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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High school grads in the Alps, a “monk chat” in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and under the pillow in a Scottish B&B. There’s a lot going on in our Travelers Café where I collect my favorite blogs.
At Rick Steves’ Europe, we’ve been at this long enough that our veteran guides and travel writers have kids venturing off to Europe on their own. Skyla (daughter of Rich and Risa — writers in my office and former lead guides) and her friend Gabby are a week into their high school graduation adventure, and Skyla is blogging intimately about the experience. Reading Skyla’s report takes me back to my first solo trip — which I fondly recall as “Europe Through the Gutter” — as an 18-year-old. Skyla jokes that she should title her blog “Train Station Mishaps with Skyla.” It struck me that, for a teenager, the joy of travel is not the sights and not necessarily doing it right — it’s having fun with the process, being wonderstruck with a wider world, laughing through the mistakes and learning from them, and making friends along the way. That’s what Skyla is reporting on. They’ve figured out Paris, hiked the Alps, and are now sorting through the trains to Venice. If you have teens and are wondering about helping make the world their oyster, be sure to travel along with Skyla.
My kids, Jackie and Andy, are now in Thailand. Jackie reports that on her first day in the city of Chiang Mai, it’s already her favorite stop (beating out Bali and Vietnam). Andy and Jackie are learning about Buddhism with a program for travelers known as “monk chat.”
And my right-hand man in the guidebook-writing corner, Cameron Hewitt, continues to blog from Scotland. Scotland is a very hot destination these days (our Snapshot: Scotland guide easily outsells our England guidebook). And our Scotland tours may even be rivaling the sales of our Ireland tours. Cameron reports on the B&B scene as he searches Edinburgh for the very best places to include in our new, full-fledged Scotland guidebook. And he realizes how fascinating traditional Scottish candies are — checking out Chelsea Whoppers and other goodies at Lickety Splits.
And I’m heading for the south coast of England, blogging daily from there until I meet the TV crew again for more shows in Germany.
Thanks for traveling with us.
I nearly skipped Blenheim Palace this year, thinking that on a gorgeous Sunday in July this palace near Oxford would be a mob scene. It was nearly empty. In fact, I booked a special tour of the private apartments, giving me a 30-minute, behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the palace (£5). I was all alone with my excellent guide. This really is the number-one stately home to see in Britain.
I enjoy having strong opinions when it comes to hard itinerary decisions and rating various European destinations. And I enjoy reassessing. Twenty years ago I visited Oxford and Cambridge and got it lodged in my mind that Cambridge was much better to visit than Oxford. Since then, in my lectures, I’ve made the point that, “If you have less than a month to tour Britain, don’t do both great university towns. Do one or the other and save up time for something entirely different (like North Wales or the Cumbrian Lake District). And…Cambridge is better than Oxford.” I’ve spent the last three days enjoying both towns and comparing each — and I need to change my assessment. Here’s how I wrote it up for the next edition of my England guidebook:
England is home to two world-renowned universities: Oxford and Cambridge. Seeing one is enough. And the big question for many is which one? Cambridge is easier and more charming — with its lovely gardens along the River Cam. Oxford is more substantial with lots more to see and do. If you’re choosing between them, consider this: Cambridge feels like a lazy, easygoing small town; Oxford has more urban energy and more stately buildings than its rival. Cambridge is not really on the way to anywhere (and weak in hotels), making it better as a side-trip from London than as a stopover. Oxford can keep you busy sightseeing for a longer time and has plenty of good hotels — so it’s worth a longer stop. Both are convenient to London (with an hour’s train ride). And Oxford is in a much more interesting neighborhood as it sits near the Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick, and Blenheim Palace. If you can’t choose, do both (there’s a great bus connection).
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge each consist of many venerable colleges sprinkled through town. And most have a fine central courtyard (called a “court” in Cambridge and a “quad” in Oxford). This is a particularly beautiful quad at Oxford’s Magdalen College.
Oxford and Cambridge each use the “collegiate system” where the colleges are mixed throughout the town; there’s no sense of an intact campus like you’d expect at many American universities. To explain the fascinating mix of town and gown, each city’s tourist board offers fine guided tours (2 hours, £10).
If you haven’t read a lot of novels, visiting Oxford and Cambridge can be frustrating. Each city is bursting with literary references and treats its hometown authors like pop stars — such as C.S. Lewis, E.M. Forster, Lewis Carroll, or J.R.R. Tolkien. If you haven’t read their stuff, you won’t feel a lot of the excitement. Both college towns have also been featured in hit movies. This dining hall at Oxford’s Christ Church College is a huge hit with “Harry Potter” fans since it was the inspiration for Hogwarts’ Great Hall in the films.
Finally…I learned why that White Rabbit was always late: It’s because Oxford is almost comically full of tradition. One of the preeminent colleges of the 38 that make up the university, Christ Church is particularly loyal to its traditions — it even has its own time zone. Before the advent of trains made it important that everyone be on the same time — hence Greenwich Mean Time — different towns routinely had their own times. Oxford, being 60 miles west of Greenwich, was longitudinally 5 minutes different. To this day, the clock tower at Christ Church runs five minutes later than official British time. My guide tied that to the fact that Lewis Carroll taught there — so it was natural that the author of “Alice in Wonderland” would create a character that was always late.
Spending a few days in London updating my guidebook, it was fun to reconnect with one of the greatest cities on earth. The many massive new buildings seem to have been given permits on the condition that they’d provide public spaces, especially if they might obstruct views of historic buildings. For example, the big and glassy New Change Building (just east of St. Paul’s) has a little park high above street level reached by a sleek elevator that offers a free and amazing view of the cathedral and the skyline.
London’s Tube, as the Underground is called (saying “subway” means a pedestrian underpass to a Brit), feels more efficient than ever. The Oyster Card is the standard pass — you buy it for a refundable £5 and put as much money on it as you like. You swipe in and swipe out and ride anywhere in town for about half the normal fare. If you forget to swipe, you’ll be charged for the longest ride possible — but you can never pay in a day more than the cost of a one-day pass (about $15). A feature I like is that you can swipe it at a ticket machine (shown here) and it tells you everywhere you’ve gone by bus and Tube with a full accounting and the resulting balance.
As a rising tide of affluence sweeps through London, I see a lot of pubs becoming victims of progress — torn down for new construction. It got me thinking that there are more pubs in poorer towns and neighborhoods than in wealthier ones for a reason. The venerable English pub filled (and still fills) a big need for the working class. For workers — historically with humble domestic quarters and no money for vacation — a beer on the corner was the closest they’d get to a comfortable living room, a place to entertain, and a vacation. As people get wealthier, the importance of the corner pub diminishes.
While updating my Rick Steves’ London guidebook this week, I was struck by the construction and the changing skyline. With my local guide, Gillian Chadwick, I marveled at the energy of new London, as it seems intent on building itself out of any economic recession. While most people don’t know the formal names of the most striking skyscrapers — or which companies inhabit them — everyone knows the nicknames…inspired by what they look like: the Cheese Grater, the Shard, and the Pickle…I mean the Gherkin.
Britain’s iconic red phone booths are still standing, but they are becoming less common. Locals, who have a nostalgic attraction to them, are finding other creative ways to keep them in use. Friends here report that phone booths are being turned into Wi-Fi hot spots, tiny lending libraries, coffee huts, and even defibrillator stations. People buy them on eBay and take them home to use as shower stalls and garden decorations. Prostitutes use them as a place to post their little ads. And some people actually use them to make telephone calls to other human beings. Have you heard of any other creative uses of the beloved red English phone booth?
For this bride and groom, a wedding photo with a red English phone box is a dream come true.
While prostitutes can’t openly solicit on the streets, they can post ads for their services — and phone booths are handy targets. This booth next to my hotel was full of ads each evening. Someone cleaned them off every morning, but the booth was full of ads again each evening.
For me, England wouldn’t be quite the same without its red phone booths.
One of my favorite moments in my travels is that little eddy between modules of a trip. For me, each two-month trip has segments. Today, the film crew is flying home from Germany, and I’m settling into Britain. Travel is so efficient these days. We woke up at 5:30 a.m. in Rothenburg, left at 6 a.m., drove 90 minutes at about 100 mph on the autobahn to the Frankfurt airport, turned our car in, checked in with plenty of time for breakfast, and flew at about 10:30 a.m. By 1 p.m. (having gained an hour) I was settled into my hotel room in London with a Tube pass and my pantry stocked. Check out my scene with this video clip.
We spent 12 days scrambling to film our Reformation special. And the last stop was the historic German town of Rothenburg. If the town’s good enough to use as a location for “Pinocchio,” “Harry Potter,” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” it’s good enough to film “Rick Steves’ Luther and the Reformation.”
Rothenburg scenes like this (the Burgtor) are perfect for on-camera bits.
For over 30 years I’ve been bringing groups to Rothenburg, promoting it in my guidebooks and featuring it in my TV shows. And Rothenburg, which recognizes the value of our partnership, was extremely supportive of our filming needs. Oberbürgermeister (Mayor) Walter Hartl, understanding how tight our schedule was, presented me with a lovely proclamation of appreciation without a big and fancy banquet. The medieval-style wax seal was still warm.
Upon arrival in Rothenburg, we scouted every museum, church, and possible film location. This was essential if we were to use our time smartly. The wonderful Imperial City Museum had the perfect place to recreate the moment Luther discovered the verse in Romans that said Christians are saved by grace and don’t need to earn it or buy it. But we needed a big old Bible and a proper table. Nearby, one of my favorite restaurants (Altfränkische Weinstube) had the perfect table. The boss was gone, so we had to do some fancy talking for the cleaning lady to let us walk out of the place with a table.
With the perfect corner in the museum, artful lighting, our table in place, and a Bible that was actually 500 years old, we were ready to film. Here, Second Cameraman Tim Frakes sits in for me as we tweak the lighting. Can you imagine how beautiful that shot will be as I say:
He found his answer in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It read: “The just person shall live by faith.” With that key phrase, Luther discovered what he considered the “good news”: that salvation is not earned by doing good works or giving the Church money, it’s a free gift to anyone who believes. Luther decided the subject should be debated openly.
After hiking into a forest to shoot the bit when Luther ran from the law before hiding out in Wartburg Castle, we paused for a crew shot: from the left, Cameraman Peter Rummel (who shoots nearly half our TV episodes), Cameraman Tim Frakes (who produced the Luther show I did for the Lutheran Church 15 years ago), Producer Simon Griffith, and me. Working hard is very rewarding with creative partners like this talented crew.
It’s just great how, as we get older, our gear gets lighter. For a TV crew, we pack extremely light. I took a moment on the curb of the Frankfurt airport to show exactly how much our crew of three packs when we are making our TV shows (including a carry-on bag each for personal gear). The crew flew home, and I got off in London to start a three-week research stint in southern England.
While filming in Rothenburg at the amazing Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum, we got a behind-the-scenes look at how great museums don’t just happen. (Tacky and commercial “torture museums” — which you’ll find all over Europe — do just happen… but I’m talking about real museums that have real historic artifacts.) Put on some white gloves, watch this video clip, and have a peek.