Rick Steves' Travel Blog

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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Warning: This video includes ancient nudity and general horniness! Along with updating my guidebooks when I travel, I enjoy giving my audio tours a “road test”. My audio tour co-author Gene Openshaw and I are always looking for ways to make the 45 tours in our Rick Steves Audio Europe™ app smoother and easier than ever. In Athens this past week, I’ve listened to myself whispering in my ear for four tours, and they all work great. As much as I love guidebooks, a museum or sight is much easier to enjoy when you can listen while gazing at what you came to see, instead of looking down and reading from a book. Here’s a two-minute sample (recorded on my iPhone) starring Aphrodite, Pan and Eros.

In April, we improved and expanded our free Rick Steves Audio Europe app. If you’ve got the old one, be sure to update it with the latest version (2.2 Apple; 2.0 Android) before your next trip! You can find the app here: ricksteves.com/audioeurope

Lots of people are making audio tours these days. What audio tours have you used? Where? Which ones have been most helpful for you?

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Every year it seems I go to places partly because naive and gullible Americans, whose worldview is fed by a diet of hysterical commercial TV news, are avoiding those places for supposed safety reasons. Of course, Greece has its economic crisis. But that doesn’t mean the 10 million people who live there aren’t living life with creativity and gusto.

 

boys eating.jpgI love to see students on the road. These two George Washington University students (enjoying a semester abroad) discovered the Karamanlidika by Fanis restaurant just like I did.

 

drakma.jpgThe big question on people’s minds here: Will Greece stick with the euro or return to the drachma? There’s a monument to Greece’s historic currency next to the mayor’s residence. For Greeks, the problem with being on the euro is that their currency is lashed to Germany, when instead it should have the flexibility to rise and fall in value as needed. Yet locals fear that if they go back to the drachma overnight, the value of their savings will drop by more than half. I wouldn’t want to count on a retirement here, but as a tourist you barely notice any economic crisis.

 

graffiti hair on fire.jpgAthens is not a pretty city. In fact, in conventional terms, it’s pretty ugly. But for locals, the graffiti is just there. They hardly see it. Given that graffiti is a reality, I do my best to enjoy it rather than ignore it.

 

street artist.jpgThere’s an unwritten rule among street artists/taggers that if a building is already painted they won’t mess it up. So, many businesses (like this insurance company) actually hire street artists to pre-emptively paint their storefronts.

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It’s great traveling in Greece during the shoulder season — the days are lovely and warm (not hot) and the crowds are few. I’m here in historic, bustling Athens, home of the world’s top ancient site: the Acropolis. Athens, like Rome, went from being a major city in ancient times to nearly a ghost town, and then (partly because of its Classical heritage) grew into a major city again with a population of several million.

19th c athens.jpgAs a tour guide, it’s hard to describe Athens at the dawn of the modern age. This 19th-century Romantic etching does it well. Back then, the city was little more than a small town (today’s Plaka) built around its ancient ruins.

 

acropolis lines.jpgIn the city of Athens, even with its booming tourist trade, must-see sights, and cruise-ship crowds, there is only one sight where lines are a concern — and that’s the Acropolis. The good news: The Acropolis ticket is a combo-ticket that you can pick up at a number of other sights in town. Buy the ticket elsewhere and then use it to walk straight into the Acropolis. The cruise-ship groups get there first thing, but when I arrived around noon, the cruise-crowd rush hour was heading in the opposite direction.

 

arcopolis museum.jpgThe Acropolis experience is complete with a visit to the amazing Acropolis Museum. It basically takes all the surviving bits of carved marble (that didn’t end up in London) and sorts them out in a setting that is the size of the Parthenon. You look out the window and see the remains of the actual temple above and then, with great comfort, lighting, and information, you enjoy the art — quasi in situ.

 

talking to art.jpg Our challenge as travelers is to actually talk with the art.

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Stepping out of my hotel during my first hour in Athens, I stumbled onto a great restaurant. This video clip illustrates perfectly how Athens is regaining some positive energy. Here’s my guidebook write-up:

Karamanlidika by Fanis, close to the Psyrri neighborhood and near the Central Market, is my favorite in the area. It’s a quality meat and cheese shop that doubles as a restaurant. Delivering authentic Byzantine and Cappadocian tastes, aged cheese, and cured meats, it’s a tasty testament to the many Greek Turks expelled from Turkey in the 1920s who settled in Athens — bringing their Anatolian cuisine with them. With friendly service by Maria and her gang, you’ll enjoy delicious plates for €5-7 (Mon-Sat 12:00-23:00, closed Sun, a block off Athinas at Evripidou 52, tel. 210-325-4184).

Stay tuned for a new and much-improved edition of my Rick Steves Greece guidebook. (Every year we invest literally hundreds of days lovingly researching our guidebooks to ensure that they are the most accurate and up-to-date guides available.)

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Monemvasia is a Gibraltar-sized rock on the Peloponnesian coast of Greece. It’s connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, has a town at its base, and the scant remains of a town and mighty fortress across the summit. As the wind howled on top (pardon that buffeting), we walked to the very edge of a cliff next to an old Byzantine church. From there it’s a sheer drop of what seems like a couple thousand feet — and no railing. You know that feeling you get when peering tentatively over a cliff — worried that a freak gust will end your trip? (Or do you? Share your most memorable cliff-top stir-the-butterflies-in-your-belly perch.)

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When in Greece, hospitality comes with ouzo. And when in remote corners and hardscrabble villages (like here on the Mani Peninsula), where historically hospitality is a matter of life and death, the welcome drink is tsipouro — a brandy-like firewater that’s about 40 percent alcohol and makes ouzo seem like kid stuff. In this clip, I have a hard time holding the camera steady as I take “going local” with my guides to a very tasty extreme. Gia mas!

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We recently had our annual meeting with our publisher, Avalon Travel, and enjoyed celebrating the fact that our guidebooks are the USA’s best-selling books in each category. We’re just a little company, and I often ponder why the larger corporations struggle to keep up with us. I think a big part of our success is our creative and generous passion for making travel affordable, experiential, and meaningful.

Here’s a good example: I’ve long been frustrated by how costly and difficult it is for a budget traveler to enjoy Italy’s super-scenic Amalfi Coast efficiently. The public buses are cramped and stressful, and hiring your own driver — while a good-value splurge — is beyond many travelers’ budgets.

 

The Amalfi Coast (Photo: Cameron Hewitt)

 

Two years ago, while updating my guidebook in Naples, I got to know a local tour company called Mondo Guide. And I proposed a creative solution for my readers: Why not let them split the cost of a private minibus tour along the Amalfi Coast with other Rick Steves readers?

If Italian businessmen make me wary, Neapolitan businessmen make me paranoid. I needed to be sure that Mondo wouldn’t abuse the trust of our readers. I insisted on making no money from this arrangement — I just wanted to be the conduit between our travelers and their guides. And Mondo agreed to offer their guiding and minibus services to our readers at the wholesale, insider price (for the best possible value). In addition to the Amalfi Coast drive, we also created shared walking tours of Naples and the ancient ruins of Pompeii.

Mondo Guide created a custom website to gather the groups, and we announced the tours in our guidebooks. My editorial staff partnered with Mondo to monitor the debut season and ensure that everything was on the up and up. And today, two years and 6,000 happy travelers later (yes, 6,000!), we’ve got a wonderful system established.

Just last week my lead researcher, Cameron Hewitt, took one of the Amalfi Coast minibus tours incognito as a final check and reported that it worked just as hoped. So, I’m happy to share this with you. This cooperation embodies the spirit of our teaching and writing, and we’re thankful for our readers’ support in keeping idealistic initiatives like this viable. If you’re heading to the Bay of Naples, check out Mondo Guide at sharedtoursmondoguideforricksteves.com, and consider this unique way to save money, avoid frustrations, and maximize your experience.

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One of my fondest memories of traveling in Greece as a student back in the 1970s was gliding by boat through the Pyrgos Dirou Caves. Now, a generation later, I’ve returned and the experience was the same — a boatman poled us along beautifully lit canals from one stalactite to the next for about a kilometer. (It costs about $15 for 30 minutes.) My guide, Niki, translated the boatman’s scant narration as I savored the natural wonder, the coolness, and the way the sound of dripping water cut through the silence. What are your favorite cave memories from the road?

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Driving around this land so steeped in conflict and bloody vendettas, it occurred to me that there are a lot of towers on the Mani Peninsula.  While everyone gets excited about the towers of San Gimignano in Italy because they are so unique, here on the Mani, towns with such skylines are common. It seems like wherever people lived around here in medieval times, those places were fortified with towers built by family warlords. Seeing this town on the horizon, we had to stop. And as soon as I got out of the car I realized the sweet blessing of this stop: bees. I had stepped into a world of hardworking, honey-making bees. The flowers here (these, which we couldn’t recall while videoing, are sage) make the Mani honey the most treasured (and expensive) in Greece. Later, we stopped at a group of hives and met the beekeeper (who had an eye nearly swollen shut due to a bee sting). He explained how beekeepers constantly relocate their hives to get the best action. The lesson: Stop the car a lot, get out, talk to the people…and smell the sage.

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When exploring the south coast of Greece’s Peloponnese, I make Kardamyli my home base. And, while its coast is remote, the interior is even more so. The stony village in this clip is named Kastania, which I could imagine means forlorn in Greek. We filmed here four years ago, and I just had to return to my favorite little church — nothing’s changed…same cobwebs.

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