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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World War II exacted a toll not just on people and cities, but on great works of art — countless were plundered, and many were destroyed. I just toured an underground museum in Nürnberg that tells the story of some priceless masterpieces that survived.
Nürnberg’s Historic Art Bunker is a series of cellars used by the Nazis to store art plundered from conquered lands and evacuated from its own great buildings in anticipation of bombing. The only way to visit this claustrophobic underground space is with a tour (daily at 14:30, €5, 75 minutes, headphones for English-speakers). The theme of the tour is “How what was called ‘the treasure chest of the German Empire’ emerged from the devastation of WWII.”
Nürnberg was bombed only late in the war. As German officials saw it coming and knew how northwestern cities were devastated, they were better prepared, and more of the city’s treasures survived. (Many wonder why bombed German cities didn’t just relocate. Because the subterranean infrastructure of great cities survived the bombs of WWII — as you’ll see on this tour — it made sense to rebuild on the same footprint.) In this little video clip, I’m following my local guide deep under the city.
Nürnberg, Bavaria’s second city, is known for its glorious medieval architecture, its important Germanic history museum, its haunting Nazi past, its famous Christmas market (Germany’s biggest), and its little bratwurst (Germany’s tiniest…and perhaps most beloved).
Just an hour from Munich by train, Nürnberg may be Germany’s most underrated city. For a historian, the city is fascinating for its ties to both the First Reich (the Holy Roman Emperor’s castle) and the Third Reich (Hitler’s choice for grand spectacles and rallies). While here researching, I kept thinking, “I need to come back here on vacation and just enjoy its powerful museums” — both the Germanic National Museum and the Nazi Documentation Center.
Nürnberg was one of Europe’s leading cities in about 1500, and its large Imperial Castle marked it as a stronghold of the Holy Roman Empire. In this little video clip, my local guide uses the castle to explain his take on the essential elements of a castle.
Picturesquely situated in a river valley surrounded by vine-draped hills, and boasting one of Germany’s most enjoyable palaces (the prince-bishop’s Residenz), the bustling little city of Würzburg is well worth checking out.
Many travelers zip from the Rhine directly to Rothenburg without considering a stop in Würzburg. But those folks miss out on a tourist-friendly town that’s easy to navigate by foot or streetcar. While the town isn’t quite “charming” (thanks to its unmistakable post-WWII-rebuild vibe), Würzburg’s old center is quiet and people-friendly, and filled with atmospheric wine bars.
While you’re here, be sure to stroll the city’s atmospheric old bridge. Lined with stone statues, surrounded by vineyard-laced hills, and with a stout fortress looming overhead, it feels like a low-rent version of Prague’s famous Charles Bridge.
A park-like, picnic-perfect stretch of riverbank stretches from the old bridge to the crane. There are plenty of benches and a long, inviting, concrete embankment to spread out your meal. It comes with beer-drinking students, the down-and-out collecting their bottles, and great views of the river, bridge, and castle.
While busily checking out restaurants for my guidebook, I had to pause and appreciate this amazing Würzburg view. While the view itself — with Würzburg’s river and fortress glowing in the setting sun — was striking, what capped it off was the conviviality of the people enjoying the setting.
The Germans really, really love their various breads and pretzels. And this is nothing new. In fact, in this Gothic church’s stained-glass window, when God sends Moses and the Israelites manna from heaven, it comes in the form of divine pretzels.
German marketing can be uniquely eye-catching. While most men find that this woman’s cleavage draws their eyes to the pretzels, many German men might say that the pretzels draw their attention to the cleavage.
I’ve long wished my favorite Rhine town, Bacharach, had a museum. I found the attraction I craved in the next village over: The Kulturhaus Oberwesel is the best museum of its kind along this part of the Rhine. You’ll learn how salmon were once fished here, and how timber traders lashed together huge rafts and floated them to the Netherlands to sell. You’ll also see dramatic photos of the river when it was jammed with ice, and — as seen in this clip — review three decades of local wine queens.
Visiting the Rhine River Valley never gets old. It’s storybook Germany, a fairy-tale world of legends and robber-baron castles. For a quick visit, I’d cruise the most castle-studded stretch of the romantic Rhine, from Koblenz to Bacharach. For hands-on thrills, climb through the Rhineland’s greatest castle, Rheinfels, above the town of St. Goar. Castle connoisseurs will also enjoy Marksburg, with the best castle interior on the Rhine. I spend my Rhine nights in the castle-crowned village of Bacharach.
While the Rhine River is lined by scenic roads, train tracks, and bike lanes, the most relaxing way to enjoy the Rhine is by romantic old steamers.
The first time I slept along the Rhine, it was in one of Europe’s great youth hostels: Stahleck Castle. Imagine spending just $30 a night for your bed with breakfast, and ending your day with a drink on your own Rhine-view balcony like this. I just dropped in again as I was updating my guidebook, and the castle-hostel is a dreamy as ever. I hiked up here with Thomas, a friend from the village below, who recalled how, back in the ‘70s, he and his friends literally scaled the castle walls as kids to hang out with the British and American girls staying in the hostel.
While I’ve always loved Rheinfels Castle in St. Goar, and the town of Bacharach, the town of Oberwesel (midway between St. Goar and Bacharach) has long intrigued me. So on this trip, I visited Oberwesel, and I was charmed enough to write it up as a worthwhile stop. Just four miles from Bacharach, it’s a worth a quick visit to see its charming main square, walk along its fun surviving medieval wall, and explore the best collection of historic Rhine artifacts I found within the romantic Rhine gorge.
Climbing along the upper wall of the town of Oberwesel, I found a path that leads through a peaceful little meadow and forest with great wall and town views. The Cowherd’s Tower is now a private home with a fanciful drawbridge. In local folklore, the current family’s teenage son threw a rowdy graduation party in the tower. With all the noise, neighbors complained. When the police came, the kids just hoisted up the drawbridge and partied on.
After 30 years of cruising the romantic Rhine gorge on nostalgic old riverboats, I still get a thrill. Imagine riding this majestic old steamboat from village to village, visiting ruined castles and enjoying the local hospitality.
Frankfurt has long been Germany’s trade center. And with trade comes prostitution and drugs. The city takes a pragmatic, compassionate, and seemingly effective “harm reduction” approach to both of these challenges.
This painting is a thought-provoking reminder that the phenomenon of wealthy old men setting their sights on younger women is nothing new…especially in a trading center like Frankfurt. Ever since the Middle Ages, Frankfurt’s thriving prostitution industry has gone hand-in-hand with its trade fairs. Today, prostitution thrives with the convention center. Like hotels, prostitutes double their prices during big trade fairs. Sex workers note that business varies with the theme of the trade show: While the auto show is boom time, and the butchers’ convention is famously hungry, they complain that Frankfurt’s massive book fair is a bust.
Prostitution is big business here, and perfectly legal since 2002. German sex workers get health care just like any other workers, and pay taxes (on an estimated €14 billion of declared income each year). As I marveled the poignant sight of high-rise banks and office buildings towering above Frankfurt’s brothels, my guide said, “Prostitutes, who pay about €130 a day to rent their rooms, cover their rent by the end of the businessmen’s lunch break.”
A couple of blocks in front of Frankfurt’s train station, you’ll find a row of high-rise brothels, or “eros towers.” With all the businessmen coming into town, there’s no way to outlaw prostitution. So the city has decided to contain and control prostitution into what it calls a “tolerance area.” Within about a block of here are about 20 of these five-story brothels in original late-19th-century apartment flats — each filled with prostitutes. The sex workers, who are mostly from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Thailand (and only about 2 percent German), charge around €20. These women rent their rooms and essentially run their own little businesses. Crazy Sexy is biggest of these brothels, with 180 rooms (51 Elbestrasse). The first three floors are female sex workers, while transvestites occupy the fourth floor. (My guide said, “Gender reassignment surgery is expensive, and many of these people are saving up for their operation.”)
Walking the streets of Frankfurt, you may see a gang of junkies congregating at a government-funded heroin maintenance clinic (also known as a “Café Fix”). In the 1980s, Frankfurt was plagued by one of the largest open drug scenes in Europe. Its parks (and police) were overwhelmed with needle addicts. Then Frankfurt decided to get creative, take the crime out of the equation, and go for pragmatic harm reduction. In 1992, Frankfurt began offering “pump rooms” to its hard-drug users. The idea: provide a safe haven for addicts (mostly heroin, but also crack and methadone) to hygienically maintain their habit. Heroin addicts would still buy their stuff on the street, but inject here with clean needles, medical help standing by, and a place to stay if needed. It’s strictly not for first-time users, and no dealing or sharing of drugs is allowed. These centers provide a safe and caring place for addicts — who are considered not criminals, but sick people — to maintain their habit and get counseling and medical help. Two decades later, overdose deaths are down 75 percent, and there’s never been a death in a “drug consumption room.” Locals consider the program a success and are accustomed to seeing groups of junkies hanging out in front of these places. While unsightly, the compassionate “harm reduction” approach much of Europe uses to deal with this problem saves lives. Meanwhile, the USA continues to suffer double the heroin-related deaths as Europe (despite Europe’s much larger population).
Frankfurt, while low on Old World charm, offers a good look at today’s no-nonsense, modern Germany. Ever since the early Middle Ages when, as its name hints, Frankfurt was a good place to ford (-furt) the river, people have gathered here to trade. A pragmatic city, Frankfurt’s decisions are famously based on what’s good for business. Destroyed in WWII? Take it as an opportunity to rebuild better than ever for trade. And that’s what they did.
Cosmopolitan Frankfurt — nicknamed “Bankfurt” — is a leading business center and home to the European Central Bank. Though it’s often avoided by tourists (who consider it just a sterile transportation hub), Frankfurt’s modern energy, fueled in part by the entrepreneurial spirit of its immigrant communities, makes it a unique and entertaining city that’s well worth a look.
Finished in 2000, the Main Tower offers the best (and only public) viewpoint from the top of a Frankfurt skyscraper. For €6.50 (about $9), you can enjoy a 55-second, ear-popping elevator ride to the 54th floor, 650 feet above the city. Frankfurt is bursting with striking architecture. By German law, no worker should be kept out of natural light for more than four hours, so work environments are filled with light. And, as you can see, Germans like their skyscrapers with windows that open.
For a cheaper — but still grand — city view, nurse a drink on the rooftop of the Galeria Kaufhof department store. All over Europe, towering department stores offer great cafeteria lunches…with rooftop views for no extra charge.
Anywhere in Europe, the market halls come with great eateries, priced for local shoppers and serving the freshest of quality ingredients. And when the locals are lining up, you know something exciting is being served up — like the best sausage sandwiches around, here in Frankfurt’s wonderful Kleinmarkthalle. This delightful, old-school market was saved from developers by local outcry, and to this day it’s a neighborhood favorite. Browse and sample your way through the ground floor. It’s an adventure in fine eating and a photographer’s delight.
All over Europe, WWI and WWII war memorials are located prominently, for all to remember…except in Germany, where citizens walk a fine line of honoring lost loved ones without celebrating their cause. This memorial, tucked away in a Frankfurt park, is very easy to miss. While other countries honor those lost “for God and country,” German casualties are “victims of violence.” On one memorial reads, “Germany brought the war to the world, and the war came back to Germany.”
The memorial to Frankfurt’s Jewish community, which was devastated by the Holocaust, is at the site of the old Jewish ghetto, where the city’s main synagogue once stood. Commemorating 12,000 murdered Jews, it’s a powerful and evocative collection of images: Around the cemetery is the Wall of Names, with a tiny tombstone for each Frankfurt Jew deported and murdered. This gives each victim the dignity of being named (a data bank inside the adjacent museum keeps their memory alive with everything known about each person). The pebbles atop each tomb represent Jewish prayers. A paved section in front of this marks the footprint of the Börneplatz Synagogue, which was destroyed on November 9, 1938. While this night is often called Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”), recently historians have pointed out that real people were destroyed along with lots of glass, so the preferred name is now “Pogrom Night.” In the wake of WWII, American troops made Frankfurters memorialize each synagogue they destroyed with a plaque.
If you know me, you know I’m in a rut. I spend four months a year working in Europe: spring in the Mediterranean, go home for a short break in June, and then July and August north of the Alps. I’ve just enjoyed a short break back in Seattle. (I’ve heard it’s nice there in the summer.) Now I’m back in Europe and excited to be kicking off my summer travels. I’m also excited to be packing you along.
I’ll be blogging daily for the next 60 days following this itinerary: guidebook research in Germany (Frankfurt, Rhine, Würzburg, Nürnberg, Dresden), filming two new TV shows in the Netherlands (one in Amsterdam and one in the countryside), guidebook research in Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark), film TV shows in Berlin and Prague, and finally eight days in Poland.
On my first day in Germany I met people like this family, who are basing their trips on my guidebooks. These are the people I am working for. And seeing how much fun they’re having–and to think that I’m a small part of that travel joy–makes my work very gratifying. It stokes my battery.
I see we’re about to break 200,000 friends on my Facebook page. If you have any friends who like to travel, invite them to “like” me and join me for this next two months of European travel. I promise it’ll be a great trip.
For 30 years we’ve led our tours of Europe through “the season”–roughly April through October. And now, by popular demand from the many people who want cheaper airfares and the peace of off-season travel, we are ready to give “winterize” a whole new and happy meaning.
We’ve just launched our winter 2015 dates for 10 great itineraries. Why just 10? Not every destination is a good fit for February-March travel, but the ones we’ve chosen really transcend the seasons: Barcelona-Madrid, London, Paris, Rome, Venice-Florence-Rome, Heart of Italy, Sicily, Greece, Istanbul, and Turkey. For a smart traveler, when it comes to these exciting destinations, “winter” is a great idea.
Some of my warmest European memories have been in the off-season. We’d like to help you enjoy the same experiences this next February or March!