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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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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All over Europe I’ve noticed there are two kinds of sights: legitimate cultural and historic sights that thoughtful travelers seek out, and commercial ventures that advertise aggressively and are on sale all over town with various discounts, promotions, and commissions.

tourist-traps-amsterdam

It’s fascinating to see how the crowds that patronize these two groups of sights–cultural and commercial–are distinct and different.

 

medieval-torture-exhibit-amsterdam

Compare the cost. In Amsterdam you can have a fascinating look at the Dutch Resistance Museum filled with actual artifacts from the days the Nazis ruled the Netherlands; a walk through Rembrandt’s studio complete with his personal inventory of curiosities and his best etchings, and then actually print a replica for yourself; be up-close-and-personal with the very best paintings by Vincent Van Gogh–or you can buy a ticket to a tacky torture exhibit with plenty of papier-mâché gore but absolutely nothing historic inside. Choose carefully how to use your precious vacation time and money.

Do you have any warnings about well-advertised but disappointing commercial sights in Europe? How about sights that might be written off as tacky, commercial ventures that are actually a great value?

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counter-balance-bridge-marken-netherlands

I’m in the Netherlands for five days before returning next month with my film crew. I’m scouting good spots to film and good spots for various “on cameras” (like this delightful little counterbalance bridge in the storybook town of Marken). I don’t care about the relentless rain I’m traveling through–but when I’m here with our camera, I’ll be praying for sun. Ten years ago we produced one 30-minute TV show in standard definition on Amsterdam that included a side trip into the countryside. Next month we’ll produce two half-hour shows in glorious hi-def: a complete show on Amsterdam and another on the Dutch countryside. They will air (with an entire new season) this September across the USA on your local public TV station. Stay tuned!

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While the twenty-somethings head for the Heineken Experience–a Disneyesque brewery tour– older folks cap a visit to the Van Gogh Museum by heading for the House of Bols: Cocktail and Genever Experience, just across the street from Vincent’s place. This clip shows how, at the end of the tour, you employ what you’ve learned about your taste preferences by designing your own cocktail.

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

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Good travelers travel with all their senses…and that includes our noses. Here are a few angles on touring Amsterdam that involve your olfactory skills:

 tulip-bulbs-amsterdam

Perhaps the Dutch are so into flowers because of the population density and the tight quarters they live in. You see it in the paintings and you see it in the markets–the Dutch have long had a love affair with flowers. I’ve even purchased a bouquet in the market just to brighten up my hotel room…to go Dutch. A popular souvenir for many visitors is a packet of tulip bulbs.

 

cannabis-starter-kit-amsterdam

In the flower market, one of the most popular packet of seeds is one that may have you doing a little explaining at US customs. While Washington State has legalized marijuana, I still can’t legally grow it at home, so this starter kit may not be a good idea. But it is thought-provoking (and a reminder that many Europeans do enjoy growing their own).

 

sniff-house-of-bols-amsterdam

While the 20-somethings line up for the Heineken Experience–a malty, yeasty, amusement ride of a brewery tour just down the street, an older crowd celebrates their visit to the Van Gogh Museum by crossing the street and stepping into the House of Bols: Cocktail and Genever Experience. Dutch gin has a long and bleary heritage and you learn all about it here along with a fun chance to test your olfactory skills. This line of scents each has a hidden identity. Pump the spritzer, sniff, and guess the scent–then pull back the cover to see what it was. I failed miserably, getting only butterscotch correct. While there are plenty of beer and wine tasting tours and experiences in Europe, what are your favorite hard liquor experiences on the Continent?

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