Rick Steves' Travel Blog
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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If Jeff Sessions would like to learn about smart drug policy, I’ll pay for his trip to Switzerland. Like many of its neighbors, Switzerland has a progressive drug policy that aims to reduce the overall harm to its society, rather than focus on punishing users. It’s both compassionate and pragmatic. And it is effective.
When polls showed that more than 30 percent of Swiss people had used marijuana, the parliament decided to decriminalize the drug, rather than criminalize a third of its population. Hard drugs, however, remain absolutely illegal. Still, Swiss laws treat addicts as people needing medical help, rather than as criminals. Even in classy Zürich, you can see evidence of this policy. For instance, on the bridge across from the station, bolted to the railing, there’s a big, nondescript vending machine selling safe, government-subsidized syringes to heroin junkies. The basic idea: Hard drug addicts are sick people, not criminals. They need counselors and nurses…not police and lawyers. While Jeff Sessions might recommend “just say no,” the Swiss will be sure their people struggling with hard-drug addiction are not sharing needles and spreading diseases.
While most tourists in Switzerland head for the Alps, this year, I enjoyed touring the great Swiss cities: Zürich, Luzern, Bern, and Lausanne.
Perched on a rampart over Zürich, a couple of locals take a sun break.
After a long day of guidebook research, I decided to cap my day with a simple aimless stroll around Luzern. I had been wondering just how much people appreciated the tedious attention to detail we put into our guidebooks. And, as if sent by some angel, I met Don from San Francisco. He told me his wife gives him about a month a year for a personal adventure and for the last decade he’s enjoyed annual month-long trips through Europe completely immersed in Rick Steves guidebooks. He knew our work intimately and as we shared a delightful stroll together under the beloved covered wooden bridges of the city, he told me of his happy travels. I went home inspired and energized.
Luzern has a unique sight called the Depot History Museum. It’s filled with historic artifacts, like this chillingly modern and efficient guillotine. The collection is housed in one of Luzern’s oldest surviving buildings, which was long used to store military weapons and uniforms. Their collection is too big to display traditionally, so they’ve come up with an innovative and fun concept: throw all of their archived stuff together and display it on three crowded floors. You’ll wander through shelves of old weapons, stained-glass windows, sculptures, and old-fashioned tourism posters. Each shelf (sometimes each item) is labeled with a barcode — use your scanner (included with entry) on whichever one you’re interested in. You can then read about its history in English on your handheld screen. It works great. You can bet I scanned this.
This guillotine last decapitated a Swiss criminal in 1940.
Back in my hotel room, I filled the sink with what was one fine beard. Thanks for all the encouragement (both to keep it and to cut it). Your comments were a joy to read. I’ve grown lots of beards over the years, and this was the first time it actually felt like me. But my marketing team blew the whistle on my fun and the beard had to go.
Every few days I need to just stop, stay in my room all day, and input all the notes I’ve picked up in my research. When it’s rainy, my room is comfy, and I have a quiet and relaxing view like this (Luzern), it’s actually an enjoyable day. And it really feels good to have the notes thoughtfully incorporated into the next edition of my Switzerland guidebook.
I hit Bern during its annual three-day Buskers Festival. If you like street music, it’s worth planning for. The downside — crazy music until the wee hours outside my window. When confronted by a festival outside your window, rather than gripe about the noise, sometimes you have to just stay up past your bedtime and enjoy it.
Hey! Stop looking!
(Stay tuned for more from Zürich and Lausanne.)
Strasbourg is France’s seventh-largest city (with 275,000 people) and offers your best chance to experience urban Alsace. It feels like a giant Colmar with rivers and streetcars. Long a humanist and intellectual center, today it has a delightful big-city energy. Walking its people-friendly streets, you’ll find it progressive and livable, with generous space devoted to pedestrians and bikes, sleek trams, meandering waterways, and a youthful mix of university students, Eurocrats, and street people. With a name that means the “city of streets,” it’s the ultimate crossroads.
While the city dodged serious damage in both world wars, the people of Strasbourg have experienced a dizzying history. It was hit hard during the Franco-Prussian War, becoming part of Germany in 1870. After that, there was a period of harsh Germanization, followed by extreme Frenchification after World War I, a brutal period under Nazi rule during World War II, and then the strong need to purge all that was German after 1945. Now, while probably more definitively French than it’s ever been, you’ll feel a bi-cultural gentleness and see street names in both French and the Alsatian dialect. Bordering the west bank of the Rhine River, Strasbourg provides the ultimate blend of Franco-Germanic culture, architecture, and ambience.
After World War II, Churchill called for a union of European nations, with the goal of winning an enduring European peace by weaving the economies of France and Germany together. Noting that Strasbourg had changed hands between Germany and France so many times, it seemed logical that it be a capital (along with Brussels) of what would eventually become the European Union. And today, Strasbourg is home to the European Parliament.
Most visitors come to Strasbourg to see its massive cathedral. Stand in front and crane your neck way back. I couldn’t fit it into my viewfinder. Noting how my jaw dropped, I tried to imagine the impact this unforgettable erection would have had on medieval pilgrims. The delicate Gothic style of the cathedral (begun in 1176, not finished until 1429) is the work of a succession of about 50 master builders. The cathedral somehow survived the French Revolution, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II. Today, it’s the big draw of the city — and for good reason.
The year 2018 will mark the centennial of the conclusion of World War I, the war that was billed as “the war to end all wars.” While there are no more survivors to tell us their stories, WWI sights and memorials scattered around Europe do their best to keep the devastation from fading from memory.
Perhaps the most powerful WWI sightseeing experience a traveler can have is at the battlefields of Verdun, where, in 1916, roughly 300,000 lives were lost in what is called the “Battle of 300 Days and Nights.” The battle left a barren, lunar landscape. Today, it is buried under thick forests — all new growth — and the soldiers’ vast network of communication trenches is overgrown and haunted by their ghosts.
Plenty of rusty battle remnants and memorials to the carnage are still accessible. A string of battlefields lines an eight-mile stretch of road outside the town of Verdun. From here (with a tour, rental car, shuttle bus, or taxi) it’s possible to see the most important sights and appreciate the horrific scale of the battle in as little as three hours.
You can ride through the eerie moguls left by the incessant shelling, pause at melted-sugar-cube forts, ponder plaques marking spots where towns once existed, and visit a vast cemetery.
To get a good overview, start at the Verdun Memorial Museum. The museum is rich in artifacts and delivers gripping exhibits about the battle (with lots of information in English). It works to pair German and French artifacts — for example, you’ll see a circa 1916 German rucksack completely loaded up right next to a French one.
In the Verdun Memorial Museum, I learned that the vast majority of WWI casualties weren’t hit by machine gun bullets, but by shrapnel — every time an artillery shell exploded, jagged bits of the shell’s casing sprayed like buckshot.
Another key sight for visitors is Fort Douaumont. First constructed in 1885, Fort Douaumont was the most important stronghold among 38 hilltop fortifications built to protect Verdun after Germany’s 1871 annexation of this area. Built on top and into the hillside, it ultimately served as a strategic command center for both Germany and France at various times. Soldiers were protected by a thick layer of sand (to muffle explosions) and a wall of concrete five to seven feet thick. Inside, soldiers were forced to live like moles, scurrying through two miles of cold, damp hallways. Visitors can still experience these corridors (enlivened by an excellent audioguide) today.
Climb to the bombed-out top of the fort and check out the round, iron-gun emplacements that could rise and revolve. The massive central gun turret was state-of-the-art in 1905, antiquated in 1915, and essentially useless when the war arrived in 1916. From the top, look out at fields leading to Germany. From this perch, imagining the carnage here in that horrible battle is an unforgettable experience.
There is a beautiful sight at Fort Douaumont today. German, French and European flags wave alongside each other, as if to exclaim, “We learned and we won’t do this again.” Say what you like about the European Union, but it’s hard to deny what a great accomplishment it has been to weave together the economies of two historic enemies — and to subsidize the humanization and empathy that comes with getting to know each other. In 1914, most French soldiers had never met a German, and vice versa — making it all too easy to carelessly kill each other. Thanks, in large part, to the EU, we live in a different world today, built on a solid foundation for maintaining European peace.
I visited Verdun this summer with my friend and co-author Steve Smith. We did it as a very long day trip from Colmar: three and a half hours each way, on the autoroute. The time went quickly on the freeway, in part because we listened to four hours of radio interviews about France, filling the drive with conversation from fascinating French experts. (We downloaded the interviews from the France playlist on the free Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app. If you download tracks while you still have a Wi-Fi connection, you can listen to them later offline.) We both learned something and the time zipped by. And, even though we spent seven hours in the car, we had six wonderful hours to explore Verdun’s WWI sites.
Want to experience classic, small-town, French culture? Head to Alsace, on France’s eastern border with Germany. I just returned from there and I have lots of travel lessons to share with you. In this little series of photos, I share the region’s art treasures, take you on a walk through an untouristy village on the Route du Vin, and point you to my new favorite restaurant in Colmar.
Let’s begin with a mesmerizing medieval masterpiece which I find to be one of the most exquisite pieces of art in Europe. Martin Schongauer’s angelically beautiful Virgin in the Rosebush is housed in Colmar’s Dominican Church. Dated 1473, it still looks as if Schongauer painted it yesterday.
We describe Virgin in the Rosebush this way in our France guidebook:
In Schongauer’s Virgin in the Rosebush, graceful Mary is shown as a loving and welcoming mother. Jesus clings to her, reminding the viewer of the warmth of his relationship with Mary. The Latin on her halo reads, “Pick me also for your child, O very Holy Virgin.” Rather than telling a particular Bible story, this is a general scene, designed to meet the personal devotional needs of any worshipper. Nature is not a backdrop; Mary and Jesus are encircled by it. Schongauer’s robins, sparrows, and goldfinches bring extra life to an already impressively natural rosebush. The white rose (over Mary’s right shoulder) anticipates Jesus’ crucifixion. Angels hold Mary’s heavenly crown high above.
Colmar’s top museum, the Unterlinden Museum, has been spiffed up and is now truly ready for prime time. Its centerpiece is Matthias Grünewald’s gripping Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1515) — a many-paneled masterpiece. Taken apart and displayed in many sections, it fills a venerable chapel under Gothic vaulting.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is actually a polyptych — a series of two-sided paintings on hinges that pivot like shutters. As the church calendar changed, priests would change the painting by opening or closing its various panels. Designed to help people in a medieval hospital endure horrible skin diseases — long before the age of painkillers — it’s one of the most powerful paintings ever produced. Germans know this painting like Americans know the Mona Lisa.
Stand in front of the altarpiece as if you were a medieval peasant, and feel the agony and suffering of the Crucifixion. It’s an intimate drama. The point — Jesus’ suffering and then death — is drilled home: The weight of his body bends the horizontal bar (unrealistically, creating an almost crossbow effect). His elbows are pulled from their sockets by the weight of his dead body. People who are crucified die of asphyxiation, as Jesus’ chest illustrates. His mangled feet are swollen with blood. The intended viewers — the hospital’s patients — may have felt that Jesus understood their suffering, because he looks like he had a skin disease.
Alsace is known for its Route du Vin (Wine Road) and the many delightful (if touristy) towns along the way. While the most famous of these towns are over-the-top cute and inundated with tourists, I finally found the untouristy alternative…the little walled town of Bergheim, about half an hour north of Colmar.
A visit is quick and easy: Park on the uphill side of town and enjoy a fascinating stroll. The keen sightseeing eye will notice lots of fun bits of history. Here’s an example of what a tiny town like this can reveal:
Bergheim was contained within its medieval walls. Because of the value of the surrounding vineyards (worth more as grapevine plantations than as land that houses people), the town stayed small.
You’ll notice that two town walls were built in the 14th century — an inner and outer wall, between which was a moat (now a handy place for gardens). While these original walls were strong enough against arrows, more protection was needed with the advent of cannon fire. So, at the end of the 15th century, flanking towers were built outside the double walls as an extra defense.
From 1530 to 1667, Bergheim provided sanctuary to criminals who came to the town gates, on the run from the law. Only one of those gates survives today: The High Gate. A carved relief at the gate depicts a guy happily mooning his pursuers. Today, as you step inside the town walls, it seems like he’s mooning the modern world.
Bergheim’s main drag is lined by a small canal. You’ll notice a little iron dam. When lowered, the canal filled with water and the laundry women could do their work.
As you stroll, you’ll notice inns with gates and courtyards ideal for horse-drawn carriages. This town, unlike its more touristy neighbors, still has a real economy — there are enough locals to keep a newsstand in business and cars, rather than tour groups, on its streets.
Look up at Bergheim’s nondescript church — you’ll see a stork nest on the roof. The church is surrounded by gardens and there’s even an “insect hotel” at the far end.
And, once you leave town, a 10-minute walk will bring you to a German war cemetery. Notice that this war memorial is dedicated not to heroes who died for their country, but to the “victims of war.” In World War I, Alsace was part of Germany. After the war, it was returned to France…only to then be occupied by the Third Reich during World War II. As a result, 100,000 young Alsatian men were conscripted into Hitler’s army.
While I was in the region, I stopped at a port for river cruise ships on the Rhine River. It was fun to poke around and get a feel that booming industry. River cruising is quite popular, and we considered adding it to our tour program — we even sent one of our staffers on a river cruise — but we decided that it’s just not our kind of touring. One thing is for certain: Tour groups side-tripping by bus from river cruise ships are contributing to the crowding you find in cities all over Europe these days.
A big goal for me and my guidebook co-authors is finding the best restaurants for our readers — not the most expensive, but those offering the best value and experience. On this trip to Alsace, Steve Smith (my France guidebook co-author) and I found several good new places to recommend in Colmar.
Here’s a sneak peek (from the 2018 edition of the guidebook) at the entry for our new favorite restaurant in Colmar:
Restaurant L’Arpège offers a special experience — like eating in a Monet painting, where each waiter’s mission is to be sure you leave evangelical about chef Jean-Martin’s cooking. He gives classic French dishes a creative modern twist with seasonal and organic ingredients, always respects the vegetarians with a serious dish, and finishes with a delightful dessert. You’ll want to order family style for maximum experience. Inside, you’ll enjoy candlelight and sleek rocking chairs. Outside, you dine in a homey and thoughtfully lit garden. It’s romantic either way (€24 mains, closed Sun-Tue, 24 Rue des Marchands, tel. 03 89 24 29 64, reservations essentially required).
Each year, I look forward to a week or two of guidebook research in France with Steve. He is the ultimate Francophile who, for 30 years, has coached me in all things French. Steve’s labor of love is our Rick Steves France guidebook…and I’m honored to be his co-author.
Steve has also been a key player in the development of our tour program. We just found out that more than 24,000 travelers will join us on a Rick Steves tour by the end of 2017. And this week, we’ll be the busiest we have been all season — it will be all hands on deck, with a total of 100 guides leading great tours all over Europe on the same day.
After more than 20 years of building our amazing team of tour guides, Steve just retired from his role as Manager of Guide Services. But thankfully, he never wants to stop working on our France guidebook. If you’ve ever enjoyed our material on France or our tours anywhere in Europe, a good part of your travel joy is thanks to Steve Smith. Merci, Steve!
I’m just wrapping up a trip through Germany, France, and Switzerland and I’ve got lots of travel lessons to share with you over the next several days. First up is the Black Forest. (Stay tuned for more tips from Alsace, Verdun, Strasbourg, the great Swiss cities, and Lausanne — and then I’ll be packing you along on a cruise across the Mediterranean!)
The Black Forest (“Schwarzwald” in German) is a range of hills stretching along the French border from Switzerland for about 100 miles to the north. Ancient Romans found the thick forests here inaccessible and mysterious, so they called it “black.” Germans and tourists alike are attracted to this most romantic of German regions — famous for its mineral spas, clean air, hiking trails, cheery villages…and cuckoo clocks. There seems to be a region-wide competition for the biggest cuckoo clock of all, and it can get pretty touristy. At this roadside attraction, tourists — often with wiener dogs in tow — stop, pop in a coin, and watch the cabin-sized clock spring (sluggishly) to life.
Until the last century, the Schwarzwald was cut off from the German mainstream. The poor farmland drove medieval locals to become foresters, glassblowers, and clockmakers. Today, the Black Forest is where Germans come to recuperate from their hectic workaday lives, as well as from medical ailments — often compliments of Germany’s generous public health system. (When I try to explain the debate over national health care in my country — so rich, yet so greedy —my German friends can only respond, “cuckoo cuckoo.”)
I visit the region regularly to research and update my Germany guidebook. While finding good places to sleep wasn’t on my research list this time, I stumbled onto a wonderful place in Baden-Baden that I just had to check out and add to the book.
Baden-Baden is the major spa town of the Black Forest and, while pretty touristy, it has a delightful abbey that also operates as a guesthouse. Lichtentaler Abbey, an active Cistercian convent founded in 1245, welcomes the public into its tranquil, gated world. And since 1245, here in what they call “a school for the service of the Lord,” the Cistercians have embraced the teaching of St. Benedict: to live with moderation, show compassion for all, be unselfish, and follow the Golden Rule. The abbey has survived nearly eight centuries of threats, including the suppression of monasteries in Napoleonic times and the destruction of both world wars. When you walk through its gate into the courtyard, cradled by trees and so peaceful, you sense that the place is blessed.
As they have for centuries, nuns at Lichtentaler Abbey sell the things they make and cook.
Here’s the new guidebook listing for the abbey’s guesthouse:
Kloster Lichtenthal Guesthouse lets you be a part of the peaceful cloistered world of a working Cistercian abbey, and your money supports the work of the sisters here. Its 45 monastic-chic rooms offer meditative simplicity under historic beams. Their rooms with only a sink (and access to modern bathrooms down the hall) cost about a third less than the en-suite rooms. As this is an abbey, there is no TV and no Wi-Fi. When the abbey gate closes at 20:00, you feel quite special (tel. 07221.5049119, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Freiburg and Baden-Baden vie to be the leading home-base city for those visiting the Black Forest. While Baden-Baden has an old spa-and-casino elegance, Freiburg is much younger and livelier. I explored Freiburg with Simone Brixel, a local guide who always makes my visits much more enjoyable and meaningful.
The Feierling microbrewery is a top local hangout in Freiburg. On warm summer evenings, their biergarten across the street offers cool, leafy shade, great beer, cheap dishes of cold cuts, and a bustling atmosphere. But when the rain hits, everybody scrambles.
In the last few years, Germany has experienced freakishly hot and muggy summers. Routinely, the day is hot and muggy and then, just when people are sitting down to dinner in the beer gardens, a monsoon-type thunderstorm unleashes buckets of rain and diners grab their mugs and scramble. When you feel that weather pattern coming on (a tiny version of what flooded Houston)…don’t get too comfortable. It never used to be this way.
My new favorite small town in the Black Forest (to rival Staufen) is little Wolfach. Nestled in the forest on the Kinzig River, the town is essentially one delightful main street lined with fountains, fine facades, and inviting shops and cafés. While things are livelier on market days (Saturdays and Wednesdays), the whole place generally feels like it’s on Valium.
At a museum in a castle at the south end of Wolfach, visitors can learn about the town’s history as an old logging town. In centuries past, log rafters were a big part of this town’s economy — the German equivalent of American cowboys who went wild on payday after herding their cattle to market. They’d lash together hundreds of logs into rafts as long as football fields and float them all the way to Amsterdam, where they were sold to Dutch shipbuilders and used as foundation pilings.
Staufen, another cute little Black Forest town, has long been a favorite of mine. Just a half-hour south of Freiburg, it is hemmed in by vineyards and watched over by the ruins of its protective castle. A quiet pedestrian zone of colorful old buildings and reasonably priced hotels once made it a delightful home base for exploring the southern trunk of the Black Forest. But on this visit, I found a town in crisis. Here’s how I wrote it up for the next edition of my Rick Steves Germany guidebook:
Geothermal Probe Sinks Staufen: A few years ago, Staufen proudly embarked upon a green and innovative plan to drill 460 feet down and tap into a geothermal power source. For a few weeks, things worked great. Then buildings started to show cracks. Catastrophically, the drills pierced a layer of anhydrite, breaking into an underground reservoir. When the anhydrite came into contact with water, it became gypsum and expanded, causing much of the town to sink and then rise. Buildings were breaking as the ground shifted up to four inches a year. The entire town’s underground infrastructure needed to be dug up and replaced and hundreds of buildings were suddenly structurally unsound. Insurance companies and the government are at an impasse for the cost and no one can sell anything. It’s a terrible mess. On the broken facade of the town hall, a big Band-Aid reads, “Staufen darf nicht zerbrechen” (“Staufen will not be broken”). Best wishes to the people of beautiful little Staufen as they work through this tragedy.
Sure, Switzerland has its mighty alpine peaks and distant valleys. But it also has gentle lakes and hills blanketed by vineyards and dotted with charming farms and villages. From the delightful city of Lausanne (in Switzerland’s French-speaking corner), you can ride a historic paddle steamer across Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), hop out, hike through vineyards to a postcard-perfect village, and catch the train back.
Switzerland may be expensive, but the views are free — and with a Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook, you’ll be able to sort through all the travel options and find ways to enjoy them without going broke…such as this paddle steamer ride.
Every year, I travel to Europe to research and update my guidebooks. For well over a hundred days this year, I’ve enjoyed a parade of sights, tastes, sounds, and experiences. My trip is nearly over, and, while I can hardly wait to get home, I’m feeling like, “Oh, I better soak up all the European fun I can in these last hours.”
Impromptu moments have been a theme of this trip, and today was no different. As I was reviewing my guidebook entry for the towering Lausanne Cathedral, the organist was practicing. This particular organ has a unique arrangement — one set of keyboards up in the gallery and another in the nave, where the audience can have a close-up view of the organist. Surrounded by incredible architecture and the church’s Reformation heritage, I was inspired to record this little clip. Join me now, accompanied by some amazing organ music, in one of Switzerland’s leading churches.
I’m traveling across Switzerland this week, updating my guidebook, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the great Swiss cities.
Wherever I travel, my favorite restaurants are always the family-run places that offer caring, hands-on service — and Switzerland is no different. In Lausanne, I had a delightful meal (even though I was dining alone) at Café du Grütli. The owner, Willi Prutsch, was in great form, and I just had to capture his passion for the food he and his family have served here, day in and day out, for over 30 years.
A ritual for travelers around Europe is to gather at noon and see old medieval clock towers shift into action for a show that — centuries ago — was impressive. It’s generally pretty anticlimactic by modern standards: A rooster crows, a statue of Jesus stiffly offers a blessing as a carousel of Apostles jolts into motion, the Grim Reaper tips his annoying hourglass, and a jester dings his dong.
In an attempt to give the show a little more razzle-dazzle, here’s a look at the actual gears behind the scenes. Imagine the wow factor of this mechanical spectacle if you were a pilgrim passing through Bern in 1530.
(This clip was filmed with the help of Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli, the brilliant photographer who shoots most of the gorgeous photographs we use on the Rick Steves website, and my local guide Marie-Therese Lauper, who loves to show off her town’s clock tower.)