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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I find that Europeans are, compared to Americans, more comfortable with their bodies and with sex. (In fact, I imagine even bringing up this topic here might offend some Americans.) Thinking through my travels, the examples are plentiful.
My Dutch friends had a copy of a graphic, government-produced magazine promoting safe sex on their coffee table. I was sitting on the toilet at an airport in Poland and the cleaning lady asked me to lift my legs so she could sweep. I’ve learned that I can measure the after-dark romantic appeal of scenic pull-outs along Italy’s Amalfi Coast drive by how many used condoms litter the asphalt. Soap ads on huge billboards overlooking major city intersections in Belgium come with lathered-up breasts. The logo of a German friend’s travel guidebook publishing company is a stick figure of a traveler on a tropical paradise islet leaning up against its only palm tree, hands behind his head, reading a book that’s supported by his erect penis. Children play naked in fountains in Norway. A busty porn star is elected to parliament in Italy. Coppertoned grandmothers in the south of France have no tan lines. The student tourist center in Copenhagen welcomes visitors with a bowl of free condoms at the info desk. Accountants in Munich fold their suits neatly on the grass as every inch of their body soaks up the sun while taking a lunch break in the park.
I’m not comfortable with all of it. In Barcelona during a construction industry convention, locals laughed that they had to actually bus in extra prostitutes from France for this gang. I find the crude sexual postcards sold on racks all over the Continent gross, the Benny Hill-style T&A that inundates TV throughout Mediterranean Europe boorish, and the topless models strewn across page two of so many British newspapers insulting to women. And I’ll never forget the time I had to physically remove the TV from my children’s hotel room in Austria after seeing a couple slamming away on the free channel 7 (and the hotelier looked at me like I was crazy).
Comparisons with America are striking. In our culture, a popular children’s TV host is routed into obscurity after being seen in an adult theater. A pop star dominates the news media for days after revealing a partially obscured breast for a fleeting moment during a football halftime show. During one particularly moralistic time, statues of classical goddesses gracing our nation’s Capitol were robed. And, because my travel show includes naked statues, it actually has to be shown only after 10 p.m. in some American towns.
I’m not saying we should all run around naked and have Playboys lying around in the doctor’s waiting room. But I have a hunch that children raised in America, where sex is “dirty,” are more likely to have problems with sex and their bodies than those in Europe. I suspect there is more violence associated with sex here than there. I have a hunch that the French, who have as many words for a kiss as Eskimos have for snow, enjoy making love more than we Americans do. I like a continent where sexual misconduct won’t doom a politician with anyone other than his family and friends, and where the human body is considered a divine work of art worth admiring openly.
An early edition of my art-for-travelers guidebook featured a camera-toting David— full frontal nudity, Michelangelo-style — on the cover. My publisher said sales reps complained that in more conservative parts of the USA, bookstores were uncomfortable stocking it. A fig leaf would help sales.
When it comes to great art, I don’t like fig leafs. But I proposed, just for fun, that we put a peel-able fig leaf on the cover so people could have the book cover the way they preferred. My publisher said that would be too expensive. I offered to pay half (10 cents per book times 10,000). He went for it, and I had the fun experience of writing “for fig leafs” on a $500 check. Perhaps that needless expense just adds to my wish that Americans were more European in their comfort level with nakedness.
Am I off-base? What’s behind all this, anyway?
After Friday’s horrifying events in Paris, as we keep the victims and their families in our prayers and marvel at how violent hatred can express itself, it’s natural for those of us with travels coming up to wonder what is the correct response. Let me share my thoughts:
I have two fundamental concerns: what is safe, and what is the appropriate response to terrorism.
About safety, I believe this is an isolated incident. Tomorrow Paris will be no more dangerous than it was the day before that terrible Friday the 13th. I also believe that security in Paris and throughout Europe will be heightened in response to this attack. Remember: There’s an important difference between fear and risk.
About the right response to terrorism, I believe we owe it to the victims of this act not to let the terrorist win by being terrorized. That’s exactly the response they are hoping for. Sure, it’s natural for our emotions to get the best of us. But, especially given the impact of sensational media coverage, we need to respond intelligently and rationally.
In 2004, Madrid suffered a terrorist bombing in its Metro, which killed 191 and injured 1,800. In 2005, London suffered a similar terrorist bombing in its Tube system, killing 52 and injuring 700. These societies tightened their security, got the bad guys, and carried on. Paris will, too.
I’m sure that many Americans will cancel their trips to Paris (a city of 2 million people) or the rest of Europe (a continent of 500 million people), because of an event that killed about 150. As a result, ironically, they’ll be staying home in a country of 320 million people that loses over 30,000 people a year (close to 100 people a day) to gun violence.
Again, our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Paris, the victims, and their loved ones. And it remains my firmly held belief that the best way for Americans to fight terrorism is to keep on traveling.
From time to time we share a random video clip to fuel your travel dreams. Join us today as we visit Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz, two squares with a dark past that are now bustling with commercialism.
(You can watch my complete Berlin episode on my website for free.)
Back in my “Europe Through the Gutter” backpacking days, I’d end each trip by spending a good part of the flight home creating a “frieze” that captured the most memorable events of my trip. (It’s a great way to pass the time in flight, and if you have a travel partner, you can make it a creative collaboration: Make two at the same time, taking turns sketching alternate frames on each of your souvenir art pieces.)
This was a solo trip: It was 1974, I was 19 years old, the world was very big, and I was very small. On this journey, I ventured from Edinburgh to Ireland to Paris and London. Along the way, I got some mean blisters, saw some great plays, took in a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert, did my share of drinking, and fell in love with a hippie Israeli draft dodger nicknamed Coconut.
Enjoy making sense out of this and think back on your earliest trip overseas. Investing in travel rewards you greatly. While the blisters fade, and the lovers flutter by, you enjoy the memories for the rest of your life.
My favorite mail-reading time is at the end of a long day at work, when I can lose myself in the words and feelings of other travelers: Newly widowed Jared, whose wife always dreamed of climbing the bell tower overlooking Venice’s Piazza San Marco, finally did just that for both of them. Aaron, who met me at the Long Beach Travel Show, is recently back from a study abroad program in Germany that “changed who I am as a person.” Elizabeth from Florida finally enjoyed a sunset from the Acropolis, and just had to tell me.
I pore through letters from travelers who are jetting off with grandparents to see their ancestral hometown, celebrating anniversaries, getting on their feet again after a tough illness or divorce, helping their children leave the nest, and reaching life-long goals after overcoming life-long struggles. I get mail from felons in prison who make a virtual escape through my TV shows. And quite a few people mention, “I’ve grown up watching your shows” — which always makes me feel both happy and old.
I also hear from Europeans who’ve connected with American travelers. Mr. Brock is retiring after 20 years of running a B&B in Edinburgh that we’ve long recommended. He took time to share memories from two decades of greeting my readers with a wee dram of whiskey upon checking in, and serving hearty porridge (with a prayer in old Scottish by Robbie Burns) at his breakfast table.
For years, my dear friend Rolf Jung — the 84-year-old retired headmaster from a village on the Rhine River — has delighted in giving tours of his hometown to readers of my book. This week Herr Jung, who is pictured here, sent me an envelope full of photos taken with those travelers. He closed his letter with this nod to his appearance in my Postcards from Europe book:
“Rick, what a wonderful sentence for my gravestone appears in your book: ‘A walk with Herr Jung always makes me feel good about Europe.'”
My dear friend Rolf Jung
I’m blessed to have an inbox that opens up to the thoughtful sharing of highs and lows from people who’ve let me be a part of their travels. Reading through a season’s worth of readers’ trip reports, I’m seeing how, for so many, travel is more than a fun diversion. It’s a major force in our lives.
From time to time we share a random video clip to fuel your travel dreams. Join us today as we visit the port of Kuşadası — a good, low-stress place to start your adventure in Turkey.
(You can watch my complete Western Turkey episode online for free.)
I’ll be teaching my heart out this Saturday, presenting four free travel talks — all of them streaming live on my website.
Back in the 1980s, I routinely taught my eight-hour, all-day travel skills class. Since then, I’ve shrunk that talk to a more bite-sized hour and a half. But to do it that quickly, I have to leave out so much great travel advice. So over the last month, I’ve been working my tail off on an all new, super-skills talk sharing nearly three hours of extremely practical travel tips, all illustrated with gorgeous new photos. Don’t miss this one-time opportunity to catch my new and expanded European Travel Skills talk.
Also this Saturday, I’ll be giving a brief, fun, and inspirational new talk called Europe: The Joy of Travel (1 hour); a full-blown talk on traveling in Italy (nearly 3 hours); and my Travel as a Political Act talk (1.5 hours). And to round out the day, my fellow tour guides and travel experts will be teaching classes on France (Steve Smith) and Packing Light and Right (Sarah Murdoch).
Save this Saturday, November 7, for my Travel Festival webcast. We’ll be streaming a full day of free European travel classes between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. PT. You can find the complete schedule of classes on my website. No registration is required — just browse on over to ricksteves.com/live to equip yourself with everything you need to know to have a fun, smooth, and culturally broadening trip to Europe.
Yes, I know I have favorite words, verbal tics, and trademark clichés that those who read or watch lots of my work find popping up over and over. These quirks give my travels maximum fun per mile, minute, and dollar while carbonating my ability to create experiences that are vivid and evocative.
Some of my fans shared this drinking game, which can bring even more joy to those watching my travel shows (watch full episodes for free). The rules are easy.
Drink whenever I say these words:
3. Commanding view (not just view, but “commanding view”)
4. Ancient (avoid the Italy and Greece episodes if you don’t want to get alcohol poisoning)
6. Evoke/Evocative (drink twice if used correctly: to bring a memory, feeling, or image, into the mind)
9. Excessive alliteration
(Three words starting with the same letter = one drink; each extra word = one more drink.)
10. “My friend and fellow tour guide”
Drink anytime I drink.
Drink every time producer Simon shows up.
Drink anytime I butcher the pronunciation of a non-English word.
Would you add any others?
Stay safe, drink responsibly, and “keep on travelin’.”
From time to time we share a random video clip to fuel your travel dreams. Join us today as we visit Wenceslas Square in Prague. The main square of the Czech Republic, it is the natural assembly point when the Czech people need to raise their collective voice for change.
(Watch my complete Prague episode online for free.)
Recently in Rome, I wandered through what could have been a romantic piazza. The twilight sky was perfect…for sales. Guys from Africa launched their plastic florescent whirlybirds high into the sky. Then my attention was hijacked by the splat of a plastic goop doll hitting a board at my feet. The round creature became a flat mess, and then slowly, creepily reconstituted itself — ready for another brutal slam.
There were souvenir hustlers everywhere I looked. Each year, there’s a silly new street-trinket hit sold all over town. Cheap little tripods have long been popular, but now the street hustlers have shifted their focus to selfie sticks. And what about those little 2-D puppets that “magically” dance next to a boom box on big-city sidewalks?
These crazy gimmicks (which somehow keep illegal African immigrants from starving) make me wish I had bought all the goofy things people have sold on the streets of Rome over the years — from the flaming Manneken-Pis cigarette lighters to the five-foot-tall inflatable bouncing cigars to the twin magnets that jitter like crickets when you toss them in the air — and made a museum.
Share your thoughts, insights, and photos on the crazy things people from faraway lands sell on the streets of Europe.