Sat, Jul 17, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Europe grumbles as cold weather ruins its long vacations

AP , VIENNA, AUSTRIA

Snowball fights in July. Mulled wine instead of wine coolers. Thermostats set on high. Spring has come and gone, fall approaches -- and Europeans from Oslo to Budapest are still waiting for the summer.

Much of Europe woke up to yet another day of chilly temperatures and rain on Thursday, adding to the weeks of miserable weather gripping Europe from Scandinavia down to parts of the Balkans.

And this, in a continent that had feared a recurrence of last summer's heat wave, which killed thousands.

This year's May was fitful, and last month promised a summer that could go either way. But except for southern Europe, this month has been wet and glacial.

On many days, temperatures have been half that of last year, when the mercury sat at 35?C or higher for weeks, resulting in crowded swimming pools, record ice cream sales and stores without fans and air conditioners.

Meteorologists say the comparison with last summer is misleading because it was unusually hot and dry in much of Europe.

"It's a little cooler than it should be but it's not too bad," said Vienna weatherman Ernst Rudel of the past few weeks, describing the rains sweeping Austria this summer as "a little more precipitation than normal."

But the wacky weather has in some areas led to virtual winter.

Instead of hiking, tourists in Germany's Bavarian Alps have worked up a sweat with snowball fights and sleigh rides after heavy snowfalls that dusted peaks -- and in some cases valleys under 2,000m.

In central Germany's Thuringia forest, guests who recently gathered for an open-air theater performance clasped icy fingers around cups of mulled wine usually served at winter apres-ski parties. Apparently it's no attraction: Stefanie Loeser of the nearby regional tourist office in Erfurt said frosty temperatures and two weeks of rain have hit tourism hard.

Britons -- whose summer weather has been the envy of no one over the years -- have even less to laugh about than usual.

The cold snap prompted the British Gas company to put its winter emergency contingency plan into operation to meet a surge in demand from people turning on central heating.

Shrewsbury in northwest England had a temperature of 11.4?C on July 8 -- the coldest ever for the month. To the south, the town of Wittering, near Cambridge, absorbed 12.2cm of rainfall between July 1 and July 8 -- two and one-half times the monthly average.

The sun has shone a miserly three days this month in most of Britain, and on Thursday much of the country was murky and drizzly yet again. It was a particularly bad sign, being St. Swithin's Day, when folklore holds that rain means another 40 consecutive days of downpours.

Elliot Frisby, a spokesman for the VisitBritain tourism board, maintained a stiff upper lip. "We don't sell Britain as a sun, sea and sand destination," he said.

Persistent rain also left parts of Scandinavia gasping for relief.

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