the view through the windshield car blog

Rick Steves Goes To Hell
Well, he's already visited everywhere else!

If you watch public television, you've undoubtedly seen the travel show, 'Rick Steves' Europe'. Steves, who is also a travel author, has been doing travelogues for PBS for over 25 years. He presents himself as an easy-going, kinda-geeky guy, who never loses his fascination with all things European. You'd think after so many years in the travel biz, some cynicism would have crept in, yet, as the late John Belushi would say, "But noooooo!"

Europe is filled with museums - there's one in every little burg, it seems. If there's one memorializing the Holocaust, Rick will visit it. He'll always provide a smug mini-lecture, concluding that "we must always be on guard to disallow man's inhumanity to man," while sad violin music plays in the background of the stark exhibition. Look, I think the Nazis treatment of the Jews, Poles and others was atrocious but, when I go on vacation, I want to have a good time, not get depressed.

The European Continent is chock full of impressive motoring museums but, in all the shows I've watched, Rick has never visited one. He doesn't like cars much, preferring bicycles and walking. There are quite a few rail museums in Europe, too. I've only seen Steves visit one - the UK's National Rail Museum at York. He gave it about 30 seconds of air time. When I visited there, I spent hours at this impressive and fascinating gallery of historic British locomotives and trains.

The author poses with the record-setting Mallard steam locomotive in York, England - June 1991. I spent more time here than I did at the Palace of Versailles in France.

On the other hand, Rick loves public transport. Almost every show promotes the experience of traveling on a high-speed, hi-tech rail line or city streetcar and chatting with interesting local proles while taking in the sights through sparkling clean windows. Apparently, Mr. Steves never used the transit systems during peak periods or when the weather is nasty. Try getting sardine-packed into a dank subway car with 273 sweaty humans at rush hour in August. (Especially in Europe, where hygiene habits are a bit more casual.) Or waiting for a filthy overcrowded bus when it's cold, dark and pouring rain.

Aside from not visiting car museums, Rick seems to avoid the seamier parts of Europe. He enjoys revisiting Provence in southeastern France to sample the food and wine. And meet residents. Or repeatedly traveling to the Tuscany region of central Italy and soaking up all the culture, narrow roads and tattered remnants of the Renaissance. But you've never seen Rick do a show about Dante's Nine Circles of Hell. Well, here's what such an episode might be like:

Hi. I'm Rick Steves with more of the 'Best of Europe'. This time we're going to Hell and you're in for some hot and smoky travels. Thanks for joining us.

Hell, with its Nine Circles or levels, is located far below-ground in an obscure, less-traveled part of southern Italy. In the 14th Century, Dante Alighieri wrote that Hell "is the realm of those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellowmen."

In this episode, we'll visit two of the circles: Limbo, the first level, and Greed, the fourth circle. Of course, you can't get to Hell without crossing the River Styx. Many visitors overpay for the primitive but famous Charon's Ferry Service. I prefer to use the new elevated tram. It is sleek and modern, if a bit hot and uncomfortable but will save you money. Public transit is always preferable and it gives you a chance to interact with colorful locals.

When you arrive at the other side, you'll be greeted by the Gate of Hell, which bears an inscription ending with the famous phrase "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate," most frequently translated as "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." Ah, yes. It reminds me of the many Holocaust Museums I've visited during my travels. Along the river, you'll find an elegant promenade made of crushed bones from the Ninth Circle.

Walk through the gate and you'll arrive at he first circle, Limbo. Most Limbo residents are virtuous non-Christians and proud, unbaptized pagans who are punished with eternity in an inferior form of Heaven. Many live in castles, each with seven gates symbolizing the seven virtues. While called 'castles', the severe architecture of most is reminiscent of the Communist block apartments seen in Eastern Europe. Air conditioning, plumbing and other essentials work to a degree, just not very well. And many of the gates are rusty and squeak annoyingly. I prefer to stay at a hostel run by a family of goats on the other side of town.

In the morning, you may wish to climb the slope of Mt. Hades. You'll be rewarded with a commanding view. In fact, the lofty eastern cliff face is nicknamed Satan's Balcony because of the spectacular vista. Use your binoculars to get a better view of Hell's lower levels, especially those areas you'd rather look at than experience directly. Look carefully and you may catch a glimpse of a charcoal-broiled Pol Pot, pan-fried Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin boiling in oil or Fidel Castro roasting on an open fire.

Limbo's shopping district offers a delightful-to-stroll cityscape where friendly street vendors offer cool water ices to ward off the dry heat in this lively spot. In the evening, the area comes alive with people, bustling cafes and offbeat shops. Cars are discouraged here; in fact, the only rental cars available are old Yugos, Trabants and 1976 AMC Pacers.

Instead of driving, take a walking tour with an experienced guide. During your walk, you many encounter prominent people from classical antiquity such as Homer, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Hippocrates or Julius Caesar. Some will give you their autograph in exchange for cigarettes or chocolate. Such small gifts are the polite thing to do and shows that you respect local customs and culture.

Limbo is also full of unbaptized babies who have grown up without parents. Many of these uneducated and unprincipled urchins have become pickpockets and con artists who work the streets and know that tourists are easy targets. Treat any commotion (a scuffle breaking out, a beggar in your face) as fake - designed to distract unknowing victims. I recommend that you wear an asbestos money belt as I do. It's a smart precaution.

I like to travel from Limbo down to Greed using Hades' charming, old-fashioned funicular. It gives me a chance to chat with interesting damned and solicit their opinions on the best places to eat and drink. And purchase marijuana, which is legal in the enlightened Circle of Greed.

Greed is populated by the souls of people who hoarded possessions and those who lavishly spent their wealth. Many successful business owners live here, including wealthy restaurant operators and hoteliers.

Greed is a hellishly wonderful place, offering the best wining and dining of any of the circles. As you're sampling Greed's fine cuisine, don't be shy. Share a table with locals, even if some of them appear to be on fire.

There are also many tony nightclubs in this city, which bills itself as the Capital of Satanic Culture. The club district is a lively area, surrounding a charming, brimstone-paved plaza that features a mesmerizing, fire-spouting fountain at its center. During our visit, we caught an evening show featuring duets by Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse. As well as a one-woman matinee performance by Tallulah Bankhead. It's a fun scene and the plaza is great for people watching.

Many of the old caves and charred ruins have been converted to offices and lofts with hip restaurants on the first level. One old building was once a factory producing graven images; it has now been converted to a farmers market offering a selection of fruits, vegetables and charred meats. Most offerings are quite tasty, although they smell somewhat sulfurous. The manufacture of graven images was first moved to a lower circle of Hell; now, all of the statues and bas-reliefs are made in China.

The Greed Circle is quite a vast metropolis; to get around, use the modern municipal tram system. Remember that this is Hell, so every streetcar is a smoking car. I purchase an Inferno Transit All-Day Pass to save money and can get on and get off the tram whenever I like at no extra charge.

Because of all its wealth, Greed is called the Zurich of Hell but, of course, it's hotter. Dress lightly. It has a wondrous cityscape offering a certain retro-charm. Turn a corner and you'll encounter a trendy, car-free, people-zone - enlivened by art galleries, upscale pubs and torture chambers on every street. As well as the usual souvenir shops selling tacky things like miniature pitchforks and devil-shaped refrigerator magnets. It's fun to explore Greed especially after dark, when the temperature drops a degree or two. But be sure to wear thick-soled shoes because the pavements can be quite fiery at times and rubber-soled footwear tends to melt.

While I usually stay at family-run inns, I'll splurge when in this part of Hell because there are so many competitively-priced fine hotels: the Perdition Hilton, Waldorf-Netherworld, Trump Hades and even a Four Seasons, which here is called the One Season. I'm staying at the Brimstone Biltmore and the accommodations are fit for a King. Or the Duke of Windsor. Or one of the false Popes. Or any Kardashian. Five-star amenities ... and the room service food always arrives hot.

Traveling through Hades with its rich, dark heritage can be a real inspiration, leaving travelers with an unforgettable experience. Thanks for traveling with us ... I'm Rick Steves and, until next time, keep on traveling. Ciao! (posted 12/16/16)


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The facts presented in this blog are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

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