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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Watching this little video clip puts butterflies in my stomach. But I’m determined to go the full distance for my travelers — and here, on the windy cliff at Beachy Head, I’m a human suction cup learning a little geology in an unforgettable way. I’m just wrapping up two weeks of research in South England for both my England guidebook and our upcoming South England Rick Steves Europe Tours bus tour, and it’s been a very rewarding trip.
Portsmouth — the historic home of Britain’s muscular naval fleet — is adapting to a future with a smaller navy presence and more pleasure craft and tourists. Most people pass through Portsmouth because it’s the major port on the south coast of England, busy with ferries heading for France’s Brittany. But the city also has amazing maritime history, plus enough candy-floss-on-the-beach fun to make going to Brighton or Blackpool unnecessary.
In London, billboard ads show an exotic harbor skyline with the question: Dreaming of Dubai? Then they break it to you: This is Portsmouth, 90 minutes away by train. Comparing Dubai and Portsmouth is a stretch, but its iconic Spinnaker Tower stands like an exclamation mark above a once run-down military port that is morphing into a pleasant people zone. Just last month, the Dubai-based Emirates airline paid £3.5 million to change the Spinnaker’s name to the “Emirates Spinnaker Tower.” (Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that the plan to paint the tower red and white — the airline’s colors — would infuriate local soccer fans, as those are the colors of the archrival Southampton team.) Locals tried to convince me to bow to their advertising agenda and add the new “Emirates” name to the listing in my England guidebook. I resist.
Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard is one of the best maritime sights anywhere. This ship is one of many on display. The HMS Warrior was the first ironclad warship — a huge technological advance. The Warrior was unbeatable, and the enemy knew it. Its very existence was sufficient to keep the peace. But that only lasted for a window of about ten years, until stronger steam engines made ships without sails smarter, and guns on turrets could outshoot anything previously on the sea. The Warrior is in amazing shape because it became obsolete shortly after it was built. The only action it’s ever seen are the tourists climbing through it 150 years after its heyday as the most awe-inspiring ship afloat.
The English are experts at enjoying dreary beaches in dreary weather. In Portsmouth, there’s a nice beach — but with the blustery weather, its best feature is what’s called “the Hot Wall.” This embankment provides a shelter from the breeze, and absorbs what heat there is and radiates it to those gathered (like this group of school friends).
Definitely not Dubai: While many areas of Portsmouth are becoming gentrified, deep down it’s still a hardworking port town.
I’ve worked long and hard and spent piles of money on a pet project of mine: our free Rick Steves Audio Europe™ app. I’m most enthusiastic about the more than 40 self-guided audio tours it offers. But I’m also very keen on the radio interviews we’ve collected for our app — conversations with our very best guests, organized in country-specific playlists so you can just download topics that matter to your trip.
For years, I’ve bragged of my radio interviews, “These are great for filling time productively during long flights and long drives on your trip.” Then, yesterday, faced with a five-hour drive from Penzance to Portsmouth, I decided to practice exactly what I’ve been preaching. On my Rick Steves Audio Europe™ app, I downloaded a playlist of our England-related interviews. Listening to three solid hours of interviews made the drive a complete joy. (And by plugging my phone directly into the USB port of my rental car, I was able to take advantage of the car’s fine speakers and keep my iPhone charged up.)
In this photo, you can see some of the great topics I enjoyed: ancient stones, Bill Bryson, British banter, Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation, Doc Martin’s Cornwall, the ins and outs of high tea, and so on. This really is a boon for anyone faced with a long drive, train ride, or flight wanting a special insight to the region they’re exploring. I hope you can download and use the Rick Steves Audio Europe™ app in your travels.
Have you tried this? What are some other ways to pass a long drive in an entertaining and educational-for-your-travels way?
All over Europe, well-meaning grooved lanes, designed to help guide the canes of blind people, slice through sidewalks. But invariably, these paths are blocked by bollards, public art, giant potted plants, café tables, parked cars, dumpsters, and all manner of other barriers — making them pointless. And in all of my travels, I’ve never actually seen anyone using these grooved lanes.
Accessibility is an important dimension of a caring society. But breaking up a sidewalk for a grooved path no one will use seems to me a feel-good token measure with no honest interest in actually helping those who can’t see. I’ve observed this across Europe, but it bothers me the most in drab urban zones like Athens, Glasgow, Naples, and here in Cardiff — where a stretch of nice, clean, uninterrupted sidewalk would be a calming visual relief.
How is it that towns in painful need of visual charm cut up their sidewalks at great expense, lay down these grooveways, and then — realizing no one is using them anyway — ignore them? What drives this waste of public funds? Can someone give me the backstory on these? Have you ever seen anyone actually using these grooves? Or please set me straight if I just don’t understand how these are really helpful. Thoughts?
In my travels, I keep seeing examples of how our aggressive, high-powered, corporate-driven society is just accepting the reality that the climate is changing. Flood gates (like this one in Portsmouth) are being built on streets that never needed them before, in anticipation of storm surges becoming more common and more damaging.
Last month, Germany — a land with very little air-conditioning because, until now, it hasn’t been needed — suffered through record-breaking heat. It’s been sticking around: They’ve had 30 days in a row of 90-to 100-degree weather. I’ve been told that river cruise travelers are angered that, with rivers so low in Germany, they are abandoning parked boats and bussing three hours to promised sights. Gardens in Italy are being ripped up by freak hailstorms. In my personal world, the Iditarod dog race in Alaska that my sister participates in has become an annual rocky slog — even with a course that has been relocated to find some snow. And my family’s cabin retreat in Washington’s Cascade Mountains is threatened by persistent forest fires.
When it comes to global climate change, we travelers — who burn fossil fuels with every intercontinental flight and bus tour — are contributing to the problem. I am determined to grapple with the consequences of climate change by finding a way to make those who travel with Rick Steves Europe Tours in 2016 carbon-neutral…or better.
Assuming you care about climate change, how can a jet-setting traveler explore the world in a carbon-neutral way? I’d love some advice.
I’m in the glorious Georgian town of Bath, in England. While this town offers some fine sightseeing by day, it also boasts some fun evening entertainment — and an easy opportunity to get out of the city to explore the countryside.
In England, street theater is a fun option after your pub dinner. There are cheesy ghost tours in many towns. But the best hour and a half of laughs I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Britain is in the otherwise sedate town of Bath: the Bizarre Bath Comedy Walk by Noel Britten and his partners. A ritual for me with each visit is to join Noel for what he promises includes “absolutely no history or culture” as we wander the back lanes of Bath. Listening to Noel tell the same old jokes, but spiced up with his sharp ad-lib wit playing off the international crowd gathered, makes this £9 and 90 minutes very well spent.
I met Maddy Thomas 20 years ago when she was just starting her Mad Max minibus tours. Her vision was the perfect example of “find a need and fill it”: She offered train travelers a memory- and experience-packed day of touring outside Bath — hitting the highlights that are tough to reach without a car, like stone circles and charming Cotswold villages. As Maddy helped me suss out restaurants in Bath last night, we stumbled upon Noel Britten heading out to meet his Bizarre Bath group for his night’s work. Noel’s Bizarre Bath Street Theatre Walk and Maddy’s Mad Max Tours have, for nearly two decades, helped make my guidebook readers really thankful for my England guidebook. And I’m thankful for the hard work of Maddy and Noel.
In Victorian times, massive faux-castles were being built all over Britain by ridiculously rich nobles and aristocrats. Visiting Arundel Castle (just outside of Brighton, on England’s south coast), it occurred to me that many of our favorite castles are built on historic locations, but are mostly the 19th-century palaces of England’s “one percent.” And today, given the crippling taxes on both income and inheritances, many of these over-the-top properties can be maintained only by becoming part of the National Trust and charging a hefty entrance fee (around $25) for people to wander through their lavish private apartments.
This is Cardiff Castle’s original motte-and-bailey (keep on a mound). Arundel has the same kind of historic core. In both cases, the 11th-century original fort is almost like a garden ornament for a much bigger and more fanciful 19th-century Neo-Gothic palace.
One of my favorite noble manor houses to visit is Stanway House, in the Cotswolds. Like so many other rural mansions, it’s open to the public to help pay the bills. I’ve become friends with the lord here. For a decade I knew him as Lord Neidpath. Then he inherited a different title, and now he’s the Earl of Wemyss. (I never know exactly what to call him.) He’s fascinating to chat with; he always has creative projects in the works and cares deeply (in a nobleman’s way) for England.
About 15 years ago, I filmed the Earl of Wemyss on a shoot in the Cotswolds, and he ended up having a pretty big part in one of our shows. He had never seen the show. But now, each and every one of my more than 100 TV shows is available to view, free and in its entirety, on my website. You can watch them any time, any place…even in a decaying old manor house deep in England’s Cotswolds. So I had the joy of showing the Earl of Wemyss his charming performance, that you can watch here.
If an English girl’s soldier was coming home from World War I and she wanted to get her hair curled, she’d head on down to “Curl Up & Dye” — the Brits love to name their shops with goofy puns — and climb into this contraption (which I saw in a museum in Chepstow, in the Cotswolds).
Stumbling upon evocative and offbeat corners of Europe as a teenaged vagabond, I realized my niche in life: discovering, and then sharing, the best of Europe. And now, 40 years later, it’s fun to go back and revisit to some of these early oh-wow travel moments. It’s thought-provoking to consider how places — and I — both change and stay the same. Here, on a blustery rock just off the coast of Cornwall, is Tintagel Castle, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. I’ve changed a lot more than the door and the view…but I still get the same charge out of the breathtaking setting.
The British comedy series Doc Martin is a huge hit with PBS viewers. Being in Cornwall, I had to drop by the rugged little fishing port where it’s filmed.
The village of Portwenn in Doc Martin is played by the real-life town of Port Isaac. Strolling its scenic harbor, I remembered the fun I had interviewing the charming and engaging Martin Clunes (who plays Doc Martin) for my public radio show, Travel with Rick Steves.
While Port Isaac is portrayed on the show as a quiet time warp, in reality it’s chockablock with Doc Martin fans. And part of their pilgrimage is to hike up the far side of the village to this building, Doc Martin’s cottage.
You don’t need to go to Port Isaac to enjoy the charm of Portwenn and Doc Martin. It’s commonplace in Cornwall. Just looking out the window at this mesmerizing back-alley view from my B&B in Penzance, I had my own Portwenn…and it was plenty real.
These days, the stereotype of “bad food in Britain” is woefully dated. Britain has been on the leading edge of the foodie revolution, and I find it’s easy to eat very well here. Here are some examples of the foods I’ve enjoyed in my British travels.
One of the joys of traveling in Britain is enjoying breakfast at each B&B. Your hosts pride themselves on having a long list of classic “English fry-up breakfast” elements for their guests to check off: fried toast, blood sausage, porridge, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, grapefruit sections, Weetabix, and so on.
For me, one breakfast-time frustration is cold and crunchy toast with butter that’s not melted, but scraped across the top. The toast (“white or granary?” is the cheery question you get each morning) comes in a rack designed so it gets cold long before it meets your butter.
Pub grub is fun, but after the heavy breakfasts and lots of meat pies and fish-and-chips, finding a restaurant that raises the gastronomic bar is a welcome change. And these days, even the simplest town has a little foodie place where you can get well-presented “mains” featuring local and seasonal produce. This delightful plate of Cornish cheese and local fish was good enough to earn this just-opened restaurant a place in the new edition of my guidebook.
One of England’s most famous celebrity chefs is Rick Stein. His base is the Cornish fishing port of Padstow, where he runs a cooking school and a variety of Rick Stein restaurants. His flagship restaurant in Padstow is named, simply, Seafood Restaurant. I took time for a drawn-out, three-course lunch here…and loved it. I needed to give this Rick Stein a serious taste, because for the last several years in England, when I mention my book, people say “Oh, Rick Stein…he’s very good.” Now I better understand who people are confusing me with…and I’m OK with it.
It’s fun to be on the road grabbing photos to illustrate points I make in my lectures. For example: “In the market, characteristic little cafés that cater to local shoppers provide both a great value and a charming memory.”