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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Although I asked you to record holiday stories in your own voice, there were so many wonderful written entries, I decided to highlight a few of them for our last entry. Here are three different “Global Holiday Season” stories, written by three Facebook fans and read by my friend, Keith Stickelmaier.

If you can’t hear the audio below, listen on YouTube.

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Thank you for your “Global Holiday” contest submissions. It was a tough call, but over the coming days I will announce our winners. Today’s winner gives us a peek into winter solstice traditions in Iran. Take it away, Maryam Zolecki!

If you can’t hear the audio below, listen on YouTube.

 

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Thank you for your “Global Holiday” contest submissions. It was a tough call, but over the coming days I will announce our winners. Today’s winner gives us a peek into a very tasty Japanese Christmas tradition. Take it away, Todd Beck!

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

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For the next couple weeks my public radio show (and podcast) Travel with Rick Steves will celebrate holiday traditions from around the world. Here is a short clip that explores the many different ways to say “Merry Christmas!” as a Scot.

To get all the more into the holiday spirit, I’d like to host a contest. Record a short audio file (mp3 preferably, 2 mins or less) on the theme, “A Global Holiday Season”.  Tell a funny Christmas abroad story. Sing your favorite European carol. Enlighten us on a unique holiday tradition you’ve integrated into your own family’s celebration. Be creative!

Email the mp3 file to Ashley Sytsma (Ashley@ricksteves.com) by midnight on Monday the 19th, and I’ll choose my favorite three. The winners will get their story posted on my Facebook page, an autographed Rick Steves book of their choice, and the chance of their entry being aired on my Christmas 2012 radio show.

Good luck and Happy Holidays!

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

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I just had an amazing experience “paging” through my European Christmas book in its new digital format that actually has photos that come to life as videos. To give your iPad, iPhone, Nook color eReader or Nook tablet a little Christmas cheer, our publisher has just turned our European Christmas book into an eBook with video.

If you’d like to give our new eBook a whirl, visit Apple iBookstore or BarnesandNoble.com. It’s available at the door-buster price of only $2.99. While this all seems so innovative and futuristic today, in a few years, it will be the new standard.

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Last week we issued a challenge and got a great response. Thanks so much to the 550 travelers who responded to our Christmas fund raiser for Bread for the World. Collectively we raised over $64,000 to help power Bread’s work in explaining to our Congress the needs of our nation’s poorest, homeless, and hungry people. We all want to get our fiscal house in order. And Bread has been very effective in its advocacy work encouraging our government not to balance our budget by cutting vital services to our nation’s most needy.

As part of my personal challenge, I promised to thank those contributing $100 to BFTW with a special Christmas gift (of our European Christmas book, DVD, and CD).  We mailed out 550 thank you packages today so you all should be getting it in a few days. I’d love to have our initiative reach $70,000 for Bread for the World.

There’s still time to join us.  If you’d like to help, donate by noon on December 16.  I’ll pop the three gifts in the mail to you within 24 hours of your donation and you’ll still get it before Christmas. Watch this video to learn more about the gift, and donate directly to BFTW to join us in this important project.

Thanks again and Merry Christmas.

Rick

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While this list is by no means exhaustive, this slideshow highlights why Georgia fascinated me. I didn’t expect to fall in love with this country — it was just going to be another wine trip. But I left a part of my heart in Georgia. I look forward to the day when I’ll return and rejoin it again.

1. Wandering Tbilisi’s Old Town

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Decay becomes beautiful in this charming Tbilisi neighborhood. Abandoned churches and crumbling foundations blend handsomely with ornately carved balconies, grape vines and a buzz of life. We spent hours wandering its narrow streets, with only schoolchildren, busy moms and lazy cats as our company.

2. Getting Swept Up in Georgian Religious Traditions

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I was honored to sit next to the wife of Israel’s ambassador to Georgia at our final dinner. She described the feeling of stepping inside one of Georgia’s many Eastern Orthodox Churches as “pure love, open to any human being no matter their religion.” I couldn’t describe it better.

3. Soviet Kitsch

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Georgia’s Soviet past is hard to miss. From the ostentatious Stalin Museum in his hometown of Gori, to deteriorating USSR-built monuments, to wartime memorabilia sold at outdoor antique markets, Soviet kitsch is everywhere. Most Georgians seem to ignore it or roll their eyes (who would want to relive such a dark time?), but a very small minority still pines for the Red old days.

4. Driving Deep Into the Caucuses Mountains

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Built by WWII German prisoners of war, the only road leading from Tbilisi to the Russian border weaves through steep, snow-covered peaks and tiny, remote villages. The awe-inspiring views had me shouting, “Praise be to God! And praise be to Georgia!” Our guide (and now friend), Levan, thought that was pretty funny. If you plan to go to Georgia, I couldn’t recommend a better guide than Levan Ergemlidze (levan.ergemlidze@yahoo.com). He’s warm, knowledgeable and one heck of a “tamada”.

5. Tsminda Sameba Church in Stepantsminda

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To reach this remote church, you either need to hike a very steep mountain or hire a very talented driver with a four-wheel-drive car. Three devout and humble monks welcome their few daily visitors. Snow flurries from neighboring hills whip through the air. There are no sounds except for the howling wind. Tsminda Sameda Church is truly as close to heaven as you can get while still being on the ground.

6. The Food

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You can easily gain 10 pounds on a trip to Georgia (I speak from experience). And it’s worth every single calorie. Steamed dumplings that rival those in Hong Kong. Wood-fired breads so crispy and chewy, the Italians could learn a few tips. (Pictured above: Imagine an open-faced calzone filled with bubbling cheese and cream, topped with two raw eggs and a slab of butter. It was decadence on a plate.) Walnuts ground to a paste and wrapped in eggplant. Savory red beans, lamb kebabs, pickled caper flowers, chicken strewed in tomatoes and herbs…I could go on and on.

7. The Ancient Wine Culture

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I grew to appreciate Georgian wine, and I grew to love their long wine tradition. While visiting a cellar with a collection of over 64,000 bottles, I found my birth year! With grape vines growing in each and every front yard, wine is an integral part of Georgian culture and life — and a delightful part of any trip here.

8. The People

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Georgians can seem stern at first. No one smiles on the street, and shop workers tend to ignore rather than help you. However, give them two minutes (or two seconds, if drinking is involved) to get to know you, and you’ll have friends for life. They’re hilarious, sarcastic and tremendously warm people. Your trip to Georgia is not complete without getting to know the locals. Go out of your way to make a connection.

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Chronicling my Georgian adventure on Rick’s blog has been a thrill. Thank you for reading it. And thank you, Rick, for entrusting me with your beloved blog for a week. Cheers!

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Ashley Sytsma, Rick’s publicist, is a guest writer this week. She’s reporting on her travels to Georgia (the one over by Russia).

Knowing that we went to Georgia for our wine business, friends inevitably ask us, “So, how was the wine?” My response: “Unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before.”

Georgia lays claim to having the world’s oldest wine culture. At one famous site archeologists found residue over 8,000 years old. Now Georgians proudly boast that they’re on their 8,000th vintage. As a serious student of wine, I was eager to learn more.

My husband and I were invited to Georgia by the government on a wine trade delegation. These delegations — no matter the country — are often unruly, but this one was particularly so. Out of the 125 members, 80 percent were Chinese. They were a jolly lot that drank…a lot. Our two official dinners ended with very drunken businessmen singing (in Chinese) Scottish songs like “Auld Lang Syne” and “Loch Lomond.” Suffice it to say, they were fun parties.

Unlike the deadly serious ones I’ve attended in Italy and Argentina, our delegation’s organized wine-tastings were as rowdy and memorable as the dinners. The first took place in a four-mile-long tunnel the Soviets built as a bomb shelter. After being abandoned in the early 1990s, it was rediscovered by a local winemaker — who rightly thought it would make the perfect wine cellar and a unique place to hold events.

After a two-hour drive through miles of snow-covered vineyards, 125 of us professional wine-tasters eagerly dismounted our tour buses at the mouth of this large, dark tunnel. It was well below freezing outside, but with every step we took into this ex-bomb shelter, the warmer it got. By the time we hit the first rack of wine, about a half-mile into the heart of the mountain, it was a “warm” 50-55 degrees. Perfect cellar temperature!

As our group approached the tasting table, it became clear that our hosts weren’t prepared for a group of our size. Their small staff and one tasting station were quickly engulfed. We Americans and Europeans (who are less comfortable in crowds than our Chinese colleagues) hung back and observed the frenzy. After the group thinned out, we stepped up and enjoyed a thorough (and less rushed) education.

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The exhausted winemaker poured two wines side-by-side. I picked up the first, swirled, sniffed, and took my first taste. My husband and I glanced at each other. Since we taste together so frequently, we’ve created a secret language of looks and body language to communicate our general impressions. Once I saw my husband sniff and take only one tiny sip, I knew we thought the same: The wine had gone bad. It was brown and tasted strongly of walnuts and cooked fruit — sure signs of oxidation.

The next wine we sampled was much different. From the closing of his eyes and the dipping of his nose deeper into the glass, I knew my husband and I were both very impressed. Bright, crisp, and full of white fruit and melon flavors, it was a stellar wine.

“How do you compare these first two wines?” the winemaker asked with a sly smile.

Trying not to hurt his feelings, we responded, coyly, “We prefer the second. It was the far superior wine.”

“Ha! I thought you’d say as much. They are, in fact, the exact same wines.”

What?

Traditional Georgian wines — including the one we didn’t like — do not use “modern” winemaking techniques (think stainless steel tanks and rows of oak barrels). Instead, after grapes are picked and crushed, everything (seeds and skins included) are placed in clay pots that are buried underground with only a small opening sticking out. The wine ferments in the open. Once fermentation stops, the clay pot is plugged and covered with dirt. It stays there, skins and all (even for white wines), until the winemaker deems it ready to bottle.

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The two wines came from the same exact grapes, grown on the same plot of land, and made by the same winemaker. The only difference was Georgian vs. “modern” winemaking techniques. We learned that, while it seemed “bad” to our palates, the traditional-style wine is prized not only in Georgia, but also all throughout Russian and other formerly Soviet countries.

After many more tastings that week, I too grew to respect traditional-style Georgian wine. When made to a high standard, they’re rich, warming, light on the tongue and have a light sourness that you begin to crave once your palate grows accustomed to it. For those beer nuts out there, Georgian wine is to “modern” wine what Belgian Lambic is to lager. I wouldn’t want a glass of traditional Georgian wine every night, but it is certainly worth trying if you love the exotic and different.

A side story too funny not to tell: The next day, all 125 of us visited a traditional Georgian winery. Anxious to get the best camera angle possible, one of our Chinese colleagues wasn’t watching his step…and fell into one of the open clay pots. After seeing he wasn’t hurt, everyone laughed so hard the winery walls shook. As one British friend described, “It was absolutely brilliant!”

In all, I’m very excited to see what will come out of Georgia once they start experimenting more with blending “modern” methods with their unique style. With an 8,000-year-old tradition, this country is well-positioned to make some of the finest wine in Europe.

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Ashley Sytsma, Rick’s publicist, is a guest writer this week. She’s reporting on her travels to Georgia (the one over by Russia).

Georgian drinking culture is infamous to those who’ve visited the country. For particularly celebratory occasions, the men regularly consume 3-5 liters (4-7 bottles) of wine per person. Knowing this, I expected to find drunks all over the streets of Tbilisi, but I was wrong. I didn’t see a single one.

Now, I’m not condoning binge drinking, but once I learned more by experiencing it firsthand, I had to give Georgians props for having a unique and, dare I say, heartfelt booze culture. And for better or worse, I found I could hold my own – to the delight of the locals.

High up in the Caucasus Mountain near the Russian border, my husband and I ran into a humble country restaurant to seek shelter from the bitter cold. We ate lunch with our driver, Greg (who looked like a cast member from a mafia movie), and our guide, Levan (a Harvard-educated, professional-snowboarding, Georgian-folk-dancing, Renaissance Man). Being inside didn’t help the cold much. I could still see my breath while the lonely waiter wore a knitted cap and puffy jacket.

As we sat down next to the only wall heater, Levan asked us what we wanted to drink. Lemonade, beer, vodka? When traveling, a lunchtime beer is a fun addition, but being so close to the Russian border, we figured what the heck? Let’s have a shot of vodka with our meal! To our surprise, Levan didn’t order one round of shots, he ordered an entire bottle.

Levan opening our bottle of vodka.

Levan opening our bottle of vodka.

While steaming hot plates of stewed lamb, red beans and dumplings came flowing out of the kitchen, Levan exclaimed in his charmingly flawed English, “I’m going to teach you the tradition of the toast-ies!”

Often considered a defining part of Georgian culture, every single feast and celebration (or humble lunch in our case, I guess) is assigned a “tamada” or toastmaster. This person leads the attendees in a series of toasts as dictated by a very old tradition. Levan was to be ours.

He poured and passed ice cold shots, and with deep sincerity and reverence he began. “I first wish to honor that which is everything…is all…is forever the guiding light of our life. I wish to give a toast-ie to our loving and beautiful God.”

Coming from a culture where shots tend to be a part of bachelorette parties and other such debaucheries, I was surprised God was making an appearance. But I tentatively raised my glass, tried my best to thank my Higher Power, and knocked back my first warming (and surprisingly smooth) shot of Georgian vodka.

Perhaps sensing my bewilderment, Levan explained that the tamada never toasts frivolous things like possessions or shallow feelings but rather that which makes life worth living – those intangibles that bring a spirit, spark and light into our lives.

Within a minutes, he poured another shot. “Next I wish to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, those who without which we would not be here, those who honor us with their spirit and make us the people we are at our very core. I wish to give a toast-ie to our family members who have passed on – to our ancestors.” And back goes another shot.

Over the course of an hour, Levan led us through a heartfelt, soulful collection of toasts that honored the love of our parents, the safety and security of our homes, the support of our life partners, the protective touch of our unseen guardian angels and many more.

With each shot, I loosened up. With each shot, I followed Levan’s emotions more closely. With each shot, let’s be honest, I became more and more a sentimental fool. From the outside (meaning poor Greg, our very sober driver) we looked like sorry, sloppy, slurring drunks. But from the inside of our inebriated circle we were sharing…communion. We collectively felt the love for our families. We shared the last time we spoke to our guardian angels. We draped arms around each other’s shoulders and whispered secrets (funny because…who was going to hear?). We connected. We all “got it”! We were brothers and sisters! We celebrated life’s spark! It was actually quite a touching experience. Seriously.

Sharing communion.

Sharing communion.

By the end we three had consumed two bottles of vodka, a bottle of wine, and one large beer. Our only saving grace was the seemingly pounds of rich meats, cheese and bread we ate. It was by far the most I’ve drank without getting sick. And I had to buck up too. There was still a half-day of sightseeing left.

When Levan and Greg dropped us off at our hotel that evening, I was more than sleepy. As I stepped out of the car, Greg winked at me and chuckled in Georgian (Levan translated), “Good work today. I’ve never seen a blonde woman drink so much!” Levan assured me that this was a compliment.

Greg our very sober driver.

Greg our very sober driver.

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Ashley Sytsma, Rick’s publicist, is a guest writer this week. She’s reporting on her travels to Georgia (the one over by Russia).

Across the river from Tbilisi’s Old Town sits Georgia’s new Presidential Palace. Blending classical columns with a modern glass dome, it’s a graceful addition to the city’s many other charms. Intrigued, my husband and I decided to get a closer look. Maybe there’d be a tour!

We started our short trek to the palace in below-freezing, windy conditions. Walking arm-in-arm, scarves cinched tight and faces pointed down, we were so focused on staying warm that we didn’t notice it at first. But we were being watched…closely.

It’s become a habit of mine to make eye contact and give a courteous smile and nod to police officers. No matter the country, I tend to get a smile back. There was no reason to suspect that this time would be different.

We passed a particularly surly-looking officer. I smiled and nodded. He frowned and gave me a thorough look up and down. I thought, “Strange. What’s his problem?”

Within seconds, another officer appeared. Same response.

Moments later, I was startled by an officer standing in a concealed doorway. Same response.

A man in a black leather jacket brushed past us before zipping over to an officer. They whispered and pointed in our direction. We were the only pedestrians. There were no cars. We were alone.

My husband grumbled, “Keep your head down. Don’t take your hands out of your pockets, and keep moving.” He, too, was uncomfortable with our friends.

As we approached the palace, more police seemed to spring out of nowhere — one startling us every few yards or so. They smoked cigarettes, rested their hands on their guns, and silently watched us walk down the street. The security cameras turned in our direction.

As we approached the front gate, the officers seemed to take two steps toward us. I made eye contact with the closest one. I pointed at myself, and I pointed at the gate. With one slow affirmative nod, he allowed us to approach.

Trying to keep it light, we said things like, “How pretty it is! What a nice view!”— all the while thinking, “I wonder if our embassy would know if we disappeared?”

Obviously, they did not give tours.

Later that day, I was troubled. Our experience just didn’t jibe with the extremely warm reception we’d received everywhere else in Georgia — police included. To gain a bit of perspective, I recounted the experience to our Harvard-educated Georgian friend, Levan.

“Gosh, Levan. Are you living in a totalitarian state or something?”

He shrugged, “It’s the president.” He then proceeded to give me some context:

In 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia declared its independence despite being more than a little unprepared. Under communist rule, the state had owned everything. When the Soviets left, a power vacuum mixed with tons of unclaimed resources to create one huge mess. “Owners” become whoever had the meanest gang and carried the biggest shotgun. And the biggest, best-armed gang of them all was…the police. A decade of civil war, banditry and a collapse of civil society followed. As Levan solemnly told us, “It was bad. Really, really bad.”

Happily, those dark days are behind Georgia. For example, every police station — even tiny, rural outposts — has glass walls. My husband and I made a game out of waving at the workers and betting on how many would wave back. Levan explained that after all the years of corruption, the glass represented a new, open and honest force.

A glass-walled police station

A glass police station

Many attribute this and other positive changes to Georgia’s democratically elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili. In 2003, he led thousands of citizens to the Parliament — all of them carrying roses — to demand the resignation of a particularly corrupt president. It worked, and this peaceful movement is now lovingly called The Rose Revolution.

Saakashvili is, as one friend called it, “radically Western-focused.” Despite sitting at the easternmost fringe of Europe, Saakashvili’s Georgia is, by decree, purely and completely European. Billboards throughout the city proclaim (in English), “Our foreign policy priority is the integration into NATO.” Although the country is not a card-carrying EU member, the European Union flag flies as high as the Georgian flag at the Parliament Building.

Parliament Building: Site of the Rose Revolution and where the EU flag hangs proudly.

Parliament Building: Site of the Rose Revolution and where the EU flag now hangs proudly.

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These policies have won the president many friends…and many enemies. Now add in the complication of a recent violent crackdown on protesters and rumors of high-end corruption. Assassination is a real threat, Levan explained. Perhaps the police around the Presidential Palace are necessary?

I heard myself utter what has become my favorite travel phrase: “Huh. I never thought of it that way.”

I still don’t know what to think about our less-than-friendly reception at the Presidential Palace. Was it a bullying show of intimidation to a couple of innocent tourists? Or was it a necessary evil for a government trying to build a country out of a very dark past? Was it national security or a police state? I don’t know. I’m just glad that Levan was there to give me some perspective. These are complex issues, and it doesn’t help anyone for me to pass judgment based on fear.

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