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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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.
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.
Once upon a time, for the 12 days of Christmas, we had two busy television crews a-filming: 12 carol concerts, 11 mugs of Glühwein, 10 living mangers, 9 happy families, 8 Christmas feasts, 7 Euro-cultures, 6 mistletoe kisses, 5 alternative Santas, 4 pounds of weight gain, 3 midnight Masses, 2 exhausted cameramen, and a festive hour of great new public television. (Go ahead, sing it.)
During the 2005 holiday season, my crew and I enjoyed producing a one-hour public television special we hoped would be around for many Christmases to come. As it turns out, stations all over the country air this to audiences who have come to think of watching the show as part of their holiday tradition. For a little holiday cheer here on Facebook, I’m kicking off a “12 Days of Christmas” series of video clips from our experience there.
From England to Norway, Burgundy to Bavaria, and Rome to the top of the Swiss Alps, our mission was to get you a seat at the family feast, save you a pew up in the lofts with the finest choirs, and hand you a rolling pin in Grandma’s kitchen as she labored over her best-kept holiday secrets. We joined Romans cooking up female eels, Parisians slurping oysters, Tuscans tossing fruit cakes, and Norwegian kids winning marzipan pigs. Exploring the rich and fascinating mix of traditions — Christian, pagan, commercial, and edible — we learned lots about the holiday festivities we know and love today and packed it into this special program.
Rather than feature a bunch of shopping malls and Christmas markets, our goal was to get an inside look at sacred, traditional, intimate family Christmas celebrations. We wanted to feature diverse cultures whose colorful yuletide traditions would be appreciated by American families whose ancestors emigrated from those places. Our goal: to give our viewers a look at European Christmas through the eyes of a child, a parent, and a pilgrim. This was not a “happy holidays” sales gimmick, but a true celebration of Christmas. As the increasing commercialization of the holiday season has driven me abroad for several recent Christmases, I was happy to take our crew to a continent where people aren’t counting the shopping days left until Christmas.
So, get ready. Starting tomorrow, for the next couple of weeks, we’ll enjoy a daily dose of European Christmas right here.
Our state has produced some great and serious authors (most notably Sherman Alexie and Richard Brautigan), and some very popular, mass-market writers (including romance novelist Debbie Macomber, Dune author Frank Herbert, and rabble rouser Glenn Beck). But they chose a guy who writes guidebooks. I suppose if it was based on titles in print (67) or ongoing sales (about a million a year), it might make sense to pick me…but certainly not for “literature.” Still, I will willingly join the ranks of other states’ most famous writers, from Herman Melville (New York) to Mark Twain (Missouri).
In my defense, I believe that, out of the 51 writers named, I’m the only one who’s designed a series of phrase books, assessed the flamenco options in Sevilla, laid out a pub crawl in Venice, collected a listing of coffeshops where older travelers might enjoy a joint in Amsterdam, discussed the morality of stealing lunch from your guesthouse’s breakfast buffet, or explained how to enjoy the Vienna Boys Choir without buying a ticket.
Take a look at Business Insider’s list, and see if you agree with the writer who made the cut for your state. (And, to whoever at Business Insider chose me: Thanks, and happy travels!)
Hooray! Together we met our goal of raising $200,000 for Bread for the World. While the news these days is filled with sadness (natural disasters, as in the Philippines) and frustration (our dysfunctional Congress), together this holiday season we have made a difference.
As you know, I’m a fan of “advocacy” to complement charity. Advocacy is speaking up for the voiceless in the halls of power. Big shots (whether oligarchs in Moscow or industrialists in Washington DC) routinely shape the priorities of governments around the world. And, in a world with so much wealth yet so challenged by issues of distribution, poor people both at home and abroad struggle to be heard.
I guess I know my traveling Facebook fans pretty well. My hunch and hope was that we could talk a thousand of you into joining me to raise money to help Bread for the World speak up for these voiceless in Washington DC. So far we’ve done even a bit better, as 1,004 of you have donated.
That means collectively, you’ve raised just over $100,000 — exceeding my $100,000 match. I promised I’d double the power of the first 1,000 who responded, and today I’ll fill out a personal check to Bread for the World for $100,000.
There’s still time (until December 13) to join us and get your thank you gifts (our European Christmas DVD, CD, and book) before Christmas.
Again, together we’ve raised over $200,000 to empower Bread’s work. I’m all for necessary budget discipline — but I don’t want it at the expense of our nation’s poorest people. Our initiative will help Bread for the World continue to maintain a “circle of protection” that shelters the neediest Americans from necessary cuts as we get our national budget in order.
By the way, my friends at Bread are thrilled with this, send their thanks, and share their determination to honor your gifts by working hard and smart to transform this contribution into effective action. To learn more about Bread’s impressive work, visit www.bread.org. That’s the spirit of this season in action.
Thanks so much for making this a very expensive Christmas for me. Giving like this in partnership with caring travelers like you makes my work even more gratifying than it already is. Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all.
It’s so nice to be home for Thanksgiving. One thing great about foreign travel: When you get back home…you’re really thankful. I hope you enjoy this little clip from my hometown — which I’m savoring with friends and family this holiday. (I’ve spent so much time in Europe, I get flamenco and flamingo mixed up!)
Speaking of Thanksgiving: Thanks to the more than 800 fans who have already responded to our Bread for the World Christmas Fundraiser Challenge (donating $100 to BFTW in return for three gifts from us and a promise that we’ll match their donation). But that means we still need 200 more people to help us make our goal of raising $100,000. With my matching donation — and if we hit this goal — a total of $200,000 will go to fighting hunger. Help us by donating to Bread for the World. What a great way to counter all the Black Friday frenzy with an initiative true to the meaning of the season. Thanks for joining us! And Happy Thanksgiving.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
Support Bread for the World’s work with a $100 donation, and I’ll match it. Plus I’ll mail you a special Christmas gift. Join me in this challenge by going to Rick Steves’ Christmas Fundraiser Challenge.
I’ve enjoyed sharing my experiences filming our public TV special in the Holy Land over the last month. It was a powerful learning experience for me, and I hope you found it worthwhile, too. Now it’s great to be back home.
Whenever I travel outside of the peace, stability, and affluence of Europe and the US, I find myself adjusting my worldview. I become more in tune with the realities of people who will never have the joy of seeing their name on a vacation plane ticket. If these times seem tough for our friends and family, imagine how tough they are for hungry and poor people — especially in tumultuous and less stable parts of our world.
To add extra meaning to my holiday season, I’m helping to raise funds for Bread for the World, an organization that advocates for hungry people at home and around the world. This year, the needs are particularly great, so I’ve got a fun challenge to do something that, collectively, can make a huge difference: Consider supporting Bread for the World’s good work with a donation of $100 — and I’ll match all gifts up to $100,000. Imagine: As an extended family of caring citizens, together we can empower their work with $200,000! Make your donation by going to Rick Steves’ Christmas Fundraiser Challenge.
Bread for the World advocates for the world’s poorest people. In others words, they lobby Congress to go light on budget cuts that will hurt those in need. Considering all the interests competing for attention on Capitol Hill, I’m proud to support what I consider the best way possible to give the hungry a voice.
Bread for the World is amazingly effective. While the food provided by all the charities in our country only amounts to 6 percent of the food assistance available, our government provides the rest. That means Bread’s advocacy work has a huge impact. For every dollar Bread raises, it leverages $100 in terms of funding that is vital to poor people. Assuming that ratio holds, if we hit our $200,000 target, we’ll generate $20 million of life-giving, hope-instilling funding for this cause. I’m convinced that supporting Bread is the very best way to leverage my charitable giving. That’s why I’ve been a Bread member for 30 years.
So here’s my challenge: To give this holiday season an extra punch this year, go to Rick Steves’ Christmas Fundraiser Challenge, and help Bread for the World with your gift of $100 or more. As a thank you, I’ll match your donation (so Bread will receive double what you donate) and send you three gifts from my Rick Steves’ European Christmas collection:
- Rick Steves’ European Christmas DVD
- Rick Steves’ European Christmas coffee-table book
- Rick Steves’ European Christmas music CD
I’ll happily pay for the cost of these three gifts, plus shipping, so that Bread for the World can put 100 percent of your donation to work. Make your gift by Dec. 10, and you’ll get everything in time for Christmas.
Thanks and Merry Christmas!
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
Whew! I’m back from the Holy Land and ready to put my focus back on Europe. Thanks for traveling with me on this adventure here on my blog. (My TV crew will now begin editing all that great footage into our upcoming Holy Land special.)
Last night, we streamed my homecoming lecture. And, while it was fun to have about 600 people in the auditorium, it was really exciting to have thousands of people “attending” virtually via our streaming of the event.
For those of you who did watch last night, I’d love some feedback both on the talk and on the tech end of it. How could I have made my lecture and slideshow more helpful as a primer for someone wanting to better understand the Holy Land? Also, how can we tweak the technology to make viewing a talk like this online better from your end? I’ll enjoy your suggestions and comments.
By the way, many asked if we’re going to upload the lecture for later viewing online. We will certainly offer this lecture online (likely a later live presentation), but it’ll be coordinated with the fanfare we hope to generate with the release of our hour-long public television special (which we plan for this April). Stay tuned for more on that.
Flying home, I’m pleased with what we learned and what we have to share. The montage to introduce our one-hour Holy Land special goes like this: “While Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians have overlapping claims and struggle to share it peacefully, this land has a rich and fascinating heritage. We’ll visit Jerusalem, considered by both Israelis and Palestinians to be their historic capital; feel the modern pulse of urban Israel; eat and drink with Jews; and follow in the footsteps of Christ. In Palestine, we’ll harvest olives; visit a local home; see the Tomb of Abraham; learn to wear a scarf with style; follow pilgrims to the place of Jesus’ birth; bob in a very salty sea; hike to an ancient monastery deep in the desert; and feel the energy of an emerging economy. Along the way, we’ll learn about walls, settlements, and the challenges facing the region.” Reading that again, I can see the vivid images we’ll edit together.
While there are no easy answers, actually coming here and experiencing the Holy Land firsthand is the best way to gain context and understanding. Lots of people in the USA seem to think they already know the answers. They’ve learned about it on TV, or from other Americans.
I remember when I first went on a political trip. It was back in the 1980s, to Nicaragua and El Salvador. Seeing me off, my Dad (suspicious of communism) said, “Don’t be duped.” Now, after 30 years of satisfying my curiosity about our world and its challenges by traveling and talking to people, it’s clear to me: The people most in danger of being duped are those who stay home.
I hope that when our program airs (which we expect to happen in spring of 2014, nationwide on public television), you can enjoy, as we did, “The Holy Land: Israel and Palestine Today.”
To celebrate my homecoming tonight, I’ll give a live, free slideshow lecture at 7pm P.S.T. in Edmonds, Washington. You can attend in person (registration required)…or watch the live webcast from anywhere in the world (no registration required). Learn more at Rick Steves – Holy Land: Israel and Palestine Today.
Thanks for following my trip!
One of my favorite sequences in the program is a montage of clips showing me connecting with various locals. The theme: Good travel is all about meeting people, talking with them, and learning. In the last few weeks, I’ve learned what Muslims think of Jesus while sitting on a carpet with an imam; talked about raising kids while sipping coffee with Israelis who live in a settlement overlooking the West Bank; and visited with a Palestinian refugee as he clutched the key his parents took with them when their fled their village in 1948, thinking the move would be temporary. I’ve roasted coffee with a Bedouin, talked with soldiers in guard towers, and gained insight into why a proud and independent young woman would choose to wear a hijab.
Our guides were hugely helpful both in Israel and in Palestine. If you are traveling to the region and need help, they are all self-employed, licensed, and happy to schedule time with any visitor: Benny Dagan (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Abie Bresler (center in photo above, email@example.com) work in Israel. And Kamal Mukarker (left in photo above, firstname.lastname@example.org) and Husam Jubran (email@example.com) are ready to be your guides in Palestine. Thanks to Benny, Abie, Kamal, and Husam for some great travels.
We finished our Holy Land special with this close: “In this land — so treasured by Jews, Muslims, and Christians — I’m reminded that the prophets of each of these religions taught us to love our neighbors. And the lessons learned traveling here in in the Holy Land can inspire us all to strive for that ideal. I’m Rick Steves. Keep on traveling. Shalom, Salam, Peace.”
I had a miserable trip…it changed my pre-conceptions. People whose language always sounded to me like terrorists conspiring are actually gentle souls with big challenges. It seems to me there are two sure things: Violence doesn’t work, and neither the Jews nor the Palestinians are going to move. The only workable road is one of peaceful co-existence.
While the Holy Land’s troubles are no joking matter, sometimes a little humor can help defuse the tension. I couldn’t help but chuckle at this joke: An Israeli diplomat, when filling out the customs form upon entry in the USA, misunderstood one of the questions, Where it said “Occupation?”, he wrote, “No, just visiting.”
Israel needs to protect itself. That’s obvious and understandable. And there’s a terrible history of terrorists, desperate extremists who will die to kill, and countries that swear they will not rest until Israel is pushed into the sea.
At the same time, one thing that virtually all visitors to Israel and Palestine eventually grapple with is the irony of Jewish people who were so cruelly treated through history — and especially during the horror of the Holocaust — now playing the strongman.
As observers from a distance, we can’t really get an honest picture of the reality here. I might see a news clip of Palestinians destroying a synagogue. It looks so hateful. And then I learn that during a land swap, Israel agreed to give back land upon which they had built a luxurious modern settlement. And, before retreating, they destroyed every building in the settlement except the synagogue. When hardscrabble Palestinians, so poor and needy, walked into their land, they saw only rubble except for one building — and they got mad and destroyed it. It’s ugly both ways.
Today, I sense a commitment among Palestinians to grow beyond violence. (They really have no choice.) In fact, the main job of Palestinian security forces is to support the Israeli forces in keeping angry, pent-up teenagers calm and out of Israeli prisons.
On the other side, among Israelis I met in Palestine (mostly security forces), I noticed a kind of occupier’s vengeance. It’s something most Israelis would not condone, but it’s done in their name nevertheless.
Israelis believe Palestinian children are taught in school to hate Jews. And Palestinians believe Jewish children are taught to hate them. I asked a Palestinian if schoolbooks teach children to hate Jews. He said, “As a parent raising my family under Jewish occupation, it’s my challenge to teach our children not to hate Jews.” I hadn’t considered that angle. But just being a tourist here for a week, I can understand the toll it must take on any “love thy neighbor” person to live in a land where they say, “Mere existence is resistance.”
I’ll continue this Holy Land series until November 21st. Then, to celebrate my homecoming, I’ll give a live, free slideshow lecture on Thursday, November 21st at 7 p.m. P.S.T. in Edmonds, Washington. You can attend in person (registration required)…or watch the live webcast from anywhere in the world (no registration required). Learn more at Rick Steves – Holy Land: Israel and Palestine Today.