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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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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Some of you emailed me asking for a transcript of the commencement address I gave at The Evergreen State College last Friday. You’ll find it below, or you can open a printer-friendly PDF.

I still smile when I remember singing the school fight song together: “Go, Geoducks, go! Stretch your neck when the tide is low. Siphon high, squirt it out. Swivel all about. Let it all hang out. Go, Geoducks, go!”

 

Before meeting the school president, I referred to him as "President Purce." When I got there, people told me, “After you meet him, you’ll call him 'Les.'” That was exactly right. It’s great to meet people who have found the right niche in life, as the president of The Evergreen State College certainly has. Thanks, Les, for the great day and all your work at ESC.

 

Here’s the address:

Rick Steves’ 2012 Commencement Talk for The Evergreen State College: Get Out

President Purce, faculty, others here who help make The Evergreen State College so cool, parents, family, friends, and graduates, thank you for this opportunity to help celebrate your commencement.

I’ve spent a third of my adult life living out of a 9″ by 22″ by 14″ suitcase. And, looking back, it’s clear to me: This has been time and money very well spent.

Today I want to share with you some ideas that come not from a classroom, but from spending 30 years on the road. You’ve already done the classroom thing. Now: GET OUT!

Embrace the world. Live your life honestly and with meaning.

Baby Boomers like me, who came of age back in the Sixties, have an affinity for the movie The Graduate. In one famous scene, a successful businessman corners the promising young grad played by Dustin Hoffman. He tells him that to find success, he needs to know just one word: “Plastics.”

As a generation, it seems to me that we took this “plastics” advice one step further…and many of us just became plastic. We wound up with plastic success…synthetic conformity…a society of too many mindless producer/consumers.

But in my travels, I’ve encountered so many people who are the farthest thing from plastic. Guiding a tour group through eastern Turkey, I once dropped in on a craftsman who was famous for his wood carving. Every village in his region wanted a prayer niche carved by him. We gathered around to watch him work. He was proudly showing off for his visitors from so far away. Then, suddenly, he stopped, held his chisel high into the sky, and declared, “A man and his chisel — the greatest factory on earth!”

When I asked if I could buy a piece of his art, he said, “For a man my age to know that my work will go back to the United States and be appreciated, that’s payment enough. Please take this home with you, and remember me.”

It was clear: He didn’t need me to tell him what “success” meant.

As a travel writer, my advice to you: define your own success…and then…GET OUT!

Believe it or not, this is a great time to be graduating!

Sure, our nation — and your generation — are faced with unprecedented challenges. But you can choose to see this as an abundance of challenges — a blessing in disguise. You’ve got the tools. There’s clearly a need. Grappling with, and conquering, those challenges can bring meaning to your life.

Now you can follow the rallying cry of the Impressionist painters like Monet: “Out of the studio and into the light!”

Assembled here are countless success stories just waiting to happen — potential heroes in a needy world. And starting tomorrow: it’s on!

But, in the interest of being realistic, let’s talk about some of the challenges that await.

As idealistic recent graduates, you’ll be eager to improve things wherever you wind up. But be prepared: Institutions discourage disobedience, and they resent people who challenge the status quo — even though, very often, that’s exactly what they need most.

Back in the 13th century, the monks who first followed St. Francis of Assisi were nicknamed “Jugglers of God.” They worked within, but at the same time against, the Roman Catholic Church. These early Franciscans antagonized the pope. But the Church — so in need of reform — was actually made stronger by those fun-loving, truth-embracing, crazy Franciscans.

Traveling in Central America, I met the modern-day equivalents of those early monks — fighting courageously for peace and justice. While many of these priests and nuns were actually excommunicated for their political activism, they continued their work without missing a beat, believing, as one priest told me, “Part of our vow of obedience to the Church is disobedience to the Church.”

Like those first Franciscans in Italy, and those 21st-century Jesuits in Central America, it’s your challenge, and your calling, to annoy regressive powers within our society for the good of that same society.

Have you noticed how much fear there is in our society these days? Fear of terrorism. Fear of big government. Fear of paying more at the gas pump. I believe fear is being used against us, and that fear can trump a person’s innate desire to be compassionate.

The way I see it, fear is for people who don’t get out much. I’ve found that the flip side of fear is understanding. And you can gain understanding through travel.

Here’s my challenge to you: Live your life as a traveler — even if just metaphorically. Get out of your comfort zone. Reach out. Be bold. Be curious. Don’t be afraid.

A few years ago, I went to Iran to produce a public television special. Before going there, I was afraid. But I went — and I’ve never encountered such a warm welcome in my travels as I found on the streets of Tehran.

People asked me, “Why’d you go to Iran?” I went there because I believe it’s good character to know people before you bomb them. I wanted to humanize the people of Iran. And the wonderful people-to-people experiences I had there did just that. The Iranians I met welcomed and respected me as an individual, even if their government had taught them to hate my country.

I wanted to understand who could vote for leaders like theirs. I ended up learning that the political base of Iran’s regressive and xenophobic government is made up of small-town, less-educated, deeply religious people — good people who, just like their counterparts here, are motivated by fear and love. It was a huge lesson for me, made possible only because I overcame my fear and went there.

I remember back when people would send someone off on a trip with a cheery, “Bon voyage!” These days, it’s an ominous “Travel safe.” But actually, when it comes to nurturing a free spirit, the real danger lies in staying home.

There are powerful forces in our society that simply don’t like smart people like you. For them, the less informed and more complacent you are, the better — and the more money they’ll make. Refuse to be dumbed down.

I was in Berlin back in 1999, just as their once-bombed-out and now-renovated parliament building re-opened to the public. It was one of those rare and exciting moments as a traveler when you actually get to be an eyewitness to history as it unfolds. After a tumultuous century of war and division, Germany had moved its capital back to Berlin and capped its historic old Reichstag with a glorious new glass dome. What powerful architectural symbolism! It’s free, open long hours, and designed for German citizens to walk the spiral ramp all the way to the top and literally look down, over the shoulders of their legislators, and keep an eye on those in power.

I’ll never forget being on the top of that dome on that exciting day, surrounded by teary-eyed Germans. Now, any time you’re surrounded by teary-eyed Germans… something exceptional is going on. For those people, the opening of this grand new capitol building was the symbolic closing of a difficult chapter in their history: No more division. No more fascism. No more communism. They were entering a new century with a new capitol, united and filled with hope and optimism.

It was a thrill to be there. I was caught up in it. But then, looking around, I realized many of the other American tourists up there didn’t have a clue about the excitement and the importance of this moment. They were preoccupied with trivialities — forgotten camera batteries, needing a Coke, the lack of air-conditioning. And it saddened me. I thought, “I don’t want to be part of a dumbed-down society.” I want to be part of an engaged society. I made a promise to myself then and there that, in my own little world as a travel writer, I’d expect my readers, my viewers, and my travelers to be engaged. Each of us in our own worlds needs to challenge our countrymen not to be dumbed down… but to be smartened up. Considering the unprecedented challenges facing our nation today, a smart electorate and an engaged public is more important than ever.

I don’t have to tell you that you’re graduating in the middle of an economic crisis. I’m beginning to think that, like our “war on terror,” this could be a perpetual crisis. And it can hit deeper than just bank accounts. With this crisis, your very ideals will come under attack. But because of the crisis, it’s more important than ever that you hang on to those ideals.

We’re hearing a lot about “austerity” these days. Beware. Austerity can be used as a tool to maintain and widen the gap between the rich and the rest. Sometimes I think that the real crisis isn’t the recession… but that ever-widening gap.

Many people in our country are struggling financially right now. But keep things in perspective: 90 percent of humanity would love to have America’s economic problems. (Just ask my friends in Greece and Mexico.) And so many Americans would love to be sitting where you are right now.

One result of this crisis is that, increasingly, we Americans are living with a mindset of scarcity. We ignore our blessings and fixate on what we don’t have.

I want to challenge each of you to live, instead, with a mindset of abundance. In my travels, I’ve noticed an irony: While we Americans — the richest people around — live with a mindset of scarcity, the poorest people — like Guatemalans, Sri Lankans, Moroccans — live with a mindset of abundance. These are the people who give me the warmest and most generous welcome. In El Salvador, to throw a great party, all you need is a chicken and a Coke. While they seem to have the least, they celebrate life, and live it with a mindset of abundance.

You’re stepping into a brutal economic world. It’s an environment where quarterly profit statement thinking trumps long-term sustainability, concerns for peace, and compassion. It’s a world where profit maximization in the short term is virtually a legal requirement. These days, so many bright young people — cowed by that mindset of scarcity — pursue careers based solely on where the money is. It’s causing a serious brain drain in our society away from noble callings that may be less lucrative.

The mantra these days is: “There’s not enough money.” But there’s plenty of money and plenty of talent in America — just different priorities. We should all be in this together. Working outside our own self-interest to bring up people in need unites us — it toughens the fabric of our society.

On this important day, I hope you feel empowered — not demoralized, not dumbed down, and not made afraid. To better understand the economic crisis and put it in perspective, once again: GET OUT!

As Americans, we’re blessed with opportunity. But that same prosperity, power, and pride that defines us can have an unfortunate side-effect: ethnocentrism. Americans are disinclined to look beyond our borders. But if you want to change the world, you need to understand the world. You need to get out.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned from my travels, perhaps the most important was picked up on my first trip with my parents. I was just a 14-year-old kid — with a pretty egocentric and America-centric view of the world. I was in a park in Oslo, behind the palace. My parents were showering me with love. Their world revolved around me. They’d do anything to make me happy and help me enjoy a fulfilling life. Then, I looked out over the park. It was speckled — like a Monet painting — with countless other parents…all lavishing love on their children. And it hit me: “Wow, those parents love their kids just as much as my parents love me. This planet must be home to billions of equally lovable, equally deserving, equally precious children of God.”

America is a wonderful country. I’m proud to be an American and I’d live nowhere else. But if we want to do a better, smarter job of fitting into this ever-shrinking world, we need to be honest about the exceptionalism of the United States. Powerful people in our society are pushing the idea that God loves us more than any other nation on earth. But sometimes I wonder if the only thing “exceptional” about the USA is our ability to think God loves us more.

America is just four percent of this planet. There’s no doubt that we’re a beautiful four percent of the world’s population, with plenty to be proud of. But that doesn’t mean that the other 96 percent is second-rate! And ironically, to think we’re exceptional is, in itself, a dangerous notion.

As young adults, and future leaders, you have a choice of how to see the USA: With a feel-good ethnocentrism, or with an honest worldview.

Travel has inspired me to help make our world a better place — and it’s given me ideas of how to do it. For example, through my travels, I’ve realized that there are two starkly different models for social activism: Mother Teresa and Oscar Romero.

There are plenty of worthy causes and generous people supporting them — inspired by Mother Teresa. It’s easy to love Mother Teresa. She’s a saint: heroic, loving, and inspirational. But in all of her efforts to help the needy, she never asked why. Why were the people she helped so wretchedly poor and downtrodden?

Then there are others, who see injustice — and then ask why. Oscar Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970s, at a time when his country was torn apart by a civil war — rich landowners against landless peasants. Romero didn’t just feed the poor, he stood with them. He spoke out boldly and confronted the very foundations of structural poverty. He asked why. Romero predicted he’d be shot and that his spirit would live on in his people. And in 1980, he was gunned down in front of his congregation. And his memory does live on, to this day, as Salvadorans continue to push for dignity and social justice.

As you move into the future, consider the Oscar Romero model: Ask why. Society may call others “heroes,” but you can be the conscience of this great nation.

I believe that to be a true patriot, it’s our duty to challenge America to do better. Some people may call it “America-bashing,” but I’d say having high standards for our country is “America-loving.”

Your passion for truth and justice can strengthen the fabric of our democracy.

The power your education provides can contribute to our homeland security.

And your uniquely Evergreen celebration of freedom can be an inspiring example of good citizenship.

Today you’re graduating. But don’t ever graduate away from what makes this school, and your education, such a treasure.

One more travel tale: In the middle of Copenhagen, you’ll find an unlikely hippie commune called Christiania. Surrounded by all that Danish perfection and orderliness, it’s a funky enclave of squatters and rebels who operate their own little idealistic society. Somehow, despite the best efforts of developers and the city government, Christiania has survived for more than 35 years. On my last visit, as I entered Christiania, I saw a huge mural that reads, “Only dead fish follow the current.”

You’ve invested many years of hard work and lots of money in your Evergreen education in order to be successful. Maybe now’s a good time to pause… and to think about what “success” really means. Let me help you get started.

First of all, here are a few things success is not:

It’s not doing a job you don’t believe in.

It’s not letting ignorance be bliss.

And it’s certainly not letting someone else put barbed wire on your hierarchy of needs — convincing you to worry more about consuming than contributing.

Real success, on the other hand, can be lots of things. Part of it is a practical matter: Working hard to earn a good paycheck and providing for your family. And that in itself can be wonderfully fulfilling. But I challenge you to do even more. As graduates of Evergreen — as promising young leaders — leave this planet with more than scrapbooks filled with smiley faces and memories of good family barbecues. You can change the world.

Fundamentally, only you can define your success. Remember the woodcarver with the chisel I met in Turkey? There’s a person who’s defined his own success. He doesn’t need someone like me to say to him, “Plastics.” And neither do you.

As you leave this beautiful arena of your formal education, the choice is yours:

You can be plastic or authentic, agitate institutions to make them better, and choose not to be afraid.

You can use your education to be engaged, embrace life with a mindset of abundance, and make choices that benefit society as a whole rather than just you as an individual.

You can hold our country to the highest standards, confront injustice by doing more than just helping — you can ask why, and then do something to change it.

And you can get out — into our world — to better understand it.

In an American society where so many are selling their souls to conform, you can be a dead fish, or you can swim freely — even against the current.

Evergreen Class of 2012, this day’s all about you — and for good reason. But remember: you didn’t get here on your own. Thank those who helped make your education possible.

Now begins the real thing: Embrace the truth, make our world a better place, live fulfilling lives, with abandon…and have fun while you’re at it.

God bless each of you…And congratulations! Now, it’s time to find your success…and GET OUT.

Bon voyage.

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Last week, I had one of the most joyful experiences of my life: shaking the hands of 1,200 jubilant new graduates on a stage surrounded by towering cedars and overlooking the main square of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

These students had chosen me to help celebrate their big day by sharing my take on success and their futures with a commencement address. After I had given the speech, the college president invited me to shake a few hands as the students came up to receive their diplomas. I couldn’t stop. One by one the students processed up the ramp and across the stage, beaming with a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Being Evergreen (where freedom and individuality are celebrated and whose mascot is a geoduck), half of the students ornamented their green robes and mortarboards with funny or outlandish accessories. While there were plenty of plain old hardworking students, the procession sparkled with a festival of variety — veterans, vamps, grannies, moms with little kids in their arms, Native Americans, nerds, anarchists, jocks, stoners, and flamboyantly gay people. Looking into the eyes of nearly every graduate in that carnival of humanity, I was inspired by a beautiful and consistent thread connecting the amazing variety of people whose hands I shook. They had each worked hard for a degree because they had a mission in life to fulfill — and this day was a springboard for that determined future.

After a thousand handshakes, hugs, and high fives, I realized I was having the time of my life. The president said no speaker had ever stayed to shake hands like this, and I could sit down and relax. But I was an honorary part of the Evergreen family, privileged to be witness to so much joy, and having an absolute blast.

Preparing and then giving the speech was a rich experience. Rather than ad lib from notes, as I would normally do, 24 hours before the event my staff and I decided I’d treat it as a “read essay.” I’ve never read a talk before. In fact, when people read talks (especially pastors reading sermons), I wish they would just follow an outline and speak from their hearts. That’s my standard operating procedure. But preparing for this talk, I had so much I wanted to share in my allotted 20 minutes. The ideas and concepts were complex, and the wording needed to be finely crafted. And I wanted to be positive and uplifting. (I tend to rant.) With the help of my closest friends and staff, I massaged what I wanted to say into a tight essay, tweaked my references and phrasing to be in tune with my audience, “killed a few babies” (editor talk for deleting favorite bits that just don’t quite fit), and came up with a transcript I liked. Giving the talk — which ran 22 minutes — to 1,200 graduating students and three or four thousand friends and family was an absolute delight. If you’d like a traveler’s answer to “plastics,” check this out.

Thanks to the wonderful faculty and 2012 graduates of Evergreen for the honor of being a part of your commencement. If I inspired you half as much as you inspired me, it was a huge success all around.

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

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Last March, I drove through America’s heartland, giving sold-out talks to large crowds of enthusiastic travelers. From towns high in the Rockies, through our country’s breadbasket, and to the Deep South, Rick Steves’ Road Trip USA was a huge success and thrilling travel.

As I reported on my journey, many of you asked me to include stops in the Northeast and Canada. Well, I’ve listened. In March of 2013, I’ll embark on Road Trip USA: Part II. I plan to start in North Carolina, then travel north through Washington DC, Massachusetts, and Vermont. I’ll then cut west into Canada until I finally dip down into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Do you live roughly along this route and work with a library, university, performing arts center, or town hall that would like to host me for a travel lecture? If so, please email my publicist, Ashley Sytsma, at ashley@ricksteves.com, or call her at 425-608-4293.

Thanks for helping make the next Road Trip USA a hit.

Rick speaking in Boise, Road Trip USA 2012. Photo credit: Tim Tower

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