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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I’m always thinking about how Europe looks so pretty in people’s photo collections, video clips, and even in their memories. But I like the gritty and candid dimensions of Europe that are simply unpolished reality, too. Here’s an impromptu clip of me sharing my last, lousy lunch in Italy while changing trains in Genoa. Two minutes later, I was on my way to France.
The Cinque Terre is my favorite stretch of Mediterranean coastline. On this two-month research and TV production trip, I gave myself one day off, and I slotted it in right here.
Unfortunately, cruise lines are now stopping in La Spezia (the gateway to the Cinque Terre), and their thousands of passengers are congesting these otherwise peaceful towns. When the cruise ships are in, mid-days can be miserable, both in the towns — like Vernazza, pictured here — and on the trails. But if you’re out early (before 10:00) or late (after 17:00), there are no crowd problems at all.
Enjoying a sunset from the castle in Vernazza at Ristorante Belforte is one of the most romantic experiences you may ever enjoy.
The restaurants of the Cinque Terre make delightful seafood antipasti plates. When in the Cinque Terre, your best restaurant tip: Order seafood.
I’ve been on the road for nearly two months now, and I’m in a great work groove. Even the little chores are fun.
Tour guides know that when you’re in Europe surrounded by tourists binging on chocolate, cakes, and gelato, you learn extreme portion control. While I rarely indulge in an entire ice cream cone, I do sample gelaterie in every town as part of my research responsibilities. And I’m getting pretty good at taking selfies — even while enjoying a little spoonful.
For me, one of the small delights of travel is getting a haircut. While it used to stress me out because of the language barrier, now I keep an eye out for a place that feels right (away from the tourist zone, and with a successful but not too trendy vibe) and trust the stylist. It’s easy to drop in, make a reservation that works conveniently into your sightseeing, and then come back later for your haircut. It’s also a fun way to meet a local. Do you have any good or bad experiences at the barbershop or beauty salon while on the road?
Part of travel is doing the laundry. While I’ve been relying on elbow grease and hotel room sinks for six weeks, soon or later it becomes fragrantly clear that a good, thorough wash is needed. All over Europe, self-service launderettes have smart machines with clear English instructions. This place in Lucca cost me €5 for the wash (detergent was automatically included) and €5 to dry. Suddenly I find people sit with me on the train.
When I’m updating restaurants for my guidebook, I love having a local friend to help out and give their insights. But it can backfire when the local tells the chef I’m writing a guidebook, and they decide to get all trendy. In these cases, I wind up eating goofy gourmet off-menu morsels like this concoction… and learn nothing about what typical travelers eat when they sit down here.
My niece Nicolina is adventuring in India right now with her Hearts of the World project, bringing art to poor children across the country. I couldn’t be prouder of her — and I couldn’t be more tickled by this photo she sent me from the road. Reading the story behind this painting made me smile. It’ll make you smile too — check it out on Nicolina’s blog. (Just scroll down a few posts to “In a Pinch.”)
My dad was a piano tuner, and in my travels, any time I see a piano, I have an urge to play it or hear it played. At Il Canto del Sole agriturismo, Luciano showed me around his farm while his son, Marco, attentively followed, seemingly fascinated by my work as a guidebook writer. When we came upon the family piano, I asked Marco to play. Oblivious to how horribly out-of-tune the piano was, Marco sat right down and belted out Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat.” Coincidentally, that’s one of my favorite songs, and I’ll be seeing Al Stewart in concert in Everett, Washington, next month. It’s interesting to me that a pop song, written before Marco was born, would be part of this fun rural Tuscan moment. Al, if you’re there, you have a young fan just south of Siena. (And if there’s a piano tuner on the road in Italy, I’ll bet you can get a free night in a great B&B if you packed along your tuning hammer.)
Travel in Tuscany these last couple weeks has given me a chance to really improve my Rick Steves’ Florence & Tuscany guidebook. And that time has been filled with great travel memories.
It seems that if I ever want to have a great visual experience, all I need to do is leave my hotel room without my camera. I almost never do. But the other night in Lucca, I wanted to take a little stroll and keep it really simple. I turned the corner into the Piazza of the Roman Amphitheater and the light took my breath away. After a storm, when the sun comes out, you get some really dramatic light. Thankfully, iPhones take amazing photos. So I whipped it out and snared a memory.
One of the time-consuming chores when researching my Florence & Tuscany guidebook is driving to the various farmhouse B&Bs. And at each one, I’m greeted enthusiastically (as so many or our travelers chose to enjoy these great countryside values). At Il Canto del Sole (just south of Siena), everyone around the pool was there following my guidebook — and the joyful camaraderie made me want to be on vacation there, too.
My favorite guide in Tuscany (Roberto Bechi) has a son who is crazy about baseball. Of all the memorable moments I’ve had in Italy this month, playing catch with Miki was one of the most fun. Miki plays in his local baseball league, and just yesterday, I learned he hit his first home run. Yeah Miki! (Roberto: A home run is when the man with the bat hits the little ball so far that he can run around all four bases, making it to what’s called the “home plate” before they can retrieve the ball. In doing so, he scores one “run” for his team. The team with the most “runs” at the end of the game wins.)
Updating the town walk for the Lucca chapter in my Italy guidebook, I was impressed at how many shops on the main drag had been in the same family at the same location for over a century. And this jewelry shop (with a storefront that completely folds up — leaving just a green, wooden wall at night) has been in the Carli family for several centuries. In this video clip, as Signora Carli seems to guard the front door, Signore Carli shows off his very old-school safe.
I often say the Volterra is my favorite Italian hill town. Returning this year for my research chores, I was wondering if that was overstating things. But as soon as I settled into the town, my opinion was affirmed. It’s got everything just right: beautifully preserved; far enough away to not have the crippling crowds; just enough tourism to be entertaining and welcoming; enough local economy so that tourists don’t feel like they have a price on their scalp; big enough to have plenty of good restaurants, cafés, and bars; small enough to be mostly traffic-free.
I love to connect my readers with great local guides in wonderful historic cities. And lately, my personal challenge has been to help organize things through my guidebooks. With these listings, a tour that otherwise wouldn’t be viable becomes viable; guides can make enough money for their service, and my travelers can split the cost. A few years ago, I arranged with Annie Adair to promote a €10 walking tour of Volterra that runs every night in the high season at 6–rain or shine, with three people or 10. Annie splits the work with her wonderful partner, Claudia, and each night they show up at the meeting point with their cute little tour sign, wondering if anyone will show up.
Hanging out with Annie and Claudia, it looked like no one would come this evening. Then, just as the bells were ringing six times, two couples appeared. They got what I call “the best hour in Volterra” (for €10 each), Claudia made about $50, and everyone went home happy.
When we travel in Europe, we marvel at the palaces and mansions of venerable noble families from a bygone age when class distinctions were quite explicit and pronounced. It was a time when a few people owned nearly all the land–the other 99 percent were happy for the privilege of working it in hope of having enough food. Today, of course, kings and nobles no longer enjoy such a lofty position. In fact, lots of noble families still have their palaces but need to open them to the public simply to pay their taxes and keep them maintained. In Volterra, one of the best sights is the Palazzo Viti. And to get in you’ll actually give charming Senora Viti herself the €5 admission. The palace gives an intimate look at aristocratic lifestyles and is particularly enjoyable to tour, knowing you’re helping keep a noble family in leotards.
A key to sightseeing is finding glimpses of simple, everyday life among all the stained glass, crenellations, and gargoyles. For instance, cut into an old stone wall in Volterra is a 24-hour cigarette vending machine that says “Vietato ai Minori” (not for minors) and requires anyone buying anything to insert their national health card to prove that they’re over 18.
A girl hides, quietly hoping the leaning tower doesn’t find her.
(Or, perhaps I misinterpreted this scene. Can you give it a better caption?)
When filming our TV shows, we often note how we make things look better than they are. The truth is, there are a lot of tacky tourist traps throughout Europe. San Gimignano comes off as a pretty greedy place during the day. (But at night, they’ve made their money, and the place becomes more romantic.) Here’s a quick clip at the end of a long day of selling junk to tourists. What’s your vote for the worst tourist trap in Europe?