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’m between trips, back in the office for a few days, heading into my studio next week to record an exciting batch of new radio interviews. We’re cooking up about 10 hours of great talk radio, and I’d love to have you join me on air! Please have a look at our recording lineup and sign up to be part of the conversation.

Interview topics, with well-traveled authors and experts, range from Vietnam and North Korea to London, Provence, and Nicaragua. I’ll be talking about the wonders of America’s national parks with author Terry Tempest Williams, hearing about contemporary Australia with actress Marta Dusseldorp, and learning the unwritten rules of conversing in French. Also, my son Andy (who’s just published his first guidebook) will be sharing tips for fun weekend getaways across Europe.

You’ll hear these interviews in the next few months on “Travel with Rick Steves” on public radio and on my weekly podcast. If you’ve never called in, it’s easy and fun (and if you get on the air we send you a free Rick Steves guidebook of your choice as a thanks).

And if you want to eavesdrop on the live recording sessions, listen as they happen June 13-17.

 

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The Roma are a part of Romania’s image that the tourist board wishes would go away. (The term “Gypsies,” which used to be the common name for this ethnic group, is now considered both derogatory and inaccurate.) But they are a reality in Romania, and we wanted to include a bit about them in our show. Of course, there can be a bad element in the Roma community (some are known for petty thievery), just as there can be bad elements in any community. But there’s a positive side too: hardworking Roma families and communities hoping to assimilate into general Romanian society.

I have a particular interest in the plight of nomadic people (whether Kurd, Eskimo, American Indian, or Roma) whose cultures are built on the nomadic lifestyle and whose very existence as a culture is threatened by being forced to stay in one place — and put their children through local schools. Nomads just don’t fit in the “private property reality” of the last few centuries, and struggling to conform to these unnatural norms — across nomadic cultures — is fraught with challenges and problems.

Rather than show glitzy, so-called “Gypsy palaces” and reinforce negative stereotypes, we worked to be both honest and positive. It really helped to meet and talk with local Roma. Writing the script was delicate. Here’s what we said:

A fun part of travel in Romania is to gain an appreciation for the diversity of the 20 million people who make up this country. Along with ethnic Romanians — who’ve been here since ancient times — there are minorities: Germans, Hungarians, and the Roma.

The Roma originated in India. They were nomads who migrated over the centuries throughout Eastern Europe, where they gained a reputation as entertainers and metalworkers — and sometimes, unfortunately, as petty thieves.

Romania has Europe’s largest Roma population. They’ve had to abandon their nomadic ways and face the challenge of settling down. The classic Roma image is of poor people in shantytowns. But here in Romania, most Roma live side-by-side with their neighbors — often poor, but more or less fitting into mainstream society.

Many Roma carry on the traditional craft of metalworking, and we’ve been invited in to learn more.

At this point we connected with metalworker Emile, his father (Emile), and his son (Emile).


This is Day 59 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 Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Romania, and beyond. Find more at blog.ricksteves.com.

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From time to time, we share a random video to fuel your travel dreams. Today, we’re sharing this clip from my TV episode about the Netherlands. Join me as I check out the scene at the Aalsmeer flower auction. Every day from this building, 20 million flowers are shipped, destined to make someone’s day.

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One of the most memorable sights in Romania is the Merry (as in “joyful”) Cemetery. I’ve enjoyed a variety of graveyards throughout Europe. But this one, in Maramureș, is really a one of a kind. Here’s how we described it in our script:

Just up the road is the Merry — as in joyful — Cemetery. In 1935, a local woodcarver — inspired by a long-forgotten tradition — began filling this cemetery with a forest of vivid memorials. Each one comes with a whimsical poem and a painting of the departed doing something he or she loved.

Even if you can’t read the poems, the images speak volumes: weaver … loved bikes … television repairman … soldier … hit by a car … struck by lightning … nagging mother-in-law.

It’s a poignant celebration of each individual’s life, a chronicle of village history, and an irreverent raspberry in the face of death. And it’s all painted a cheery blue to match the heavens where the souls are headed.


This is Day 58 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 Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Romania, and beyond. Find more at blog.ricksteves.com.

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Romania is full of surprises and wonderful people. And when you cross into Maramureş, the area in the north (just over the river from Ukraine), it gets even better. In this region, the traditional culture survives vividly. And Gheorghe the miller — who’s breaking in a new hat — seems to be a big fan of tradition. He grinds corn, mashes felt, cuts lumber, and even distills his own horinca — the local firewater made from plums. In this clip, he lets us poke around his churning water mill.

(Both in Bulgaria and in Romania, meeting people often came with a welcoming glass of the local brandy. The horinca was good but too strong for me. I found the Bulgarian rakia easier to swallow and really fine at making any gathering become a party.)


This is Day 57 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 Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Romania, and beyond. Find more at blog.ricksteves.com.

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The “fortified churches of Transylvania” were built by Romania’s German minority. They are just one of many fascinating dimensions of exploring this country. Here’s how we explained them in our TV script:

Some of Romania’s most memorable fortresses aren’t castles at all — they’re actually churches. While big towns were well-protected, smaller German villages were vulnerable to invaders. So what did the industrious German settlers do? They fortified their churches.

Dozens of fortified German churches — mostly built in the 13th and 14th centuries — are scattered across Transylvania. Like medieval fortresses, they have beefy bastions, stout lookout towers, and narrow slits for archers.

Entire communities could take refuge inside — within these wraparound defensive galleries. This church had a room for each family and, when under attack, each family had a defensive responsibility.

Stepping inside these churches feels like stepping into medieval Germany. Decoration is humble, pews are simple benches, Bible quotes are in German, and, to this day, the services are Lutheran.

Today most of Romania’s ethnic Germans are gone — having emigrated in the late 19th century or fled to Germany after WWII. Those who remain speak a time-capsule version of German and work hard to keep their unique cultural heritage alive.

By the way, our scripts are part “voice over (VO)” — me reading the script while we show interesting things — and part “on camera (OC)” — when I talk directly to the camera. The VO stuff is what’s obvious to “cover” with our camera, and the OC bits are material that is more difficult to cover. All but one of these paragraphs are easy to cover — and therefore VO. I bet you can tell which one we did OC.


This is Day 56 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 Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Romania, and beyond. Find more at blog.ricksteves.com.

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We’re having an amazing time, filming “The Best of Romania” for a new TV show (which will air with our new series on public television this fall). In this video clip, step with me into the biggest building in Europe — the gargantuan palace of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Our job today: to take the script (below) and cover it with beautiful images or me doing “on cameras” where it’s difficult to “cover.”

 

We said this about the palace in our script:

Thriving as it is today, Bucharest’s Old Town was lucky to survive the communist period. Most of the historical center was wiped out by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu so he could build a grandiose new town perfect for a megalomaniac.

From uneducated peasant roots, Ceaușescu rose through the communist ranks to take power in 1965. During his 24 years in power, Ceaușescu’s ego ballooned. Later, in the dark days of the 1980s, he became addicted to massive projects without budgets, creating a cult of personality inspired by the nearly deified dictators of Communist China and North Korea.

In six frenzied years in the 1980s, after an “inspiring” visit to North Korea, he ordered the city to rip out 80 percent of Bucharest’s historical center — that’s tens of thousands of houses, schools, and churches. In its place, Ceaușescu created his enormous new Civic Center — with wide boulevards, miles of fountains, stone-faced apartment blocks, and a Pyongyang aesthetic.

The culmination of Ceaușescu’s master plan was a palace fit for a megalomaniac. At around four million square feet, and with more than a thousand rooms, the Palace of the Parliament is the largest building in Europe.

Ceaușescu, throwing resources at his pet project like a crazed pharaoh, literally starved his people to build his dream. From 1983 to 1989 thousands of laborers worked on it 24/7. When it finally opened in 1994 — five years after Ceaușescu died — the Romanian people, whose food had been rationed for years to help pay for the palace, were both wonder struck and repulsed by this huge and opulent edifice.

Ceaușescu planned the perfect balcony from which to deliver speeches…while looking down a boulevard grand enough to match his ego. This palace, and similar projects around the downtrodden country, created a powerful anti-Ceaușescu sentiment.

In late 1989, the winds of change swept the Eastern Bloc.  Armed revolution spread across Romania. An angry populace rose up. They arrested their dictator and shot him on Christmas Day.

Today their dictator is a distant memory, and Romania has joined the European Union. While its challenges are big, the country is moving in the right direction. Joining local families on a sunny Saturday morning in the park, you feel optimistic — and that its people are counting on a promising future.

 


This is Day 55 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 Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Romania, and beyond. Find more at blog.ricksteves.com.

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Europe’s biggest building towers over the capital of one of its poorest countries — in Bucharest, Romania. The mammoth Palace of the Parliament was built to be the palace of its dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. At almost 4 million square feet of floor space, it’s the embodiment of corruption — a physical example of what happens when the ideals of communism meet the cult of personality.

Traveling through countries that spent 45 years in what locals here call “the Soviet Club,” it’s fascinating to see how an ideology that preached “equality for all” bred megalomaniacs who pursued the “cult of personality.” They built gigantic monuments that literally took bread out of the mouths of the workers who their ideology was supposed to serve.


This is Day 54 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 Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Romania, and beyond. Find more at blog.ricksteves.com.

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I’m in Romania — home of the descendants of ancient Roman soldiers and young Dacian widows. Join me with my guide in Bucharest as we learn how Romanians were born out of a horrible slaughter. I said the soldiers “made love” to the widows of the locals they killed…on further consideration, it was more likely rape.


This is Day 53 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 Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Romania, and beyond. Find more at blog.ricksteves.com.

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From time to time, we share a random video to fuel your travel dreams. Today, we’re sharing this clip from my TV episode about Italy’s most remote stretch of Riviera, the Cinque Terre. Join me in Vernazza as I savor the view, visit a romantic spot at the edge of a stony castle, and sit down to some gnocchi with pesto.

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