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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In Victorian times, massive faux-castles were being built all over Britain by ridiculously rich nobles and aristocrats. Visiting Arundel Castle (just outside of Brighton, on England’s south coast), it occurred to me that many of our favorite castles are built on historic locations, but are mostly the 19th-century palaces of England’s “one percent.” And today, given the crippling taxes on both income and inheritances, many of these over-the-top properties can be maintained only by becoming part of the National Trust and charging a hefty entrance fee (around $25) for people to wander through their lavish private apartments.
This is Cardiff Castle’s original motte-and-bailey (keep on a mound). Arundel has the same kind of historic core. In both cases, the 11th-century original fort is almost like a garden ornament for a much bigger and more fanciful 19th-century Neo-Gothic palace.
One of my favorite noble manor houses to visit is Stanway House, in the Cotswolds. Like so many other rural mansions, it’s open to the public to help pay the bills. I’ve become friends with the lord here. For a decade I knew him as Lord Neidpath. Then he inherited a different title, and now he’s the Earl of Wemyss. (I never know exactly what to call him.) He’s fascinating to chat with; he always has creative projects in the works and cares deeply (in a nobleman’s way) for England.
About 15 years ago, I filmed the Earl of Wemyss on a shoot in the Cotswolds, and he ended up having a pretty big part in one of our shows. He had never seen the show. But now, each and every one of my more than 100 TV shows is available to view, free and in its entirety, on my website. You can watch them any time, any place…even in a decaying old manor house deep in England’s Cotswolds. So I had the joy of showing the Earl of Wemyss his charming performance, that you can watch here.
If an English girl’s soldier was coming home from World War I and she wanted to get her hair curled, she’d head on down to “Curl Up & Dye” — the Brits love to name their shops with goofy puns — and climb into this contraption (which I saw in a museum in Chepstow, in the Cotswolds).
Stumbling upon evocative and offbeat corners of Europe as a teenaged vagabond, I realized my niche in life: discovering, and then sharing, the best of Europe. And now, 40 years later, it’s fun to go back and revisit to some of these early oh-wow travel moments. It’s thought-provoking to consider how places — and I — both change and stay the same. Here, on a blustery rock just off the coast of Cornwall, is Tintagel Castle, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. I’ve changed a lot more than the door and the view…but I still get the same charge out of the breathtaking setting.
The British comedy series Doc Martin is a huge hit with PBS viewers. Being in Cornwall, I had to drop by the rugged little fishing port where it’s filmed.
The village of Portwenn in Doc Martin is played by the real-life town of Port Isaac. Strolling its scenic harbor, I remembered the fun I had interviewing the charming and engaging Martin Clunes (who plays Doc Martin) for my public radio show, Travel with Rick Steves.
While Port Isaac is portrayed on the show as a quiet time warp, in reality it’s chockablock with Doc Martin fans. And part of their pilgrimage is to hike up the far side of the village to this building, Doc Martin’s cottage.
You don’t need to go to Port Isaac to enjoy the charm of Portwenn and Doc Martin. It’s commonplace in Cornwall. Just looking out the window at this mesmerizing back-alley view from my B&B in Penzance, I had my own Portwenn…and it was plenty real.
These days, the stereotype of “bad food in Britain” is woefully dated. Britain has been on the leading edge of the foodie revolution, and I find it’s easy to eat very well here. Here are some examples of the foods I’ve enjoyed in my British travels.
One of the joys of traveling in Britain is enjoying breakfast at each B&B. Your hosts pride themselves on having a long list of classic “English fry-up breakfast” elements for their guests to check off: fried toast, blood sausage, porridge, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, grapefruit sections, Weetabix, and so on.
For me, one breakfast-time frustration is cold and crunchy toast with butter that’s not melted, but scraped across the top. The toast (“white or granary?” is the cheery question you get each morning) comes in a rack designed so it gets cold long before it meets your butter.
Pub grub is fun, but after the heavy breakfasts and lots of meat pies and fish-and-chips, finding a restaurant that raises the gastronomic bar is a welcome change. And these days, even the simplest town has a little foodie place where you can get well-presented “mains” featuring local and seasonal produce. This delightful plate of Cornish cheese and local fish was good enough to earn this just-opened restaurant a place in the new edition of my guidebook.
One of England’s most famous celebrity chefs is Rick Stein. His base is the Cornish fishing port of Padstow, where he runs a cooking school and a variety of Rick Stein restaurants. His flagship restaurant in Padstow is named, simply, Seafood Restaurant. I took time for a drawn-out, three-course lunch here…and loved it. I needed to give this Rick Stein a serious taste, because for the last several years in England, when I mention my book, people say “Oh, Rick Stein…he’s very good.” Now I better understand who people are confusing me with…and I’m OK with it.
It’s fun to be on the road grabbing photos to illustrate points I make in my lectures. For example: “In the market, characteristic little cafés that cater to local shoppers provide both a great value and a charming memory.”
We are really pumping up our Great Britain guidebook coverage for 2016. As a matter of fact, while I’m enjoying research in the far south of England, Cameron Hewitt, co-author of many Rick Steves guidebooks, is working on our upcoming Scotland book.
Here’s an example of the great lengths we’re going to in order to get these guidebooks just right for your next trip: Just as I was enjoying Land’s End, Britain’s southernmost point, Cameron was exactly 874 miles to the north — at the island’s opposite extreme, John O’Groats.
While putting together our new Scotland book, Cameron is reporting on his travels with an engaging blog in our Travelers Café. He’d love to have you travel vicariously with him. In his latest post, Cameron describes the Highland games he attended on a soggy day in a Scottish village: “Taynuilt may have picked the wrong date for its annual celebration of Highland culture. Bone-chilling gusts of North Atlantic air swirl mist across the vibrant-green playing field… But then a delightful scene unfolds: Rural Scotland is putting on their show, rain or shine. Everyone’s wearing their Wellies (rain boots). A traditionally clad family piles out of their minivan, and dad helps his young sons adjust their kilts. And then bagpipes begin droning from every corner of the field: The piper band is tuning up.”
And there’s more travel fun in our Travelers Café: Skyla Sorensen lets us stow away with her and her friend Gabby on their teenage train adventures through Europe. While in Kraków, Skyla recounts their sobering visit to the Oskar Schindler Factory Museum, where a Nazi became the unlikely savior of his Jewish factory workers during World War II.
And Jackie and Andy Steves, wrapping up their Southeast Asia adventure, share the wonders of Thailand by blog and video.
Cornwall can be mobbed with tourists — mostly English families with their dogs and ice cream cones visiting all the predictable corners. St. Ives, Port Isaac, and Mousehole are quaint, Tintagel is the place to stick a sword in the stone, and Land’s End is a must-do photo stop. But there are plenty of ways to have the real wonders of Cornwall all to yourself. Here are three:
Cornwall is many-faceted in its charms. And it claims to have more prehistoric megaliths than any other region of England. Finding a remnant of lost civilizations that is older than the oldest Egyptian pyramid makes you want to just sit there in silence for a while and marvel.
The best way to find and experience the wonder of this corner of England is on the South West Coast Path. Within a few minutes of any car park, it’s just you and nature.
The “Connoisseur’s Land’s End” is Cape Cornwall, just past the mining town of St. Just (a few miles north of the Land’s End tourist trap). OK, so it’s a smidge short of the southwesternmost tip, but it feels like the end of the world. From a small car park, where the only place to spend money is at a blustery little tea and ice cream stand, you hike past a ruined sixth-century church and conquer this little bluff to enjoy a magic moment…just you and the gulls and Cornish Atlantic vastness.
I’ve been traveling for nearly a week in southwest England and have not seen an American. There are plenty of tourists — Europeans and Brits — but not a Yank in sight. This is Cornwall, where the last native speaker of the Cornish language probably died in the late 1700s. But there still is local pride. The welcome sign on the motorway at the county border is in that old Celtic language people used to speak around here, as well as English. And, locals claim, had the Scots said yes to their recent referendum for independence, there would have been rumbling for greater autonomy here in this proud corner of Britain. Here are six photos that, for me, capture highlights of Cornwall.
The cute little fishing port of Mousehole is actually named for the tiny, mouse hole-like entry into its tough little harbor. The village was crushed by Spanish cannon balls in 1595 and rebuilt in the 17th century. There’s an 8-meter tide here and the boats lie beached in the harbor at each low tide.
The arrival of the train made this distant part of England accessible to Victorian holiday-goers in the 19th century. I love noting the little niceties built for the Victorian aristocrats — like this rock pool. Each day the tide strands a world of fun little creatures for visitors to discover.
The dramatically situated Minack Theater is the labor of love of Rowena Cade (1893-1983), who dedicated her life to carving out this amazing place. Every night during theater season about 700 people enjoy live drama with a vast sea-view backdrop.
I enjoyed the expert guiding of Tim Uff during a busy day of touring the Penwith Peninsula. For lunch, Tim grabbed us a Cornish pasty and bottles of local elderflower presse to enjoy as we watched birds and dolphins from our Minack Theatre perch. Seeing gannets dive for lunch, Tim explained that they hit the water at about 60 mph. When baby gannets try this too soon, they’re often found washed up on shore with broken necks.
Mont St-Michel in France has a little brother — directly across the English Channel. It’s St. Michael’s Mount here in Cornwall. Inhabited for about 1,500 years and originally a Benedictine monastery, today it’s a fun excursion for Cornwall tourists.
One of the most touristy places in all of Britain is at its far southwest tip, cleverly called Land’s End. Every tour bus stops here so people can pay £10 to line up to have their photo taken at the famous milepost. Tacky as this place is, there’s something exciting about being at the “land’s end” of anything. (Tomorrow, I’ll get you away from the crowds.)
Pilchards are big, oily sardines. Their oil once lit the lamps of Victorian London. And, packs of salted pilchards kept the people of Cornwall alive through harsh winters in an age when putting food on the table to simply survive was a challenge. Here’s a peek at a secret harbor my guide, Tim Uff, shared with me. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s Penberth Cove (just a mile from the famous theater in the rock, Minack Theatre). It’s a rugged bit of Cornwall (sorry about the wind noise in this clip). From here you can imagine a hilltop watchman spotting a school of pilchards (“where the water turned purple”) and blowing his trumpet. All the fishermen would jump into their boats and charge out to encircle the fish with their nets. A good catch would have fisherwomen trudging from village to village with bushels of salted pilchards for sale on their backs, and the people of Cornwall would be kept in protein through the winter.
An icon of Cornwall — rightly nicknamed “The Garden of England” — is its fearsome hedgerows. For a thousand years, the hardy Cornish people have been picking the rocks off their rugged fields and stacking them along their lanes. Consisting of a stone framework filled in with earth and made vibrant with a tangle of vegetation, hedgerows also function as wildlife corridors. And, if you rip them out (as developers might be inclined to do), you get erosion. These hedgerows are part of the ancient fabric of Cornwall, where man and Mother Nature are dance partners (and man understands who is best qualified to lead).
I’m thankful I have a good local guide. Tim Uff expertly motored me through the wonders of the Penwith Peninsula here on the “land’s end” of southwest England. An expert guide with a car costs about £200 ($300, www.tourcornwall.com). For a group of four, that’s a great value. For a hardworking guidebook writer, having the help of a guide like Tim is a godsend!
While updating my Rick Steves England guidebook, I’ve endured some pretty dreary weather. So dropping into the Eden Project in Cornwall was a delightful chance to enjoy the tropics in England, and to explore the biggest rain forest in captivity. Here’s the description from the guidebook:
Set in an abandoned china clay pit, the Eden Project is an ambitious and futuristic work-in-progress – a theme park of global gardening with an environmental conscience. Exotic plants from all over the world are showcased in two giant biomes, reputedly the largest greenhouses in the world. The displays focus on sustainable farming and eco-conscious planting. If you’re looking for a quaint English cottage garden, this isn’t it. Rather than a flowery look at England’s past, this “global garden” gives you a sense of how the shrinking world will affect us in the future (www.edenproject.com). I haven’t experienced anything quite like this in my travels. Have you?