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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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.
So far on this trip, I’ve really enjoyed using trains to get around Germany and the Netherlands — they make travel fast, smooth, and efficient. Here are a few photos to illustrate strategies for smart rail travel anywhere in Europe.
The new generation of bullet trains in Europe are sleek. In fact, they’re so sleek that when a city has an old-fashioned, dead-end train station, the new trains often don’t even bother to stop in the city itself, but at a pass-through suburban station instead. New stations are designed — at the insistence of the train companies — to be pass-through stations. Everything’s going very fast these days, and there’s just no time to pull in, then back out.
No smoking, no talking, no cellphones. You have your choice of train cars — all clearly marked (although none allows smoking anymore). Among Europeans, American tourists are notorious for talking like they’re the only people on the planet, making everyone else on the car listen to their conversation. And you know how annoying it is to listen to someone else’s drawn-out cellphone conversation. Enjoy making a point to take advantage of signs as you travel: If you want peace and quiet, you’ll get it in this car.
Trains are long, it’s hot over here, and luggage can be exhausting to schlepp around needlessly — especially if the train platform is mobbed with travelers. Notice and understand signs to save time and stress. Few Americans realize that on big-city train platforms, there’s a chart listing major trains, with a diagram of how each train is arranged: first class (yellow), second class (green), and dining car (red). It even shows specific car numbers — handy if you have a seat reservation. Overheard on the platform are big A, B, C, and other lettered signs to help you find just which zone to stand in to have your train car stop right in front of you. Very often, a long train has ten second-class cars, but just one first-class car. If you have a first-class Eurail pass (as nearly any railpass holder over 26 does) and you don’t notice signs like these, you could wander all the way to the far end of the platform, then realize that you could have just waited at the opposite end. The conductor just blew the whistle, and you need to jump on the train or be left behind. So you spend the next 15 minutes struggling through the crowds to get to your first-class compartment…not very first-class.
I’ve been riding Europe’s rails since I was a kid. And to this day, a long, fast train trip gives me a youthful thrill. I marvel at how Europe’s trains just keep getting better, faster, and more comfortable.
Having completed the Germany guidebook research stretch of my trip, I’m heading for Amsterdam to meet the film crew. I’m spending seven hours on one of Germany’s superfast ICE (InterCity Express) trains, writing and enjoying every moment — because for me, there’s very little that’s better than stretching out in a first-class quiet car, blitzing through Germany, while massaging my gangly notes into smooth and tight new writing for the upcoming 2015 edition of Rick Steves’ Germany guidebook.
Finishing up my latest trip to Germany, I’m excited to share a few final thoughts…and pictures.
My two-month-long summer trip is made up of five modules: Germany guidebook research, TV production in the Netherlands, Scandinavia guidebook research, TV production in Prague and Berlin, and Poland guidebook research. Now that I’m done with “module one,” I’m off to meet the film crew in Amsterdam. But first, here are a few German scraps I found at the bottom of my rucksack.
Each day so far on this trip, I’ve enjoyed the help of local guides. Nearly every city in Europe has great local guides who are independent businesspeople scrambling to fill their calendars and earn a living. I list my favorites in my guidebooks, and while many get lots of customers from these listings, I’m amazed (considering how many people are using my books) how few enlist the services of a professional local guide. Sure, it’s a splurge. But so is a nice dinner.
So far on this trip, I’ve committed myself to using local public transportation. European cities do a marvelous job of making life easy for people with no cars. And tourists are people, too. Give public transit a chance in your travels. Buy an all-day pass and use the trams for everything. I find it changes your American understanding of what public transportation can provide.
One of the biggest bits of transportation news in Germany is the advent of cheap intercity bus fares. Germans are all abuzz about new deregulation that opens things up. In front of each train station, I noticed buses loading and unloading budget travelers. These companies use the autobahns rather than the rails to get from A to B… for half the money. While I still take the train and love the speed and smoothness of rail travel, if you’re on a tight budget, consider this new option.
The intriguing and fun city of Dresden, Germany, winds up on far fewer American itineraries than it deserves to. Don’t make that mistake.
Dresden surprises visitors with fanciful Baroque architecture in a delightful-to-stroll cityscape, a dynamic history that mingles tragedy with inspiration, and some of the best museum-going in Germany. A generation ago, Dresden was a dreary East German burg, but today it’s a young and vibrant city, crawling with proud locals, cheery tourists, and happy-go-lucky students who have no memory of communism.
At the peak of its power in the 18th century, Dresden, the capital of Saxony, ruled most of present-day Poland and eastern Germany from the banks of the Elbe River. Its king imported artists from all over Europe, peppering his city with fine Baroque buildings and filling his treasury with lavish jewels and artwork. Dresden’s grand architecture and dedication to the arts — along with the gently rolling hills surrounding the city — earned it the nickname “Florence on the Elbe.”
But most people know Dresden for its most tragic chapter: On the night of February 13, 1945 — just months before the end of World War II — Allied warplanes dropped firebombs on the city. Dresden was bombed so hard that a rare firestorm was created — a hellish weather system that ends up sucking much of the city into its fiery center… and oblivion.
Rising above the cityscape is the handbell-shaped dome of the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady)–the symbol and soul of the city. When completed in 1743, this was Germany’s tallest Protestant church (310 feet high). After the war, the Frauenkirche was left a pile of rubble and turned into a peace monument. Only after reunification was the decision made to rebuild it, completely and painstakingly. It reopened to the public in 2005. Crowning the new church is a shiny bronze cross–a copy of the original and a gift from the British people in 2000, on the 55th anniversary of the bombing. It was crafted by an English coppersmith whose father had dropped bombs on the church that fateful night.
Today Dresden is rebuilt, full of life, and wide-open for visitors. I love strolling Dresden’s delightful promenade. Enjoying its perch overlooking the river, you hardly notice it was once a defensive rampart. In the early 1800s, it was turned into a public park, with a leafy canopy of linden trees, and was given the odd nickname “The Balcony of Europe.” Dresden claims to have the world’s largest and oldest fleet of historic paddleboat steamers. A few of its nine riverboats from the 19th century are ready to take visitors for a ride.
I find visiting the rebuilt Frauenkirche very poignant. Inside stands the church’s twisted old cross, which fell 300 feet and burned in the rubble. Lost until restorers uncovered it from the pile of stones in 1993, it stands exactly on the place where it was found — still relatively intact.
Dresden is a city where the heritage of destruction is hard to ignore. I’ll never forget standing on the Old Market Square… just another square. Then, looking down at the pavement, I saw an inscription that read, “After the air attack on Dresden on February 13-14 1945, the corpses of 6,865 people were burned on this spot.” Carved on a piece of granite above that was a simple statement: “We brought the war to the world, and ultimately it came home to us.”
Spending the day with my German guide at the Documentation Center was intellectually exhausting. We explored Hitler-mania and the methods used to create the cult of Hitler (such as placing the dictator alongside Goethe and Beethoven in the pantheon of great Germans).
I find that older guides in Germany are less comfortable talking about the Nazi period. My guide was young and had plenty of ideas to share. Looking back on German society since World War II, he said, “There were three generations: the participants, the generation of unknowns, and the current curious and educated generation.” Today’s young Germans see the end of WWII as a liberation rather than a defeat.
The exhibits at Nürnberg’s Documentation Center illustrate how extremists rise in bad times. They offer easy solutions and scapegoats. And they push fear. In Germany’s roaring ’20s, Hitler’s support was at 2%. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, suddenly Hitler had a 37% approval rating.
The exhibits also show how totalitarian societies take over part of the parenting role and give kids hope for the future. Nazi youth organizations created a frame of reference. They dealt with the complexities of teenage life pre-emptively and on their terms.
I asked my guide about the “socialism” part of National Socialism (Nazism). He explained that National Socialism was born in the trenches of World War I. Germany was very developed around 1900, and its workers’ economy should have been ripe for Marx’s idea of a proletarian revolt. But WWI trenches brought together all levels of society (farmers, factory workers, teachers, doctors). The enemy of the people became not the owners of das Kapital, but foreign nations. It was workers as a nation against exterior threats spearheaded by a presumed Jewish conspiracy (as it was believed that Britain, France, and the USA all had Jewish power-brokers). And that’s where the “socialism” in National Socialism came from.
Discussing how post-WWII Europe compares with the mess in Iraq today, we considered how while the Nazi leadership was defeated, Nazi infrastructure survived the war and helped rebuild German society. In the case of Iraq, no societal infrastructure survived Saddam Hussein. While post-Hitler Germany became strong, post-Saddam Iraq faces a more difficult path.
So much can be learned from history. But too often, those who make it took other classes.
I’m in Nürnberg, which has some of the most thought-provoking sites anywhere relating to Germany’s Nazi past. Those curious about this dark period can visit Hitler’s vast Nazi Party Rally Grounds, and learn more at the excellent Nazi Documentation Center.
The goal of a “Documentation Center” is to catalog, analyze, and attempt to explain the crimes of the Nazis — to ensure that this important history is never forgotten. With the passing of the generation that lived through WWII and the Holocaust, oral history is now transferred into these historic sites.
I remember when the Germans I met seemed to know very little about the Holocaust and Hitler. In the 1960s and 1970s, German history teachers mysteriously ran out of time when they got to World War I. But these days, it’s clear to me that Germans feel a responsibility to inform themselves about past generations’ crimes. It’s built into their school curriculum: Literature classes include The Diary of Anne Frank. All German 8th graders learn about the basic concepts of nationalism, patriotism, socialism, and fascism as they study “the 19th-century roots of 20th-century turbulence.” The 9th grade history curriculum is entirely dedicated to World War I, the rise of Hitler, and World War II. And German 10th graders learn about the Cold War and Reunification. Every student makes several field trips to Nazi Documentations Centers (like the one in Nürnberg) as well as concentration camp memorials.
Visitors to Europe’s Nazi and Holocaust sites inevitably ask the same haunting question: How could this happen? Nürnberg’s superb Documentation Center does its best to provide an answer. It meticulously traces the evolution of the National Socialist (Nazi) movement, focusing on how it both energized and terrified the German on the street. This is not a WWII or Holocaust museum; those events are almost an afterthought. Instead, the center frankly analyzes the Nazi phenomenon, to understand how it happened — and to prevent it from happening again.
Nürnberg’s Documentation Center is sometimes called “a spear through Speer,” as it’s housed in a modern annex slicing diagonally through the middle of the Albert Speer-designed Nazi Congress Hall building. Just like post-WWII doctors didn’t want to take advantage of medical knowledge gained through Nazi torture, modern architects who designed the museum didn’t want to utilize anything the Nazis had built here.
The unfinished Nazi Congress Hall is a strangely chilling sight. It was to be big enough for an audience of 50,000. Inspired by Rome’s Colosseum, it was originally intended to be topped with a roof and skylight.
Nürnberg’s Documentation Center plays an important role in a society determined to learn from the horrible deeds of its dark past. For example, students at police and military academies go to special required programs taught in classrooms like this one, right on this sobering site.
Rothenburg may feel touristy, but in its day, it was a major artistic and economic force. You see that by the amazing carved altarpiece in its main church.
In St. Jacob’s Church is the artistic highlight of Rothenburg, and perhaps the most wonderful woodcarving in all of Germany: the glorious 500-year-old, 35-foot-high Altar of the Holy Blood. Tilman Riemenschneider, the Michelangelo of German woodcarvers, carved this from 1499 to 1504 to hold a precious rock-crystal capsule that contains a scrap of tablecloth miraculously stained in the shape of a cross by a drop of communion wine.
I was capturing my thoughts in front of Rothenburg’s altarpiece and taking notes in my little book. The passage I was working on: “Before continuing on, take a moment to simply linger over the lovingly executed details: the curly locks of the apostles’ hair and beards, and the folds of their garments; the delicate vines intertwining above their heads; Jesus’ expression, at once tender and accusing.” A man next to me caught my eye. It felt like we were old friends, but I couldn’t place him. He said something like, “Good old-fashioned journalism — in the field with a pencil and notepad…I like that.” He told me that he and his wife were fans of my books and TV shows, and I still couldn’t place him. Finally he said, “I’m Doyle McManus.” Turns out he’s one of my favorite political commentators — a regular on PBS’s Washington Week and columnist for the Los Angeles Times — and he was having a great trip.
I wish every town offered an opportunity to connect with real locals, as Rothenburg does. For over 20 years, whenever I’m in town on a Wednesday evening, I drop by Rothenburg’s English Conversation Club. It’s a rare chance to mix it up with locals who aren’t selling anything. Just bring your favorite slang and tongue twisters to Mario’s Altfränkische Weinstube am Klosterhof (Wednesdays after 6 p.m.). This group of intrepid linguists has met more than 1,000 times. Hermann the German and his sidekick Wolfgang are regulars. When the beer starts to sink in, the crowd grows, and everyone seems to speak that second language a bit more easily. Do you know any other club like this in Europe where an American would be so welcome?