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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My last stop in Europe this year is Hamburg. After weeks of filming in scorching heat, heavy rains finally slammed us — and after three socked-in days, I had to change my flight and hope for better weather. I’ve never had to do this before, but it gave us a gorgeously sunny day to finish our show and continue our deception that it is always sunny in Europe. (By the way, it cost me $310 to change my flight one day before on British Air.)
In spite of the rain, we found ourselves enamored with Hamburg. It’s one of the great unvisited cities in Europe.
Hamburg’s harbor is mighty, historic, and welcoming. A harbor boat tour gives an intimate look at the massive container industry. The huge warehouse district shows how important Germany’s top port was in the 19th century. And the new Elbephilharmonie concert hall is not quite open to the public, but it looks that way — which was great for filming.
Hamburg was a strategic target in WWII. The Nazis constructed literally hundreds of beefy bunkers, using mountains of concrete and almost unlimited slave labor. This is one of many — too big to demolish economically — that are simply incorporated into the everyday cityscape. This one is a colorfully painted rock-climbing wall in a neighborhood park. Standing tall and ugly-yet-colorful, with children lining up to climb all over it, it is emblematic of the poignant contrasts I see when traveling thoughtfully through today’s Germany.
A theme that keeps crashing into my reporting on Europe is how real climate change is, and how tragic it is that some people deny it just for their own economic convenience. Everywhere I go in Europe, I see the results of literally billions of dollars being invested in infrastructure changes that will allow Europe to live in the future that we are creating. Europeans (with a fatalistic acceptance of the momentum created by reliance on fossil fuels and the values of many international corporations) just shrug their shoulders and take a pragmatic view: It’s a reality, and there’s not much we can do to change it — but we can prepare for it. Situated just up a big river from the sea, and therefore in danger of storm surges, Hamburg has raised 60 miles of embankments…and artfully designed the ones in the city center to be inviting people zones like this.
When I’m in Germany, it just feels right to have a pretzel lying beside my main dish, or to enjoy a big, frosty lager with a big, salty pretzel close at hand. The pretzel culture is near and dear to Germans, as you’ll find in your travels.
Even after decades of travel, it’s so fun to still be learning fun little factoids about the cultures we visit. It never ends! In Dresden, my German friend explained that the dough woven into a pattern in a pretzel represents the way our thumbs cross when we fold our hands in prayer.
Most of our work is in the old centers of great cities. Staying here, you can miss entire dimensions of a culture. For example, driving out of a German city you may see a big drive-in pretzel place — fast food with a German touch.
I’m just wrapping up three weeks of filming in Germany, and I’m impressed by the souvenirs of its tumultuous history. Doing TV shows on Frankfurt, Nürnberg, Dresden, Leipzig, and Hamburg, you can’t avoid the flipside of Germany’s greatness. Here are a few historical artifacts that have stuck with me.
Outside of Leipzig is the wildest war memorial I’ve ever seen. This is the 300-foot-tall Völkerschlachtdenkmal. Just saying it makes you think “huge casualties.” It is the Monument of the Battle of the Nations, built in 1913 to commemorate the biggest battle of its day: when Prussia, Austria, Russia, and other allies teamed up to beat Napoleon in 1813. Half a million men were involved, and there were about 100,000 causalities. The powerful art and symbolism inside makes you weep and salute at the same time. Do you have a personal “most impactful war memorial” in Europe?
This statue, on Leipzig’s main drag, recalls the dual dictatorships — first from the far-right, then from the far-left — that Germany lived under in the 20th century. It features the flat-palmed Sieg Heil! Nazi salute and the proletariat’s raised communist fist at the same time. Meanwhile, the poor fellow who has little choice but to raise his arms scrunches down under his collar, hoping to somehow get through it all.
After spending ten days filming our upcoming public television special on Martin Luther and the Reformation, we were tuned into statues of Martin Luther. He seems to be on squares and in front of churches all over Germany. Here in Dresden, in front of the Frauenkirche, we met another Luther — hand on his Bible, as if reminding people of his mission to translate the Word of God from Latin into the people’s language, so all could read it for themselves.
At the Nazi parade grounds in Nürnberg, we stood on the tribune platform where Hitler stoked the fears and hatreds of 200,000 assembled Nazis. And then our guide took us inside the structure, through several huge, stark, gold-veneered rooms with massive dishes for devilish flames. As these rooms aren’t open to the public, we didn’t film them (because we have an ethic of not showing things on TV that our viewers can’t personally experience). But it was a chilling little side-trip.
Being in Hamburg, I kept thinking, “I love this city.” And one highlight was seeing the place from where millions of Germans emigrated to the New World. Imagine the fun of filming this city with a local guide to help locate the best angles. We’ve just filmed three great shows on six underrated German cities: Hamburg, Leipzig, Dresden, Nürnberg, Würzburg, and Frankfurt. These will be released as a part of Season Nine of our public television series, in the fall of 2016. Stay tuned!
After being in Germany as it suffered through an unprecedented 30 days in a row of temperatures between 90 and 100 degrees, and now in the midst of several days of torrential thunder storms, I’m clued into climate change as it affects Europe. Here in Hamburg, in anticipation of storm surges that could push the Elbe River into people’s living rooms, you’ll find all-new riverside construction basically on stilts. The city’s 60-mile-long embankment is also beefed up. In an effort to make beer out of lemons, the city has gone to great lengths to make the new embankment not an eyesore, but an elevated, parklike people zone.
Although it was almost completely destroyed in a horrific bombing in 1943, today’s Hamburg has rebounded as a surprisingly fun and fascinating city. While little remains from WWII, scores of the city’s old Nazi bunkers are simply too stout to be worth destroying. So they survive and are used in various creative ways. This bunker (Flakturm IV, on Feldstrasse in the St. Pauli neighborhood) is the biggest, designed to give 25,000 people shelter. It’s now filled with concert venues, recording studios, and dance clubs — and was fun to include in our TV show on Hamburg.
By the way, we’re just finishing our Germany shoot, and all three of our new Germany shows will air on public television in October of 2016. (These three shows are the first to be produced in our next series. We’ll likely produce 7 more in order to release 10 new episodes next year. Stay tuned!)
We’re hard at work in Leipzig, Germany, shooting a new TV show. My favorite sight in Leipzig is the former headquarters of the communist-era secret police, or Stasi. Like the USSR had the KGB, East Germany had the Stasi. This amazing museum smells like the musty files that it kept on its citizens. The old vinyl floor is yellowed, and the camera lenses actually look like buttons. During the final days of the regime, the apparatchiks shredded as many documents as possible, and then dissolved the shredded paper into big, mucky balls. Here’s a little peek at what happens when a government goes overboard in surveilling its own people.
In Leipzig, a city that helped lead East Germany to freedom at the end of the Cold War in 1989, the excellent Contemporary History Museum gives a fascinating insight into the 40-plus years people spent under communism. As we were scouting to decide what we’d include in our new TV show on Saxony (Dresden and Leipzig), my wonderful guide, Gisa Schönfeld, marveled at how her toy box was almost perfectly duplicated in the museum. It’s an example of how in the DDR, people did have things…all of the same things.
When World War II broke out, Hitler was building a massive congress hall to accommodate his top 50,000 Nazis for annual gatherings. The unfinished and empty husk of this building still stands empty, as Germans can’t find an appropriate use for it. The brutal, no-questions-asked, Neoclassical design — like the architecture of any dictator — effectively drives individualism down and makes you feel insignificant…unless you join what they promised would be the winning team.
Hitler had a warm place in his cold heart for Nürnberg. Within sight of the castle of the Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled the First Reich, Hitler held his massive rallies to pump up the Third Reich. It’s amazing how much actually survives of the place where he threw mammoth propaganda spectacles to build community.
As we filmed this, we wondered if the word “community” was too positive — but Nazism was community, in both the inclusive sense and in the exclusive sense. With a classic fascist stance, Hitler made it clear: Either you were with him, or you were against him. Today, the rust and the stink of urine at his former tribune is a reminder of what present-day Germans think of this place.