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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While dikes are a Dutch cliché (right up there with tulips and wooden shoes), they’re also an essential part of the Netherlands’ history and contemporary life. Roughly half of the land and half of the people here in the Netherlands are below sea level. And our new television show about the Netherlands includes a segment on these marvels of Dutch engineering.

The Netherlands is bounded by the North Sea. Where there are no natural dunes to keep the sea out, the Dutch have built mighty barriers, or dikes, to protect their farms and communities. For 700 years, the Dutch have been developing their skills at keeping this country dry. It’s a constant battle. And with climate change and rising sea levels now a reality, the work is that much harder and more expensive.

Each of our shows begins with a goofy little bit (called a “tease”) where I say a something about the destination, then reveal the location in a fun way. For our Netherlands show tease, I stood on a chair and said, “Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. The people here claim if you stand on a chair, you can see all across their country. We’re exploring the best of the Netherlands. Thanks for joining us.”

I was so happy with what we shot. Then, as we were driving away, I realized it would have been stronger if I added “this country is so small and so flat, they say if you stand on a chair…” But it was still a fun bit.

 

rick-steves-netherlands-farmerWhen it came time to stand on the chair and say my line, Rolinka drove into the neighboring farm hamlet and had no trouble finding us the perfect chair for our needs. In fact, the friendly farmer brought two chairs so that we’d have a choice.

 

rick-steves-on-chair-on-dikeMy line about standing on a chair to see all the way across the Netherlands is a joke. But from way up here, you really can see for miles.

 

netherlands-north-sea-dike-with-ship-spewingModern dikes work hard — as they have for centuries — to preserve drained and reclaimed Dutch land.

 

Dutch-ship-spewing-sludgeEven with an impressive dike already in place, the Dutch are moving mountains of sand and mud to fortify their dikes and protect the next generation. Famous for both their frugality and their foresight, the Dutch are investing billions of euros as climate change makes its costly impact felt on sea-level communities here and around the globe.

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We’re sailing to the fishing village of Marken in a hundred-year-old fishing boat. A few of these venerable boats survive. This one earns its keep by hiring out to visitors…and, in the case of this motley crew, putting them to work.

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For our new Netherlands TV show, we’re going big and we’re going small — from minuscule Marken to muscular Rotterdam. In this country of contrasts, century-old boats, glassy skyscrapers, and public urinals all have their place.

Two of the cutest and most touristy towns in the Netherlands are Volendam and Marken (both about half an hour north of Amsterdam, and popular day-trip destinations for bus tours). While I can’t handle the big-bus mass tourism of Volendam, I love cute little Marken.

During my scouting trip this spring, I met a club of men who love to sail their hundred-year-old fishing boats on the inland sea — so we arranged for them to sail us from Volendam to Marken. It was great filming and great fun. Our boat, from 1905, was filled with heritage. Our friends explained how their vessel has no built-in keel (as you’d expect on a typical sailboat) because the waters here are too shallow. Instead, it has a side keel, which can be dropped and hoisted by rope and lashed into place as needed. Originally, the boat was run by a skeleton crew of two: a captain and a boy. They’d go out for five days of fishing…then come home on Sunday to go to church.

There was what looked like a historic old saying painting on to the boat’s galley door (which I’m sure countless tourists had photographed because it looks salty and rustic). But it actually says, “If you want to be poor, use this boat for fishing. If you want to be wealthy, use it for tourism.” Classic Dutch humor and candor.

When doing a TV show on the Netherlands, it’s a temptation to make everything seem all cute and sweet — like Marken. After all, I finish the script by saying, “Traveling here, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself exclaiming, ‘Everything’s just so… Dutch!’” But the country has long been a mighty trading power, and no show on the Netherlands would be complete without the huge, no-nonsense port of Rotterdam.

Mighty Rotterdam has a gleaming skyline and Europe’s largest port. It’s a reminder of the Dutch knack for international trade. Locals say that while the money is spent in Amsterdam…it’s made here in Rotterdam. They boast that shirts in Rotterdam are sold with the sleeves already rolled up.

Rotterdam’s harbor is the third-largest in the world. The port handles 35,000 ocean-going vessels each year — that’s almost a hundred ships a day. While most of these ships sail the open seas, this is where the Rhine River meets the ocean. And from here, riverboats — filled with either tourists or cargo — can go all the way through Europe to the Black Sea.

Speaking of big cities, in my 3,200-word Amsterdam script, I wanted to bring up the theme of toleration. My challenge: to artfully weave together marijuana, prostitutes, pilgrims stopping by on their way to Plymouth Rock, hidden Catholic churches, the Holocaust, Anne Frank, and the Dutch Resistance. I wanted to be challenging, but without abusing my bully pulpit. It was a fun writing challenge, and I think it worked. I started the section of the show with this “on-camera,” zoomed in close to my face: “Every corner of Europe comes with a unique flavor and cultural surprises. Small-is-beautiful Holland feels quintessentially European. It’s charming. It’s progressive…” — then, stepping out from behind a public urinal on the street as the camera zoomed out — “…and, with the local passion for tolerance, it’s occasionally shocking. Prepare for some differences: curbside urinals. Prostitutes who are unionized, taxed, and regulated. And coffeeshops that sell marijuana.”

 

rotterdam-skylineRotterdam was bombed flat in World War II. But rather than rebuilt quaint (as most Dutch towns did), Rotterdammers embraced the chance to go in another direction: bold modernity.

rotterdam-harbor

You can appreciate the immensity of Rotterdam’s mighty port with a harbor tour, which we filmed for our show. While it was OK, the similar harbor tour in Hamburg is far more impressive. What are your favorite harbor experiences in Europe?

 

Sailing-Volendam-MarkenWe hitched a ride on this traditional Waterland sailboat from Volendam to Marken.

 

Amsterdam-public-urinal-cleaningAmsterdam’s public urinals are kept very clean — and ready for American film crews to incorporate into their scripts.

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One of the great joys of producing our TV series is the chance to be all alone in Europe’s greatest museums when they’re closed (usually early in the morning). In Amsterdam, we were in both the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum from around 8 a.m. until 10 a.m., when they open to the public.

While we have the place to ourselves, the clock is ticking — we generally have about 90 minutes before the public pours in. An escort from the museum sticks with us every minute, making sure we stay within our permitted bounds. The cameraman shoots the art every which way to cover the script. It’s wonderful to have the privacy with the art to get the fine work done, and then have a few minutes with the public to get wide shots that show these temples of art filled with the faithful.

Invariably, I don’t know exactly what I’ll be saying on camera until I’m there and we survey what we’re about to shoot. Then I scramble to write and memorize my lines. Writing all alone in front of Rembrandt’s fabled Night Watch was a treat. Here’s the bit I just wrote — first off camera (because it’s easy to “cover” the content by showing details from the painting), then on camera (for material that’s harder to illustrate, so it makes more sense for me to say it directly to the camera):

[28] In Rembrandt’s Night Watch, we see another group portrait. But rather than the standard stiff pose, this one bursts with energy. It’s the local militia, which was also a fraternity of business bigwigs — a kind of Rotary Club of the 17th century. They tumble out of their hall, weapons drawn, ready to defend the city. While it’s creative and groundbreaking in its composition, some of those who paid the artist — like this guy — were probably none too pleased.

[27, on camera] This art is really all about money. The Dutch worked hard and were brilliant traders, and the wealthy had plenty of money…to match their egos. Here, artists earned their living not working for the Church or a king, but by painting portraits for local big shots.

 

Rick-Steves-Nightwatch-RijksmuseumSitting all alone in front of a great work — like Rembrandt’s Night Watch — the words come easy to this travel writer.

 

Filming-Vincent-van-GoghThis is the typical scene when filming in a great art museum. Our lighting floods old paintings with brightness, making colors and details pop like even local guides and museum art historians have never seen. But I’m always on pins and needles that someone will come and say “no lights.” When necessary, Simon holds a big piece of black cloth up to stop any glare — especially important when glass covers a canvas.

 

van-gogh-crows-in-wheat-fieldIn Wheat Field with Crows, one of Vincent van Gogh’s last works, the canvas is a wall of thick paint, with roads leading nowhere and ominous black crows taking flight. Overwhelmed with life, Vincent walked into a field like this one… and shot himself.

 

van-gogh-roots-amsterdamMost guides and guidebooks love to perpetuate the idea that Wheat Field with Crows was Van Gogh’s final work. It just fits with the story of his suicide. But art historians now believe that this painting, Roots, was Vincent’s last work.

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One of the joys of our TV production is that I get to actually visit the places and do the things that I recommend in my guidebooks. For instance, on the second morning of filming our Netherlands TV show, we got up at 6 a.m. to catch the Aalsmeer Flower Auction at its busiest.

A hundred buyers click their computers as trainloads of flowers roll through the auction hall. Just outside, a keystone-cops commotion of delivery cars makes sure all the flowers get to their locations that same day — anywhere in Europe. Our cameraman, Peter, got to take a ride on one of these carts to film the point-of-view of a load of flowers.

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I’m excited that we are embarking on a 12-day shoot to produce two shows in the Netherlands.

Ten years ago, we made one episode combining Amsterdam with side trips into the Dutch countryside. In this shoot, we’ll retire the old show and replace it with two episodes: one just for Amsterdam and the other just for the Dutch countryside. This will let us share double fun in Holland.

For example, doing two shows instead of one makes room for Haarlem, a charming small town a quick train ride from Amsterdam. We enjoyed filming an organ concert in Haarlem’s church.  I only get 3,200 words per script, so each word needs to earn its place. Here’s that part of the script—5 sequences out of 70 in this half-hour episode (OC means “on camera” — a part I say to the camera):

[38] Haarlem’s Grote Kerk, or Great Church, towers over the market square as if to bless all the business that takes place below.

[39] Inside, you find a towering Gothic nave, which was whitewashed and purged of its Catholic ornamentation when the Reformation arrived in 1566. Small frescoed sections, revealed when the whitewash was cleaned off, show how the entire church was originally decorated. Ships hanging in the nave remind parishioners to pray for all the men at sea. If you know where to look, carvings can be whimsical: crazy little characters supporting the roof…and what were called “pillar biters” mocking people who were overly devout.

[40 OC] And as was the case in many Protestant countries, rather than huge preachy works of visual art — like frescos and statues promoting the message of the Church — the artistic emphasis was put on music.

[41] Protestant churches invested in mighty pipe organs. Haarlem’s towering organ has been giving worship an inspirational soundtrack since 1738.

[42 beauty sequence of Jos van der Kooy playing Cornelis J. Bute Gavotte I & II] And visitors can enjoy free concerts weekly. [Fade to black]

 

Rick-Steves-TV-crewOur core filming crew, as always, is three of us: me, the producer (Simon), and our cameraman (either Peter — pictured here — or Karel). Lately, I’ve enjoyed adding a local expert to be sure we’re communicating clearly and to smooth the way behind the scenes. My friend Rolinka Bloeming, who has led tours for us for nearly 20 years, had to be rescheduled from one of her Rick Steves tours so she could be our “fixer.” Rolinka speaks Dutch, knows her country expertly, has a way of opening doors, and is a delight to work with. She’ll be on her iPad and on her phone making sure we know where the windmills are turning and where herring’s in the smoker.

 

Haarlem-great-church-pipe-organIn Haarlem’s Great Church, we climbed up into the organ loft and filmed the organist playing the most spectacular pipe organ I’ve ever seen. I got to simply sit with the audience and enjoy the concert while my crew filmed a beautiful segment.

 

Filming-in-Haarlem-Grote-KerkWhen filming, we have to be super-organized to get what we need in the time we have. When the crew was in the loft with the organist, I was surveying the church like a little mouse, making a list of things to shoot to “cover the script.” Then I took Simon on a quick walk to show him my shot list. With the crew organized and at work, I got to sit down and enjoy the rest of the concert.

 

Edam-canalWe settled down for four nights in the cute-as-a-bunny town of Edam. Our home base, Hotel Fortuna, is nestled on a canal in a garden kind of world. (It made me nostalgic for a family visit here 25 years ago, when toddler Andy was enthralled by the box turtles in the hotel garden.) My room opened up onto a quiet perch over the canal, where I would go out after filming in the 11 p.m. twilight and just be still with the water and the birds. Across the way was in industrial dry dock…yet even that was cute. Here, I snuck a photo of producer Simon reviewing our latest script immersed in Dutch beauty.

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So far on this trip, I’ve really enjoyed using trains to get around Germany and the Netherlands — they make travel fast, smooth, and efficient. Here are a few photos to illustrate strategies for smart rail travel anywhere in Europe.

 

Fast-bullet-trainThe new generation of bullet trains in Europe are sleek. In fact, they’re so sleek that when a city has an old-fashioned, dead-end train station, the new trains often don’t even bother to stop in the city itself, but at a pass-through suburban station instead. New stations are designed — at the insistence of the train companies — to be pass-through stations. Everything’s going very fast these days, and there’s just no time to pull in, then back out.

 

train-car-signsNo smoking, no talking, no cellphones. You have your choice of train cars — all clearly marked (although none allows smoking anymore). Among Europeans, American tourists are notorious for talking like they’re the only people on the planet, making everyone else on the car listen to their conversation. And you know how annoying it is to listen to someone else’s drawn-out cellphone conversation. Enjoy making a point to take advantage of signs as you travel: If you want peace and quiet, you’ll get it in this car.

 

train-chartTrains are long, it’s hot over here, and luggage can be exhausting to schlepp around needlessly — especially if the train platform is mobbed with travelers. Notice and understand signs to save time and stress. Few Americans realize that on big-city train platforms, there’s a chart listing major trains, with a diagram of how each train is arranged: first class (yellow), second class (green), and dining car (red). It even shows specific car numbers — handy if you have a seat reservation. Overheard on the platform are big A, B, C, and other lettered signs to help you find just which zone to stand in to have your train car stop right in front of you. Very often, a long train has ten second-class cars, but just one first-class car. If you have a first-class Eurail pass (as nearly any railpass holder over 26 does) and you don’t notice signs like these, you could wander all the way to the far end of the platform, then realize that you could have just waited at the opposite end. The conductor just blew the whistle, and you need to jump on the train or be left behind. So you spend the next 15 minutes struggling through the crowds to get to your first-class compartment…not very first-class.

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I’ve been riding Europe’s rails since I was a kid. And to this day, a long, fast train trip gives me a youthful thrill. I marvel at how Europe’s trains just keep getting better, faster, and more comfortable.

Having completed the Germany guidebook research stretch of my trip, I’m heading for Amsterdam to meet the film crew. I’m spending seven hours on one of Germany’s superfast ICE (InterCity Express) trains, writing and enjoying every moment — because for me, there’s very little that’s better than stretching out in a first-class quiet car, blitzing through Germany, while massaging my gangly notes into smooth and tight new writing for the upcoming 2015 edition of Rick Steves’ Germany guidebook.

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Finishing up my latest trip to Germany, I’m excited to share a few final thoughts…and pictures.

My two-month-long summer trip is made up of five modules: Germany guidebook research, TV production in the Netherlands, Scandinavia guidebook research, TV production in Prague and Berlin, and Poland guidebook research. Now that I’m done with “module one,” I’m off to meet the film crew in Amsterdam. But first, here are a few German scraps I found at the bottom of my rucksack.

 

Local-guide-in-Germany.jpgEach day so far on this trip, I’ve enjoyed the help of local guides. Nearly every city in Europe has great local guides who are independent businesspeople scrambling to fill their calendars and earn a living. I list my favorites in my guidebooks, and while many get lots of customers from these listings, I’m amazed (considering how many people are using my books) how few enlist the services of a professional local guide. Sure, it’s a splurge. But so is a nice dinner.

 

Inside-a-tram.jpgSo far on this trip, I’ve committed myself to using local public transportation. European cities do a marvelous job of making life easy for people with no cars. And tourists are people, too. Give public transit a chance in your travels. Buy an all-day pass and use the trams for everything. I find it changes your American understanding of what public transportation can provide.

 

pOne of the biggest bits of transportation news in Germany is the advent of cheap intercity bus fares. Germans are all abuzz about new deregulation that opens things up. In front of each train station, I noticed buses loading and unloading budget travelers. These companies use the autobahns rather than the rails to get from A to B… for half the money. While I still take the train and love the speed and smoothness of rail travel, if you’re on a tight budget, consider this new option.

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The intriguing and fun city of Dresden, Germany, winds up on far fewer American itineraries than it deserves to. Don’t make that mistake.

Dresden surprises visitors with fanciful Baroque architecture in a delightful-to-stroll cityscape, a dynamic history that mingles tragedy with inspiration, and some of the best museum-going in Germany. A generation ago, Dresden was a dreary East German burg, but today it’s a young and vibrant city, crawling with proud locals, cheery tourists, and happy-go-lucky students who have no memory of communism.

At the peak of its power in the 18th century, Dresden, the capital of Saxony, ruled most of present-day Poland and eastern Germany from the banks of the Elbe River. Its king imported artists from all over Europe, peppering his city with fine Baroque buildings and filling his treasury with lavish jewels and artwork. Dresden’s grand architecture and dedication to the arts — along with the gently rolling hills surrounding the city — earned it the nickname “Florence on the Elbe.”

But most people know Dresden for its most tragic chapter: On the night of February 13, 1945 — just months before the end of World War II — Allied warplanes dropped firebombs on the city. Dresden was bombed so hard that a rare firestorm was created — a hellish weather system that ends up sucking much of the city into its fiery center… and oblivion.

Rising above the cityscape is the handbell-shaped dome of the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady)–the symbol and soul of the city. When completed in 1743, this was Germany’s tallest Protestant church (310 feet high). After the war, the Frauenkirche was left a pile of rubble and turned into a peace monument. Only after reunification was the decision made to rebuild it, completely and painstakingly. It reopened to the public in 2005. Crowning the new church is a shiny bronze cross–a copy of the original and a gift from the British people in 2000, on the 55th anniversary of the bombing. It was crafted by an English coppersmith whose father had dropped bombs on the church that fateful night.

Today Dresden is rebuilt, full of life, and wide-open for visitors. I love strolling Dresden’s delightful promenade. Enjoying its perch overlooking the river, you hardly notice it was once a defensive rampart. In the early 1800s, it was turned into a public park, with a leafy canopy of linden trees, and was given the odd nickname “The Balcony of Europe.” Dresden claims to have the world’s largest and oldest fleet of historic paddleboat steamers. A few of its nine riverboats from the 19th century are ready to take visitors for a ride.

 

Rick-Steves-Germany-guidebook-in-Dresden.jpgIt’s fun to bump into scenes that made it on a guidebook cover.

 

Dresden-riverscape.jpgDresden’s waterfront promenade — the so-called “Balcony of Europe,” seen here from across the river — is a delight.

 

Frauenkirche-Dresden.jpgI find visiting the rebuilt Frauenkirche very poignant. Inside stands the church’s twisted old cross, which fell 300 feet and burned in the rubble. Lost until restorers uncovered it from the pile of stones in 1993, it stands exactly on the place where it was found — still relatively intact.

 

Cremated-Dresden-fire-storm-victims.jpgDresden is a city where the heritage of destruction is hard to ignore. I’ll never forget standing on the Old Market Square… just another square. Then, looking down at the pavement, I saw an inscription that read, “After the air attack on Dresden on February 13-14 1945, the corpses of 6,865 people were burned on this spot.” Carved on a piece of granite above that was a simple statement: “We brought the war to the world, and ultimately it came home to us.”

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