Rick Steves' Mediterranean Mosaic Pledge Special

In his exciting two-hour adventure, Rick Steves takes his public television travelers on a vivid high-definition trip across the Mediterranean, with colorful stops in Istanbul, Greece's Peloponnese Peninsula, and Croatia's Dalmatian Coast.

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Istanbul Episode Script

[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves. Back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're relaxed and getting all cleaned up for a Turkish experience...in Istanbul. Thanks for joining us.

[3] Istanbul is one of the world's great cities, period. For thousands of years, this point, where East meets West, has been the crossroads of civilizations. Few places on earth have seen more history than this sprawling metropolis on the Bosporus.

[4] We'll cruise the Golden Horn, shop the Grand Bazaar and check out a poor mans Wall Street, sample some Turkish Delights...smoke a nargile, eat fish fresh off the boat, explore the Harem in the Topkapi Palace, marvel at Byzantine domes, and lose ourselves in a sea of people in this vast and complex city.

[5] Turkey bridges Europe and Asia. Istanbul, its largest city and commercial center, straddles the strategic Bosphorus Strait. Part of the city is in Europe, and part in Asia. The Golden Horn inlet divides the new town — with the main square and boulevard — from the old town – where the major sights are.

[6] As a city which is over 90% Muslim, Istanbul offers a good opportunity to better understand Islam. Visitors are welcome to visit historic mosques and at the same time, experience a religion that still packs the house.

[7] The Blue Mosque was the 17th-century triumph of Sultan Ahmet I. Architecturally, with its six minarets, it rivaled the great mosque in Mecca-the holiest in all Islam.

[7] Courtyards welcome the crowd that gathers for worship.

[8] As with all mosques, you park your shoes at the door and women cover their heads. If they don't have a scarf, there are loaners at the door.

[9] Countless beautiful tiles fill the interior with exquisite floral and geometric motifs. It's nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of its blue tiles. Blue is a popular color in Turkey. It impressed early French visitors enough for them to call it "the color of the Turks"...or "Turquoise."

[10] While churches portray people like this. Moslems believe the portrayal of people in places of worship draw attention away from worshipping Allah as the one God. In mosques, rather than saints and prophets, you'll see geometrical designs and calligraphy. This explains why, historically, the Muslim world excelled at non-figurative art, while artists from Christian Europe focused on painting and sculpture of the human form.

[11] Artful Arabic calligraphy generally shows excerpts from the Quran and quotes from Muhammad. As a church would have Jesus and God front and center, in a mosque, elaborate signature medallions high above the prayer niche say Muhammad and Allah.

[12] Giant ceremonial candles flank the mihrab, the niche which points southeast to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia — where all Muslims face when they worship.

[13] Mosque services are segregated by gender: The main hall is reserved for men, while the women's section is in the back. While to some it's demeaning to make women stay in back, Muslims see it as a practical matter. Women would rather have the option of performing this very physical act in private.

[14] Like churches have bell-towers, mosques have minarets. According to Muslim tradition, the imam, or prayer leader, would climb to the top of a minaret to call the faithful to prayer. These days, the prayer leader still performs the call to prayer live, but it's amplified by loudspeakers at the top of the minarets.

Prayer Soundup....

[15] The call is always the same: Allah Akbar...God is great, witness there is only one God. Mohammad is his prophet. Come join the prayer. Come join the salvation. When this happens, practicing Moslems drop into a Mosque, face Mecca and pray to God....then after a short service praising God, work-a-day life resumes.

[16] Modern Turkish culture is complex. To sort it out properly, I'm joined by my Turkish friend Lale Surmen Aran who co-authors my Istanbul guidebook.

[17] Rick: So what does the call to prayer mean to you?

Lale: That's personal thing. Most of these people you see here are probably Muslims but Turkey is a secular country, it's in our constitution. But on the other hand we say Proverb: I person's riches and faith you don't know...that's the point.

[18] Turks love to meet and mingle at Ortakoy — just under the massive bridge that connected Europe with Asia in 1973. The tempo of life in Turkey, like other Mediterranean lands, is slow enough to enjoy the moment and good friends. People love their tea...the sound of dice on the backgammon board...and sucking on the hookah or nargile; the tobacco-free dried fruit smoke.

[20] This city, layered with rich history, was officially named "Istanbul" only in 1923 with the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic. Before that it was called Constantinople.

[21] Over the centuries, the city has been the capital of two grand empires. The Byzantine Empire lasted from the fourth century to the 15th century, when the Ottoman Empire took over, ruling through the end of World War I. Today, even though Turkey is governed from Ankara, Istanbul remains the cultural, financial, and historic center of the country.

[22] As ancient Rome was falling, Emperor Constantine moved the capital from the west here to the less chaotic east in around 324 A.D. It was named Constantinople, in his honor.

[23] Then, in 476, Rome and the Western Empire fell to the invading Barbarians. And that left Constantinople the leading city of Western Civilization.

[24] Traces of the Roman capital can still be found. This square was a racetrack, like the Circus Maximus in Rome. Built in the fourth century to seat over 60,000 fans, the Hippodrome was Constantinople's primary venue for chariot races.

[25] Its centerpiece, this 3,500-year-old ancient Egyptian obelisk, was originally carved to honor a pharaoh. It was moved here to ornament the racetrack in the fourth century. What you see today is only the upper third of the original massive stone tower.

[26] While you won't find any chariot races, Istanbul remains a city of experiences. One of the most memorable is enjoying a Turkish bath.

[27,] Today, baths welcome tourists and give a peek into a rich tradition. You leave absolutely everything in the changing room. Slip ungracefully into wooden slippers, and shuffle into the steamy caldarium.

[28] Turks brought the steam bath with them from Central Asia, blended it with the Roman bath culture they found here, and created the Turkish bath. First you relax at the basin, heat up, soften up under a cascade of hot water. Savor the experience...achieving maximum sweating and relaxation.

[29] Then your attendant works you over — scrubbing vigorously with rough brillo-pad type mitts. Then sudsing and washing.

[30] Refreshed and cleaner than you can remember ever being, you venture back into the city ready for more history and art.

[31] The best look at ancient Constantinople is a church-turned-mosque that's been considered among the greatest houses of worship in both the Christian and Muslim worlds: Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of Constantinople. Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the early 6th century on the grandest scale possible, it was later converted into a mosque by the conquering Ottomans. Today it's a museum. Hagia Sophia, which marks the high point of Byzantine architecture, is the pinnacle of that society's 6th century glory days.

[32] When this church was completed in 537, Europe was entering its Dark Ages. For four centuries after that, Christians in Europe looked to Constantinople as the leading city in Christendom and this was its leading church.

[33] This clever dome-upon-dome construction was the biggest dome anywhere until the cathedral of Florence was finished during the Renaissance 900 years later. The vast interior gives the impression of a golden weightless shell, gracefully camouflaging the massive overhead load supported by masterful Byzantine engineering. Forty arched windows shed a soft light on the interior, showing off the churches original marble and glittering mosaics.

[34] But the Byzantine Empire collapsed in the fifteenth century, and Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. Christian mosaics were plastered over, and new religious symbols replaced the old.

[35] This church was built to face Jerusalem; mosques faced Mecca. When Hagia Sophia became a mosque, the building couldn't be moved, but the focal point of the praying could. Notice how the prayer niche is just a bit off center. It faces Mecca.

[36] The Galata Bridge spans the easy-to-defend inlet called the Golden Horn in the very heart of Istanbul. A stroll across the bridge offers panoramic views of Istanbul's Old Town, a chance to see how the fishermen are doing...and plenty of options for a drink or a meal with a view.

[37] For fast food Istanbul style, we're grabbing a fishwich, fresh from the guys who caught it at one of the venerable — and very tipsy — "fish and bread" boats.

[38] From near the Galata Bridge, it's easy to hop a tour boat for a relaxing sail up the Bosphorus and a chance to see the city from the water, with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. You'll pass massive cruise ships which pour thousands of tourists into the city for a frantic day of sightseeing and shopping. The boat passes homes of wealthy locals who can afford some of the priciest real estate in Turkey...Bosphorus waterfront. The dramatic Bosphorus Bridge was the first bridge ever to span two continents. And the Rumeli Fortress was built by the Ottomans' the year before they conquered the city of Constantinople.

[39] Tour boats share the Bosporus with plenty of commercial traffic. The narrow and strategic strait is a bottleneck busy with freighters — including lots of Ukrainian and Russian ships, since it's the only route from the Mediterranean to ports on the Black Sea.

[40] For more crowds and urban energy you can join the million commuters who ferry over and back daily from the Asian side of Istanbul. Ferries shuttle in and out from all directions, as seas of locals make their daily half hour intercontinental commute

[41] But for me the ultimate joy of teeming and vibrant Istanbul is back in the old town — simply exploring its busy streets.

[42] The venerable Spice Market — while a touristy scene today — still sells its exotic range of products and the air is heavy with aromatic spices. You'll find everything a Sultan could want; saffron and cinnamon, dried vegetables and fruits, pistachios and hazelnuts, and a cornucopia of sweets — including, of course, Turkish delight.

[43] Istanbul's been a busy trading center from the start so it needed to be well-protected. This imposing wall helped fortify the ancient Byzantine capital. The wall sealed off the city, protecting it on the one side where the water didn't. Dating from the fifth century, these ramparts stood strong against both Catholic Europe from the West and the Muslim forces from the East... until 1453.

[44] Finally, the Ottoman Turks, who for centuries had been on the rise and chipping away at the Byzantine Empire, broke through the walls in 1453. They established the city as the capital of their growing empire and transformed Christian Constantinople into a Muslim city.

[45] Our storybook image of the Ottomans — sultans, harems, eunuchs — is best experienced here, in the Topkapi Palace. Built in the late 15th century, this was the power center of the Ottoman Empire for almost four hundred years. Its buildings form a series of courtyards — the outer being used for public functions. The farther in you go, the more private the rooms.

[46] Among the most private was the harem. The word "harem" means "forbidden" in Arabic. It's the huge suite where the sultan lived with his wives, female slaves, and children.

[49] Grand hall: biggest room, entertaining, music, sultan sat here, his family there. Not for big public events. Family: the sultan, his mom, wives and girlfriends.

[48] Harem life was far from fun for most of its dwellers. A brutal competition for power reigned. Women of the immediate family of sultan rivaled each other, or sometimes killed each other for power. This is where Kosem Sultan, the powerful Queen Mother was strangled on order of her daughter in law...the new Queen Mother. Ceiling grape vines – fertility. Institution for making an heir.

[50] And of course the Sultan enjoyed a state of the art bathroom complete with hot and cold running water.

[51] Bathed in light from these exquisite stained-glass windows, this is where the sultan relaxed, entertained and savored the sumptuous luxury his power provided.

[52] Some of the opulence is still on display in the palace museum. The exquisite Topkapi dagger wows tourists with its dazzling diamonds and golf-ball-sized emeralds. Clearly the Ottomans in their heyday were a wealthy power.

[53] The palace is also a holy spot for Muslims containing relics of Mohammad and other prophets — some of whom are revered in both the Bible and the Koran. This contains what's considered to be the arm of St. John the Baptist. And here's John's skull inside this jeweled case. For Muslims the most precious relics are those of Mohammad: his bow and sword, exquisite cases containing his tooth, some hair, and his holy seal. And in the adjacent room a Hafiz — that's someone who's memorized all 6,000 verses of the Koran — is part of a team that sings verses from the Muslim holy book 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

[54] For generations, Europe dreaded the Ottoman threat. They were on the march, knocking on Vienna's fortified door. But through the 19th century a combination of corruption, inept sultans, and an antiquated medieval organization all contributed to the eventual fall of the Ottoman Empire.

[55] The Topkapi Palace represents the pinnacle of Ottoman power. For the pinnacle of Ottoman shopping, visitors seek out the Grand Bazaar.

[56] In many ways Istanbul's Grand Bazaar remains much as it was centuries ago: enchanting and perplexing visitors with its mazelike network of more than 4,000 colorful shops, fragrant eateries, and insistent shopkeepers. [soundup] Have some fun with these guys [soundup]. Despite the tourists and the knickknacks, the heart of the Grand Bazaar still beats — giving the observant visitor a glimpse of the living Istanbul.

[57] In its day, this labyrinthine warren of shops under fine arches was the "world trade center" for the entire Ottoman Empire — locked down and guarded by more than a hundred soldiers every night. Today the main drag is touristy. But the complex is so big, it's still easy to escape the tourist zones and discover some authentic nooks and crannies.

[58] Surprises await in the low-rent fringes of the market. A commotion of shouting marks the Bazaar's "poor man's Wall Street." These currency brokers are frantically swapping fortunes of Euros, dollars and Turkish lira for their clients.

[59] Others put their fortune in gold. The many jewelry shops are a reminder that Turks love gold, not because they're vain or greedy, but because it's considered a practical and tangible place to store their wealth.

[60] Around the corner, surrounding a humble courtyard, sooty smiths labor before furnaces, melting gold off cuts and sweepings from nearby jewelers' workshops back into a pure and more useable form.

[62]To get a full and balanced appreciation for today's Istanbul, you must leave the old town and explore the lively, more cosmopolitan neighborhoods.

[63] For the visitor, Istanbul's single tram line is a godsend lacing together the most interesting sightseeing areas. While often packed, it zips directly through the middle of town fast...unaffected by the frequent traffic jams.

[64] We're riding it from the old town, over the Galata Bridge, into the new town where we'll pick up a subterranean funicular then climb up to the place where everyone seems always to be heading: Taksim Square, Istanbul's contemporary heart.

[65] Taksim Square, a major transportation hub, gives us a taste of todays Istanbul. The traffic circles a statue that celebrates the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. If Turkey is western-looking today, you can thank this man.

[66] In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was in a state of decline. Backing Germany in WWI and therefore losing, the decrepit old empire was swept away and from its remnants arose the modern Turkish republic...founded in 1923 by Ataturk.

[67] The monument shows the two sides of Atatürk: the military hero of the War of Independence... and civilian Atatürk, the first president of modern Turkey, surrounded by figures representing the proclamation of the Republic.

[68] Nearby, a colorful trolley travels the length of the city's main shopping boulevard, İstiklal Caddesi.  It's teeming with people, lined with shopping temptations, and showy street food......and sports some fine old architecture — a reminder that this street was home to the city's western-looking elite in the 19th century. Even today, Istanbul's churches and international consulates are in this district.

[71] And the street offers a parade of interesting taste treats: Some shops drench everything in delicious honey.

[72] Doner means revolving — and you know why when tempted by a Doner Kebab.

[73] And for a fast meal with no language barrier, the ubiquitous cafeteria-style restaurants present a can-can of fresh and traditional Turkish food prepared in home cooked style.

[74] And my favorite way to experience urban Istanbul is to hike the entire length of this main pedestrian boulevard, immersed in a fascinating sea of people.

[75] Stand still for a moment and watch the people. This is today's Turkey. Modern Turkey is a melting pot of twenty or so different ethnic groups. ...Turk, Kurd, Armenian, Jew, Greek, Georgian, and Gypsy...and styles from the very traditional to the latest. The city is a huge draw for visitors — still a crossroads of humanity. And according to the Turkish proverb, all guests are gifts from God.

[76] Like its bridge, Istanbul brings East and West together. With a complex weave of modern affluence, Western secularism, and traditional Muslim faith, it's a dynamic and stimulating city, well worth a visit. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time...keep on travelin'. 

Greece's Peloponnese Episode Script

[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in Greece, climbing 999 steps to bring you the best of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Thanks for joining us.

[3 ] Peloponnesia was the heartland of ancient Greece. Its wild, mountainous landscape has hosted the interminable rise and fall of cultures which makes for fascinating sightseeing today.

[4] The peninsula is dotted with striking ruins, from ancient Mycenaean [my-sih-nee-in] domes, to Golden Age temples to imposing Venetian fortresses. And we'll also see stunning seaside scenery...a Greek Orthodox service... and the breathtaking remains of Byzantine citadel.

[5] In the extreme south of Europe is Greece. And in the south of Greece, a short drive from Athens, is the Peloponnese, a peninsula barely hanging from the mainland. Our tour includes Mycenae,  Nafplion, Epidavros, Olympia, Kardamyli, the rugged Mani Peninsula, and Monemvasia.

[6] Peloponnesian history is Greece's history: warring tribes, pan-Hellenic games, Golden Age Greeks, Roman rule, and centuries of Byzantine rule. Then, with the fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks in the 15th century, the Peloponnese became part of their Ottoman Empire. Finally, in the 19th-century, after 400 years, Greeks threw out their Turkish overlords and established an independent, modern nation.

[7] Greece — with a relatively sparse population and a fine road system — is easy to cover by bus or car. We've rented a car in Athens, and in 90 minutes, we're crossing the Corinth Canal.

[8] The Corinth Canal cuts the Peloponnesian peninsula off from the rest of Greece. Two thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Nero broke ground for this canal. But the four-mile-long ditch wasn't actually dug until about a century ago, by modern Greeks.

[9] Our first stop is Ancient Mycenae the oldest sight you'll see in this land dotted by so many ruins. The Mycenaean's, who dominated the Greek world between 1600 and 1200 BC, were the first Bronze Age society to emerge on the European mainland.

[10] As the torch of civilization moved westward, they picked it up from the Minoans, an earlier civilization that thrived on the Greek island of Crete. Unlike the Minoans, who enjoyed the luxury of peace on their remote island, the Mycenaeans were a militaristic society surrounded by enemies.

[11] Their capital was heavily fortified and stood on an easy-to-defend hill, flanked by steep ravines, with views all the way to the sea. Mycenae flourished because it was ideally situated for trade by both sea and land.

[12] In its day, the mighty Lion Gate would have been awe-inspiring. Standing strong here for over 3000 years, it was the symbol of Mycenaean power.

[13] These were the early Greeks Homer wrote of in The Iliad, and The Odyssey. Keep in mind that the Mycenaean's lived a thousand years before the rise of Athens. They were as ancient and mysterious to Socrates and Plato as those Golden Age Greeks are to us.

[15] While the ruins are stark and scant, with a little imagination, you can envision life here. For example, to fetch water, residents would descend into this cleverly constructed mine-like shaft and climb way, way, way down.

[16] I'm 60 feet below the surface. This is the cistern where the water was collected — piped from a spring 500 yards outside the walls. Even back then, you couldn't have a good fortress without water.

[17] Mycenae was at the peak of its power around 1300 BC, after which it and its empire seemed to disappear virtually overnight.

[18] A circular wall of stones defined the cemetery. Mycenae lay unappreciated until the 19th century when a treasure trove of gold was unearthed in this necropolis.

[19] Today, those treasures are the star attractions back in Athens at the National Archaeological Museum. This discovery affirmed the archeologists' theory that Mycenae was Homer's fabled city "rich in gold." And the elaborate detail makes the sophistication of the Mycenaeans clear. These golden cups are exquisite. The so-called Mask of Agamemnon was a death mask placed on the face of a dead king in his coffin.

[20] The Mycenaeans took good care of their dead — at least their important dead. This passageway leads to an underground royal tomb.

[21] The corbelled stonework was an engineering feat. Designed like a stone igloo, this Beehive or "Tholos" tomb was the biggest dome of its day.

[22] This remarkable structure remained the king of domes until the Romans built the Pantheon about 1,400 years later.

[23] One way to judge a society's architectural finesse is by the distance it can span with no internal supports. By today's standards this structure's not much. But back then, it was a wonder.

[25] On the nearby coast, the city of Nafplion is the perfect base for exploring the northeast corner of the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

[26] Nafplion is a striking reminder that this part of Greece was for centuries an outpost of Venice. The island in the harbor was the first line of local defense. The second line was the Palamidi Fortress capping the hilltop high above.

[27] Climb 999 steps above Nafplion and you reach this early 18th-century fortress. Your reward, along with a grand view, is a chance to appreciate the far-reaching power of the Venetian empire in its day.

[28] The Palamidi Fortress, regarded as the best example of Venetian military architecture, saw plenty of action. It fell to the Ottomans in 1715, played a roll in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, and was occupied by the Nazis during World War Two.

[29] Nafplion is one of Greece's prettiest towns. Its narrow streets are lined by elegant Venetian houses and graceful Neoclassical mansions. Like the big square in Athens, Nafplion's main square is called Syntagma or Constitution Square.

[30] A constitution was the dream of many in the 1820s when the Greeks were creating their newly independent nation. As this town was one of the first liberated from the Ottomans Turks in 1822, Nafplion became the new country's first capital city.

[31] The square is a delightful mix of architecture revealing the many layers of local history: The old Venetian arsenal still sports the symbol of Venice: the winged lion of St. Mark. The domed mosques are a reminder of centuries of Muslim Ottoman rule. This mosque was converted to house independent Greece's first parliament.

[31a] At the top of the town, our hotel's stony courtyard fits right in. The breakfast room comes with friendly service and a commanding view. And the bedrooms are a tasteful mix of stone and wood.

[32] The harborfront promenade features inviting bars and couch-filled cafes which attract a relaxed crowd. The sofas encourage locals and visitors alike to stay awhile. And if you stay long enough...nearby tavernas, as rustic restaurants are called here, serve the fish dish of your dreams.

[33 ] An hour's drive east is the sanctuary at Epidavros, with the best-preserved theater in the ancient world and the scant remains of a city around it.

[34] In 400 BC, Epidavros, with a sprawling complex of hospitals and sick wards, was the most famous healing center in the Greek world.

It was a place of miraculous cures — and comfortable benches, where the sick came to be treated by doctor-priests doing the work of Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine.

[35] The highlight of Epidavros is its fine theater, which provided entertainment for those who made the pilgrimage here from all over Greece. It continued to operate until 426 AD, when Emperor Theodosius II — who was a Christian — closed it down, along with all other pagan sanctuaries. Given its size — over 12,000 seats — and obvious lack of modern amplification, the acoustics needed to be perfect...and they still are.

[38] Friends, Greeks, way-farers, in these times of discord, fear is rampant in our society. I contend that the flip side of fear is understanding...and those who travel will reap great understanding — meeting people who find other truths to be god-given and self evident....

[39] The rugged, sparsely populated terrain of the Peloponnese, evokes ancient times when Greeks considered this a mysterious and frightening land...the mythic land of terrifying creatures. No wonder it was here that Hercules was sent to perform most of his daunting labors.

[40] Ancient athletes were tested here as well. The Sanctuary of Olympia was the birthplace of the Olympic Games. Despite the crowds, it remains an evocative place, nestled among shady trees. Wandering its extensive ruins, it's clear Olympia was much more than a stadium.

[41] Local tour guide Niki Vlachou helps explain.

Rick: So it was a sanctuary? Niki: It's a sanctuary because it was essentially a religious site dedicated to Zeus and was only open during the period of the games. It's home to an extensive complex of temples, public buildings, and sporting facilities that played host to ancient Greece's Olympic Games for more than a thousand years.

[43] The Temple of Zeus was magnificent in the 5th century BC and reminds us that the games were held in honor of the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon or world of gods.

This temple housed on of the seven wonders of the ancient world — a towering statue of Zeus with gold and ivory. It gave people a chance to actually see the god. They saw it and ran.

[45] In the 6th century AD, earthquakes sent its columns tumbling. Today they lie here as if to illustrate how Greek columns were stacks of fluted limestone disks held together with square pegs.

[46] The popularity of the games grew rapidly, attracting athletes from throughout the Greek world to compete in an ever-growing number of events — such as boxing, discus, javelin, sprinting the length of a stadium, the two stadium sprint, and even the two stadium sprint naked with all your armor. The last of the ancient games were held in AD 393 not to be started again for 1500 years.

[47 transcribe] Niki, so why the games? They made the Greek culture strong. It was for practicing military techniques. People came not only to compete in the games but to take classes. This was a classroom. They made it clear, if Greeks are to fight it is better in the stadium so they can be united to fight the rest of the world.

[48] The most vivid remnant of the games is this — the original Olympic stadium. Visitors just can't resist the chance to line up on the marble starting blocks and imagine athletes from around the Greek world doing this same thing at those first games in 776 BC.

[50] While most visitors get to the four Peloponnesian stops we've seen so far, a three-hour drive takes us off the beaten path and to the south coast. This is where the rustic charm of this remote corner of Greece is most apparent.

[51] The town of Kardamyli, gateway to the Mani Peninsula, is one of the oldest names in the annals of Greek history, even mentioned in Homer's Iliad. This unassuming little seaside get-away is a fine spot to relax and settle into the pace of Greek country life.

[52] The remains of the tiny fortified old town are a reminder that Kardamyli was deserted in the middle ages, when pirates forced the inhabitants to retreat up into the hills. Most remained there until the 18th century, when tower houses like these allowed a safe return.

[53] Yiannis Dimitreas runs a delightful little shop that showcases the organic riches of this corner of Greece.

[55] The charm of Kardamyli is its low key ambience...especially lunch or dinner time overlooking the coast. We're here before the tourist season hits and it's mostly locals enjoying the scene. It's Sunday and two goats are roasting on the spit as we settle in for a taste of the local cuisine: Starting with Ouzo — the Greek anis-based aperitif. Then a fresh Greek salad, stuffed peppers, and tsatzike — the yogurt dip that accompanies most meals. And, when goats on the spit...why choose anything else.

[56] Kardamyli is a good springboard for exploring the Mani Peninsula. This southernmost point of the European mainland feels as wild as its history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this god-forsaken corner of Greece was known to travelers as "the land of evil counsel." That's because of its reputation for robbery and piracy — a more reliable way to survive than trying to eke out an honest living by farming the barren land.

[57] The town of Vathia is one of the region's characteristic tower settlements. The best-preserved of all the Mani villages, its deserted, fortified houses are a poignant reminder that these harsh conditions forced the population to seek protection in clans.

[58] In its day, the population was swollen by an influx of refugees fleeing whatever crisis was gripping Greece further north.

[59] Looking around at the stark landscape of the Mani Peninsula, which barely supports 5,000 people today; it's hard to believe that 200 years ago it sustained a population of almost 60,000.

[60] Just up the coast, wedged in a ravine, the village of Kastania is more inviting and offers a rare opportunity to explore a traditional Mani village. While it feels pretty sleepy today, Kastania was once a local powerhouse. During the 19th century Greek War of Independence, it boasted no less than 400 'guns' - as Mani people called their men folk. They were gathered under a warlord whose imposing family tower still stands over the town square.

[61] Along with many guns, the towns had many churches. The tiny Church of St. Peter, thought to have been built during the 12th century, is a fine example of Byzantine church architecture of the time.

[62] The inside is richly adorned with frescos that have told Bible stories to this community for centuries. While it feels unkempt and ramshackle and a destructive mold has hastened the aging of its precious art, the spiritual wonder of the place remains intact. It's amazing to think that in our age there are still remote corners where centuries-old art is tucked away...where virtually no tourist goes...where the curious traveler can be alone with a fragile yet surviving bit of a bygone culture.

[63] Neglected as it seems, when a local drops by to light a candle and say a prayer, you realize this is still very much a living place of worship.

[64] Back down in the town square the local priest calls his flock to worship. Whether thirty or just three show up, he performs the service with the same enthusiasm. Like people in Russia, Serbia, and some other Balkan countries, most Greek Christians are Eastern Orthodox. Orthodox churches follow the earliest traditions of the Christian faith — from a time before reforms created today's Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions.

[65] The iconostasis — the icon-covered screen in the middle of the room — separates the material world (where the worshippers stand) from the spiritual one. Orthodox priests do the religious "heavy lifting" behind this screen, where the Bible is kept.

[66] Orthodox icons — stylized paintings of saints — are packed with intricate symbolism. Cast against a gold or silver background, they're meant to remind viewers of the spiritual nature of Jesus and the saints rather than their physical form.

[67] Traditional Orthodox worshippers stand through the Mass, as a sign of respect.

[68] Orthodox worship generally involves chanting, and the church is filled with the evocative aroma of incense. Through these elements, the Mass attempts to create an actual religious experience, to help the worshipper transcend the physical world and enter into communion with the spiritual one.

[69] A short drive eastward through the mountains takes us to the magnificent island fortress of Monemvasia. Often referred to as the "Gibraltar of Greece," this is a virtual showcase of Byzantine, Turkish, and Venetian history dating back to the 13th century.

[70] The historic causeway is still the only one way on or off this burly chunk of land.

[71] The town's fortified gate opens into Monemvasia's narrow, cobbled main street, which meanders uphill past an assortment of tourist shops and cafes with terraces looking out to the Mediterranean Sea.

[72] In the 14th century, the fortress of Monemvasia was also a prosperous trading center. In its day it was one of the great commercial centers of the Byzantine world, with a population of about 40,000. A key strategic holding, it was occupied back and forth between the Venetians and Turks until modern times.

[73] Monemvasia slipped into a decline that lasted until tourists re-discovered the place in the 1970s. Many of the town's houses have been restored and are used as weekend retreats by wealthy Athenians.

[74] A steep zigzag path leads up and up out of the lower town. Passing through the old gate you enter the fortified upper town. Its ruins sprawl across the broad summit of the rock. In its day, Monemvasia was considered the mightiest fortress in Byzantine Greece.

[75] Not surprisingly, it was never captured in battle. But it was susceptible to siege: Its greatest weakness was its dependence on the mainland for food and water.

[76] The fortresses' only surviving building is the 13th-century Byzantine Church of St Sophia. Hanging precariously close to the edge of a sheer cliff, it strikes me as a metaphor for the resilience of traditional culture in our modern world.

[77] A multi-faceted history, welcoming people, delicious food, and dramatic vistas...the Peloponnesian Peninsula has it all. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. 

Croatia's Dalmatian Coast Episode Script

[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're navigating the Adriatic coast and lots more. It's Croatia. Thanks for joining us.

[2 Show Open]

[3] Croatia is a fascinating land with a hard-fought history in a complex corner of Europe. And as travelers rediscover its charms, it's emerging as one of Europe's top destinations.

[4 Montage] Exploring Croatia, we'll see the Pearl of the Adriatic, sample some island charm, wander Roman ruins, and hike through a watery wonderland. We'll enjoy its thriving capital city, the Italian-like charm of Istria, and that peninsula's enchanting port town.

[5 Map] Yugoslavia filled much of Europe's Balkan Peninsula during most of the 20th century. When Yugoslavia broke up into separate countries in the 1990s, Croatia wound up with most of its coastline. We start south in Dubrovnik, sail along the Dalmatian Coast, stopping at Korčula and Hvar en route to Split. After exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park and the capital city of Zagreb, we travel to the Istrian peninsula, to Rovinj.

[6] Spectacularly set Dubrovnik is both historic and a hit with tourists. It's understandably Croatia's top draw.

[7] Whether surveying its stout walls, joining the promenade along its main drag, or appreciating its former glory, it's clear this city was a major power in the past and is a major draw today. Exploring its evocative back lanes, relaxing on its pebbly beaches, or just pondering its majestic setting...Dubrovnik is simply delightful.

[8] Dubrovnik is the Pearl of the Adriatic. In fact, we'll cover it in more detail in another episode. For this program, we're leaving the crowds of Dubrovnik and exploring the less-appreciated corners of Croatia.

[9] Boats, big and small, connect Dubrovnik to the rest of Croatia. We're setting sail along the scenic Dalmatian Coast with its countless islands. They're all variations on the same theme — rugged limestone features with historic port towns and sparsely populated interiors. The rocky soil and persistent sun are good for grapes. And the pebbly beaches with crystal clear water are both pristine and inviting.

[11] We're visiting two islands, and first up is Korčula. Visitors enjoy its "mini-Dubrovnik" vibe. You'll find a fortified peninsula under a striking mountain backdrop. In the old town, narrow lanes come with an easygoing charm.

[12] Like other Croatian coastal towns, Korčula has two parts: The functional, practical side — where most people park, eat, and sleep — and the time-warp old town.

[13] Rather than stay in a big resort hotel, I'm staying in a sobe — that's a room rented in a private home.  I called ahead and my hosts, Lenni and Peter, met me at the boat. They rent six rooms in their house buried deep in Korčula's Old Town. A 500-year-old building can be tight.

[14] This room's small, but it's comfortable, air-conditioned, and half the price of a hotel room. And it's a great location...they claim Marco Polo lived just down the street.

[15] The town's charms are all within a few steps. The historic gate is a reminder that Korčula was once a mighty little place. Facades recall its 14th-century trading heyday. Each land contributes to the evocative medieval townscape, dripping with drying laundry and local character. You can savor it all over a cup of coffee.

[16] If you want t enjoy the local café scene, it helps to know a few words. If you want a latte, it's bijela kava. That means "white coffee."

[18] We're setting sail again. Both lumbering car ferries and sleek and sleek cruise ships carry Dalmatia's many visitors efficiently from port to port.

[19] In ancient times, Greeks and Romans sailed up and down this coastline — establishing many trade settlements. The island of Hvar was settled and named by the Greeks in the fourth century B.C.

[20] Its main town, also named Hvar, nestles under its formidable fortress. Its handy boat connections make it a popular stop. While mobbed with tourists in peak season, we're here in late May, and it's more sleepy than chic.

[21] Like most major towns along the Adriatic coastline, the fortified harbor of Hvar was a strategic link in the vast 16th-century Venetian trading empire — the walls, fortress, towers, and palaces all built by and for the Venetians.

[22] Activities are low-energy. Expertly enjoying this town, seemingly made for relaxing, yachters stern-tie into the good life. Visitors nurse drinks on the main square...or stroll the back lanes, where you may come upon a musical surprise.

[23] Local a cappella choirs perform Klapa music — the quintessential Dalmatian folk music.  Every town has their all-male Klapa choir. These songs of the seafaring life, of loves lost and loves found, stir the souls of Croatians and visitors alike.

[24] When it comes to mealtime, here on the coast, it's seafood. Hardworking restaurants seem to abide by the local creed: Eating meat is food...eating fish, that's pleasure. Our waiter reminded us that a fish should swim three times: first in the sea, then in olive oil, and finally in wine.

[25] After a little island-hopping, approaching urban Split — Croatia's "second city" — feels like a return to civilization. While so many Dalmatian Coast towns feel tailor made for tourism, Split is a serious port. It's vibrant with or without its visitors.

[26] Today's Split feels modern. But a close look at the surviving facade of a Roman palace fronting its harbor reveals the city's ancient roots. Today's residents are literally living in a Roman emperor's palace. In the fourth century A.D., when the Roman Emperor Diocletian retired, he built a vast residence for his golden years here in his native Dalmatia. When Rome fell, Diocletian's palace was abandoned. Eventually, a medieval town sprouted from its abandoned shell. And, to this day, the maze of narrow alleys — once literally Diocletian's hallways — makes up the core of Split.

[27] Local guide Maya Benzon is joining us to help explain the story behind her hometown.

[28] Nearby, a grand underground hallway now used as a shopping arcade leads to Diocletian's vestibule.

[30] Diocletian's mausoleum dominated the center of the palace complex. Much of the original Roman building survives: the impressive dome, columns and capitals, and fine carved reliefs. Diocletian was notorious for persecuting Christians. But a thousand years ago, his mausoleum was converted into a cathedral. And so, ironically, what Diocletian built to glorify his memory is used instead to remember his victims — Christian martyrs...like this one, who was tied to a millstone and tossed into the sea.

[31] A few steps away is a temple, this one dedicated to Jupiter.

[33] A highlight for me is simply people-watching. The sea of Croatian humanity laps at the walls of Diocletian's Palace along the pedestrian promenade, or Riva. As on similar promenades throughout the Mediterranean world, the cars have made way for the people. Strolling locals finish their days in good style...just enjoying life's simple pleasures in a city made friendly for its residents.

[34] While the coast is Croatia's main draw, some of its best attractions are inland. We're delving into the Croatian heartland.

[35] One of Europe's top natural wonders is Plitvice Lakes National Park. Imagine Niagara Falls sliced and diced and sprinkled over a vast and heavily forested canyon. It's a lush and unforgettable valley of 16 terraced lakes, laced together by waterfalls and miles of pleasant plank walks.

[36] Boats glide visitors into the heart of the park. Countless cascades and water that's both strangely clear and full of vibrant colors make Plitvice a misty natural wonderland. Fish seem to know there's not a hook for miles. Carefully maintained trails and boardwalks let you get intimate with the wonder of the place. Observant nature lovers can choose from hundreds of flower types to assemble a photographic bouquet.

[37] The stony formations drip down like the foliage because the grass and moss both direct the flow of the water and provide a kind of scaffolding for the slow and steady calcification process. Naturalists call Plitvice a "perfect storm" of geological, climatic, and biological features. The magic ingredient: calcium carbonate, a mineral deposit from the limestone that gets absorbed into the water, then re-deposited — continually breaking down natural travertine dams...and building up new ones.

[38] Tranquil as this park is, it was here, in 1991, that the first shots of Croatia's war with Yugoslavia were fired. And, if you know where to look, evidence of the war survives.

[39] When Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, its Serb minority — about 10 percent of the population — was concerned about its rights. So they broke away from the new state of Croatia, which plunged the region into four years of war.

[40] While the war barely touched the coastline, here in the interior — which had a sizable Serb minority — the fighting was devastating.

[41] In towns like Otočac, bullet holes still mar facades. These scars reflect the brutal house-to-house fighting that characterized the war. Seeing bomb-damaged homes rebuilt makes you ponder loss, resilience, and hope. The Croats' Catholic church, once shelled and now repaired, has a poignant memorial in its garden: Christ crucified on a cross of artillery shells.

[42] Taking a little extra time to wander through the town gives an insight into people moving on with their lives. 

[43] While a few Serbs are returning, the reality is the war changed the ethnic make-up of Croatia forever. As disturbing as these reminders of war are, it is uplifting to be here and actually see how well the country's putting itself back together.

[44] Our next stop: the capital city...Zagreb. You can't get a complete picture of modern Croatia without a visit here. This lively and livable city is home to one out of every six Croatians.

[45] Jelačić Square — the "Times Square" of Zagreb — is bright and boisterous with modern commerce and local life. The statue depicts the square's namesake, Josip Jelačić — a 19th-century national hero who still inspires Croatians today.

[46] Seeing the city buzz with activity, you feel the energy of urban Croatia. Night or day, the streets are a parade of stylish locals — confident and looking good. The people-friendly business zone comes with the energy and bustle you'd expect to find in any prosperous European capital. Whether you're enjoying an outdoor café, window-shopping, or just lounging in one of the city's many inviting parks, Zagreb makes you wonder, "Where are all the tourists?"

[47] Zagreb's historic upper town blankets a hill. Its main square is home to Croatia's government. The national parliament building flies both the Croatian and European flags. Dominating the square is the Church of St. Mark — with a colorfully tiled roof depicting both the coat of arms of Croatia and the city seal of Zagreb.

[48] Nearby is the Croatian Museum of Naive Art. This charming collection features lyrical landscapes and village scenes painted in the mid-20th-century by self-taught peasant artists. While some are on canvas, most are painted on glass — a cheap and readily available material that was easier to work on.

[49] Naive art is created by untrained artists isolated from the artistic mainstream. They painted in a figurative way when the rest of the art world was embracing an increasingly abstract style.

[50] Generalić, shown here in a self-portrait, was the father of the Croatian naive art movement. In 1953, he took his art to a show in Paris as a relative unknown. He was a huge hit, sold everything, and came home rich and famous. 

[51] These Croatian Naive artists were outsiders — sought out by art world insiders to validate the notion that artistic ability was more than a learned skill, it was an inborn talent.

[52] In places such as rural Croatia, medieval lifestyles survived well into the 20th century. You see a lot of winter scenes because these artists were farmers first...busy tending their fields through the growing season. They painted their village world...isolated from the modern world. In a complex age, many urbanites found this art refreshing for its brute simplicity. 

[53] Tucked inside Zagreb's only surviving town gate is an evocative chapel. The focal point is a painting of Mary that miraculously survived a fire in 1731. People, young and old, passing through, stop here briefly to worship. Pausing reverently, the faithful bring their concerns to Mary. The many candles represent Zagrebian prayers. Smoke-stained plaques on the wall give thanks — hvala — for prayers answered.

[54] Just down the road is a thriving pedestrian zone — Zagreb's main café street and urban promenade. Comfy seating encourages people to slow down and enjoy each other's company. Sitting here, it's clear...Zagrebians love their city.

[55,] Thanks to new freeways, the Istrian Peninsula, in Croatia's northwest corner, is just a couple hours' drive from the capital.

[56] In the Istrian interior, you'll find a thickly forested landscape of rolling hills and family farms. Istria is dotted with picturesque hill towns, striped with vineyards, and busy with hardworking farmers.

[57] Dramatically situated high above the vineyards, Motovun is Istria's most popular hill town. Its modest main square is the only flat space in town — ideal for budding soccer stars. The church's crenellated tower is a reminder that these towns were built on hilltops not for the view, but for protection. But today, strolling the ramparts, it's clear: The panorama is a big part of the town's appeal.
As the day ends, the square is made to order for al fresco dining.

[58] I find that sometimes the best experiences don't come to you...you need to find them. An after-dinner stroll with a sense of curiosity gets me a seat at a rehearsal of the local Klapa group.

[59 music]

[60] A short drive to the coast takes us to Rovinj — my favorite stop between Dubrovnik and Venice. The town rises dramatically from the Adriatic, as if being pulled up to heaven by its grand bell tower.

[61] The church that crowns Rovinj is dedicated to the fourth-century martyr St. Euphemia — her statue functions as a weather vane. Scaling the church bell tower's creaky wooden stairway requires an enduring faith in the reliability of wood. From the top is a commanding view...and, if you're here at high noon, an ear-splitting memory.

[62] The town's history created its current shape: Medieval Rovinj was a walled island. Because it offered safe harbor from both pirates and the plague, Rovinj became extremely crowded, explaining today's pleasantly claustrophobic Old Town.

[63] Like the rest of the Croatian coast, Rovinj was part of the Venetian Empire for centuries. And Istria remained part of Italy until after WWII. That's why this region is enthusiastically bilingual and an engaging mix of Croatia and Italy.

[65] Rovinj's vibrant market is a fun place to shop for a picnic and snack on free samples. [sound up] It also has its gifty corner where salesmen tempt visiting tourists with the local specialties. [sound up]

[66] The twisting lack lanes of crumbling old Rovinj seem designed for a photo safari: Arches span narrow alleys which open into hidden courtyards. The "main drag" leading up to the top of the island is lined with art galleries. Understandably, artists love Rovinj.

[67] And so do romantics. At the Valentino Bar, the Old Town tumbles right into the sea. It's a memorable place to cap your Rovinj day. Grab a cushion and settle into a cozy stone nook. Enjoy a drink, your travel partner...and the Adriatic sunset.

[69] Croatia is clearly coming into its own. With each visit I'm impressed by its complexity, natural wonders, and vibrant spirit. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.