-book hotels, and I didn't want to wait in lines during precious time abroad.

Now, I was beginning to have second thoughts. I had no boots. I had a decent winter jacket and a knit cap, but I didn't bring the layers I would need for bitter cold, if it came. I began to fret, in a traveler's chauvinistic mind-set, as if the Czech Republic didn't have sweaters or undershirts amid some of Eastern Europe's great shopping.

That's when I took a look around, through the air filled with streams of white, and discovered the great pleasure of touring a place like Prague off-season, in wintertime. The afternoon light had turned to early winter darkness, and in the streetlights, I saw a city whose design from Gothic, medieval and Renaissance heydays remained unspoiled.

The snow covering the city was a time machine that thrust me into another context. Everything twinkled. Everything looked fresh. I was no longer in Prague. I was inside the pages of a storybook.

Better yet, it was winter, so the city was mine. Its residents were tucked inside their homes, and the crowds of summer were - well, they were with my friends on islands where the temperature of the ocean was in the mid-80s. There were no crowds jamming to get into anything in Prague.

I walked up the impossibly steep hill to Prague Castle, alone, my footprints in the snow the only sign of life on the street in the past minutes.

I finally reached the magnificent castle, now home to the nation's president. Behind it, the regal spires of St. Vitus' Cathedral jutted toward the eerily orange-lit, frozen heavens.

I walked inside the castle gates and into the massive courtyard, and stood in the snow alongside the only other person there, a guard. In the oversized upper-story castle windows, women strolled past in gowns, men in tuxedos. In another set of windows, servers with large trays bustled. The president was having a formal party. The swells were warm inside. I felt charmed, like some peasant, standing outside the castle, open-mouthed, watching the other half live.

And there you have it - the essence of winter in Europe. Four months later, in July - when Prague bulges with tourists, who have beelined there in summers since the Velvet Revolution ended Communism 16 years ago - the castle courtyard would be anything but hushed. No way could you hear a flake drop.

My winter jaunt: Land in Prague, stay a few days, then use the cheapie airlines that shoot you from one European city to the next. Move on to Brussels, where the Belgian air still waffled me with a chill, then to Venice, which called for a coat but whose sun hinted at the warmth spring would deliver.

After that, Barcelona - a tad warmer still, yet soaking with cold rains. End the 12 days in Lisbon. By now, March would reach its midpoint; in Lisbon, more temperate than the other cities, I shed the coat.

From my home in Philadelphia, I flew into Prague, then flew back home from Lisbon. I paid $572, about half the price of a typical summer round-trip fare. Booking hotels was a snap, and the prices themselves were snapped, often by the equivalent of $25 or $35 a night.

The only restaurant I could not get into was a little place that served traditional Czech food, and not because of crowds. It had closed early on a snowy night. It was open the next, so I went again and was among the few diners.

"Winter is the only time to be here and experience it in a private way," says Karen LaMonte, an American artist who lives in Prague with her husband, Steve, and whose studio is there. "I find that when there are so many people around, there's no real way to experience anything on a personal level. We never travel in Europe in the summer, if we can help it."

But lots of Americans do, despite soaring airfares and high hotel prices. Four of the 10 countries Americans visit most are in Europe - Britain, France, Italy and Germany - and their timing is practical. Kids are, in most of the United States, out of school and can go on family vacations. Adults traditionally feel a summertime need to decompress.

The U.S. Commerce Department's International Trade Administration reports that from June through August last year, more than 3.8 million Americans went to Europe, including business travelers. From January through March this year, 2.4 million Americans, also including business travelers, journeyed to Europe - about a 38 percent decrease.

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