My husband Bill and I recently spent two memorable years living in Germany. Living in Europe courtesy of the U.S. government was sort of a financial boon for us, since we don’t have children and brought only one car with us. We even managed to pay off a lot of debt and do some traveling. Even though living in Europe was, in many ways, financially easier for us, we still appreciated a good deal when we were traveling. Here are five of my suggestions of my favorite and most cost effective spots, all of which are within reasonable driving distance from Germany or Italy.
1. Pinasca, Italy
I happened to find this little town in northwestern Italy when Bill told me he wanted to visit Turin. Somehow, instead of getting hotel recommendations for Turin, I ended up finding a very unique little bed and breakfast called Bella Baita in Pinasca, Italy. Run by chefs Marla and Fabrizio, an American woman and her Italian husband, this little B&B is located a good six kilometers up an Alpine mountainside. For just 55 euros a night, you can rent a room at their B&B and get an authentic taste of the real Italy.
Bill and I stayed with Marla and Fabrizio for four nights in May of 2008 and it was the highlight of our first trip to Italy and Switzerland together. Although Bella Baita is in a rather remote location, there is plenty to do. The nearby town of Pinerolo is charming and quaint and has a few good restaurants. Bill and I visited Turin and dropped by the original Eataly. We went hiking around the B&B. One day, we drove to Briancon, France for lunch. We also took a cooking class from Marla and Fabrizio and enjoyed a wonderful meal with them. I would highly recommend the cooking class, especially since Marla will take you on a field trip to a farmer’s market in Pinerolo to pick up the ingredients for whatever you prepare together!
Marla and Fabrizio are very friendly and know a lot about the area. They can tell you where to go for activities that suit your needs. I do strongly recommend bringing a car, since there is no convenient public transportation to the inn. Parking is free and plentiful and the inn can be reached within a day’s driving from southern Germany.
2. Bolaslaweic, Poland
Unlike a lot of military wives, I didn’t decide we should visit Bolaslaweic, Poland because it’s the capital of the Polish pottery district. I wanted to go there because I had discovered The Blue Beetroot, a charming boutique hotel that is really putting Bolaslaweic on the map. Run by an English couple Barbara and John, this adorable little inn was once a dilapidated stable. Barbara and John purchased it for the Polish equivalent of about $4000, fixed it up, and turned it into a booming business. Barbara confessed to me that she had originally intended to get Britons to visit Poland, having no idea that there were so many Americans living in Germany.
A double room at the Blue Beetroot runs for just 62 Euros a night. For that, you get charming accommodations and hosts who really know the area. If it’s Polish pottery you want, Barbara will point you in the direction of all the best shops and you will find prices much cheaper there than you ever will at AAFES. If you’re looking for good hiking, hunting, horsebackriding, biking, or fishing, all of those activities can be arranged as well. Bill and I spent five nights at the Blue Beetroot in November 2008. While we were there, we shopped for pottery, visited a ski resort, and paid visits to the local cities of Wroclaw (Breslau) and Legnica.
Perhaps our most memorable experiences while visiting Bolaslaweic was the day we toured Stanislaw Borowski’s glass art factory and followed up by dropping by Dariusz Milinski’s art studio. Borowski has a studio in Germany that sells his exquisite art, but if you visit the Blue Beetroot, you can go by the factory, where the art is made by local artisans. When we visited Borowski’s factory, we watched how the art was made; then I bought three pieces to take back to America with me. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Key West, Florida and spotted Borowski’s art on sale. I found out that the large glass chameleon I paid about $700 for in Poland was selling for over twice that amount in Florida. After dropping about $1000 for all three glass pieces, we visited Milinski’s art studio, where we were tempted by even more exquisite art. Unfortunately, at that point we were cash poor and had to settle for buying sketches instead of paintings. Milinski doesn’t accept credit cards.
You don’t have to buy art to appreciate Bolaslaweic, though. It’s a great area and there’s plenty to do, though again, I would recommend bringing a car.
3. Chodovar at Chodova Plana, Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is an excellent place to visit if you’re in the military and living in Europe. It’s a rapidly modernizing country, yet still very inexpensive. Bill and I are beer lovers and we were very interested in trying out the beer spa at Chodovar Brewery, located in Chodova Plana just over the German border. We learned about the beer spa from watching Zane Lamprey on his show, Three Sheets and while I might not necessarily recommend it for families with young kids, I would recommend it for couples with older kids or those without children.
Bill and I spent President’s Day weekend of 2009 at Chodovar. Prices in the winter are cheaper than they are in the summer. At this writing, one night for two people at the U Sládka hotel runs about $107. Breakfast is included. Stay more than one night and you get a 10% price break for each additional night. In the winter, a double room at the U Sládka runs about $82 for the first night with a price break for each additional night. Parking costs approximately $4 extra per night, but you can rest assured that your vehicle will be kept in a very secure parking lot. The Chodovar Brewery also runs two restaurants with very reasonably priced offerings. For our three nights, including food and beer spa treatments, Bill and I spent roughly $500.
I would highly recommend trying the beer spa, as it’s a unique and relaxing experience. You spend twenty minutes in a pewter tub full of mineral water and hops while you sip a small glass of Chodovar’s lager. Afterwards, you spend another twenty minutes relaxing with another small glass of beer. Then, if you want to, get a massage from one of the massage therapists!
There’s not much to the town of Chodova Plana, but there are several other notable Czech cities closeby. Bill and I visited Plzen and Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), a big spa town, when we visited. We met a Russian street artist who used to work for Virgin records in Los Angeles and we bought a couple of his original paintings for a very reasonable price. Bring your car.
4. Schwetzingen/Heidelberg, Germany
This recommendation is for those folks who aren’t lucky enough to be assigned to work in Heidelberg. Bill and I lived near Stuttgart and Heidelberg was about a ninety minute drive from us. We still managed to have a wonderful time there over Columbus Day weekend in 2008, mostly thanks to the folks who run the Hotel Garni Kurpfalzhof. This hotel is very clean, reasonably priced, and extremely friendly to American military folks. A double room at the hotel starts at 75 euros per night; with that, you get a very generous breakfast in the morning and free parking.
There’s a lot to do in Heidelberg, from visiting the famous Heidelberg Schloss to heading the other direction to Schwetzingen Palace. There’s great shopping, restaurants, and plenty of clean, fresh country air in the area. Even though Bill and I lived not too far from Heidelberg, we definitely felt like this visit was worth doing, in part because we had friends living in Heidelberg. In fact, we still have friends there… I only wish we could spend this Columbus Day weekend in Heidelberg!
5. Passau, Germany
Bill and I spent several days in beautiful Passau, Germany for my birthday in June 2008. I was already somewhat familiar with the town because I happened to stop there in 1997 while traveling around Europe by train. I remembered Passau to be a pretty town and, better yet, it’s very close to both Austria and the Czech Republic. For that reason, Passau makes a great stop for those who want to get a little taste of the surrounding countries… not that Passau doesn’t stand on its own, of course!
We stayed at the Hotel Residenz in Passau , an utterly charming inn situated right next to the Danube River. At this writing, a double room goes for 99 euros a night and includes one of the best breakfasts I ever encountered in Europe! The Hotel Residenz is fairly popular with the older river cruising crowd. We saw a lot of folks there just before embarking on one of the many river cruises that start and end in Passau.
But there’s a lot more to Passau than cruising. Passau is home to one of the largest pipe organs in the world and concerts are available every day. Passau is also unique because it sits at an area where three rivers converge, the Inn, the Ilz, and the Donau (Danube). There’s plenty of great shopping and we found several excellent restaurants.
And it’s very easy to visit Austria and the Czech Republic as well. If you want to visit Austria, all you have to do is hop on the train and you’ll be in Austria within minutes. Passau is just over the border. You can get to Linz within an hour or two. Going to the Czech Republic will most likely require driving; however, the trip is well worth taking. We visited Cesky Krumlov and Cesky Budejovice on our day trip to the Czech Republic and had a fantastic time. Cesky Krumlov is especially kid friendly. When we first got there, I thought we had inadvertantly wandered into a theme park!
My best advice
If you’re lucky enough to be stationed in Europe, be sure to get out and see all you can. Before you know it, it’ll be time to come back to America. I’ve been back for about a year and I still think about living in Germany every day. My husband and I are hoping to move back there after he retires. We had that much fun!