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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We spent 12 days scrambling to film our Reformation special. And the last stop was the historic German town of Rothenburg. If the town’s good enough to use as a location for “Pinocchio,” “Harry Potter,” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” it’s good enough to film “Rick Steves’ Luther and the Reformation.”

Rothenburg entrance

Rothenburg scenes like this (the Burgtor) are perfect for on-camera bits.

Lord Mayor of Rothenburg with Rick Steves

For over 30 years I’ve been bringing groups to Rothenburg, promoting it in my guidebooks and featuring it in my TV shows. And Rothenburg, which recognizes the value of our partnership, was extremely supportive of our filming needs. Oberbürgermeister (Mayor) Walter Hartl, understanding how tight our schedule was, presented me with a lovely proclamation of appreciation without a big and fancy banquet. The medieval-style wax seal was still warm.

Bringing in a table

Upon arrival in Rothenburg, we scouted every museum, church, and possible film location. This was essential if we were to use our time smartly. The wonderful Imperial City Museum had the perfect place to recreate the moment Luther discovered the verse in Romans that said Christians are saved by grace and don’t need to earn it or buy it. But we needed a big old Bible and a proper table. Nearby, one of my favorite restaurants (Altfränkische Weinstube) had the perfect table. The boss was gone, so we had to do some fancy talking for the cleaning lady to let us walk out of the place with a table.

Large bible

With the perfect corner in the museum, artful lighting, our table in place, and a Bible that was actually 500 years old, we were ready to film. Here, Second Cameraman Tim Frakes sits in for me as we tweak the lighting. Can you imagine how beautiful that shot will be as I say:

He found his answer in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It read: “The just person shall live by faith.” With that key phrase, Luther discovered what he considered the “good news”: that salvation is not earned by doing good works or giving the Church money, it’s a free gift to anyone who believes. Luther decided the subject should be debated openly.

Rick Steves TV crew in the forest

After hiking into a forest to shoot the bit when Luther ran from the law before hiding out in Wartburg Castle, we paused for a crew shot: from the left, Cameraman Peter Rummel (who shoots nearly half our TV episodes), Cameraman Tim Frakes (who produced the Luther show I did for the Lutheran Church 15 years ago), Producer Simon Griffith, and me. Working hard is very rewarding with creative partners like this talented crew.

TV crew gear

It’s just great how, as we get older, our gear gets lighter. For a TV crew, we pack extremely light. I took a moment on the curb of the Frankfurt airport to show exactly how much our crew of three packs when we are making our TV shows (including a carry-on bag each for personal gear). The crew flew home, and I got off in London to start a three-week research stint in southern England.

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While filming in Rothenburg at the amazing Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum, we got a behind-the-scenes look at how great museums don’t just happen. (Tacky and commercial “torture museums” — which you’ll find all over Europe — do just happen… but I’m talking about real museums that have real historic artifacts.) Put on some white gloves, watch this video clip, and have a peek.

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While filming our Protestant Reformation documentary in Germany, we decided to use Rothenburg’s 16th-century settings to do my “on cameras.” It was perfect: Its Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum is the best of its kind. Its churches are quiet and stately in a 1500s Protestant kind of way. The ramparts just scream Thirty Years’ War. And Jörg Christöphler, the very effective director of the Rothenburg tourism office, made sure we had access to whatever we needed to do our work well. Jörg actually called up his Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) army for us. I had the joy of commanding about 50 stunningly clad reenactors. In this clip, we’ve divided them in two groups so each cameraman can be creative. We wanted to get some artistic clips that Simon, my producer, can use for his treatment of the Wars of Religion that devastated Germany in that period. (We kept thinking Protestant and Catholic Christians 500 years ago are an eerie parallel to Shiite and Sunni Muslims of our era. By 1648, about 20 percent of Germany lay dead.) When we were finished with our work, Commander Jörg declared “100 liters of beer for all!” And our army marched to the nearest beer garden. Life is much better these days.

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Rick Steves looking at a large bible

Ken Burns can enthrall me for hours on end with lavishly filmed, edited, and narrated history. It’s my hope that our hour-long special on Luther and the Reformation will be enthralling too. For me it was exciting to have access to actual documents, papal bulls, letters of indulgence, Bibles in both Latin and German, and pamphlets by Luther — all dating from the early 1500s. The Luther Haus in Wittenberg is the best single museum for Reformation artifacts and documents. We were given complete access to its treasures. We scouted one day to make a list and a plan. Then we filmed for four extremely efficient hours getting lots of great images to “cover” our script. As it was by far the most images we’ve ever shot in one location, I decided to be well-organized and catalog the clips. It’s like a puzzle, and at this single stop we got these 60 pieces. Here’s my list of camera shots:

Art shot in Luther Haus in this order: 1. Wittenberg townscape etching, 2. Frederic the Wise small color painting, 3. Luther with professor’s bonnet, 4. Indulgence etching scene with Tetzel, 5. Actual small indulgence (same thing filmed later in treasures room), 6. Tetzel on horse etching, 7. Pope Leo X, 8. Luther’s actual wooden pulpit, 9. First printed 95 Theses, 10. Luther with monk haircut etching, 11. Jan Hus etching, 12. Tiny color burning scene (big one later is much better), 13. Worms townscape color etching, 14. Booklet cover Luther at Worms in 1521, 15. Color painted Luther portrait, 16. Emperor Charles V, 17. Luther in disguise etching, 18. Cover showing three marriages, 19. Receipt for payment to city, 20. Money chest for community, 21. Latin Bible, 22. Etching of Luther and another reformer taking Communion, 23. Luther preaching etching, 24. Etching of fat usurer with good farmers, 25. Color portraits of two princes, 26. Life-size Frederic the Wise painting, 27. Portrait of Katie and Martin, 28. Wedding scene on book cover, 29. Katie portrait etching, 30. Locked metal box and coins, 31. Small painted portraits of Luther and Melanchthon, 32. Portraits of two princes, 33. Luther holding Bible (close up of hands on Bible), 34. Two-page spread with music, 35. First complete German Bible, 36. Tiny hymnal; Printing Press Room (37. Printing press, 38. Pope as Satan, 39. Color portrait of group of great Reformers, 40. Cranach illustrations on Luther booklets: 40. Grouping of several, 41. Cartoons of grinder, 42. Animal faces, 43. Big donkey, 44. Two anti-Jewish covers); Treasures Room — three 16th-century documents (45. Big one good for 100 days less in purgatory, 46. Small one with blanks to fill in, 47. Medium one with dingleberries), 48. Luther and Katie portraits young, 49. Martin and Katie in one painting, 50. Martin and Katie old, 51. Luther and swan etching, 52. Martin Luther fine color portrait, 53. Gathering of Reformers (with faces and the pope and company trying to blow out candle), 54. Big paintings of Diet of Worms (many shots), 55. Burning of papal bull, 56. Luther at Wartburg Castle fighting the devil, 57. Luther’s living room (with Rick walk through), 58. Luther’s first New Testament in German, 59. Pulpit room (with Rick walk through), 60. Rick walk into museum from outside — two versions, wide shot of the building exterior.

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There’s lots of travel fun happening in our Travelers’ Café — a collection of favorite blogs for all my travel buddies. Cameron Hewitt is now in Scotland, as he realized when he stepped into the breakfast room and found a bottle of whisky. Cameron reports on the “tartan tat” (kitschy sales gimmicks travelers find in Edinburgh), the truth about “family tartans,” and much more. If you treasure your romantic Scottish clichés, don’t read his latest entry. My kids Andy and Jackie are in northern Vietnam on a two-day cruise through stunning Halong Bay. In his video report, Andy says he’s fallen into the set of “Avatar.” And Jackie writes vividly about the experience.

Kiltmaking

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We’re in Germany filming a one-hour special about Martin Luther and the Reformation which will be released in a year for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Painting of Luther at Worms

Luther was the first guy to stand boldly against the Holy Roman Emperor and the medieval pope — and actually survive. In this dramatic showdown before many of the most powerful people in Europe (at the Diet of Worms) Luther is told to recant all he wrote in his trouble-causing pamphlets. He said, “Unless you can convince me by scripture or by clear reasoning, I am bound by my beliefs. I cannot and I will not recant. God help me.” From there the plot thickens…and Luther’s hoped for religious reforms go far beyond his intent.

Etching of the Great Reformers

Luther was a brilliant PR man with a coarse and edgy wit. He had Germany’s top political cartoonist for a buddy, and the printing press to amplify his ideas. This propaganda etching, typical of the inflammatory cartoons of the day, shows Luther, Calvin, and the other great reformers lighting the way for religious freedom while, at the bottom, the pope, a cardinal, a monk, and the devil do their best to blow out the candle.

Filming crew in museum

This is the first documentary-style special we’ve produced, and it’s heavy on art. And art tells the story vividly.

Painting of Luther Preaching

This painting pumps up Luther’s charisma as he challenges teachings of the medieval Church that he didn’t find in the Bible. He preached in the people’s language, quoting the Bible like a lawyer to make his cases — unprecedented at the time. Listening to him is his wife and many children. (A priest with a wife and kids…also unprecedented.)

Simon with the solar-flare halo over his head

Producer Simon Griffith did a good job of keeping our script balanced and reining in my enthusiasm for Luther’s groundbreaking work. But here, in the forest beneath the castle where Luther hid out as he translated the Bible into a language regular people could read, it seems Simon is having a special Lutheran moment.

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While filming our Protestant Reformation special in Germany, I couldn’t resist stopping by a sight I’ve never heard of before that is related to the Reformation — the Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen. Nearly unknown to American travelers, seeing this creative view of an epic event (the Peasants’ War of 1525) is an amazing experience. Sorry the audio on the video clip is weak — I had to whisper. Below is the entry I wrote up for the next edition of my Germany guidebook:

Panorama Museum — This museum houses a massive, 400-foot-long cyclorama that shows vividly, with an East German communist slant, the bloody Peasants’ War of 1525. Called the Bauernkriegspanorama, it stands in a 007-looking building atop the hill where around 6,000 peasants — armed with shovels and axes — battled the well-armed troops of the Holy Roman Emperor and were slaughtered, marking the end of the Peasants’ War. It portrays more than just a horrible battle. It’s the bloody transition between medieval and modern worlds. At the base are twenty great change agents at end of Middle Ages (Luther, Erasmus, other Reformers, Copernicus, Columbus, Dürer, and more) — gathered around a well. Above them is a colossal battle under a rainbow — the Imperial troops on the left, the doomed rabble on the right. Further to the right, an elegant couple (their backs to us) dances before a gallows. The message: The elites continue to win. This was done in the 1980s — the last years of communism — by Werner Tübke. The government of East Germany wanted to celebrate the struggle of peasants 500 years ago, reminding all of the same struggle they felt was valiantly being fought in their era by the working class (€6 includes a fine and essential audioguide, Sun-Sat 10:00-18:00, until 17:00 off-season, closed Mon, fine cafeteria, in Bad Frankenhausen — 30 minutes north of Erfurt, just follow signs, tel. 034671/6190, www.panorama-museum.de).

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We’ve begun a twelve-day TV shoot in Germany for a public television special celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (due out in late 2016). Perhaps you don’t know yet how exciting this is. Here’s a quick little clip taken by me in the back of a car. I’m recording a creative (low budget) effort to film a “point-of-view” shot illustrating how Luther was kidnapped and taken to a friendly prince’s castle. With the sun glinting through the trees, the hill-capping castle flickering up in the sky, and two cameras rolling, it could be really effective. Be patient; it takes a while for the castle to come into view in my video. (I’m shooting with producer/driver Simon Griffith, our regular cameraman Peter Rummel, and my friend — cameraman Tim Frakes — who produced the travel show I did on Martin Luther for the Lutheran Church 15 years ago.)

For background, read this bit of the script (six sequences out of 120; information in brackets includes shot number and location/image). I hope you can imagine how fun it is to tell this story:

[77a, art] While romanticized in this painting, the drama was certainly real. Imagine the showdown at Worms: Papal representatives, princes, Imperial troops — all power-dressing…and Charles — the Holy Roman Emperor himself — sitting high on his throne — the crowds craning to see the action. In the center of the room, Martin Luther stood alone…beside a table stacked with his rabble-rousing books and pamphlets.

[78, Worms courtroom, art] The prosecutor insisted Luther was a heretic. Summing up his case, he asked, “Who are you to go against 1,500 years of Church doctrine?” He demanded that Luther renounce his theses and writings. Luther would not budge. Perhaps as never before in European history, one ordinary person stood up to power for what he believed. He said: “Unless you can convince me by scripture or by clear reasoning, I am bound by my beliefs… I cannot and I will not recant. God help me. Amen.”

[79, Rick On Camera, Rothenburg] Luther was declared a heretic and left Worms essentially an outlaw. Now “outside the protection of the law,” Luther could be captured and killed by anyone. On his way home to Wittenberg, he was kidnapped and dropped out of sight. Many thought Luther had been killed.

[80, Wartburg, etchings] Days later, a man named Junker Jörg — or “Squire George” — appeared at Wartburg Castle. This was actually a disguised Martin Luther, who had been kidnapped for his own safety on his journey back from Worms by his benefactor, Prince Frederick the Wise. Safely hidden behind the stout walls of Wartburg, Luther spent nearly a year making his next stand against the Vatican and wrestling with his deepening depression. He fought his depression by working…studying and writing.

[80a ] This was Luther’s room. Restless, overfed, and lonely in the castle — he continued his lifelong personal battle with Satan. And it was here that he employed his favorite weapon — the printed word.

[81 Rick On Camera, Wartburg cell] Believing that everyone should be able to read the word of God, Luther began the daunting — and dangerous — task of translating the New Testament from the original ancient Greek into German. He used simplified language, as he said, like a mother talking to her children. As the King James Version of the Bible did for English, Luther’s translation helped to establish a standard German language that’s used to this day.

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I’m just kicking off my summer trip starting in Germany. I’ll be posting daily for the next 45 days starting with this little video clip illustrating the unique sense of humor of the German people.

This trip will be really fun: Ten days in Germany filming our one-hour Martin Luther and the Reformation special for public television (due out in time for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017). Then it’s three weeks researching in London and south England, and then three more weeks in Germany filming three new episodes of “Rick Steves’ Europe” (covering the great German cities of Nürnberg, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Würzburg, and Dresden). But for now, watch this video clip and join me for a beer with two friends in Wittenberg.

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Tomorrow I kick off my summer trip series — reporting from Germany. But today you can drop by our Travelers Café for two great travel blogs. Cameron Hewitt is in France and my kids are in Vietnam.

I remember as a guide I’d have tourists forever complaining about the rude French. They’d say how at the post office it took forever, there were no smiles, and no one spoke English. I had to remind my travelers that small-town French postal clerks are just as speedy, cheery, and multilingual as postal clerks are back in the USA. Cameron shares a smart and insightful essay on the American challenges when it comes to enjoying the French — and finishes by noting how he kept thinking, “To not get along with the French, you pretty much have to be a jerk.” He also reports on duck, goose, and foie gras.

My children, Jackie and Andy, are now in Vietnam. Jackie just reported on “Ho Chi Minh’s Waxy Body and The American War.” The line to see Ho’s body is longer than the line at the Louvre. For an American millennial to get a firsthand look at what we call “the Vietnam War,” and learn about it from the other perspective, is a rich and challenging travel experience. She then goes out to discover and drink all the “gross things they soak in firewater.”

On the same blog, Andy shares more of his videos. Check out “A Night Out in Hanoi,” an evening fueled by special snake alcohol and in search of a good, dog spring roll.

The streets of Hanoi

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