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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Exploring the Black Forest High Road (just south of Baden-Baden), we came to a section of that venerable forest that’s healing from a devastating hurricane. In 1999, Hurricane Lothar tore through here, bringing down 50,000 acres of the Black Forest in just two hours. Germany decided to let nature heal itself and built a family-friendly, half-mile-long boardwalk (Lotharpfad) through the park so people can connect with the slow-motion spectacle and cheer nature on. It’s a delightful 20-minute circular walk, easily accessible from a free parking lot.
This is the kind of fun I’ve been discovering all summer as I’ve been updating my various guidebooks with the help of local guides — like Simone Brixel (Black Forest Tours), who you see in this clip. Danke, Simone!
This two-part clip from the Black Forest illustrates how, wherever you travel, you can have dramatically different experiences in the same destination. Most travelers, driven by “bucket lists,” get sucked into the highly promoted tourist trap version of a place. (In the Black Forest, they end up in Titisee — part one of this clip.) Some, however, step away from the commercial zone (so expert at bamboozling travelers and corrupting the industry) and manage to reach that “off the beaten path” dimension of the same sight (part two of this clip).
The sad reality is that the vast majority of visitors to Europe’s most-dreamed-about destinations have their romantic vision trampled by mobs of travelers on big bus tours and cruises. (Here in the Black Forest, it’s river cruises.) And the even sadder reality is that most don’t even realize the lost opportunity. The goal for us “Back Door travelers”: to turn our travel dreams into a pristine and unforgettable reality. In this clip, my guide, Simone Brixel (Black Forest Tours), shows us two very different sides of the Black Forest. The choice is yours.
I love breakfast — especially when I’m on the road. When you’re traveling, sitting down for breakfast can be like kicking off your day with a plate of edible art. (A British “fry-up” can be an excellent study in shapes.)
Beans, mushrooms, and fried tomatoes became my new norm over the past month in Ireland, Scotland, and England. (I generally try to be adventurous, but the hot-dog-like sausage, blood sausage, square sausage, and haggis were just too extreme.) Each morning, I considered going lighter and sticking with fruit and cereal. But I just couldn’t. I guess I just need comfort food in the morning…bring on the beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon, and eggs.
I’ve just landed in Germany. Big change: yogurt with fruit, better bread, better cheese, liverwurst, and crunchy peppers. Bye-bye beans. Up next, I’ll be enjoying hearty continental breakfasts in the Black Forest, France’s Alsace, and the great Swiss cities.
What’s your take on the “full breakfast”? And what are your fondest European breakfast memories?
OK, I was just there, and it’s clear: London is safe. London entertains. And London is full of travelers having the time of their lives. Of course, for safety reasons, many will choose to stay home in American cities that are, statistically, far more dangerous.
Let’s say you’re an American who’s decided London is “too dangerous,” and decide to vacation in Las Vegas or Memphis instead. But let’s look at the numbers. London has nearly 15 times as many people as either Memphis or Las Vegas, but far fewer murders — around 100 a year in London, compared to more than 150 a year in the much smaller American cities. Do the math: You’ve just made it about 20 times more likely that you’ll be murdered on vacation. There’s no question: Statistically, compared to the USA, Europe is far safer.
London has had terrorist attacks by murderous cars on bridges. In March of 2017, London was hit by a terrorist attack on this bridge (using a vehicle as a weapon to kill pedestrians). A few months later, after another similar attack on London Bridge, the government responded. And now bridges come with barriers (as you see in this photo) to keep people safe. Londoners know that when politicians and the media overreact to a terrorist killing, it only rewards and encourages the evil.
London is full of life, and much of that life comes from tourists. And I am happy to report that many of the happiest tourists I’ve seen are taking full advantage of my London and Britain guidebooks. This traveler is an A+ student — she even tabbed her “Rick Steves London” guidebook for quick reference. And she’s learned an important lesson: Equip yourself with good information, and expect yourself to travel smart…and you will.
The British pound is on sale when it comes to the buying power of our dollar (which buys about 15 percent more pounds than it did just before Brexit, just over a year ago). But London is still an expensive city. I spent a great day with one of my favorite London guides, Sean Kelleher, checking all the latest budget tips. When visiting Westminster Abbey and looking for a quick, healthy, and inexpensive lunch, Sean and I both love Wesley’s Café at the Central Hall Westminster just across the street. A tip like this in my London book will save you both time and money — and leave you with some good memories, to boot.
Imagine getting to have dinner in London’s Houses of Parliament with a member of the House of Lords. And not just any dinner or any politician — but dinner in the exclusive Peers’ Dining Room with Lord John Alderdice, who was instrumental in helping sort out the Irish “Troubles” and is deeply steeped in the Palestine/Israel challenge and other violent political conflicts. What would you talk about? The answer: lots.
My head was spinning, as portraits of literal “bigwigs” hovered over similarly weighty dinner conversations that were being capped with nice glasses of port all around. A few minutes earlier, Lord Alderdice and I had been alone in the Chamber of the House of Lords, where statues representing the nobles who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 (ceding certain rights to nobility) look down on the proceedings. They serve as a powerful reminder of almost a thousand years of heritage, and the ongoing struggle to empower the people to create a good and representative government.
With that appetizer, and thinking about today’s political environment, I asked Lord Alderdice a few questions over dinner. My notes are a jumble, but here are a few scraps that seasoned our meal with thought-provoking new insights:
While the US Senate (the closest thing we have to the Lords) has lost much of its civility, Lord Alderdice said he still finds the House of Lords as civil as ever.
I told Lord Alderdice (who’s appointed for life) that he’s blessed not to have to raise money and go up for re-election. He explained the rationale and value of having one chamber that didn’t need to be elected (providing an advisory body that can give honest opinions, rather than sway in the direction of populist political winds). He also clarified that money for those who do need to run is not a major issue in British politics. A candidate cannot buy TV or radio ads (print and billboards are OK). And, in part because British lawmakers can see how money in politics has been so damaging to democracy in the USA, there’s no discussion about loosening up these restrictions.
I was curious about Lord Alderdice’s take on Brexit. He said it’s nothing very new to have difficulties in the relationship between Britain and continental Europe. King Henry VIII breaking away from the Pope nearly 500 years ago (the English Reformation) is not unlike Brexit’s break from the EU today.
And what about President Trump — what does his election say about the United States’ role in the world? Globally, Lord Alderdice sees a loss of confidence in the democratic process. That concerns him. Lord Alderdice, who likes to consider international relations as if they were relations between individuals, sees the USA’s relationship to the family of nations like an adolescent on steroids, while Britain is the older kid on the block — it has been around a long, long time and is heavily influenced by that history. Lord Alderdice’s take is that Trump represents something in the body politic of the USA. His election caught everyone off-guard because we’re not good at listening to each other. People on the left get into their narrow point of view and refuse to really hear the concerns of people on the right. (Like America’s liberal bubble, Britain has its equivalent, which he calls “the cosmopolitan 20 percent.”)
I asked about Germany subsidizing Europe and shoring up the euro currency. Lord Alderdice sees Germany’s generosity as a way of paying reparations — motivated by its guilt after its role in WWII, and especially the Holocaust.
I enjoyed Lord Alderdice’s thoughts about the separation of Church and state: He said that although the Queen is the head of the Church of England, if she or the Prime Minister closed a speech by saying, “God bless Britain,” it would sound strange. Conversely, if the President of USA — who leads a country with a constitutional separation of Church and state — didn’t say, “God bless America,” it would sound strange.
I asked him about lessons from his work resolving the Troubles in Ireland, and how those might be applied to the Middle East. He explained his viewpoint that understanding relations between large groups is the big challenge for those working for peace. In Ireland, the IRA has learned they accomplish more without violence. Palestine is slowly learning this, as well. In the West, we need to keep the conversation going — and to understand that when you refuse to work with Fatah, you get Hamas, and when you refuse to work with Hamas, you get ISIS.
Some countries will forever be at odds. But if you keep the conversation going, you can maintain the peace. Then, one day (like with France and Germany), peace becomes the norm. But in the meantime…you keep talking.
Saying goodnight to Lord Alderdice and turning in our security badges, I looked up at the face on the clock atop the tower known as Big Ben. The minute hand is twice as tall as I am. It’s so big, you can see it moving.
I’ve recorded nearly 500 hours of my weekly radio program, Travel with Rick Steves. And one of the smartest people I’ve had the honor of interviewing was Lord John Alderdice, a Northern Ireland politician who sits in the House of Lords.
Lord Alderdice, a psychiatrist, famously approached the two sectarian sides in Ireland’s “Troubles” as if they were spouses who needed counseling. This approach contributed hugely to the hard-won peace…so much so, that Lord Alderdice is now dedicating his energy to other conflicts, including Colombia and the Palestine/Israel challenge. (To hear Lord Alderdice’s wisdom, listen to our interview.) We clicked during the interview, and I had a longstanding invitation to have dinner with him at “The Lords” — the exclusive Peers’ Dining Room of the upper house of the UK Parliament.
I finally had a free evening in London, so we set a date (along with my partner, Trish — who happened to be in London preparing to guide an upcoming tour departure). Of course, packing as light as I do, I needed to buy a suit jacket, trousers, and a tie.
All dressed up, Trish and I reported to the floodlit Houses of Parliament and, after tight security, were greeted by Lord Alderdice. It was way after hours, and it felt as if he owned the place. He took us on a private tour of the Palace of Westminster. Walking quietly through these hallowed halls of Britain’s government with a real-life lord as our private guide, I gained an appreciation for the value of the House of Lords (which many naively consider just a gab session of rubber-stamp aristocrats).
The Peers’ Dining Room is a wonderful place for conversation: great service, classic dishes, fine wine and port, strictly no photos, and surrounded by hushed conversations under portraits of British luminaries who had similarly hushed conversations at these same tables two or three centuries ago. And what made the dinner tastiest of all was the company of such a wise statesman.
The more I travel, the more value I put on good governance — and the more I understand that that work is best done by caring people who understand the art of compromise, rather than by bull-headed, ham-fisted ideologues. Of course, the grassroots are also important. But countries can rise and fall on how they are blessed or cursed with their political leadership. And they are girded and protected by the strength of the institutions of their democracies.
Lord Alderdice, thank you for an unforgettable evening…and for a lifetime of high-minded service. (I’ll share highlights of our conversation in tomorrow’s post.)
This spring I promised you 100 posts from Europe in 100 days. I’m afraid I lied. Today is Day 100, and it’s looking more like it will be 130 posts in 130 days. Please stick around for the ride as my travels take me through Germany’s Black Forest, France’s Alsace, and the great Swiss cities. Then, after a few days at home (got to wash those clothes!), I return to Europe with our TV crew to film a Mediterranean cruise. I just can’t stop traveling and I’m so glad you’re joining me here on my blog and via Facebook. Thanks — and stay tuned for lots more!
Ironbridge Gorge, England
When we travel, we see how other countries are dealing with the same issues we are at home. And we better understand the lessons history can teach us. On this trip, I’ve been tuned in to the news, as our president makes headlines almost daily. And — also almost daily — the Europeans I meet ask me how Trump got elected. (From their perspective, it seems astonishing.) I try to explain about people in parts of our country with serious economic challenges who believe things aren’t fair — like the plight of American coal miners, who feel they were given a voice by Trump’s candidacy.
Here in England, they tell me that they dealt with that same challenge back in 1984. That’s when Margaret Thatcher — Britain’s answer to Ronald Reagan, and considered a strong leader by people left and right — confronted England’s coal miners’ union…and crushed them. Her message: Coal mining just didn’t add up anymore. Wandering through England’s fascinating museum of the Industrial Revolution at Ironbridge Gorge, I watched a blacksmith hard at work. And then I stumbled upon this thought-provoking pile of coal next to a silent factory. Progress can be heartless. And in England, the coal industry is not a political issue…but a corner of a museum.
This is Day 99 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences across Europe. Still to come: bonus posts from Germany and Switzerland. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.
In 1704, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, defeated the French at the Battle of Blenheim. A grateful Queen Anne rewarded him with Blenheim Palace, the grandest countryside residence anywhere in Britain. And then, 313 years later, I had my own little Battle of Blenheim.
Scouting the palace during our TV shoot, I was marveling at all the noble bling, and — ding! — I walked into an overhanging staircase. I went down, pretty bloody. (Now I can sympathize with the palace administration’s nervousness about visitors poking around.) The staff was very compassionate but, for legal reasons, couldn’t do anything beyond give me a seat, a compress, and directions to the nearest “MUI” — minor injuries unit.
I joined the crowd of people awaiting their government-provided medical service. After an hour, a nurse cleaned me up and glued me shut. I asked to pay, and she said, “Nope, we have National Insurance here. It’s covered.” Thankfully, my little wound wasn’t visible to the TV camera. I couldn’t get it wet for a few days, but soon, I was good as new. And now, whenever I wince at the hefty VAT (value added tax) tacked on to my purchases in Britain, I’ll feel a bit better…as I’ve helped pay for my own medical treatment.
This is Day 98 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences across Europe. Still to come: Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.
One of the great joys of traveling in Scotland is the endearing accent of the people you meet. Since my guide (Colin Mairs) and I are wrapping up our time together, I thought I’d share some of the delightfully horrible jokes I’ve had to endure amid all the Highland beauty. Thanks, Colin!
This is Day 97 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences across Europe. Still to come: Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.
In 1848, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the Scottish Highlands and fell in love with this remote part of Britain. In that same year — as the rest of Europe was ensnared in anti-royalist, pro-democracy revolutions — England’s Queen purchased Balmoral Castle on a vast 50,000-acre estate. The Queen proceeded to embrace the Highland culture, which led to something of a renaissance in the local way of life in this northern part of Scotland.
Today, Queen Elizabeth II and her family still spend a good part of their summers here at Balmoral. And, for much of the season, the palace welcomes the public. However, access is limited: You can roam the gardens, see some exhibits in the stables, and visit a single big room in the palace. The admission fee includes a self-guided audio tour, which I enjoyed.
Visiting Scotland, you’ll inevitably visit a few royal palaces — but consider expanding your sightseeing to the castles of clan nobility. It seems each clan has a “spiritual heart” where ancient artifacts, documents, and lots of battle-dinged weaponry are archived, and much of it accessible to the public. I toured every palace-like castle we came upon, and I enjoyed them all. And if you’re a Mac-this, a Mac-that, or a Campbell, these ancestral homes can be particularly interesting. For example, Inveraray Castle (popular for its Downton Abbey connections — their Christmas special was filmed here) bristles with the weaponry of Clan Campbell.
This is Day 96 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences across Europe. Still to come: Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.