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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I have a lot of fun and rewarding projects on my desk – and one that I am particularly passionate about is our free app, “Rick Steves Audio Europe™.”

Why am I so in love with this thing? Because it’s packed with practical information (both self-guided audio tours of Europe’s greatest cities, galleries, and museums, and the very best of our radio interviews organized in country-specific playlists) that will make people’s trips more meaningful. It’s free. And tens of thousands of travelers are using it. Any time I drop into the Pantheon in Rome, St. Mark’s in Venice, or Versailles outside of Paris, I see travelers using our app. They’re having a great time immersed in the cultural wonder of the sight…and I am literally in their ear (my voice is anyway).

Each year we add to the material already available with Rick Steves Audio Europe, and last week we spliced in 26 new radio interviews.

Learn how to download the app (it’s free and easy) at www.ricksteves.com/audioeurope. It is such a treat for me to be able to interview such beautiful minds and inspirational travelers and an even bigger treat to be able to share these conversations (so beautifully edited by my radio production team) with you.

New radio interviews spliced into all the existing ones on the Rick Steves Audio Europe app include:

 

Britain (Beyond London): Isles of Britain, Scottish Hebrides, Scottish Secession: Before the Vote

Eastern Europe: Adriatic Coast, Albania, Prague’s Coronation Way

France (Beyond Paris): Discovery of France, French Riviera Highlights

France (Paris): French Impressionism, How Paris Became Paris, Paris Day Trips

General Europe: Class of 1500, European Education, European Media, Challenges for European Women

Germany/Austria: Swiss Mix, Walking Vienna

Greece/East Mediterranean: Greek Islands

Ireland: Faeries of Ireland

Italy: Italian Rails II, Italy – North vs. South II

Netherlands/Belgium: Amsterdam by Bike, Amsterdam Update

Portugal: Portugal’s Algarve

Spain: Live Like a Spaniard

Turkey: Cruising the Bosphorus

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Each year, we host a tour guides’ summit for a week here in Seattle. About a hundred of our guides gather to train, brainstorm, and celebrate. Ideas — both great and crazy — are generated. Last year, our Turkish guides proposed my favorite idea: “Let’s host a Best of Turkey tour exclusively for the Rick Steves guides this winter!” I loved it. Our Turkish tour partners arranged the bus and hotels, and we subsidized it so it was really cheap for our guides. The first 25 guides to sign up were on. Needless to say, it sold out quickly.

Our 2014 Best of Turkey “Guides’ Tour” just wrapped up last week, and it was a huge success. But it was more than just fun. Our guides got to experience a country many of them didn’t know before (our Best of Turkey itinerary is one of my personal favorites), and they had the experience of actually being a tour member. Several are raving about the value of a professional guide actually following another guide in a new and at times overwhelming country for 13 days. We hope to make this an annual off-season vacation for our hardworking guides. Together in 2014, they successfully guided about 800 tours on 35 itineraries with 19,900 tour members. I think they deserve a chance to kick back and let someone else do the guiding for a change.

In these photos, you’ll see 25 Rick Steves’ guides (from 12 different countries) enjoying our Best of Turkey tour — riding balloons, sipping tea, getting a flaming shave (extremely close), sitting on a carpet in a mosque with an imam, exploring ancient sites, doing some sexy window shopping, trying out some woolen winter gear — all while following the expert guidance of Mert Taner.

If you are a Rick Steves tour alum, perhaps you can spot your own tour guide: Toni (France tours), Mark (England), Virginie (France), Tricia (Italy), Chris (France), Nina (Italy), Susanna (Spain), Daniela (Switzerland), Sarah (Italy), Jamie (Italy), Nina (Holland), Don (Italy), Andrea (Germany), Etelka (Czech Republic), Martin (France), Stephanie (Netherlands), Gillian (England), Virginia (Italy), Eszter (Estonia), Cary (Germany), Federico (Spain), Colin (Scotland), Nicole (Sweden), and Anastasia (Greece). Do you see your guide?

All of these guides — and about a hundred more — will converge on our offices next month as we kick off our 2015 season of tours. This annual event, a tour guide summit/tour alumni reunion/”Test Drive a Tour Guide” series of lectures, all happens the weekend of January 16-17. For all of the details, click here.

Guides selfie

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(Photo: Bread for the World)

(Photo: Bread for the World)

Hooray! Together we beat our goal of raising $200,000 for Bread for the World. As promised, I’m matching your $100,000 of contributions. 

While the news these days seems to stress the bad, together this holiday season we’ve helped a lot of people. And that’s very good news.

As you know, I’m a fan of “advocacy” to complement charity. Advocacy is speaking up for the voiceless in the halls of power. Big shots (whether oligarchs in Moscow or industrialists in Washington DC) routinely shape the priorities of governments around the world. And, in a world with so much wealth yet with such a huge gap between the haves and have-nots, poor people struggle to be heard.

My hunch and hope was that this Christmas we could talk a thousand of you into joining me to raise money to help Bread for the World speak up for these voiceless in Washington DC. So far we’ve done even better, as well over a thousand of you have donated.

Collectively, you’ve raised $143,800 — exceeding my $100,000 match. And today I’ll fill out a personal check to Bread for the World for $100,000. Together we’ve raised $243,800 to empower Bread’s work.

Let’s see if we can hit the $250,000 mark — just 62 more of you are needed! (Please share this post with your friends.) There’s still time (until December 10) to join us and get your thank you gifts — our European Christmas three-pack (DVD, CD, and book) or my Travel as a Political Act book — before Christmas. Click here to join us!

Our initiative will help Bread for the World continue to maintain a “circle of protection” that shelters the neediest Americans from necessary cuts as we get our national budget in order.

By the way, my friends at Bread are thrilled with this, send their thanks, and share their determination to honor your gifts by working hard and smart to transform this contribution into effective action. To learn more about Bread’s impressive work, visit www.bread.org.

Giving like this in partnership with caring travelers like you makes my work even more gratifying than it already is. Thanks, Happy Holidays, and Merry Christmas to all.

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In the 1980s, hotel sinks didn’t have stoppers in the drains. Why? To stop backpackers from washing their clothes in the room. To get around this, we produced a sink stopper (a little orange rubber mat about 4 inches across) with our hippie logo on it. Lay this in the bottom of your sink, and the water fills up so you can do your wash. sink-web

Back then, trying to be really efficient and personable at the same time, I photocopied a pile of postcards with my handwritten note thanking people for their feedback. It was by reacting to all that feedback that our company evolved to be what it is today. And for that, I thank all of you who plugged your sinks with the Europe Through the Back Door sink stopper, and wrote to us about both your travel needs and your travel dreams. Today, even though our lives are quite different, our mission remains the same: to help you travel better.

Happy travels!

 

note-web

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We have just announced our crazy Black Friday blowout on our new Season 8 DVD set – all 12 shows plus our Holy Land DVD for $12.49. This is a huge savings and a great gift for any traveler on your list. 

The highlights for me are:

- Get up to date on Berlin, the fastest changing city in Europe.
- See the Cinque Terre, fully recovered after their devastating flood
- Delve into the amazing Dutch countryside — far from Amsterdam.
- Leave Europe for lots of powerful material in Turkey and the Middle East.

You’ll get both the joyful travel episodes on Israel and Palestine and the hour-long Holy Land special which takes you into the settlements, refugee camps, onto the Golan Heights, and much more and also comes with two hours of fascinating interviews with the most interesting people we met in Israel and Palestine.

And, you’ll get two entire episodes on Turkey (the meat of our popular Turkey tour.) That’s a lot of Turkey! Good news — you can just sit back and watch it — without having to eat it. Thanksgiving!

Don’t miss this exciting holiday DVD blowout with 7 hours of new programming, plus 2 hours of DVD extras!

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Happy Thanksgiving!

This Thanksgiving I’m caught up in a fun little movement, inspired by Pope Francis, that we do more than just be thankful and pray for hungry people…but that we raise awareness and actually do something to fight hunger. And, as you may know, I’m a big fan of advocacy—encouraging our government to embrace programs that tackle poverty and hunger head on. (Just this last week we raised $250,000, with your help, to empower Bread for the World for this work — more on that in a future post.)

This fun little video clip is in response to a #ShareYourPlate challenge from Rev. David Beckmann (president of Bread for the World). I share this in hopes that you’ll share it with your network and perhaps make a cooking video or related photo of your own to help raise awareness of hunger during our annual festival of Thanksgiving. (Post your clip on Facebook or Twitter and tag it #ShareYourPlate.) This season I have lots to be thankful for — including your participation.

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Thanks for the many thoughtful comments on my recent LA Times editorial about fear (which you can read at the end of this post). One man, noting that he was “getting closer to that permanent dirt nap,” acknowledged that he needs to put the fear aside and see our world. Others took my thoughts a step further, noting that “Fear is the next sex… it sells, sells, sells” and “Fear is a first cousin to Hate.”

I had hoped to run the editorial before our recent election, but missed it by a few days. In light of our election — which provided a reminder of how media and fear mingle before a big vote — I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the issue. If you have friends who might enjoy this discussion, please share this post. Thanks and happy travels.

tune-out-cable-1200

 

L.A. Times Op-Ed: Tune Out Cable News and Turn Away Fear
By Rick Steves

I miss the days when people would say “Bon voyage” to travelers heading off. Today, Americans instead say “Travel safely.”

I travel a lot. In the last year or so I’ve been to Egypt, the West Bank, Israel, Turkey and Russia. My loved ones worry out loud: “Rick, do you think this is safe?” I always assure them, “As long as I’m not traveling through Chicago, I think I’ll be OK.”

After traveling and lecturing across the United States in recent months, it strikes me that our

nation has never been so racked with fear. The paramount concern is “national security”: the fear that apocalyptic forces outside America’s borders — Islamic State, Ebola, immigrants from Latin America — will creep in and overwhelm us.

But the more I travel, the clearer it seems to me: Fear is for people who don’t get out much. These people don’t see the world firsthand, so their opinions end up being shaped by sensationalistic media coverage geared toward selling ads. Sadly, fear-mongering politicians desperate for your vote pile on too.

Commercial television news is hammering “the land of the brave” with scare tactics as never before. I believe the motivation is not to make us safer. It’s to boost ratings to keep advertisers satisfied and turn a profit.

When Walter Cronkite closed the evening news by saying, “And that’s the way it is,” I believe that, to the best of journalists’ knowledge, that really was the way it was. In those days, television networks were willing to lose money on their evening news time slot to bring us the news. It was seen as their patriotic duty as good corporate citizens.

But times have changed, and now corporations have a legal responsibility to maximize short-term profits for their shareholders. They’ve started sexing up, spicing up and bloodying up the news to boost ratings. And 24/7 news channels have to amp up the shrillness to make recycled news exciting enough to watch.

In a sense, news has become entertainment masquerading as news. Now an event is not news, it’s a “crisis.” Today it’s Islamic State militants and Ebola. Last month, the greatest threat civilization was apparently the National Football League turning a blind eye to domestic violence. Or was it racist cops? Or child immigrants at the Mexican border? Of course, these are serious issues. But hyping a news story as a “crisis” and lurching erratically from one to the next serves only to stir people up. Mix in negative political ads, and it can feel as if the world is falling apart.

The unhappy consequence: We end up being afraid of things we shouldn’t be — and ignoring things that actually do threaten our society, such as climate change and the growing gap between rich and poor.

It seems that the most fearful people in our country are those who don’t travel and are metaphorically barricaded in America. If we all stayed home and built more walls and fewer bridges between us and the rest of the world, eventually we would have something to actually be fearful of.

I’ve found that one partial solution is a simple one: travel.

The flip side of fear is understanding. And we gain understanding through travel. As you travel, you realize that we’re just 300 million Americans in a much wider pool of 7 billion people. It’s good for our national security to travel, to engage with the other 96% of humanity and gain empathy for people beyond our borders.

Don’t let fear-mongering politicians and ratings-crazed news channels shape the way you see our world. Get out there and experience it for yourself. Bon voyage.

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oompa-band

Let’s throw it way back…to 1972. I’m tooting away on my sousaphone in our high school German oompah band. Cobbling together my Norwegian sweater (complete with pewter buckles), a good German felt hat jangling with souvenir pins, and bell bottoms rather than lederhosen, I’m right on the beat. The conductor was my German language teacher, Harry Reinhart. When I quit German after less than a year in class, Mr. Reinhart took me out into the hall and declared, “Steves, you’ll regret this.” I didn’t dream how right he’d prove to be. But we all march on.

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1To celebrate the release of the second edition of my book, Travel as a Political Act, I’m sharing my top tips for making travel a political act.

For me, the great value of travel is the opportunity to pry open your hometown blinders and bring home a broader perspective. And when we implement that worldview as citizens of our great nation, we make travel a political act. Here are my top ten practical tips for doing just that:

 

1. Get out of your comfort zone. Choose Managua over Mazatlán, or Turkey over Greece. When visiting Israel, make time to also explore the West Bank. You can enjoy far richer experiences for far less money by venturing away from the mainstream.

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Playing chess with bottle caps with new friends, on the main square in San Salvador. (Trish Feaster, thetravelphile.com)

 

2. Connect with people — and try to understand them. Make itinerary decisions that put you in touch with locals who are also curious about you. Stay in people’s homes (via Airbnb.com or Couchsurfing.org) and spend time with your hosts. Go to a university, eat in the cafeteria, and make a new friend. Then, seek answers for cultural riddles: Why do Hindus feed their cows better than their children? Why do many Muslim women wear scarves? Why do Americans so fiercely defend their right to own a gun? Why do Norwegians so willingly pay such high taxes?

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3. Celebrate diversity and be a cultural chameleon. When encountering a cultural difference, embrace it with joy rather than with judgment…and actually join in: Eat with your fingers in Sri Lankan restaurants that have no silverware, dip your fries in mayonnaise in Belgium, smoke a hookah in Greece, get your ears cleaned in India, kiss a stranger on both cheeks in France, and go to a hurling match in Ireland. Rather than gawking at the pilgrims, become one — climb Rome’s Scala Santa (Holy Stairs) on your knees, feeling the pain while finding comfort in the frescoes of saints all around you.

Care for a little camel? One hump or two?

Care for a little camel? One hump or two?

 

4. Understand the contemporary context. While traveling, get caught up on local news. Read The Times of India in Mumbai. Go to a political rally in Scotland. Listen to expat radio on Spain’s Costa del Sol. Think about how all societies are on parallel evolutionary tracks. Imagine how the American approach to vexing societal problems might work in other places — and (more importantly) vice versa.

In Israel, half the people are first-generation immigrants and all teenagers serve in the military. (Trish Feaster, thetravelphile.com)

In Israel, half the people are first-generation immigrants and all teenagers serve in the military. (Trish Feaster, thetravelphile.com)

 

5. Empathize with the other 96% of humanity. Just like Americans have the American Dream, others have their own dreams. Make a point to put yourself in the shoes (or sandals, or bare feet) of the people you meet. Find out why Basque people are so passionate about their language. Drinking with Catholics in a Northern Ireland pub, discuss the notion of the tyranny of the majority…and then find a parallel in your society. As you travel, learn to celebrate the local Nathan Hales and Ethan Allens — Turkey’s Atatürk, El Salvador’s Oscar Romero, South Africa’s Mandela, and so on.

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Crayon up a tee-shirt and march with the locals.

 

6. Identify — and undermine — your own ethnocentricity. The US has been preoccupied with terrorism for the last generation. But other nations have their own, sometimes even heavier baggage. Ponder societal needs even more fundamental than freedom and democracy. Why is Putin so popular in Russia? Why would a modern and well-educated Egyptian be willing to take a bullet for the newest military dictator (as my friend in Cairo just told me)? Why, in some struggling countries, does stability trump democracy?

Iran’s baggage is 300,000 casualties in the Iran-Iraq war.

Iran’s baggage is 300,000 casualties in the Iran-Iraq war.

 

7. Accept the legitimacy of other moralities. Be open to the possibility that controversial activities are not objectively “right” or “wrong.” Consider Germany’s approach to prostitution or the Netherlands’ marijuana policy, which are both based on pragmatic harm reduction rather than moralism. Get a French farmer’s take on force-feeding his geese to produce foie gras. Pop in on a circumcision party to help celebrate a young Turkish boy’s coming of age. Ask a Spaniard why bullfighting still thrives as the national pastime — and why it’s covered not in the sports pages, but in the arts section of the local newspaper. You don’t have to like their answer, but at least try to understand it.

 Iranian women can’t show their bodies but they make sure their noses are gorgeous.

Iranian women can’t show their bodies but they make sure their noses are gorgeous.

 

8. Sightsee with an edge. Seek out political street art…and find out what it means. Read local culture magazines and attend arts and political events. Take alternative tours to learn about heroin maintenance clinics in Switzerland, Copenhagen’s Christiania commune, and maquiladora labor in Tijuana. Walk with a local guide through a slum in a developing country. Meeting desperately poor villagers living with a spirit of abundance, ponder how so many rich people live with a mindset of scarcity.

See firsthand the consequences of a society with a gap between rich and poor that is even worse than in the USA — armed guards on every corner.

See firsthand the consequences of a society with a gap between rich and poor that is even worse than in the USA — armed guards on every corner.

9. Make your trip an investment in a better world. Our world has a lot of desperation, and travelers are the lucky few who can afford to experience what’s outside their own hometowns. Travel with a goal of good stewardship — the idea that each traveler has a responsibility to be an ambassador to, and for, the entire planet. Think of yourself as a modern-day equivalent of the medieval jester: sent out by the king to learn what’s going on outside the walls, and then coming home to speak truth to power…even if annoying.

 

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Eat bananas in a banana republic — understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of globalization, then come home and talk about what you learned.

10. Make a broader perspective your favorite souvenir. Back home, be evangelical about your newly expanded global viewpoint. Travel shapes who you are. Weave favorite strands of other cultures into the tapestry of your own life. Live your life as if it shapes the world and the future…because it does. Believe that you matter. Then make a difference.

Any Orellana with the first edition of Travel as a Political Act. (Trish Feaster, thetravelphile.com)

Any Orellana with the first edition of Travel as a Political Act. (Trish Feaster, thetravelphile.com)

 

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This video clip was from our 1990 pilot show — back when I couldn’t say more than one sentence at a time to the camera. (I’ve found that now my barrier is 100 words — try as I might, it takes me forever to get an on-camera of over 100 words right.) I’m still waiting for the baggy khakis and aviator glasses to come back into style. But the tips are still good.

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