Rick Steves' Travel Blog
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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One of the great things about taking a tour is the people you get to travel with (assuming you join a tour that markets itself in a way that attracts enjoyable travel partners). With our “no grumps” policy, our “carry-your-own bags” policy, and our unapologetically “characteristic” hotels, we do our best to scare away the high-maintenance travelers. I love looking at the happy faces of a group like the one I was fortunate enough to guide — especially after two weeks together.
Here’s the group, giddy to be with each other (or maybe it was just the thin air — at 10,000 feet above sea level, high atop the Schilthorn in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland).
While touring the newly renovated and wonderful Museo del Duomo in Florence, we stayed until the very last minute. The museum guards, eager to call it a day, made sure we all packed onto the huge elevator at closing time and headed for the exit. Ciao!
Part of the fun of leading a group through Europe is introducing them to public transportation — whether subway or bus. In Rome, our bus #280 from St. Peter’s Square to Trastevere for dinner was running late, meaning that when it finally arrived, it was jam-packed. With 28 of us on board, let’s just say it was a very local experience. Our “whisper system” headsets allowed our local guide to be in communication with each tour member…no matter whose armpit they were staring into.
As a guide, it’s fun to grab spontaneous experiences when they present themselves. There are always two considerations: Can 28 people actually do it efficiently? And is it a budget-killer? On my orientation walk through Venice before dinner, we were running a bit late. I came upon the traditional traghetto (gondola ferry) that crosses the Grand Canal where there’s no bridge, and I thought, “Wonderful — that’ll get us to dinner on time, and be memorable, as well.” The maximum capacity is 14 per boat, and they go every 3 or 4 minutes for €2 per person — so two boatloads got the entire group across quickly for less than €60…and we all enjoyed an experience we’ll never forget.
Just after crossing from Switzerland into France we made a quick lunch stop at a modern mall next to the expressway. In this clip, one of my tour members (Jill) explains her clever souvenir tradition (buying frames for her glasses), and I cap my welcome-to-France lunch with a Nutella-and-banana crêpe. It’s fun to be in France.
I’ve been leading bus tours since the 1970s. Back then, my groups were nearly all women. (My theory: Guys were comfortable having a travel adventure on their own. But the women, just as eager for excitement on the road, felt safer in a small group.) They would fill the bus with girl talk as if I weren’t there. I would just put on my earphones, listen to my favorite playlist, and drive. I drove countless hours and listened to the same short list of tunes on my Walkman over and over. Today, so many years later, I satisfied the urge to play one of those favorite and well-worn tunes that take me back to those minibus tour days. It’s decades later, and I’m guiding a tour on a big fancy bus with a great sound system filled with young-at-heart travelers. We have a fun music-sharing game called “Tour Member DJ Party Party” (invented by tour guide Trish Feaster). It’s a great way to help pass a long drive — open mic and any traveler gets to share a personal favorite. It’s my turn, and we’re rocking out to the great road-trip groove of “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex.
We’ll do just about anything to give our travelers memorable cultural experiences when they join us on a Rick Steves bus tour. And this passion for creating memories goes way, way back. In my student days, I’d both drive and guide minibus tours — groups of 7 or 8…nearly all women — around Europe. I did the same 3,000-mile “Best of Europe” route that I’m doing this month. Once — I think it was in 1979 — while driving my group through the Swiss Alps, we approached a Swiss hitchhiker. He was cute, and the women on my bus said, “Pick him up.” I said, “Only if he’ll teach us to yodel.” They agreed. We stopped and I told the man — whose name was Christoph — I’d give him a ride on two conditions: 1) He’d be OK sitting with seven American women, and 2) If he would teach us to yodel. Christoph agreed. We gathered around him, and — arcing his back and as if singing in the towering distant Alps — he yodeled. We learned…and I’ve never forgotten. Now, every time I drive that stretch of road in Switzerland, I feel a strong urge to sing the yodel Christoph taught my group so long ago. The other day, I passed it with a big bus loaded with 28 travelers. Unable to resist, I picked up the mic and did the Christoph yodel. (Don’t listen to this if you’re a music critic!)
Every guide dreams of having his or her group enjoy the happy moment when the farmers bring their cows down from the high meadow. They don’t announce the event, and even locals are taken by surprise when it happens. The Swiss will empty out of their shops and homes to smile at the farmers and their cows — all decked out in flowers and clanging bells — as they lumber by. You can’t plan it, but you can jump into the streets when you hear that bovine parade approaching. I was just settling into my room after a long and demanding day’s hike when I heard the cowbells in the distance. My first thought: “It must be something different.” But they got closer and closer and suddenly I realized, “This is it!” Grabbing my shoes and sweater and camera, I ran out to enjoy this ancient Swiss ritual. So did most of our tour group. Here’s the clip of a moment that capped a wonderful day in the Alps.
I love Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley, which is named for its many “loud waterfalls.” The loudest of these waterfalls is Trümmelbach, which for eons — like God’s bandsaw — has been slowly and steadily cutting its way deeper and deeper into the mountains. I always feel the power of nature here, so sharing this with our tour groups is really a joy. Follow me with this clip for a peek at this powerful example of the wonders of nature — so accessible in Switzerland. Where have you enjoyed the raw power of nature in your travels?
The Swiss, who are both great engineers and great lovers of nature, know how to make Alpine thrills accessible to almost any traveler. Follow me on the latest addition to the Schilthorn experience. At the Birg station, which until a year ago was just a place to change cable cars, they have opened a wonderful restaurant with a view terrace and a fun, 15-minute “Thrill Walk.” Put on your helmet and let’s go!
The Swiss love to cap their peaks with restaurants. One of the most popular is the Schilthorn’s Piz Gloria, a revolving restaurant perched at 10,000 feet above sea level. Just after it was completed and before opening to the public in 1969, it was the famous and thrilling setting of key moments in the James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Today, they entertain visitors with 360 degrees of jaw-dropping Alpine views and lots more. The station is bursting with the James Bond theme…even the public toilets — as you’ll see in this clip. This must be one of the most memorable toilets anywhere — what’s your most memorable foreign WC?
This clip is the first of a five-day series of fun I had with my Rick Steves’ Best of Europe Tour group high in the Swiss Alps. (Up next: James Bond WCs at 10,000 feet, The New Thrill Walk at Birg, The Mighty Trümmelbach Falls, and The Cows Coming Down from the High Alps).
As guides, we are really dependent upon good weather to fully enjoy the Swiss Alps. The truth is: The Alps are most staggeringly beautiful and unforgettable when it’s sunny. And on this tour, we enjoyed the most beautiful day I can remember, high in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland. Of our group of 27 TMs (as we call our tour members), 24 joined us on this all-day alpine excursion. This video clip is a moment from the last part of the Mürren to Grütschalp hike.
For a peek at how we design such a day (and share our experiences with our other groups), here are my rough notes for our other tour guides:
Guide Notes — Day 17 of Rick Steves’ Best of Europe Tour: Swiss Alps
Free day in Alps. If sunny, guide should organize this day and lead it. (Lift tickets discounted if 20 or more are individual tickets, so TMs can peel off if and when they like. Remind group you’ll collect tomorrow in euros so they don’t need to hit ATM for more SF.)
8:00 – Bus to lift.
8:25-8:55 – Catch lift Stechelberg to Schilthorn, 10,000 feet above sea level (beating the crowds and any clouds that may gather later in the morning) — watch altimeter in cable car as you rise, remind group at this altitude you get winded very easy.
9:00-10:30 – After five-minute orientation, free time at Schilthorn (new viewpoint out back, great James Bond clips in theater, revolving restaurant for hot chocolate or a pastry).
10:30 – Gather group outside funny James Bond WCs and catch 10:35 lift down together to Birg station.
10:40-11:10 – Free time at Birg – wonderful new Thrill Walk (takes 15 minutes max), fine terrace and glass floor with view down on Thrill Walk alternative. (Just miss one lift to make time for Birg, be in line before next lift arrives from Schilthorn to fill 11:15 cable car down to Mürren with no extra wait.)
11:20-12:30 – Mürren, short orientation town walk, free hour for lunch, stop at Co-op grocery store – perfect for picnic (demo weighing a single grape and printing out price and wrapping grape in it), meet at station at far end of town.
12:30-14:10 – Hike Mürren to Grütschalp with stop midway at Winteregg dairy farm for fresh home-made yogurt, and Alp cheese (pay for goodies, one small 1-SF yogurt per couple, 2 spoons, old mountain cheese, handy WC). They also do a cheese tasting with three varieties if you like.
14:15 – At Grütschalp station, buy group lift tickets down to Lauterbrunnen (to get them discount, collect tomorrow in euros).
14:20-15:00 – Walk through Lauterbrunnen, meet at waterfall far end of town (just past Horners, the BASE jumpers’ favorite pub). Tell story of how the waterfall throws rocks and can be dangerous (especially after rain storm).
15:00-16:00 – Hike up valley to Trümmelbach (point out cow bells under eves of old farmhouses).
16:00-17:00 – Tour Trümmelbach Falls (group discount admission is 10.50 SF. Tell the lady you’ll pay the 50 cents per TM and let TMs just pay 10 SF as they enter. This saves time and frustration.) Ride elevator through mountain with group, explain best underground waterfall caves are within 100 meters above top of lift. Call bus driver to meet you one hour after arrival.
17:00 – Bus picks up group there, shuttle back to hotel.
19:00 – Dinner at hotel (Alp horn concert and demo tonight if not last night).
We’re waiting to catch our early train out of the Italian Riviera. We have six days left in our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour and I’ve asked our group to recall their tastiest bites so far. Along with the creamy pumpkin ravioli we enjoyed in Rome’s crusty Trastevere neighborhood, yummy favorites include octopus, pineapple-mint gelato, pesto, and (my favorite) wild-boar salami. Great food is an essential part of any good European vacation.