Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe
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 questions I’m most commonly asked is, “How can I become a travel writer?” It’s a good question, and one that I enjoyed answering in my memoir, Postcards from Europe. While some of the specifics of getting your writing out there have changed in the social media age, I think that my own story of becoming a travel writer is still (mostly) relevant. Here’s an excerpt that I hope will inspire and inform any budding travel writers out there:
I’m on the train to the Rhine. The burnt marshmallow-colored spires of Köln’s cathedral loom in the window of my solitary compartment. A few minutes later, the train pulls into Beethoven’s Bonn.
A spunky American tourist with a too-big bag shops her way down the train car in search of just the right compartment for viewing the upcoming castles. Poking her head into my compartment, she says with mock excitement, “Rick Steves? The Rick Steves!”
Saying “may I” without a hint of a question, she hefts my bag onto the luggage rack above my head, takes its place across from me, and pulls a copy of my guidebook from her day bag. As she matches my back cover mug shot to my real-life face, the train pulls out with a jolt.
Without a sentence of small talk, she gets right to the point, “My name’s Colleen. I’d kill for your job. How did you get started?” Without waiting for me to answer, she continues, “You wrote the book I should have written ages ago.”
Intrigued by her energy and realizing we were stuck together on the train, I gave her a more-complete-than-usual answer to this tired topic.
“You can’t just want to be a travel writer,” I said. “You have to be a traveler first. I traveled for six summers purely for kicks. My travel skills handbook, Europe Through the Back Door, was born from Europe Through the Gutter. The best travel is on a shoestring…not just meeting people, but needing people.
“From the start, I followed one strict rule. Never finish a day without writing it up. Accidentally, by finding scenes I could bottle and sell back home, taking careful notes, and teaching my love of travel, I became a writer.”
“I’m taking a travel writing class,” Colleen said, looking at me as if I had a rucksack packed full of extra credits.
“I never did. I learned to write by giving talks. I talk and talk and talk to groups about travel and sharpen my message. Then I talk the same way to the page,” I said, feeling curiously threatened. “I read one book: On Writing Well by William Zinsser. When I feel like I should read another book to fine-tune my writing, I read Zinsser again. And I travel. Travel writing means going great places and taking your reader with you. You need to really be there.”
“Sense of place,” she said, as if on Jeopardy!.
“Right.” Borrowing her copy of my guidebook, I flipped through the pages and said, “Read this out loud. See it like a tour guide in wonderland as you do.”
She read: “You’re walking along a ridge high in the Alps. On one side of you spreads the greatest Alpine panorama: the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. On the other, lakes stretch all the way to Germany. And ahead of you, the long legato tones of an alp horn announce that just around the corner there’s a helicopter-stocked hut…and the coffee schnapps is on.”
She slipped a bottle of wine out of her day bag. “But,” she persisted, pouring me a plastic glass, “how do you make money at travel?”
I hadn’t really thought of the formula before. The wine was good and she was bubbly, so I took a long sip and, sounding both professorial and fatherly, I traced the evolution of my business.
“First you travel. Then you give talks with a slideshow. Be generous with your information. There’s a huge demand for entertaining and practical talks — libraries, schools, businesses, clubs.
“After lots of lecturing, a book evolves in your mind. Write your book like you’re giving your talk to the paper. Self-publish it. That takes only time and money. I typed the first edition of Europe Through the Back Door on a rented IBM Selectric. I pasted in sketches my college roommate drew of my favorite slides. The first cover of Europe Through the Back Door was so basic that people in the media mistook it for a pre-publication edition. Holding my finished product, they’d ask, ‘And when will this be out? ’
“When you write a book, people think you’re an expert — even if you’re not. That respect gives you the momentum to become an expert. Get your teaching out there any way you can. Keep giving free talks. Let newspapers use your writing for free. Teach first. Sell second. But don’t quit your day job. You’re still not making much money.
“Actually, to make any serious money,” I said, finding myself progressively more interested in putting my peculiar business formula into words, “you need to organize a minibus tour that you promote through your lectures. Think of it as a nonprofit communal adventure. Charge only enough to cover your trip costs. Limit the group to eight. Be selective. Assemble a gang of friends. Take lots of photos showing you and the group having a blast.
“I did minibus tours for years. We were a gang of adventurers. We had no reservations and no firm itinerary. We’d blitz into town, park on the main square and I’d say, ‘Okay, fan out and find rooms. We’ll meet back here in 20 minutes to compare our hotel options.’
“Repeat your tour over and over. Crank up the profitability through the marketing help of happy customers and promotional images slipped into your lectures. Develop an expertise on a certain country or region and keep that focus.”
As Colleen pondered allying herself with a travel agency, I interrupted, “Don’t become a travel agent and don’t expect help from the travel industry. Any way you cut it, you will be considered dangerous competition. You are a teacher of travel. Not a travel agent. Continue being generous with your information. Be passionate about the beauty of travel — a Johnny Appleseed of travel dreams. If you doggedly keep teaching and let your love of travel shine, eventually you might make some money.”
By now my enthusiasm was raging, but her once-eager eyes looked weary as she slowly deflated. Squeezing the last of her wine into her glass, she said, “Or I could just come and work for you.”
Then, from a bridge over the Mosel River, we saw the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm on a prancing horse gracing that piece of Koblenz real estate called the Deutsches Eck, where the Rhine and Mosel meet.
“Koblenz” comes from the Latin for “confluence.” But for Colleen and me, it meant exactly the opposite. I thanked her for the wine, invited her to send me her resume, and bundled and tumbled.
The trackside schedule listed a train to my Rhine target in two minutes, then not another for two hours. I had been planning to catch the boat instead, but didn’t know if and when it went. The conductor looked at me as if to ask, “Well, are you with us or not?” Quickly reviewing my options, I follow that marvelous old travelers’ axiom: a train at hand is worth jumping on.
Moments later, I’m rolling along the riverside track, the wind in my face and the Rhine in my viewfinder.
For an entire book of insights like these, buy a copy of Postcards from Europe, my worst-selling book (with the most avid following).
America is such a richly blessed and exciting land of opportunity, and those opportunities are floating (or trying to float) in the free market of ideas. With stakes so high, media so pervasive, moneyed interests free to wield whatever clout they like in the political arena, and fear and moral issues mixed in, our society is a churning cauldron of challenges, solutions, and missed opportunities.
As a liberal Christian, it’s my hope that others who see things the way I do feel empowered to raise their voices politically. It’s OK. And, considering all of the competing interests out there these days, getting involved is more important than ever. For example, I’m passionate about supporting Christian advocacy organizations, which lobby for the poor and hungry — those who don’t otherwise have a voice in government. My favorite causes include Bread for the World in Washington DC and Faith Action Network (FAN), here in Washington State.
I recently gave this talk at FAN’s annual fundraiser. It deals with these issues head-on, by pondering thoughts I’ve had on the road. At the end of the talk, I debut my theory of “vicarious consumption” as a way to unleash the compassion of our society into the political arena. If these ideas are of interest to you, I hope you enjoy this peek at the action.
Travel is about unleashing your wanderlust, embracing life, and stoking the free spirit that is in all of us. And travel writing gives us a chance to browse through the adventures of others to gain inspiration and ideas. Over the last few days I’ve enjoyed introducing you to a vagabond in the true sense of the word, a woman living her dream by competing in the Iditarod, and a young entrepreneur who found his niche (helping American students abroad use their dorms as a springboard for weekend adventures). Finally, I’d like you to meet a New York street artist with a passion for unleashing what’s in the hearts of street kids throughout the developing world with the help of a paintbrush. My niece, Nicolina, is in New York City preparing for a Hearts of the World mission to India. Meet Nicolina — who is to street art what Johnnie Appleseed was to free fruit. You can read about her project on Facebook and you can help out here.
My son Andy’s company, Weekend Student Adventures, organizes three-day, $250 weekends for students on foreign study programs in Europe. I love marketing tours and travel (that’s what I do). And I’m really impressed by Andy’s promotional video clips, which capture the difference between his millennial market and my older travel market. You can check out more than 80 of Andy’s little video clips on Facebook.
Watch a few of these to get a feel for how students traveling on a shoestring enjoy the artistic, cultural, and edible highlights of Europe…what turns them on and what sells tours (if you’re marketing to 20-year-olds). The good news: The joy of travel for students today is as vivid as ever, and you don’t need to be rich to enjoy it. Think of all the students embracing life in Europe in 2015…and thousands of them are doing it with Andy’s help.
All her life, my younger sister Jan has been into dogs, hiking, and skiing rather than (like her big brother) Botticelli, Berlin, and Belgian beers. At the age of 52, she followed her dream and became an arctic dog musher. I’ve never seen her happier.
Right now, Jan is preparing to enter her fourth Iditarod. Her gusto, grit, and determination are an inspiration to me. And just looking at these dogs almost makes me want to put on my mukluks and toast s’mores.
My company is sponsoring Jan’s 20-dog Iditarod team. I love the team’s name: “One Ear Up.” And Jan has agreed to let the Rick Steves’ Europe gang of travelers come up with nicknames for four of her dogs. Since we’re all about European travel, we thought it would be fun to have a contest to come up with the best European-inspired nicknames. Jan says it’s best if they are short and concise — maximum two syllables.
So, here’s the deal. I’ll kick off the competition with two proposed doggie names: Picnic and Yodel. I can hear it now: a moose leaping across the path in the snowy distance under towering peaks, as Jan hollers, “Picnic!…Yodel!” Take a look at these gorgeous dogs and help us find the best dog names. Leave your suggestions in the comments of this blog post or on my Facebook page.
The Iditarod starts on March 7. If you’d like to stow away on Jan’s sled and root her on, check out her insider’s account of her personal quest at livingmydream2.blogspot.com. The blog gives an ongoing and intimate look at training and prepping for the world’s greatest race and a truly amazing slice of our culture.
Go, Jan, go!
Travel is about unleashing your wanderlust, embracing life, and stoking the free spirit that is in all of us. And travel writing gives us a chance to browse through the adventures of others to gain inspiration and ideas. In the next three days, I’d like to introduce (or re-introduce) four great travelers: a vagabond in the true sense of the word, a woman living her dream by competing in the Iditarod, a young entrepreneur who has found his niche (helping Americans studying abroad use their dorms as a springboard for weekend adventures), and a New York street artist with a passion for unleashing what’s in the hearts of street kids throughout the developing world with the help of a paintbrush. Three of these are relatives (my sister the dog racer, my son the student-travel entrepreneur, and my niece the street artist). And the other is a young man I met on a plane ride who inspired me like some hitchhikers’ guru.
First up, Beacon Bell. He is the truest non-materialist I’ve ever met. Just in his twenties, he’s putting together a life story with more adventure than many twice his age. His blog — rough and honest, with a mix of travel tips, philosophy, and experiences that can intoxicate the reader — challenges me to remember that the best things in travel are free, and with a little creativity, the rest is affordable. It’s my pleasure to introduce to you to Beacon: beaconbell.blogspot.com
Every so often I give an interview that makes me think, “I’ve got to share these ideas.” This interview with Ingram Advance Travel is one of those. Enjoy!
INGRAM: Let’s just get this out of the way. We’re all jealous that part of your job entails spending four months of the year exploring Europe. But we’re glad you bring advice back — it’s better than a T-shirt. How do you approach a new place or a new experience as a traveler and as a travel writer looking to capture it?
RICK STEVES: It’s most important for me to get into the mindset of my readers — someone who is new to the city, struggling to understand the place, and overwhelmed by all of the choices. First, like in my public-television shows, we need to start each destination with a good “establishing shot.” My readers want to understand the context. My next challenge is helping people choose from among the many competing attractions that vie for their time and money. Tourists are inclined to go to the heavily promoted wax museum or torture dungeon; they need a thoughtful guidebook writer to direct them to more important and meaningful sights. So when I write something up, it needs to pass what I call my “so what?” test: Why does this matter? The Pond du Gard is not just a big, ancient Roman aqueduct. It’s the most scenic bridge in a 30-mile-long Roman aqueduct, engineered by Romans 2,000 years ago so the water would flow gently — losing one inch every hundred yards over 30 miles — and bring its life-giving power into the great city of Nîmes. Then I need to describe it in a way that gives you a vivid sense of place. Sure, I’m in a Helsinki sauna. But what is it like to sit on a well-worn bench — where my entire view is hard wood, mist, and Finnish flesh — surrounded by naked strangers with stringy blonde hair pasted to their faces? Surveying the scene, I have no idea what century it is…but there’s no doubt: I’m in Finland. These are the descriptions that I hope make the experiences more accessible and meaningful.
INGRAM: You started seeing Europe on trips with your father, visiting piano factories. What was it that struck a chord with you early on and fueled your passion for European travel?
RICK STEVES: In 1969, I flew with my parents to Europe, and within one week I fell permanently in love with travel. On the first morning, heading for the Dutch piano factory, we stepped outside the hotel and waited to cross the street as a dozen people pedaled past on their way to work in the fields. Each one had a scruffy pair of wooden shoes in their handlebar basket. Later, at the Steinway factory in Germany, the owner’s statuesque wife — whose hairy armpits had a huge impact on me — served us mushrooms. I had never tasted a mushroom. Their daughters and I flirted while enjoying a mug of special beer. It was “training beer” designed with nearly no alcohol to introduce German kids to that local specialty. And then, at the Bösendorfer factory in Vienna, we were taken to the former monastery where the finest pianos in the world were produced — not on an assembly line, but in former monks’ cells. It was as if the pianos were birthed, each with its own personality, depending upon the skills and techniques of each craftsman. While they tuned the hammer shanks, lined up the screw heads, and threw away more felt than they used in their quest for old-time perfection, I saw their pride in craftsmanship. And that Sunday, after visiting a church in a dusty Austrian village on the Hungarian border, we walked — within view of the menacing “Iron Curtain” — across the square into the wine garden where all generations gathered to eat rustic bread they smeared with lard and to listen to the old folks tell stories. At my table, a man with a tobacco-stained handlebar moustache described witnessing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and explained how that provided the spark that ignited World War I. My 14-year-old eyes were made wider by these experiences, which all combined within that first week abroad to light my passion for European travel.
INGRAM: How do you work to make this particular guidebook series fresh and interesting with each new edition, and what does the 2015 version offer readers compared to others?
RICK STEVES: Europe is constantly changing. Some towns get greedy, charging too much for sights, while others go lowbrow, opening up tacky attractions. Some invest brilliantly in tourist infrastructure, like adding delightful town walks, user-friendly bus service to hard-to-reach places, or English descriptions at important museums. Once-depressing industrial zones become trendy and filled with popular eateries and nightspots, and once-wasteland harborfronts become people-friendly promenades. You can’t just update an existing guidebook year after year. You need to live that guidebook. To experience and reassess each city, you cover and boldly redesign the coverage as the city morphs through the ages. In past years, our Berlin chapter focused on the western part of that city. Today, the action — and the guidebook coverage — is in the east. The 2015 editions of our guidebooks are the result of countless in-person visits in 2014. While I spend 120 days a year in Europe — dedicating about 80 of those days to researching our guidebooks, with private local guides at my side for hours each day — I’m just one of a dozen or so expert researchers who lovingly visit each destination we cover every year. The brand-new Solidarity museum in Gdańsk? My co-author was there just days after its grand opening, making sure it’s well-covered in the new edition of our Eastern Europe guidebook. Florence’s hottest spot for a quick, affordable, and tasty lunch? The tired, old Mercato Centrale is reinvigorated with an enticing food court of trendy little restaurants, each with a special angle on eating well in Tuscany. We’re constantly on the watch for anything and everything that will improve readers’ trips: New Saturday-evening hours for Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum? More pedestrian-only streets in Rome? A new Joan of Arc Museum in Rouen? Tips on visiting the revamped Stonehenge site? The latest on making reservations to see prehistoric cave paintings in the Dordogne? A new freeway toll system in Portugal? A glass floor at the Eiffel Tower? Tips on what to do if your credit card doesn’t work in Europe? It’s all in my guidebooks.
INGRAM: I love that you’ll intentionally try to screw up to help your readers know what to avoid in their own travels (also, that’s a brilliant excuse to have in your back pocket: “Totally did this on purpose… all in the name of research!”). What are some of the most common errors that travelers make but can easily avoid?
RICK STEVES: It’s true: When I get ripped off, I celebrate. That’s because they don’t know who they just ripped off, and I can learn that scam, go home, and tell my readers so they’ll be prepared. There are pitfalls lurking wherever you travel. You’re not going to get knifed or mugged. But if you’re not on the ball, you are likely to be conned, or simply waste some time or money. Pickpockets work the lines at crowded sights and on the bus lines handiest for tourists. Keep your valuables zipped up and battened down. I assume beggars are actually thieves. They say they want a euro. But all too often, they have their eyes on your wallet or purse. And a very common mistake is simply waiting in lines needlessly. I find there are two IQs of European travelers: those who wait in lines, and those who don’t. It’s my challenge to tackle every line my readers might be faced with and find a way around that line. If you’re waiting in line, you’re not fully utilizing your guidebook. When on the road, time is a resource just as precious as your money. Use it smartly.
INGRAM: You encourage readers to become “temporary locals” and be part of the party, rather than just a part of the economy as they travel. But it seems like a lot of us are hardwired to stay in our comfort zones and do touristy things. How can people — particularly novice travelers — ease their way off the tourist route to maybe have a more meaningful experience?
RICK: Find ways to pass time like a local rather than like a tourist. In Ireland, go to the stadium and cheer on a hurling match. In that Italian university town, go to the piazza where the students hang out in the early evening and share a spritz with young English-speaking locals who’d love to connect with an American traveler. If you don’t know how to order, that’s great — ask for help. In Wales, drop in on the small-town bingo evening and sip tea while playing a few cards with the old-timers. In a small Bavarian town, be out and strolling at twilight and see why they call it die blaue Stunde (the blue hour). In an Italian harbor town, do your vasche (laps) with the pensioners who’ve been strolling back and forth from the breakwater to the parking lot with the same crowd for decades. In Istanbul, venture into a neighborhood where locals sit on tiny curbside stools sucking on a nargile (hookah), and when they offer to share their hubbly-bubbly, say yes. In fact, put yourself in a place where opportunities to connect with locals present themselves…and when they do, make it a habit to say, “Yes!”
INGRAM: What’s next for you? Or should we say, where to next?
RICK: For 30 years, each winter I’ve enjoyed sorting out where I’ll go the next season. At this point all I know is I’ll be in the Mediterranean part of Europe in April and May, home in June, and north of the Alps in July and August. I’ll be filming five or six new public-television shows, enjoying one of my company’s bus tours through Europe, and spending the rest of the time researching and updating our family of Rick Steves guidebooks. And each time I fly away, I know I’ll be collecting new friends and life-long memories wherever I venture and steep on the learning curve even in places I know very well.
Last week we hosted over a hundred of our European guides in town for our annual tour guide summit. As a thanks for their huge part in successfully guiding over 800 Rick Steves Europe Tours groups and meeting the very high expectations of the nearly 20,000 travelers who joined our tours in 2014, we made sure they had a busy and fun cultural experience while in Seattle. And with all of the energy and excitement surrounding our Seahawks heading back to the Super Bowl, that included a big dose of American football culture. Now our wonderful guides are happily back in their homelands — each with a big, blue 12th Man flag. Cheers for the notorious “Legion of Boom” now echo throughout Europe as well as the great Pacific Northwest — from the mosques of Istanbul to the cobbles of Tuscany, and from the tombs of great English poets to the rumbling bulls of Pamplona. Thanks to our tour guides for spreading the word: Go Hawks!
In this video we see the Prague Castle Orchestra kicking off the first of six tour alumni parties that we hosted last week. About 2,000 of the travelers who joined us on our tours last year gathered here for a massing of the scrapbooks. At each party I enjoyed introducing guides who would share from their cultures. In this clip you’ll also see Federico from Madrid singing a little opera and managing to attract Concepción from Sevilla in her dashing flamenco dress. And you’ll notice how, through the language of her fan, she communicates how fast her heart is beating.
To enjoy much more video fun from our parties, please like our Rick Steves Europe Tours Facebook page (where we have lots of guide-related fun and tour-related news and tips to share).
Last week we hosted more than a hundred of our guides from all over Europe at our Seattle-area headquarters for a series of workshops, parties, and brain-storming sessions. A favorite night for me is when I invite all our guides over to my house. In this clip, we pack my living room to hear the Prague Castle Orchestra and enjoy two of a slew of skits from our annual guides’ talent show. First, England’s royal family drops by so the queen can knight me “Sir Steven Ricks.” Then our Scottish guides entertain with Colin of Glasgow showing off his kilt (and — spoiler alert — the Seattle Seahawks’ “12” he has lurking underneath). When the party was winding down, Josef (from the Prague Castle Orchestra) and I found ourselves jamming a bit, with him on the flute and me playing the piano (upon which I taught lessons back in the late 1970s before becoming a tour guide). For the complete royal family skit and much more, please like our Rick Steves Europe Tours Facebook page (where we have lots of guide-related fun and tour-related news and tips to share).