Join me now for a magic moment in the little town of Hall, Austria — just enjoying good friends, some spaetzle and dumplings, and the mellow tempo of life. The locals here have a name for this cozy feeling: “Gemütlichkeit.” And right now, under this chestnut tree with old friends…it’s Gemütlichkeit.
I’ve traveled to the Alps with my crew to film three new episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe, and we’re off to a great start. We’ve traveled together for decades, and I’ve never seen my cameraman Karel dance — butjust look at him now. This is joyful travel.
Join me at Walderalm, a cluster of traditional family farms where 70 cows share their meadow with the clouds. We drove up to Hinterhornalm — a couple of miles above Innsbruck’s tourist crowds — and from there, it’s just a short walk to this little piece of alpine wonder.
I’m here with my TV crew, kicking off a three-episode shoot through the Austrian, Italian, Swiss, and French Alps — and this is an example of the peaceful and pristine side of the Alps that we’ll be featuring. I’d love to pack you along with me for our whole alpine adventure, so be sure to stay tuned, and invite your traveling friends along, too.
To celebrate the season, I’m sharing clips, extras, and behind-the-scenes notes from Rick Steves’ European Christmas. Today we travel to Austria, where the festive swirl of heartwarming sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas abound. This is where the season’s most-loved carol, “Silent Night,” was first performed over 200 years ago.
We knew that filming an intimate family Christmas feast would not necessarily come out natural and fun-loving on TV, so we filmed two and picked the best. The Bavarian family the German Tourist Board lined up for us tried hard. But the evening just felt stiff. We spent long hours feasting and filming with them, but ended up with nothing usable.
Thankfully, just over the border, the traditional Austrian family we filmed the next night exceeded all hopes. They took me dashing through the snow in a two-horse open sleigh. By the way, as you watch this clip, imagine the stress of knowing that in 15 minutes, the light will be gone and the delightful sleigh bit will become unusable. We scrambled to reach their home late after a long day of filming and had to really keep things moving along — cutting the friendly welcomes (without being rude to the kind and eager people who have no idea how critical the fading light is), and getting the horses all in gear and clip-clopping merrily past the cameraman.
Then, at the door of their gingerbread-cute yet massive home, the entire family greeted us with a Christmas yodel. Inside their time-warp home, a classic grandma was making cookies with children you just had to pinch, an old Habsburg grandpa played the zither, Mom lit the advent wreath while teaching her child the significance of each candle, and Dad blessed the house from the attic to the barn with incense as his daughter sprinkled holy water with a sprig of spruce. (Part of my goal with this program was to explain the meaning behind some of our rituals — like the Advent wreath — in a traditional European context.) The parents secretly decorated the tree, placed the gifts, and lit the real candles. They rang the bell, and the kids tumbled into the room, filled with wonder. When our cameraman smiles as he films, I know we’re getting good footage.
Austria had its musical ups and downs. I was excited to experience the ritual reenactment of the first performance of “Silent Night” in Oberndorf, the village where it originated. We scrambled to get out there on Christmas Eve and set up at the several spots where events were taking place. But it was basically a muddy, touristy mess, with underwhelming music and not a hint of the magic we had naively hoped for. I managed to persuade the musicians to perform a private little concert for us in the church, so we at least filmed “Silent Night” as it was first performed (two guitars and two singers). My Christmas Eve dinner was the last two bratwursts on the griddle with a stale roll, snapped up just as they were closing down the tent.
Racing back into Salzburg to salvage something of Christmas Eve, we hiked to the abbey where Maria of “The Sound of Music” caused her fellow sisters to sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” The sisters had agreed to let our crew be present at their holy Mass, but I guess they didn’t understand we wanted to actually use the big camera we lugged up the hill. When we got there, they said no camera — just a microphone. Our soundman carefully set up the microphone stand to the side of the altar facing the choir of nuns (as I sat in the back, happily humming “Climb Every Mountain”). Suddenly, the old but very spry Mother Superior dashed across the altar in the direction of the out-of-sight nuns’ choir. Seconds later, our sound man was evicted — dragging all his gear, along with his tail between his legs, out of that restricted holy zone. He had to set up the mic farther back in the nave, making the recording unusable.
Thankfully, the next day — Christmas morning — we were given a royal perch from which to shoot in the Salzburg cathedral as a huge orchestra and choir filled the place with a glorious Diabelli Mass.
Just being out and about on the road, you stumble onto scenes that give insight into different worlds. On my latest swing through Central Europe — Berlin, Prague, Vienna — I enjoyed being a “cultural lint brush.” Here are some slice-of-local-life insights I picked up.
Berlin’s late-night convenience stores — like bodegas in New York City — are nicknamed “Spatis” (meaning roughly “late-ies”). And when there’s a big soccer game on TV, they’ll set up a TV on the sidewalk, put out some milk crates for customers to sit on, and host a party. For the cost of a grocery-store beer, the neighborhood gathers and enjoys sharing the event together. My Berlin friends — who say “this would never be allowed in Munich” — love these examples of Berlin community.
In the last couple of years, a new fake tradition has been born in Prague: stands selling chimney cakes, or trdelník. You’ll see these stands on virtually every corner, with saucy medieval maidens hard at work baking rotisserie pastries…all conspiring to be seen as a local custom. But chimney cakes have nothing to do with Czech culture or traditions (they’re originally from two countries away, in Hungary). They’re just another clever way to make money off tourists.
In Prague, ATMs not attached to real banks offer famously bad rates. Every local knows to avoid these rip-off ATMs.
In Vienna, the city government — knowing both locals and tourists are dealing with hotter days than ever, thanks to climate change — have put out big cold-water stations with reminders to stay hydrated.
You see a lot of marijuana leaves and green packaging throughout Europe these days, and you might think, “Wow, I didn’t know pot was legal here.” But this is CBD cannabis — legal only if it contains less than one percent THC. CBD makes you calm and is considered a medicine. THC pot — the stuff that makes you giggle — is not yet legal here. Don’t worry (that’s OK)…be happy (not yet).
I’m wrapping up my time in Central Europe: Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Prague, and Berlin — a great itinerary. We have individual guidebooks for each of these cities (except Bratislava, which is included in both our Vienna and Budapest books). And with so much to experience in each city, keeping all of those books up to date is no easy task. But with the help of co-authors and guidebook researchers, we update each book, in person, every two years. And this year, it was my turn to take a spin through the great cities of Central Europe. Here are a few travel memories that are sticking with me.
Along the way, I got to meet lots of our happy tour groups and their wonderful guides. At my Budapest hotel, Gerlóczy, on three successive nights I got to pop in on Rick Steves Tour groups who were having dinner in the dining room. Each group was convinced that their guide — Peter, Etelka, and Katka — was the greatest guide on the Continent. For me, that’s a wonderful disagreement.
A highlight for me in Vienna is dropping in on Karin and Gerhard, who have lovingly built — from nothing more than their love of the movie The Third Man — a museum that tells its story, and the story of Vienna in the dark and spy-filled days after WWII. It’s only open on Saturdays and by private tour appointment…and it’s in the top ten list of things to do on TripAdvisor for Vienna. Bravo! Our tour groups enjoy a private tour of this fascinating museum.
In Vienna, I learned to spot pickpockets working the crowded tram system. They work in pairs and dress up as tourists, studying maps, wearing little touristy backpacks, and relieving careless tourists of their wallets all day long.
Traveling alone with four different books to update this month, I’m in a very focused state of mind. With impressive discipline (as I have a very hard time not being out and about in these amazing cities), I make sure to take time in my room to get all the new information massaged into the files for that book’s new edition. My hotel desk (strewn with “lady laptop,” maps, and notes) makes a wonderful on-the-road office.
In a few days, I’ll be meeting my TV crew in Scotland. It’s always a bit stressful to get a pre-TV shoot haircut in a land where I don’t speak the language. And hairdressers are one of those occupations where you’re likely to encounter some communication challenges. As I always say, if it’s important, have a local friend write your message on paper: “Please not short. Only a trim.”