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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For my holiday season gift to you, I’d like to share three exciting glimpses of why I love Europe. Over the next three days, we’ll travel to slices of Europe that are remote, sacred, and wild — starting today, with remote.

In today’s travel-dream-come-true, let’s canoe together on the canals of Holland, hike along the Cinque Terre (my favorite stretch of Riviera trail), and climb a tiny but dramatic and rewarding mountain in North England.

These images share the joy I get from my work. Along with my 100 workmates here at Rick Steves’ Europe, I’m working harder than ever. And knowing that because of our hard work, 20,000 happy adventurers who join our tours this year will be dealing with post-tour smile creases keeps me happily coming to my desk each day that I’m not on the road.

Happy dreams of happy travels…

-Rick

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

http://youtu.be/P8CWmPX4vT4

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We all treasure our Christmases at home. But I treasure my Christmases abroad, too. I’d love to hear your favorite memories about being in a country that celebrates Christmas with a different twist that you enjoyed.

By the way, “Xmas” is OK. While some believe that “Xmas” takes the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” it’s actually not the case at all. X was the ancient Greek abbreviation for the word “Christ.” The word for “Christ” in Greek is Xristos. During the 16th century, Europeans began using X, the first initial of Christ’s name, as shorthand for the word “Christ” in “Christmas.” Although the early Christians understood this shorthand, later Christians mistook “Xmas” as a sign of disrespect. So, if you’d like to refer to Christmas as Xmas, you’ll only offend people who don’t know their history.

Merry Xmas

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My favorite feature of our Rick Steves’ European Christmas special’s structure is how in each culture, we stop just before Christmas arrives. With this clip, Christmas is finally here — and all over Europe, people are celebrating in their own unique ways. In England, families await the arrival of Father Christmas; in Norway, friends join hands in song; in Burgundy, a toast starts the celebration feast; at the Vatican, people pack St. Peter’s to attend a glorious Midnight Mass; and, as Christmas Day dawns, a joyful chorus heralds the birth of Jesus. Merry Christmas!

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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Community center in Managua

Dear traveling friends,

This mural reminds me how travel can help us be one with the world.

It can help us to see truths we’d never appreciate if we stayed home.

While, at first, these truths can sometimes rub us the wrong way,
once we get comfortable with them, we’re thankful for the broader perspective.

This humble yet poignant painting gracing a community center in Managua reminds me how people in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador can have an advantage when it comes to understanding the real meaning of Christmas.

It’s my Christmas wish that your travels give you a bounty of reasons to be thankful and celebrate all that is good in our world.

Rick Steves

P.S. How have your holiday travels enriched your understanding of the real meaning of Christmas? It would be a gift to hear your stories.

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A highlight for our Rick Steves’ European Christmas crew was filming the Midnight Mass at the Vatican on Christmas Eve in 2004 — which happened to be Pope John Paul II’s last Christmas. The vast basilica was packed, the pope seemed radiant, and our cameraman put our viewers right in the front pew.

The Vatican is generally a very difficult place for visiting film crews to get permission to do anything. But for some reason, their welcome warmed at Christmas, and we found ourselves with a prime spot in the center of St. Peters — midway up the central pilaster, under Michelangelo’s magnificent dome, with a front-balcony perch to catch the action.

What you didn’t see was 10,000 worshipers tumbling out of St. Peter’s at about 1:00 in the morning in the rain. Our crew, about the last people to leave the basilica, couldn’t find a taxi, and had to slog through Rome for an hour laden with all their gear to get back to their hotel.

Here’s just a bit more of Pope John Paul II’s final Christmas Mass. And, you can watch my full hour-long Christmas special here.

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

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As you watch this clip of choirs performing in Oslo and in Nürnberg, enjoy scenes of winter in Europe. While fields and squares are filled with color and vibrancy in the summer, the naked branches, solitary candles flickering in windows, and lonely vistas of winter offer a peaceful charm with the promise of life and renewal just around the corner. As you watch these choirs, think of the timeless beauty of physically coming together in great churches to make music in the dead of winter, which is such an integral part of celebrating the holidays. Watching this, I vow to enjoy making some music with friends in my community this Christmas, too. How about you?

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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High in Switzerland, the mighty Alps seem to shout the glory of God. Up here, where villages huddle under towering peaks, Christmas fills a wintry wonderland with good cheer. Traditions are strong and celebration comes with families, friends, and fun. It may be cold outside, but as the sun sets, it’s impossible not to linger in this cozy setting.

Through the seven countries where we filmed our Rick Steves’ European Christmas special, six were snowless. The Swiss Alps were our one last hope for a white Christmas — our worst-case weather scenario back-up. I simply had to get snow in the Alps…and just barely did.

I am well-connected in the fairy-tale village of Gimmelwald. (We’ve been taking our tour groups here for 30 years.) My key support person was Olle, the village schoolteacher. He had emailed me photos of his beautiful, snow-covered village a month before. But that December was unseasonably warm, and on the days leading up to our arrival, the town was bare and wet. Thankfully, a strong snowfall hit the day we came to town, giving us the white Christmas of our prayers. By the time we were leaving, it was all but melted.

Gimmelwald was a folk festival of Christmas traditions. Olle arranged everything. He planned a sledding expedition to cut down the tree, arranged a cozy fondue in a remote hut, and lit our torches as we skied and sledded back down the mountain into his village. Olle’s parents came by (Grandpa even grew an old-fashioned big white beard for the filming) as they pulled out all the stops to celebrate a traditional Swiss family Christmas Eve…on December 21.

The Alps would also be a great place to rendezvous with my family. (Other holiday shows I’d watched, where the host was without family, seemed almost mournful.) My family flew in for just three days and performed heroically (especially considering the jet lag).

After 15 years of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos in our TV shows, my son Andy got a serious part. This year he was Samichlaus — that’s Swiss German for “St. Nick.” Andy’s sidekick, the black-clad henchman Schmutzli, was Olle’s son, Sven. And the donkey played himself. We filmed Gimmelwald’s children enjoying the annual visit from this dynamic Christmas duo. This year, Schmutzli translated because Samichlaus spoke only English. Ignoring the language barrier, the cute little village children just promised they were nice and not naughty, sang their Swiss Santa a Christmas carol, and eagerly dug into his big burlap bag to get their goodies.

That night we filmed a hot-spiced wine party in the frigid open-air gathering around flaming tree trunks with villagers — one of the coldest evenings I’ve ever experienced. And it didn’t make the show. But it was a delight to play the piano as the family sang (they have the same kind of piano as me… a wonderful German make called Sauter, from the Black Forest). And I just love the shot of Grandpa’s weathered fingers on the dog-eared family Bible — beautiful as a Rembrandt painting, but real and now.

My favorite bit of the entire Christmas special was the joyful sleigh ride with the entire gang frolicking down the mountain with torches. Again, this was a nerve-wracking afternoon and evening, as we had lots of elements to film: tramping around in snowshoes, cutting the tree, having fondue in the mountain hut, and then — just as twilight was upon us — romping down the mountain. The crew ran ahead at intervals, catching us as we frolicked by. I got to ride the comedic wooden snow bicycle, and our laughs and giggles were honest joy. No acting there!

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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A wonderful tradition in Italy is churches and communities making creative manger scenes and putting them on display through the Christmas season.

These presepi, as manger scenes are called in Italy, originated 800 years ago just north of Rome, in Assisi. St. Francis was a master at teaching Bible lessons with clever props, and he figured out that a manger scene helped people relate to the Christmas message more vividly. Ever since then, the Baby Jesus has been shown on his day of birth in a humble setting, in local scenes that have not a hint of Bethlehem: an Italian setting for Italian viewers (or an Arctic scene for Eskimos) to connect more intimately with the story of the Nativity.

In Rome, it was a Bethlehem home show, as all over town creative crèches were on display. Here’s a collection of some of our favorites — ranging from holy to homemade to mod to igloos.

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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Next on our Rick Steves’ European Christmas itinerary was Italy. One of my favorite guides in all of Europe is Roberto Bechi (who has taught and inspired our tour groups and guidebook readers visiting his Tuscan hometown of Siena for twenty years). Roberto worked his wonders — as he always does when I’m in town with a film crew — and, with his connections, he had sacred music and prayer infusing the tranquil Italian landscape with the spirit of Christmas. With his help, we filmed living nativities recreating the town of Bethlehem in idyllic towns.

In Rome, from Piazza Navona’s Christmas market to the ultimate manger scene in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, the city was bursting with Christmas traditions. The highlight was filming the Midnight Mass at the Vatican on Christmas Eve — which happened to be Pope John Paul II’s last Christmas.

The logistics of this shoot were tricky. While it seemed we were everywhere on Christmas, we only actually shot Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Rome and in Salzburg. (Other “Christmas” celebrations you see were staged for our cameras a few days before the real thing.) While it seemed I was everywhere, I was never actually in England, France, or Italy. You’ll notice throughout that I established myself in each of those countries with “on- cameras” that could pass for those places. For example, the shot of me “in Rome” was actually in front of the cathedral of Salzburg, which was designed to be a one-quarter-scale knock-off of St. Peter’s — but in Austria. Forgive me, Father…for I have deceived.

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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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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