American travelers are expected to descend on Europe this summer in record numbers, all of them hoping to find some typically European place far away from every other American tourist. They would be wise to read "The Palace Under the Alps."
This lighthearted but informative guide will take them to what the book jacket describes as "over 200 unusual, unspoiled and infrequently visited spots in 16 European countries," the sort of attractions the natives themselves seek out when they go on a holiday.
A good example is the "palace" of the title. It refers to a vast ice cave -- open to visitors -- beneath the Austrian Alps, south of Salzburg at Werfen. Trickling water, freezing as it meets the chill of the cave, has formed an immense and frosty ice palace, complete with ramparts and huge domed halls. To reach the entrance, you take a cable car.
None of the sights is as famous as the Eiffel Tower or Buckingham Palace, but some of them could prove more entertaining. In the intriguing category is a curiosity called the "Garden of Monsters" in Bomarzo, Italy, which author William Bryson calls "easily the weirdest garden in the world." Built in 1572 by a Prince Orsini, the hillside park is scattered with huge and grotesque statues, such as a 20-foot-high stone elephant trampling a Roman soldier, snarling dogs and dragons. Either the statues were "an outsized prank," comments Bryson, or "Orsini loathed the world."
Bryson, an American working as a journalist for the London Times, has traveled frequently in western Europe in the past dozen years, and obviously he has strayed often from the well-beaten tourist path, much to the reader's advantage. One side trip took him to the village of Jordans in Buckinghamshire, just outside London, where stands "the world's most unusual barn."
The author has a tendency to describe his discoveries in such superlatives, but in this instance, and others, he's assuredly right. The barn, in the care of the English Society of Friends, or Quakers, was constructed in 1624 from the timbers of the original Mayflower, the vessel that carried the Pilgrims to Plymouth Colony.
"Just four years after her historic sailing of the Atlantic," writes Bryson, "the Mayflower was sold to an English farmer named Russell, who unceremoniously broke it up and converted it into a barn." Nearby is buried Quaker leader William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.
Among the 200 attractions, each described succinctly in about a page, are 50 offbeat museums; a dozen amusements for children; 20 castles and historic houses; about 50 "interesting and attractive" towns and resorts; 25 places of scenic beauty; a dozen gardens and parks; and another dozen churches, cathedrals and monasteries. Brief directions for getting there, operating hours and entry fees are included.
The Hague, capital of the Netherlands, rates two entries representing the opposite extremes of human nature. One is the Torture Museum, which contains "almost everything that was used to extract confessions and inflict pain from the 15th to 19th centuries," including racks and wheels for stretching, guillotines, branding irons, gibbets for hanging and "an alarmingly diverse and inventive assortment of thumbscrews, handscrews and kneescrews."
On the more delightful side of life is Madurodam, the charming miniature Dutch city built with great care at 1/25th of actual size. Two miles of pathways wander through the tiny city's streets, where "cars move along the roads, ships and barges ply the canals and waterways, planes taxi on the airport runways, a miniature band actually plays, and a fun fair is in full swing."
To see where Europe's crowned heads once relaxed, Bryson recommends a visit to Spa in Belgium, the oldest health resort of them all and the one from which other spas got their name. Peter the Great from Russia sipped the mineral water, which was reputed to have curative powers; and it was in Spa that the German kaiser abdicated at the end of World War I. Though its heyday is past, Spa remains, says Bryson, "a charming island resort full of elegant villas and hotels and a whiff of anachronism."
Bryson's style, as he wanders about the continent, is lively and humorous, and you may find yourself reading his book from cover to cover just for the flavor he brings to his descriptions. To his credit, he lets you know when a place is something you should not go out of your way to visit but is nevertheless worth a fascinating hour if you happen to pass by. The Tax Museum in Rotterdam is one such oddity, where "every facet of the long and surprisingly bloody history of taxation is covered." Exhibits include Roman tribute pennies and a denarius from the reign of Vespasian, "used as a tax on urinals."
This is a guide book to study before you go, because you might otherwise overlook most of the sights the author has chosen. And surely it will help you avoid the American crowds. Who else on your transatlantic flight, do you suppose, could be headed for a tax museum?