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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On Good Friday at the village church in Cantiano, we were so impressed with the choir’s performance. But I realized I had made a big mistake: We should have been recording their service to get tracks for the Easter CD I hope to produce along with our TV special.

I asked the choir director if, for a donation to their church, they’d sing for us in a private concert. They were thrilled to gather on Saturday morning and perform seven pieces for the CD.

As we film events like this for our Easter special, I’m so happy we’re complementing the big-city culture with rustic, small-town passion. Working with the people of Cantiano this Easter was a delightful experience in every way. What are some musical serendipities in your bank of travel memories?

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While filming in Italy for the Rick Steves’ European Easter special, which will air across the USA next year, my crew and I came upon some startling, amazing, and moving scenes. Check out these photos to see the fun we had in the totally untouristed and delightful Back Door town of Cantiano.  A rugged and stony little settlement in the remote Italian region of Marche, Cantiano has a strong Easter tradition.

 

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This Good Friday procession in Gubbio, a town near Cantiano, originally came three centuries before the Ku Klux Klan was born — and couldn’t be more different in meaning.  Among the small towns of Italy, Gubbio and Cantiano are renowned for their Good Friday processions. In Gubbio, we joined the townspeople for a centuries-old procession featuring marching groups in a scene reminiscent of an American KKK rally. Ironically, the original purpose for these cone-shaped white hoods is to make it clear that everyone — old and young, rich and poor (black and white) — is equal in the eyes of God.

 

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Cantiano’s main square was set up to host a grand play telling the story of Christ’s last week — The Passion. In bitter cold and under a full moon, the entire village packed the square as they’ve done for literally centuries to witness their neighbors perform.

 

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During the day, anyone was welcome to sit on Herod’s throne. I am a very lucky guy to have Simon Griffith as my producer/director and Karel Bauer as my cameraman. Together (along with our second crew working in Spain and Slovenia) we are crafting what will be an amazing public television special that we hope will add an extra dimension to Easter across the US in 2016.

 

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For the finale of Cantiano’s Passion play, the huge cast was dressed in amazing costumes — led by Jesus carrying the cross — and marched the torch-lit path to the top of the hill. Far below, the people of Cantiano gathered to witness the spectacle.

 

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I hiked up just before the cast (as we scrambled to figure out the best way to record the event) and saw the three crosses, laid back flat on their hinges, ready to be hoisted up as the Crucifixion was commemorated. Later, with grand music and lighting around the empty cross, the Resurrection was celebrated.

 

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Following performances, the cast has a long tradition of gathering in Cantiano’s church for a kind of “Resurrection after party.” The priest, after explaining to us that it’s not scriptural but that he allows it, blessed the event from the pulpit. Afterward, I got to meet Jesus. This was a big Easter for this Jesus as he was replacing the man who had played the part for the previous 30 years. The general feeling after this Passion play: He’s a good one.

 

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We were so impressed by the Cantiano church choir that we hired them for a private concert. They were thrilled to gather on Saturday morning and play seven pieces for the CD we’re making as a companion to our Easter TV special. You’ll notice here that the altar is covered in purple cloth (as were all the statues in the church), as this was the part of Holy Week remembering Christ’s crucifixion.

 

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Our local guide and friend, Roberto Bechi (who worked wonders for our PBS Christmas special a few years ago), made sure that each day of this Easter week was filled with vivid culture (edible, musical, and religious) for our project. And this made for more than great TV production. With Roberto, moments like this breakfast with a passionate microbrewer and his mother left us with great travel experiences, too.

 

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In the Marche, it’s been tradition for itinerant troubadours in colorful folk costumes to go from farm to farm singing songs of the Passion and evoking blessings on the coming harvest (for which they would be thanked with food). We filmed the music and then the rustic feast that followed.

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It’s impressive to me that, even in 2015, traditions still thrive in Europe’s smaller towns and more remote corners. For example, traveling around Italy to explore Easter traditions, we went into the rugged Marche region.

Enjoying my rustic breakfast of wild boar and sharp cheese at my farmhouse B&B just outside of Cantiano, I couldn’t resist taking you on a simple tour of the salt-of-the-earth artifacts that surrounded me. Join me for an intimate glimpse of traditional farm life in the Marche — from a homemade rake, to a horn made from a horn, to the little calendar you buy from the local cops to stay on their good side.

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Siena is filled with sightseeing tourists oblivious to everyday (yet delightful) realities of life just down the street. For our Easter television special, we dropped by a retirement home where little kids just learning about the meaning of Easter were entertaining people who had celebrated it eighty times. This is what I love about travel: Experiencing something that feels familiar, but in a different hemisphere — reminding me how touchingly similar people are, all around the globe.

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In 2007, we produced the Rick Steves’ European Christmas public television special, which has become a mainstay on the public airwaves during the holiday season. This year, we’re filming a bookend to that special: Rick Steves’ European Easter, which will air across the USA next year. Click the images below to learn more about our shoot in Italy this Holy Week.

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We’re learning that Europe celebrates Easter in ways both familiar and delightfully exotic. For example, a charming tradition in Rome is that a man will bring a small treasure for his loved one (like this necklace) to the local chocolate shop, where it will be encased in a big, decorative chocolate egg. Later, he’ll pick up his completed gift, which is certain to add cheer to someone’s Easter morning.

 

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The thought of preschoolers brightening the day of seniors in a retirement home with music, dance, and homemade gifts touches my heart. And to experience that in a different hemisphere reminds me of how much we all have in common. For our Easter special, we dropped by a senior center in Siena just in time to witness an ambush of eight-year-olds-meet-eighty-year-olds fun.

 

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Many of my friends are at the same stage of life as I am, with a surviving parent in assisted living. Seeing such joy on faces that have lived through so much history added an extra dimension to my Easter.

 

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My favorite Tuscan guide, Roberto Becchi, is our “fixer” for this Easter-in-Tuscany shoot. After a long day of blessing olive branches, filming sumptuous art telling the story of Christ’s Passion, making Easter pasta, and watching kids chop open big eggs, we drove home with dinner. I never considered “pizza to go” in Italy — from a small-town pizza chain based in Romania.

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In 1510, a young monk from Germany named Martin Luther walked 700 miles to Rome on a pilgrimage. He returned home disillusioned, and in 1517, he raised 95 difficult theological questions at the university where he taught — and kicked off what became the Protestant Reformation. This year, my crew and I will be filming a public television special to celebrate the 500th anniversary of that event.

Most of the show will be filmed in Germany later this summer. But this week in Rome, we took time out from producing our upcoming Easter special (more on that soon!) to film a few segments about Martin Luther.

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We were scouting for an evocative trail leading into Rome, to capture the awe that filled Luther as he approached the grand finale of his pilgrimage. Our local guide and good friend, Francesca Caruso, led us to the perfect setting, on Monte Mario.

 

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Luther was an Augustinian monk, and just inside Rome’s city gates (at Piazza del Popolo) is the Augustinian church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Just as a hostel provides a needed bunk for a backpacker today, this church provided Luther a humble home upon his arrival in Rome.

 

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After dropping to his knees and declaring, “Hail, holy city of Rome,” Luther did what pilgrims still do to this day: He worshipped at holy sites all over town. He climbed the Holy Stairs (Scala Santa) on his knees, just as our cameraman, Karel Bauer, did today. And upon reaching the top, Luther thought the same thing Karel did: “This just makes no sense to me.”

 

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By questioning corrupt Church practices — jumping through hoops to earn less time in purgatory, or purchasing relief from the consequences of your sins in the form of indulgences — Luther unleashed a torrent of public frustration and undercut the power of the Church. The Church fought back with the Counter-Reformation. If you know where to look, you can see Church-sponsored propaganda designed to make sure the Catholic (which means “universal”) Church remained the only permissible way to be a Christian: the Virgin Mary and toddler Jesus stepping on evil snakes; stony saints stepping on heretics; and angry cupids ripping up the pages of Bibles that had been translated from Latin into languages normal people could actually read. It was a tumultuous time for Christians of all stripes.

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Rome’s beloved Trevi Fountain is drained and covered with scaffolding. But so many people come to Rome to do the fabled “coin toss over your shoulder to guarantee a return to the Eternal City” that the city has provided a small temporary pool…which, I’m sure, has the same magical powers.

When we travel, we need to celebrate the fact that 10 percent of what we’re going so far to see will be closed or out of sight for restoration. Try to see this as a blessing — it’s the reason why everything else is looking so beautiful these days. Keeping Europe’s patrimony in good shape is a big and ongoing job.

 

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I just landed in Rome to embark on a 100-day trip. And already, I’ve learned so much.

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Join me, if you dare, on what I have a strong hunch will be an unforgettable ride. My goal: to make mistakes (painful as they may be), learn lessons (the hard way, if necessary), and share my experience on this blog. I’ll be posting daily from now on. Be sure to invite your traveling friends to join in the fun.

 

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A big part of travel is eating well. And the last place you want to dine is a place on the most high-rent square in town, with a printed menu in five languages (clearly designed for tourists and serving edible clichés regardless of the season — bad news all around) and a big, if hard-to-believe, promise in English: “No Frozen Food.”

 

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Italians aren’t really into “foreign” or “ethnic” restaurants because, as they see it, each region of Italy provides a distinct local cuisine. Especially in Italy, a smart eater will go for the local specialties. Lasagna is simply not a Roman dish — it’s better farther north. Rome is more about hearty, working-class food, such as beans and lentils. And the neighborhood butcher sells favorite salamis such as coglioni di mulo and palle del nonno. (Pardon the crudeness, but that’s “donkey’s balls” and “grandpa’s balls.” Can you guess which is which?)

 

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I’m noticing that a nice dessert plate, when properly enjoyed, leaves you with a lickable Jackson Pollock-style masterpiece. I will be eating very well in the next few months. Why? Because of my devotion to your travel guidebook needs.

 

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This year at Rick Steves’ Europe, we’ll be leading about 900 tour groups around Europe on 40 different itineraries. Whenever one of our groups is in town, I enjoy surprising them with a visit. When possible, I join their group for a little sightseeing. I crashed this group’s Villa Borghese tour.

 

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Our tour groups have great guides, who manage the tour from start to finish, and equally great local guides, who meet us at the top sights to be sure we are properly wowed. Unlike standard tour groups, we don’t just hire just the next guide on the list. Our local guides are friends, like Francesca Caruso (shown here explaining Bernini’s David), who teach history, art, and cultural insights with a skill for bringing the sights to life and giving them meaning in ways our tour members never forget.

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Bob and Pam Gudas’ Best of Europe in 21 Days scrapbook

 

One of my favorite spring chores is looking over the top entries in our annual tour alumni scrapbook contest. Each year we invite our tour members to share their experiences with a digital scrapbook. Our grand prize is a free tour. And the competition is so spirited that we’ve just finished poring over 60 entries from our 2014 season.

As the final “sorter” of the four finalists chosen by a jury of my staffers, having so many top-notch entries created a dilemma for me. One first prize was not enough. So, in addition to the first- through fourth-place winners chosen by the jury, this year we created an extra first-place winner — Rick’s Pick!

Without further ado, here are our five winners. I hope you can browse through each of these. They really capture the joy of travel and the camaraderie of sharing that experience with a great group of travel partners:

FIRST PRIZE: Gord and Julie BraunBest of Europe in 21 Days wins a free Rick Steves tour (1 seat on an 8-21 day tour, or 2 seats on a 7-day city tour)

RICK’S PICK: Bob and Pam GudasBest of Europe in 21 Days also wins a free Rick Steves tour (1 seat on an 8-21 day tour, or 2 seats on a 7-day city tour)

SECOND PRIZE: Nancy Wickstrom and Julie WynnBest of Turkey in 13 Days wins a $500 Rick Steves gift card

THIRD PRIZE: Michael and Nicole GoodmanBest of Eastern Europe in 16 Days wins a $250 Rick Steves gift card

FOURTH PRIZE: Mandy Fonk and Tom BoydMy Way Italy in 13 Days wins a $100 Rick Steves gift card

Beyond the prizes, there’s a bigger reward here: The two dozen people who went along on each of these tours now have a special record of the wonderful experience they shared.

I certainly feel that way about Bob and Pam’s scrapbook, since that’s the very tour that Trish and I traveled on last summer. For all of us who went on that tour, I’m sure this feels like “our” scrapbook. The Gudas’ great tour insights, fun photos and video clips, Pam’s original sketches — and a fascinating Fitbit tally showing how much exercise each day entailed — all combine to create a vivid review of the amazing amount of fun you can pack into three weeks on a well-designed tour with a fun group of travel partners.

Thanks so much to all of you who have shared your scrapbooks with all us. They make me eager to sign up for another tour!

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Today I flew — as I have every year at this time since the 1980s — to Europe to kick off another spring of exploring, checking, learning, tasting, and sipping. This photo features a bit of my “Welcome to Rome” meal — or what’s left of it — at Ristorante Fortunato. Oh, baby, I’m in for some good eating in the next couple of months!

I’m already enjoying thinking of the euro as being worth a buck. I’ve done this in the past (when a euro cost $1.35) in order to con myself into splurging a bit… but now, with a rate of $1.10 to the euro, that shortcut is almost honest.

Landing in Rome, I reviewed my guidebook for tips on getting into the center by taxi. It says, “The legal fixed rate to anywhere in the center of town is €48. Cabbies will complain and say it’s more. But insist. Say with confidence, Quarant’otto euro — è la legge (which means, ‘Forty-eight euros — it’s the law’).” Curbside at the airport, I asked the waiting cabbie the price. He said €56, maybe €60. I used my phrase and he nodded, opened his door, and we headed into town. A few minutes later, he offered me a mint and we were friends. Good information + confidence = smarter travels.

Starting on April 1st — this Wednesday — I’ll be posting entries daily for the next hundred or so days, reporting on my experiences. First I’ll be in Italy and Greece producing our Easter special, then researching my guidebooks in Rome, Tuscany, Florence, and the South of France. Then I meet my television crew in Germany to film our upcoming Reformation special before heading for London, South Wales, and southern England. Finally, in August, I’ll meet the crew again and film three shows on great German cities.

I hope you can enjoy stowing away with me here on my blog. Please share a link to the blog with your traveling friends and let them know that 2015 promises to be a great year of travel…and I’d love to have them come along, too.

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