My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

A Visit to Chernobyl: Travel in the Postapocalypse

“And now we will stop at the abandoned Kapachi village school to experience some radiation hotspots.” This is something I’ve never heard a tour guide say before. And I don’t really welcome it now, truth be told. I’m on a rural road near the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl, a few short miles from the site of the worst accident in humankind’s brief history of splitting the atom. I came here willingly. I paid to come here. But at this moment, I’m questioning the wisdom of that decision.

The Tour

We hurtle toward Chernobyl on a tightly packed minibus, far faster than is comfortable on rutted country roads through the dewy post-dawn hours — drawing nearer, ever nearer, to the ominously named “Exclusion Zone.” I think back on a lazy summer barbecue a few months before, when I casually mentioned to some friends that I was thinking of visiting Chernobyl. Mouths dropped open and faces turned white, as our lighthearted evening pivoted into a full-blown intervention. They pleaded and begged me, for the love of all that’s holy, not to go. Only Karl — who I suspect doesn’t like me very much — was supportive of the idea.

Undeterred, I stuck with the plan and booked a $100, all-day tour by minibus from Kiev to Chernobyl. This morning I had shown up promptly at 7:30 a.m. at Kiev’s gritty train station. In the KFC parking lot, I met my tour group: a twentysomething couple from Austria, a gregarious bald Dutchman, a well-to-do retired couple from Seattle’s Eastside, and a tattooed bloke from Manchester who inexplicably wore shorts in spite of the chilly temperatures.

Now, bouncing recklessly in my springy seat, I look out the minibus window over a flat landscape with little definition: fields of wilted, unharvested sunflowers; peek-a-boo views of the dammed Dnieper River, which fills its broad basin like a great lake; and the occasional forest of skinny pine trees that recede infinitely — a haunting house of mirrors. It feels like we’re driving to the very edge of the civilized world, toward the edge of the treasure map marked “Here There Be Monsters.” At one point, an hour and a half outside of Kiev, we pass a lonely rural bus stop — so remote it’s hard to imagine who might possibly catch a bus there.

Our guide is dressed in a faux-military uniform. With his fatigues, his furry neck beard, his strong features, and his flat-topped cap, he’s the spitting image of a young Fidel Castro. I assume his getup is intentional — designed to tinge the experience with even more Cold War nostalgia.

The Accident

Our guide — who has a generic Ukrainian name like Yuri or Volodymyr, but whom I’ve decided to call “Fidel” — is comfortingly knowledgeable. As we drive, he explains the history of the event: The V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station was built in the 1970s as a jewel in the crown of USSR technological achievement. A couple of miles away, they also built the planned workers’ town of Pripyat, where nearly 50,000 people lived in one of Ukraine’s most desirable communities.

In the middle of the night of April 25, 1986, a perfect storm of design flaws and human error brought about a catastrophic systems failure at the Chernobyl plant’s Reactor No. 4. A plume of radioactive matter was ejected high into the air and drifted north, across Belarus and the Baltics, before finally being detected at a power plant in Sweden. It was only then — a full two days after the accident, when the Swedes called Gorbachev and said, “Um, we think maybe you have a serious problem” — that the Soviet authorities publicly acknowledged the meltdown.

With the catastrophe out of the bag, the USSR scrambled to contain the damage. They sealed off an “Exclusion Zone” around the plant — at first 10 kilometers, later expanding to 30 kilometers — and evacuated tens of thousands of people from Pripyat and the surrounding villages. Firefighters, miners, and a half-million Soviet soldiers were mobilized. It took them two weeks to extinguish the fire at the core of the reactor; within seven months, a containment “sarcophagus” had been installed over the meltdown site.

An untold number of responders (or, as they’re called, “liquidators”) spent the rest of their lives grappling with health problems. While the official number of deaths stemming directly from the meltdown is in the double-digits, the radiation is thought to be ultimately responsible for deaths numbering in the thousands — or tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands — mostly from increased rates of thyroid cancer, leukemia, and other ailments. To this day, people living within the blast radius, who lack the resources to relocate, raise their children on food and milk contaminated with toxic levels of radiation. The legacy of Chernobyl is far from over.

But the legacy of the liquidators is that today, many parts of the Chernobyl area are safe to visit — provided you’re accompanied by a guide who knows which hotspots are best avoided. Fidel outlines the ground rules: Avoid touching or setting personal effects down on any surface within the Exclusion Zone; don’t take anything home with you; and wear long pants and long sleeves at all times. (Hearing this, the shorts-wearing Mancunian sheepishly reaches into his backpack and pulls on a pair of sweatpants.)

Oh, and if you encounter any cute, curious foxes sniffing around in the woods, keep well clear. Some of them are rabid. There have been some…incidents. And, you must understand, it would be best not to repeat these.

The Exclusion Zone

We approach the first checkpoint, at the boundary of the 30-Kilometer Exclusion Zone, and have our passports checked — a mercifully brief exercise in bureaucratic posturing with machine guns. Soon after, we pull over on a gravel shoulder in the middle of nowhere.

Stepping out of the minibus, we’re greeted by three gregarious stray dogs. Having been warned about those rabid foxes, I recoil. But Fidel points out that these dogs are healthy: well-fed, vaccinated, and with tags in their ears. “You can even pet them,” he says. “But, uh, wash your hands after. Their fur may be contaminated.”

He means radioactive. Their fur may be radioactive. Hands in pockets, hands in pockets.

With our trio of mascots in tow, Fidel walks us through a dense forest. Soon, ruined houses begin to emerge from between the trees. “This was the village of Zalyssa,” he tells us. “It was evacuated after the accident, and never re-populated. The 3,000 or so inhabitants were resettled to a new village in a different part of Ukraine.”

First, radiation overtook Zalyssa. Then came the slow onslaught of nature. It’s astonishing to see how quickly a tidy community of businesses and homes, once deserted, is enveloped by brush and trees. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this place was abandoned a century ago — and certainly not within my lifetime.

We head up an overgrown path, once a paved street, past rusted cars and ramshackle cabins. The community hall still echoes with an endearing village pride. Stucco garlands ring the ceiling, directing the eye to a little stage at one end of the room. It’s easy to imagine this hall, 40 years ago, filled with revelers at a wedding reception, or with concerned farmers at a meeting of the collective. But today, the windows are mostly broken, the decor is weathered, and in a darkened corner of the stage, sinister black mold spreads unchecked. A cheery red banner preaches a sickeningly ironic message: “All hail communism — the bright future of all humankind!”

In the next room, the floorboards have been pried up, revealing a subfloor of chimney-like brick stacks and a few lonely joists. “Looting is a big issue here,” Fidel says. “People harvest wood and scrap metal from these buildings to sell on the black market. If you buy certain things at a flea market in Kiev, you have to wonder if it’s radioactive.” I imagine some poor, unfortunate Ukrainian hipster renovating a stylish urban flat with reclaimed wood floors and vintage fixtures.

As we hop on the bus and wave goodbye to our canine friends, Fidel explains, “The dogs are very nice, as you can see, and local people take care of them as well as they can. In fact, there’s a charity for getting Chernobyl’s stray dogs adopted in the United States. But…” He shrugs, matter-of-factly. “These dogs will probably be eaten by the packs of wolves who roam here in the winter.” Driving onward, all I can think is: wild carnivorous radioactive wolves.

Just beyond Zalyssa, as we drive past the jaunty “Welcome to Chernobyl” sign — topped with the local symbol, a friendly atom — I reflexively check my dosimeter. But the radiation levels here are about the same as in Kiev.

The Radiation

Walking around with a radiation dosimeter clipped to your belt is fascinating. Having spent a day doing it here, I’m inclined to try it at home.

Like most Americans (at least, those barbecue interventionists), I think of radiation in black-and-white terms: It’s bad, full stop. But visiting Chernobyl cultivates a more pragmatic way of thinking about radiation: Too much is bad, but a little is OK. And as long as you’re keeping track, you’ll be fine…probably. It’s not that different from deciding how many cigarettes or hamburgers you can safely consume. You could swear off smoking or go vegan, but most people don’t. They take a calculated risk in order to do something enjoyable…like visiting Chernobyl on vacation.

Is Chernobyl safe? Wild carnivorous radioactive wolves aside, the answer seems to be yes. The most hazardous forms of radiation released in the accident also had the shortest half-lives and have already stopped being dangerous. A patina of longer-lasting radioactive particles settled over the entire region, but these sink deeper and deeper into the soil with each passing year. Because of these factors, a daylong visit to Chernobyl will expose me to 10 times less gamma radiation than my flight home to Seattle.

Until planning a visit here, I never knew that long-haul, high-cruising-altitude flights expose their passengers to significant loads of cosmic radiation. And that’s to say nothing of dental X-rays, CAT scans, mammograms, and other medical testing. If you’re truly “worried about radiation”…you’ll never get on an airplane or go to the dentist again.

Dosimeters track the amount of gamma radiation you are exposed to, in real time. The “safe” level — meaning sustainable indefinitely — is anything under 0.3 microsieverts per hour (μSv/h). That’s the reading, more or less, when I get on the bus in Kiev, and it’s probably the reading in your hometown. And for most of the day, the dosimeter stays comfortingly below that number, with a few brief spikes to 1 or 2 μSv/h. That seems scary, but a commercial airliner at 35,000 feet would make your dosimeter ping at a rate of 2 or 3 μSv/h.

One thing you learn from the Chernobyl experience is just how localized radiation is. It tends to be low inside buildings and higher in overgrown areas. The classic Chernobyl tour-guide gimmick is demonstrating radiation hotspots: The group is walking on concrete sidewalks through a forest, where radiation levels are normal. But then the guide pauses and holds out a dosimeter near the roots of a tree or a suspicious-looking pothole, and the numbers shoot up.

The most striking example of this will come later in the day, when we drive across the path of that initial cloud of atomic ejecta that sowed radiation across a swath of Ukrainian and Belarussian countryside. Fidel suggests that we hold our dosimeters up to the bus window. They’re reading normal. But then, as we cross that invisible line, they skyrocket at a terrifying pace — up to 38 μSv/h. The bus driver, helpfully extending our adrenaline rush, slows down. While half of the passengers giggle with nervous delight, the rest of us shout, “OK, we get it — keep going!

All of this is specific to gamma radiation. The Chernobyl site also has alpha and beta radiation, which can be carried by dust and other particles. Your clothes protect you from these, for the most part; that’s why visitors to the Exclusion Zone must wear long pants and long sleeves. (Full disclosure: I made a point to shower and wash my clothes when I got back to Kiev that night…just in case.)

Because careless visitors may pick up alpha- and beta-radioactive material on their shoes and clothing, everyone is required to pass through three special screening checkpoints: You step awkwardly into a giant contraption that feels like standing sideways in a metal detector, place your hands and feet on special pads, then wait for the green light. The technology seems comically antiquated, and we’re told that visitors are almost never flagged. If your shoes did set off the alarm, near as I could tell, they would simply have you wade through a rusty pan of dirty water and try again.

Before my trip, I was nervous about the danger involved in visiting Chernobyl. But ultimately, the most toxic thing we’re exposed to all day is the silent, devastating, eye-watering flatulence of the Mancunian, who eventually reveals that drinking the Kiev tap water has been wreaking havoc on his insides.

The Russian Woodpecker

Soon after passing through the second checkpoint — at the 10-Kilometer Exclusion Zone — we turn off the main road at a bus stop colorfully painted with a Ukrainian knock-off of Yogi Bear, collecting mushrooms in the forest. This ostensibly marks the location of a children’s camp. But that’s just a ruse to throw Cold War-era spies off the scent: A few miles down this road, through a rusted gate adorned with silver, five-pointed stars, stands an impossibly gigantic Soviet-era radar antenna array. Clearly not familiar with the adage about eggs and baskets, the USSR located this top-secret surveillance facility next to their top-secret nuclear power plant.

This was the receiving station for the Duga-3 Over-The-Horizon (OTH) radar, which picked up the signal emitted by a transmitting station 60 kilometers away. Fidel scratches a globe in the sandy soil to demonstrate how the radar worked: It bounced its signal three times, hopscotching between the earth and the ionosphere, to reach all the way over the North Pole and deep into North American airspace — allowing operators to detect an ICBM launch up to 10,000 kilometers away. This was the last gasp of the pre-satellite era, and mostly effective; false positives nearly caused global thermonuclear war only about two times — three, tops.

The Duga is nicknamed “The Russian Woodpecker” for the staccato interference it caused in short-wave ham radios and other broadcasts. One day in 1976, hams in North America turned on their radios to find this mysterious new chattering lurking at the edges of their signal. Nobody knew exactly what The Woodpecker was for, and conspiracy theorists believed it was some form of Soviet mind control. But one thing was clear: It drove ham radio operators nuts. They issued formal complaints to the USSR government, and bought “Woodpecker mufflers” in an attempt to filter out the noise. It finally went silent when the Duga radar was turned off for good in 1989.

While long since decommissioned, the radar installation has been open to visitors only since 2013. And now, as we stand beneath it and gape up, it fills our entire field of vision. Like all of the best examples of the Soviet aesthetic, The Woodpecker makes you feel very, very small. It’s more than 30 stories high and stretches nearly 700 feet — as far as the eye can see toward the horizon. It looks like a wire frame for a giant dam, rising up from the middle of a forest. Its precisely located nodes and crisscross support cables create mesmerizing optical illusions.

Gazing up at this rusting masterpiece of Cold War technology feels like touring the Colosseum: a boldly ambitious, epoch-defining achievement of engineering that now stands as an artifact of a toppled civilization.

The Sarcophagus

At a certain point in the day, the nervous gallows humor of visiting a nuclear wasteland on your vacation gives way to the somber humanity of the tragedy. For me, this happens on our surreal drive along a cooling canal toward the Chernobyl power plant. We drive closer. And closer. And — gulp — closer. And soon, we’re pulling into a parking lot across the street from Reactor No. 4.

When the reactor exploded on the night of April 25, 1986, the superheated nuclear fuel inside Reactor No. 4 began melting right through the floor. Liquidators drained the cooling pools located below the molten core, to avoid a steam explosion. Coal miners were brought in to build a protective barrier that would prevent the core from reaching the water table deep below — which could cause another massive explosion and widespread contamination. Helicopter pilots flew thousands of sorties to dump lead, sand, and boric acid onto Reactor No. 4, smothering the meltdown. And radioactive debris was carefully removed and disposed of. Workers were exposed to levels of radiation that were permanently injurious after just a 40-second shift.

To prevent another meltdown, the USSR embarked on the largest civil engineering project in history: building a concrete “sarcophagus” to safely encase the volatile reactor core. Over the course of six months, a quarter-million workers reached their recommended lifetime limit of radiation exposure as they put the sarcophagus in place. Meanwhile, scientists inspecting the meltdown site discovered what’s known as “The Elephant’s Foot” — a petrified column of molten radioactive material that is considered the most lethal object in the world.

Chernobyl had a pan-European impact. Radioactive rain fell in the Scottish Highlands, and the South of France saw an increase in the rate of thyroid cancer. But even as it’s easy to fault the Soviets for allowing the accident to occur in the first place, you have to credit them for saving Europe from something far worse. Ultimately, the cleanup was a success, the worst of the radiation was contained, and further meltdowns were forestalled — all at a cost of somewhere around $18 billion.

Not only did the Chernobyl incident — which is sometimes called “the final battle of the USSR” — contribute to bankrupting the already shaky Soviet economy. It also forced Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to live up to his recently issued pledge of glasnost (openness). As details of the accident became public, it eroded trust among Soviet subjects and cast severe doubt on the USSR’s much-touted technological achievements. While the fall of the Soviet Union had many causes, Gorbachev himself cites Chernobyl as one of the key dominoes to topple during that critical period.

The original sarcophagus has more recently been itself covered by another, more modern sarcophagus. Designed and built in conjunction with a French company, the new sarcophagus has an elegant arch and a shiny shell that seems designed to instill confidence — a stark contrast to the rusty original. Costing $2.5 billion and taller than the Statue of Liberty, the new sarcophagus was built a few hundred yards away, then slowly moved into place — the largest metal object ever moved by humans.

The meltdown site, now encased in matryoshka stacking dolls of sarcophagi, has surprisingly low levels of radiation. Standing at the monument honoring those who lost their lives in the accident, directly in front of the sarcophagus, my dosimeter shows that I’m absorbing about a third as much gamma radiation as I would on a long-haul flight. And yet, it’s still above the recommended safe levels for long-term exposure. The soundtrack of a visit here is the high-pitched chattering of dosimeters — like the insistent ticking of a stopwatch, reminding you not to linger.

But work is not done: The next challenge is to dismantle and safely dispose of the inner sarcophagus, to prevent a future collapse. And the long-term goal is to remove the plant entirely. Someday — 2065, they hope — this will simply be an open field.

Workers at the facility do shifts — two weeks on, two weeks off — and wear badges that monitor how much radiation they have absorbed. If they hit their annual limit, they’re done until next year. We’re told that the French workers appreciate the safeguards…while the Ukrainian ones, eager for a steady paycheck, would prefer the limits to be increased.

As if to emphasize the safety of the site, we have lunch in the humble canteen for Chernobyl workers, in a building a short walk from the meltdown site. We’re told the cafeteria ladies — who pile our plastic trays with mountains of hearty food — don’t like having their photo taken. Checking my dosimeter while eating my borscht and chicken schnitzel, I see that the radiation here is no higher here than in Kiev.

The Ghost City of Pripyat

The grand finale of our tour is just a couple of miles from the plant: Pripyat, an entire city trapped in a postapocalyptic time warp, and now completely overtaken by nature. Pripyat seizes travelers’ imaginations. It’s what you picture when you imagine visiting Chernobyl.

Founded along with the plant in 1970, the planned workers’ town of Pripyat showcased the ideal Soviet lifestyle. This was as good a place to live as you’d find in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Because of the importance of the plant, Pripyat was directly supplied by the Soviet government, making its shops unusually well-stocked. At the time of the accident, Pripyat had just completed work on a new amusement park and sports stadium, and was laying out plans to expand the city across its little river bay. From a dock below the trendy café in Pripyat’s town center, you could hop on a public hydrofoil and zip downriver to Kiev faster than driving. The mid-1980s was a prosperous time, with no inkling of the lurking disaster, much less the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. Having a good job at Chernobyl and a flat in Pripyat was a blissful existence that many Ukrainians aspired to.

The 50,000 people of Pripyat (including 17,000 children — the median age was 26) were perhaps the cruelest casualties of the accident. While the firefighters, miners, pilots, soldiers, and scientists who threw themselves into the radioactive cauldron did so with heroism, and more or less knowingly, the civilians of Pripyat were simply not told that they needed to leave until it was too late.

After 36 hours of cover-up and obfuscation, the authorities finally gave the order to evacuate Pripyat. And when it happened, it happened all at once. One night, as irradiated firefighters were slowly dying in the Pripyat hospital, the ballroom in the town’s big hotel was hosting a wedding party. The next morning, 50,000 people were carried away from their toxic hometown, in a column of buses 10 kilometers long, within a matter of hours. They were told to turn off the lights, close the windows, and bring along a few supplies for this “temporary” evacuation. They were told they’d be back in three days. They were told many things. But the truth is that nobody will ever live in Pripyat again.

Most of the people of Pripyat survived the initial exposure, but were sentenced to a life of creeping, unpredictable health problems — which, thanks to the cruelly insidious nature of radiation poisoning, are now reverberating well into the next generation.

We set out to explore the forests that have filled in the empty space between buildings. Concrete apartment blocks, standing in formation like platoons of rigid soldiers, are tattered and dilapidated. Just inside the entrance of one, a hand-lettered directory lists each family that resided here, circa 1986.

The apartments are still sort-of furnished, with dribs and drabs of vintage furniture. But the wallpaper is peeling off the walls in crooked rolls, and the appliances have been looted of their copper wire. Fidel tells us these apartments are a popular place for squatters to sneak in and hole up for a weekend bender. (Apparently, Ukrainian partiers know how to turn their self-destructive tendencies up to 11.)

At the town’s fancy café, once-cheery mosaics and stained-glass windows are shattered and scattered around the hauntingly still interior. The indoor swimming pool — recently made famous by one of the first-person shooter video games that have found inspiration in Pripyat — is filled with black muck. The local cinema, which was named for Prometheus, the god who brought fire to humans, is decisively closed for business.

We walk through an open field of sturdy trees and dense brush. Only after Fidel points out the faint echoes of a grandstand do we realize that we’re crossing the center line of a soccer pitch — in the middle of what was Pripyat’s sports stadium.

Inside a school, a few tattered notices hang on bulletin boards, locker doors gape open, and long-forgotten homework litters the muddy floor. In one room, someone has assembled the creepy dolls into macabre little tableaus — as if this nauseating site needed to have a fine point put on it. A teddy bear wearing a toddler’s-size respirator mask toasts a doll that winks one dead eye from under wispy, matted hair. It’s a postapocalyptic island of misfit toys.

In the town amusement park, which was slated to open just weeks after the accident, stands the icon of Pripyat: its Ferris wheel, a perhaps too on-the-nose symbol for innocence lost. It looms above Pripyat like a rusted skeleton — childhood joy filtered through a grotesque prism of Cold War nuclear paranoia.  The abandoned bumper cars (which, Fidel warns us, are likely “contaminated” — there’s that word again) are welded by rust to the mossy floor.

The most notorious corner of Pripyat is the former hospital, where those first responders were treated for radiation sickness — pointlessly, yet humanely. While heroically extinguishing the initial fire, they were not told about the meltdown, and took no special precautions. They noted a metallic taste in their mouths, and a tingling sensation on their faces. Coughing and vomiting came next. And soon it was clear: They had absorbed a lethal, delayed-reaction dose of radiation. They had just enough time to come to the hospital, strip off their gear in the basement, and climb into their deathbeds.

Today, that basement — and those clothes — remain irrevocably contaminated. Jackets and boots sit in heaps, right where they were dropped more than 30 years ago, too dangerous to move — or even get close to. Although it’s strictly off-limits, there’s a cottage industry of amateur YouTube daredevils who sneak into the basement for a selfie with a summiting dosimeter. Having traveled extensively in Eastern Europe — with its brutal, war-torn history — I am used to hearing a guide say, “That building over there? In the basement, many people were killed.” But this is the first time I have been told, “That building over there? If you stay in the basement for too long, it’ll kill you.”

The Liquidators

As we pass through what was the main square of Pripyat, Fidel calls us over to a humble memorial of photographs pinned to a wall. Scanning the faces of those who lost their lives at Chernobyl, we hear their stories:

The middle manager who showed up to deal with the crisis on his day off, even though he was stinking drunk. Fortunately, his high blood-alcohol level helped insulate him from the worst of the radiation (he survived for decades).

The plant worker who stayed as long as he could to help, until he was removed to a hospital for his final days. His wife refused to leave his bedside — until she, too, was doomed to radiation poisoning.

And the firefighters who initially responded to the meltdown, sacrificing their lives in those critical first hours to prevent a catastrophe that could have been far worse. Perhaps it’s hyperbole, but local authorities insist that if the liquidators had not acted so quickly — had they allowed the meltdown to worsen — it could have tainted much of the European continent. Imagine all of Europe carrying dosimeters for each hike in the woods.

At this poignant moment, I consider all of the reasons why a traveler would want to visit Chernobyl. Is it simply gruesome rubbernecking at human tragedy? For some, yes. But it’s also an opportunity to learn about one of the most dramatic events of the late Cold War era. It’s a chance to gain a better understanding of the actual risks of nuclear power — and the unexpected safety of a cleaned-up radioactive site. You see old Soviet Bloc towns trapped in time, in their native state, untouched by the modernization and westernization of the post-Cold War world. And you see how rapidly and without hesitation nature overtakes a depopulated civilization.

But standing there, looking into the eyes of the people who contained that first horrible wave of radiation, I think of yet another reason: to honor the memory of those who died to make this area safe for future generations. People may no longer be able to live long-term in certain parts of the meltdown zone. But we don’t have to stay half a country away, either — wondering nervously when the next meltdown will come. At Chernobyl, it’s humbling to see how human ingenuity can bring about horrifying problems. But it’s also inspiring to see how it can solve them.

A 100-kilometer, two-hour drive north of Kiev, Chernobyl is ideally situated for an all-day excursion. Several companies operate Chernobyl day trips, all of them covering essentially the same stops: the town of Chernobyl (today a humdrum administrative center); abandoned villages and towns that have been overtaken by nature (including Pripyat); the “Russian Woodpecker” antenna array; and the reactor site itself, with lunch in the cafeteria.

For an all-day round-trip excursion from Kiev, departing around 8 a.m. and returning around 8 p.m., you’ll pay in the ballpark of $100. Two-day and longer tours are also available. Visitors to Chernobyl are carefully regulated, and your tour company must register your passport details with the authorities 10 days in advance — so don’t wait too long to book. My tour was through Chernobyl Welcome, and I had a great experience, thanks largely to the knowledgeable tour guide. But as my tour crossed paths with others as the day went on, it became clear that the companies are essentially interchangeable, and — as with many such trips — the most important part, the guide, is potluck.

Christmas in Switzerland: Christmas Markets, Cheese Fondue, and Live Candles on the Tree

Some Christmases are forgettable. Others burn bright in your memory. For me, the Swiss Christmas of my fondest dreams came down to those live candles on the Christmas tree.

Soon after they were married, my parents lived for a year and a half in Switzerland. The holidays they spent high in the Swiss Alps left an indelible mark on their notion of Christmas — and, because this is how these things work, also on their kids’.

When my sister and I were growing up, our Christmases took on a Swiss flavor. Our tree decorations included vintage straw ornaments from Swiss Christmas markets — including our tattered treetop angel, a hardy veteran of decades of holiday seasons. When we would indulge him, my father would read us the story of the Nativity in German. And our it-just isn’t-the holidays-without-it Christmas Eve tradition has always been a big, bubbling cauldron of cheese fondue.

Every December, at one point or another, my parents would get around to telling the story of one of their all-time favorite memories: attending a Christmas Eve service in a small mountain village church, high in the Swiss Alps. The Christmas tree by the altar had candles pinned precariously to its delicate evergreen boughs. At the start of the service, ushers with long poles carefully lit each candle. One usher remained stationed next to the tree, so that when a candle set the branch above it on fire — as it inevitably would — he could grab a stick with a wet sponge lashed to the end, swing it up, and smack the fire out with a wet thud. With each retelling of this tale, the details grew more and more theatrical: One year, the usher was dozing off in his chair, until the congregation started hissing “Feuer! Feuer!” He awoke with a start, leapt to his feet, whacked the offending branch with his sponge, then went back to his nap…as the stoic Swiss congregation acted as if nothing had happened.

Likely because of these very experiences, my family has always approached the holidays with a spirit of adventure (antique straw ornaments and cheese fondue notwithstanding). When I was three years old, for example, we spent our family Christmas in Mexico. Instead of shivering in moon boots and parkas in the Midwest snow, my sister and I wore flip-flops and T-shirts as we followed the posada procession door-to-door through a workaday Cuernavaca neighborhood. And when my sister was in grad school in New Orleans, we spent several Thanksgivings there — following our turkey with beignets.

But my favorite holiday travel memory of all came a few years ago, when my family spent Christmas in Switzerland. My parents — then newly retired and eager to relive one of their most formative holidays with their adult children — were determined to create some powerful new Swiss Christmas memories to file alongside their 40-year-old ones. The stakes were high, and trying to rekindle the magic of holidays past is courting disappointment. But we decided to give it a shot.

Settling in at Wilderswil

A few days before Christmas, we landed in Zürich and rode the train to the Berner Oberland — the traditional, dramatically scenic heartland of German-speaking Switzerland. We’d chosen to stay in the village of Wilderswil, which fills a sleepy valley at the doorstep of the Berner Oberland’s peaks.

Workaday Wilderswil has few claims to fame. (Not long before our visit, the town’s big play to put itself on the map — its “Mystery Park” amusement park — opened to much fanfare, then quickly closed in disgrace, going down in local lore as a regrettable boondoggle.) But Wilderswil’s nondescriptness suited us just fine. Sleepy and effortlessly charming, it’s a split-shingle community of bulky chalets that crowd along tight streets dating back to horse-and-buggy days. The village — just big enough to have a well-stocked Migros grocery store, but small enough to escape most tourists’ itineraries — turned out to be an ideal home base. From our rented cottage, a short walk brought us to the train station, from which we could travel in just five minutes in one direction to the bustling resort town of Interlaken, or 15 minutes in the other direction to Lauterbrunnen — the base station for several of Switzerland’s most rewarding high-mountain lifts.

Before arriving, we wondered if we were in for a white Christmas. (Having moved from Ohio to the Pacific Northwest — sacrificing snowy Christmases for soggy ones — this had become a priority.)The answer was, as the Swiss would say, Ja-ein…yes and no. Wilderswil fills a temperate valley, hemmed in by hills fuzzy with leafless trees and a few evergreens. We had occasional flurries, and a gentle morning frost fringed naked branches and brown grass with a layer of white peach fuzz, but nothing really stuck. However, a short lift ride could carry us, at a moment’s notice, to a winter wonderland of snowbanks and skiers. With snow close at hand, but never getting in the way of our travels, the weather conditions were ideal.

Exploring Switzerland and Its Christmas Markets

Determined to get the most out of the Swiss Travel Passes we’d invested in for the trip, in the days leading up to Christmas, we fanned out across the little country on scenic rail lines.

One day, we rode the breathtaking Golden Pass route south, through an idyllic landscape of snow-flocked trees, hibernating farms nestled in valleys, and cuckoo-clock villages perched on white hillsides. Chugging our way past glitzy ski resorts, we crossed the linguistic and cultural border from German to French Switzerland. The terrain softened and thawed, replacing evergreens with vineyards and rustic wooden chalets with handsome stone homes.

Emerging from a long tunnel, we popped out on the side of a bald mountain. As we curled between gnarled vines, we got our first view of Lake Geneva, shrouded in a dense fog. Twisting down closer and closer to the lake, then reaching the lake in Montreux, we chugged along the shoreline until we pulled into Lausanne.

The chic streets of this sophisticated yet manageable burg were the perfect spot for a bistro lunch and some last-minute Noël shopping. And then, as the sun dropped low in the sky, we bid Lausanne au revoir and hopped on the train back home to Wilderswil.

On other days, we took full advantage of the Christmas markets that were in full swing across the country. Bern — Switzerland’s mellow little capital, filling its river-wrapped promontory with storybook houses and warm arcades — was all decked out with garlands, giant illuminated stars, and cheery mood lighting.

Münsterplatz, the square surrounding the gigantic church tower that stretches up from town like an exclamation point, was lively with vendors. Bundled up against the chill, we sipped hot spiced Glühwein and munched on chestnuts roasted before our eyes by street vendors. (If you’ve been lucky enough to do this, you’re smelling those chestnuts right now. There’s a reason they sing Christmas carols about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.)

Basel — with its fire-truck-red city hall — sits at the nexus of Western Europe, at the point where Germany, France, and Switzerland touch. (Those many years ago, my mother worked at an office building in Switzerland that had its parking lot in France.) One of the town’s main landmarks is Jean Tinguely’s Carnival Fountain — a cyberpunk playground with “robots” that spray and splash water at each other. But on this day, each robot was a chunk of solid ice, draped in thick icicles. The many Christmas trees decorating Basel’s downtown core were (like all things Switzerland) elegant in their organic simplicity: towering trees with twinkle lights, a few unglitzy ornaments, and an ethos of tasteful restraint.

At Basel’s Christmas market, an old-fashioned, steam-powered locomotive — belching great billows — chugged along tram tracks through the main square, offering wide-eyed, cherry-cheeked little kids rides around town. Window displays were over-the-top explosions of red velvet, tinsel, and greenery. Carnival rides and live choral music contributed to the festive atmosphere. Inviting faux-log-cabin market stalls — draped in garlands and twinkle lights — offered fragrant wreaths and greenery, colorful wooden children’s toys, handwoven baskets, big wheels of rustic cheese, neatly stacked jars of preserves, handmade figures for your crèche, giant garlicky sausages, bouquets of dried flowers, and a rainbow of ornaments. We stocked up on some new straw ornaments to (finally!) retire our vintage ones.

Zürich — ever the Swiss trendsetter — trades the folksy kitsch for sleek sophistication. The grand main hall of its train station was filled with vendors, all tucked under the boughs of a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree that glittered with crystal ornaments. After hours, Zürich’s tidy, regimented shopping streets were strewn with twinkle lights that seemed to cascade from the sky, like snowflakes of light plotted on graph paper.

Seeking snow, we rode some lifts high into the mountains. From Wilderswil, it’s a quick hop by train to Zweilütschinen Station, where another train takes you up to Grindelwald — a heavily touristed gingerbread village popular with skiers and hikers, who appreciate its strategic position at the intersection of various lifts and rail lines. Grindelwald was where those intrepid 19th-century English mountain climbers based themselves when first conquering this region’s harrowing 13,000-foot summits.

To gain a little more altitude — without the sweat or the danger — we hopped on a gondola, hopped out again at the mid-station, and went for a walk in the snow. Even in late December, the mountain sun can be intense. We hiked past woody mountain lodges, their outdoor terraces jammed with sunbathing skiers — cheeks and noses rosy from frigid air, warm sun, and schnapps. Hot cocoa with marshmallows tastes even sweeter in the sun and snow at 5,200 feet.

In the evenings, as we plotted out the next day’s excursions, we cooked local meals. We discovered — tucked deep in a forgotten cupboard — a raclette iron, which, based on the day-glo flowers, probably dated from the 1970s. Raclette is fondue’s less famous, tragically underappreciated cousin, and a must for cheese lovers. Raclette cheese is formulated to melt just so — with a thick, stringy texture that you can wrap around anything edible. Traditionally, a wheel of raclette is sliced in half, and the flat part of the wheel is held facing an open flame. When it’s melted just right, you use a thick blade to shave off a glob of half-liquefied cheese — like slicing browned meat from a döner kebab spindle.

A more modern, more controlled version of raclette features a special appliance with a covered heating rack. You put slices of raclette in little trays, set them inside the raclette maker (facing the heating element), and melt it to perfection. And then — just as the slice of cheese is beginning to bubble and brown — you pull out the little tray and scrape the gooey goodness onto your plate. Melted raclette cheese goes perfectly with gherkins, little boiled potatoes, prosciutto and other air-cured meats, and (my favorite) those miniature pickled cocktail onions. The earthy, nutty cheese and the sharp, acidic kick of the vinegar and onion are an explosively flavorful combination.

Our raclette evening was the perfect way to wrap up our busy Swiss explorations, and to whet our appetites for the fondue that awaited us on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve in a Village Church: Candles on the Tree?

Finally, December 24th arrived. Now, just try to imagine the decades of pressure that were piled upon our Christmas Eve plans. How could it possibly live up to my parents’ gauzy memories of the village church and the live candles and the usher with a sponge on a stick?

After much research, speculation, and discussion about which village church would be graced with the honor of our visit, we shrugged and went with the easiest, most obvious choice: Kirche Gsteig, the historic yet humble church over a covered wooden footbridge from the Wilderswil train station, and just a few minutes’ walk from our house. Sure, it might not be the remote, rustic, live-candles-on-flaming-boughs church of our fondest Swiss Christmas fantasies. But we figured we’d make it easy on ourselves; after all, it’s really just about being there together. (That said, if there were candles…well, we wouldn’t exactly complain.)

We spent most of Christmas Eve side-tripping to Christmas markets. And as our train approached Wilderswil, after days of a brown landscape fringed with frost, it finally began to really snow for the first time. After the sun set (at 4 p.m.), as the town’s holiday lights twinkled on, we made our way through plump snowflakes and across the covered footbridge to the tiny community of Gsteig.

On our way through town, the church bells began to toll. And other villagers emerged from their homes and joined us in an impromptu, festive parade through town. Everyone was out — all the Whos down in Whoville were heading to church. Our hearts grew three sizes that day.

Plain and white on the outside, tidy and stony inside, the Gsteig church’s walls are decorated with a few faint frescoes from the 14th and 15th centuries. On this evening, those simple halls were decked, and very tastefully. The arched alcoves lining the nave were filled with Advent wreaths on tall wooden stools. The congregation wore cheery red sweaters and green scarves. And there, by the altar, stood a sparse but elegant Christmas tree — with little candles pinned to its branches, ready to be lit.

As we settled into our pew, a hush settled over the crowd as ushers stood and began to light those little candles, one by one, with long poles — just like they had in all those years of stories. It was a beautiful moment of serene silence, as the entire congregation fully appreciated the arrival of this holy light into their world. Everything else was precisely as we’d always imagined. My parents’ eyes danced with the joy of treasured memories, old and brand-new, coming together.

The Swiss live their lives in dual linguistic worlds: In official contexts, at school and in the workplace, and in most radio and TV, they speak  High German (or, as they call it, Schriftdeutsch — “written German”). But at home, at the pub, and among friends, they switch to their own language,  Schwyzerdütsch. Germans and Austrians say “Fröhliche Weihnachten,” while the Swiss greet each other with “Guëti Wienachtä!” In big-city Swiss cathedrals tonight, the Fröhliche Weihnachten service would have been in High German. But here in the humble Gsteig village church, the sermon was proudly in Schwyzerdütsch. As the only out-of-towners in the congregation, we felt honored to be observers at this intimate Guëti Wienachtä service.

After church, we mingled with the ruddy-cheeked villagers of Gsteig and Wilderswil. Outside the church, at the fellowship hour, we made some new friends, nursed Styrofoam cups of Glühwein, and caught fat snowflakes on our tongues. Shimmering red lights drew us around the side of the church, to the graveyard. The villagers had lovingly decorated the graves of departed loved ones with tasteful garlands and red votive candles — inviting generations past to join in the celebration.

Then we headed back through the flurries — which were just beginning to stick on the wood-shingled rooftops — to our family Christmas tradition: fondue.

A Perfect Fondue

Swiss fondue is elegantly simple: cheese liquefied in wine. But making a perfect fondue is equal parts art and science, mastered over many years. You need the right kind of cheese, the right kind of wine, the right kind of bread, the right equipment, and the right technique. In my family, we are insufferable fondue snobs. And being in Switzerland on Christmas Eve, we were in our element.

Earlier in the day, we’d stopped by the Wilderswil Käserei (cheese shop). (Even tiny towns have a dedicated Käserei. After all, this is Switzerland.) When we make fondue back home, we have to improvise on the cheese, usually going with half Emmental and half Gruyere, all grated into one big fluffy pile. But a real Swiss Käserei sells a Fonduemischung engineered for a perfect fondue — usually about half Gruyere, and one-quarter each Appenzeller and Fribourger. Real Swiss cheeses are majestically funky — so pungent you can taste them with your nose. Appenzeller in particular smells like a festering toe fungus…and yet, somehow, once melted, it washes the taste buds with a nutty, tangy, rich flavor. There’s nothing else I can think of that smells so wretched, but tastes so delicious.

Cheese in hand, we stocked up on the other ingredients: a couple cloves of garlic; ground nutmeg; white wine; a pinch of cornstarch; and Kirschwasser — cherry schnapps. Our rental cottage, of course, came with a ceramic pot specifically designed for fondue — right down to the Swiss cross on the side — and a stand with a Sterno-can burner for keeping it warm at the table.

Oh, and you need the perfect loaf of fresh, rustic European bread — crusty on the outside, soft and spongy on the inside. We cut the bread into little chunks, about one-inch square. Each chunk — and this is very important — should have some crust, to pierce with the little fork. Without the crust, a chunk of bread instantly becomes unmoored from the wimpy bread flesh when it hits the cheese — lost forever in the bottom of the pot.

Ingredients assembled, we began by rubbing the inside of the pot with cross-sections of garlic cloves, then filling it with white wine. Then we heated it up on the stovetop. Not too hot, and not too fast — gradually raising the temperature, and occasionally stirring…never boiling, or even simmering.

Soon — after maybe 10 minutes or so — a hazy cloud begins to rise from the surface of the wine, like fog clinging to the surface of a glassy lake at dawn. And that’s when it’s time to start mixing in the cheese. But — as with everything fondue — this should not be done too quickly. Grab a scant handful of grated cheese and sprinkle it in. Stir until it’s dissolved into the wine. Then mix in another handful. Then another. Wait until the previous sprinkling of cheese has fully melted before adding more. This takes some time, but that’s perfectly fine…we’re in no hurry. The whole time you’re doing this, you never, ever stop stirring. Whirl the spoon in a smooth, continuous, mesmerizing figure-8 motion. Use a wooden spoon — ideally one with a hole in the middle.

If done correctly, the fondue will wind up as an opaque liquid, without individual strands of cheese visible. That’s when you mix in a glug of the Kirschwasser, premixed with a bit of cornstarch for thickening, and a smidge more wine. Add a pinch of ground nutmeg and some fresh-ground pepper. And keep stirring. Once the mixture begins to thicken up a bit, carefully transfer the pot to the tabletop burner.

At a certain point — seamlessly — you stop stirring with the wooden spoon, and start stirring with a long, skinny fork piercing a perfect chunk of bread. Take turns stirring and eating — someone should always have their fork swirling around in the pot. To really get the party going, the Swiss sometimes dip their bread in Kirschwasser before stirring it into the cheese. But we are not nearly that hardcore.

A good fondue is life-altering. What’s not to love? Fresh bread and cheese liquefied in wine. We always have our fondue with a side salad. It’s comforting to imagine the lettuce settling into the stomach, creating a much-needed digestive buffer of leaves between the layers of cheese.

The best part is the charred cheese that coats the bottom of the pot at the end. Usually, we let my wife and my sister debate which of them gets the intensely satisfying (and delicious) task of gently peeling off the skin of browned cheese with their little fork, then popping it in their mouth.

Settling into our Christmas Eve tradition, still buzzing from the impossible-to-plan-for serendipity of our day, we jabbed our forks into the bubbling cheese and planned our Christmas Day.

Christmas Morning High in the Alps

On Christmas morning, we awoke to glorious sunshine, with deep-blue skies over white-fringed frosted fields. We piled onto the train in Wilderswil and rode into Lauterbrunnen. As we made our way up the valley, the slight increase in elevation took us through higher and higher snowbanks. Snow clung to the evergreen boughs, tracing pretty piney patterns on either side of the train tracks. The fresh coating of white, as far as the eye could see, was lit up so bright by the midwinter sun that we had to squint. It felt like a vast blank canvas on which to create treasured new memories to build on last night’s perfect Christmas Eve.

In Lauterbrunnen, we transferred to a bus — even on Christmas Day, coordinated with flawless Swiss efficiency — to the far end of the valley, where we stepped onto the Schilthornbahn cable car. We rode it up, up, up, feeling our ears pop as we ascended through a landscape painted by winter.

Stepping out at 12,000 feet, we surveyed that classic lineup of cut-glass peaks on the far side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley: the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Aspirational yellow arrows pointed in every direction, suggesting hardy summertime hikes down into the valley far below. But not today. On this Christmas morning, giddy skiers were strapping on their skis for the long, blissful glide back to civilization.

Escaping the bitter chill into the warmth of the revolving restaurant — made famous by a dramatic ski-chase scene in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — we noticed they had a special “early bird” offer for brunch, and quickly changed our plans for a picnic. We settled into a table and watched the panoply of peaks slowly crawl past us for an hour as we dug into heaping plates of Rösti (Swiss hash browns) slathered in creamy mountain cheese, with chunks of potato and bits of bacon.

Having dispensed with the need to ever consume food again, we waddled back to the cable car and rode it down the mountain to Mürren — perched on a snowy lip over the valley — where we began a long, scenic stroll through the village.

In spite of the snow and the altitude, it was warm. Bright sunshine spotlit rustic wooden homes, revealing precisely stacked piles of firewood under rugged eaves, assembled with Swiss precision by farmers who were engineers at heart. Skiers — just completing their eye-popping journey down from the Schilthorn — shuffled past us on the snow-covered streets. Everyone was in a festive mood. Even the cable-car operators were uncharacteristically jolly.

Reaching the end of Mürren, we decided to extend our hike (and burn off more of that Rösti). Circling back through town, we continued 30 minutes gently downhill to the precious hamlet of Gimmelwald. Warmed by the sun (and the just-right exertion of plodding through a little snow), we peeled off our jackets and felt refreshed by the Swiss splendor.

The steeply switchbacked trails led down past frozen little waterfalls, soon depositing us at the upper flanks of Gimmelwald — marked by its much-loved landmark, Walter’s classic old hotel. From there, we continued past humble farmers’ houses buried in snow banks and frozen water troughs for stabled cows. Reaching the edge of the bluff that faces the Jungfrau — looming across the valley, so close, yet a deep chasm away — we walked out to a rustic barn clinging to the lip of the cliff.

Panning up once more to survey 360 degrees of Swiss peaks, we realized we were having a very merry Christmas, indeed. Trying to capture Christmas magic is a risky business. We got lucky. Or maybe it’s just that Switzerland makes it seem easy.

Guëti Wienachtä!

Poland’s New World War II Museum — Who Gets to Tell the Story?

I spend a lot of my time in Europe checking out museums, to evaluate and describe them for our Rick Steves guidebooks. But on my latest trip to Poland, I had the most thought-provoking museum tour of my career, at the new, high-tech, and highly controversial Museum of the Second World War, in Gdańsk. My review of the museum is mixed…for political reasons. That’s because the museum I saw is not the one that was originally intended. Instead of leaving the exhibits to historians, Poland’s government decided to make some… “adjustments.”

Poland took a hard right turn when the Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015. Regardless of my personal politics, I have no problem with Poland having a right-wing government. There’s a natural and healthy pendulum swing to Polish politics, which I’ve observed up close over the 20 or so years that I’ve been traveling here regularly. And regardless, Poland has always been far to the conservative end of the European spectrum.

But the Law and Justice party is something different. Like Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government in nearby Hungary, or Donald Trump’s presidency stateside, the Law and Justice party has made bold moves that feel outside of the “normal” bounds of a democratically elected government. All of the specifics — including aggressive changes to the judiciary, the military, and the media, all while flouting EU censure — are beyond the scope of this post, but this video by Vox provides a helpful primer.

From my perspective as a guidebook author, the Museum of the Second World War provides a fascinating case study in how the politics of a place you visit can have an impact on your sightseeing.

The original director of the Museum of the Second World War, Paweł Machcewicz, pursued a bold vision to present an ambitiously global, yet personal, perspective on the war that began right here in Gdańsk in 1939. When I first heard about this plan, many years ago, I couldn’t wait to see it.

It should be noted that Poland does museums exceptionally well. In the Gdańsk area alone, recent years have seen the opening of new, state-of-the-art museums about Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity strikes of 1980, and about Polish emigration to the New World. Both are among the best historical museums in Europe. And the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2014 in Warsaw, is simply breathtaking — ambitious in scope, intimate in detail, and masterful in telling its story.

The bar was set high. But it seemed that the new World War II museum might just be able to clear it. Unfortunately, after the Museum of the Second World War was completed — but before it had opened to the public — Law and Justice government officials deemed it too pacifistic and “not Polish enough,” demanding changes to make it more singularly patriotic. Machcewicz was replaced as the director, and the other historians and curators who had designed the exhibit were also fired or left. By the time the museum opened in March of 2017, several exhibits had been altered.

It was through this lens that I visited the museum for the first time, just a few weeks ago. I was curious whether I’d be able to tell what had been altered. And — from my perspective as a travel writer who has evaluated literally thousands of museums across Europe — I also wondered, simply, was this version of the museum any good?

The purpose-built museum complex — steered by a committee that included Polish American architect Daniel Libeskind — is striking. Surrounding the building is a flat, neatly landscaped plaza — representing the present. Above it rises a jagged, glass-and-rusted-steel tower — representing the future. And the exhibit occupies more than 50,000 square feet, entirely underground — representing the past, or perhaps something like a tomb.

Once inside, the permanent exhibit curls through a central corridor, telling the story of World War II beginning with the fragile peace that ended the First World War. The museum is blessed with remarkable artifacts, which it weaves together with modern effects, touchscreens, and some elaborate dioramas (such as a walk-through Polish city street, before and after the war).

Touring the exhibit leaves you with powerful impressions: A boxcar that was used to transport Jews to concentration camps. A wooden wheelchair from a psychiatric hospital near Gdańsk, all of whose patients were executed by the Nazis. An actual Enigma machine, with an exhibit explaining how it was Polish mathematicians who originally broke the German code…before sharing that information with Alan Turing and Bletchley Park. A film by American correspondent Julien Bryan, who was in Warsaw during the invasion and bore witness to the Nazis bombing a church during Mass, an attack on a maternity ward, and a village of peasants strafed by Luftwaffe gunfire while digging up potatoes.

Museum of the Second World War

I went in looking for examples of what might have been changed by the new director. Some were obvious: In the middle of a powerful exhibit about the Holocaust — awkwardly plastered to a wall that felt like it was supposed to have been left empty — was a display explaining how the Polish people stood up to save their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis, at great personal risk. While this certainly took place (and such people are rightly honored by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations”), many Poles also looked the other way — or collaborated. This is an important — and somewhat controversial — topic that is handled evenhandedly in Warsaw’s Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, among other places. But this museum, supposedly the definitive statement on World War II in Poland, makes no mention of any Poles who aided the Holocaust. Rather than posing questions, it provides a definitive (yet incomplete) answer.

Another notable change was playing up the role of Poles as victims and martyrs. Posters were added throughout the exhibit profiling everyday Poles (often clergy) who were persecuted during the war. This struck me as odd; in other cultures where nationalism takes root, the tendency is to downplay victims and elevate heroes. Later, a Polish friend reminded me that much of the Polish national identity is tied up in its spectacular failures. Victimhood is not weakness; it’s the foundation of strength. And here again, the exhibit was working hard to pluck the Polish heartstrings.

And I sensed a tone, throughout, of simplistically painting Nazi Germany and the USSR with the broadest of brushes. I’ve toured many museums — less mired in politics than this one — that relate the events of history with honesty, intelligence, and nuance, which is devastatingly effective in documenting just how coldly ruthless World War II’s authoritarian regimes were. Those museums trust their audience to draw the appropriate, reasonable conclusions. But this museum self-consciously strives to make everything as overt as possible: “Boy, those Nazis were bad hombres, amirite?” And in doing that, paradoxically, it weakens its message.

One exhibit explicitly condemns “nationalism” on the part of the Nazis and the Soviets — which struck me with some irony, since the Law and Justice party itself is often labeled as nationalistic. I suppose nationalism looks bad when someone else is wearing it.

After visiting, I talked with a tour-guide friend of mine who’s based in Gdańsk. She confirmed my hunches about what had been changed. And she would know, since she had been fully trained and licensed to lead tours through the original exhibition. With the change in management, however, all of the tour guides were given a document to sign, agreeing that they would offer only the authorized narrative to visitors, without any supplementary information or personal insights. Approximately two-thirds of the guides — including my friend — had refused to sign, and the museum scrambled to train new ones who would march in lockstep with their version of history.

Still chewing over this near-miss of a great museum, several weeks later, I keep returning to one key question: What is the purpose of a museum? To educate about facts…or to manipulate emotion?

To be fair, I suppose most (good) museums strive for a balance between these two goals. That’s the artistry of museum curation: If you tell the story properly — and objectively — it creates powerful emotions.

A spokesperson for the museum has said that because the Polish taxpayers financed it, they deserve a museum that pushes a Polish narrative. But of course, the original version of the museum also gave voice to the Poles; perhaps the difference was that it stopped short of telling them exactly how to feel about all of this.

Great art — and a great museum — tells its story thoughtfully, and the emotions occur organically. And, yes, it makes the viewer work a little harder on their own. But that’s what makes the experience more powerful. It’s the difference between an art film and a telenovela.

On the other hand, walking through exhibits with a nationalistic bent, I tried to put down my hackles and see the place through Polish eyes. If ever there’s a time to give strong voice to a specifically Polish point of view, is it not in a Polish history museum? Can it not be said that the Jewish museum in Warsaw is “skewed” to the Jewish point of view, or that the Museum of African American History in Washington DC is “one-sided” in presenting the experience of Black Americans?

And yet, the Museum of the Second World War fails where the Polish Jews and African American museums soar. That’s because there’s a precipitously fine line between presenting a perspective and forcing an agenda. And for me, Poland’s re-envisioned World War II museum crosses that line. It’s a museum that makes me mistrust what it’s telling me. Because I know that it’s politicians, not historians, who are presenting this story. And once a museum — or a teacher — has lost the respect of its students, how can it effectively teach?

More than anything, it’s the museum’s final exhibit that rankles me. After 18 intense rooms of exhibits — feeling like you’ve been put through an emotional wringer — you arrive in the final hall, with a literal Iron Curtain cutting through the middle of the room, and photographs of bombed-out Polish cities on the walls. Overhead plays a brief film called “The Unconquered,” bursting with cherry-picked historical details, generalizations, and exaggerations. The movie is charged with an intense, unmistakable message of national pride and military might. With cheaply produced CGI effects, an urgent voiceover, and bombastic music, it feels like a trailer for a first-person shooter video game. (You can watch it here.) Sadly, this is the taste that the museum leaves in your mouth.

My tour-guide friend said that the final film had originally concluded the exhibit on a more thought-provoking note, accompanied by wistful folk music and challenging questions. Later I read an interview with the original director, Paweł Machcewicz, who said, “Through this film, we had wanted to show that the war wasn’t a closed chapter, it wasn’t the past. Violence, the suffering of civilians, is still going on around us. The propensity to violence is inside us; it is part of the human condition. It served as a warning and emphasized the universal meaning of the exhibition.” I sure would like to see that film.

And by the way, Warsaw’s magnificent Museum of the History of Polish Jews — in contrast — is not afraid to ask tough questions on its way out the door. In that museum, the final room pointedly asks: Is there any future for Jewish people in Poland, a place where they were very nearly wiped from existence? Conflicting viewpoints are presented — from contemporary Jewish communities in Poland, and from Polish Jews in Israel — but it doesn’t instruct you how to feel. It trusts you enough to wrestle with tough questions without slipping you the answers.

At the end of the day, the Museum of the Second World War is still an impressive accomplishment. It succeeds at providing important, mostly well-rounded insight on an extremely significant event, from the perspective of the country that was perhaps more grievously impacted by that event than any other. I will recommend it in the new 10th edition of my Eastern Europe guidebook— but with a caveat.

Good as the museum is, I can’t stop thinking about how much better still it could have been. Full disclosure: I am one-quarter Polish, and I wear my Polish ancestry with great pride. It saddens me, as a Pole at heart, that my grandfather’s homeland has been denied the world-class World War II museum it deserves.

What do you think? Who gets to tell the story of a nation? Am I wrong to wish that it be historians, rather than politicians?

Europe for Foodies: How (and Why) to Incorporate Food into Your Travels

The term “foodie” is trendy these days. It sounds pretentious, and a little silly. But I’ve decided to take that word back, for food-lovers everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with being a “foodie.” It simply means that you prioritize food in your life — and in your travels.

Some travelers eat to live. I live to eat. And the more I make food a central focus of my travels, the clearer it becomes that to really appreciate a culture, you need to understand its food. Because in a sense, food is culture.

Finish this phrase: Swiss ___. For all its claims to fame, and the end of the day, Switzerland is synonymous with cheese. It’s part of their international brand and their national identity. And the government invests generous subsidies in keeping this part of Swiss culture alive. To this day, Swiss farmers — now federally funded — still make cheese the old-fashioned way. Each spring, they take their herd of cows up to high-mountain huts, on pastures called “alps,” and hang their decorative cowbells from the eaves. There they stay with their livestock for 100 days, all summer long — milking them at dawn and at dusk, and spending their days making cheese. And then one day in September, when cool weather announces the onset of autumn, the cowhands sling those giant bells around their cows’ necks and walk them back down into the village in the valley below — creating an impromptu parade of flower-bedecked cows, enjoying a victory lap after a productive summer, to a soundtrack of clanging bells and satisfied moos.

What type of food do you associate with Spain? Tapas, of course — small plates. But a deeper understanding of Spanish cuisine tells you volumes about the Spanish culture, climate, and landscape. In arid, blistering Iberia, people take a mid-day siesta to head home, eat a big lunch, and hide out from the heat for a couple of hours. They return to work for a few more hours, and then, just as the sun goes down and temperatures grow tolerable, they go for a paseo — a languid stroll through the city streets, promenading with friends and family, greeting neighbors, and dropping into a variety of cozy bars and cafés. After a day cooped up inside, avoiding the heat, the last thing you want is to settle in for a long, sit-down dinner. So instead, you nibble on little plates of food at the bar — sharing a variety of dishes with friends old and new, sipping drinks, cracking jokes, socializing. Then you head to the next bar, for some new dishes (and some new friends). “Tapas-style” dining isn’t a trend — it’s a social ritual and a way of life, shaped over eons by Spain itself.

What are the two most beloved European cuisines? If you’re like most people, you’re thinking of Italian and French. (If you’re an odd duck like me, Hungarian might have crept into the mix.) Italian and French cuisine are equally enticing, and yet, so fundamentally different.

In sun-drenched Italy — the garden patch of Europe — cuisine is all about highlighting quality ingredients. The fewer ingredients, and the less they’re manipulated, the better. I once took a cooking class in Tuscany where Marta taught me how to make the most delicious sauce ever to cross my palate. It has just five ingredients: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt. And it makes everything it touches explosively flavorful. This emphasis on fresh ingredients also makes Italian cuisine highly localized. Why are there so many types of pasta? Because each one is engineered to highlight a particular sauce or topping, usually rooted in a highly specific place and season. (Those pasta places where you “pick your noodles, then pick your sauce” make Italians furious.) Specialties aren’t just regional — they can be specific to a town, or even to a neighborhood. And Italian law forbids restaurants from using frozen ingredients unless they’re noted on the menu.

In French cuisine, the ingredients are less important than what you do with them. I once took a cooking class in Burgundy, where every dish had at least a dozen ingredients — and each recipe involved mastering a precise, delicate technique. French chefs are technicians, who endlessly play and tinker and experiment to create something delicious. Who, but the French, would look at snails crawling across a rain-dampened path and think, “I’ll bet if I cooked those in garlic butter, they’d be delicious”? Beyond escargot, think of the other most famous French dishes: Coq au vin takes the toughest, least palatable type of poultry — rooster — and slow-simmers it in red wine and spices until it’s tender and flavorful. Bœuf bourguignon does the same with tough cuts of beef. And confit de canard is a duck that’s been rendered, preserved in a sealed can of its own congealed fat, then opened up months later and cooked in that same fat. That’s not a recipe — that’s a science experiment. So much of French cooking feels like it was created on a dare. And yet, it’s delicious. And it’s beautiful. French chefs are also elegant artists, who employ their technique to create stunning masterpieces, as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. French salads aren’t just jumbled together — they’re composée…composed.

These are just a few examples of how food can play a much larger role in your travels than simply filling the tank. And that’s the topic of my “Europe for Foodies” class, which we filmed earlier this year and is now available to view on and YouTube (and below).

Of all the travel talks I do at Rick Steves’ Europe, “Europe for Foodies” is my favorite. It’s the one that my audiences seem to enjoy the most. And, strangely, it’s also the least-attended.

Maybe people already take it for granted that food is important in travel — or are confident that it isn’t. But the purpose of this talk is to deepen your appreciation for the many vivid travel experiences where food and culture intersect. Like a French chef who makes snails delicious, I’ve engineered this talk to fine-tune your culinary sensibilities, with ample suggestions for incorporating food in your travels. If you’ve enjoyed my many blog posts about food in Europe…this talk is for you.

In the talk, I introduce age-old European culinary concepts that are newly trendy these days, including terroir, zero-kilometer, nose-to-tail, and the importance of eating with the seasons. I also suggest practical tips for finding the best restaurants, and explain some subtleties of dining in Europe that can be confusing. Sometimes this requires psychoanalyzing the way Europeans conceptualize food: You’ll learn why Italians can’t understand how anyone could drink a caffé latte after lunchtime, why they serve your salad after the pasta, and why that stubborn server won’t bring your bill to the table until you’ve asked for it.

I run through some of my favorite cheap eats in Europe (from German Currywurst to Greek souvlaki to Sicilian arancine to Polish zapiekanka) and the best food halls and street markets. And there are sections on drinking (wine, beer, spirits, and café culture) and sweets — from Belgian chocolates to Italian gelato. Finally, I suggest some experiences that allow you to incorporate food into your travels: cooking classes, food tours, visits to local farms, chasing a truffle-sniffing dog through an oak forest, getting to know a Slovenian beekeeper, and so on.

I hope you enjoy my “Europe for Foodies” talk as much as I enjoyed putting it together. And remember: Every meal you have in Europe is an opportunity to have a cultural experience.

If you enjoy reading my blog posts that focus on food, you can find a roundup here.

Check out my full 1.25-hour “Europe for Foodies” talk on and YouTube. (You can find the handout for the class here.)

If you’re tight on time, you can also check out shorter chapters separately:


What Travel Has Taught Me About Migrants

Right now, a caravan of Central American migrants is making its way through Mexico toward our southern border — thousands of men, women, and children in search of a better life. Like many Americans, I’m watching this tragic spectacle with sadness. But for me, it’s tinged with a particular poignancy.

Three years ago, I had a life-changing travel experience that humanized migrants like the ones in our headlines today. Then, as now, a group of desperate people from the poor south were struggling to make their way to the affluent north. But this was in Europe, not North America — and it wasn’t a caravan. It was a tidal wave.

In 2015, Syria was war-torn and falling apart, leaving a quarter-million people dead. And through the summer and early fall of that year, an estimated one million refugees — about half from Syria, the rest from other failed states in the region — made their way to Europe. The steady flow of new arrivals made landfall in Greece and worked their way up the Balkan Peninsula, toward prosperous northern European nations willing to offer them amnesty.

That summer I was, for the most part, blissfully unaware of the details. Watching news clips of migrants stranded at train stations and border checkpoints, I felt pangs of sympathy. But mainly I was worried that my guidebook-research trip might be inconvenienced.

By early September, I was in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. Enjoying a sunny late-summer weekend, I was completely engrossed in my work. Stepping into the main train station, I noticed that all of the international departures on the big timetable flashed otkazan — “cancelled.” A few days earlier, they had stopped running trains to Hungary or Slovenia, to prevent the flow of refugees from crossing more borders.

Cameron Zagreb Train Station Refugees

And that’s when I saw them: refugees. About eight or nine people, including two young children. At this moment, they weren’t howling in despair, running through wheat fields, or stuffing themselves into the windows of train cars, like I’d been seeing on TV. They were just standing there. Waiting. Bored.

They were dressed neatly, wearing fanny packs, and glancing at their smartphones. The little boy was entertaining himself by tossing his stuffed animal into the air. They reminded me of someone who just learned that the last flight out was grounded — and now they had to figure out another way to get where they were going. Maybe after all they’d been through, just hanging out at a train station on a sunny Saturday was a relief.

In the middle of the group was a pair of young Croatians. One was a very smiley, mild-mannered guy who projected an air of peace and normalcy. The other was a force-of-nature activist with a blonde ponytail. She was simultaneously talking with the ringleader of the group and making calls on her phone.

Passersby, and the many police officers on duty, were keeping their distance — shooting glances of sympathy and suspicion from across the platform. Occasionally someone would come up and offer them food or water. But they already had overflowing shopping bags, as much as they could carry. One woman tried to hand them a shrink-wrapped flat of eight water bottles. “Thank you,” the young man said politely. “We only need two.”

I approached the smiley Croatian and asked what I could do to help. Did they need groceries? Water? Money? Cigarettes? Anything? Like the others who’d offered, I was told it wasn’t necessary. “We’re just trying to organize a ride to Slovenia for them,” he explained. “The taxi drivers keep trying to rip them off.”

Just the day before, I had toured a wrenching museum in Sarajevo about the 1993 massacre at Srebrenica. I was haunted by the final words of the exhibit, a quote from Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I can’t express how helpless I felt in that train station. I like to think I’m a good man. But there I stood, doing nothing. In that moment, I could no longer view these people as some abstract problem that smart, caring people shake their heads about and mutter, “Oh, that’s too bad.” I didn’t care about politics, or some obscure fear of terrorism. All of that melted away, replaced by a keen awareness of what distracting nonsense it all was.

All I knew was that I was standing face-to-face with human beings in a terrible situation. And every instinct inside of me was screaming that they had to get to where they were going. They couldn’t stay there. They couldn’t go back. Quite simply, they had no choice but to complete their quest for a better life. How could any person with a conscience, in that moment, not arrive at the same conclusion?

After a few minutes, the refugees’ Croatian Samaritans led them over to the taxi stand, and waved goodbye as they embarked on the next leg of their journey.

A couple of days later, I followed their trail north, toward the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. Because the trains still weren’t running — and because I happened to be born as a US citizen — I effortlessly booked a transfer with a shared van service. We hopped on the expressway, and a half-hour later, we were approaching Slovenia.

Cameron Croatia Refugees Tents

Just a few feet in front of the border checkpoint, in the grassy median strip, were dozens upon dozens of multicolored tents — left behind by refugees who had camped out for days, then finally crossed over the night before. Discarded clothes and blankets littered the grass. Sleeping bags were hanging over fences. A staging area was piled with cardboard boxes of food, bandages, and other supplies. Reporters were loitering under their switched-off lighting rigs, strategizing where to go next. A couple of workers wearing reflective vests were cleaning up — and preparing, I imagine, for the potential of many more refugees to come.

For those of us in that van, the border crossing was a non-event: a flash of a passport, and in minutes, we were rolling along at 120 kilometers per hour to Ljubljana. I must admit, I was heartened when I arrived there and found this message spray-painted onto a sign in the city center:

Cameron Slovenia Refugees Welcome

Of course, I never saw those refugees again. But I still think about them. Especially today, watching “The Caravan” persistently plod its way through Mexico.

It’s so easy to become complacent, jaded, even irritated about migrants and refugees. We see them either as some distant, sad spectacle, or as a vaguely sinister threat. Just like today in the United States, the ruling right wing in Hungary exploited the fear of refugees in the fall of 2015 to shore up their political base. It seems universal: Politicians excel at yelling, red-faced, about how some poor person from a faraway corner of the globe is to blame for society’s problems.

But when I met those refugees in person, at their darkest moment, the only thing I could see was their stark humanity. It was painfully obvious: These are not stealth terrorists, or George Soros-funded activists. They are people just like you and me. And they are in need of compassion.

I realize the caravan of people walking through Mexico today is not the same as those refugees I met in the Zagreb train station. Except, fundamentally, they are the same. All refugees and migrants — going back to my own Norwegian and Polish and Irish ancestors who left all they knew to come to the New World — share the same motivation: an entirely understandable need to find a safe place to live their lives and raise their families. Their only crime is being born in the wrong country at the wrong time, and taking action to improve their lot in life. And their sentence is to be treated as scapegoats and political props. They are transformed into grotesque, inhuman caricatures for the purposes of a cynical pre-election push.

A year and a half after my encounter in Zagreb, I found an epilogue in Berlin — the capital of the country where many of those refugees ended up. There, they were welcomed with open arms, as Chancellor Angela Merkel took in more than one million migrants. The Berliners I talked to acknowledged there had been some growing pains. But every single one told me they could already see signs of how well the new arrivals were integrating with and contributing to their society. They were making Germany stronger, not weaker. And besides all of that…it was simply the right thing to do. How novel. (A few months later, Merkel was decisively re-elected to her fourth term.)

The power of travel is that it exposes you to raw realities in unexpected ways. It assaults your assumptions, forces you to develop empathy in spite of yourself, and reminds you that the more of the world you experience, the less frightening it becomes. It subverts fear by giving you context for the news. And it reminds you that, at the end of the day, we’re all just human.

Since my experience with those refugees, I have become a regular, generous donor to the American Refugee Committee and to the United Nation’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR. I just made another donation today, on behalf of that caravan of migrants in Mexico — and so many others, whose stories will never appear in your news feed. If your life has been touched and your world made richer by travel, I challenge you to do the same.