Rick Steves' European Insights on WXXI-TV

Rick Steves' European Insights on WXXI-TV

Sat, 03/20/2010 - 2:30pm

Pictured: View from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Credit: Back Door Productions

Everyone's favorite travel guide takes a special look through the past to the face of contemporary Europe, more diverse and vibrant than ever.

In this special collection of never-before-seen clips, Rick Steves' European Insights brings art and history to life in Pisa, provides a thoughtful assessment of history we can learn from at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden, and the Danish Nazi Resistance Museum in Copenhagen — and brings us up to speed on breathtaking developments in Europe, with a look at its ethnic diversity and investment in its infrastructure.

Rick Steves' European Insights airs Saturday, March 20 at 2:30 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11).

Pisa is a grand city…with a grand history. For nearly three centuries, until about the year 1300, Pisa was a booming port town…rivaling Venice and Genoa as a sea-trading power. From here, where the Arno River meets the sea, its 150-foot galleys cruised most of the Mediterranean. During the Crusades, Pisan ships transported entire armies to the Holy Land. Like many Italian city-states, the Pisan "Republic" prided itself on its independence from both popes and emperors. But, eventually its fleet was defeated by Genoa and its port silted up leaving the town's economy high and dry.

Pisa's three must-see sights—the Duomo, Baptistery, and leaning bell tower—are reminders of its long ago sea-trading wealth. This dazzling ensemble floats regally on the best lawn in Italy. This square--the Piazza del Duomo--was nicknamed the "Campo dei Miracoli," or Field of Miracles, for the grandness of the undertaking. The architectural style throughout is Pisa's very own "Pisan Romanesque." Where traditional Romanesque has a heavy fortress feel, Pisan Romanesque is light and elegant. The buildings--with their tight rows of thin columns, geometric designs, and striped colored marble--give the Campo a striking unity.

The 200 foot tall bell tower is famous because it leans about 15 feet. The tower started to lean almost immediately after construction began. Various architects tried to "correct" the problem of leaning by kinking it up straight.

As the tower leaned a little more each year, it was in danger of actually tipping over. Through the centuries every trick imaginable was tried to stop the tilt. Finally, they figured it out, it was stabilized--they actually straightened it up about 12 inches--and in 2001, the Leaning Tower of Pisa reopened to the climbing public.

Climbing to the top is an unforgettable experience offering great views of the city, the square, and its dramatic duomo...or cathedral.

Pisa's huge and richly decorated cathedral is artistically more important than its more famous bell tower. Its ornate facade glitters in the sun. The 320-foot nave was the longest in Christendom when it was built. The floorplan is that of a traditional Roman basilica—68 Corinthian columns dividing the nave into five aisles. The striped marble and arches-on-columns give it an exotic, almost mosque-like feel.

The pulpit by Giovanni Pisano dates from around 1300. Pisano left no stone uncarved in his pursuit of beauty. While this was sculpted over a century before the Renaissance began, Michelangelo himself traveled here to marvel at Pisano's work...drawing inspiration from its realism.

Around the top, Christ's life unfolds in a continuous scroll. The infamous Massacre if the Innocents is powerful. King Herod--so threatened by this newborn king--orders the slaughter of all the first born sons in hopes of killing baby Jesus. Mary and Joseph load up the donkey and hustle their son down to Egypt as the bloody massacre proceeds. The sculptor captures the horror of this event with unprecedented skill. Pisano's four hundred intricately sculpted figures all weave a complex theological ideal. This provides a symbolic foundation designed to legitimize and reinforce the gospel message the priests read from the lectern crowning the pulpit.

In the Middle Ages, you couldn't even enter the church until you were baptized. That's why baptisteries like Pisa's were free standing buildings adjacent the church. The interior is simple and spacious. A statue of John, the first Baptist, the man who baptized Christ, seems to say, "Welcome to my Baptistery." The finely crafted font is plenty big for baptizing adults by immersion--medieval style.The highlight here for most is the remarkable acoustics...resulting in echoes long enough to let you sing three part harmony...solo.


In the beautiful rolling hills flanking the Danube River, just upstream from Vienna stands the notorious concentration camp at Mauthausen. This slave labor camp functioned from 1938 to 1945 for the exploitation and extermination of Hitler's opponents. More than half of its 200,000 quarry-working prisoners hammered, hauled and died here, mostly from starvation or exhaustion.Like many camps, Mauthausen was located at a quarry. Inmates generally labored for the German armaments industry or quarrying stone for vast Nazi building projects. The long stairway that connected the quarry with the camp and the stone depot earned the name "stairway of death" for good reason.In a concentration camp like Mauthausen, your ability to endure forced labor amounted to a stay of execution. With the harshest of conditions and a starvation diet, if you couldn't carry slabs of rocks on your back up this stairway all day long…you were shot on the spot.

Much of Mauthausen is a memorial park where each country has erected a gripping memorial to their citizens who perished here. Many yellowed photos have fresh flowers indicating loved ones are still not forgotten. And again, this camp reminds us, "not forgetting" is the wish of those who endured this holocaust.


Just across the Austrian border in Germany the architect of this genocide, Adolf Hitler built a mountain hideout at Berchtesgaden. He eventually built a vast Nazi headquarters up here which served as a second capital of the Third Reich and an impressive place to wow visiting diplomats. Today a museum sits upon what remains of the bombed out compound. It's designed primarily so Germans can understand and learn from their recent history. Hitler's propagandists capitalized on the Fuhrer's love of this region to establish the notion that the former Austrian was truly a German at heart.

From the museum, local guide David Harper joins us as we enter a vast bunker system. It was started in 1943 after the Battle of Stalingrad ended the Nazi aura of invincibility. This incredibly engineered, climate controlled, underground maze was a virtual city. It came complete with meeting rooms and offices for the government, lavish living quarters for Hitler, and four miles of tunnels cut by forced labor through solid rock. It was stripped bare after the war.

From here, buses zig-zag visitors up a dramatic and breathtaking road. It was built in 1938 to bring Hitler and his guests up to a gift built for the dictator's fiftieth birthday...a mountain capping chalet nicknamed the Eagle's Nest. From the bus stop, a stone tunnel, crafted with fascist precision, leads to Hitler's plush elevator which whisks you to the top. While a fortune was spent to build this perch, with its obedient stonework, Hitler made only 14 official visits. Today, the Eagle's Nest is open as a cafe and jumping off point for hikers. Because it was here that Hitler claimed to be inspired and laid out his dark vision, some call Berchtesgaden the "cradle of the Third Reich."


But across Europe there were people who fought Hitler anyway they could. At Copenhagen's Nazi Resistance museum we learn how, eventually, the Danish underground heroically resisted German occupation. Germany invaded and occupied neutral Denmark in 1940. Expecting a quick German victory, the Danes--as they're inclined to do--cooperated. Because of this cooperation, or maybe the food they produced for Germany, or maybe because Hitler approved of their Aryan ethnicity, Denmark enjoyed a "special status" and was allowed virtual autonomy.

In fact, thousands of Danes volunteered to fight with the Nazis against the USSR. At first there was only rare and symbolic resistance--red white and blue pro-Britain caps and Yankee Doodle bow ties. By 1943 many Danes were angered by the use of Danish factories for the German war machine and emboldened by allied victories that broke the feeling of Nazi invincibility. As this new spirit kindled hopes of an allied victory, the Danish Resistance grew stronger.

An underground newspaper "The Free Dane" was published by heroic young journalists. Secret homemade radio transmitters connected Danes with resistance leadership in London. Trained resistance leaders parachuted in from Britain to organize a more serious resistance. Train lines were blown up. Danish ingenuity showed itself in homemade guns and torpedoes.

With D-day and the invasion of Normandy, the Free Dane came out in a special color edition. And it was only a matter of time before the Nazis were gone Denmark was free with the rest of Europe to follow.

New Face of Europe

From the destruction of World War II, Europe has steadily rebuilt itself into one of the most modern and forward looking continents. The creation of the European Union has created stability and unity. There has been a massive investment in cutting edge infrastructure projects; efficient high speed rail systems tie the continent together. Super highways and stunning bridges further enhance the continent-wide transportation system. Within cities, modern subways move millions of people. On the streets above trams reduce traffic congestion. And nearly every city is creating traffic free pedestrian zones that humanize city centers.

Countries across the continent are taking a leading role in developing alternative energy sources. And, while still preserving its historic buildings Europe has found a way to integrate innovative architecture in the landscape and give the continent a modern face. And the human face of contemporary Europe is more diverse and vibrant than ever. This unified continent of 400 million people is looking for ways to allow a rich mix of cultures to thrive while maintaining their unique identities. From Norway to Greece and from Portugal to Bulgaria people are proud of their distinct languages, foods and traditions.