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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Within minutes of leaving Barcelona, I started learning why so many people enjoy cruising. These new cruise ships go to great lengths to make sure that the onboard entertainment rivals attractions on shore. Along with putt-putt golf, an ice rink, and all the predictable activities, our ship had a new hit: the “FlowRider.”  

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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OK, I admit it. I’m on a cruise. Among European travelers, more and more people are cruising…and I want to know what it’s all about. My learning curve will be steep, as I’ve gone cruising in the Caribbean but never in the Mediterranean — and I’m giving our new Mediterranean Cruise Ports guidebook a shakedown cruise of its own. This new guidebook (a collection of existing chapters from our other guidebooks brilliantly reconfigured for the cruise traveler by Cameron Hewitt and others on my staff) is hot off the press, and is selling very well. 

Today’s blog entry is the first in a two-week series on cruising. I’m not trying to sell the typical cruise traveler on independent travel. My hope is to equip independent types who are taking cruises with the information necessary to enjoy the best of both worlds — the economy, ease, and glorious hedonism of cruising with the joy and challenge of dipping into the cultural wonders of Europe on your own. It’s an attempt to travel “through the back door” — as much as is possible when you make land with 3700 shipmates (along with several other, similarly big shiploads). 

Sailing away from our port of embarkation, I joined my fellow cruisers on deck to wave goodbye to Barcelona. As we gracefully floated by the Disney ship docked at the next berth, its passengers waved happily to us. Insinuating that we were envious of not being on a Magic Kingdom cruise ourselves, the ship’s thunderous horn gloated to the tune of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” 

Meanwhile, on this trip I’m sailing with Royal Caribbean on the good ship “Liberty of the Seas”. Already I can feel some “ship pride” setting in. I love this boat. We’re sailing with 3700 passengers and a crew of 2000 (although the ship holds 4000 passengers, we’re sold out as some single passengers paid to use a double cabin).  

I make a point to thoroughly move in, as I’ll be here for a week. With a tight compartment, it’s important to be organized. I’ve never packed so much before: deck wear, nicer evening wear, and more-rugged travel clothing to use on land. I even brought four pairs of shoes…if you count my flip-flops.  

Attending the “Destinations Review” program in the huge theater, I expected a big crowd. This was the chance to survey the shore excursions that’ll be sold throughout the week, but only 30 people showed up. People are here to do what cruisers do: eat, lay around, shop, gamble, and sightsee…not in any particular order. 

Back in my room, I sorted through the mix of papers that I picked up: special offers, schedules, events, and educational opportunities. One page asks “Thinking about Botox?” Another offers a “free teeth-whitening consultation.” One reason is clear about why cruising can be so inexpensive: they make more money off you once you’re on board.     

By the time I’ve surveyed the deck scene, shot a few baskets, played ping-pong, checked out the gym, and watched a couple of guys surfing on the raging “FlowRider” surf simulator, we’re far out on a glistening sea. As the sun sets, I stand atop this floating city of fun playing putt-putt golf. Scanning the horizon futilely for Mallorca, I’m wondering how I’ll do: will I enjoy the people, the food, the congestion as we spill into port, evenings at sea, and the days on land? During the next week, I’ll enjoy days in Provence (Toulon), the French Riviera (Villefranche), Florence (Livorno), Naples, Rome (Civitaveccia), and then a day at sea to return to Barcelona. Then I’ll catch a fancier cruise line (Celebrity) and sail the eastern Mediterranean for a second week.

Anchors up and stay tuned. Europe through the Back Door is going to sea.  Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I try out our new cruise book on actual shore excursions. 

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I gave my first travel classes in 1976 and made a big mistake right from the start. I charged. (Of course, back then I didn’t have anything to sell my students so I had to.) By 1980 I realized that the best business plan was to provide extremely practical and well-designed information for free, and offer tours and guidebooks for sale if students wanted more.

Thirty years later, that’s still our formula: provide lots of helpful free content like classes, TV, and radio (we make our television and radio programs available to stations at no cost), and then — as unobnoxiously as possible — we let people know that if they want to give us some money, we have tours and guidebooks well worth considering.

True to the spirit of our business philosophy, our popular new app, Rick Steves Audio Europe (available on both iPhone and Android platforms) is also free. And each quarter we’re adding more and more content for our travelers. Just this week we uploaded 20 new files, beefing it up to a total of 200 fascinating interviews with travel experts and 30 self-guided audio tours — all organized in country-specific playlists so our travelers can zero right in on what will be of most help to them.

I love the topics featured by our expert guests in this latest update: We enjoy an afternoon tea in London, attend a traditional Turkish wedding, follow the path of Martin Luther’s historic pilgrimage to Rome, and learn what it’s like to raise kids in a small Italian village. We visit historic Civil War sites with Ken Burns, get armchair travel recommendations from “rock star librarian” Nancy Pearl, and learn about the history of everyday life from humorist Bill Bryson. And we talk with my son Andy about student travel in Europe, and how it’s changed a lot since I was a student bumming around Europe a few decades ago.

If you don’t already have our free Rick Steves Audio Europe app, give it a try — it’s better than ever. I hope you can download it today. As we measure profit in trips impacted (rather than dollars earned), that would be really helpful for our bottom line.

Thanks and happy travels!
Rick

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Maybe I’ll spend my old age just gazing out windows from evocative perches in my favorite European villages. While researching the Rhine River Valley recently for the new edition of our Germany guidebook, I enjoyed a corner room with a mesmerizing Rhine view. I’d wake up and find myself captivated by the river scene — and then realize I was less dressed than was appropriate for that conservative little burg.

Putting on a shirt and continuing to enjoy the scene, it occurred to me that I was enthralled by more than the pretty view. It was the rhythm of the mighty Rhine — so bustling with shipping and history — combined with the environment: black slate cut from plains above; terraced vineyards zigzagging up hills — forlorn in the modern economy but still absorbing sun and stocking grapes with sugar; husks of ruined castles, standing as monuments to class warfare, greed, and war; and stoic spires of stone churches slicing vertically through townscapes. The quiet, deep-grey power of the river flows as steadily as time itself, a dance floor where ferries, barges, and sightseeing boats do their lumbering do-si-do past fabled and treacherous rocks.

It was here that the ancient Romans decided to call it an empire and draw the line that defined their vast holdings — a line that separated barbarians from the civilized world, just as it separates Protestants and Catholics today. It was here, on New Year’s Eve in 1813, that Prussian General Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, a local hero, used an innovative pontoon bridge to cross the Rhine and flank Napoleon’s forces (on their way back from a disastrous Russian campaign). And it was also along this stretch of river that US General Omar Bradley’s troops found a bridge still standing (at Remagen) to push past the natural barrier the Rhine has always provided Germany against invaders, and ultimately take the war into Hitler’s heartland.

A monument below my hotel window remembering Germany’s dead from various wars still has an unused panel. My hunch is that it’ll never be used. Germany, mighty today without the help of its military, has a profound distaste for wars. Like so many nations, it rose by the sword…and then fell.

Pondering sweeping armies and the rise and fall of great powers (along with my own country’s place in the march of history), I think of all the nations in Western Civilization that at one time rose to be dominant powers, then settled back down — either because of military defeat, economic malaise, or both — and realize life goes on just fine without all that responsibility. Think about it: Rome, Spain (under Charles V), Austria (under the Habsburgs), France (under Napoleon), Germany (under Hitler), Victorian Britain (upon which “the sun never set”), as well as Portugal, Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands, and, I’m sure, many others.

Then, with the political and economic frustration at a rolling boil back home in the USA — which just a decade or so ago was celebrating its status as “the world’s only superpower” — an interesting thought hit me. Had we known that “the Arab Spring” was just around the corner and managed to be patient (as we were to let the USSR rise and fall without a hot war), Saddam Hussein would have been swept away by his own people. The Iraqis surely would have done to their dictator what the Egyptians did to Mubarak and the Libyans did to Gaddafi. The USA would be a couple trillion dollars better off, and Iraq — rather than becoming a client state of the United States — may have created a homegrown democracy on its own terms.

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As a gesture of post-9/11 solidarity, we were proudly shown these stars and stripes while filming at Burgundy’s Château de Rochepot — a keepsake from France’s liberation in 1944

Dear Traveler,

As our nation remembers the horrible events of 9/11 on its 10th anniversary, along with commemorating the victims and how so many people suffered on that tragic day, many of us are sorting through our thoughts with the perspective that comes with a little time. Growing from personal tragedy by thoughtful reflection can be a way to honor those who died or suffered.

I was in Italy’s Cinque Terre on 9/11, filming a TV show. I figure that the first plane hit the North Tower just when we were filming the romantic Via dell’Amore, the “Pathway of Love,” which is a lovers’ meeting point between the towns of Riomaggiore and Manarola. I’ve walked it on five or six trips since, and for me, the Via dell’Amore is no longer the “Pathway of Love”… it’s the “Pathway of 9/11.”

Hiking with our TV gear into the next village, we found a tiny bar packed with people as if it were a makeshift theater. Everyone was staring, jaws dropped, at the TV. I saw the smoldering tower and thought it was some kind of a disaster movie. Then people told me the news. My crew and I gathered outside and decided the only thing we could do was to keep on working.

We had a Rick Steves tour group in Vernazza at the time. That evening, all the Americans were huddling together, wondering what would happen next. There was a line at the town’s one public phone booth. There were two distinct camps of travelers: those who thought, “It’s tragic, but there’s nothing we can do, so keep on traveling”; and those who, psychologically, couldn’t continue with their vacation — but also couldn’t get back home.

My enduring memory was of solidarity — Americans caring for each other and locals caring for Americans. All the people of the Cinque Terre were Americans with us; they did what they could to help us out during that disturbing time, when no one knew what was coming next. My Italian friend reminded me of how, a few years earlier, he had taken me to his village war memorial and told me that America had never really experienced a war like Italy had. Shaking his head sadly, he said, “Now, in a way, you have.” (In my September Travel News, read what I wrote back then, along with a poignant collection of emails travelers sent us in the days after 9/11.)

I played out many scenarios in my mind about what would follow. Might this horrible event be a bridge that connected us with a world that already well-understood suffering and national grief on the scale of 9/11? Might it give us empathy? Or would we seek revenge? Would we respond to this despicable act as a crime or as an act of war? And, if an act of war, whom would we fight?

Looking back over the last decade, it seems that by reacting with such fervor to a tragedy Bin Laden had engineered precisely to get that reaction, we as a society richly rewarded his actions. Bin Laden was unable to radicalize Islam himself, but he knew the USA could do it for him. And, from my perspective, we did. In the interest of “national security,” we would compromise the values so fundamental to what makes us Americans. Instead of aspiring to be the gentle giant who responded to overseas crises swiftly and with compassion, or who patiently stood up to the oppressive communist ideology through a Cold War that spanned generations, we became a reactionary, vengeful country that threw out the rulebook — unilaterally going to war, employing torture techniques, and holding suspected terrorists without trial for years on end. And with each step away from our bedrock morals, we unwittingly demonstrated to the Arab world that America was to be feared and hated. Looking back, I don’t think Bin Laden — whose deputy has said, “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media” — could have hoped for a better result. Could it be that the USA is a different place today not because of 9/11, but because of our extreme reaction to 9/11?

In the travel industry, people stopped buying tours for a while. Many on my staff wondered if we’d be able to survive. For the first time in my career, simply making our payroll was a challenge. I gathered my co-workers and told them, “We’ll be giddy flagships of confidence — for the good of our business and even more important, for the good of our nation.” I knew that in order for Americans to understand things from a broader perspective — and there would be lots to try to understand in the coming years — travel was now more important than ever. While some considered those of us who tried to “take 9/11 in stride” unpatriotic, I had a strong sense that for our very national security it was more important than ever that the USA find ways to be a part of the family of nations. We made a huge effort to keep people traveling.

In the months after 9/11, I remember giving my travel talks to large groups. There was some question whether it was even appropriate to encourage travel and vacationing while our nation was in mourning. But the organizations who invited me to talk soldiered on. The Society of American Travel Writers asked me to be their keynote speaker in Las Vegas, and the AARP hired me to come to Houston to give a big talk at their convention. In my first big speaking gigs after 9/11, talking about packing light and catching the train seemed silly considering the trauma our nation was going through. My message morphed into a political one, encouraging Americans to travel because we need to better understand our world with firsthand, people-to-people experiences. It was a scary experience from a speaking point of view. But, in a nation that seemed determined — in lockstep — to shrink back from the world, I felt driven to advocate the opposite response, to embrace the world. By standing in front of a group and saying, “Get a grip, America,” it seemed people needed permission to move on. People found it cathartic. The SATW and AARP talks were perhaps the most exhilarating of my career. This was the year I came to see the role of a travel writer as being like the medieval jester — to go out, learn what’s happening outside the castle, come home, and tell the king the truth.

In the long run, the impact of 9/11 on our business has been both expected and surprising. Predictably, our tour sales took a big dip in 2002, and we no longer sell Swiss Army knives (because you can’t carry them onto an airplane). Just as predictably, after a couple of years of post-9/11 jitters, demand for travel surged once again. But 9/11 also inspired me to speak out more boldly about the politics of travel. I now routinely give talks about the value of travel as a force for peace all over the country. And that talk spawned a new book that was named the travel book of the year in 2010 by the SATW — Travel as a Political Act.

I noticed that the US State Department has issued a travel advisory for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In our post-9/11 world, considering the importance of building bridges rather than walls, I’d like to issue an advisory against not traveling. In fact, on 9/11/11, I’ll be in Europe myself…traveling on and immersing myself in our beautiful world, just as I have been for the last decade.

Happy Travels,

Rick Steves

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It’s hard to describe the thrill of the cable “hike” along the cliff under Mürren and over the Lauterbrunnen Valley. I hope these photos help take you there.

My friend Olle on a stroll along a cliff, 3,000 feet above the valley floor

I wouldn’t do this without a good guide

I was so scared, I barely looked down

Just climb the ladder

Finding a platform BASE jumpers use as their takeoff point

Reaching the end of the 1.25-mile cable

Having survived our little personal test, we were both very exhilarated

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I’m very careful not to list something in my guidebooks that might encourage our travelers to do a physical activity that’s out of their league. My favorite valley in the Swiss Alps has a new outdoor experience called a Via Ferrata, or “way of iron” — and, while locals were saying, “It’s great…no problem,” I decided to check it out personally.

I enlisted my B&B host, Olle, to join me. We hired a local guide, put on harnesses, and set out for what proved to be the highlight of my entire trip — and one of the biggest scares of my life. For the next several nights I awoke clutching my mattress. Here’s how I described it for the upcoming edition of our Switzerland guidebook:

Klettersteig Via Ferrata—Mountaineers and thrill-seekers enjoy a 1.25-mile steel cable essentially running from Mürren to Gimmelwald along the cliff. A Via Ferrata (literally “way of iron”) is a cliffside trail made of metal steps drilled into the cliff with a cable running at shoulder length above it. Mountaineers equipped with helmet, harness, and two carabineers make the three-hour journey always clipped to the cable. While half of the route is easily walked, several hundred yards are literally hanging over a 3,000-foot drop. I did it and, through the most challenging sections, I was too scared to look down or take pictures. Along with ladders and steps drilled right into the cliff, the trip comes with three thrilling canyon crossings — once by zipline (possible with guide only), once on a single high wire (with steadying wires for each hand), and finally over the terrifying hanging bridge (which you can see from the Gimmelwald-Mürren gondola ride, just above Gimmelwald). For a peek at the action, search “Via Ferrata Switzerland Murren” on YouTube. While experienced mountaineers rent gear (25 SF from the Gimmelwald hostel or Mürren’s Intersport) and do it independently, most should hire a licensed mountain guide (95 SF per person including gear and donation to the Via Ferrata, in small groups of 4 to 8, tel. 033-821-6100, www.klettersteig-muerren.ch, info@be-je.ch).

 

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With each television shoot this year, what could have been an easy job became demanding and stretched me to the max because the weather went south on us.

Mentally and physically fried after three weeks of guidebook research and TV production in Paris, I escape the big city, taking the train to the Swiss Alps. (En route, I email my editorial staff back home, saying I’m skipping Interlaken and that they’ll have to get someone else to update that city for our Switzerland guidebook. I need that Interlaken time to rest up.)

In Gimmelwald — a high-altitude village quaint and quiet as an Advent calendar — I check into the B&B of Olle and Maria Eggimann. Rustic and humble on the outside, perfectly cozy and charming on the inside, it feels made-to-order for the business at hand — convalescing and recharging.

Parked in my top-story window, gazing out at the village drenched in pristine nature, it occurs to me I’m part of an alpine cliché.  I marvel at how the best way to really enjoy the Alps is as a kind of cultural shock treatment — zipping here directly from Paris.

From my perch, I survey the village. Chocolate log cabins are buttressed by a winter’s supply of firewood lovingly stacked all the way to the eaves. Grassy fields radiate a vibrant green, as if plugged into the sun. Feeling part of the village — standing sturdy yet small under monster mountains — I marvel as nature puts my world properly in its place.

Leaving my shoes in the mud room and stepping into Olle’s slippers is like leaving my world and entering his. Now it’s purely people-to-people — the essence of travel — and we talk.

Appreciative of the hospitality I always receive here, I encourage Olle and Maria (as I do with each visit) to come to the States and visit. Maria says, “Now you’ve asked three times. We say you need three invites from an American before they really mean it. Now that our children are on their own, perhaps we will come.”

We talk about their experience as teachers in the village school. In the nearly 20 years they’ve been teaching here, the worldview gap between village kids and city kids has essentially vanished. A generation ago, village kids had more isolated views. Today they are as worldly as city kids — but you still know who’s who because city kids use umbrellas, while village kids just put up their hoods.

We talk of how running a B&B can try your patience. Olle recalls how one guest came to him distraught that her electronic noisemaker was burned out and wondered if they could loan her one. Olle asked, “What’s a noisemaker?” It makes nice sounds like birds and waterfalls so you can go to sleep. The need for such a device had never even occurred to Olle and Maria. We opened the door and stepped out onto the porch to enjoy a pianissimo lullaby of bird call, rushing water, and the calming rustle of leaves in the breeze. The same guests also needed an iron and ironing board, as their clothes were wrinkled. When preparing to go up on the mountain lift to the top of the Schilthorn, they asked how long the ride would be, and then, “Is the gondola car heated?”

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On my run this morning, I jogged out along the bay to one of Dublin’s lighthouses. It was a beautiful, sunny day — the type you wouldn’t normally associate with Dublin. On my way back, I came across a mother and her three young children. One — sippy-bottle in hand — threw out her arms, blocked my path, and demanded, “Wot’s the pahs-w’d!?” “Pretty please?” I panted. The gates opened, and she let me pass.

Experiences like these only serve to remind me just how similar we all are — even across oceans, generations, and cultures.

I’m busy in Europe now, traveling from foreign study campus to foreign study campus, giving talks. Like my dad did when he was my age and starting his business, I give practical talks to students about how to travel. A byproduct of my lectures: A good number of attendees sign up for my tours after learning more about me and my traveling style.

I’m writing this while flying to Paris for a talk I’m giving tomorrow. This will be the first of 20 lectures on about 20 campuses I’ve scheduled in the next month.

This semester marks the beginning of our third tour season (and second year) of my up-and-coming student tour business, Weekend Student Adventures. My mission: to design three-day-weekend tours for students to Europe’s greatest cities that are more than a pub crawl—still fun…but with a focus on real cultural experience and efficient sightseeing. In our first term, we took 85 students. Last spring, over 250 joined our tours. And this fall, I’m hoping to again triple our bookings to 750.

Student travel can be richly rewarding or, frankly, an expensive waste of time punctuated by lots of hangovers. And I’ve enjoyed being steep on the learning curve now for a few years.

From couch-surfing in the Jewish Quarter of Prague to changing my flights on the go as a new speaking opportunity opens up in London, I live and run my business out of my backpack. Modern technology enables me to run my business out of any coffee shop offering free Wi-Fi, anywhere in Europe.

My dad likes to share stories of writing daily postcards home so that his parents could monitor his whereabouts. He mentioned something about an “aerogram.” I don’t remember the last time I filled out a postcard…and I still don’t understand what an aerogram is. Rather, I’m video-Skyping with my friends in Japan, Ulster, and NYC, with my sister in Washington DC, and with my mother back in Seattle.

Technology has transformed the backpacking culture such that friends are kept updated by the minute about what their traveling buddies are doing halfway around the world. Hostel reservations are done not by phone or fax, but by email or direct booking. Trip research, planning, and mapping are done online. When on the streets, I capture a map on my iTouch, and I’m navigating smartly anywhere I go — for free. This new style of travel is called “Flashpacking.” I got my dad up to speed on this recently during an interview on his radio show.

But there’s a danger to all this technological ease. While the digital age makes travel more efficient and communication much easier these days, it can also take away from the social experiences that really enrich your travel experience. I’ve been in hostels that actually rent out iPads. Rather than conversing, everyone in the common room was zoned in on their device — connecting not with the fascinating people from around the world that are sitting right next to them…but with the Internet.

Recently, I’ve challenged myself to travel more and more with my senses. I’ll close my eyes and feel the uneven cobblestones of Rome beneath my feet, smell the fresh baguettes coming out of the oven in a Paris boulangerie, really listen to the bell towers in the medieval cities across Europe, and taste local specialties in a way that stirs my spirit like a local. Doing this simple exercise brings travel down to a basic level — with your eyes closed, you take nothing for granted, and every other sense becomes more vivid.

As a tour guide and organizer, it’s my challenge to break travelers out of their comfort zone — to connect with the city they’re in. In my talks, I challenge students to give their trip a personal, experiential goal that fits their interests. For me, my passion for biking and Italian cooking has provided the perfect way to connect with Italy beyond the famous and obvious tourist sights. Whether a wandering backpacker or a student on a foreign study program, if you make a point to connect with the culture you’re visiting, you will. And, unfortunately, if you don’t…you won’t.

Of course, for students, culture lives in the bars and night scenes just as vividly as in the great palaces and museums. They say New York never sleeps. Well, neither do European cities. The trick is to find where the locals go for fun after dark. For young people, this is when the real, living culture awakens. And the friends I make while out are locals as well as other travelers from all corners of the planet. For an American student, meeting a young Brazilian in Europe is as great an experience as meeting a young European in Europe.

Part of the fun I’ve had leading my groups around Europe is to help them enjoy the nightlife…and then get them out of bed in the morning to experience the rest. Each minute is an opportunity, and there are none to waste.

This fall, I have 28 tours scheduled — each offering three days of student fun for a great price (just €250) — in Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dublin, and Venice. If you know of any students studying in Europe this term, please let them know that my website, WSAEurope.com, is packed with ways they can invigorate each weekend with new experiences, new friends, and lifelong memories. Grazie!

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