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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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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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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