Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe

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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On my first solo-trip to Europe, in 1973 — just after high school graduation — I wrote postcards home nearly every day. I packed so much information onto each card it was a challenge to read them without a magnifying glass. Looking back on these exuberant little reports back to my family (42 years later!), I can see a travel writer in waiting. While the writing is pretty goofy, the passion for experience was solid. Here’s a card from Rome.

rick-steves-1970s-postcard-rome-web

8-7-73

Hi Folks back home, we’ve just about polished off Rome. Man we’ve seen a lot! I don’t have the time, ink, or paper to tell you what we’ve done completely but, for instance, last Sunday’s schedule was: 7:30-10:00 Flea Market, 10:30-11:30 Coliseum, 12:00-2:00 Forum, 2:00-3:30 Capitoline Hill, Mussolini’s headquarters, Victor Emmanuel monument, 4:00-5:00 train station to cash checks, 5:30-7:30 eat dinner, take showers + dress for opera, 8:00-12:00 Tosca opera with Frank, our landlord, 12:00-12:30 tour with Frank by wild car of Rome, 1:00 plop into bed. The opera by Puccini was really a thrill. It was in the ruins of the baths of Caracalla + it’s the biggest stage for opera in the world! There was a full house, full orchestra, + great cast. We had the Tosca script in English to follow along. Then Frank, our landlord who can’t speak no English, screeched around Rome like the Grand Prix for a tour + then we slept. Monday we saw the Vatican City, gigantic St Peter’s Cathedral, the Pieta by Michelangelo (we’ve seen about 70% of his work now) the Sistine Chapel + Vatican Museums + then we saw what everybody sees when they come to Rome – Fountains, Parthenon, Spanish Steps, churches, Moses, etc. We had a splurge of a breakfast on the steps of St. Peters, we took a bus out to the Appian Way + walked around + while waiting for the bus we got a neat 22 yr old Italian to pick us up. Most Italians are real friends. We had a great time + he took us right to the Coliseum. We got tickets to Aida opera Tues night + then I got the bug to bargain + haggle. We haggle for everything now + I’m getting OK at it. I got 60 Kodak slides of Rome – reg 5,000 lire, for 1,300 lire ($2.20)! It’s so much fun to talk prices. We sat around the Forum waiting for a sound + light spectacle that never came + then, after goofing around with some more sellers, we walked home. The only problem is that, I sweat so much + get so dirty. It’s awful. When my arm gets wet – mud forms + that’s the truth. I did have a great bath before Tosca. We found a great way to eat well + cheap. You go into a pizzeria + point out your pizza + how much you want, then pay by the weight, and you have a feast. We ate tons of pizza last night for 40 cents each! Well well well, Goodbye – RICK

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On my first solo trip to Europe, in 1973 — just after high school graduation — I wrote postcards home nearly every day. I packed so much information onto each card that it was a challenge to read them without a magnifying glass. Looking back on these exuberant little reports back to my family (42 years later!) I can see a travel writer in waiting. While the writing is pretty goofy and the spelling may be off, the passion for experience was solid. (I would even tuck a little piece of sauerkraut under the postage stamp in an attempt to share the wonder of my experiences.) Here’s a card from Austria.

Rick Steves postcard from 1973 Salzburg Austria

7-29-73

Hi Grandma + everyone. I’m in the Salzburg Train Station now + we just finished a beautiful stay in the music capitol of the world. Well now – where was I? I think we were leaving Reutte. Well we got to lnnsbruck late + the hostels were all full so we decided to spend a free night on the porch of the hostel. We left our packs there + walked around the town, rather aimlessly, just killing time till it was dark + everyone was asleep. We saw the old + nice section of Innsbruck, bought their version of a hot dog + returned to our hard, cold, but FREE bed. We had some bouillon + then went to sleep. We got up around 6:00 + quietly packed + left. We checked our packs at the station + saw 3 more hours of Innsbruck. It’s a nice town but it didn’t deserve any more of our time. We bought another grocery store feast + caught the 9:30 train to Salzburg. The ride was a real experience. We snuck into the first class section + in our room we had a rich pansy stuck up lady from New York, a Vienna Monk trying to convert the world to the universal language of Esperanto + 2 nice Austrian girls who spoke a little English. The lady from New York was a real character to say the least (she told me I wouldn’t look so Bohemian if I’d cut off my beard + then she wanted me to carry her bags off the train for her! – No way.) Well we got to the Salzburg by 12:30 + that was lucky ‘cause the place was jammed. We found a nice double in the beautiful old part of town for $7.20 (That was the best price anywhere) + then we took off to take in the town. We tried to find out all about what concerts there were tonight + we were lucky to find a ticket to a chamber music concert in the palace at 9:15. It cost us 66 shillings or $4.50. Then we just strolled around one of the world’s neatest towns. We saw a Tyrolean band in the street + listened to music coming out of the walls everywhere. We went back to our hotel (must be a good 400 yrs old) + had a nice dinner in our room (bouillon, peanut butter + jam + Ginger Ale), dressed up the best we could + hobbled back to the center. We were doing so much walking that our feet rattle + legs are killing us. We walked around some more (that in itself is an experience) + then walked through some Royal gardens to the Palace + upstairs to a solid gold, fancy room where the chamber music takes place. We heard a sextet from Munich (2 horns, 2 clarinets + 2 bassoons) + they played Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, another one + an encore. Whoever thought I’d spend $4.50 for a chamber music concert. It was really a thrill – one of the highlights of our trip + a cultural highlight of my life (along with Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger + The Who). It was just unbelievable how good they were. Then we walked home + I stopped by a discotheque for a few minutes to keep well rounded. We slept like logs + even overslept till 9:30. Then we gulped breakfast + dashed to the huge 1,200 yr old Salzburg Cathedral to see + hear a Mass. The music was a concert in itself. They had 3 choirs a pipe organ a brass ensemble + a small orchestra + the acoustics were heavenly. Ooo if our high school band director, Mrs. Dezzle, could see me now! Then we climbed to two castles to see two different + cool views + then we checked out of our hotel + headed to the station where we are now. The sun is finally out so everything’s cool. It’s back to Germany tonight (Passau) + then Rödhammers (Jan’s ski teacher’s parents) + then Vienna. Ooo ooo Tuttie! Have fun + see ya in 4 weeks. Love – RICK.

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I enjoyed speaking at the LA Travel and Adventure Show this weekend. And a highlight was meeting the many teachers and students who incorporate travel into their classes and studies. For example, Shannon Northcott, who teaches at Whittier Christian High School in La Habra, Calif., took her students to see my talk. And from the looks on their faces, they are enjoying some pretty fun travel dreams. Happy travels — especially to parents and teachers who help their young people embrace our big wide world.

students-la-travel-show

 

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This is travel show season when nearly each weekend I visit a big city’s convention center and give talks at a travel show. If you always wondered if these are worth the time and money (around $10 to get in), here’s a quick tour from the Santa Clara show in California.

 

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A few posts ago I asked for help giving my sister Jan’s Iditarod dogs European-travelly nicknames. Thank you for the overwhelming response, both here on the blog and on Facebook! After reviewing the hundreds of cool names you all submitted, my staff and I chose these as our favorites:

Hanz, Franz, Yodel, Picnick, Vino, Capri, Grappa, Ouzo, Strudel, Schnitzel, Eiffel, Spritz, Abba, Fritz, Dolce, Ludwig, Euro, Pivo, Skol, Dali.

But, of course, my sister is the musher and she’s the one who will be calling out these names in the Arctic wilderness as they carry her a thousand miles next month. So, she gets the final choice. The winning Iditarod dog nicknames are: Strudel, Schnitzel, Hanz, and Ludwig.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race starts on March 7. If you’d like to stow away on Jan’s sled and root her on, check out her insider’s account of her personal quest on her blog, Living My Dream.

Go, Jan, go!

Strudel

Strudel

Ludwig

Ludwig

Hanz

Hanz

Schnitzel

Schnitzel

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rick_steves_train

One of the questions I’m most commonly asked is, “How can I become a travel writer?” It’s a good question, and one that I enjoyed answering in my memoir, Postcards from Europe. While some of the specifics of getting your writing out there have changed in the social media age, I think that my own story of becoming a travel writer is still (mostly) relevant. Here’s an excerpt that I hope will inspire and inform any budding travel writers out there:1

I’m on the train to the Rhine. The burnt marshmallow-colored spires of Köln’s cathedral loom in the window of my solitary compartment. A few minutes later, the train pulls into Beethoven’s Bonn.

A spunky American tourist with a too-big bag shops her way down the train car in search of just the right compartment for viewing the upcoming castles. Poking her head into my compartment, she says with mock excitement, “Rick Steves? The Rick Steves!”

Saying “may I” without a hint of a question, she hefts my bag onto the luggage rack above my head, takes its place across from me, and pulls a copy of my guidebook from her day bag. As she matches my back cover mug shot to my real-life face, the train pulls out with a jolt.

Without a sentence of small talk, she gets right to the point, “My name’s Colleen. I’d kill for your job. How did you get started?” Without waiting for me to answer, she continues, “You wrote the book I should have written ages ago.”

Intrigued by her energy and realizing we were stuck together on the train, I gave her a more-complete-than-usual answer to this tired topic.

“You can’t just want to be a travel writer,” I said. “You have to be a traveler first. I traveled for six summers purely for kicks. My travel skills handbook, Europe Through the Back Door, was born from Europe Through the Gutter. The best travel is on a shoestring…not just meeting people, but needing people.

“From the start, I followed one strict rule. Never finish a day without writing it up. Accidentally, by finding scenes I could bottle and sell back home, taking careful notes, and teaching my love of travel, I became a writer.”

“I’m taking a travel writing class,” Colleen said, looking at me as if I had a rucksack packed full of extra credits.

“I never did. I learned to write by giving talks. I talk and talk and talk to groups about travel and sharpen my message. Then I talk the same way to the page,” I said, feeling curiously threatened. “I read one book: On Writing Well by William Zinsser. When I feel like I should read another book to fine-tune my writing, I read Zinsser again. And I travel. Travel writing means going great places and taking your reader with you. You need to really be there.”

“Sense of place,” she said, as if on Jeopardy!.

“Right.” Borrowing her copy of my guidebook, I flipped through the pages and said, “Read this out loud. See it like a tour guide in wonderland as you do.”

She read: “You’re walking along a ridge high in the Alps. On one side of you spreads the greatest Alpine panorama: the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. On the other, lakes stretch all the way to Germany. And ahead of you, the long legato tones of an alp horn announce that just around the corner there’s a helicopter-stocked hut…and the coffee schnapps is on.”

She slipped a bottle of wine out of her day bag. “But,” she persisted, pouring me a plastic glass, “how do you make money at travel?”

I hadn’t really thought of the formula before. The wine was good and she was bubbly, so I took a long sip and, sounding both professorial and fatherly, I traced the evolution of my business.

“First you travel. Then you give talks with a slideshow. Be generous with your information. There’s a huge demand for entertaining and practical talks — libraries, schools, businesses, clubs.

“After lots of lecturing, a book evolves in your mind. Write your book like you’re giving your talk to the paper. Self-publish it. That takes only time and money. I typed the first edition of Europe Through the Back Door on a rented IBM Selectric. I pasted in sketches my college roommate drew of my favorite slides. The first cover of Europe Through the Back Door was so basic that people in the media mistook it for a pre-publication edition. Holding my finished product, they’d ask, ‘And when will this be out? ’

“When you write a book, people think you’re an expert — even if you’re not. That respect gives you the momentum to become an expert. Get your teaching out there any way you can. Keep giving free talks. Let newspapers use your writing for free. Teach first. Sell second. But don’t quit your day job. You’re still not making much money.

“Actually, to make any serious money,” I said, finding myself progressively more interested in putting my peculiar business formula into words, “you need to organize a minibus tour that you promote through your lectures. Think of it as a nonprofit communal adventure. Charge only enough to cover your trip costs. Limit the group to eight. Be selective. Assemble a gang of friends. Take lots of photos showing you and the group having a blast.

“I did minibus tours for years. We were a gang of adventurers. We had no reservations and no firm itinerary. We’d blitz into town, park on the main square and I’d say, ‘Okay, fan out and find rooms. We’ll meet back here in 20 minutes to compare our hotel options.’

“Repeat your tour over and over. Crank up the profitability through the marketing help of happy customers and promotional images slipped into your lectures. Develop an expertise on a certain country or region and keep that focus.”

As Colleen pondered allying herself with a travel agency, I interrupted, “Don’t become a travel agent and don’t expect help from the travel industry. Any way you cut it, you will be considered dangerous competition. You are a teacher of travel. Not a travel agent. Continue being generous with your information. Be passionate about the beauty of travel — a Johnny Appleseed of travel dreams. If you doggedly keep teaching and let your love of travel shine, eventually you might make some money.”

By now my enthusiasm was raging, but her once-eager eyes looked weary as she slowly deflated. Squeezing the last of her wine into her glass, she said, “Or I could just come and work for you.”

Then, from a bridge over the Mosel River, we saw the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm on a prancing horse gracing that piece of Koblenz real estate called the Deutsches Eck, where the Rhine and Mosel meet.

“Koblenz” comes from the Latin for “confluence.” But for Colleen and me, it meant exactly the opposite. I thanked her for the wine, invited her to send me her resume, and bundled and tumbled.

The trackside schedule listed a train to my Rhine target in two minutes, then not another for two hours. I had been planning to catch the boat instead, but didn’t know if and when it went. The conductor looked at me as if to ask, “Well, are you with us or not?” Quickly reviewing my options, I follow that marvelous old travelers’ axiom: a train at hand is worth jumping on.

Moments later, I’m rolling along the riverside track, the wind in my face and the Rhine in my viewfinder.
____

For an entire book of insights like these, buy a copy of Postcards from Europe, my worst-selling book (with the most avid following).

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America is such a richly blessed and exciting land of opportunity, and those opportunities are floating (or trying to float) in the free market of ideas. With stakes so high, media so pervasive, moneyed interests free to wield whatever clout they like in the political arena, and fear and moral issues mixed in, our society is a churning cauldron of challenges, solutions, and missed opportunities.

As a liberal Christian, it’s my hope that others who see things the way I do feel empowered to raise their voices politically. It’s OK. And, considering all of the competing interests out there these days, getting involved is more important than ever. For example, I’m passionate about supporting Christian advocacy organizations, which lobby for the poor and hungry — those who don’t otherwise have a voice in government. My favorite causes include Bread for the World in Washington DC and Faith Action Network (FAN), here in Washington State.

I recently gave this talk at FAN’s annual fundraiser. It deals with these issues head-on, by pondering thoughts I’ve had on the road. At the end of the talk, I debut my theory of “vicarious consumption” as a way to unleash the compassion of our society into the political arena. If these ideas are of interest to you, I hope you enjoy this peek at the action.

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Nicolina

Travel is about unleashing your wanderlust, embracing life, and stoking the free spirit that is in all of us. And travel writing gives us a chance to browse through the adventures of others to gain inspiration and ideas. Over the last few days I’ve enjoyed introducing you to a vagabond in the true sense of the word, a woman living her dream by competing in the Iditarod, and a young entrepreneur who found his niche (helping American students abroad use their dorms as a springboard for weekend adventures). Finally, I’d like you to meet a New York street artist with a passion for unleashing what’s in the hearts of street kids throughout the developing world with the help of a paintbrush. My niece, Nicolina, is in New York City preparing for a Hearts of the World mission to India. Meet Nicolina — who is to street art what Johnnie Appleseed was to free fruit. You can read about her project on Facebook and you can help out here.

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rick-steves-andy-steves-monterosso-train

My son Andy’s company, Weekend Student Adventures, organizes three-day, $250 weekends for students on foreign study programs in Europe. I love marketing tours and travel (that’s what I do). And I’m really impressed by Andy’s promotional video clips, which capture the difference between his millennial market and my older travel market. You can check out more than 80 of Andy’s little video clips on Facebook.

Watch a few of these to get a feel for how students traveling on a shoestring enjoy the artistic, cultural, and edible highlights of Europe…what turns them on and what sells tours (if you’re marketing to 20-year-olds). The good news: The joy of travel for students today is as vivid as ever, and you don’t need to be rich to enjoy it. Think of all the students embracing life in Europe in 2015…and thousands of them are doing it with Andy’s help.

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Jan

All her life, my younger sister Jan has been into dogs, hiking, and skiing rather than (like her big brother) Botticelli, Berlin, and Belgian beers. At the age of 52, she followed her dream and became an arctic dog musher. I’ve never seen her happier.

Right now, Jan is preparing to enter her fourth Iditarod. Her gusto, grit, and determination are an inspiration to me. And just looking at these dogs almost makes me want to put on my mukluks and toast s’mores.

My company is sponsoring Jan’s 20-dog Iditarod team. I love the team’s name: “One Ear Up.” And Jan has agreed to let the Rick Steves’ Europe gang of travelers come up with nicknames for four of her dogs. Since we’re all about European travel, we thought it would be fun to have a contest to come up with the best European-inspired nicknames. Jan says it’s best if they are short and concise — maximum two syllables.

So, here’s the deal. I’ll kick off the competition with two proposed doggie names: Picnic and Yodel. I can hear it now: a moose leaping across the path in the snowy distance under towering peaks, as Jan hollers, “Picnic!…Yodel!” Take a look at these gorgeous dogs and help us find the best dog names. Leave your suggestions in the comments of this blog post or on my Facebook page.

The Iditarod starts on March 7. If you’d like to stow away on Jan’s sled and root her on, check out her insider’s account of her personal quest at livingmydream2.blogspot.com. The blog gives an ongoing and intimate look at training and prepping for the world’s greatest race and a truly amazing slice of our culture.

Go, Jan, go!

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