Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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The festive swirl of heartwarming sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas abound in the land where the season’s most-loved carol, “Silent Night,” was first performed over 200 years ago.

When we were making our Rick Steves’ European Christmas special, we knew that filming an intimate family Christmas feast would not necessarily come out natural and fun-loving on TV, so we filmed two and picked the best. The Bavarian family the German Tourist Board lined up for us tried hard. But the evening just felt stiff. We spent long hours feasting and filming with them, but ended up with nothing usable.

Thankfully, just over the border, the traditional Austrian family we filmed the next night exceeded all hopes. They took me dashing through the snow in a two-horse open sleigh. By the way, as you watch this clip, imagine the stress of knowing that in 15 minutes, the light will be gone and the delightful sleigh bit will become unusable. We scrambled to reach their home late after a long day of filming and had to really keep things moving along — cutting the friendly welcomes (without being rude to the kind and eager people who have no idea how critical the fading light is), and getting the horses all in gear and clip-clopping merrily past the cameraman.

Then, at the door of their gingerbread-cute yet massive home, the entire family greeted us with a Christmas yodel. Inside their time-warp home, a classic grandma was making cookies with children you just had to pinch, an old Habsburg grandpa played the zither, Mom lit the advent wreath while teaching her child the significance of each candle, and Dad blessed the house from the attic to the barn with incense as his daughter sprinkled holy water with a sprig of spruce. (Part of my goal with this program was to explain the meaning behind some of our rituals — like the Advent wreath — in a traditional European context.) The parents secretly decorated the tree, placed the gifts, and lit the real candles. They rang the bell, and the kids tumbled into the room, filled with wonder. When our cameraman smiles as he films, I know we’re getting good footage.

Austria had its musical ups and downs. I was excited to experience the ritual reenactment of the first performance of “Silent Night” in Oberndorf, the village where it originated. We scrambled to get out there on Christmas Eve and set up at the several spots where events were taking place. But it was basically a muddy, touristy mess, with underwhelming music and not a hint of the magic we had naively hoped for. I managed to persuade the musicians to perform a private little concert for us in the church, so we at least filmed “Silent Night” as it was first performed (two guitars and two singers). My Christmas Eve dinner was the last two bratwursts on the griddle with a stale roll, snapped up just as they were closing down the tent.

Racing back into Salzburg to salvage something of Christmas Eve, we hiked to the abbey where Maria of The Sound of Music caused her fellow sisters to sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” The sisters had agreed to let our crew be present at their holy Mass, but I guess they didn’t understand we wanted to actually use the big camera we lugged up the hill. When we got there, they said no camera — just a microphone. Our sound man carefully set up the microphone stand to the side of the altar facing the choir of nuns (as I sat in the back, happily humming “Climb Every Mountain”). Suddenly, the old but very spry Mother Superior dashed across the altar in the direction of the out-of-sight nuns’ choir. Seconds later, our sound man was evicted — dragging all his gear, along with his tail between his legs, out of that restricted holy zone. He had to set up the mic farther back in the nave, making the recording unusable.

Thankfully, the next day — Christmas morning — we were given a royal perch from which to shoot in the Salzburg cathedral as a huge orchestra and choir filled the place with a glorious Diabelli Mass.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

You can watch my full hour-long Christmas special at https://www.ricksteves.com/christmas

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In Nürnberg, famous for its best-in-Germany Christmas market, our Rick Steves’ European Christmas crew got to film the angelic Christkind. How did a teenage German girl become “the Christ child” of Bavarian children’s Santa Claus dreams? We also learned how Martin Luther, the local reformer, wanted to shift the focus from St. Nicholas back to the Christ child, who somehow has morphed into a sweet teenage girl. After the Christkind’s show before an awestruck crowd of German kids (shown in yesterday’s clip), we were invited to film a private audience with her. We felt like paparazzi trailing some teenage heartthrob.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

Watch the entire Rick Steves’ European Christmas at https://www.ricksteves.com/christmas.

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For me, one of the delights of working at Rick Steves’ Europe is the way my staff mixes fun, creativity, talent, and hard work. Each year we brew a holiday beer as a staff event, and our art department comes up with our own beer bottle label. Here’s a review of a decade of Rick Steves’ Europe-produced beers. I wish you could taste them, but at least you can enjoy the creative talent of our art department.

“Mona Drinks” is a reference to our beloved Mona Winks guidebook, which was filled with self-guided tours of Europe’s top museums (now out of print, but resurrected as the audio tours in our free Rick Steves’ Audio Europe™ App):

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“Mona’s Back,” from 2002, was a statement in the year after 9/11 that we were traveling on:

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The “Immaculate Consumption” was built on sketchy archaeological evidence that there may have been beer at the manger on that first Christmas:

 

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“Ale 70 Shows” refers to our anthology of TV shows that has grown every two years — from 36, to 43, to 56, to 70, and so on. We’re at “over 100” now, but at the time, “All 70 Shows” seemed like quite a pinnacle”:

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The “Eyjafjallajökull Steam Ale” from 2010 commemorated the Icelandic volcano commonly known as E-15 (for the number of letters that followed the first letter in its unpronounceable-to-most name):

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And 2013 saw the first appearance of Santa Steves:

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Anyway…here’s to a wonderful Christmas and happy holidays to all.

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When it comes to traditional holiday images, Germany’s Bavaria is the heartland. Here we’ll savor classic holiday themes: glittering trees, old-time carols, and colorful Christmas markets.

Even though I was determined to limit the shopping focus in our Rick Steves’ European Christmas special, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Germany ‘s grandest Christmas market in Nürnberg. Like the region’s children, we were mesmerized with Nürnberg’s quirky, gift-giving Christmas angel, called the Christkind. In an auditorium with several hundred lovingly wonderstruck grade-schoolers, the Christkind held court. Filming the children mob her after she said, “If you’re very, very gentle, you can touch my wings,” was great TV. (Next up, I’ll share a rare interview with this German Christmas angel.)

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

You can watch my full hour-long Christmas special at https://www.ricksteves.com/christmas

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In writing the Rick Steves’ European Christmas script, I had to choose which countries would “make the cut.” I could fit only seven into the mix. Being Norwegian, I admit that I was biased…and Norway was destined to make the cut. But when we started filming, it looked like Norway would be a weak segment…so I needed to scramble.

Norway happened to be wet and warm when we visited, and the secular Norwegians don’t really do Christmas with the gusto I had imagined. I visited my very traditional cousin, only to find that their holiday celebration felt about as robust as Columbus Day.

But we did manage to go to Drøbak, the self-proclaimed Christmas capital of Norway, and take part in Santa Lucia Day, which brings everyone out to dance around the trees…with their crowns of real candles.

In Oslo, we had one night to get some music. When a concert we planned to film fell through at the last moment, I searched the entertainment listings and found the Norwegian Girls’ Choir performing in the oldest church in Oslo — the tiny, heavy-stone, Viking Age Gamle Aker Kirke. We drove there and arrived just half an hour before the concert began. With the crew double-parked in the dark, I ran in, found the director, pleaded my case…and he said, “Ya, sure.” We finished setting up just minutes before show time. The lights went out and an angelic choir of beautiful, blonde, candle-carrying girls processed in, filling the cold stone interior with a glowing light. As the harpist did her magic, I just sat in the back, feeling very thankful. This concert ended up giving us several of the best cuts on our CD and some of the most beautiful photos for our coffee-table book.

Scheduling was also tricky. Certain events — such as a choir singing “Silent Night” in the church where it was first performed near Salzburg, Santa Lucia Day in Norway on December 13, and Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican — were fixed, so we had to work our schedule around those. Each of the two crews generally had three or four days to film a region, and then one day to travel to the next. Our script was designed to playfully let the Christmas season build — but never quite reach a holiday climax — in each place we filmed. Then, in a festive finale, bells ring throughout the Continent as Christmas Day sweeps across Europe.

But I’m getting ahead of myself — that clip (#11) is on its way. First — like a video Advent calendar — we have lots more windows to open, peeking in on families and cultures and countries as Christmas approaches. Today we’re at #4: Norway.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

You can watch my full hour-long Christmas special on ricksteves.com.

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Leaving the tranquility of the English countryside behind, London offers Christmas fun fit for a queen and streets twinkling with joy. This is the only time we’ve ever filmed with a sound technician. We knew music is a big part of Christmas, we’d be privileged to film at wonderful concerts throughout Europe, and we wanted to get the music just right. Our sound guys did a marvelous job, and music was a big part of the program (even giving us the bonus of a great Christmas CD as a souvenir).

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

You can watch my full hour-long Christmas special here.

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Last weekend, we packed nearly our entire staff onto a party boat and sailed the Puget Sound for our annual Christmas party. The views were breathtaking…and so was the dancing. I just have to say, this holiday season, I’m thankful that I have a staff here at Rick Steves’ Europe that I enjoy taking out for a peaceful little dinner cruise (or even something a bit more upbeat). We’re letting our hair down here in the off-season, and ready for the best year ever for touring in 2015. Merry Christmas!

 

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Merry Christmas! To celebrate the season, I’m sharing clips, extras and behind-the-scenes notes from Rick Steves’ European Christmas.

Writing the Rick Steves’ European Christmas script was a fun challenge, and I needed to tap my Europeans friends not just to be good tour guides, but to take us into their homes to be there with their families as they celebrated. England came through royally. Maddy Thomas (who runs my favorite minibus tours from Bath into the countryside) has a lovely family and delighted our crew with kindergartners singing in ancient churches, crusty blokes playing gruff Father Christmas, and an intimate afternoon with her kids and husband preparing the figgy pudding and mincemeat pies for a fairy-tale English Christmas.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Merry Christmas! To celebrate the season, I’m sharing clips, extras and behind-the-scenes notes from Rick Steves’ European Christmas.

While each European country gives Christmas its own special twist, they all follow the same story of how the son of God was born on earth, as told in the Bible and illustrated over the centuries by great artists. In this segment, we begin where the Christmas story does: with the Annunciation of Mary and the birth of Christ.

The tour guide in me was determined to cover the biblical story of Christmas while explaining related holidays and traditions and meeting the locals. Over the next few days, in this “12 Days of European Christmas” series, we’ll learn about Epiphany, Advent wreaths, the origin of St. Nicholas, the pagan roots of so many Christian traditions, and all those fascinating cultural differences. For example, German Christmas tree lots were just opening up on December 22, as most Germans don’t put up trees until Christmas Eve. We’ll celebrate the holiday with Umbrian peasants, trendy Norwegians, Victorian English, dirndl-clad Tiroleans, and Burgundian monks, all of whom contribute to how their community celebrates Christmas.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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I have a lot of fun and rewarding projects on my desk – and one that I am particularly passionate about is our free app, “Rick Steves Audio Europe™.”

Why am I so in love with this thing? Because it’s packed with practical information (both self-guided audio tours of Europe’s greatest cities, galleries, and museums, and the very best of our radio interviews organized in country-specific playlists) that will make people’s trips more meaningful. It’s free. And tens of thousands of travelers are using it. Any time I drop into the Pantheon in Rome, St. Mark’s in Venice, or Versailles outside of Paris, I see travelers using our app. They’re having a great time immersed in the cultural wonder of the sight…and I am literally in their ear (my voice is anyway).

Each year we add to the material already available with Rick Steves Audio Europe, and last week we spliced in 26 new radio interviews.

Learn how to download the app (it’s free and easy) at www.ricksteves.com/audioeurope. It is such a treat for me to be able to interview such beautiful minds and inspirational travelers and an even bigger treat to be able to share these conversations (so beautifully edited by my radio production team) with you.

New radio interviews spliced into all the existing ones on the Rick Steves Audio Europe app include:

 

Britain (Beyond London): Isles of Britain, Scottish Hebrides, Scottish Secession: Before the Vote

Eastern Europe: Adriatic Coast, Albania, Prague’s Coronation Way

France (Beyond Paris): Discovery of France, French Riviera Highlights

France (Paris): French Impressionism, How Paris Became Paris, Paris Day Trips

General Europe: Class of 1500, European Education, European Media, Challenges for European Women

Germany/Austria: Swiss Mix, Walking Vienna

Greece/East Mediterranean: Greek Islands

Ireland: Faeries of Ireland

Italy: Italian Rails II, Italy – North vs. South II

Netherlands/Belgium: Amsterdam by Bike, Amsterdam Update

Portugal: Portugal’s Algarve

Spain: Live Like a Spaniard

Turkey: Cruising the Bosphorus

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