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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Touring Munich, I found myself experiencing both the very high end and the very low end of the tourist spectrum. And both ends were having a blast.

Guides in Munich told me that the elegant Maximilianstrasse, famous for having all the finest luxury stores, is busy with shoppers from places like Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. Skeptical, I walked there… and found an amazing scene. A literal majority of the people I saw on the street were wealthy, conservative-Muslim Arab families — casually dressed men, happy children, and women covered in black burkas. Locals explain that these families come here for medical treatment (operations, especially eyes and heart). They make a vacation out of it, bringing the whole family and often their car and driver. (You see lots of cars with Middle Eastern plates on Maximilianstrasse.) The shopping is great, there’s no stress (like they might feel in London), security is excellent, and the weather is cool. Coming from a world with such controls and constraints, being here —free and financially able to do whatever they like — has great appeal. Germans politely provide the service, happy to make back some of what pours eastward every time they visit a gas station.

Far from that world where money just spurts from the desert, Western tourists gather under Munich’s Glockenspiel each morning at 10:00 to sort through all the free tours. Like used cars are now called “pre-owned vehicles,” free tours are now called “priceless tours.” The guides are up front with their tour members: The boss charges the guide €2.50 per person on the tour, so they’ll do their best to provide a great walking tour — and hope that the average tip will exceed their cost. It seems to work fine, as there are more and more of these “free” tours. Even paid-tour competitors, who complained about their “free” rivals in years past, are having to compete on this same basis.

 

 

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Munich pedestrianized its main street for the 1972 Olympics, starting a trend in Europe. And, like cities all over Europe, more and more of the center is becoming traffic-free.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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German sidewalks are designed to deconstruct and reconstruct economically.

Traveling into Germany, it’s so clear that the Germans know how to motor an economy. They seem disdainful of the tax cheating, the inefficient bureaucracy, and the corruption plaguing the Mediterranean countries they will be bailing out. Suddenly, all around Europe, German efficiency seems like a good idea. It’s amazing to think that Germany has built itself up (with US aid after WWII) from near-total destruction to become Europe’s economic powerhouse. For sixty years, they’ve simply worked hard and paid their taxes.

Germans I’ve talked to admit that they’ve benefitted most from the euro currency. And now they recognize that they need to prop up the euro and give a little back to the other European nations. One German’s thoughts on Greece: “Greeks have learned from their heads of state to be corrupt. Brussels believed in their false numbers when they applied for membership in the eurozone, and since they joined, there’s been no control — just wishful thinking. Today we have a big problem with Greece.”

You see lots of construction around Europe, but in the south, it’s often stalled. Traveling through Germany this last week, however, I’ve seen thriving construction projects everywhere. A beautiful thing about Europe (compared to the USA) is that there are no electrical wires overhead. They are nearly all buried. A local told me that much of the wiring is from the 1970s, and throughout Germany, it’s being dug up and modernized.

One night in Munich, I walked over a tidy sidewalk into my hotel. The next morning, I stepped out and had to walk the plank over a deep ditch with tractors, orange-vested workmen, and industrial-strength tubing and wires everywhere. That afternoon, I came home…and the sidewalk was tidy again. I wondered how long a job like that would take in Italy or Greece.

Germanic people even seem efficient about hedonism. Every country seems to have its own firewater. And, while I gingerly sip it, locals throw it down in a gulp. Finally a local friend gave me a tip: “My Granny taught me that you should first breathe deeply in, then take the shot, then breathe out.” It works. Ahhhh.

On the topic of languages, a German friend observed that the Spanish and Italians speak as if talking to God, the French speak as if talking to a lover, and the Germans speak as if talking to a dog. They seem to be barking, even when agreeing with you: Stimmt! Genau! Richtig! I said I like the sound of German, but it’s difficult for me. My friend said, “German’s an easy language. Even children speak it.”

Meeting a lot of Americans traveling — including families and people well into their adulthood who are out of the States for the first time — I’ve been thinking about how travel helps people blossom. If we are like seeds, the travel experience provides the dirt. The act of traveling plants us. And the people we meet in our travels are like watering the garden. Combine the dirt, seeds, and water properly, and you get the blossom. Happy travels.

 

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I love my guidebook research days. In Salzburg, I had no particular plan, and another action-packed day just unfolded. There’s always so much to do. My guide met me at 10:00 a.m. We popped into Mozart’s House to check out the new displays and audio tour. Then she drove me to a new Salzburg sight—Mr. Red Bull’s place. I wrote this entry:

Fast living and high energy at Salzburg's Red Bull Hangar 7

Red Bull Hangar-7 — Salzburg’s big personality these days is the tycoon founder of Red Bull energy drink, Dietrich Mateschitz. He has a mysterious mansion at the edge of town, sponsors the local “Red Bull” soccer and hockey teams, owns several chic Salzburg eateries and cocktail bars, and employs 6,000 mostly good-looking people. It seems his personality is like the energy drink that made him rich and powerful — a high-energy, anything’s-possible cultural Terminator.

Hangar-7, a renovated hangar at the Salzburg airport, celebrates Red Bull culture. Under its modern steel-and-glass dome are 20 or so glittering planes and racecars and several pretentious bars, cafés, and restaurants. While things are described in German, visitors can borrow an iPod Touch with English information (free, daily 9:00-22:00, bus #8 from Hanuschplatz to the Salzburg airport, hangar-7.com).

At Hangar-7, the Mayday Bar serves experimental food, and Restaurant Ikarus features a different well-known chef each month. Mateschitz’s Carpe Diem cocktail bar in the Old Town is also Red Bullish.

Then we popped by Hellbrunn Castle, with its fine gardens and famous trick fountains. For years, I’ve panned the palace. I revisited and, like so many sights, it’s much improved. I wrote this entry:

Hellbrunn Castle and Gardens — About the year 1610, Prince-Archbishop Sittikus decided he needed a lavish palace with a vast and ornate garden purely for pleasure (I imagine after meditating on stewardship and Christ-like values). He built this summer palace and hunting lodge, and just loved inviting his VIP guests from throughout Europe for fun with his trick fountains. Today, Hellbrunn is a popular sight for its palace, formal garden (one of the oldest in Europe, with a gazebo made famous by The Sound of Music), the tour of its famous trick fountains, and simply for a chance to get out of the city.

Upon arrival, buy your fountain tour ticket and get a tour time. Tours generally go on the half-hour. The 40-minute English/German tours take you laughing and scrambling through a series of amazing 17th- century garden settings with lots of splashy fun and a guide who seems almost sadistic in the joy he has in soaking his group. (Hint: When you see a wet place, cover your camera.) If there’s a wait until your tour, you can see the palace first.

The palace, inspired by the Venetian architect Palladio, was built in a style popular around 1600. It was a cultural destination back in the 1600s, when the ritual was hunting in the morning and enjoying an opera in the evening. The first opera north of the Alps, imported from Italy, was performed here. The decor is Mannerism (between Renaissance and Baroque), with faux-antiquities and lots of surprising moments — intentional irregularities were in vogue after the strict logic, balance, and Greek-inspired symmetry of the Renaissance. (For example, the main hall is not in the center, but at the far end.) With the help of the included audioguide, you’ll wander through the palace exhibit and — to the sounds of shrieking tourists below on the fountains tour — enjoy hunting themes and learn about the impressive 17th-century hydraulic engineering that let gravity power the intricate fountains.

You’re then free to wander the delightful garden grounds and pop out to see the gazebo made famous by the “I am 16 Going on 17” song in The Sound of Music.

Taking full advantage of my guide’s car, we then dropped by four countryside farmhouse B&Bs I recommend, each on a handy bus line into the center of Salzburg. Here’s an example:

Frau Ballwein rents 11 cozy, charming, and fresh rooms in a delightful and family-friendly farmhouse. Some rooms come with intoxicating-view balconies (Sb-€38, Db-€55, Tb-€75, Qb-€85, 2-bedroom apartment for up to 5 people-€95, €10 more during festival, no surcharge for one-night stays, cash only, farm-fresh breakfasts amid her hanging teapot collection, non-smoking, free Wi-Fi, 2 free loaner bikes, free parking, Moosstrasse 69a, bus stop: Gsengerweg, tel.  0662/824-029, www.haus-ballwein.at, or email haus.ballwein@gmx.net).

Saying goodbye to my guide, I popped back to my hotel, where Marianne and her wonderful family (who run the place) made me a schnitzel. Then, with Marianne tagging along, I zipped over to the main square in the Old Town to catch the daily walking tour. I’ve done tours like this one many times, but another guide told me the guides who did this particular tour were not good — and, because I recommend the company in my book, I needed to check. They didn’t know who I was; I paid the €9 and was one of three people on a great 90-minute walk. Even with just a handful of tourists, they split the German-speakers and the English-speakers into two groups, so we didn’t have to listen to two languages. Our guide was excellent.

 

Enjoying some Sound of Music nostalgia on two wheels with Herr Rupert

Marianne and I then zipped over to catch the 16:30 Sound of Music bicycle tour. It’s called “Fräulein Maria’s Sound of Music Tour,” but it’s run by a burly young man named Rupert. (As Austrians barely know what the Sound of Music is all about, getting a handle on this quirky touristic phenomenon was particularly interesting for Marianne.) It was a delightful tour, and now I can capably compare it to the Sound of Music bus tours.

We had to cut out half an hour early in order to catch the 19:30 marionette performance of The Magic Flute. Of all the musical venues in Salzburg that I recommend, this was one I’d never actually experienced. After the performance, I could write it up with more confidence:

Marionette Theater — Salzburg’s much-loved marionette theater offers operas with spellbinding marionettes and recorded music. A troupe of 10 puppeteers — actors themselves — bring the artfully created puppets at the end of their five-foot strings to life. The 180 performances a year alternate between The Sound of Music and various German-language operas (with handy superscripts in English). While the 300-plus-seat venue is forgettable, the art of the marionettes enchants adults and children alike (€24-35, May-Sept nearly nightly at 17:00 or 19:30, near Mozart’s Residence at Schwarzstrasse 24, tel. 0662/872-406, www.marionetten.at).

After the concert, we hopped into a taxi to go extremely local at the Augustiner beer garden (my favorite dinner in Salzburg), which is written up this way:

Augustiner Bräustübl, a huge 1,000-seat beer garden within a monk-run brewery in the Kloster Mülln, is rustic and raw. On busy nights, it’s like a Munich beer hall with no music but the volume turned up. When it’s cool outside, you’ll enjoy a historic setting inside beer-sloshed and smoke-stained halls. On balmy evenings, it’s like a Renoir painting — but with beer breath — under chestnut trees. Local students mix with tourists eating hearty slabs of schnitzel with their fingers or cold meals from the self-serve picnic counter, while children frolic on the playground kegs. For your beer: Pick up a half-liter or full-liter mug, pay the lady (schank means self-serve price, bedienung is the price with waiter service), wash your mug, give Mr. Keg your receipt and empty mug, and you will be made happy. Waiters only bring beer; they don’t bring food — instead, go up the stairs, survey the hallway of deli counters, and assemble your own meal. Classic pretzels from the bakery and spiraled, salty radishes make great beer even better. For dessert — after a visit to the strudel kiosk — enjoy the incomparable floodlit view of old Salzburg from the nearby Müllnersteg pedestrian bridge and a riverside stroll home (open daily 15:00-23:00, Augustinergasse 4, tel. 0662/431-246).

Marianne guided me deep into the local cuisine — all the way to horse-tongue salad (her favorite…I tried). We finished the day, after marveling at the beauty of floodlit Salzburg from the riverbank, checking out the bars on Steingasse. I’m not big on late-night listings in my guidebooks, but Salzburg is so accessible, and there’s a string of boomer-friendly cocktail and wine bars on a very characteristic old lane. Drinking there with Marianne, who pretended to be American, I had someone who could actually understand all the German being spoken as I made my rounds, giving me a wonderfully candid understanding of just how friendly they were to tourists.

I list all of this because, even though I enjoy the advantage of local friends, any traveler who equips himself with good information and expects to travel smart can amass plenty of lifelong memories in a single well-organized day.

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Our weekly public radio show, Travel with Rick Steves, is now seven years old. We started airing on only one station: Seattle’s KUOW. After a year, we were thrilled to air on 16 different stations, from Seattle to Fresno to Sioux Falls. And this week, we passed a much bigger milestone: 200 stations.

The latest additions include stations in Rochester, New York; Gainesville, Florida; Quad Cities, Illinois/Iowa; Valdez, Alaska; a network of stations based at Eastern Kentucky University; and a new station in Gray’s Harbor, Washington. And the newest member of our radio family: WUWF in Pensacola, Florida, will begin airing our show in September.

The full list of local airtimes for Travel with Rick Steves on our website includes “listen live” links to affiliates with Web streaming, as an alternative to subscribing to the podcast. You can also listen to any of our past shows in the radio archive at ricksteves.com/radio.

Thanks and congratulations to my producer, Tim Tattan, who mixes a passion for all things cultural, great editing skills (and the patience to digitally clean up my not-so-smooth interviews), musical brilliance (I love the way Tim uses music to enliven the hour), and a love of public radio. Thanks to our promotions wizard, Sheila Gerzoff, for helping us with station relations. And thanks to the stations and their listeners for keeping us on the air.

By the way, our show is completely free, better than ever, and it’s here to stay. If your public radio station is not airing us, you’re welcome to give them a call and ask them why. Travel with us all over the world — or an hour each week on the radio for Travel with Rick Steves. Thanks.

 

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I’m a week into my trip and, while it’s been wonderful in so many ways, a special highlight has been enjoying my newest audio tours created for our Rick Steves Audio Europe™ app. In Vienna, I did the Ringstrasse Tram Tour, the Vienna City Walk, and the St. Stephen’s Cathedral Tour. And yesterday I did the Salzburg Town Walk with a friend from Salzburg. Doing the Vienna walks in the quiet of the evening was particularly enjoyable and relaxing after a hard day of aggressive sightseeing. And the Salzburg walk nailed the city while giving my local friend an insight to how beautiful her city is for tourists. I say “nailed it” with a bit of personal relief, because I never know exactly how the audio tours will work until they are recorded and I can actually give them a whirl. The Salzburg tour is a pure and easy joy.

Okay, now the news: We originally released our free Rick Steves Audio Europe™ app a year ago. In April, I announced the release of Version 2.0 for Apple devices (still free, and better than ever). More than 100,000 travelers have since downloaded and enjoyed the expanded content and improved design (we’re thankful for the rave reviews on iTunes). And now, our much-improved Version 2.0 is also available for Android devices.

This app is entirely free. It’s loaded with user-friendly, trip-enhancing content — both audio tours and interviews with experts and locals. And if you’re a student of Europe traveling on a budget, forgive me for being immodest, but it’s a godsend. People love it, and my hardworking staff and I are really excited about it. I literally lie in bed at night thinking of new tours I can produce for this. (Strange, I know.) Munich is on deck. Download the app (or update your current version) today at Google Play or Amazon Appstore, and incorporate all of this free audio content into your next trip.

Here are some details on the new version of the app:

What’s new in Version 2.0: We’ve added eight audio walking tours (covering Vienna, Salzburg, Germany’s Rhine River Valley, Assisi, and Ephesus), as well as 26 new radio features on Ireland, the Netherlands, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, and Portugal.

What’s improved with Version 2.0: Audio tour maps and scripts can now be viewed from the player. We’ve expanded track descriptions, including photos. Tracks can be shared via Facebook, Twitter and email. Rick Steves e-books can be ordered and downloaded directly to your device (not free).

If you want to know more about this app, here’s our product description: The Rick Steves Audio Europe™ app organizes Rick’s vast and varied library of audio content into country- and city-specific playlists so you can enjoy ready access to the information that relates specifically to your travel plans. You’ll get Rick’s self-guided tours for dozens of Europe’s top museums, sights and historic walks — plus 200 tracks of travel tips and cultural insights from his radio show — all for free. This app downloads and stores audio files on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch running iOS 4 or later. The Android version runs on Android 1.6 or higher. Download the audio files before you go, or use a Wi-Fi hotspot to download them in Europe. You can then listen for free anytime off line (no Wi-Fi or cellphone connection is required). Handy PDF maps that complement the app’s walking tours can be viewed on your device. Audio content originates from Rick Steves’ guidebooks and the Travel with Rick Steves public radio program. Self-guided walking tours are excerpted from Rick Steves’ guidebooks.

The bad news: After releasing our new Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi audio tour, I hear the friars at the basilica are not allowing tourists to listen to mobile devices. Apparently the friars would rather that tourists pay to rent their own audio guides. That strikes me as not very Franciscan.

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Today I stood on Vienna’s Heroes Square where, in 1938, more than 200,000 tearfully happy Austrians gathered before Adolf Hitler. The Nazi dictator stood on the palace balcony and stated, “In front of German history, I declare my former homeland now a part of the Third Reich. One of the pearls of the Third Reich will be Vienna.” From that day on, Austrians were forbidden to say the word “Austria.”

In 1938, Vienna gave Hitler a rousing welcome.

Americans often wonder how Austria could so eagerly embrace Hitler and the Anschluss (the notion that Austria was meant to be unified with Germany anyway). Let me hazard an explanation: Imagine post-WWI Austria. One of the mightiest empires on earth started — and lost — a great war. In a few bloody years, it went from being a grand empire of 55 million people to a relatively insignificant landlocked state of six million that was required to be nonaligned. The capital, Vienna, was left with little to rule, and now its population comprised a third of the country’s. With the economic crisis we know as the Great Depression (which swept the Nazis to power  in Germany in 1933), Austria also got a fascist government complete with a dictator named Engelbert Dollfuss. He was as right-wing and anti-Semitic as the tyrant ruling Germany, but he was pro-Roman Catholic Church, pro-Habsburg, and anti-Nazi. When an Austrian Nazi assassinated Dollfuss in 1934, it was easy for the German Nazis to take over four years later. By that point, the Austrian fascists had already put down the leftists. The German Nazis just took over their Austrian counterparts’ file cabinets. And, Hitler promised greatness again…and jobs — something that has driven voters to support crazy political notions to this day.

This final wing of the Habsburgs' palace, the Hofburg, was built — with imperial grandeur in mind — just a few years before World War I and the end of the Habsburg dynasty. Twenty years after the last Habsburg stood here, Hitler spoke from its balcony. Today, after so much megalomania crashed and burned, the theme of the Habsburg military museum is "war is something for museums." This architectural last hurrah of the Habsburgs — which hosts three museums — is now filled with armor, Greek statues, and musical instruments.

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I’ve been in Vienna for 36 hours and, with all I’ve learned, I feel as excited as a kid sorting through his candy on the living room floor on Halloween.

I met a new guide named Gerhard Strassgschwandtner. I didn’t know you could have seven consonants in a row — that’s some kind of record. He runs Vienna’s “The Third Man” Museum, dedicated to a classic movie with a cult-like following that’s set in bombed-out, spy-ridden Vienna in 1945 (museum open Saturdays only, see www.3mpc.net).

Gerhard is passionate about history in all its marvelous complexity. Chatting with him, we imagined Vienna’s city wall back when the Austrian capital was the fifth largest city in the world. The core of the city was contained in a hulking, three-mile-long ring peppered with 2,200 cannons. The artillery was aimed across the 500-yard-wide “shooting fields,” as the stretch of land beyond the city wall was called in the 18th century. Napoleon destroyed much of the wall in 1809. It was replaced with only an iron fence — easy to shoot through but hard to shoot at. It seemed strong enough in the mid-19th century, as the greatest foe of “modern” governments was considered to be mobs of people in the streets.

It’s summertime, and the city’s museums are busy with students enjoying summer-camp-type activities. Austria provides a special kids’ summer pass — unlimited train travel anywhere in the country all summer long for young students for about €40 ($50).

As I update my Vienna guidebook, I’m discovering lots of sightseeing news. The Kunsthistorisches Museum, the city’s answer to the Prado and Louvre, is reopening its ground floor “Habsburg Kunstkammer” (or Chamber of Wonders) in 2013 to show off the lavish curiosities the emperors gathered to impress their friends. Also in 2013, Vienna will have a new Biedermeier exhibit in the City Palace of the Liechtenstein family.

For a rare bit of Prague-like ambience in Vienna, stroll through the charming Spittelberg district. Vienna’s population exploded from 1880 to 1910. Most of grand architecture and apartment flats that shape a visitor’s impression of the city date from this period. The Spittelberg district, just a 15-minute walk from the Hofburg in the city center, offers a rare enclave of pre-1880 Vienna.

Music lovers come to Vienna on a kind of pilgrimage to see the houses of composers who lived and worked here. The homes of Schubert, Brahms, Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart all host museums — but they are small, forgettable, and pretty spread out. For the best music history experience, I like the Haus der Musik (www.hausdermusik.at) which honors the great Viennese composers with lots of actual historic artifacts on one fine floor. Vienna is still a thriving capital of classical music, with three local opera companies (including the world-famous Vienna State Opera putting on 300 performances a year). Its glorious music venues offer a total of 10,000 seats which are generally sold-out every night. (Even so, they run at a deficit — so they’re subsidized by a caring government, the general populace, and lineup of corporate sponsors.)

Stepping into St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I was invited into a new elevator to visit an attraction that just opened — the Cathedral Treasury (€4, daily 10:00-18:00, includes a fine audioguide). The substantial treasures of the cathedral were ignored in the nearby (and outmoded) cathedral museum. So they were moved into the church, filling an — until now — inaccessible space high above the nave on the west portal wall. The visit includes the “Portrait of Rudolf IV” (the earliest realistic portrait in German art), precious relics, and commanding views of the nave.

Next, I popped into the Augustinian Church, where each Sunday the 11:00 Mass is performed with a wonderful orchestra. There’s a Neoclassical memorial by Canova to Empress Maria Theresa’s favorite daughter, Maria Christina; next to it is a chapel dedicated to Charles I, the last Habsburg emperor, who ruled from 1916 to 1918. He’s on a dubious road to sainthood pushed by Habsburg royalists who worship here. His required miracle: The varicose veins of a Brazilian nun were healed after she prayed to the emperor.

Vienna is great for both art nouveau and early modern buildings by architect Otto Wagner, who played a big part in shaping the urban landscape. Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank (built 1904-1907) overlooks the Ringstrasse (a.k.a. the Ring) with a facade that looks as secure as a safety deposit box. Its slinky angels atop the roof proclaim a new age made with a new metal — aluminum. The plain, marble-sided panels with their aluminum bolts remind us of Wagner’s belief that, “What is impractical can never be beautiful.”

Stepping inside, you understand the value this bank had for the new working class. It offered workers an unintimidating way to save their earnings in a combination post office/bank, rather than in some palace for elites. Its form follows function everywhere, as “necessity is the master of art.” With white and gray efficiency, the aluminum fixtures are simple yet elegant. A glass roof lets in light, and the glass floor allows light into the basement. The strong, geometric elements dignify the technological — and celebrate it as cultural. Wagner — like his angels on the roof — was heralding a new age. Facing this masterpiece across the street is the Kriegsministerium (the former ministry of war building). Its style is Neo-Baroque Historicism; it’s actually a few years younger than Wagner’s building, but it’s way behind the times — fighting against modernity.

Many things in Vienna are named after Karl Lueger, the mayor of the city before World War I. A century later, his legacy is being reconsidered. While he did much to modernize Vienna, he’s now seen as an anti-Semite — a demagogue who was admired by a young student in Vienna named Adolf Hitler. Lueger, while being a strong leader, was also a right-wing fearmonger. The city has just decided that a stretch of Vienna’s elegant Ringstrasse named for Lueger will be renamed for the university instead.

The USA is hot this week. But as Americans swelter, we should remember we don’t swelter alone. The entire world is feeling what is delicately called “global climate change” in order not to offend the people who refuse to accept the reality of global warming. While the Dutch raise their dikes, the Viennese are also preparing for a warmer reality. As older people suffer most from the stifling heat, the city is providing more shady places with benches and public mist machines. And there are big, shiny, new water dispensers popping up with reminders to be sure to hydrate. It’s good advice for locals and tourists — young and old alike — as scorching summers become our new norm.

Vienna is gearing up for more sweltering summers as fancy new water dispensers are placed at key points around the city.

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They say Seattle has nice summers. I think the last time I was home for one was in 1972. And tomorrow, I head back to Europe.

This trip will be rather short, as far as research trips go: just 45 days. I’ll fly to Vienna, research Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, new cities for me in northern Germany, and then lots of Belgium and the Netherlands. Then I meet our TV crew for a three-week shoot (making our Best of Europe tour route) to update our three European Travel Skills TV shows.

I just reviewed the three original episodes we filmed with my producer Simon, and I was struck by how surprisingly similar European travel is from a decade ago. In 2000, we did our best to produce a show that would “have legs,” and it has lasted very well. Even so, there have been plenty of changes: the demise of traveler’s checks is no longer news, smoke-free zones are now commonplace, phone cards are no longer used, and it’s just assumed you’ll travel with a cell phone. Railpasses are less of a player, while discount one-way flights are more popular. The opening of Eastern Europe is old news and Couchsurfing and AirB&B are the new way to slum around Europe. Filming in 2000, we had to pretend the euro (which was about to be released) was in circulation. Filming in 2012, we have to be a little careful in assuming the euro will remain Europe’s single currency. My kids are now adults, many of my best European friends have passed away, and, somehow — except for a slightly earlier bedtime and getting rid of my dorky aviator glasses — I’m more or less the same.

By the way, while I have great guides lined up throughout, I’m a little short in Amsterdam, Bruges, and Brussels. If you have a private guide you’ve worked with (or know about) in any of those cities that you’d like to recommend, please let me know in the comments here. Thanks!

I’ve got an exciting trip set up and look forward to reporting regularly via this blog. Thanks for traveling with me.

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As a travel writer and TV producer, I pride myself on not avoiding complicated history-teaching challenges. Anyone can throw out the name Joan of Arc — but so what? Anyone can reference Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants — but so what? Anyone can say “The Thirty Years’ War” — but so what? Without having my readers’ and viewers’ eyes glaze over, I try to fill in the “so what’s.”

Doing this is always a challenge in the TV scriptwriting process, because I need to set the historic context up front, when a TV show is supposed to be fun and engaging. But with the good help of my staff, we keep the bar pretty high and enjoy having the best of both worlds.

This spring, I was in Madrid talking about new palaces, wars of succession, and Habsburgs and Bourbons, and it occurred to me that I didn’t understand how and why Spain’s two royal families came to power and – so what?!

With the help of my favorite Madrid guide, Federico Barroso, and Cameron Hewitt (here in our office), we just took my rough essay, which was filled with gaps, and honed it into what I think is a pretty tight little sidebar for the next edition of our Spain guidebook. In case you’ve been lying awake at night, thinking, “Habsburgs and Bourbons in Spain — so what?”…here’s that new sidebar from the 2013 edition of Rick Steves’ Spain:

 

Spain’s Royal Families: From Habsburg to Bourbon

Spain as we know it was essentially born in the 15th century, when Queen Isabel (who ruled Castile and León) married King Ferdinand (who ruled Aragon and Navarre), bringing these four long-established medieval kingdoms together (1469). The so-called “Catholic Monarchs” (Reyes Católicos) wasted no time driving the Islamic Moors out of Spain (the Reconquista). By 1492, Isabel and Ferdinand conquered Granada, incorporating a fifth kingdom (Andalucía) and establishing more or less the same borders that Spain has today (minus its breakaway regions that have struggled for autonomy to this day: Catalunya, the Basque lands, and Galicia).

This was an age when “foreign policy” was conducted, in part, by marrying royal children into other royal families. Among the dynastic marriages of Isabel and Ferdinand’s children, they arranged for their third child, Juana “the Mad,” to marry the crown prince of Austria, Philip “the Fair.” This was a huge coup for the Spanish royal family. A member of the Habsburg dynasty, Philip was the heir to the Holy Roman Empire, which then encompassed much of today’s Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Transylvania, Low Countries, southern Italy, and more. And when Juana’s brothers died, making her ruler of the Kingdoms of Spain, it paved the way for her son, Charles, to inherit all of the kingdoms of his four grandparents—creating a vast realm and famously becoming “the most powerful man in Europe.” He became both Charles I of Spain and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.

He was followed by Philip II, Philip III, Philip IV, and finally Charles II. Over this period, Spain rested on its Golden Age laurels, eventually squandering much of its wealth and losing some of its holdings. Arguably the most inbred of an already very inbred dynasty (his parents were uncle and niece), Charles II was weak, sickly, and unable to have children, ending the 200-year Habsburg dynasty in Spain with his death in 1700.

Charles II willed the Spanish crown to the Bourbons of France, specifically, his grand-nephew, Philip of Anjou (who was also the grandson of the “Sun King” Louis XIV of France). But the rest of Europe feared allowing the already-powerful Louis XIV to add Spain (and Spain’s vast New World holdings) to his empire. Therefore, Austria, the Germanic States, Holland, and England backed a different choice, Archduke Charles of Austria (grandson of Spain’s King Philip IV). So began the War of Spanish Succession (1700-1714), involving all of Europe. The war ended with a French victory. However, with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Philip had to give up his rights to the throne of France. This let him take the Spanish throne, but ensured that the future Spanish Bourbon dynasty could not merge with the French branch of that royal family — keeping Spain independent.

In 1714, the French-speaking Philip became the first king of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain (with the name Philip V). The Spanish throne, under the inbred Habsburgs, had grown ineffectual and corrupt, and Philip V breathed much-needed new life into the monarchy.

When the old wood-structured Habsburg Royal Palace partially burned down on Christmas Eve of 1734, Philip V (who had been born at Versailles) decided to build a new and spectacular late-Baroque-style palace as a bold symbol of the new dynasty. This is the palace that wows visitors to Madrid today. Construction finished in 1764, by which time Philip V’s son Charles III became the first to occupy the new palace. Charles III’s decorations are what you’ll still see inside when you visit.

The Bourbon palace remained the home of Spain’s kings from 1764 all the way until 1931, when Francisco Franco proclaimed the Second Spanish Republic, forcing King Alfonso XIII into exile. Although Franco originally chose to sideline the royals to make himself ruler-for-life, he later handpicked as his successor Prince Juan Carlos, a Bourbon by birth and Alfonso XIII’s grandson. Franco believed that Juan Carlos would continue Franco’s own hardline policies. But when Franco died in 1975, Juan Carlos surprised everybody by voluntarily turning the real power back over to the parliament. Today Spain is a constitutional monarchy with a figurehead Bourbon king — Juan Carlos I — at the helm.

Madrid's remarkable Royal Palace wows tourists. But understanding its history — and the two royal dynasties that have shaped Spain, the Habsburgs and the Bourbons — make it even more compelling.

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