Travels in Europe with Cameron
I'm excited to host this blog of one of my favorite collaborators, Cameron Hewitt. Fans of my books have been reading Cameron's words (often without knowing it) for years. In addition to partnering with me to co-author our three Eastern European guidebooks, Cameron has also been a major contributor to my other books and writings. Cameron is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in terms of travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." If I were 20 years younger, I hope I would travel like Cameron does. Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick
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One of my tour-guide friends is planning to start offering food tours in Slovenia. That got me thinking about what makes for a really good food tour — and what stands in the way of sub-par ones.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve prioritized taking food tours just about everywhere I go in Europe. For someone who appreciates food, having a local foodie personally take you to their favorite market vendors, snack stands, and restaurants — assembling an enticing little buffet of their best dishes just for you — can be a trip highlight.
In San Sebastián, I went on a “tapas crawl” with a local guide who made the jostling-elbows-and-monolingual-menus confusion of the Basque tapas scene much more accessible. In Rome, I was guided around the Testaccio neighborhood — the former slaughterhouse zone — sampling Italian treats. In Lisbon, I started my day at La Ribeira Market (combining a traditional market hall with an upscale food court), and then wandered through the city, nibbling sardines and pastel de nata. And in Warsaw, I restaurant-hopped between eateries both traditional and trendy, gaining a full appreciation for the Polish capital’s surprisingly robust “budget foodie” scene.
Some of these tours were amazing. Others were missing something. Here are four key features that really elevate a food tour to something special.
1. Begin with good food. This seems obvious, but it’s less automatic than you might guess. Not every restaurant appreciates having a dozen curious foodies wander in and take up space, nibbling at small plates during the lunch rush. The best food tours cultivate partnerships with the best restaurants — even if it means making compromises. In Rome, we peeked in the window of a cramped pastry shop as we nibbled our treats on the sidewalk…and we were happy to do it. Lazy food tours settle for mediocre restaurants that substitute “gourmet” for “group-friendly.”
2. Appreciate local ingredients. Logically, many food tours include a trip to the market hall. My Lisbon tour kicked off with a browse through La Ribeira Market — where we sniffed explosively sweet bunches of cilantro; talked with a butcher who’d disassembled and displayed every piece of a pig, from snout to trotter to tail; ogled a pile of exotic tropical fruits (a reminder that Portugal has an appetite for passion fruit and guava from its tropical outposts, Madeira and the Azores); and perused an abundant fish stand that taught me more about Atlantic sea life than a visit to the aquarium.
Local ingredients are the building blocks of local cuisine; seeing them — and tasting them — in their natural state trains your palate to pick out subtle flavors in any dish. After that market tour, I can’t think of Portuguese cooking without sensing a phantom taste of cilantro.
3. Teach people how to eat on their own. The tapas crawl in San Sebastián wasn’t only great food — it decoded the mystifying local tapas culture, like a strategy session for how to eat well in the Basque Country. Any night of the week, the streets of San Sebastián are clogged with patrons spilling out of lively bars. In the Basque style, the counter up front is stacked with a few featured tapas, perched on slices of baguette — all lined up and easy to grab at will.
But our guide helped us understand that only tourists zero in on the ready-made stuff. For fresher (and often better) dishes, take some time to understand the written menu. Some items come standard in every bar, but locals know who does it best — so when gathering tips, ask locals not only about their favorite bars, but also their favorite dishes.
At one busy place, our guide led us past the mob to a quiet little eddy in the back corner, where a bored grill cook sat next to a row of raw meat and produce — happy to fire it up fresh. Noticing a plate of jalapeño-like green peppers, our guide ordered the pimientos de Padrón. They went into the deep fryer, got a generous sprinkle of coarse sea salt, and were piping hot and ready to eat in minutes.
“The trick with these peppers,” she explained, “is that, because different peppers get different amounts of sunlight, a few of them will be much hotter than the others.” The first two had a rich (but not spicy) pepper flavor; the third hit my tongue with a bang. But thanks to my guide, I was ready for it.
4. Above all, illustrate how the food connects to the culture. This is where, I’m sorry to say, many food tours fall flat. Feeding people great food for a few hours is considered “enough” by many tour companies — and by many tourists. For some, additional information might even be a distraction. But I believe that food is an opportunity to better understand culture, and the top food tours work hard to make those connections.
The best food tour I’ve ever taken was in Warsaw, of all places. Through Eat Polska, I spent an illuminating half-day with Michaś exploring the Polish capital. The food was delicious. But the information was even better. Michaś explained why Poles ferment everything; why Turkish ingredients — like raisins, cinnamon, and apricots — often show up in traditional Polish cooking; why Polish dishes always seem to have a few greasy fried bits of pork sprinkled on top; who traditional Poles insist on kissing a stale scrap of bread before they throw it out; and why it may not be a coincidence that Polish pierogi look like Chinese dumplings. By the end of the tour, Michaś had drastically deepened my understanding not only of Poland’s cuisine, but also of its history and culture. (I’ll share more tidbits from my Warsaw food tour in an upcoming post.)
That’s my challenge to my friend in Slovenia, or to anyone who wants to design a good food tour: Start with good food. But always put it into context: Why these ingredients, this recipe, this place? What can the food tell us about the national character, the landscape, the history? It’s not easy to create a context for the cuisine. But it’s essential.
Meanwhile, if you’re a traveler looking for a food tour, consider these four factors when you evaluate your options. These days, many cities have multiple competing food-tour companies. Some are flash-in-the-pan, hedonistic flings. And for casual eaters, that fills the bill just fine. But if you’d like to dig a little deeper — and come away knowing more not just about the cuisine, but about the culture it represents — do a little homework to find one that ticks these four boxes. Check online reviews — not just the ratings, but read between the lines of how customers describe them. Pretty soon you’ll get a sense of which food tours will only fill you up…and which ones will also fill you in.
Here at the Rick Steves’ Europe home office in Edmonds, Washington, I regularly present slideshow lectures on various travel topics. (You can stream several of these online: European Travel Skills; Czech Republic/Poland/Hungary; Slovenia/Croatia; European Cruising 101; Mediterranean Cruise Ports; and Northern European Cruise Ports).
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been developing a brand-new class that’s all about food. I believe that, when you travel in Europe, appreciating the local cuisine can unlock a greater appreciation of the culture as a whole. Food has become a high priority in travel these days, and one of my key roles at Rick Steves’ Europe is making sure that our content doesn’t miss out on the Foodie Revolution. This class collects the best of what I’ve learned over 15 years of eating well all over Europe.
If you’re in the Seattle area, love food, and want to gain some inspiration about how to tune into food culture and prioritize it in your travels, join me at the Edmonds Theater this Saturday (February 11) at 10:00. The class is free; to ensure a seat, sign up at our website.
And if you can’t make it, I hope you can glean a few of my best tips from my class handout, below.
Europe for Foodies
By Cameron Hewitt
- The Foodie Revolution & Celebrity Chefs. From Britain to USA, Ramsay, Oliver, Lagasse, Bourdain have given rise to “foodie culture.”
- European Food Pioneers. Ferran Adrià (elBulli, deconstructivist / molecular), René Redzepi (Noma, New Nordic; influenced Blaine Wetzel).
- Terroir. Ingredients are shaped by the very specific conditions in which they grow. “Locally sourced” is nothing new in Europe (“zero-kilometer meal”).
- Eat with the Seasons. Don’t look for French onion soup or white truffles in the summer. Europeans insist on eating seasonally. In Italy, frozen ingredients must be noted on the menu.
- Cuisine and Culture Are Interchangeable. Each one speaks volumes about the other. Examples: Swiss “cow culture,” Bulgarian wedding feast, Spanish taps culture (paseo).
- Local Specialties. Get beyond (or learn more about) the clichés. Appreciate the subtle varieties of Spanish jamón, French cheeses, Italian pastas.
- Be willing to try anything… once. Nose-to-tail classics (haggis in Scotland, tripe sandwiches in Florence) are newly trendy.
- Understand the Reason for the Cuisine. Italian (simple, ingredient-driven) vs. French (artistry; complex sauces and technique to make the most of limited/low-quality ingredients: coq au vin, escargots, duck confit).
- Budget Foodie Options. “Foodie” doesn’t have to mean “expensive.” Fried goodies on the street in Naples, street food in Ljubljana.
Choosing a Restaurant
- Challenge Yourself to Find Something Better. Don’t just settle for the glitziest place with a neon sign that says “We speak English and Accept Credit Cards.” Best choices are often mom-and-pop traditional places, or creative young foodie joints.
- Get off the main drag. Often, just a block or two away, prices drop and food/service improves.
- Look for a short, handwritten menu in one language. It’s short because the owner wants to do fewer things and do them well. It’s handwritten because it’s based on what’s fresh today. And it’s in one language because it’s catering to locals—not one-time tourist traffic.
- Find a nice setting. Sometimes the view trumps food/tourists/price concerns. Better yet, just get a scenic before- or after-dinner drink.
- Do your homework. Makes the difference between a functional meal and a memorable one.
- Guidebooks can be helpful. But be sure the author’s philosophy aligns with yours.
- Crowdsourcing Sites Have Pros and Cons. Wide range of opinions is helpful—but consider the source. TripAdvisor skews to touristy restaurants (e.g., Seattle rankings). Yelp is more local, but unfortunately less active in Europe.
- Newspapers/Websites. New York Times “36 Hours in…” series is top-notch, well-researched, engaging videos. The Guardian (London) also has excellent food writing (Britain and beyond).
- Local Food Blogs. Search for “foodie blog” plus your destination; often excellent food writing and photography with a local scoop. Example: Katie Parla in Rome (great apps). Also check out my blog: blog.ricksteves.com/cameron
- Menu la Carte. Throughout Europe, a menu is a fixed-price meal; to dine à la carte, ask for the “card” (carte/carta/Karte).
- Menus (Fixed-Price Meals). Can be a good chance to sample local specialties—or a tourist trap. “Tourist menus” are handy but not high cuisine; pay a few euros more for better choices.
- Courses. In Italy, a full-blown meal has four courses: antipasti (appetizers); primi (“first” course, pasta or soup); secondi (“second” course, meat or fish); and dolci (dessert).
- Sharing. This is generally OK, but don’t cheap out on the overall bill. In Italy, 2 people can split any 4 courses (e.g., one antipasto, one pasta, one main dish, and one dessert). In general, sharing is an excellent way to sample more dishes, especially in cultures where it’s common (Spanish tapas, Greek mezes). Tip: In Italy, some restaurants will do bis (two half-portions of pasta)
- Language Barrier. Use a phrase book (with menu decoder) or an online translator (Google Translate uses your camera). But don’t get too hung up on every word—take a leap of faith.
- Service and Tipping. European service is unhurried (“slow” to Americans). They won’t bring your bill until you ask. Europeans typically tip far less than Americans (many don’t tip at all; others up to 10-12%). In most countries, just round up to the nearest round number, typically 5-10%. Insisting on tipping “American-style” is culturally insensitive, even if well-intentioned.
- Vegetarianism. Most of Europe tries to be accommodating. Be explicit—in some places, “vegetarian” means “no red meat” or “not much meat.”
- Gluten-Free. Not as common in Europe. Consider: 1% of the population has Celiac Disease, but 20% eat gluten-free. Hmm…
- Cheating? If you are inclined to “cheat” on your vegetarian/gluten-free diet, do it in Europe.
- Food Allergies. Get the list translated so you can show it to servers—especially if dangerous.
- Street Food. Each country has its own; can be some of the best (and cheapest) food in town. In cities look for creative food markets (e.g., London Ropewalk).
- “Ethnic” Food. It’s OK to take a break from the culinary rut (pork/kraut in Germany, pub grub in Britain, pasta in Italy, etc.). Kebabs (or döner kebabs) are everywhere. And each country has their own “secondary cuisine”: Indian in Britain, Georgian in Russia, etc.
- Markets. A delight to browse (Budapest’s Great Market Hall, London’s Borough Market). Look for pop-up street markets and outdoor produce markets. Small towns in France designate a weekly “market day”—plan for it (e.g., Sarlat).
- Other Cheap Eats. Market cafés, worker/student cafeterias (“mensa”), gathering a meal at variety of artisanal shops (bakery, cheese, meats).
- Picnic. Simply means “non-restaurant meal.” All of the above are ways to assemble a memorable picnic—find a scenic spot for yours.
- Wine. Know what qualities you like—the vintner wants to help you narrow down your options. Wine bars/enoteche pair with good food, wine shops offer variety, and winery visits are more in-depth. Italy, France, and Spain have top wines, but don’t overlook lesser-known wine countries (Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia).
- Beer. German Biergarten culture, self-service, big liter steins called Mass (deposit). Czech Republic has best (and cheapest) pilsners (named for Plzeň). Belgian beers are refined, higher alcohol, each one served in a very specific glass to highlight the taste. Britain prefers its ales room-temperature, pulled up from cellar using “pulls,” after-work hangout in front of pubs. Craft beers trendy everywhere (especially Italy).
- Spirits. Splurge on a scenic cocktail. Europeans love both aperitif (before dinner) and digestif (after dinner, aids digestion). National specialties: whisky in Scotland/Ireland (distillery tours), vodka in Poland, limoncello in southern Italy, ouzo in Greece/Turkey, Unicum in Hungary, Becherovka in Czech Rep. Hospitality = homemade firewater.
- Soft Drinks. Discover the “local Coke”: Rivella in Switzerland (made with milk serum, tastes like vitamins), Irn-Bru in Scotland (bright orange), Cockta in Slovenia.
- Café Culture. Espresso with different amounts of milk (Italians don’t drink milk after lunch, for digestive reasons). You may pay more to sit than to stand—check price list. Genteel Coffee houses in Budapest, Vienna. Afternoon tea in Britain. Turkish coffee in Turkey/Bosnia/ Balkans comes with culture of slowing down.
- Chocolates. Best in Belgium, Britain, Switzerland. Also consider other candies (British sweets, Scandinavian salted licorice).
- Pastries. In addition to predictable choices, try alternatives: kürtőskalács in Hungary/Eastern Europe; churros in Spain. Cultural divide: SE Europe sweetens with honey rather than sugar.
- Ice Cream/Gelato. Look for “artisanal”/artigianale or “homemade.” Pistachio is best barometer of quality. Flavors that pair/marry well. Avoid big piles of bright colors (for attracting children).
- Cooking Classes. Have fun, learn a skill (and understand the culture behind it), and bring home recipes. Trendy; look online or ask your hotel.
- Food Tours. Get to know a (typically less-touristy) neighborhood, learn about local food culture, and identify great restaurants (e.g., Eat Polska food tours in Warsaw and Krakow).
- Learn Where Your Food Comes From. Agriturismi/ tourist farm (Italy), cheesemakers, beehive (Slovenia), truffle hunt, making kanafeh (Bulgaria).
Happy Travels…and Happy Eating!
This last week has made it clear that there’s still a lot of fear and mistrust when it comes to Muslims in America. As a patriot and a humanitarian, this makes me sad. And as a traveler, it perplexes me — in several visits to the Muslim world, I’ve had nothing but positive experiences.
I’m not naive. I realize that some Muslims do terrible things. But judging an entire faith based on the actions of a tiny fanatic fringe is insulting at best, and dangerous at worst. When you travel, you realize that the vision of Islam presented by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon is highly selective. Meeting Muslims face to face comes with rich opportunities to connect with a different slice of humanity, and to learn.
The Muslim country I’ve spent the most time in is Bosnia. On my last visit to Sarajevo, my local friend Amir invited me out for coffee. Not just coffee — Bosnian coffee.
“Here in Bosnia, coffee is not just a drink,” Amir explained. “It’s almost a way of life.” Unfiltered, potent Bosnian coffee (which you probably think of as “Turkish coffee”) is the linchpin of a complex social ritual that captures this culture’s deliberate, stop-and-smell-the-tulips approach to life.
We settled into a rickety table in a cozy, cobbled caravansary courtyard. When the coffee arrived, I was ready to slam it down. But Amir reminded me that Bosnian coffee punishes those in a hurry with a mouthful of gritty grounds.
He patiently talked me through the procedure, and the philosophy, of Bosnian coffee. “There’s no correct or incorrect way to drink Bosnian coffee. People spend lifetimes perfecting their own personal ritual. But one thing everyone agrees on is that coffee isn’t just about caffeinating. It’s about relaxing. It’s about being with people you enjoy. Talk to your friends. Listen to what they have to say. Learn about their lives. Then take a sip. If your coffee isn’t strong enough, gently swirl your cup to agitate the grounds. If it’s too strong, just wait. Let it settle. It gives you more time to talk anyway.”
Reaching the bottom of my cup, I remarked that the grounds had left no residue at all. “When it’s done properly,” Amir said, “you’ll never taste the grounds. If you find a layer of ‘mud’ in the bottom of your cup, it means that someone — either you or the person who made the coffee — was in too much of a hurry.” (So I guess that technically, there is an incorrect way to drink Bosnian coffee.)
Looking around the courtyard, Amir said, “This is a good examples of merak. Merak is one of those words that you cannot directly translate into English. It’s more of a concept. It means, basically, enjoyment. More specifically, it’s this relaxed atmosphere among friends. It’s when you’re nursing a cup of coffee with nowhere in particular to go — savoring the simple act of passing the time of day.”
Amir explained that the Bosnian language is rife with these non-translatable words. Another example: raja. “Raja means a sense of being one with a community,” Amir said. “But it also means frowning on anyone who thinks they’re a big shot. It’s everyone knowing their place, and respecting it.” In American terms, Raja is what prevents you from being the jerk who shows up in a convertible and a tux to your high school reunion.
But my favorite Bosnian word of all is ćejf (pronounced “chayf”).
Ćejf is that annoying habit or ritual you have. It’s the unique little quirk that drives your loved ones batty. And yet, it gives you pleasure. No, not just pleasure: deep satisfaction. In traditional Bosnian culture, ćejf is the idiosyncratic way someone spins his worry beads, the way he packs and smokes his pipe, or the very particular procedure she has for preparing and drinking a cup of Bosnian coffee.
In American culture, we have ćejf, too. We just don’t have a word for it. Maybe you have an exacting Starbucks order that mystifies your friends, but tastes just right. (“Skinny one-pump vanilla split-shot latte, extra hot.”) Or every weekend, you feel compelled to wash and detail your car, or mow your lawn, or prune your hedges…just so. Or maybe it’s the way you keep your desk organized, according to a special logic that only you fully appreciate. My own ćejf is probably the way I tinker with my fantasy football lineup. (Should I start Jordan Howard or Latavius Murray this week?) Or the way I chew gum when I’m stressed out: Exrta Polar Ice flavor, always two sticks…never just one.
In our culture, people call this behavior “fussy,” or “O.C.D.”…or, simply, “annoying.” We’re expected to check our ćejf at the door. But in Bosnia, they just shake their head and say, “What are you gonna do? That’s his ćejf.” You don’t have to like someone’s ćejf. But — as long as it’s not hurting anyone — you do have to accept it. Because everyone has one. What’s your ćejf?
Another Muslim moment that sticks with me came not in Bosnia, but in Morocco. I had just sailed over from Spain to Tangier, setting foot in Africa for the first time. My tour guide, Aziz, brought me to a restaurant where we sat down to a hearty lunch. I’m self-conscious about the very clumsy, very American way I use my knife and fork: Grip the knife in my right hand to cut, then drop it and pick up the fork to eat. I’m jealous of my suave European friends, who deftly use their left-handed fork and right-handed knife, in concert, to eat like pros. But here in Morocco, Aziz watched me very closely as I ate, a smile slowly spreading across his face. Finally, he blurted out, “I love the way you eat! So respectful.” In Aziz’s culture, the left hand is considered dirty — traditionally used for cleaning yourself — while the right hand is used for eating. By transferring my fork to my right hand, I was — unknowingly — being a very good Muslim.
Traveling in the Muslim world has changed me. And not just by opening my eyes to a beautiful faith — in little ways, too. Thanks to Islam, I force myself to slow down a bit when I get coffee with friends. I’m more forgiving of my loved ones’ little quirks. And I unapologetically grab my fork with my right hand.
When you travel, you figure out where your minuses become pluses, and vice-versa. You pick up new ideas and discover that you fit better into a larger world. With the stroke of a pen, President Trump just made connecting with Muslims much more difficult. Let these stories be a gentle reminder that the world can be an immeasurably rich place…but only if we’re open to it.
God bless America. And may peace be upon us.
Like many people, I felt a bit brutalized by 2016. But the new year offers the perfect opportunity to look ahead. Reviewing the blogs I’ve written over the last year, I came away with a few important lessons that I’ll pack along on my 2017 travels.
Destroying a perfectly good guidebook can be a smart travel tip.
“Foodie” doesn’t have to mean “expensive.” You can eat very well for budget prices — if you do your homework (and don’t mind eating off a paper plate). This works everywhere from Ljubljana to Kraków — the cities where I had two of my most memorable (and cheapest) meals of 2016.
In Italy, small-town politics can get extremely heated. Even when it comes to gelato. Especially when it comes to gelato.
Speaking of pet peeves, if you don’t like The Sound of Music, then for heaven’s sake, don’t go on a Sound of Music-themed tour. Or two of them.
If you really want to find the elusive “untouristy alternative” to popular Tuscan destinations like Florence, Pisa, Siena, and San Gimignano…head to Lucca.
Many of Europe’s quaint and quirky little towns — like Austria’s Hallstatt — are waging a losing war against the rising tide of corporate tourism. Enjoy them now, while they’re still more idyllic than commercialized.
Many alpine trails are snow-covered through early summer. But in Italy’s sunny Dolomites, it’s possible to enjoy a scenic hike even in mid-May. (Still…dress warmly.)
Some of the most memorable travel experiences come in places you’ve never heard of — like off-the-grid villages high atop the Slovenian Alps — especially if you have trusted local friends to show you around.
Taking the time to take good photos is worthwhile. The pictures I’ve snapped this year in places like the Cinque Terre, the back streets of Lucca, Lake Bled, and other Slovenian grandeur are some of my favorite souvenirs.
Italy’s Cinque Terre is tremendously crowded these days. But you can still enjoy it — as long as you equip yourself with smart crowd-beating strategies. (Trains jammed up? Hire a boat for a speedy and scenic ride to the next town.)
My ultimate travel thrill for 2016: Soaking in the Széchenyi Thermal Baths of Budapest. (OK, this was far from a new discovery — but it was just as glorious as I remembered.) And if you like Hungarian hot water, those baths are just the tip of the iceberg.
Speaking of Budapest, the Hungarian capital still gets my vote for most underrated (and most improved) city in Europe. Budapest has some of the best nightlife anywhere — from ramshackle “ruin pubs” to budget opera to ritzy rooftop bars. Budapest is also emerging as one of Europe’s top foodie cities.
The main square of Kraków, Poland, remains my favorite in Europe — and on a balmy late-summer evening, when the horse carriages and breakdancing buskers are out, it’s pure magic.
Making great television requires a lot of hard work. But it’s worth it. I enjoyed traveling with Rick and his crew as we filmed new episodes in Bulgaria and Romania — from cheesy polenta at a rustic shepherd’s encampment to bureaucratic snafus that nearly forced us to scrap our Bucharest shoot.
While much of the United States was shocked by our election results, Europeans have seen a similar trend rising for a long time — from Trump-style leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to the Brexit vote in June. In the new year, I resolve to learn more about other countries’ experiences — to better understand what’s happening back home.
It’s a sad fact these days: Terrorist attacks will happen. And when they do, it’s natural to get scared and second-guess your travel plans. But in my view, it’s essential to separate fear from actual risk. Statistically, you’re far more likely to get killed this year in a car crash (1 in 50,000), in a plane crash (1 in 750,000), or even struck by lightning (1 in 14 million), than you are to be killed by terrorists (1 in 20 million). If you really fear for your safety when going to Europe…then you should walk to the airport. Especially in dicey times, I embrace travel as an opportunity to appreciate the full beauty on our planet — which becomes especially poignant when those places are in the news, as Brussels was in March.
As a new year dawns, my travel plans are starting to take shape. I hope yours are, too. It seems we may be in for another tumultuous year. There’s never been a better time to keep on traveling.
After a busy shoot — scrambling to get as much usable footage as possible while dodging the weather — we return home with a hard drive that’s loaded up with all that hard work. That’s when Steve takes over.
Rick is the creative spark, Simon is the logistical mastermind, and Karel is the artistic eye. But Steve Cammarano — who has edited every single one of the more than 100 episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe — is the one who puts it all together.
In the field, Simon and Karel always have Steve’s concerns in mind — making sure they provide him with footage that can be cut together easily. For example, it’s jarring to cut straight to a close-up — you need to ease the viewer into it with an establishing shot. So Simon and Karel make sure they’ve shot all of the bits and pieces that Steve will need.
When filming, each shot needs to be identified to facilitate Steve’s work. There’s no literal slate clapboard, but at the beginning of each shot, Karel verbally “slates” what he’s about to film: “Hey Steve, this is that communist statue.” “Hey Steve, another angle on that statue.” “Steve, a close-up of the two main figures.” “OK, this is a wide on the Square of the People, where that statue is.”
Steve also gets a copy of the (semi-) final script, which has been tweaked and polished throughout the shoot — a process we call “scrubbing the script.” “Scrubbing” means simply reading through the entire script, again and again, making each word earn its keep. Part of the scrub is knowing which footage worked — and which didn’t — and tailoring the words perfectly to what’s in the can.
When we’re satisfied with the script, Rick records a “scratch track” — a quickie voice track of the entire script, whose sole purpose is to give Steve something to cut to. This doesn’t have to be perfect — it’ll be replaced later — and in a pinch, Rick might even record it on his iPhone in a hotel-room closet (between hanging clothes to buffer echoes).
In his rabbit’s warren of an office, Steve uses the script, the verbal slates, and the scratch track as guidelines for piecing together the show. Like every other part of the process, editing TV is equal parts science and art: Steve has a clear blueprint, but he employs his own artistic vision in how he pulls it all together. It’s also tedious: Steve has to rewind each little snippet and rewatch it, again and again and again, to cut it just right. (I used to work in an office adjoining Steve’s, and I must admit: Overhearing a little two-second audio clip — say, a Swiss cowbell clanging, or a Norwegian girls’ choir singing a Christmas carol, or Rick shouting “Freeeedooom!” on the Scottish Highlands — 20 or 30 times in a row was enough to drive me batty. How Steve maintains his sanity, I’ll never know.)
Once Steve is finished with the rough cut, Rick and Simon watch it and weigh in with notes. If the show comes in a little long (not unusual) — or a lot long (as was the case in Romania, which was nearly four and a half minutes over) — it’s time to reach a consensus about what to trim. It’s a tough decision. Some cuts are pretty obvious, but others come down to a no-win pick-’em between two equally good bits that both deserve to be in the show. But at the end of the day, each show gets just 30 minutes (24 minutes and 16 seconds of actual content, to be exact, once you subtract the open, credits, and underwriting). And to be honest, those time constraints are probably a blessing in disguise: They force us to respect the attention span of our fans, and make tough decisions rather than bore our viewers.
Once the final cuts are made, Steve sends the footage to be color-corrected, evening out variations from different shooting situations to help the show feel visually cohesive. (It’s amazing what a good colorist can do to spruce up washed-out or cloudy footage.) Meanwhile, Rick and Simon watch the final cut one more time — the final “scrub,” with the help of ace wordsmith Risa Laib — and make a few last-minute wording tweaks. Finally, Rick records the final voice track, Steve cuts it to the color-corrected final cut…and the show is finished.
The last of 10 brand-new episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe Season 9 (Cornwall) is airing across the country right now. We hope you enjoy them. And if you do, keep in mind the many talented experts — both in front of and behind the camera — who make that scrappy little show some of the most lovingly produced and most compelling travel television out there.
Thanks for tuning in for this “behind the scenes” blog series on Rick Steves’ Europe. And, of course…keep on traveling!
This is the ninth and final installment of my “Behind the Scenes” blog series about Rick Steves’ Europe Season 9 — now airing nationwide (check your local listings). You can also watch the Bulgaria and Romania episodes for free. And in case you’re in a gift-giving mode, the brand-new, 10-episode Season 9 DVD is currently on sale in our Travel Store.