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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One thing I love about European travel is discovering places I never knew existed and had never even considered visiting after a lifetime of exploring Europe. Malbork Castle in Pomerania (north of Warsaw in Poland) is a good example.

This biggest brick castle in the world and the largest castle of the Gothic period is one of Europe’s most imposing fortresses. We include it in the Poland section of our Eastern Europe guidebook, and I enjoyed visiting with my local guide to update the material for next year’s edition. Here’s a quick little video clip on a huge and historic heap of Polish bricks.

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As I’ve mentioned, I’ve experienced one strong and recurring weather pattern in this summer’s travels: hot and humid mornings, then torrential downpours in the afternoons. In just one month, on two separate occasions, the Frankfurt airport was closed for thundershowers on days I was flying through — causing me to miss my connecting flights. He’s a little clip of Warsaw during its 4 p.m. daily shower.

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While in Warsaw, I couldn’t help but fixate on the cost of war. I know how lovingly I collect and organize my physical world in my house. But virtually every house in Warsaw was destroyed in 1945…so many cultural and personal treasures simply gone forever. And, now, just two generations later, Germans and Russians stroll through the city on vacation — joking, licking ice cream cones, and snapping photos. Of course, we need to forgive and move on. I’m just amazed at how good Poland is at it. Perhaps some other countries — victims of similar horrors — can learn from the Poles. As Hubert says in this clip, “Hate changes nothing.”

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Driving down a boulevard with an ongoing explanation of everything I was seeing, I was inspired to pull out my little camera and make a video clip to share with you the delight of having your own private tour guide. Imagine hiring a guide like Hubert with a car for $160 for 5 hours. This clip finishes as we park at Ghetto Uprising Square to see the memorial about that horrific chapter in Polish history, and a sparkling new museum celebrating Polish Jews. And with Hubert as my guide, I had the best teacher a traveler could want.

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During my visit to Poland, Poles were frustrated about the recent trade war that had erupted with Russia. Reacting to international sanctions regarding the conflict in Ukraine, Russia decreed that foods could no longer be imported from the European Union — including Poland. One result: Poland is awash in apples grown for export to Russia. Standing here on Warsaw’s Old Town Square, knowing how in 1945 the Soviet Red Army watched from across the river as the Nazis literally leveled this city building by building before retreating (allowing the Soviets to waltz in with no resistance), it’s particularly poignant to see happy, feisty, and resilient Poles eating apples to piss off Putin.

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Travelers see these Changing of the Guard ceremonies all over Europe. Many are so ornate, you lose the sense of the actual change. But here in Warsaw’s Pilsudski Square, it’s crisp and clear.

This pageantry honors not a royal family, but the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — a particularly powerful site in the country that suffered more deaths per capita than any other in World War II.

What’s your favorite Changing of the Guard ceremony, and why?

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In this video clip, I blindsided my wonderful Warsaw guide, Monika, when I asked her to show off Warsaw’s love of Chopin. Imagine having your own charming local guide like this one to show you how the benches play Chopin in the parks.

Every year I have a tradition of signing up for a Rick Steves tour in Europe. We have 35 or so itineraries, and the choice can be tough. I’ll tell you, right now, after lots of time in Eastern Europe this summer, I am tempted to take our Best of Eastern Europe tour in 2015.

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Warsaw is Poland’s capital and biggest city. It’s huge, famous, and important…but not particularly romantic. (If you’re looking for Old World quaintness, head for Kraków.) But Warsaw is an inspiration to visit. To think it was literally bombed flat and rebuilt since 1945 is amazing.

People-in-Warsaw-Park-PolandWalking through Warsaw’s parks, enjoying a little Chopin in the composer’s hometown, marveling at its fast-growing skyline, and just connecting with big-city people who are as warm and charming as small-town folk — that’s the fun of Warsaw.

 

Gary-Cooper-in-Solidarity-get-out-vote-posterPoles love America — they think of us as their big brother from across the Atlantic. And when the communist government gave the people a small opening for representative government in 1989, the “get out the vote” poster was Gary Cooper holding not a gun, but a voting card. The result of that election: Anticommunist parties won every single seat the communist party offered up for a vote.

 

chopin-salon-warsawI spent my first evening in Warsaw at the Chopin Salon, an intimate evening of beautiful music, wine, and cheese hosted by Jarek Cholodecki, who runs the recommended Boutique B&B. Each evening, a small group of locals and travelers gather around Jarek’s big, shiny Steinway grand to hear great music performed by talented young artists in a great city. It felt “very Warsaw.”

 

skyline-with-Stalin-tower-WarsawWarsaw’s massive Palace of Culture and Science skyscraper, dating from the early 1950s, is the tallest building between Frankfurt and Moscow (760 feet with the spire). It was a “gift” from Stalin that the people of Warsaw couldn’t refuse. Varsovians call it “Stalin’s Penis.” (There are seven such “Stalin Gothic” erections in Moscow.) If it feels like an Art Deco Chicago skyscraper, that’s because the architect was inspired by his years he spent studying and working in Chicago in the 1930s. Because it was to be “Soviet in substance, Polish in style,” Soviet architects toured Poland to absorb local culture before starting the project. Since the end of communism, the younger generation doesn’t mind the structure so much — and some even admit to liking it for the way it enlivens the new, predictable, glass-and-steel skyline springing up around it.

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Nowa Huta’s Lord’s Ark Church comes with an interesting story of a man who would later become a saint, courageously standing up to the communist regime.

Back when he was archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła fought for years to build a church in Nowa Huta, the most communist of communist towns. When the regime refused, he insisted on conducting open-air Masses before crowds in fields — until the communists finally capitulated in 1977 and allowed this church to be built. And, of course, that archbishop went on to become St. John Paul II.

The afternoon I dropped by, there were two wedding parties at the church. You’ll see the bride and groom scrambling to pick up coins. It’s Polish tradition for kids to throw coins rather than rice at the newly married couple — and whoever gathers the most will be destined to “wear the pants” in their family.

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A fascinating corner of Kraków is Nowa Huta, an enormous planned workers’ town that offers a glimpse into the stark, grand-scale aesthetics of the communists. It’s a company town, purpose-built from scratch to house the 38,000 workers of the Lenin Steelworks. Today the steelworks is mostly closed, and it’s a bedroom community for Kraków. I find wandering its numbered sectors very evocative.

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