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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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)

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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If the Peloponnese’s Mani Peninsula is famous for its rugged terrain and desperate history, that history and culture is embodied in the dramatic ghost town of Vathia. Just a 10-minute drive from the coast, it’s free to explore (also windy — pardon the buffeting) and, as I hope this clip illustrates, it is best when you let your imagination off its leash. Also, pardon my goof at the start of the video, where I say “Turkey” when, of course, I meant to say “Greece”!

 

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When exploring Greece, I’ve always been enamored with the fierce and desolate Mani Peninsula. (Please pardon the wind noise on this video, but that goes with the territory.) I hope you enjoy these clips illustrating the peninsula’s wild and romantic Mani charm.

 

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I’ve just spent a few days in the far south of Greece. I’ve always thought you get plenty of Greek Island charm without leaving the mainland if you head for the Peloponnesian Peninsula. It’s all within about 3 to 4 hours by car from Athens. Over the next few days, I’ll share video clips taking you to some of the remote wonders of this corner of Greece.

 

three-oranges.jpgThe tomatoes aren’t as tasty as my Greek travel memories — a lesson in going with what’s in season. But the oranges are incredible. What more could a traveler want after a long day of exploring than a sunset from his hotel balcony with three fine oranges? This photo is from Hotel Anniska in Kardamyli.

 

nice-nun.jpgJust as you’ll find more life in the desert than you’d expect (when you know where to look), little vestiges of traditional Greece survive in the Peloponnese — if you know where to look. At Mystras, once a leading city in the Byzantine Empire, the population is down to seven nuns. And, in these economic hard times in Greece, they survive by selling their handicrafts. Dropping by here, I was greeted with more warmth than I expected, as this nun brought me a sweet cake and some holy schnapps. I was told that these sisters, thankful for the groups we bring by with our tours and the individuals who drop by with my guidebook, include my guides and me in their prayers each day.

 

trail-and-monemvasia.jpgMonemvasia is considered “the Gibraltar” of Greece. A few days ago, I saw a postcard featuring an aerial view of this fortified town on a rock under a castle. It looked so otherworldly I thought it was a computer-generated fantasy. But no, it’s actually Monemvasia — one of the most striking fortified towns you’ll see anywhere in Europe. In this photo, you get a sense of how the dizzying trail plunges from the stony citadel to the town.

 

vathio.jpgGreece feels depopulated in general as in recent generations young people have migrated to Athens in search of jobs. But since the current economic crisis started the flow has reversed, with lots of people (jobless in overcrowded Athens) heading back to the villages. But the ghost towns of the rugged Mani Peninsula, in the far south of Greece, are forever barren — alive only with the wind rustling through the towers of long-gone warlords and the tales of bloody vendettas. Pictured here is Vathia.

 

bee-keepers.jpgAny love affair with Greece is made sticky in part by honey. All over the countryside we found groups of beehives as beekeepers shuttled them from wildflower patch to wildflower patch in search of the sweetest action.

 

end-of-road.jpgA fun thing about travel is reaching “the end of the road.” England’s Land’s End, Cape Flattery at the Northwest tip of Washington (my home state), and Cape Sagres in Portugal.  Here in Greece, it’s Cape Tenaro at the end of the Mani Peninsula, where ancient Greeks understandably believed the dead met the masters of the underworld. What is your favorite “end of the road” spot?

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One of my great treats is being literally all alone (with a fine local guide) at some of our civilization’s greatest sights. With this clip, you’re here with me — late in the day when it’s silent and cool — at Epidavros, the most amazing theater surviving from the ancient world. After visiting so many museums here in Greece, I couldn’t help but notice how my guide, Patty, actually has an “archaic” smile — perfectly matching the enigmatic little grin you see on the statues from Greece’s Archaic Period (500 to 700 B.C.), before the Golden Age came and saddled us with reality.

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For several years, I’d pass the time on the flight home from my annual summer trip making a crude one-page frieze summarizing my trip. On my best trip ever (in 1973 with Gene Openshaw — who co-authors many guidebooks with me to this day — making our first trip without parents), Gene and I alternated scenes producing this pictorial review of the most memorable events of our 10-week “Europe Through the Gutter” trip, which we kicked off the day after our high school graduation.

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Reviewing these scenes, laced together by our beloved Eurail transportation, we: Flew from Seattle’s Space Needle to Germany where we stowed away in lofts, slept in barns in the Alps (notice how for impoverished 18-year-old vagabonds, mere survival — eating and sleeping — is a huge part of this trip…on which we spent literally $3 a day plus our flights and rail passes), stumbled upon a street party inaugurating a new public toilet in Geneva, got kicked out of the casino in Monte Carlo, took the hot and slow-as-a-snail train across Spain, enjoyed flamenco and bullfights, delved into hot and scary Morocco (my parents made me promise to not go to Turkey… but they didn’t think to be concerned about Morocco), puked our guts out, purchased the horns after a bullfight (and kept them lashed to my backpack until they rotted and got infested with bugs), luxuriated in the art of Paris, stuffed our shrunken stomachs at an Indonesian rice-table feast in the Netherlands, slept on a dike, explored the sex shops of Amsterdam, stopped by Copenhagen on the way to my relatives in Norway (where we were fed lavishly and once again stretched out our “sandwich a day” bellies), dropped by Germany’s piano royalty (the Grotrian family, from whom my father imported pianos), were wowed by Hitler sites, climbed to castles in Bavaria (4 in a day: at Neuschwanstein and Ehrenburg), sampled Salzburg, soaked up Venice, ogled art in Florence, saw ancient sights and open-air opera at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, crossed Italy on the train (being repeatedly kicked off because we had no reservations…and hopping back on) to catch the Brindisi-Patras boat for Athens, slept in the rocks under the temple at Cape Sounion, camped out drunk at the Dafni wine festival, suffered through the endless train ride across Yugoslavia, sloshed through Munich’s Hofbräuhaus, and spent our last nights in Rothenburg before heading home for college (inspired to travel more…but still happy to keep it a hobby and pay for my trips by teaching piano).

 

It’s fun to think of the wonder created by being overseas, on your own, living on a shoestring, as a teenager. While Europe has changed, the impact of travel is still just as powerful.

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Greece is a feast for the senses. While the country’s sunshine, amazing food, friendly people, and love of life leave a lasting impression on me, there are also the little, unexpected scenes I come across that tickle my imagination.

 

kalamari.jpgIn Athens’ very fishy central market, you can bone up on your Greek letters with the help of some tasty-looking squid.

 

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These tasty treats are so fresh, they crawl over their name.

 

greek-long-words.jpgI am hopeless with the Greek language. But that’s part of the fun of being here.

 

kiosk.jpgKiosks here in Greece remind me of magnets and hoarders. And buried way in the middle of all that clutter is a tiny-looking person who sits there all day selling things. By the way, by law, a half-liter bottle of water cannot cost more than €0.50. Whether you’re at the fanciest rooftop bar or at the lowliest streetside kiosk, you can always get a cold bottle of water cheap.

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