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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A first stop for any sightseer in Havana is the fort. Peering across its rusty old cannon to see how a tiny and easily protected strait of water led to a calm and secure harbor, and hearing stories of how the Caribbean-European trading vessels would gather here before crossing the Atlantic in a safety-in-numbers convoy, I could understand how Havana was the mightiest port in the Caribbean 500 years ago.

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Flying into Havana after dark, I was struck by how dimly lit the city was. Touching down, it was the darkest airstrip I’d ever landed on. For such a big and important city, the airport felt provincial — a hint at the economic struggles that plague this island just 90 miles south of Florida, with a population of 11 million that’s both shrinking and aging.

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The Malecón, a five-mile-long embankment built a century ago to keep out waves, is an iconic feature of Havana. Tough as it feels, storms do overwhelm it, and the adjacent district endures regular floods. Between storms, the stark Malecón — with no landscaping and six lanes of traffic separating it from any buildings — is a beloved concrete promenade. It’s a popular place to go — to fish, hang out with a lover, strum your guitar, and make the scene. Every tourist should spend part of an evening strolling Havana’s waterfront strip.

 

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Havana’s fort features barren rooms, a few humble and boring exhibits, and grand views of the strategic harbor — so easy to protect with a few cannons. A skinny stretch of water leads past a mighty fortress to the easy-to-defend harbor. Havana was the obvious spot for those Spanish conquistadors to establish a safe and thriving port to serve the needs of colonial trading ships. To sail to Europe safe from pirates, ships from throughout the Caribbean would gather here into a huge convoy for the twice-annual crossing of the Atlantic. Sipping the local Bucanero beer in a stone building constructed after pirates burned the original wooden town (back in the 16th century), I was reminded that Havana’s heritage is hard-fought and goes way, way back.

 

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Havana, with about 2 million people, has a stubborn and neglected little skyline facing its Malecón promenade and the open sea.

 

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As expected, Havana traffic was sparse, and many of the cars were American classics from the 1950s. Once Cuba and the USA became enemies back in 1960, the American embargo locked the country into a 1950s time warp. Before the Revolution, Havana was a playground of the rich and famous. A few vestiges of those Sinatra and Hemingway days survive — like the stately Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

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One of the hottest topics among American travelers lately is Cuba. Can we visit now? Is it legal? How does it work? I just got back from a (fully legal) trip to Cuba, and I’m excited to share the answers to these questions — and much more — over the next two weeks. It will be the most up-to-date report on Cuba for American travelers available anywhere.

Fidel Castro painting

Soon the Castros will be gone, and Dunkin’ Donuts and all of the international chain stores will arrive, heralding a tsunami of change that will submerge the time-warp, idealistic charms of this mysterious island 90 miles off the coast of Florida. I just had to visit now and share my experience.

If you have any friends dreaming of seeing Cuba — for so long forbidden to American travelers — please share my Facebook page with them. This promises to be an exciting ride!

Rick Steves' entry documents

Visiting Cuba comes with a unique set of travel experiences, challenges, and joys. As an American, you don’t know quite where the line of legality is. I booked my flight to Mexico City as I normally would, but needed to use a London-based service to buy my Mexico City-to-Havana connection. Because US credit cards don’t work in Cuba, I booked my accommodations through a company in Canada. In order to do either, I needed to have a “general license” to travel by declaring I was one of a dozen permissible kinds of travelers (family visit, educational, journalistic, and so on). “Professional research” made me legal. Every American tourist here checked one of these boxes…and no one seems to care after that. Traveling in Cuba, you have a feeling that everything — including the red tape involved to get there — is on the verge of an avalanche of change.

Rick Steves, family, and tour guide

I was joined on this trip by my partner (Trish), my son (Andy), and my daughter (Jackie). Each winter, we enjoy a little travel adventure together. For Cuba, I hired a local guide for our first four days to be sure we were in good hands. Our guide was Reinier Menéndez, who works for the Martin Luther King Center (the Cuban partner organization for Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education — more on that later).

Young Cuban students

I’ve long heard that the great joy of visiting Cuba is being with its people. From day one, the truth of that statement was clear. Whether poor or…less poor, the Cubans we met were friendly, good-humored, smart, and buoyed with self-respect and national pride.

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Going to the big travel shows around the USA (Chicago and Dallas the last two weekends, LA and the Bay Area coming up), I meet lots of enthusiastic travelers who throw clever suggestions my way. One traveler just suggested that we offer a ringtone featuring the theme music of my public television show. Why not? It’s free and available right now for anyone who can’t stop dreaming about their travels. Enjoy.

Rick Steves and phone booth in Sweden

Even if you’re not using Rikstelefon, you can use Riksrington.

iPhone
1. Download the Rick Steves Europe iPhone Ringtone by right-clicking on this M4R file and saving it to your computer. (Using a Mac? Instead of right-clicking the link, you will hold down the control key while clicking the link.)
2. Using a USB cord, connect your iPhone to iTunes.
3. Double-click the downloaded Rick Steves Europe iPhone Ringtone file to open it in iTunes. It will be placed in iTunes under the Tones tab.
4. Drag and drop the ringtone from the Tones tab to your iPhone and then open your phone in iTunes. The new ringtone will appear in the Tones tab for your phone.
5. Make sure that the “sync ringtones” checkbox is checked. Sync your phone. (Note: If you do not want to add every song and video in your iTunes library to your iPhone, please read about limited iTunes syncing.)
6. On your iPhone, select the new Rick Steves Europe ringtone in Settings > Sounds > Ringtones.

Android Device
1. Download the Rick Steves Europe Android Ringtone by right-clicking on this MP3 file and saving it to your computer.
2. Connect your Android to your computer using a USB cable. Set the phone to connect as a Disk Drive.
3. Open the file folder for your Android and look for a folder labeled “ringtones”. If it does not exist, create one now.
4. Drag the Rick Steves Europe Android Ringtone file to the “ringtones” folder. Safely remove the phone and physically disconnect it to complete the transfer.
5. On your device, open Settings > Sound & Display > Phone Ringtone, and choose the new Rick Steves Europe ringtone.

If you require additional assistance, please refer to the user manual for your device.

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From time to time we share a random video clip to fuel your travel dreams. Join us today as we visit the vast Palazzo della Ragione in Padova, Italy.  Once the town’s medieval law court, it now hosts a sprawling market.

You can watch my complete TV episode about Italy’s Verona, Padova, and Ravenna for free on our website.

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Last week, I offered up a candid review of my pet peeves while on the road. Every once in a while, a post generates comments worth sharing — and this one prompted several hundred readers to chime in. Here are a few of your peeves that I particularly enjoyed:

  • Screaming kids, farting kids, seat-kicking kids, and kids with head lice on my flights. -Linda
  • TV travel hosts that say “evocative” 20 times a show. -Winston Marshall (Note from Rick: Winston, you might enjoy this game!
  • Lights on a timer in some Italian restrooms. I would be in there for just a few minutes and then it was PITCH BLACK! I could not see a thing as I tried to zip, flush, and open the door! -Kat
  • My husband insists on tipping 20% even in places where tipping is not the norm (and even frowned upon). He worked at restaurants for a long time and can’t really believe it’s unwelcome. Maybe that’s a husband peeve, not a Europe peeve. :) -Candy
  • People reading signs out loud. -Lane
  • I once asked a British friend, who is something of an expert on British culture and tradition, about why they continued to use separate hot and cold faucets even though the technology of mixing faucets has been around since the first half of the 20th century. I expected a dissertation about British tradition and the history of plumbing in Great Britain and instead got a blank stare which pretty much said everything. -Lisa
  • My Mom always saying, “Well, Rick says…” — as if she just called you to talk about the trip! -Zella
  • The water in North American toilets is wide and shallow, and in European toilets it’s narrow and deep. I suppose if I lived in Europe, I would learn to improve my aim, but I have to use the brush every time I poop in Europe. Sigh. Keep On Traveling (travailing?). -Ray
  • Selfies. When was the last time you said to anyone, “Oh please let me see all the selfies you took on your trip”? -Nancy
  • The silly strip of fabric across the bottom of the bed…what’s that about? -Annie
  • Trying to think of what bothers me when I’m traveling, but to be honest, travels have been some of the happiest times in my life. -Robert
  • …followed by this note from Diana: As your wife, Robert, I can attest to your dislike of museums, of which there are thousands, in Europe. However, you warmed to seeing the Rosetta Stone and the Egyptian artifacts in the British Museum.

Of course, pet peeves are fun to share. But we all know that a key to traveling well is to embrace the creed that, “If something’s not to your liking…change your liking!” Happy travels to all. -Rick

Rick Steves with sheets

When a hotel protects their mattress with a rubber-lined sheet, rather than bathe needlessly in my own sweat, I silently promise not to wet my bed, pull it off, and stuff it above the closet. It’s just one of my pet peeves!

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As I like to do every couple of weeks, today I’m sharing a post from Cameron Hewitt (co-author of many of my Europe guidebooks). If you like this tasty slice of Tuscany, be sure to “like” Cameron on Facebook.

But let me warn you: if you love fine Italian cooking (as I do), stay away from this post. Cameron cruelly takes us into a Michelin chef’s kitchen in a tiny hilltop village just south of Siena. He walks us deliciously through many courses, each illustrated vividly with mouth-watering photos, knowing full well that this will just make us want to drop everything and fly straight to Italy on empty stomachs filled with anticipation. Damn you, Hewitt!

Cooking in Mamma Laura’s kitchen was a fantastic culinary experience. But for a more refined take on Italian cooking, we joined Chef Roberto behind the scenes at his restaurant. Our agriturismo arranged this experience as “sort of a cooking class,” but it turned out to be so much more: We were flies on the wall of a brilliant chef’s working kitchen — a graduate-level seminar on Advanced Italian Flavors.

Chef Roberto Rossi owns a Michelin star and a fine restaurant in his humble home village of Pescina, stranded high on the slopes of Mount Amiata. To reach Ristorante Il Silene, we corkscrew up and up — on choppy gravel roads — into the mountains overlooking the Val d’Orcia. As we gain altitude, fat raindrops become fat snowflakes. Finally, we crest a summit and enter a remote village where we park, scurry across the street in the slush, and step into the cozy-classy world of Il Silene.

Chef Roberto greets us at the door, takes our dripping coats, and offers us a glass of wine. The fireplace in the corner warms both us, and the two slender rabbits that are spending a few hours on a rotisserie. (We’ll see them again later.)

At 4:30, Roberto invites us back into the kitchen. With playful eyes under curly black hair, and a constant wry smirk, Chef Roberto seems relaxed. He leans against the counter and chats with us, while his staff scurries around the kitchen: Lella, the Sicilian sous chef who’s been his right hand since he entered the restaurant business; a few eager Italian chefs-in-training; and a pair of timid young Japanese culinary interns, who study the master intently.cameron-italy-tuscany-cooking-class-il-silene-001

“So,” Roberto finally says, rubbing his hands together. “What do you feel like eating? How about risotto?” He walks casually to the stovetop, pulls out a pan, and ladles in some vegetable stock from a simmering pot. He sprinkles in some rice and gives the pot a few stirs, then hands the spoon to Lella, who dutifully stirs and stirs and stirs for the next 20 minutes. The result: a luxuriously creamy risotto. On top, Roberto grates precious, aged parmigiano reggiano cheese — each crumbly little flake instantly melting into the steaming rice. And finally, he sprinkles the dish with his own invention: a pinkish-purple powder made from dried and finely grated beets. Both the cheese and the beets give the dish an earthy umami kick. A little sprig of fennel perches on top, like a Christmas tree on a snowy mountain.

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Satisfied with our first course, Roberto invites us back to his pasta-making room. We huddle around the rickety old table with a smooth marble top. Sipping his wine, Roberto — whose father owns a farm just up the street — explains the critical difference between farm-fresh and store-bought eggs (even “organic” and “free range” ones). To demonstrate, he cracks one of each on the white marble. Can you guess which is which? (The rich, orangey tones of the farm-fresh egg are a dead giveaway.)

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Point made, Roberto scrapes the eggs into a bowl, throws in some flour and a duck egg yolk (for elasticity), runs it through a mixer, then hand-kneads the small knot of yellow dough with mechanical precision. The moment it reaches the perfect texture, he invites us to prod it.

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Roberto rolls out the dough, then starts running strips through his pasta maker. “Italy has so many kinds of pasta,” he explains. “Hundreds and hundreds. Each one is designed to show off the other ingredients: local produce, meat sauces, cheeses, and so on. But they all start with basically the same dough.”

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As he pulls each long, skinny, translucent sheets of dough from the roller, he folds it over on itself several times. Then he attacks each little bundle with his knife, eyeballing textbook-perfect examples of different pastas.

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Papardelle,” he says, chopping thick ribbons.

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Tagliatelle.” This one is thinner. His hands work fast and furious — almost too fast to track.

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Capellini.” Thinner still. With each batch, he grabs the wad of new noodles and tosses them gently in the air.

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“You cut the capellini in small pieces, like for a soup, and you get fideo pasta.”

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Stepping away from the table triumphantly and sipping his wine, he beams at his creation. With nine different types of pastas lined up along the flour-scattered marble, it looks like the cover of a foodie magazine…all done in a just few minutes, by one man and his knife.

Roberto sends one of his assistants to heat up our pasta (so fresh it needs only a brief, boiling bath) and mix it up with some turkey ragù. Delicious.

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Next comes a lesson in olive oil. Roberto holds up two squirt bottles. “The blue one is last year’s. Still good, but just for cooking. The green one is this year’s. For finishing.” Only a few days before, Roberto was at the olive mill down in the valley, where he personally watched the precious golden-green oil pressed out of his olives. We taste each one, and the difference is remarkable: Last year’s, still decent, has subdued, muted flavors. You can’t quite taste the olives. But this year’s? Explosively piquant.

For an even better taste of top-quality oil, Roberto thin-slices a baguette and toasts the slices. Holding a bottle high in the air, he rains down a shimmering stream of golden-green oil, then tosses them with his hands. Crunching into the crusty, coated little discs, the pungent, acidic, tingly taste of fresh olive oil blankets our palates.

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Seeking another topping for his little crostini, Robert disappears out back and returns with a breast of turkey that he’s been slow-roasting for hours. “I don’t usually cook turkey,” he says. “But I know it’s Thanksgiving in America, so I decided to try. If you understand the principles of how to cook meat — salt, herbs, aromatics, slow-roasting at a low temperature — you can cook anything well.” He slices off some thin tastes. It is, without a doubt, the best turkey I’ve ever eaten.

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For another topping, Roberto makes a batch of his signature salsa verde: a vibrant-green sauce made with a generous bunch of Italian parsley, ample olive oil, a couple of medium-boiled egg yolks, capers, top-quality anchovies, and some salt. When we taste it, our questions of “What do you put it on?” are instantly answered: Anything. This outrageously flavorful, catch-all condiment tastes faintly of each of its ingredients, but is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As we munch, Roberto explains his passion for wine. Not a rare quality in Italy — especially in Italian restaurants. But more specifically, Roberto has an affinity for very old wines. “Later on,” he says, “I’m going to open for you a very special bottle. From the Südtirol — the very northern part of Italy, in the Alps, touching Austria. It’s a white wine, aged several decades.” It’s the paradox of a great chef: He insists on only the freshest and most local ingredients, yet prefers extremely old wines from distant lands.

Roberto explains that he recently returned from a trip to Spain. Near Barcelona, he visited the restaurant of a celebrity chef who owns a second Michelin star. Roberto enjoyed his meal, of course, but couldn’t help but stoke a little rivalry with his colleague. (He shows us the little sample of olive oil they sent home with him — in a gaudily labeled plastic bottle, which, as every oil aficionado knows, spoils the taste.) He tells us that this famous chef, who appears virtually every day on television, seemed very tired. “Well, I am not,” Roberto says defiantly, standing up straight and smiling wide. “I live here, in Pescina.”  If we were wondering why such a talented chef chose to live so far off the grid…we have our answer.

To wrap up our kitchen visit, Roberto whips up a batch of pastry cream: Heat up a pot of milk with lemon peel and vanilla seeds. Then, at the point of boiling, introduce a mixture of eggs, sugar, and flour…and stir vigorously, whipping it into a custard-like consistency. As a special treat, he drizzles in a dram of 1860 marsala wine. It’s not much to look at, but like everything else he creates, it’s sensational. Digging into this simple yet heavenly confection, we ask, “When do you serve this?” Roberto thinks it over, then says, “When I have a guest who doesn’t know what they want — or who doesn’t like anything at all — this is what I give them. Everyone likes this.”

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After a couple of hours of shadowing Roberto in his kitchen, we’re stuffed: Risotto. Pasta ragù. Bruschetta with olive oil, and slow-roasted turkey, and salsa verde. And now pastry cream.  So imagine our surprise when Roberto glances up at us, with a twinkle in his eye, and says, “OK! Now it’s time for dinner.” Despite our protests, he leads us out into the elegant dining room, seats us at a grand table, and proceeds to serve us a fantastic four-course dinner: handmade pasta, of course; those slow-roasted fireplace rabbits; and that bottle of antique Dolomite wine. Everything is fantastic, and the portions are mercifully modest. (He must have taken pity on us.)

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Our evening in Robert’s kitchen might seem like an unrealistic goal for the casual tourist. But, like the cooking class in Mama Laura’s home, these sorts of experiences are perfectly accessible to anyone who’s willing to do a little homework and make the arrangements. Hanging out for a couple of hours with Roberto, then dining in his restaurant, probably cost us just a few euros more than dining in the restaurant alone. And we came home with a renewed appreciation for how a top-end kitchen — and a top-end chef — masters the art of pleasing diners.

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On the last day of our guide summit, our Bulgarian guide, Stefan Bozadzhiev, graced me and our entire staff with a traditional Bulgarian blessing: “Let this year be very fruitful, with green and red apples on the trees, and golden wheat in the fields, and a house full of bacon and silk. And, most of all, may you be healthy throughout the year. Be blessed. Amen.” And, with this, we say goodbye to our guides…until we do it all again in 2017.

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Each night during our week-long tour guide summit, our guides enjoyed social activities. On Sunday afternoon — with the busy reunion parties and most of the meetings behind us — we loaded them into two old American school buses (Cosmopolitans on one, Bloody Marys on the other…take your pick), and set them free to explore Seattle. Here they pose with our famous troll under the Fremont Bridge.

Guides in front of Fremont Troll

Photo: The Travelphile

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At each of our tour alum parties, we give the mic to six or seven of our European guides, who take turns sharing the fun of their own culture and country. In this clip, Irish guide Stephen McPhilemy jokes about tour members confusing the Irish Republic Army (IRA) with Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA), shares his love of teaching on the road, and leads us all in a rousing bit of Irish folk singing.

Video: The Travelphile

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