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 brand-new Sanctuary of St. John Paul II — built on the outskirts of Kraków, where he served as archbishop — is an impressive place to visit.

When you travel around Europe, you rarely see new churches. And the old churches you see often feel more dead than alive…more for tourists than for worshippers. But in Poland, churches are alive with the faithful.

In small Polish towns, there’s a strong tradition of building huge, architecturally daring churches as a sign of both civic pride and deep respect for their Catholic faith. Particularly during communism (when atheism was the official state religion), building a bold new church was a statement. The architecture of these modern houses of worship sometimes feels more slapdash and on the cheap than the great churches of an earlier age (which were often built over centuries). But the spirit that fills them is powerful.

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

http://youtu.be/2hyy5yrC_Us

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The man who would become St. John Paul II grew up, studied, and served as a priest and archbishop in Kraków, Poland. And today, on the heels of his sainthood, the city is ramping up celebrations of the person many consider to be the greatest Pole in history.

Imagine you’re Polish in the 1970s. Your country was devastated by World War II, and has struggled under an oppressive regime ever since. Food shortages are epidemic. Lines stretch around the block even to buy a measly scrap of bread. Life is bleak, oppressive, and seems hopeless. Then someone who speaks your language — someone you’ve admired your entire life, and one of the only people you’ve seen successfully stand up to the regime — becomes one of the world’s most influential people. A Pole like you is the leader of a billion Catholics. He makes you believe that the impossible can happen. He says to you again and again: “Have no fear.” And you begin to believe it.

Many people (including Mikhail Gorbachev) credit Pope John Paul II for the collapse of Eastern European communism. His compatriots — even the relatively few atheists and agnostics — saw John Paul II both as the greatest hero of their people…and as a member of the family, like a kindly grandfather.

A speedy nine years after his death, Karol Wojtyła was made a saint. And today, when you travel in Poland, you’ll find St. John Paul II wherever you go.

Sanctuary-of-St-John-Paul-II-krakowThe John Paul II Center is at a huge new church at the edge of Kraków, consecrated in 2013 and dedicated to St. John Paul II.

 

pilgrims-and-the-faithful-in-Sanctuary-of-St-John-Paul-II-krakowThe church is big and dazzling, with art in the lower sanctuary that highlights St. John Paul II’s illustrious ministry.

 

Saint-John-Paul-II-krakowSt. John Paul II seems to have a chapel dedicated to him in every Polish church. Seeing a man we all grew up with actually up on the wall, glorified with the apostles and other saints, you feel we all experienced the charismatic presence of an historic figure who will be honored for ages to come.

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Kraków’s excellent Rynek Underground Museum — situated directly below the Main Market Square — offers an intimate look at the city 500 years ago. In this clip, I stroll with my local guide, Anna, down a medieval street, past the remains of a series of shops.

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

http://youtu.be/ywE5mfq88Zg

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One of many great new museums in Kraków is the excellent Rynek Underground Museum. When the Main Market Square was renovated, they found so much of archaeological value that they opened a major museum right on the site. In this video clip, my guide explains that even though we’re 12 feet underground, this was the street level of medieval Kraków.

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

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I’m wrapping up my summer travels in Poland. And my first stop is Kraków.

Kraków is easily Poland’s best destination: a beautiful, old-fashioned city buzzing with history, enjoyable sights, tourists, and college students. Even though the country’s capital moved from here to Warsaw 400 years ago, Kraków remains Poland’s cultural and intellectual center. Of all of the Eastern European cities laying claim to the boast “the next Prague,” Kraków is for real.

Krakow-main-square-and-churchThe Old Town, within Krakow’s medieval walls, converges on one of the most charismatic squares in Europe: the Main Market Square.

 

Trendy-bohemian-chic-eateries-in-Kasimierz-KrakowKazimierz is the historic Jewish Quarter of Kraków. Once upon a time, the majority of all Jewish people lived in Poland. And Kraków was their cultural capital. While tourists come to see the historic synagogues and cemeteries of the Jewish Quarter during the day, throngs of young clubbers clog the Kazimierz streets after dark. The Kazimierz market square retains the gritty flavor of the town before tourism and gentrification. And countless bohemian-chic restaurants make Kazimierz a destination for dinner.

 

Vodka-tasting-5-samples-for-10-zloty-KrakowFor a vodka education in Kraków — complete with as much tasting as you’d like — drop by Staropolskie Trunki (“Old Polish Drinks,” right along the main drag at Florianska 20). It’s a friendly little place with a long bar and countless local vodkas and liquors — all open and ready to be tasted with a cheery local barista to talk you through the experience. You’ll get five different tastes for about $3, with a fun explanation that amounts to a private tour.

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Every time I decide to get out and see a great city after dark, I’m impressed by how different it is after hours. And Berlin is no exception.

After a long day of filming our new TV episode on Berlin, I decided to take my own audio tour — the newest self-guided tour on our free Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app. It’s fun to actually give these tours a whirl after we produce them. (The tour works great. But I took notes on the gaps where I needed to pause my iPhone. Now I’ll go home and edit the tour so that it can be done in real time, without pausing. If you have our app, remember to update the tours periodically so you don’t miss the fixes we make.)

Berlin is a city with a dark history and many memorials. In about an hour, you can visit 8 or 10 powerful memorials across the old center of Berlin. Experiencing them at night on this trip, I realized this is a great way to see the city.

I enjoyed standing before the Brandenburg Gate, gloriously floodlit and without all the commercial commotion that surrounds it throughout the day. I pondered the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe with only the security guard sharing the moment with me. And I stood over the spot where the Nazis ceremonially burned the booked that didn’t fit their ideology.

It was on this square (now called Bebelplatz) in 1933 that staff and students from the university threw 20,000 newly forbidden books (authored by Einstein, Hemmingway, Freud, and T.S. Elliot, among others) into a huge bonfire on the orders of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. In fact, Goebbels himself tossed books onto the fire, condemning writers to the flames. He declared, “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism has come to an end, and the German revolution has again opened the way for the true essence of being German.”

The “burning of the books memorial” on Bebelplatz is a glass pane in the cobbles with a room of shelves under the square. During the day, it’s full of glare and commotion, so the experience never quite works. But after dark, it’s quiet, and the empty shelves are hauntingly bare and beautifully lit. The contrast between that and the nighttime cityscape above is quite evocative. I’ve stood over this memorial many times in broad daylight and never really been moved. Finally, tonight, it grabbed me.

Get out at night and just be in a great city. Have you noticed that difference I’m clueing into in other great cities?

Brandenburg-GateThe historic Brandenburg Gate (1791) was the grandest — and is the last survivor — of 14 gates in Berlin’s old city wall. The gate was the symbol of Prussian Berlin, and later the symbol of a divided Berlin. Today, it’s once again the centerpiece of a great and united capital.

 

Jewish-Memorial-at-night-BerlinBeing alone with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe after dark, I thought perhaps this is the way the architect who designed it wanted it to be experienced.

 

Burning-books-memorial-at-night-BerlinStanding on Bebelplatz, named for the notorious Nazi book burning, you look down through a glass panel and see a room of empty bookshelves.

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Hiking around and around up the long ramp inside the glass dome of Germany’s striking Reichstag, I was heading for the summit. Along the way I enjoyed 360 degrees of Berlin. Here’s a little tour.

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Germany’s parliament building, or Reichstag, is a must-see attraction in Berlin. With its motto, “To the German People,” it’s the symbolic heart of German democracy.

The Reichstag has a short yet dramatic history. When inaugurated in the 1890s, the new parliament building was dismissed by the emperor as a “chatting house for monkeys.” But at the end of World War I, the German Republic was proclaimed from here. Then, in 1933, a mysterious fire gutted the building, giving Chancellor Hitler a convenient opportunity to blame the communists for the blaze in order to consolidate his hold on power. As World War II drew to a close, the Nazis made their last stand here. Imagine: Desperate Germans fighting Russians on its rooftop. After 1945, the bombed-out building stood like a ghost through the Cold War. Then, with reunification, the parliament moved back to Berlin. This historic ruin was rebuilt with a modern element: a striking glass dome.

A walkway winds all the way to the top of that dome. A cone of mirrors reflects natural light into the legislative chamber far below. As you spiral up, survey the city. The views are marvelous.

But for Germans, mindful of their dark 20th-century history, the view that matters most is inward, looking down, literally over the shoulders of their legislators. The architecture comes with a poignant message: The people are determined keep a wary eye on their government.

We got great footage of the Reichstag, and this is one of the dimensions of the new Berlin that I’m thrilled to include in our new TV show on Berlin — the fastest-changing city in Europe. Stay tuned, as we have a dozen new shows coming to your public television station starting in about a month.

Exterior-of-dome-and-ReichstagOne of the great sights in Berlin is its history-stained Reichstag building, capped by an inspirational glass dome.

 

Inside-the-glass-Reichstag-domeTourists are welcome to marvel at the inside of the Reichstag dome.

 

Reichstag-dome-posterI’ve long marveled at the notion of German citizens keeping a symbolic eye on their government by climbing the dome and literally looking down over the shoulders of their legislators at work. This poster, which I photographed on my way out of the building, gave me the view I wished we had for our TV cameras.

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Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof — the city’s huge and thundering main train station — is one of Europe’s mightiest, with several levels of tracks serving over a thousand trains a day and a vast shopping mall of commercial activity. While a massive public expense, Germans consider infrastructure like this a good investment for both business and for everyday people. Just being here, for a train enthusiast like me, gets me all giddy. What train stations do that for you?

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For the first time ever, I’ve come to Berlin and didn’t even venture into former West Berlin. The energy is in the eastern part of the city…and the best evening and eating scene is in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood.

“Der Berg,” as Berliners call it, was largely untouched during World War II, but its buildings — giant Industrial Age workers’ flats — slowly rotted away under the communists. Then, after The Wall fell, it was overrun first by artists and anarchists, and then by laid-back hipsters, energetic young families, and clever entrepreneurs who breathed life back into its classic old apartment blocks, deserted factories, and long-forgotten breweries.

Years of rent control kept things affordable for its bohemian residents. But now landlords are free to charge what the market will bear, and the vibe is changing. This is ground zero for Berlin’s baby boom: Tattooed and pierced young moms and dads, who’ve joined the modern rat race without giving up their alternative flair, push their youngsters in designer strollers past trendy boutiques and restaurants. Most visitors find themselves eating and sleeping in this part of the city…and for good reason.

Here’s a little clip capturing today’s energy in Prenzlauer Berg.

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