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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Exactly one generation ago, I was giving talks all over town for free to let people dreaming about European travel know how to travel smart…and to talk up my guidebooks and tours. Today, my son Andy is doing much the same thing.

For 20 years we took Andy to Europe every year for a family vacation and to break up the time I was away from the family while working. I didn’t think Andy was paying attention. Now, just a few years out of Notre Dame, Andy is essentially living in Europe and running his own tour program (and I’m keeping a wary eye on what could become a formidable competitor).

Actually, as his dad, I am really proud of what Andy’s doing as he teaches college kids how to get the most travel experience out of their foreign-study semesters abroad.  Andy spends the early part of each semester on a blitz tour of European campuses that host Americans, giving his student travel talks to new arrivals. School administrators welcome Andy onto their campuses because they understand that there’s a huge educational potential in their students taking full advantage of the three-day weekends (there’s no class on Fridays) by traveling–and Andy can teach them how. With discount airlines these days, a cheap, three-day weekend anywhere in Europe is simply a matter of going online and booking a discount flight and a youth hostel.

Of course, like me, Andy’s teaching has an ulterior motive–to let potential tour members know about the tours he offers: three-day “Weekend Student Adventures” to cities like Barcelona, Budapest, Paris, Rome, and Krakow (for around $250 each). Andy and his band of student guides have enriched the study-abroad experiences of literally thousands of American students who have signed up on his WSA tours.

If I may be a proud dad, check out this video clip of my son teaching at a campus in London.

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

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Mark your calendar for tomorrow’s live streaming travel classes (March 22, 9:00 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time). While I’m teaching Spain, Germany and Britain, a talk I’m particularly excited about is Cameron Hewitt’s amazing cruising talk. It’s actually three classes (roughly an hour long each) starting at 1:00 PST and taught in rapid succession: Cruising 101 (travel skills), Mediterranean Cruise Ports, and Northern European Cruise Ports.

A few years ago, after decades of having a bad attitude about cruising, I noticed cruisers using my guidebooks in European ports. I was impressed by these smart travelers’ determination to have a meaningful and culturally engaging experience while taking advantage of the economy and efficiency of cruising.

So I sent one of my co-authors, Cameron Hewitt, on several cruises to research and help write two guidebooks: Rick Steves’ Mediterranean Cruise Ports and Rick Steves’ Northern European Cruise Ports. Retooling our existing chapters on the great ports and adding everything a cruiser would need, Cameron did a great job. I followed after him to put my own touches on his writing. And the resulting new guidebooks are among our most popular.

Tomorrow, Cameron’s cruising talks will be jam-packed with practical tips about how to get from the port into town, and what to do with your limited time once there. While I’m proud of all of our travel advice, I think our cruising material is especially important. Cruise lines have no incentive to help you have a good time on your own in port. They’d rather you buy an excursion or stay on the ship to spend more money. So if you’re a Rick Steves traveler who wants to enjoy a cruise, you have to arm yourself with good information before you set sail. That’s where this class comes in.

If you or a friend plans to visit Europe on a cruise, don’t miss this talk.

Check out the full schedule!

R

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A few months ago, after a year with lots of travel in Palestine and Israel as I scouted and filmed my upcoming TV special on the Holy Land, I gave a talk about the region in my hometown of Edmonds, Washington. I enjoyed a very enthusiastic audience — both in person, and watching the streaming lecture online. Since many were unable to attend or view my talk, by popular demand, we’ve post-produced it to offer it here on our blog page.

This was my first time giving this talk, and it was a fun challenge to deal with contentious issues in a balanced way. While this video is fairly long, it’s packed with lessons. These issues are important, and (as with my Iran project a few years ago) I am so impressed by how little most Americans — myself included, before this trip — really know about the Holy Land.

I’d love your comments on this talk…but only after you’ve actually watched it. When the topic of the Holy Land is raised, many of us just spout off our preconceived ideas. And many of these ideas we hold very strongly, even though they are a result of American media rather than actually visiting the region in person. Our challenge is to hear both narratives and understand the context of the region’s challenges and the baggage of the people who live there. I hope this talk helps do exactly that.

The TV special I produced, “Rick Steves’ Holy Land: Palestinians and Israelis Today,” will air on public television stations across the USA this fall.

(By the way, the streaming of talks like this one is a new era for us as travel teachers. In the spirit of this talk, we’ll be streaming nine hours of travel talks — five of which I’ll be giving personally — for free this Saturday, March 22nd, starting at 9:00am Pacific Time. Learn more on our Live Webcast page. Don’t miss it!)

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

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Join me online this Saturday (March 22nd), from 9:00 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. (Pacific Time), for a full day of free live streaming lectures on my latest European travel discoveries. You can also attend these talks for free in person. Learn more on my website.

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

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In 2009, public television stations across the country aired a one-hour special I produced about Iran. My goal: to offer a candid and humanizing look at a powerful country that most Americans know little about. Since I knew next to nothing about Iran before filming this special, I knew this project would be as much a learning experience for me as it was for my viewers.

Since then, I’ve enjoyed giving my talk about Iran all across the USA — and especially in famously conservative corners of our country. Earlier this year, I gave my Iran talk in Oklahoma City to a wonderful crowd for the public television station there. I was really happy with the talk, and thought I’d share it here with my Facebook friends.

The time and energy we invested in “Rick Steves’ Iran” reached a huge audience, and I think it was totally worthwhile. In the spirit of that project, this year we’re producing a special called “Rick Steves’ Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today.” It will air early September 2014.

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

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march22-festival-slideA big project for me this month has been sorting through my favorite travel photos from the last five years and radically updating my slideshows on my favorite countries in Europe. Why? So I can share my latest discoveries with my favorite travelers — that’s all of you — with a day-long series of streaming talks on March 22.

On Saturday, March 22nd, from 9:00 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. (PDT), visit our website and join me as I share some of the most vivid experiences from my recent travels:

  • Tips for eating barnacles fresh out of the sea in Portugal
  • When to be on the square in Santiago de Compostela to greet the pilgrims as they finish their 1,000-mile hike, stand before the Cathedral of St. James, and are overwhelmed by a heady combination of joy and exhaustion
  • That quirky mix of happy and horrified you feel while hanging from the “via ferrata” — a wire clinging to a sheer cliff 2,000 feet above my favorite valley in the Swiss Alps
  • Why Hitler allowed prostitutes to work only in Hamburg, whose infamous red light district is still busy with customers and curious tourists
  • How dropping in on cricket matches, dog shows, and hikers’ pubs makes England’s Cumbrian Lake District so full of charm

It’ll be a long, long time before I give these talks again, so don’t miss this fast-moving day packed with my newest hard-hitting travel insights.

You can also attend these talks for free in person. Learn more on our website.

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rick-steves-pledge-young-fanFor about twenty years, I’ve hit the road every pledge season (March and early December) to remind people who enjoy public television that we need them to support it financially. I say things like this: “Public television is not a charity — it’s a service. If you’re enjoying consuming it but can’t afford to help, that’s fine. That’s the beauty of public television. But if you are consuming it and can afford to help support it, that’s a classy thing to do.”

I like to remind people that “public television is the one oasis on the dial that doesn’t dumb us down, but engages us. It treats us not as shoppers, but as neighbors and fellow citizens. It respects our intellect, assumes an attention span, and brings us programming driven not by a passion for keeping advertisers happy, but by a passion for bringing us a better understanding of our world.”

People respond by calling in — and that’s how we fund the one place on our media dial that’s not advertiser-driven. I was in San Francisco last night (KQED), Chicago the night before (WTTW), and started this little trip on Saturday night in Minnesota’s Twin Cities (TPT), where I was charmed by this little red-headed public television fan and travel enthusiast. (I told him I looked just like him when I was in 2nd grade.)

If you like what’s happened to the Travel Channel in the last decade (where so many thoughtful travel shows have been bumped by reality shows, binge-eating programs, and the like), then you apparently enjoy the impact of corporate-owned media — where the volume is cranked up and the shrill button is stuck on high in a frantic attempt to goose viewership and keep advertisers happy.

If, on the other hand, you recognize the value of the one station that is not a publically held corporation (in other words, that isn’t legally obligated to maximize profits in the short term for its shareholders), than you probably appreciate the existence of public television and what it contributes to our society.

Sorry for the pledge pitch. But I’m just in that mood. And I’ve been enjoying some great BBC productions lately (“Planet Earth” and “Rome”) that came from a continent where they value public broadcasting but don’t mess with “voluntary contributions from viewers like you” — they simply have “TV taxes.”(In much of Europe, a corner of broadcast media is kept public. When you buy a TV, bring it home, and plug it in, you also plug in a TV tax and pay about $10 a month for the service. But isn’t that a small price to pay for high-caliber programming like “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock”?)

For those of you who recognize the value of public television in our society, kick in a little money to help by going to your local public television station’s website. Thanks a lot. As I’ve been signing off on my shows for two decades now, “Keep on travelin’!”

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As part of our annual guidebook updating process, we assemble a series of “what’s new” articles for each region in Europe. This is the last in a series of these articles I’m posting to my blog. Today we’re going to Germany. If you or your friends have a trip coming up, get up-to-date with the help of these bulletins. We hope you can share them with anyone heading out, and that they will bring a little extra travel joy.

While Germany sits in the driver’s seat of Europe’s economy, it doesn’t take a cultural backseat either. Here are a few of the latest developments for 2014:

In Berlin, a multiyear renovation project continues at Museum Island, filled with some of the city’s most impressive museums. Beginning in the fall and continuing until 2019, the star of the Greek antiquities collection in the Pergamon Museum (www.smb.museum)–the Pergamon Altar–will be closed to visitors. The museum’s north wing (formerly home to other Classical antiquities) is already closed. In the meantime, some Classical Greek artifacts can be seen at the nearby Altes Museum. In other Museum Island news, reserved timed-entry tickets are no longer required at the Pergamon and Neues museums.

Although Berlin opened its new main train station (Hauptbahnhof) in 2006, construction is likely to begin again in 2014 to extend its roof. Many travelers may be diverted through other stations–such as Bahnhof Zoo and Ostbahnhof–for the duration.

Berlin is also trying to finish construction of its new, €5 billion airport: Willy Brandt Berlin-Brandenburg International (www.berlin-airport.de). But the project has been perennially delayed by a faulty fire-safety system, glitches in the baggage-sorting equipment, and other technical problems; even a partial opening in 2014 is not likely.

Sightseers visit Berlin's new memorial honoring the Roma and Sinti (Gypsy) victims of Hitler's genocide.

Sightseers visit Berlin’s new memorial honoring the Roma and Sinti (Gypsy) victims of Hitler’s genocide.

Each year it seems Berlin, the scene of so much tumult in the 20th century, has new memorials. Near the powerfully evocative Memorial to the Murdered Jews is a memorial dedicated to the homosexual victims of Hitler’s rule, and a new Roma and Sinti memorial. The latter is to remind all who mourn the slaughter of six million Jews during the Holocaust that Hitler aimed to exterminate Europe’s Roma and Sinti (a.k.a. Gypsy) population as well. While Berlin has done what it can to keep the focus off of Hitler himself, the parking lot that sits over the site of Hitler’s bunker is a few minutes’ walk from these other memorials. The site (where he committed suicide just days before the end of World War II in Europe) comes with an information board to explain the significance of the spot.

Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall is the crown jewel in the redevelopment of its old port district.

Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall is the crown jewel in the redevelopment of its old port district.

Hamburg is not your Grandmutter’s port town: The northern metropolis is one of Germany’s wealthiest cities and a major financial, commercial, and media center. As is the case with port cities all over Europe, Germany’s leading port saw its docklands abandoned as freighters needed to be accommodated in a more modern setting outside of town. The run-down (yet central) real estate of the old harbor has been given new life with a massive renewal project–HafenCity (www.hafencity.com). Its shining glory is the new Elbphilharmonie concert hall, which looks like a glass palace resting on top of an old warehouse. However, like Berlin’s airport, the concert hall has hit major snags–it’s about €270 million over budget and won’t be opening until 2017–about seven years late.

To the south, travelers sleeping in the Bavarian town of Füssen are now entitled to the Fuessen Card, paid for by the hotel tax. This card allows free use of public transportation in the immediate region (including the bus to “Mad” King Ludwig’s famous castle–Neuschwanstein), as well as discounts to major attractions. Similarly, the Aktiv-Card for the Reutte area just across the border in Austria includes free travel on local buses and free admission to some attractions. Also new in Reutte, the Alpentherme Ehrenberg is an extensive swimming pool and sauna complex, featuring two indoor pools and a big saltwater outdoor pool, as well as two waterslides.

In Frankfurt, the new European Central Bank building, with its glistening twin towers topping out at 607 feet, is scheduled to open in 2014. The “New Frankfurt Old Town” construction project, stretching from the cathedral to the city hall, is also under way. It will include up to 35 new buildings, several of which will be reproductions of historic structures destroyed during WWII air raids.

In Nürnberg, the Imperial Castle (Kaiserburg) has reopened after a restoration. Visits to the castle’s “Deep Well” (which, at 165 feet, is…well, deep) are now accompanied by a guide. Wittenberg’s Town Church of St. Mary’s–which was Martin Luther’s home church for many years–is being renovated. From early 2014 to early 2015, the nave of the church will be closed, and no organ concerts will be held. By the way, Germany’s many Luther sights (especially in the Luther cities of Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Eisenach) are gearing up for a very festive 2017 (on a Lutheran scale anyway)–the 500th anniversary of Luther kicking off the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

Despite a few construction-related delays and closures, Germany remains one of the easiest places to travel–offering efficient public transportation, state-of-the-art museums, and locals who are ready and willing to give travelers a hearty “Willkommen.”

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The glass building surrounding the recently renovated Cutty Sark in Greenwich allows visitors to walk directly below the ship, which has been raised 11 feet above her dry dock. (photo: Gretchen Strauch)

The glass building surrounding the recently renovated Cutty Sark in Greenwich allows visitors to walk directly below the ship, which has been raised 11 feet above her dry dock. (photo: Gretchen Strauch)

As part of our annual guidebook updating process, we assemble a series of “what’s new” articles for each region in Europe. This is the third in a series of these articles I’m posting to my blog. Today we’re going to Great Britain. If you or your friends have a trip coming up, get up-to-date with the help of these bulletins. We hope you can share them with anyone heading out, and that they will bring a little extra travel joy:

For travelers, Great Britain is a work in progress, richly rewarding those who visit with up-to-date information. Here are a few important changes to be aware of for 2014.

London continues to grow and thrive post-Olympics. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, bus transportation is more efficient than ever, and the city’s freshly scrubbed monuments have never looked so good. Some of the biggest changes are in East London, where backhoes and bulldozers buzz around busily turning the 2012 Olympics site into what is now Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (great for Londoners, but a bit far from the center for most tourists).

The Shard, a shimmering glass pyramid that soars 1,020 feet above the Thames in central London, started welcoming visitors to its observation decks last year. Perched in the building’s pinnacle, the decks offer great views of the Tower of London (directly across the river), St. Paul’s, and the South Bank (underfoot). But a visit to the top costs a jaw-dropping £25 (for advance tickets)–not worth it for most visitors.

Years ago the venerable Tate art gallery (www.tate.org.uk) split in two, with the original site dedicated to British art and the new site–the Tate Modern–filled up with modern art. An extensive renovation at the Tate Britain has wrapped up, which means even better gallery spaces in the oldest parts of the building. Now the Tate Modern is adding a new wing (currently under construction yet opening bit by bit), allowing the museum to expand beyond its current European and North American focus with exhibits on Latin American, African, and Asian art. A new space called the Tanks (formerly underground oil tanks) is already open and hosts live performances, film screenings, and installations.

Hold onto your codpiece: Shakespeare’s Globe now boasts an indoor theater, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It’s an intimate space designed to use authentic candle lighting for period performances–and allows the Globe to stage plays year-round.

Greenwich’s famous Cutty Sark, the last and fastest of the great tea clippers, was gorgeously restored in 2012 after a devastating fire. It’s now suspended within a glass building, allowing visitors to walk on its decks, through its hold, and below its gleaming golden hull. Multimedia and hands-on exhibits bring the ship’s record-breaking history to life.

At Stonehenge, travelers will gain a greater understanding of this iconic stone circle and its creators, thanks to exhibits at the new visitors center.

At Stonehenge, travelers will gain a greater understanding of this iconic stone circle and its creators, thanks to exhibits at the new visitors center.

Finally, after nearly 5,000 years, Stonehenge has a decent visitors center (www.english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge). The new center features artifacts found at the site and a 360-degree virtual view of what the stone circle looked like back then. The highway that once ran adjacent to the iconic edifice has been closed. Instead, people start at the visitors center–located more than a mile west of the stones–then take a shuttle or walk to the stone circle. Advance reservations are required, and tickets feature a timed entry window (though a few walk-up tickets are available each day).

In the Georgian city of Bath, the Georgian House, which gives an intimate look at life in the 18th century, has reopened following an extensive renovation. The American Museum (I know, you need this like you need a Big Mac) on the outskirts of town is now easier to visit, thanks to a free hourly shuttle that runs from the town center.

In Portsmouth, the Mary Rose Museum opened last May (www.maryrose.org). The £36 million facility, shaped like an oval jewel box, preserves the hull of Henry VIII’s favorite warship, which sank in 1545. You can view the hull (through protective glass, for now), but the highlight is the collection of Tudor-era items that were found inside the wreck, such as clothes, dishes, weapons, a backgammon board, and an oboe-like instrument. There’s even the skeleton of Hatch, the ship’s dog.

In York, the renovation of the Minster’s Great East Window continues, with temporary exhibits that explain the project, such as the painstaking process of removing, dismantling, cleaning, and restoring each of the 311 panels. The Minster’s new undercroft museum focuses on the history of the site and its origins as a Roman fortress. Thirsty tourists will appreciate a new activity in town: an intimate, tactile, and informative 45-minute tour of the York Brewery, a charming little microbrewery.

In 2014, Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games July 23-August 3, with 6,000 athletes expected to compete.

The Battle of Bannockburn–Scotland’s most significant military victory over the English–will mark its 700th anniversary in 2014. In honor of the occasion, the Bannockburn Heritage Centre in Stirling (www.battleofbannockburn.com) is being spiffed up with an interactive 3-D battle simulation and 360-degree film. A three-day festival called Bannockburn Live will take place June 28-30. Activities include music, highland games, re-enactments of the battle, and themed Scottish villages.

Whether you’re interested in Scotland, Stonehenge, Shakespeare, or all of the above, having–and using–good information will put the great into Britain on your next trip.

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As part of our annual guidebook updating process, we assemble a series of “what’s new” articles for each region in Europe. This is the second in a series of these articles I’m posting to my blog. Today we’re going to France. If you or your friends have a trip coming up, get up-to-date with the help of these bulletins. We hope you can share them with anyone heading out, and that they will bring a little extra travel joy:

France is always working to show off its rich heritage in innovative ways. You’ll see some impressive changes this year.

The big news in Paris is that the extensive, multi-year makeover of the Picasso Museum is nearing completion. The museum, which will reopen sometime in 2014, is home to the world’s largest collection of Picasso works, representing the full range of the artist’s many styles (check www.musee-picasso.fr for the latest).

Also in Paris, the Rodin Museum will stay open, though some rooms will close from time to time while renovation continues through 2015; on the plus side, visitors can currently enjoy some rarely displayed pieces and temporary exhibits (included in the ticket price). The museum’s gardens–one of Paris’ best deals at only €1–also remain open.

You can avoid lines, bypass crowds, and zip up the Eiffel Tower if you’ve booked your ticket ahead of time.

You can avoid lines, bypass crowds, and zip up the Eiffel Tower if you’ve booked your ticket ahead of time.

Online reservations for the Eiffel Tower, notorious for its lines, are easy if you book at least a month in advance. You can print out a paper ticket, or have the ticket sent to your mobile phone. An attendant scans the bar code on your phone, and voila, you’re on your way up.

St. Sulpice Church is no longer allowing visits to its massive pipe organ due to space constraints. However, the church’s superb organ recitals continue as usual.

Paris is going green: The Left Bank expressway from near the Orsay Museum to the Pont de l’Alma is being converted to a pedestrian promenade and riverside park and should be completed by 2014. Modeled on the city’s popular Vélib’ self-serve bike rentals, the Autolib’ electric car program (where users can pick up a car in one place and drop in another), is a smashing success.

In Arles, the new Fondation Van Gogh facility is the talk of the town, as it’s rumored that several original Van Gogh paintings will accompany its opening in early 2014 at Hôtel Léautaud de Donines. The restoration of the city’s Roman Arena (Amphithéâtre) is now complete, but the Arlaten Folk Museum remains closed until 2015.

France’s second city, Marseille, is still undergoing a massive 3.5 billion-euro face-lift as part of its designation as a European Capital of Culture for 2013. The pedestrian zone around the Old Port was redesigned–it’s now as wide as the Champs-Elysées–and a new tramway system is up and running.

In Nice, construction on the green parkway La Coulée Verte continues. When completed, the 30-acre parkway will extend from the sea through Place Masséna to the Museum of Modern Art, carving a people-friendly swath for biking and walking through Nice’s urban center.

In the Dordogne region, the prehistoric cave-painting sight Grotte de Font-de-Gaume currently is not taking reservations and is admitting just 80 people a day. Some visitors are camping out overnight to get a ticket. I recommend getting there by 7:30–the ticket booth opens at 9:30. At the Lascaux II cave, reservations are strongly recommended for July and August, and accepted only three to four days in advance (in France, call 05 53 51 96 23 for ticket availability and estimated English tour times).  Of the prehistoric sights in the region, only the Lascaux II, Pech Merle, and (in July and August) Abri du Cap Blanc caves take reservations; for all others it’s first-come, first-served.

In Normandy, June 6, 2014, will mark the 70th anniversary of the landings of the Allies on French soil during World War II. There will be huge D-Day commemorations around this date, so anyone planning a Normandy trip near the anniversary may find all the hotels already booked. New at the Caen Memorial Museum is the restoration of German General Wilhelm Richter’s command bunker next to the museum.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, commemorated by this sculpture (Les Braves, by Anilore Banon) on Omaha Beach, honoring the courageous soldiers who landed here.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, commemorated by this sculpture (Les Braves, by Anilore Banon) on Omaha Beach, honoring the courageous soldiers who landed here.

At Mont St-Michel, 2014 is the last year for the causeway that tourists have used for more than 100 years–it’s slated to be demolished by 2015. Restoration of the island’s ramparts may block some island walkways.

In Bayeux, the MAHB (Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Baron Gérard) has reopened, offering a modest review of European art and history in what was once the Bayeux bishop’s palace. Bayeux’s three main museums–the Bayeux Tapestry, Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum, and MAHB–offer combo-tickets that will save visitors money if they plan to see more than one sight.

And, as 2014 marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, all will not be quiet on the Western Front. WWI buffs will find plenty of special exhibits and a surge in activity at many sites in commemoration of the battles that hit Europe in 1914.

Boasting a startling wealth of historic sights, art museums, and cultural icons, France is a mecca for travelers. From its prehistoric caves to its progressive cities, it’s a rewarding destination any year.

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