Rick Steves' Travel Blog
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I’m done traveling for the year, but other members of my staff are still in the field. While I regroup from 100 days in Europe, I invited my frequent collaborator Cameron Hewitt to share some posts from his blog. Cameron has traveled about as much as me this year, updating our guidebooks in Italy and France, and turning our already strong material in Scotland into a stand-alone Rick Steves Scotland guidebook (due next spring). While Cameron 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 you like Cameron’s insights, you can read much more on his travel blog, and you can also follow Cameron on Facebook. — Rick
Dining in Amalfi: Two Dinners, €25, No Contest
by Cameron Hewitt
The last two nights, I’ve had starkly different dinners in the town of Amalfi. Each one cost about €25. One of them I’ll remember for years. The other I’d already forgotten while I was still eating it.
Travelers have choices, and the best options are rarely the easiest ones. And this is never so true as when you’re restaurant-hunting. After a few days in Italy, I feel like I’ve seen the same menu dozens of times. Pasta with clams. Seafood risotto. Lasagna. Spaghetti Bolognese. Because this is the Amalfi Coast, they often throw some lemon in there somewhere. Only the restaurant’s name changes.
Last night, moments after arriving in town, I went looking for restaurants. On a relaxed little neighborhood piazza just a few steps from the main drag, I zeroed in on a promising-looking place. I grabbed a table, ordered a pasta, salad, and dessert, and — while the food was pretty good — the experience barely made an impact.
Tonight I got more ambitious. I had asked a local guide, who leads food tours in a neighboring town, where she eats when she’s in Amalfi. Her answer: Taverna degli Apostoli, tucked around the side of the cathedral’s grand staircase. And sure enough, it was the best meal of the trip so far. Here’s the play-by-play.
Service: Last night, I sat outside, a few feet from where the owner was trying to drum up business. His running banter with random passersby was comically desperate. “Hey! Where you from? You want a good meal? Very cheap ’cause we’re not on the main square. Come on! I promise you like it!” Entertaining as it was to watch him set his hook in a family of four from Vancouver, then expertly reel them inside, it distracted — and detracted — from my dining experience. Tonight at Apostoli, my soundtrack was mellow jazz rather than aggressive sales pitches, and the service was astute and warm. When I asked if the broccolini was particularly bitter, she gracefully acknowledged it was, and nudged me toward something else. When the table in front of me opened up, she suggested I scoot up for a better view.
Interior: Last night, it was the predicable red-and-white-checker-tablecloth-with-melting-candles atmosphere. You couldn’t tell if you were in Italy, or in Little Italy. Tonight at Apostoli, I peeked inside. It was a former art gallery, they explained, and they chose to keep that decor intact in the cozy upstairs dining room. And, while my experience outside was perfect for a hazy late-April evening near the sea, I could imagine very happily lingering over a meal inside, too.
Menu: Last night, it was a list of completely predictable standards. Tonight at Apostoli, the menu was thoughtful, intriguing, even educational…to borrow a trendy phrase, it felt curated. Things like pasta with anchovies and walnuts. (I didn’t have the guts to order that one, but now I wish I had.) I had the sense that these were all dishes I’d never heard of before, even though people here have no doubt been eating them for centuries. I couldn’t choose…and, I imagine, I couldn’t choose wrong.
Food: For me, the most important part of any dining experience is the food itself. Last night, the pasta was actually quite good: noodles that were clearly handmade, with stewed tomatoes, melt-in-your-mouth roasted eggplant, and gooey mozzarella. But the “mixed salad” consisted of greens on the verge of wilting, flavorless tomatoes, and a few kernels of corn from a can. I sprinkled more and more salt and balsamico onto the salad trying to tease out some flavor. I failed. Oh, and there were about five tasteless olives. At one point the owner peered into my salad bowl and said, “You’d better eat those olives! I paid for them!” Finally, the desert (delizia di limone, a lemony sponge cake) tasted store-bought. Tonight at Apostoli, the salad was a revelation: ripe cherry tomatoes, shaved fennel, hand-torn basil, and — that extra-mile finishing touch that distinguishes a great chef from a merely competent one — a few little flecks of raw garlic to pull everything together and make the flavors pop. The pasta was hand-cut ziti with a sauce I’d never heard of, genovese neopolitana: slow-simmered onions and celery, giving each bite a savory, rich, caramelized sweetness.
Decision: Apostoli, in a walk. You can guess which restaurant is going in the next edition of the Rick Steves’ Italy guidebook.
What’s to be learned form this? First, if you care about food, expect more from your meals. Don’t settle for the same old trattoria on the same old piazza. Seek out that special place that dares to upend the clichés. A very fine line separates restaurants that deeply care about food from restaurants that care primarily about making money. Fine-tune your radar to detect that difference.
And finally, don’t get stuck in the TripAdvisor rut. I find that restaurant ratings on TripAdvisor skew heavily toward crowd-pleasing tourist traps. Last night’s restaurant ranked in the mid-twenties on TripAdvisor; Apostoli is buried about 10 places lower. Based on my personal experience the last two nights, you can follow the herd — or you can challenge yourself to find something better.
I’m done traveling for the year, but other members of my staff are still in the field. While I regroup from 100 days in Europe, I invited my frequent collaborator Cameron Hewitt to share some posts from his blog. Cameron has traveled about as much as me this year, updating our guidebooks in Italy and France, and turning our already strong material in Scotland into a stand-alone Rick Steves Scotland guidebook (due next spring). While Cameron and I are in perfect sync in terms of travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of Rick Steves travelers.
Right now, Cameron is heading to Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia, where he’ll be updating our guidebook to those countries. Then, he will be in Bulgaria and Romania where he’ll scout for our upcoming TV shoots there. He’ll be blogging from all of these destinations. In the meantime, for the next 10 days, I’ll be sharing dispatches here from Cameron’s summer travels. Today, we join Cameron in Italy, at a Sorrento B&B, where some fellow travelers had lots of questions about his job working with me as a travel writer. If you like Cameron’s insights, you can read much more on his travel blog, and you can also follow Cameron on Facebook. — Rick
So, You’re Really a Travel Writer?
By Cameron Hewitt
It’s 11 a.m. in Sorrento. I just arrived yesterday from Seattle for a five-week guidebook-updating trip in Italy and France. I should head out soon to get to work. But first I’ll procrastinate by sharing this exchange I just had at the breakfast table, with a friendly twentysomething couple from New York. Over the next few weeks, I’ll have this same conversation many times. Like these people, you may be curious what it’s like to update and write guidebooks for a living.
So, you’re really a travel writer?
Like, you get paid to travel around and write about it?
How do you get to be a travel writer?
It’s a combination of hard work and luck. You have to love traveling and love writing, and do both things as much as possible. I was an English major in college, and got a job writing movie reviews for my hometown newspaper. But no matter how well you prepare, you still need a break at some point to get your foot in the door. I started working at Rick Steves’ Travel Center, our retail store, and eventually got an opportunity to try updating some guidebook chapters. I worked hard, they liked what I did, and I got more and more work.
You must love your job!
[Reluctantly] Yes, It’s great.
What, don’t you love it?
No, I absolutely love my work! But it is work…very hard work. My friends have, understandably, zero tolerance for me complaining about my job, and I totally get it — I get paid to travel around Europe, for Pete’s sake! But it’s not easy, and it’s not always fun.
You may imagine “travel writing” is sitting at a café on a sun-dappled square, sipping a glass of wine or a cappuccino, and occasionally jotting down notes. But that’s not travel writing. That’s a vacation (with some light journaling). The reality is much more demanding, and often quite tedious. Basically, in every town I update, I personally visit each and every hotel, restaurant, museum, tourist office, laundromat, public toilet, train station, and so on, that’s listed in the book. That means lots of slogging around, having the same conversation a hundred times a day, figuring out ways to tease useful information out of a wide variety of people, and keeping very careful notes so I can write it up later…which usually happens after dinner, when I’m typing on my computer until 1 or 2 in the morning. The next day I get up and do it again…for five weeks in a row. It’s also physically demanding. When I updated the Rome book a year ago, my pedometer clocked 90 miles in seven days…all on foot.
Wait, doesn’t Rick write and update those books?
Yes and no. The series includes dozens of books, each of which is updated in person either every year or every other year. So there’s no way Rick could update all of them. That said, most people would be surprised (and impressed) by how involved Rick is in the books. He rotates which destinations he visits each year, so over time he sets foot in a major destination about every two or three years (at least), and in minor ones every four or five years. The rest of the time, it’s up to the other researchers, like me.
How many people work on these books?
Our office production team — editors, maps, and graphics — are about 14 people. (Our publisher, Avalon Travel Publishing, also has its own staff dedicated to Rick’s books.) There are about 20 people like me, who do research in Europe. There’s a lot of overlap — many of the editors also travel to update the books.
That doesn’t sound like many researchers, given the number of books Rick has!
We try to be very efficient with our time. Each chapter is budgeted the minimum amount of time we feel it’ll take to do a judicious update. And it’s a demanding job. If you ever run into any of our researchers in Europe, you’ll see that they’re constantly scrambling around. Fortunately, we have an outstanding team of researchers who understand our priorities and share a passion for travel — and for improving people’s trips.
Do you ever read other guidebooks, like Lonely Planet, or check out TripAdvisor to see how the competition matches up?
We don’t really view it as “competition.” What we do in our books is pretty specific; when I use Lonely Planet books, I’m struck by how different their focus is from ours. As for TripAdvisor, I do sometimes skim their reviews for hotels or tour companies, just to see if I’m missing something or to confirm my impressions. But I always corroborate anything I find there, independently and personally, before including it in our book.
This is a whole other conversation, but in general I’m a bit of a TripAdvisor skeptic. It’s become so powerful, and I’ve seen many businesses resort to aggressive tactics to boost their ranking — for example, a hotel offering its guests a free breakfast if they post a positive review. With hotels, keep in mind that the person reviewing a place on TripAdvisor only had an experience with one hotel in that town; a guidebook writer, on the other hand, has visited and assessed dozens, so they have a broader basis for comparison. I find TripAdvisor least helpful when it comes to restaurants; the listings can include some gems, but really skew toward tourist traps that we wouldn’t want to recommend in our books. (To try this out, just browse the rankings for restaurants in your hometown.)
In short, I use TripAdvisor as one of many sources of information — but like anything, I take it with a grain of salt. Many travelers I meet tell me they check the TripAdvisor ratings in conjunction with our guidebook’s description, and I think that’s the smart approach. But I also meet a lot of people these days who design their itinerary based exclusively on TripAdvisor rankings…and these people seem to be having a less successful trip than people who have done more homework. The sad thing is, because review sites tend to be an echo chamber, you may never even realize what you’re missing out on.
[lowering voice nervously] Wait, does this hotel know who you are?
Yes. Usually the hotel I stay at knows what I’m up to. When I visit other businesses during the day, I can choose whether to identify myself or “go incognito.” If we’ve gotten bad feedback about a place, I’m more likely to pretend to be a clueless tourists — just to see how they treat me. But other times, the espionage isn’t worth the trouble. For example, at museums, I identify myself immediately to make it easier to quickly update the information.
[noticing I’m getting a little antsy] It seems like you have a busy day ahead of you.
Yeah, sorry — I’d really better be going, if I’m going to get to everything on my list today. See you tomorrow at breakfast!
Each week we share a random video clip to fuel your travel dreams. This week, we take in the sights, sounds, and experiences that reward a curious traveler in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter.
(Watch the complete Holy Land episode for free on our website.)
As a tour guide, it’s fun to show off Europe’s gargoyles. But it’s rare to actually show them in action — not scaring away evil spirits, but spewing rainwater away from their buildings. Yes, gargoyles are actually storm drains in disguise. When we designed our building here in Edmonds 15 years ago, we included eight of these ugly guys — which I believe are the only functioning gargoyles in greater Seattle. Here’s a little clip showing them actually working like the rest of us.
Finally home now after a hundred days in Europe, something occurred to me. I posted 100 blog entries in 100 days on my Facebook page. These generated about a hundred comments a day…and I read all 10,000. It’s fun to be in touch with my readers, and to able to share experiences like these in almost real time:
In Greece, when the Orthodox priest explained to me how he used incense to change the mood at Eastertime — from sadness to anticipation to joy — and then gave me a fragrant tour of his stash to make me a believer.
In Florence, when the chef giving one of our tour groups a cooking lesson coached me to knead the flour with more love and more determination, even as I doubted that a little egg could turn that dry wad of flour into usable dough. (Shortly after that, we ate our delicious homemade pasta with an unforgettable sense of triumph and accomplishment.)
In Wales, when craning my neck to enjoy the broken Gothic arches in the sky of the remote and romantic Tintern Abbey at the border of Wales and England, it suddenly got even more romantic as a harpist began strumming and an angelic bride and her happy father walked by me, arm-in-arm.
What can you both treasure and share? Travel memories. And when you make them, you become richer.
Now that I’m back from Europe, I’ll be sharing a random video clip each week to fuel your travel dreams. This week, we visit Prague and take a close look at Alfons Mucha’s Art Nouveau masterpieces.
(Watch the complete Prague episode online for free on our website.)
I’ve been on the road for four months out of the last five. It’s been a great year of traveling, with 3.5 hours of new TV produced (Easter — airing next spring; Martin Luther and the Reformation — airing in the winter of 2016/17; and three new public television shows on Germany — part of our 10-episode Season Nine, airing in October of 2016). I also enjoyed researching and updating our guidebooks (in Greece, Rome, Florence, Tuscany, South France, and South England), which helped me scout new TV episodes (for Tuscany and South England) and refine our newest Rick Steves Europe Tours Villages of South England itinerary.
My “welcome home” celebration: a day at the ballpark to watch the Mariners win one. Home run!
Photo: Rosie Leutzinger
After all that travel, it’s a joy to simply be back home. No more toiletries kit, no more rationing clean clothes, no more crummy connections with family and loved ones. With this post, I wrap up my “Hundred Days of Europe” blogging project. (I think I was about 95% successful — sorry for those five missed days.) It’s been fun packing you along through all these great travel experiences. I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip. And to all my new friends: It’s great to have you on board.
Stay tuned for more travel fun, as we’ve got lots of great projects in the pipeline, and I enjoy giving my friends here an inside peek at our work.
My summer trip is finished. I’m flying home. And to wrap up my Hundred Days of Europe blog, I threw a bunch of final images against the wall, and these are the ones that stuck.
In Europe, brides are given wild “Hen Parties” before their wedding day. You see them throughout northern Europe. They provide a fun challenge for my “selfie” skills.
The thing I like least about filming our TV shows is wearing jeans and long-sleeved shirts (that’s my wardrobe) in the hot and mucky heat. For “continuity,” I have to wear the same shirt for as long as I’m in a particular town. Some shirts wear amazingly well, but others get pretty frazzled. Producer Simon Griffith thinks this rag is ready for the bin.
These days, while exploring the more famous corners of Europe, you’ll see more peace signs than ever.
A few weeks ago, I posted about the grooves that break up sidewalks all over Europe. There was a vigorous discussion among commenters about their actual purpose. It was my hunch that they’re designed to help blind people with canes. This icon on the street in Hamburg seems to confirm that use. Groovy!
My last stop in Europe this year is Hamburg. After weeks of filming in scorching heat, heavy rains finally slammed us — and after three socked-in days, I had to change my flight and hope for better weather. I’ve never had to do this before, but it gave us a gorgeously sunny day to finish our show and continue our deception that it is always sunny in Europe. (By the way, it cost me $310 to change my flight one day before on British Air.)
In spite of the rain, we found ourselves enamored with Hamburg. It’s one of the great unvisited cities in Europe.
Hamburg’s harbor is mighty, historic, and welcoming. A harbor boat tour gives an intimate look at the massive container industry. The huge warehouse district shows how important Germany’s top port was in the 19th century. And the new Elbephilharmonie concert hall is not quite open to the public, but it looks that way — which was great for filming.
Hamburg was a strategic target in WWII. The Nazis constructed literally hundreds of beefy bunkers, using mountains of concrete and almost unlimited slave labor. This is one of many — too big to demolish economically — that are simply incorporated into the everyday cityscape. This one is a colorfully painted rock-climbing wall in a neighborhood park. Standing tall and ugly-yet-colorful, with children lining up to climb all over it, it is emblematic of the poignant contrasts I see when traveling thoughtfully through today’s Germany.
A theme that keeps crashing into my reporting on Europe is how real climate change is, and how tragic it is that some people deny it just for their own economic convenience. Everywhere I go in Europe, I see the results of literally billions of dollars being invested in infrastructure changes that will allow Europe to live in the future that we are creating. Europeans (with a fatalistic acceptance of the momentum created by reliance on fossil fuels and the values of many international corporations) just shrug their shoulders and take a pragmatic view: It’s a reality, and there’s not much we can do to change it — but we can prepare for it. Situated just up a big river from the sea, and therefore in danger of storm surges, Hamburg has raised 60 miles of embankments…and artfully designed the ones in the city center to be inviting people zones like this.
When I’m in Germany, it just feels right to have a pretzel lying beside my main dish, or to enjoy a big, frosty lager with a big, salty pretzel close at hand. The pretzel culture is near and dear to Germans, as you’ll find in your travels.
Even after decades of travel, it’s so fun to still be learning fun little factoids about the cultures we visit. It never ends! In Dresden, my German friend explained that the dough woven into a pattern in a pretzel represents the way our thumbs cross when we fold our hands in prayer.
Most of our work is in the old centers of great cities. Staying here, you can miss entire dimensions of a culture. For example, driving out of a German city you may see a big drive-in pretzel place — fast food with a German touch.