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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Spending six days in Berlin shooting our new TV show on the city, we found ourselves most impressed by the energy of what was East Berlin. Areas that were, just a decade ago, squatter neighborhoods with ruin pubs have become gentrified. Now, while still a bit edgy, these areas are much more welcoming.
A remarkable thing about Berlin is that it’s actually cheap. It must be the most affordable capital city in Europe. Eating out is inexpensive and an absolute joy. But don’t be fixated on “German” cuisine. The most authentic local cuisine in Berlin is ethnic: Asian, Lebanese, Italian, and Moroccan.
And what’s most remarkable about Berlin is how it’s gone from a home base of aggression to the capital of chill. Otto van Bismarck was the ruler of Prussia as that German state spearheaded German unification in the 1860s. The popular joke was, “Most countries have an army, but in Prussia, the army has a country.” But today, the military trappings of Prussia are well incorporated into the mellow and pacifistic approach to life that characterizes Berlin.
I know that the gloomy news these days — with crises in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and Ferguson, not to mention Ebola — can make it feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I’d challenge people to remember there have always been atrocities and horrors like these — but there has not always been 24/7 news with an agenda that mixes entertainment and politics to boost ratings. Without minimizing the seriousness of our world’s trouble points, we need to remember that crises come and go while 90 percent of our world is generally stable and at peace. (Ironically, the issues that affect a far higher proportion of the world’s population — such as climate change and the extreme gap between rich and poor — don’t make headlines, and consequently don’t hit us like ice buckets of awareness.)
My sightseeing in Europe this season seems to revolve around the theme of nations grappling with a heritage of war. But today, Europe is as stable, free, and peaceful as it’s ever been. In fact, so is most of our world. For that I’m thankful.
Or am I missing something?
Berlin turned its back on the Spree River bank during the last generation. No one went there because much of it was a militarized “death strip” — part of The Wall that separated people on the East and West. But today the river is a people-friendly park lined with impromptu cafés. You grab a lounge chair from the stack, set it where you like, and enjoy your drink. The theme at this café: the Ampelmännchen, that jaunty “traffic-light man” that fills even avowed capitalists with a tinge of nostalgia for the communist era. You’ll know you’re in the former East Berlin because these DDR pedestrian-crossing lights have been — by popular demand — preserved.
What was dreary and run-down East Berlin is now clearly the happening zone. Bohemian-chic restaurants are thriving, and the café and restaurant scene is ever-changing — very tough to nail down in a guidebook. My best advice: Wander around Prenzlauer Berg (using Kastanianallee as your spine) and see what appeals. One thing’s for sure: Berlin is cheap. You’ll eat well for around €10.
Standing on a ridge next to a fragment of the Berlin Wall while overlooking the former “death strip,” I surveyed what’s called “The Wall Park.” It was Sunday, the park was packed, and what must be the world’s biggest karaoke stage was the fun-loving main event.
Otto von Bismarck was the political genius of the 19th century and the mastermind behind the unification of Germany — against the wills of the existing powers of the day. Traveling in Berlin, you can learn a lot about the emergence of a united Germany onto the European stage in 1870, and how that led to turmoil in the next century.
My friend and fellow tour guide, Honza Vihan, has been part of our tour program and the co-author of our Rick Steves’ Prague guidebook for well over a decade. Honza is brilliant (he’s a scholar at the local university), and I’m proud to have him working with our tour groups in Eastern Europe and in his hometown of Prague. Honza was our local expert and fixer for our latest TV production in Prague. He arranged for all the permissions and was great to have as my sidekick on camera.
Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha is the scribe of the Czech soul, and his magnum opus is a series of 20 huge canvases called the Slav Epic — now beautifully displayed in Prague’s museum of modern art. Inspired by this mystical work, Honza and I got caught up in the struggles and the ultimate triumph of the Czech nation.
The Czechs love their beer, their food, and their convivial beer halls. Here, Honza contemplates mixing huge doses of all three. With Honza’s help as we filmed our Prague TV show, we learned how the standard in a pub here is that they keep bringing the beer until you say definitively “Stop!” And, for many, Czech beer is the best in Europe.
One day as we were filming in Prague, it occurred to me that I was working with a guy who looked very much like an iconic American rock star. I asked Honza to pose and then showed him the album cover. Now I wish I’d asked him to take his shirt off. Do you see the resemblance?
Prague, which escaped the bombs of last century’s wars, is one of Europe’s best-preserved cities. The Czech capital’s nickname is “the golden city of a hundred spires.” And beyond its striking facades, it’s an accessible city with a story to tell and plenty to experience.
The city is filled with exuberant architecture and slinky with sumptuous Art Nouveau. With music spilling into the streets and colorful pubs serving up some of the best beer in Europe, it’s a city thriving with visitors.
I just spent a week in Prague capturing the magic of the city in a new TV show. (Producing a new series is a two-year project. And we’re just finishing things up. A dozen great new shows will debut nationally in October.)
I enjoyed touring the city with our Prague audio tour. It’s the newest tour on my free Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app, and it was a delight to simply stroll through the city with a recorded narration so I could focus my sensory energy on just being there with a steady stream of information pouring into my ears. The tour works great, but I want to tweak it by adding some Czech music during the walks so it can be played from start to finish without pausing.
Prague is the best-preserved Baroque city in Central Europe (where most big cities were bombed flat in WWII). Its castle stands high above the Vltava River, and everything seems designed to wow the visitor.
While filming in Prague, I connected with old friends (like tour organizer Lída and leader of the greatest little street orchestra in Europe, Josef). They were both featured in our first show on Prague from 12 years ago, and we brought them back for this new show. Palling around with friends like Josef and Lída, I’m reminded how connecting with real people is what carbonates your travel experience. Whether leading our tours or helping travelers with our guidebooks, it’s the people — like Lída and Josef— that make the experience rich and memorable.
While in Prague, I dropped by my son Andy’s apartment. I expected a simple little flat. But it’s a lavish top-floor-under-skylights pad with sleek furniture, an inviting hammock, and all the comforts a block behind the National Theater. He crashes here when he’s in town, and pays his rent (and a little more) by renting it out on Airbnb at other times. (For the latest on Andy’s student tour company, see wsaeurope.com.)
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s an old clock! I love this scene on the main square in Prague at the top of the hour, when everyone gathers to see the crude little mechanical show that the astronomical clock puts on.
Whenever I see a Tesla, I feel a streak of envy and think, “Wow, cool car…but really expensive.” When I saw a Tesla in Bergen, my guide surprised me by explaining that in Norway, it’s not expensive at all. This video clip explains.
As I explored Bergen’s old Bryggen trading quarter with my guide, the topic of whales came up. Of course, Norway’s whaling industry is controversial among animal-rights groups. With this little clip, Sue makes the case for her country’s whalers. What do you think?
Bergen is permanently salted with robust cobbles and a rich sea-trading heritage. Norway’s capital in the 13th century, Bergen’s wealth and importance came thanks to its membership in the heavyweight medieval trading club of merchant cities called the Hanseatic League. Bergen still wears her rich maritime heritage proudly. Here are some snapshots of my latest visit.
Protected from the open sea by a lone sheltering island, Bergen is a place of refuge from heavy winds for the giant working boats that serve the North Sea oil rigs. (Much of Norway’s current affluence is funded by the oil it drills just offshore.) Bergen is also one of the most popular cruise-ship ports in northern Europe, hosting about 300 ships a year and up to five ships a day in peak season. Each morning is rush hour, as cruisers hike past the fortress and into town. During my recent visit, it was the Tall Ships Festival — which added color and crowds to the mix.
Part of the joy of travel is seeing local families out just enjoying their city and spending time together. A classic scene anywhere in Scandinavia is blonde tots playing with colorful Legos (made by a Scandinavian company, of course). Here in Bergen’s main square, kids were in Lego heaven with giant tables full of parts to piece together.
While Oslo and Bergen are the big draws for tourists, Norway is first and foremost a place of unforgettable natural beauty. There’s a certain mystique about the “land of the midnight sun,” but you’ll enjoy the most scenic travel thrills per mile, minute, and dollar by going west from Oslo rather than north. And the handiest way to do that on a quick visit is the “Norway in a Nutshell” package.
A series of well-organized and spectacular bus, train, and ferry connections — appropriately nicknamed “Norway in a Nutshell” — lays Norway’s beautiful fjord country before you on a scenic platter. You’ll ride the train from Oslo to a high-mountain station (Myrdal), where you’ll take a super-scenic tourist train down to the fjord hamlet of Flåm, where you’ll catch a ferry up and down two breathtaking fjords to the village of Gudvangen, where a bus is waiting to zip you scenically into the mountains, where you’ll board your train to Bergen (or back to Oslo). Whew!
Here’s the general game plan for your five Nutshell segments, from Oslo to Bergen (it also works in the opposite direction — just read these steps backwards):
1) National train from Oslo to Myrdal (5 hours, departs each morning at 6:43 — recommended, and again at 8:05 — for sleepyheads; reserve either train in advance).
2) Private train from Myrdal down to fjordside Flåm (one hour, hourly departures, generally timed for arrival of Oslo train, no reservation necessary).
3) Boat through the fjords (from Flåm to Gudvangen, 2 hours, about hourly departures, two companies, same route and cost, no reservation needed).
4) Bus from Gudvangen to Voss (40 kilometers, one hour, departures generally timed with arrival of boats, no reservation needed).
5) Train from Voss to Bergen (one hour, hourly departures, no reservation needed).
On a sunny day, the ride is one of those fine times — like when you’re high on the tip of an Alp — when a warm camaraderie spontaneously combusts between the strangers who’ve come together for the experience.
Here are photos of some of these steps, snapped during my latest trip:
The journey from Oslo into the mountains is simply the most spectacular train ride in northern Europe. The scenery crescendos as you climb over Norway’s mountainous spine. After a mild three hours of deep woods and lakes, you’re into the barren, windswept heaths and glaciers. These tracks were begun in 1894 to link Stockholm and Bergen, but Norway won its independence from Sweden in 1905, so the line served to link the two main cities in the new country: Oslo and Bergen. The entire railway, an amazing engineering feat completed in 1909, is 300 miles long; peaks at 4,266 feet, which, at this Alaskan latitude, is far above the tree line; goes under 18 miles of snow sheds; trundles over 300 bridges; and passes through 200 tunnels in just under seven hours.
All along the way, I noticed mountain bikers (many of them entire families pedaling together) enjoying what looked like wonderful rides high above the tree line, along lakes and skirting patches of snow still there late in the summer. At several towns, the conductor may announce for how many minutes the train will be there. This gives you a few fun moments to get out, stretch, take a photograph, and look around.
Sailing Norway’s fjords can be breathtaking in any weather. My favorite trip is sailing from Flåm up the Aurlandsfjord (pictured here), and then down the Nærøyfjord. Camera-clicking tourists scurry around struggling to get a photo that will catch the magic. Waterfalls turn the black cliffs into bridal veils, and you can nearly reach out and touch the cliffs.
Norway’s greatest claims to scenic fame are her deep, lush fjords. Three million years ago, an ice age made this land as inhabitable as the center of Greenland. As the glaciers advanced and cut their way to the sea, they gouged out long grooves — today’s fjords. The entire west coast is slashed by stunning fjords, and the Sognefjord — Norway’s longest (120 miles) and deepest (1 mile) — is tops. The seductive Sognefjord has tiny but tough ferries, towering canyons, and isolated farms and villages marinated in the mist of countless waterfalls.
Enjoying the fjord views from my “Norway in a Nutshell” ferry, the last thing on my mind was the five Nutshell segments and how to connect them. But as you’re planning this amazing day, it’s likely the first thing on your mind. Study the steps I’ve outlined, and confirm specific times for your trip at www.ruteinfo.net. But most of all: Relax. Everyone’s going where you’re going, and the connections are well-coordinated. Just go with the flow and enjoy the scenery.
The vast breakfast smorgasbord that comes with most hotel rooms is a great way to stock up on calories for a busy day of sightseeing. There are plenty of local treats that show up on the breakfast table: various herring dishes, a variety of hearty breads and crackers, and the rich, sweet goat cheese called geitost (the kind that looks like ear wax).
Back in my student days, when I was slumming around Europe on a couple of bucks a day, my Norwegian relatives were an oasis of warmth, love, and lots of food. My “Europe Through the Gutter” days are long gone, but I still love dropping by. My Uncle Thor has welcomed me into his home for over 40 years. On this trip, I got to meet granddaughter Lisa’s new boyfriend. If you have relatives anywhere in Europe, by all means look them up. Making distant relatives in Europe a little less distant is a bright spot in any trip.
The Scream, by Edvard Munch, seems to be everyone’s favorite Norwegian painting. The spot (in Oslo’s Ekeberg Sculpture Park) where Munch actually painted it now has a framed replica, so anyone can do their own scream. If you ever just feel like screaming, this is a great spot.