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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Scandinavia feels like Europe’s most modern corner. But unlike Germany, France, Italy, or Greece, the Scandinavian countries all still have their royal families.
Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are all constitutional monarchies. Their royal families know they are anomalies. But as long as they don’t embarrass the citizens who pay for their jeweled lifestyles with stupid scandals (like Spanish and English royals have done in recent decades), pragmatic Scandinavians seem to like the idea that figurehead monarchs do the fancy VIP receptions and ribbon-cutting ceremonies… and their prime ministers get to focus on the serious governing.
Seeing this system working well — and seeing ours not (when our country’s appetite for a glittering human symbol of our government is incompatible with its insistence that our rulers are not above the rules) — I can understand why Scandinavians continue to enthrone kings and queens. And as for sightseeing, all those palaces, crown jewels, and glittering processions add some razzle-dazzle to the traveler’s day.
Touring a palace in Copenhagen, I enjoyed this photo of an extended royal family gathering, which included blue-blooded royals from all over Europe. Danish royals are particularly adept at marrying their children into other royal families. That used to be a key to a country’s well-being. These days, I think it just means that you have to put on the tux a little more often. Denmark’s King Christian IX was famously nicknamed the “father-in-law of Europe”— his children eventually became or married royalty in Denmark, Russia, Greece, Britain, France, Germany, and Norway.
In Copenhagen, much of your sightseeing involves Denmark’s royal heritage — like here, at Amalienborg Palace. While Queen Margrethe II and her husband live quite privately in one of the four mansions that make up the palace, the twin mansion just across the cobbled square is open as a museum, which I found particularly interesting. It displays the private studies of the four kings who ruled Denmark from 1863 to 1972 (the immediate predecessors of today’s Queen). Each room affords an intimate and unique peek into Denmark’s royal family. They feel particularly lived-in — with cluttered pipe collections and bookcases jammed with family pictures — because they were.
Many countries have one dominant figure in their history — a big and charismatic personality who really shaped the place. Denmark’s larger-than-life king was Christian IV, who ruled for 60 years in the 17th century and created modern Denmark. This painting decorates the chapel that holds his tomb in the cathedral at Roskilde. The king was a large man who also lived large. A skilled horseman and avid hunter, he could drink his companions under the table. He spoke several languages and gained a reputation as outgoing and humorous. His lavish banquets were legendary, as were his romantic affairs. This painting shows Christian IV wearing his trademark eye patch. He lost an eye to some shrapnel in a sea battle and, according to legend, pulled out the shard and made it into an earring for his mistress. Great he was… until his many wars impoverished his once-mighty country.
With the affluence of our time, all over Europe, once-scuzzy neighborhoods on “the wrong side of the tracks” are becoming gentrified. (In fact, here in Copenhagen, the trendiest new area for dining and nightlife fun is the old Meatpacking District, just a couple of blocks behind the main train station.) Stepping into the station, I’ve long heard the martial melodies they play on loudspeakers at its back door without giving it a second thought. Then, with the help of a guide, I learned the reason for the regimented march beat. This video clip explains:
Flying from Amsterdam to Copenhagen is like connecting sister cities — bikes, canals, lots of construction work, slick and extensive infrastructure, and people who really know how to have fun.
As I mentioned earlier, my two-month summer trip has five sections: Germany guidebook research, filming in the Netherlands, Scandinavia guidebook research, filming in Berlin and Prague, and finally guidebook research in Poland. I’m just kicking off part three and ready for some Scandinavian travel fun. Join me for the next two weeks as I offer my latest travel tips from in and around Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, and Bergen. First up: Copenhagen.
In cities like Copenhagen, I enjoy tuning into the little details of everyday life. For example, the pølse (hot dog) is fast, cheap, tasty, and — like its American cousin — almost worthless nutritionally. Even so, what the locals call the “dead man’s finger” is the dog Danish kids love to bite. Danes gather at pølsevogne (sausage wagons) for munchies and pølsesnak — the local slang for empty chatter (literally, “sausage talk”). If you join them, you can study this institution — and maybe pick up on some societal insights, as well. Denmark’s “cold feet cafés” are a form of social care: People who have difficulty finding jobs are licensed to run these wiener-mobiles. As they gain seniority, they are promoted to work at more central locations. Traditionally, after getting drunk, guys stop here for a hot dog and chocolate milk on the way home — that’s why many of these stands stay open until the wee hours.
Wandering Copenhagen’s harborfront, visitors are struck by the many young people out drinking in the streets. There’s not more beer consumption here than in the US; it’s just out in public. Many young Danes can’t afford to drink in a bar (where the tax on serving booze is astronomical), so they “picnic drink” their beers in squares and along canals, spending a quarter of the bar price for a bottle from a nearby kiosk. In my guidebook’s self-guided walk of Copenhagen, I encourage my travelers to drop by Nagib’s kiosk (a block from the popular wharf at Nyhavn) and grab a cold $2 beer to join in the scene. It was fun meeting Nagib, as for years, he’s had a steady stream of Americans dropping by to buy a beer…as dictated by some mysterious guidebook writer.
Appreciating local culture extends to sightseeing, as well. When you’re traveling, don’t just seek out the Van Goghs in Sweden, the Rembrandts in Scotland, or the Titians in Spain. Instead, open up to the local artists. In Norway, check out Munch. In Vienna, go for Klimt. And in Prague, give Mucha a look. All over Copenhagen, you’ll see the swoon-worthy art of the great Danish Neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. This local Canova’s work is in the cathedral, in the palace, and packing a museum dedicated entirely to his statues right next to the palace. Do you have a favorite underrated national artist that we should keep on our list when in that artist’s homeland?
Copenhagen is a city of lovely spires and public spaces. As in many towns, once-formidable fortified walls and moat systems have morphed into peaceful, lake-filled parks. In the maps of these cities, you can see the “star fort” shapes centuries after the last cannon was retired. Copenhagen does a particularly good job of utilizing land formerly spent on defense to make the city a wonderful place to live. Wandering through these parks, you can understand why Danes usually top the list of the world’s most content societies.
I’ve recommended Majel Tromp’s Wetlands Safari tours in my guidebook for over a decade. And I filmed a segment with Majel years ago, when 60 Minutes did a feature on my work. It was so beautiful, I wanted to get the experience into one of our travel shows. And on this trip, it worked out perfectly.
For a little break from the Amsterdam scene, we headed into the polderland just half an hour north of the city for a canoe ride. Gliding along the canals, where the homes face the water and everyone has their own little boat, was a delight.
When we finished filming the canoe ride, Majel surprised us with a grand picnic dinner on a remote island. After putting away the dishes, we turned her tablecloth tarp into a big bedspread and took a scenic nap. I truly savored the moment, knowing that we had two great shows — one on the Netherlands and one on the great city of Amsterdam — in the can. They’ll be seen all over the USA this fall.
While dikes are a Dutch cliché (right up there with tulips and wooden shoes), they’re also an essential part of the Netherlands’ history and contemporary life. Roughly half of the land and half of the people here in the Netherlands are below sea level. And our new television show about the Netherlands includes a segment on these marvels of Dutch engineering.
The Netherlands is bounded by the North Sea. Where there are no natural dunes to keep the sea out, the Dutch have built mighty barriers, or dikes, to protect their farms and communities. For 700 years, the Dutch have been developing their skills at keeping this country dry. It’s a constant battle. And with climate change and rising sea levels now a reality, the work is that much harder and more expensive.
Each of our shows begins with a goofy little bit (called a “tease”) where I say a something about the destination, then reveal the location in a fun way. For our Netherlands show tease, I stood on a chair and said, “Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. The people here claim if you stand on a chair, you can see all across their country. We’re exploring the best of the Netherlands. Thanks for joining us.”
I was so happy with what we shot. Then, as we were driving away, I realized it would have been stronger if I added “this country is so small and so flat, they say if you stand on a chair…” But it was still a fun bit.
When it came time to stand on the chair and say my line, Rolinka drove into the neighboring farm hamlet and had no trouble finding us the perfect chair for our needs. In fact, the friendly farmer brought two chairs so that we’d have a choice.
Even with an impressive dike already in place, the Dutch are moving mountains of sand and mud to fortify their dikes and protect the next generation. Famous for both their frugality and their foresight, the Dutch are investing billions of euros as climate change makes its costly impact felt on sea-level communities here and around the globe.
We’re sailing to the fishing village of Marken in a hundred-year-old fishing boat. A few of these venerable boats survive. This one earns its keep by hiring out to visitors…and, in the case of this motley crew, putting them to work.
For our new Netherlands TV show, we’re going big and we’re going small — from minuscule Marken to muscular Rotterdam. In this country of contrasts, century-old boats, glassy skyscrapers, and public urinals all have their place.
Two of the cutest and most touristy towns in the Netherlands are Volendam and Marken (both about half an hour north of Amsterdam, and popular day-trip destinations for bus tours). While I can’t handle the big-bus mass tourism of Volendam, I love cute little Marken.
During my scouting trip this spring, I met a club of men who love to sail their hundred-year-old fishing boats on the inland sea — so we arranged for them to sail us from Volendam to Marken. It was great filming and great fun. Our boat, from 1905, was filled with heritage. Our friends explained how their vessel has no built-in keel (as you’d expect on a typical sailboat) because the waters here are too shallow. Instead, it has a side keel, which can be dropped and hoisted by rope and lashed into place as needed. Originally, the boat was run by a skeleton crew of two: a captain and a boy. They’d go out for five days of fishing…then come home on Sunday to go to church.
There was what looked like a historic old saying painting on to the boat’s galley door (which I’m sure countless tourists had photographed because it looks salty and rustic). But it actually says, “If you want to be poor, use this boat for fishing. If you want to be wealthy, use it for tourism.” Classic Dutch humor and candor.
When doing a TV show on the Netherlands, it’s a temptation to make everything seem all cute and sweet — like Marken. After all, I finish the script by saying, “Traveling here, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself exclaiming, ‘Everything’s just so… Dutch!’” But the country has long been a mighty trading power, and no show on the Netherlands would be complete without the huge, no-nonsense port of Rotterdam.
Mighty Rotterdam has a gleaming skyline and Europe’s largest port. It’s a reminder of the Dutch knack for international trade. Locals say that while the money is spent in Amsterdam…it’s made here in Rotterdam. They boast that shirts in Rotterdam are sold with the sleeves already rolled up.
Rotterdam’s harbor is the third-largest in the world. The port handles 35,000 ocean-going vessels each year — that’s almost a hundred ships a day. While most of these ships sail the open seas, this is where the Rhine River meets the ocean. And from here, riverboats — filled with either tourists or cargo — can go all the way through Europe to the Black Sea.
Speaking of big cities, in my 3,200-word Amsterdam script, I wanted to bring up the theme of toleration. My challenge: to artfully weave together marijuana, prostitutes, pilgrims stopping by on their way to Plymouth Rock, hidden Catholic churches, the Holocaust, Anne Frank, and the Dutch Resistance. I wanted to be challenging, but without abusing my bully pulpit. It was a fun writing challenge, and I think it worked. I started the section of the show with this “on-camera,” zoomed in close to my face: “Every corner of Europe comes with a unique flavor and cultural surprises. Small-is-beautiful Holland feels quintessentially European. It’s charming. It’s progressive…” — then, stepping out from behind a public urinal on the street as the camera zoomed out — “…and, with the local passion for tolerance, it’s occasionally shocking. Prepare for some differences: curbside urinals. Prostitutes who are unionized, taxed, and regulated. And coffeeshops that sell marijuana.”
You can appreciate the immensity of Rotterdam’s mighty port with a harbor tour, which we filmed for our show. While it was OK, the similar harbor tour in Hamburg is far more impressive. What are your favorite harbor experiences in Europe?
One of the great joys of producing our TV series is the chance to be all alone in Europe’s greatest museums when they’re closed (usually early in the morning). In Amsterdam, we were in both the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum from around 8 a.m. until 10 a.m., when they open to the public.
While we have the place to ourselves, the clock is ticking — we generally have about 90 minutes before the public pours in. An escort from the museum sticks with us every minute, making sure we stay within our permitted bounds. The cameraman shoots the art every which way to cover the script. It’s wonderful to have the privacy with the art to get the fine work done, and then have a few minutes with the public to get wide shots that show these temples of art filled with the faithful.
Invariably, I don’t know exactly what I’ll be saying on camera until I’m there and we survey what we’re about to shoot. Then I scramble to write and memorize my lines. Writing all alone in front of Rembrandt’s fabled Night Watch was a treat. Here’s the bit I just wrote — first off camera (because it’s easy to “cover” the content by showing details from the painting), then on camera (for material that’s harder to illustrate, so it makes more sense for me to say it directly to the camera):
 In Rembrandt’s Night Watch, we see another group portrait. But rather than the standard stiff pose, this one bursts with energy. It’s the local militia, which was also a fraternity of business bigwigs — a kind of Rotary Club of the 17th century. They tumble out of their hall, weapons drawn, ready to defend the city. While it’s creative and groundbreaking in its composition, some of those who paid the artist — like this guy — were probably none too pleased.
[27, on camera] This art is really all about money. The Dutch worked hard and were brilliant traders, and the wealthy had plenty of money…to match their egos. Here, artists earned their living not working for the Church or a king, but by painting portraits for local big shots.
This is the typical scene when filming in a great art museum. Our lighting floods old paintings with brightness, making colors and details pop like even local guides and museum art historians have never seen. But I’m always on pins and needles that someone will come and say “no lights.” When necessary, Simon holds a big piece of black cloth up to stop any glare — especially important when glass covers a canvas.
In Wheat Field with Crows, one of Vincent van Gogh’s last works, the canvas is a wall of thick paint, with roads leading nowhere and ominous black crows taking flight. Overwhelmed with life, Vincent walked into a field like this one… and shot himself.
Most guides and guidebooks love to perpetuate the idea that Wheat Field with Crows was Van Gogh’s final work. It just fits with the story of his suicide. But art historians now believe that this painting, Roots, was Vincent’s last work.
One of the joys of our TV production is that I get to actually visit the places and do the things that I recommend in my guidebooks. For instance, on the second morning of filming our Netherlands TV show, we got up at 6 a.m. to catch the Aalsmeer Flower Auction at its busiest.
A hundred buyers click their computers as trainloads of flowers roll through the auction hall. Just outside, a keystone-cops commotion of delivery cars makes sure all the flowers get to their locations that same day — anywhere in Europe. Our cameraman, Peter, got to take a ride on one of these carts to film the point-of-view of a load of flowers.
I’m excited that we are embarking on a 12-day shoot to produce two shows in the Netherlands.
Ten years ago, we made one episode combining Amsterdam with side trips into the Dutch countryside. In this shoot, we’ll retire the old show and replace it with two episodes: one just for Amsterdam and the other just for the Dutch countryside. This will let us share double fun in Holland.
For example, doing two shows instead of one makes room for Haarlem, a charming small town a quick train ride from Amsterdam. We enjoyed filming an organ concert in Haarlem’s church. I only get 3,200 words per script, so each word needs to earn its place. Here’s that part of the script—5 sequences out of 70 in this half-hour episode (OC means “on camera” — a part I say to the camera):
 Haarlem’s Grote Kerk, or Great Church, towers over the market square as if to bless all the business that takes place below.
 Inside, you find a towering Gothic nave, which was whitewashed and purged of its Catholic ornamentation when the Reformation arrived in 1566. Small frescoed sections, revealed when the whitewash was cleaned off, show how the entire church was originally decorated. Ships hanging in the nave remind parishioners to pray for all the men at sea. If you know where to look, carvings can be whimsical: crazy little characters supporting the roof…and what were called “pillar biters” mocking people who were overly devout.
[40 OC] And as was the case in many Protestant countries, rather than huge preachy works of visual art — like frescos and statues promoting the message of the Church — the artistic emphasis was put on music.
 Protestant churches invested in mighty pipe organs. Haarlem’s towering organ has been giving worship an inspirational soundtrack since 1738.
[42 beauty sequence of Jos van der Kooy playing Cornelis J. Bute Gavotte I & II] And visitors can enjoy free concerts weekly. [Fade to black]
Our core filming crew, as always, is three of us: me, the producer (Simon), and our cameraman (either Peter — pictured here — or Karel). Lately, I’ve enjoyed adding a local expert to be sure we’re communicating clearly and to smooth the way behind the scenes. My friend Rolinka Bloeming, who has led tours for us for nearly 20 years, had to be rescheduled from one of her Rick Steves tours so she could be our “fixer.” Rolinka speaks Dutch, knows her country expertly, has a way of opening doors, and is a delight to work with. She’ll be on her iPad and on her phone making sure we know where the windmills are turning and where herring’s in the smoker.
In Haarlem’s Great Church, we climbed up into the organ loft and filmed the organist playing the most spectacular pipe organ I’ve ever seen. I got to simply sit with the audience and enjoy the concert while my crew filmed a beautiful segment.
When filming, we have to be super-organized to get what we need in the time we have. When the crew was in the loft with the organist, I was surveying the church like a little mouse, making a list of things to shoot to “cover the script.” Then I took Simon on a quick walk to show him my shot list. With the crew organized and at work, I got to sit down and enjoy the rest of the concert.
We settled down for four nights in the cute-as-a-bunny town of Edam. Our home base, Hotel Fortuna, is nestled on a canal in a garden kind of world. (It made me nostalgic for a family visit here 25 years ago, when toddler Andy was enthralled by the box turtles in the hotel garden.) My room opened up onto a quiet perch over the canal, where I would go out after filming in the 11 p.m. twilight and just be still with the water and the birds. Across the way was in industrial dry dock…yet even that was cute. Here, I snuck a photo of producer Simon reviewing our latest script immersed in Dutch beauty.