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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One of many great new museums in Kraków is the excellent Rynek Underground Museum. When the Main Market Square was renovated, they found so much of archaeological value that they opened a major museum right on the site. In this video clip, my guide explains that even though we’re 12 feet underground, this was the street level of medieval Kraków.

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

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I’m wrapping up my summer travels in Poland. And my first stop is Kraków.

Kraków is easily Poland’s best destination: a beautiful, old-fashioned city buzzing with history, enjoyable sights, tourists, and college students. Even though the country’s capital moved from here to Warsaw 400 years ago, Kraków remains Poland’s cultural and intellectual center. Of all of the Eastern European cities laying claim to the boast “the next Prague,” Kraków is for real.

Krakow-main-square-and-churchThe Old Town, within Krakow’s medieval walls, converges on one of the most charismatic squares in Europe: the Main Market Square.

 

Trendy-bohemian-chic-eateries-in-Kasimierz-KrakowKazimierz is the historic Jewish Quarter of Kraków. Once upon a time, the majority of all Jewish people lived in Poland. And Kraków was their cultural capital. While tourists come to see the historic synagogues and cemeteries of the Jewish Quarter during the day, throngs of young clubbers clog the Kazimierz streets after dark. The Kazimierz market square retains the gritty flavor of the town before tourism and gentrification. And countless bohemian-chic restaurants make Kazimierz a destination for dinner.

 

Vodka-tasting-5-samples-for-10-zloty-KrakowFor a vodka education in Kraków — complete with as much tasting as you’d like — drop by Staropolskie Trunki (“Old Polish Drinks,” right along the main drag at Florianska 20). It’s a friendly little place with a long bar and countless local vodkas and liquors — all open and ready to be tasted with a cheery local barista to talk you through the experience. You’ll get five different tastes for about $3, with a fun explanation that amounts to a private tour.

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Every time I decide to get out and see a great city after dark, I’m impressed by how different it is after hours. And Berlin is no exception.

After a long day of filming our new TV episode on Berlin, I decided to take my own audio tour — the newest self-guided tour on our free Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app. It’s fun to actually give these tours a whirl after we produce them. (The tour works great. But I took notes on the gaps where I needed to pause my iPhone. Now I’ll go home and edit the tour so that it can be done in real time, without pausing. If you have our app, remember to update the tours periodically so you don’t miss the fixes we make.)

Berlin is a city with a dark history and many memorials. In about an hour, you can visit 8 or 10 powerful memorials across the old center of Berlin. Experiencing them at night on this trip, I realized this is a great way to see the city.

I enjoyed standing before the Brandenburg Gate, gloriously floodlit and without all the commercial commotion that surrounds it throughout the day. I pondered the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe with only the security guard sharing the moment with me. And I stood over the spot where the Nazis ceremonially burned the booked that didn’t fit their ideology.

It was on this square (now called Bebelplatz) in 1933 that staff and students from the university threw 20,000 newly forbidden books (authored by Einstein, Hemmingway, Freud, and T.S. Elliot, among others) into a huge bonfire on the orders of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. In fact, Goebbels himself tossed books onto the fire, condemning writers to the flames. He declared, “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism has come to an end, and the German revolution has again opened the way for the true essence of being German.”

The “burning of the books memorial” on Bebelplatz is a glass pane in the cobbles with a room of shelves under the square. During the day, it’s full of glare and commotion, so the experience never quite works. But after dark, it’s quiet, and the empty shelves are hauntingly bare and beautifully lit. The contrast between that and the nighttime cityscape above is quite evocative. I’ve stood over this memorial many times in broad daylight and never really been moved. Finally, tonight, it grabbed me.

Get out at night and just be in a great city. Have you noticed that difference I’m clueing into in other great cities?

Brandenburg-GateThe historic Brandenburg Gate (1791) was the grandest — and is the last survivor — of 14 gates in Berlin’s old city wall. The gate was the symbol of Prussian Berlin, and later the symbol of a divided Berlin. Today, it’s once again the centerpiece of a great and united capital.

 

Jewish-Memorial-at-night-BerlinBeing alone with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe after dark, I thought perhaps this is the way the architect who designed it wanted it to be experienced.

 

Burning-books-memorial-at-night-BerlinStanding on Bebelplatz, you look down through a glass panel and see a room of empty bookshelves.

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Hiking around and around up the long ramp inside the glass dome of Germany’s striking Reichstag, I was heading for the summit. Along the way I enjoyed 360 degrees of Berlin. Here’s a little tour.

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Germany’s parliament building, or Reichstag, is a must-see attraction in Berlin. With its motto, “To the German People,” it’s the symbolic heart of German democracy.

The Reichstag has a short yet dramatic history. When inaugurated in the 1890s, the new parliament building was dismissed by the emperor as a “chatting house for monkeys.” But at the end of World War I, the German Republic was proclaimed from here. Then, in 1933, a mysterious fire gutted the building, giving Chancellor Hitler a convenient opportunity to blame the communists for the blaze in order to consolidate his hold on power. As World War II drew to a close, the Nazis made their last stand here. Imagine: Desperate Germans fighting Russians on its rooftop. After 1945, the bombed-out building stood like a ghost through the Cold War. Then, with reunification, the parliament moved back to Berlin. This historic ruin was rebuilt with a modern element: a striking glass dome.

A walkway winds all the way to the top of that dome. A cone of mirrors reflects natural light into the legislative chamber far below. As you spiral up, survey the city. The views are marvelous.

But for Germans, mindful of their dark 20th-century history, the view that matters most is inward, looking down, literally over the shoulders of their legislators. The architecture comes with a poignant message: The people are determined keep a wary eye on their government.

We got great footage of the Reichstag, and this is one of the dimensions of the new Berlin that I’m thrilled to include in our new TV show on Berlin — the fastest-changing city in Europe. Stay tuned, as we have a dozen new shows coming to your public television station starting in about a month.

Exterior-of-dome-and-ReichstagOne of the great sights in Berlin is its history-stained Reichstag building, capped by an inspirational glass dome.

 

Inside-the-glass-Reichstag-domeTourists are welcome to marvel at the inside of the Reichstag dome.

 

Reichstag-dome-posterI’ve long marveled at the notion of German citizens keeping a symbolic eye on their government by climbing the dome and literally looking down over the shoulders of their legislators at work. This poster, which I photographed on my way out of the building, gave me the view I wished we had for our TV cameras.

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Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof — the city’s huge and thundering main train station — is one of Europe’s mightiest, with several levels of tracks serving over a thousand trains a day and a vast shopping mall of commercial activity. While a massive public expense, Germans consider infrastructure like this a good investment for both business and for everyday people. Just being here, for a train enthusiast like me, gets me all giddy. What train stations do that for you?

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For the first time ever, I’ve come to Berlin and didn’t even venture into former West Berlin. The energy is in the eastern part of the city…and the best evening and eating scene is in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood.

“Der Berg,” as Berliners call it, was largely untouched during World War II, but its buildings — giant Industrial Age workers’ flats — slowly rotted away under the communists. Then, after The Wall fell, it was overrun first by artists and anarchists, and then by laid-back hipsters, energetic young families, and clever entrepreneurs who breathed life back into its classic old apartment blocks, deserted factories, and long-forgotten breweries.

Years of rent control kept things affordable for its bohemian residents. But now landlords are free to charge what the market will bear, and the vibe is changing. This is ground zero for Berlin’s baby boom: Tattooed and pierced young moms and dads, who’ve joined the modern rat race without giving up their alternative flair, push their youngsters in designer strollers past trendy boutiques and restaurants. Most visitors find themselves eating and sleeping in this part of the city…and for good reason.

Here’s a little clip capturing today’s energy in Prenzlauer Berg.

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One of my favorite new sights in Berlin is the Mauerpark, or “Wall Park.” While most of the Berlin Wall was torn down decades ago, this large stretch has been preserved as a memorial to the victims of the Cold War.

Here’s a little video clip that shows vividly how freedom is dancing on the remains of a horrible wall. The Wall is now a canvas for spray-painters, and what was the “death strip” now hosts the world’s biggest karaoke party. Amazing.

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Spending six days in Berlin shooting our new TV show on the city, we found ourselves most impressed by the energy of what was East Berlin. Areas that were, just a decade ago, squatter neighborhoods with ruin pubs have become gentrified. Now, while still a bit edgy, these areas are much more welcoming.

A remarkable thing about Berlin is that it’s actually cheap. It must be the most affordable capital city in Europe. Eating out is inexpensive and an absolute joy. But don’t be fixated on “German” cuisine. The most authentic local cuisine in Berlin is ethnic: Asian, Lebanese, Italian, and Moroccan.

And what’s most remarkable about Berlin is how it’s gone from a home base of aggression to the capital of chill. Otto van Bismarck was the ruler of Prussia as that German state spearheaded German unification in the 1860s. The popular joke was, “Most countries have an army, but in Prussia, the army has a country.” But today, the military trappings of Prussia are well incorporated into the mellow and pacifistic approach to life that characterizes Berlin.

I know that the gloomy news these days — with crises in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and Ferguson, not to mention Ebola — can make it feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I’d challenge people to remember there have always been atrocities and horrors like these — but there has not always been 24/7 news with an agenda that mixes entertainment and politics to boost ratings. Without minimizing the seriousness of our world’s trouble points, we need to remember that crises come and go while 90 percent of our world is generally stable and at peace. (Ironically, the issues that affect a far higher proportion of the world’s population — such as climate change and the extreme gap between rich and poor — don’t make headlines, and consequently don’t hit us like ice buckets of awareness.)

My sightseeing in Europe this season seems to revolve around the theme of nations grappling with a heritage of war. But today, Europe is as stable, free, and peaceful as it’s ever been. In fact, so is most of our world. For that I’m thankful.

Or am I missing something?

Ampelmenchen-park-lounge-chairs-riverside-bars-party-vibe-BerlinBerlin turned its back on the Spree River bank during the last generation. No one went there because much of it was a militarized “death strip” — part of The Wall that separated people on the East and West. But today the river is a people-friendly park lined with impromptu cafés. You grab a lounge chair from the stack, set it where you like, and enjoy your drink. The theme at this café: the Ampelmännchen, that jaunty “traffic-light man” that fills even avowed capitalists with a tinge of nostalgia for the communist era. You’ll know you’re in the former East Berlin because these DDR pedestrian-crossing lights have been — by popular demand — preserved.

 

Bohemian-Chic-restaurant-in-eastern-Berlin-Clarish-BallroomWhat was dreary and run-down East Berlin is now clearly the happening zone. Bohemian-chic restaurants are thriving, and the café and restaurant scene is ever-changing — very tough to nail down in a guidebook. My best advice: Wander around Prenzlauer Berg (using Kastanianallee as your spine) and see what appeals. One thing’s for sure: Berlin is cheap. You’ll eat well for around €10.

 

Karoake-in-The-Wall-Park-BerlinStanding on a ridge next to a fragment of the Berlin Wall while overlooking the former “death strip,” I surveyed what’s called “The Wall Park.” It was Sunday, the park was packed, and what must be the world’s biggest karaoke stage was the fun-loving main event.

 

Otto-von-BismarckOtto von Bismarck was the political genius of the 19th century and the mastermind behind the unification of Germany — against the wills of the existing powers of the day. Traveling in Berlin, you can learn a lot about the emergence of a united Germany onto the European stage in 1870, and how that led to turmoil in the next century.

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My friend and fellow tour guide, Honza Vihan, has been part of our tour program and the co-author of our Rick Steves’ Prague guidebook for well over a decade. Honza is brilliant (he’s a scholar at the local university), and I’m proud to have him working with our tour groups in Eastern Europe and in his hometown of Prague. Honza was our local expert and fixer for our latest TV production in Prague. He arranged for all the permissions and was great to have as my sidekick on camera.

 

Honza-Rick-Steves-and-Czech-soulArt Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha is the scribe of the Czech soul, and his magnum opus is a series of 20 huge canvases called the Slav Epic — now beautifully displayed in Prague’s museum of modern art. Inspired by this mystical work, Honza and I got caught up in the struggles and the ultimate triumph of the Czech nation.

 

RThe Czechs love their beer, their food, and their convivial beer halls. Here, Honza contemplates mixing huge doses of all three. With Honza’s help as we filmed our Prague TV show, we learned how the standard in a pub here is that they keep bringing the beer until you say definitively “Stop!” And, for many, Czech beer is the best in Europe.

 

Honza-as-Jim-MorrisonOne day as we were filming in Prague, it occurred to me that I was working with a guy who looked very much like an iconic American rock star. I asked Honza to pose and then showed him the album cover. Now I wish I’d asked him to take his shirt off. Do you see the resemblance?

 

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