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Travel Essay | Europe

Traveling Europe’s Slow Economy on a Fast Train

By Claude Stuckwisch
July 18, 2008
When it comes to traveling outside of Germany, especially the US, the currency strength of the euro makes it possible to go first class on second class prices. 
Train à Grande Vitesse
Train à Grande Vitesse

As all Americans –the less wealthy because they must and the more wealthy because they should –learn to do other things with their money besides pour it down the gas tank, most Europeans already know.

There is an older generation of Germans who were around for the hard work that secured the German Economic Miracle of the 1960s, have also not forgotten the social and economic destruction of WWII. Those who have inherited the power of a vast industrial and trading empire, yet somehow manage to live within or below their means.

Many older Germans do not own a credit card and the idea of borrowing money for anything but their own business investment is disliked. They are less likely to feel a devastating impact of doubling fuel prices (even though oil is bought and sold in dollars worldwide and the euro strength softens the impact of recent oil price surges) and rising electrical costs because they have been living with expensive energy for thirty years and conservation is a way of life.

When it comes to traveling outside of Germany, especially the US, the currency strength of the euro makes it possible to go first class on second class prices. The French are proud of having avoided the brunt of the US subprime catastrophe because of their tightly regulated banking system, but fuel prices in the French countryside have recently increased to about $8.50 a gallon, and tiny not-so-nice Left Bank hotel rooms are going for $300 a night.

After Spain joined the European Union in 1986 the growth of its economy was astonishingly robust, giving rise to a Spanish version of American conspicuous consumption. Now, a downturn is expected, but the Spanish are working hard to maintain their unrivalled reputation as the primo European vacation destination.

In Europe, as in the US, medium high and high-income executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs can still afford to travel for business and vacation, and they are not giving it up. Energy crisis? Visit the Costa del Sol in August, but if you don’t already have reservations you probably won’t since every beach resort is fully booked.

Food crisis? Go see the Italian countryside, where, surrounded by rolling hills covered with olive trees, cattle fattening on wild grasses and herbs, and endless vineyards, most farmers and vintners have not paid much attention to the economic news.

Here and there, the classic pastoral café or taxi driver still accept lira, to emphasize an ancient independence from big government and social upheaval. The same holds true of the French countryside, where, thanks to generous subsidies, farmers are insulated from economic reality and the French government pays them to go on holiday.

On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings in Aix-en-Provence, at the farmer’s market at Marché Place Richelme, there are hundreds of kinds of olives, fresh truffles, cheeses, sausages, candied fruits, flowers, vegetables, antiques, and collectibles, for sale. There is no shortage of the basic summer necessities in Provence or Paris –chilled white asparagus in cream sauce, black truffle soup, camembert, buckets of iced Champagne, glasses of Chambertin and Montrachet.

Travel too expensive? Try to book a room in an historic hotel in Munich’s Marienplatz or Schwabing –not impossible, but difficult –and when you get there stroll past the elegant travel houses announcing luxury African safaris, journeys down the Nile, and private jet charters to Budapest.

The economy may be on the decline, and wealthy Americans may at least be making gestures toward conserving energy, but they, like their counterparts in Europe, are going ahead with their vacations.

Meanwhile, as the US subprime catastrophe travels around the world, the TGV in France has broken the record for rail speed. The first class compartments are outfitted for relaxation and tranquil luxury in soft leathers and beige tones as the train hums along at 200 mph, and the ticket includes lunch.

Paris to Strasbourg is now three hours. The European Union subsidizes tickets bought from the US in dollars, and if you purchase a Eurail pass a month or two in advance, it is an amazing bargain. From Alsace, go to Munich, from Munich, Rome.

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