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

KGB Prisons, Putin, and Trump

I was just all alone in a secret KGB prison outside of Berlin with ghosts of people once held there. If someone is held in a KGB prison, it’s probably because they are a good person, not a bad person. Alone in that prison, I couldn’t help but think of two presidents, Putin and Trump, talking privately for two hours about their power and how to wield it.

In the 1980s, a young Vladimir Putin was a rising star in the KGB, working right there in Germany when this prison was full of unjustly incarcerated people. Now, he’s Mr. Make Russia Great Again. He’s leading his country — with a cunning ruthlessness that impresses both his people and our president — back to a position of global strength after its fall with the implosion of the USSR.

Pondering photos of people broken here, solitary confinement cells, and what it takes to rule a people who are not really free, I wondered what motivates our president to admire autocrats across the globe. Fighting for democracy and civil liberties is messy and frustrating I’m sure. Perhaps brutal measures by autocrats who have unbridled power are more rewarding. People don’t get in your way. You see results strong and fast.

Putin helped run and organize a system of prisons like this back then and he runs his country with a similar heartlessness today. The cost is real lives. Broken lives. This prison is silent today, but its ghosts spoke to me. Its inmates were silenced by isolation. They could do nothing.

But we are not isolated. We can make a difference. Silence on our part, as our president cozies up to autocracy, is a choice.

If ever you’re in Berlin, and you need a little such inspiration, here’s my entry for this sight from my Berlin guidebook:

KGB Prison Memorial at Leistikowstrasse, Potsdam

Standing in stark contrast to all of Potsdam’s pretty palaces and Hohenzollern bombast, this crumbling concrete prison has been turned into a memorial and documentation center to the Cold War victims of USSR “counterintelligence” (free, Tue-Sun 14:00-18:00, closed Mon).

On the nondescript Leistikowstrasse, a few steps from the lakeside park, the KGB established a base in August 1945 (mere days after the Potsdam Conference), which remained active until the fall of the USSR in 1991. The centerpiece of their “secret city” was this transit prison in which enemies of the Soviet regime were held and punished in horrible conditions before entering the USSR “justice” system — to be tried, executed, or shipped off to the notorious gulag labor camps. While most prisoners were Russian citizens, until 1955 the prison also held Germans who were essentially kidnapped by the USSR in retribution for their wartime activities.

From the blocky modern reception building, you’ll enter the complex. In the yard find the model illustrating how this was just the inner core of a walled secret city which until 1991 was technically Soviet territory and run by the KGB. Then head inside the prison, where the hallways and cells are an eerie world of peeling paint, faded linoleum, and rusted hinges. The two floors host a well-presented exhibit in English, explaining the history of the building and profiling many of the individuals who were held here.

Up-to-Date Guidebooks: $20 Tools for $4,000 Experiences

I’m amazed that some people actually spend thousands of dollars and precious vacation weeks traveling with old guidebooks. Sure, it feels like a splurge to spend $20 on the newest edition of a guidebook. But thinking you’re “saving” that money by using an old edition is a classic example of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. This little clip gives you a peek at the many changes that are worked into a lovingly updated guidebook. In 2019, you’ll want not the fifth edition of my Vienna guidebook…but the sixth.

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Video: A Travel Writer’s Work Day

It’s day 71 of my 100-day trip to Europe, and I’ve just wrapped up a whirlwind week of guidebook research in Vienna. When I’m on the road researching, I have to be disciplined to, every few days, stop learning and sightseeing — and take some time to massage all that new information into the existing text. This has been my routine for decades during my annual four months on the road. The result (with the help of my wonderful staff of fellow researchers and editors, back in the home office): about 50 guidebooks, each one the most lovingly updated (and usually bestselling) for its destination. This little clip shares my workaday reality as a travel writer. Knowing how much it will help countless travelers next year makes this work very rewarding.

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Video: Earning Ridicule from the Vienna Philharmonic

At Vienna’s Haus der Musik, every wannabe conductor gets a chance to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra…after a little coaching from Maestro Zubin Mehta. As I waved my virtual baton, the orchestra actually followed the beat I set. And when I got too sloppy, they put their instruments down and jeered. It was humiliating and fun at the same time.

When describing a museum in a Rick Steves guidebook, I make sure that my readers know not only the cost and the hours, but also how to fully experience and enjoy that particular sight. A good guidebook…it makes a big difference in your travels.

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Vienna’s Haus der Musik: Not Musical Chairs…But Musical Stairs

Museums all over Europe are trying to be interactive. Many fail. But the Haus der Musik in Vienna is wonderfully interactive, letting its visitors learn and have fun at the same time. And for the first time in ages, as a tour guide I get to use some of my old piano teacher skills. Run with me up the scale.

Here in Vienna, I’ve been thinking about my first trip to Europe. It was the summer of 1969, and I was 14 years old.

young rick steves with his parents and a man with a handlebar moustache
The old man on the left (with the big mustache and fancy pipe) claimed to have witnessed the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That’s my mom next to him, and our friend from a piano factory is in the window. It was here that I began to realize, “Hey, this travel is fun.”

My father, who was a piano importer, brought me to Vienna’s Bösendorfer factory, where the world’s finest pianos were made — not on an assembly line, but in former monks’ cells. I remember thinking it was as if the pianos were birthed, each with its own personality, depending upon the skills and techniques of each craftsman.

My dad carefully analyzed the personality of each of these grand pianos, matching it with his client’s taste back in Seattle. He’d make a selection, autograph the sounding board, they’d put it in a box, and ship it to some lucky American pianist. Bringing that Old World quality to the New World was the joy of my dad’s work — and it inspires me even today.

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