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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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.

Frankfurt-dirty-old-man
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.

Frankfurt-brothel-and-bank
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.”

Frankfurt-brothel
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.”)

Frankfurt-cafe-fix
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).

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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.

Frankfurt-from-skyscraper

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.

Frankfurt-from-department-store

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.

line-at-good-market-in-Frankfurt

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.

frankfurt-wwi-and-wwii-memorial

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.”

Holocaust-Frankfurt

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.

 

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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.

family in car

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.

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winter-tours-image

 

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!

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Thanks for all your thoughtful replies to the video clip about the cobbler in Orvieto and the plight of artisans in our modern world. The video was produced by Steven Brenner, and receiving it from him reminded me of a different, yet equally creative, effort from Steve.

This little clip shows how my evil twin tried to get away with putting Parmesan cheese on spaghetti with clams. Fortunately, he was scuttled by three little members of Rome’s heroic food police.

Watch more of the Food Police’s adventures at foodpolice.it and learn more about the producers at cross-pollinate.com and orvietoorbust.com.

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Recently I was visiting with the last man in Rothenburg, Germany, to make etchings in the style of Albrecht Dürer. He’s in failing health and in about a year, his 3,000 lovingly etched copper plates will be retired and parked in some obscure museum’s basement. Friends in little towns on the Rhine are lamenting how the younger generation is not following in the footsteps of their family businesses and, as they flee to the energy of the big cities, their parents’ businesses just fade away. The artists who craft handmade guitars in Madrid, the family winemakers of Burgundy, the fisherman who sells his shrimp on the Oslo harborfront–these have all been fixtures of Europe for me in a lifetime of travels. What will become of all these rich facets of local culture when the younger generation opts out? Of course, I can’t blame the children of the artisans for jumping into the modern rat race any more than I’m guilty for not being an old-school piano technician like my dad. But it is worth considering how the future will look when economic scale and efficiency trumps artisan values.

My friend, Steven Brenner (who runs Cross-Pollinate, with some of my favorite budget beds in Rome and beyond) produced a little video that eloquently says what I’ve been thinking lately about artisans in Europe. Check out this short video featuring a young cobbler in Orvieto, Italy, who, in the simple words of a traditional, small-town artisan, captures perfectly an art form we are all losing.

What are your favorite experiences that celebrate the artisan way of life in Europe?

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When covering Europe, I enjoy raising awareness of public transportation routes that fit the needs of travelers. In Amsterdam there’s a sightseeing spine right through the city center that goes past the Rijksmuseum and this “I amsterdam” sign. Conveniently, this spine is a tram corridor: Trams #1, #2, and #5 come by every two minutes. Taking advantage of this route empowers any visitor. Here’s a new sidebar I wrote for the next edition of our Rick Steves Amsterdam guidebook about this transit spine:

 

Amsterdam’s Spine by Tram

Tram #1, #2, or #5 from Central Station to Leidseplein (and Museums)

Amsterdam becomes much easier to get your brain around when you master the tram #1, #2, and #5 corridor. As if made for the sightseer, this main tram thoroughfare makes connecting the main train station, the Jordaan neighborhood, my recommended hotels, and the museum zone amazingly easy. The entire ride takes about 20 minutes, with trams zipping by about every two minutes. Use this route for an overview and to lace together major sightseeing spots in the city. At any point you can simply hop off, cross the street, and catch a tram heading back exactly where you came from. A single €2.80 ticket is good for an hour–or you can get the all day or multi-day passes (all sold on the tram). Starting at Amsterdam’s Central Station, here are the stops (and what you need to know about each):

 

Centraal Station

This is the first and last stop. All #1, #2, and #5 trams starting here are heading in the correct direction. Nearby: The free ferry across the IJ, the starting point for the Rick Steves Audio Europe Amsterdam City Walking Tour, a transportation hub (airport shuttle, bus station, trains, many other trams, subway), bike rentals, the Red Light District, and the start of Damrak (the city’s main drag).

 

Martelaarsgracht

Notice how the street is wide: Wide streets are generally former canals filled in. (Hint: “gracht” means canal.) Nearby: The Haarlemmerstraat shopping district.

 

Nieuwezijds Kolk

(nothing of interest nearby)

 

Dam

You’ll roll by the back side of the towering New Church and Royal Palace on the left. Nearby: Dam Square, Anne Frank House, and the starting point for two Rick Steves Audio Europe tours: Jordaan and Red Light District.

 

Spui

Pronounced “shpou” (rhymes with cow)–which meant “spew”–this square is where water was once pushed away over a dike. Nearby: Amsterdam History Museum, Begijnhof, University District, bookstores, and the Nine Streets (elegant shopping zone).

 

Koningsplein

From Spui, the tram turns right. Over the next few stops it crosses four canals: Singel, Heren, Keizers, and Prinsen. Remember the memory aid: “A Single Hairy Kaiser’s Prince really knows his canals.” Nearby: Mint Tower and the flower market.

 

Keizersgracht

Here the street fills with people and gets so narrow that trams share one set of rails, and bikers are required to walk their bikes. Nearby: The vibrant shopping district of modern Amsterdam.

 

Prinsengracht

You’ll roll past more shops and more pedestrians.

 

Leidseplein

This is the tourists’ nightlife center with the famous Bulldog Café and Coffeeshop (a former police station that now sells pot). You’ll find venerable, edgy nightclubs and concert venues like the Melkweg and Paradiso, plus the city theater (Stadsschouwburg). From here, trams #2 and #5 leave the old town, cross the outermost canal, pass an entry to Vondelpark, and head for the Rijksmuseum. (If you’re on tram #1, hop out at Leidseplein.)

 

Rijksmuseum (tram #2 and #5 only)

This is the start of the museum zone with a popular park (with a pond and much photographed “I amsterdam” sign) and several great museums. Nearby: Rijksmuseum, House of Bols Cocktail & Genever Experience, and Costers Diamonds (diamond cutting and polishing).

 

Van Baerlestraat (tram #2 and #5 only)

Jump out here for the Van Gogh Museum or the Stedelijk Museum.

 

Jacob Obrechtstraat (tram #2 only)

Here you leave the commotion of the city–and its tourists–and are in a district of high-end apartments. The inviting Café Gruter faces the tram stop. Nearby: The entry to Vondelpark (with the recommended Blue Tea House).

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Traveling around the Netherlands, I found a number of delightful towns with historic centers that evoke the days of Henry Hudson. Delft, Haarlem, Leiden, and Hoorn were my favorites. The vast majority of visitors to the Netherlands see only Amsterdam. While these other towns are all variations on the same theme, the small historic Dutch cities outside of Amsterdam are important to consider–and all are well within an hour by train.

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Hoorn has a salty allure, even though the salt is gone now that the Zuiderzee has been dammed and turned into a big freshwater lake. Still, Hoorn’s harbor evokes a time when Dutch vessels dominated much of the seagoing economy.

 

dutch-golden-age-fashion-ruff

The Dutch Golden Age, the 16th and 17th centuries, was a time when people went to apparently ridiculous lengths to show off their wealth. What was a simple collar became not just a ruff, but a super-duper ruff. This woman’s husband must have been a very successful merchant.

 

dutch-masters-painting

Seeing these Dutch masters plotting with their globe and their greedy aspirations, I found myself singing, “We are the world…”

 

police-taking-jet-skis

The Dutch enjoy getting drunk on their vacation boats. And just as you can’t drink and drive a car, in the Netherlands you can’t drink and sail a boat. The Dutch police enjoy zooming in on their police jet skis to crash the party. I’m sure just the presence of this trailer with a pair of these zippy machines served as a sobering reminder to yachters enjoying a break in the Hoorn harbor.

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An entire province of the Netherlands is built upon land reclaimed over the last few generations. Driving through Flevoland with my Dutch guide, it was fun to hear him joke about how these planned communities created an almost Stepford Wives-style contentment, a community designed to make Dutch suburban dreams come true–in his opinion, at the expense of their free spirit.

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

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Climate change is here. Its effects are happening. The Dutch–famously smart, famously frugal, and famously below sea level–are spending billions of euros shoring up their dikes and preparing for a rising sea. We in the rich world can gear up for it. But the worst effects–and the first people to feel the impact–are in the tropics. These are the poorest people…the half of humanity trying to live on $2 a day…the hungry billion trying to live on $1 a day. Helping them in the face of global warming is not a matter of sympathy; it’s a matter of justice. I believe anyone who denies that the climate is changing on this planet–and that it will have a devastating impact–is either ignorant or evil. I know evil is a strong word. But there are powerful and wealthy people who know in their hearts that climate change will wreak havoc on poor and hungry people…people they’ll never have to face in person. They know that human economic and industrial activities are contributing to climate change. And they are embracing lies about it–and discrediting caring people who are telling the truth about it–because of their own financial interest. These people are part of an evil on this planet in the 21st century that (if measured in the amount of human misery caused by their actions) may surpass even the most evil forces of the 20th century.

 

dike-village-netherlandsIn Europe, Dutch territory is both the most densely populated and the most below sea level. For centuries the Dutch have battled the sea. In anticipation of rising sea levels and more violent weather patterns, they are assessing their battlements and investing heavily in their own future dryness.

 

dike-pumper-netherlandsHuge boats are moving sand from far out at sea into shorelines to bolster the already massive dikes that enable the Dutch to sleep soundly (and dryly) at night.

 

dike-bike-netherlandsTraveling through the Netherlands, you can easily hike or bike along the dike. I’ll be filming soon at this location (on the coast an hour north of Amsterdam). Do you have any favorite sights I might want to film that show the mighty Dutch system of dikes?

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