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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When it comes to hill towns in Tuscany, San Gimignano is the region’s glamour girl, getting all of the attention from passing tour buses. A quick stroll through its core, in the shadows of its 14 surviving medieval towers, is a delight.

twin towers.jpgLocal guides claim that Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of New York City’s World Trade Center, was inspired by San Gimignano’s twin towers. (I have no idea if that’s true, but they sure look like they could have.) While only 14 of the town’s original 72 towers are still standing, these sisters have stood here for 700 years.

 

saint gimignano.jpgWay back in the days when Rome was falling, the people of this town were saved from barbarian ransacking by the local bishop. He eventually became a saint, and they eventually named their town after him. Today, you can see glittering frescoes of Saint Gimignano holding his town (back when it had a lot more of those towers).

 

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High-intensity travel makes me hungry — especially in Italy. The one meal I’ve been looking forward to more than any other is a big steak dinner at Osteria dell’ Aquacheta in Montepulciano. Warning: Vegetarians may want to skip this post.

steak house.jpgThey jam the place for four seatings (two for lunch and two for dinner) every day. It’s a long room with communal tables under a medieval barrel vault. In the back, like the engine of a steam train, a fire roars behind a huge hunk of cow lying flat as if on a gurney.

 

choose steak.jpgYou don’t have much of a choice here. Giulio, who reminds me of George Carlin with a cleaver, parades through the room with slabs of beef for diners to consider. It costs about €3 per hundred grams (about $3 per quarter pound) and they serve 1.6 kilos of beef for each couple (about $50 for two). You don’t say how you want it cooked. There’s a correct way: seven minutes on each side. Fifteen minutes after you say OK, it’s chow time.

 

cleaver.jpgEvery few seconds the happy sound of “George Carlin” slamming his cleaver through the beef rockets through the room — stoking every appetite under that old, brick-domed ceiling.

 

blonde hungry.jpgOsteria dell’ Aquacheta brings out the carnivore in all its guests.

 

blonde ate.jpgVegetarians won’t enjoy this restaurant. But she sure did.

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I’m 45 days into my 100-days-of-Europe blog series. I hope you’re enjoying traveling with me. I’ve picked up some new tips along the way while updating my guidebooks. Most people consider this a “dream job,” but in reality it’s a lot of hard work.

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While I’m meeting up with my TV crew now and then, most of the days I’m alone and checking all the places in our guidebooks. This shot captures my view almost each evening. In this case I’ve found two wonderful new restaurants (with my scrawl on the back of their “biglietti da visita” (business cards, if I have my Italian correct). I put the restaurants in a logical order and visit when the restaurants are busy (8 p.m. to 10 p.m. or so). When all the places are crossed off my list, I get to eat.

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When dining with friends, I like to eat family style, and waiters are happy to make that easy. If I’m on my own and want to double the experience without overeating, when it comes to pasta, I simply ask for a “bis” — two half-portions on a plate for the cost of one full portion. This way I get to try the wild boar sauce on the local “pici” pasta and a pasta with white truffles as well.

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Risa Laib, who for nearly twenty years in my office has been a key behind-the-scenes player overseeing the growth and quality of our guidebook series, proposed producing a clever little binder so people who rip chapters out of their books (as I encourage) can have a tidy little package as they are out and about. It’s fun to see people in Europe enjoying Risa’s little innovation. Rather than toting 1,300 pages of “Rick Steves Italy,” this woman is packing light for the day with just the Siena chapter.

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I find the bureaucracy and frustrations of running museums in Europe — especially Italy — fascinating. With the chaos in local and national governments, and the severe budget-cutting, things are in flux and often a mess. It seems that each year there are more notices on the window leaving the sorry soul behind the glass with less and less light…and more and more grumpy.

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Researching with my local guide on the Campo (main square) in Siena, I was bumping into so many of my readers that I wasn’t getting any work done. I met some people from one of our Best of Italy tours and was so rushed that I didn’t even make time to pose for a photo. Afterwards I felt terrible. They mentioned in passing that they were on Stephanie’s tour and had free time until 2:30 p.m., when they were meeting on the far side of town at the Dominican Church. At 2:20 p.m. I told my guide we need to hoof it across town to meet the group. I know our guides are fanatically punctual — and if we’re two minutes late, we may miss them. I made it there (the local guide straggling behind me) just in time to catch Stephanie and her group. It felt great to find the people I was rude to and make sure we got that souvenir photo. They seemed like a great group and were having a beautiful trip.

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Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” There is no better place in the world to confirm what Ben said than in Tuscany. Today I’m tasting some of the region’s great wines in romantic hill towns.

roberto rick wine.jpg

A big reason for visiting Tuscany is to not just sample the great local wine, but to have it served to you by the families who make it. With my friend and favorite Tuscany guide, Roberto Bechi, we’re taking it a step further. At the Santa Giulia farm we’re enjoying a “Zero Kilometer Lunch” — everything made right on the farm: bread, olive oil, cheese, prosciutto, and wine. We came, we toured, we ate. And you can too (if you have a good guidebook).

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The town of Montepulciano is my favorite base for exploring the heart of Tuscany and wine country. A room with a Tuscan view like this is standard here.

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A perfect way to maximize the Tuscany experience is to actually stay on a working farm. And family farms survive here with the help of being able to rent rooms to travelers. The term “agriturismo” can only be used by a rural B&B on an actual working farm. My favorite agriturismo is Agriturismo Cretaiole outside of Pienza, an idyllic retreat for any romantic tourist, lovingly run by Isabella and Carlo.

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Wineries have cellars with massive barrels aging the Brunello wine. To be Brunello, the wine spends several years in a wood barrel like these. The wine is almost a religion here, and it seems that guides walk you worshipfully through cellars as if they were sacred spaces.

adamo wine man.jpg

A great thing about Montepulciano is that the town has several historic wine cellars that you can explore, followed by generous tastings. At the Contucci cellar your host is Adamo. For 50 years, Adamo has made sure visitors enjoy a tasty education in the Nobile di Montepulciano. And I’ve been checking in on him for over a decade.

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The countryside around Montalcino is dotted with classy wineries that are evangelical about taking visitors on tours and tastings. Unlike Californians wineries, here in Tuscany you need to book your tours (it’s a simply phone call the day before). Tours last an hour, cost about €10, and finish in a tasting room like this where, with expert guidance, you’ll development a better appreciation of the fruit of these vines. Did you find any particular wine tour in Europe exceptional?

wine tasting RS group.jpg

With about 800 Rick Steves tours this year enjoying unforgettable experiences in every corner of Europe, I wasn’t surprised to bump into one of my groups in an Etruscan cellar below the streets of Volterra having a wine tasting by Francesco. I thought I’d just pop in and say hi (as I had a pile of visits yet to make that evening). But Francesco’s talk was so good (as were the wines he featured), I stayed for the entire presentation (munching perfectly matched prosciutto and cheese with the wines to call it dinner). This was just one of fifty groups of ours that Francesco will join for a tasty, educational, and memorable Tuscan evening this year.

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Rattling around late at night in an empty Siena, I found myself curbside at the craziest horse race in the world…the Palio. Hold on to your gnocchi!

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Visiting agriturismos and countryside B&Bs listed in my Italy guidebook, I was impressed by how much fun the hosts were. Here, Franco of Frances’ Lodge (a B&B just outside of Siena) jumped at an opportunity to show off his flag skills. And then today, while writing in my downtown Siena hotel room, I could hear drums and drill teams out my window — it was school kids practicing the same moves Franco has had down now for 50 years.

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I spent the better part of yesterday popping in on the wonderful agriturismos we recommend in my Italy guidebook. An agriturismo is a rural B&B run by small farmers who are trying to survive in a modern economy. Here in Italy, you can’t call yourself an “agriturismo” unless you are actually a working farm. This place (Casanova Agriturismo near Asciano, in the province of Siena) certainly is. But, as you’ll see, you can go in less than a minute from the sweet smell of cows to the sweetness of doing nothing poolside with a vast Tuscan view. (BTW, the trendy thing these days is what’s termed a “Zero Kilometer Meal” — serving food that is virtually all grown on the farm from zero kilometers away. And it’s a meal you’ll never forget.)

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I don’t generally get all excited about individual gelato shops, but BuonGusto in Pienza is an exception. Run by Chef Nicola, here is an example of a high-quality gelateria. Tourist-trap places come with countless open bins of brightly colored gelato piled high. In a serious gelateria, there are only a few flavors, the colors are muted, and the bins come with lids. Nicola was all excited about his artichoke-and-ginger gelato and his salted-caramel variety. And now, so am I. La vita è bella…life is good! Have you found a favorite gelateria in your travels?

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By Rick Steves for The Seattle Times

All I was trying to do was share a little happiness from my trip on my Facebook page.

So when someone responded with, “Seems out of place with what’s happening in the news,” it made me think. And my first thought was, “Yes, like Baltimore. And Nepal. And ISIS, and climate change, and a dozen other serious issues.”

When you’re on the road, tuning into the news can be troubling and sobering. It can make a vacation seem trivial and elitist.

Keep-on-Traveling-graphicBut if my years rubbing shoulders with world travelers have taught me anything, it’s this: going abroad doesn’t blind you to the world’s problems; if anything, it makes you more acutely aware of them. Traveling thoughtfully, especially in challenging times, is one of the best ways to put current events in perspective. It forces you to see that victims of poverty and natural disasters — whether across the sea or across the street — aren’t just faceless statistics in a newspaper, but human beings. You can’t help but feel empathy. In my travels, I’ve stood on the steps of sacred temples in Katmandu, bowed my head, and said “Namaste” to people–perhaps some of the very same people–who are now homeless and whose temples are now rubble.

Travel also helps me better appreciate the unrest in Baltimore. The violence that shook that city should surprise no one who’s traveled in the Developing World.

I’ve seen “Baltimore” in Central America. In many Latin American countries, the gap between rich and poor is Grand Canyon-esque. Big corporations and the landed gentry call the shots. Governments have armies not to protect themselves from foreign enemies but from angry and hopeless people within their own societies. (Back in the 1980s, Costa Rica–headed by President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias–drew the suspicion of the USA by simply not having an army. His country had the most equal distribution of wealth in the region, and didn’t need a military force to protect its elites from its own citizens.)

Today in the USA, we too have a widening gap between rich and poor. Our friendly neighborhood cops-on-the-beat are becoming more like an occupying military force—seemingly necessary in a “democracy” where corporations are considered “citizens” and money is “free speech.”

When you’ve traveled the Third World, the violence that erupted in Baltimore should come as no surprise. It’s the symptom of hopelessness. When people feel the system is rigged and they are victims of structural poverty in a world of obscene wealth, they don’t navigate life by the rules others would expect of them. They attack symbols of authority. They burn corporate icons. They support demagogues. They believe wild promises. They join ISIS.

So when people question how I can enjoy a great vacation while horrible things are happening, I say “Sure, horrible things are happening. But what good does staying home do, especially when I find being on the road gives me a better understanding of the challenges our society will be confronting for a long time to come and help me better respond.” It’s not whether you are at home or abroad during challenging times. It’s what you are learning and what you are doing that matters.

I’ve learned in my travels that, while the day-to-day news comes and goes, some problems live on. After the cameramen go home, earthquake victims still need food and shelter. It’s made me more committed than ever to finding long-term solutions to deeper problems, whether it’s disaster relief, wealth inequality or climate change.

To those on the road right now or planning a trip, I say “Keep on traveling.” Stay in touch with the news if you so choose. Or wait till you come home, when — I guarantee — you’ll watch the six o’ clock news with fresh eyes. Then act with your renewed energy and global perspective. Empower those public leaders who honestly address the hopelessness that angers America’s poor. Send a donation to your favorite organization. Help mend buildings, bodies and souls in Nepal, where beautiful people are still clasping their hands gently together and saying Namaste — “I salute the divine good within you.”

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The proud little church of San Biagio, just outside the Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano, is a celebration of the humanism of the Renaissance period 500 years ago. While medieval churches were designed in the shape of a Latin cross (reminding us of Christ’s crucifixion), Renaissance churches were generally done in a Greek cross design (with arms of equal length, like a plus sign). The Greek cross can be contained perfectly in a circle and reminds us of God’s perfection — and how cool it is that we are made in His image. And the acoustics are irresistible.

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