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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I just finished a marvelous tour of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with our tour group and am inspired by the local art-historian guide we enjoyed.

During the Dutch Golden Age (the 1600s), with their trading ships roaming the globe and their leading city the pinnacle of European civilization, the Dutch produced some of the greatest art ever. No longer the “Spanish Netherlands” ruled by the Habsburg king and obedient to the pope, the Dutch were a Protestant republic — fiercely independent and proud. Great news — but it left their artists without the support of the usual big patrons (nobles, kings, and the Catholic Church). As you’ll see here, they did just fine.

Enjoy this three-minute blitz of the core of one of Europe’s greatest collections of art: Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Hold on to your cheese!

(Thanks for following along here on my blog and on Facebook as I guide our Best of Europe in 21 Days Tour.)

 

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I am two days into our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour. I have 27 wonderful tour members and I’m assisted by two of our top guides, Ben Cameron and Trish Feaster. It’s been many years since I dedicated 21 days to one busload of travelers, and this promises to be a learning and growing and brainstorming experience for Rick Steves Europe Tours. We take over 20,000 travelers to Europe every year on about 900 bus tours (roughly 40 different itineraries), and with 150 talented guides, we need to be sure we are all teaching and guiding the “Rick Steves way.” And I need to know about the guides’ on-the-road, day-to-day reality (new technology, higher expectations, more dietary concerns, and so on).

So each day Ben, Trish, and I are experimenting, huddling, and debating to make sure we’re giving our tour members the best possible value. Just today it occurred to me that if we’re doing our job, we’ll be extremely busy behind the scenes ensuring that our travelers can have the maximum experience but without feeling harried. It’s amazing how much more a smartly guided tour accomplishes in a day than a typical solo traveler might. Here’s a behind-the-scenes example of the schedule we came up with for the first day and a half of our Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour (with a sampling of guiding notes from our work). We go fast (as it’s a “best of” tour), but you’d be surprised how smooth it can be for those on the receiving end when the guide is doing his or her job well.

Day One: Meet group in Haarlem, orientation meeting and get to know Haarlem (half an hour from Amsterdam).

2:00 Intro meeting (guide lays out groundwork of our tour).

4:00 Haarlem town walk with Ruby (a local guide), including a climb through a classic windmill and a local snack canalside (freshly fried bitterballen, be sure to have Ruby take 15 minutes at the end of her guided walk for general “reflections on Dutch lifestyles” questions).

6:30 Indonesian rijsttafel dinner (a traditional feast from the Dutch colony known as the “Spice Islands,” with a table full of dishes, guide explains four kinds of local beer — rounding price up and down to €3 to make ordering smarter and faster).

8:15 Take those interested to the pipe organ concert in Haarlem big church (free, one of Europe’s grandest pipe organs, Mozart performed on it, great experience, start by gathering people in rear of church: give people permission to leave early if too jet-laggy, read organ description from Amsterdam book, explain how this church is a fine example of a former Catholic church made Protestant).

Day Two: All day in Amsterdam

8:00 Leave hotel.

8:32 Catch train (give round-trip train tickets and all-day Amsterdam tram pass, give public-transit lesson).

9:00 Arrive Amsterdam, orient group in front of station, hop on tram, get off at Anne Frank House (tram driver will announce it in English).

9:15 Historic Amsterdam and Jordaan guided walk (theme: Anne Frank intro, tolerance), gay rights monument, men can actually demonstrate outdoor urinal, wander through scenic Jordaan district, stop at “big head square” for 20-minute coffee/WC break, give sampling of three kinds of local cheese when group meets up again (pick up cheese at Reypenaer cheese shop on corner while group is having break), walk to Dam Square, up Kalverstraat, pop into Begijnhof.

10:45 Catch tram at Spui for Resistance Museum (tram drops you right at theater).

11:00 Visit Dutch Theater, Holocaust Memorial, review lunch options, and set free in Dutch Resistance Museum. (The lunch place at the Artis Zoo, in Art Nouveau building, listed in guidebook, is great for fast, inexpensive, and elegant lunch. They have an enticing variety of gourmet, toasted open-face sandwiches, €8, that could be a fine group meal.)

1:30 Catch tram to Rijksmuseum.

2:00 Meet guide at Rijksmuseum for 90-minute tour of Golden Age Dutch art (Hals, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and company). One hour of free time for more art, coffee, or wander in park.

4:30 Meet at the IAmsterdam monument in the park, walk to canal-boat dock.

4:45 One hour canal-boat ride through city (captain will make a special stop to let our group de-boat just outside the Red Light District, near the Waag).

5:45 Take group on guided walk through the salty sailors’ quarters/Red Light District, Zeedijk, and back to the train station. (Topics for guide to cover: city organization, prep for wild zone), warn about pickpockets and danger of photographing prostitutes — wide shots from bridge are fine, misc. cultural insights, stop on bridges and gather people very tight for talking interludes, first bridge intro to prostitution, second bridge for more social issues/prostitution — let people walk around the block, meet back on bridge for all to sample fries Dutch-style with mayo, continue walk — stop in front of hidden church (Our Lord in the Attic), ask where it is (then show photo of interior on wall), walk to next bridge to talk about Dutch pragmatic drug policy (permit marijuana in coffee shops and how they solved their big hard-drug problem in this neighborhood, a “no-go zone of hard-core addicts nicknamed “Heroin Ally” back in the 1970s, talk of sailors’ quarter heritage, and show original dike and locks). Walk on out via Zeedijk and to station finishing in front of station where the morning began.

7:30 Train back to Haarlem (they depart about every 10 minutes).

8:00 Review evening options and next day with group in front of Haarlem station, free for dinner.

Two days down, 19 to go. I hope you can follow me here on my blog and on Facebook as I guide our gang of hearty travelers on our Rick Steves Best of Europe tour. I’ll be sharing our experiences and some candid, behind the scenes peeks at my work daily for the next three weeks. Happy travels!

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I’m heading off to Europe and I’m wearing plaid. I explain why in this video clip — along with a quick overview of Europe’s best 3,000 miles and three weeks (as I review the itinerary of the Rick Steves Europe Tours Best of Europe tour I’ll be leading), and a peek at how I rip up my guidebooks (part of the critical art of packing light). And I explain why, when people tell me, “Have a safe trip,” I say, “Have a safe stay-at-home.”

 

This is the first post of a three-week series as I’ll be packing you and the rest of my traveling blog and Facebook friends along. I’ve been traveling like there’s no tomorrow for the last few decades — making guidebooks, designing our tours, and producing TV shows. And for the next three weeks, I’m going back to my travel-teaching roots — personally guiding the granddaddy of our many tours: The Best of Europe in 21 Days. Please let your traveling friends know that we’ve got a fun series of 21 posts in 21 days coming your way starting right now.

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I’m really looking forward to the debut next month of Season 9 of Rick Steves’ Europe on public television stations across the USA. (To find out when you can you watch our 10 new shows, ranging from Hamburg to Romania and Cornwall to Bulgaria, contact your local public television station.)

There’s a lot more to producing each half-hour episode than the six days we spend in Europe filming it — and that includes about four hours in a recording booth for each show. Here’s a candid look at the process: I read the script one paragraph at a time trying to get just the right inflection and tone for the images. Eric Johnson, our sound editor at Clatter&Din recording studio in Seattle, cuts my audio into the video of the show (replacing the “scratch track” audio). And then he and producer Simon Griffith make sure it is a snug and tidy fit with the images. I’m so impressed with the technical ability we have now (with Eric and the gear at Clatter&Din) to get the sound just right. It seems like just a few years ago we recorded the soundtracks for the shows with me standing in the closets of European hotel rooms.

I say this with the release of every new series (every two years) but it’s never been more true: This new series gives you more travel thrills than ever. Stay tuned!

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When I ask Trump supporters why they’d vote for him they generally say it’s because they don’t like Hillary. I ask why and they say the same three reasons: “She’s dishonest, Benghazi (4 people died), and her email server.” But they avoid talking about the issues. The news coverage largely ignores the issues, too. Yet it is issues — not “who you like” — that impact each of us and our country. This election has consequences and the differences between Trump and Clinton are stark. There is not a right or wrong here, just personal politics. BTW, complaining about the candidates at this point is non-productive. One of them will be your president: Trump or Clinton. It’s most logical to ignore the personality stuff and the silliness on the news, and compare their stances on the issues to yours. Take this blind “issues taste test” and then make your choice:

30 Issues Candidate #1 Candidate #2
Climate change a hoax really important
National healthcare no (privatize it) yes (build on it)
Abortion pro life pro choice
Social Security more privatized status quo, public
Education privatize support public
Community colleges not free should be free
Environment fewer safeguards more safeguards
Energy friendlier to oil friendlier to renewables
International relations build walls build bridges
Immigration harder softer
United Nations bad good
Iran nuke deal no yes
Free trade more protectionist less protectionist
Corporations fewer restrictions more restrictions
Banks fewer restrictions more restrictions
Wall Street pro pro
Taxing the wealthy less more
Taxing corporations less more
Inheritance tax end it keep it
Labor unions should be weaker should be stronger
Minimum wage no raise raise it
Marijuana status quo reclassify from Schedule I to II
Supreme Court picks conservative liberal
Citizens United for against
Voter rights don’t expand expand
For-profit prisons allow end
Ban the Box (so ex-felons can get jobs) no yes
Experience in politics little lots
Experience in business lots little
Left or Right conservative liberal

 

I’m humble enough to care about endorsements. I believe organizations know more about the issues important to them than I do. And people who endorse a candidate shed light on the character of that candidate. Here’s what I learned by Googling endorsements for each candidate:

Major organizations favoring or endorsing Trump: NRA (gun rights)
Major organizations favoring or endorsing Clinton: National Organization for Women (NOW), Sierra Club (environment), AFL-CIO and many other labor unions, most gay rights groups

People endorsing Trump: Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan, two heads of state (Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban), Ann Coulter, Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell Jr., Tim Allen, Kirstie Alley, Clint Eastwood, Larry the Cable Guy, Chuck Norris, Dennis Rodman, two of Trump’s three wives, Wayne Newton, Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, Gene Simmons, The National Enquirer

People endorsing Clinton: Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Jimmy Carter, Jerry Brown, 13 heads of state, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, 50 Cent, Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Oprah Winfrey, Howard Stern, Tom Hanks, Warren Buffett, the guy who ghost-wrote Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” book, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, George Takei, Ellen DeGeneres, Hookers for Hillary, and Rick Steves.

If you think this issues-based comparison might be helpful to others, please share it. If I wasn’t fair in my characterizations, please let me know. Thanks, vote thoughtfully, and GHA (God help America).

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az110519xz-1059.jpgBasilica of Saint Francis of Assisi

As a Christian, I enjoy being open to spiritual experiences while on the road, and there’s no more spiritual experience than traveling to the developing world. To be with the world’s struggling and downtrodden is to be with Christ. My expertise as a writer and guide, however, is traveling through Europe, which also offers plenty of opportunities to get close to God. Here’s my guide to five places in Europe that stoke my spirit.

High in the Alps

As I walk high on a ridge in Switzerland, the Alps strike me as the greatest cathedral in Europe. Ride the rack-railway train from Wilderswil (near Interlaken) up to Schynige Platte, then hike along a ridge to Faulhorn, with its famous mountaintop hotel, and on to the perch called First. As you tightrope along the ridge, lakes stretch all the way to Germany on your left, and on your right is a row of cut-glass peaks — the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. The long, legato tones of an alphorn announce that the helicopter-stocked mountain hut is open, it’s just around the corner…and the coffee-schnapps is on. It’s enough to have even a staid Lutheran raising his hands in praise.

Spain’s Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Trail

There’s a reason pilgrims have hiked from France to the distant northwest of Spain for more than a thousand years. Trekking with people of all spiritual stripes — or none at all — across the vast expanses of Spain, it’s easy to be one with nature and get caught up in a private talk with your maker. Everyone’s heading for the same point: the Cathedral of St. James in the city of Santiago de Compostela. And to be there as well-worn and sunburned pilgrims step on the scallop-shell pavement stone in front of the towering cathedral, overwhelmed with jubilation to have reached their personal goal and succeeded in their quest, is a joy in itself.

Assisi, Italy

I have a personal ritual of sitting quietly on the rampart of a ruined castle high above Assisi, the town of St. Francis. I look down at the basilica dedicated to the saint, then into the valley — where a church stands strong in the hazy Italian plain that marks the place where Francis and his “Jugglers of God” started the Franciscan order, bringing the word of God to people in terms all could embrace. Hearing the same birdsong that inspired Francis, and tasting the same simple bread, cheese, and wine of Umbria that sustained him, I calm my 21st-century soul and ponder the message of a saint who made the spirit of God so accessible.

St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican

Worshiping upon the tomb of St. Peter under the towering dome of Michelangelo in the vast expanse of the greatest church in Christendom — where incense gives earthly substance to ethereal sunrays — I ponder the centuries of devotion and tradition that have gone into building both this magnificent church and the Catholic faith. Throwing out my Lutheran cynicism, I appreciate it all as a humble and noble quest by countless people through the ages to better understand and get close to our heavenly Father.

Taizé, France

In the wine country of Burgundy, just down the road from Cluny (where the greatest monastic order of the Middle Ages was born), a rough lane leads to the ecumenical monastic community of Taizé. It welcomes all to gather with no regard to culture, language, or denomination. With a perfectly ecumenical embrace, people come together at Taizé to celebrate diversity, tune in to God’s great creation and the family of humankind, and become comfortable with silence, praise, meditation, singing, and simple living. Taizé gets you close to God.

What tips do you have for getting closer to God in your travels?

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With this post, I wrap up my second big 2016 trip — two two-month European adventures filled with learning, experiences, life-long memories, and lots of fun. I’ll be bringing you a few more weeks of posts from Europe starting in mid-September, as I get back in the tour-guiding saddle and lead the granddaddy of all our tours: our Best of Europe in 21 Days itinerary (Amsterdam-Germany-Italy-Swiss Alps-Paris). Don’t miss it! It’s been fun packing you along here on my blog and over on the Rick Steves Facebook page for these last 100 days. Thanks for being my partner as we “keep on travelin’.”

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In these clips, you can see the euphoria erupting after the finish of the Palio horse race. When the winner crosses the finish line, 1/17th of Siena — the prevailing She-wolf (Lupa) neighborhood — goes berserk. Tears of joy flow, people embrace. The jubilation is over-the-top both for the winners, and for the many neighborhoods joyously celebrating their rival contrada’s defeat.

We zip out into the street to film the mobs coursing toward the cathedral (I’m protecting Simon as he attempts to hold the camera still). The happy “Lupa-Lupa-Lupa!” horde thunders through the streets and up toward the cathedral. We’ve plotted our course through back lanes to position ourselves at the cathedral. Our cameraman, Karel, is already camped out inside the cathedral to film the climax of the celebrations at the high altar. Once there, they pack the church, and the winning contrada receives the coveted Palio banner — champions…until the next race.

Carrying their new trophy and hoisting their jockey high, the She-wolf crowd tumbles out of the cathedral and into the street, where 16 neighborhoods will settle back into normalcy…and this jubilation will consume the She-wolf district until the wee hours — 500 years of tradition, still going strong.

The August 2016 race was actually historic: For the first time in over a century, the same contrada won both the July and the August races. That’s why you see two banners leaving the church in this photo:

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Seeing the euphoria overcome members of the winning contrada reminded me that it’s impossible for a tourist to really understand what this ritual race means to the people of Siena.

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This is Day 99 of my 100 Days in Europe series. As I research my guidebooks and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences and lessons learned in Vienna, the Alps, the Low Countries, England, Siena, and beyond. Find more right here on my travel blog.

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At the Palio, the entire city of Siena packs into the main square, Il Campo. Finally, it’s time for the race. A cart pulled by oxen carries the coveted Palio banner into the arena. At its sight, the crowd goes wild.  

As the starting places are announced, our guide Roberto is traumatized. It’s not going well. (Sometimes it seems that the Sienese care as much about their rivals losing as their own district winning.)

Ten snorting horses and their nervous riders line up to await the start. The jockeying includes a little last-minute negotiating…it’s complicated. (Watching the last-minute shuffling, I understand where the expression “jockeying” comes from.) Silence takes over. And then…

They race! Once the rope drops, there’s one basic rule: There are no rules. The jockeys race bareback like crazy while spectators go berserk. In Siena, life stops for these frantic three laps…just about 90 seconds. And the winner is…Lupa, the She-wolf district.

(Unfortunately, for legal reasons I can’t show the actual race here — but you can catch it on YouTube.)


This is Day 98 of my 100 Days in Europe series. As I research my guidebooks and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences and lessons learned in Vienna, the Alps, the Low Countries, England, Siena, and beyond. Find more right here on my travel blog.

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Being in Siena for the Palio horse race is really a series of mob scenes. These three photos capture the crush of the crowds. Imagine being in the middle of it all. Imagine catching it on your big TV camera. Imagine enjoying the race from the comfort of Franco’s apartment. I’ll never forget this perch. Grazie, Franco!

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This is Day 97 of my 100 Days in Europe series. As I research my guidebooks and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences and lessons learned in Vienna, the Alps, the Low Countries, England, Siena, and beyond. Find more right here on my travel blog.

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