Like travel in general, breakfast gets you out of your routine and throws you a cultural curve that can add to the memories of your trip. Not long ago, I grabbed breakfast at a hotel in southern Spain. The only cereal available was a local version of frosted cornflakes. As there was no “mature” option, I indulged in a bowl of my childhood favorite. But the cereal milk was heated — apparently standard in this part of Spain. My poor frosted flakes immediately turned to mush. Not so grrrrrrreat.
Soggy flakes or not, breakfast is a fun part of travel and the experience varies plenty from one country’s breakfast table to the next.
Generally, the farther south you go, the lighter the breakfasts. In France, Italy, and Spain, skimpier “continental” breakfasts are the norm. Traditionally, you’ll get a roll with marmalade or jam, occasionally a slice of ham or cheese, and coffee or tea.
The good news? These little breakfasts compel you to sample regional favorites: In Spain, look for “churros con chocolate” (a fritter served with a warm chocolate drink), “pan con tomate” (a toasted baguette rubbed with fresh garlic and ripe tomato), or a “tortilla espanola” (a hearty slice of potato omelet). Italian breakfasts are impossibly tiny, but the delicious red orange juice you get is made from Sicilian blood oranges. And you can buy a delightful toasted sandwich from a corner bar anywhere, anytime in Italy to make up for the minuscule breakfast. In France, locals just grab a warm croissant and coffee on the way to work. Queue up with the French and consider the yummy options: croissants studded with raisins, packed with crushed almonds, or filled with chocolate or cream.
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When hotel breakfasts are too small for my taste, I supplement them with a piece of fruit or hunk of cheese from a local market. Being a juice man, I keep a liter box of OJ in my room for a morning eye-opener. Coffee drinkers know that breakfast is the only cheap time to caffeinate. Hotels generally serve you a bottomless cup with your morning meal. After that, the cups acquire bottoms and refills will cost you.
The farther north you go in Europe, the heartier the breakfasts become. The heaviest is the traditional British “fry.” Also known as a “Plate of Cardiac Arrest,” these are a fundamental part of the bed-and-breakfast experience and are generally included in your room price. A standard fry comes with cereal or porridge, a fried egg, Canadian-style bacon or sausage (and sometimes mackerel or haggis), a grilled tomato, sauteed mushrooms, baked beans, and fried bread or toast. This protein-stuffed meal can tide me over until dinner. You’ll quickly figure out which parts of the fry you like. Your host will likely ask you this up front, rather than serve you the whole shebang and risk having to throw out uneaten food.
The Scandinavian breakfast buffet is the perennial favorite for the “most food on the table” award. It pays to take advantage of breakfast smorgasbords when you can. For about $20 (cheap for these parts), you can dig into an all-you-can-eat extravaganza of fresh bread, cheeses, yogurt, cereal, boiled eggs, herring, cold cuts, and coffee or tea. In another variation on cereal and milk, Scandinavians like to pour thick yogurt over their granola.
Throughout the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe, expect a more modest buffet — but you’ll still find plenty of cheeses, meats, fruit, yogurt, and cereal. In Poland, track down “jajecznica,” the local wake-up call of eggs scrambled with kielbasa sausage, served with a side of potato pancakes. The breakfast of choice in Russia is “oladi,” pancakes perfectly fried to be crisp on the outside but soft in the middle, then topped with sour cream, honey, or berries.
Germans have an endearing habit of greeting others in the breakfast room with a slow and dour “Morgen” (Morning … short for “good morning”), though they have plenty to be happy about. Breakfast is usually included, and offers hearty fuel for the day: ham, eggs, cheese, bread, rolls, and pots of coffee. For a filling cereal, try “Bircher Musli,” a healthful mix of oats, nuts, yogurt, and fruit. If breakfast is optional, take a walk to the nearest bakery — Germany and Austria have a world of enticing varieties of bread and pastries, baked fresh every morning.
Come to the European breakfast table with an adventurous spirit. I’m a traditionalist at home, but when I feel the urge for an American breakfast in Europe, I beat it to death with a hard roll.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. His column runs weekly at seattletimes.com/travel.