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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Photo: The Travelphile, thetravelphile.com

Photo: The Travelphile, thetravelphile.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.

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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!

Anastasia-Gaitanou---White-Tower-of-Thessaloniki---Greece Antoine-Bonfils---Chateau-d'Aguilar---Tuchan-France Colin-Mairs---Robert-Burns-statue---George-Square---Glasgow,-Scotland Cristina-Duarte---Belem-Tower---Lisbon,-Portugal Elizabeth-Lister---Edinburgh,-Scotland Elizabeth-Lister---Scott-Monument---Edinburgh,-Scotland Elizabeth-Lister---Sir-Walter-Scott-statue-and-the-Balmoral-Hotel--Edinburgh,-Scotland Francisco-Gesrural---Pamplona,-Spain George-Farkas-and-Peter-Polczman---Budapest,-Hungary Holger-Zimmer---Brandenburg-Gate---Berlin Jana-Kratka,-Jana-Hronkova,-and-Katka-Svobodova---St.-John-of-Nepomuk-Statue,-Prague,-Czech-Republic---people-touch-it-for-good-luck Javier-Menor---Gran-Vía---Madrid Joe-Darcy---Guinness-Brewery---Dublin Joe-Darcy---The-Temple-Bar-Pub---Dublin Karin-Kibby---Florence-Cathedral---Florence-Italy Karin-Kibby---Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa---Pisa-Italy Karin-Kibby---Livorno-Italy Laurel-James---Uppsala-Cathedral---Sweden Nina-Bernardo---Colosseum---Rome-Italy Rolinka-Bloeming---Cite-of-Carcassonne---France Roy-Nicholls---Stonehenge---Wiltshire-England Saso-Golub-and-Tina-Hiti---boat-on-Lake-Bled---Slovenia Saso-Golub-and-Tina-Hiti---Lake-Bled---Slovenia Tom-Hooper---London,-England Tom-Hooper---Tower-Bridge---London,-England Yaren-Turkoglu---Istanbul-Turkey Yorick-Harker---Cockermouth---English-Lake-District Yorick-Harker---Lakes-Distillery---Cockermouth---English-Lake-District T

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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).

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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).

 

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If you have a lot of European friends in town in Seattle, a perfect night out is dancing in your own private party boat on the Puget Sound with a 1970s disco theme. Our tour guides emptied the shelves and shirt racks at the local secondhand shop to fashion extravagant 1970s costumes, and we had the night of our lives.

Want to see more fun photos and videos from my tours program? Like the Rick Steves Europe Tours page on Facebook!

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When you have guests visiting from Europe, it just makes sense to invite them into your home. So last Thursday night, we opened our doors to well over a hundred Rick Steves Tours guides from across Europe. Along with the party came an amazing sharing of music and cultures.

Then, on Sunday morning, we loaded our guides into old school buses and ventured into Seattle to feel the excitement of our quest for a second Super Bowl triumph. On our way to a rainy, city-wide tailgate party, we served Bloody Marys and Seahawks-colored donuts. What a memory for our guides — all of them instant Seahawks fans!

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The annual Rick Steves’ Tour Reunion has dominated our work for the last ten days. The event is a twofer: a huge party celebrating tour members who joined us in Europe last year, and a “guide summit” with lots of strategic meetings for more than a hundred tour guides.

Last Friday and Saturday, we welcomed nearly 2,000 alums who had joined our tours in 2014. We filled a big room for six parties over two days. And with so many guides in town from Europe and across the USA, we took advantage of the opportunity to huddle before and after the parties. During the big all-guides business meeting, our homebound staff invaded the conference center and serenaded our guides with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (the national anthem of the EU). We also met with our guidebook research team, which includes many of our tour guides. And I took the opportunity to interview several guides for upcoming segments on my radio show and podcast, Travel with Rick Steves.

In case you missed it, here are some photos to give you a flavor of the event.

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Photos via The Travelphile and Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

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Thank you for the many thoughtful comments on my recent Seattle Times editorial (which you can read at the end of this post) about how media and corporations are working together to create “The Hamster Wheel States of America.”

I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this issue. And if you have friends who might enjoy this discussion, please pass this post along to them.

The Hamster Wheel States of America
By Rick Steves

Watching cable news headlines about lower-than-expected holiday spending it occurred to me that here in America the business news is never allowed to be entirely good: “Purchases are up … but weaker than forecast.” “The stock market is in record territory … but leading analysts are concerned about the indicators.” “The numbers, while increasing, are lower than experts had hoped.”

We are among the wealthiest societies on the planet, with the shortest vacations anywhere. Yet, we’re told that our economic performance is perennially “sluggish” and “disappointing.” The real message? Work harder! We’re not productive enough! Our profits should be even greater! We’re becoming the Hamster Wheel States of America. And who’s hired to crack the whip? Commercial news media.

Yes, the last several years have been tough times for many. And if you’re out of work or your company just went bust, that certainly is a crisis. But as a society, we are far from “in crisis.” Ever since the first full year of the Great Recession (2009), our economy has been growing each year — just more slowly than we’d like. There’s no question that, economically, we are firmly established on top of the world. Yet, we are never reminded that half of humanity is struggling to live on $2 a day.

Maybe there is a crisis in this country — just not the one we keep hearing about. In reality, perhaps it’s a crisis of distribution within the vast and growing American economic pie. Or a crisis between our huge pie and the billions of desperately poor people elsewhere on our planet. What’s our response? A contemporary version of “Let them eat cake.”

I’ve just finished producing a TV show about the great palaces of France. These jaw-dropping châteaux were built by the Old Regime — the 17th century version of the 1 percent. Kings would spend half a year’s income of their entire realm renovating their hunting palaces, while their finance ministers squandered much of what remained building châteaux to rival the royals’. Rivers were rerouted to power the fountains. Pavilions were perched atop the palaces’ domes for aristocrats to gather and marvel at gardens that stretched for miles. From this elite point of view, the ladies would cheer as servants flushed deer out of the gated forest and their men made the kill.

The rich didn’t know what to do with all that money back then — other than to spend lots of it to ensure it stayed in their families. The First and Second estates (nobility and the church) colluded cleverly to keep down the Third Estate (peasantry). But eventually, the grinding reality of social stratification made the growing gap between rich and poor impossible to ignore. And the 99 percent marched.

Today, the headless bodies of that Old Regime are buried under gold-leaf domes, and their palaces are the domain of the commoners. Imagine: After making their king “a foot shorter at the top,” the people of Paris inherited the world’s biggest palace and its best collection of art. The Louvre Palace became the world’s first public art museum.

While aristocracy-controlled religion was the opiate of the masses back then, corporate-controlled media is the opiate of the masses today. And, just as those who accepted the Old Regime notion that some were born to be fabulously wealthy and the rest were born to labor, many present-day Americans just keep working harder than ever for less and less — all while the TV pundits tell us the score and prod us on.

As a society, we are producing more than ever. So where are the fruits of our labor? The biggest companies in America have come out of the Great Recession with bottom lines that are healthier than ever. But what would those numbers look like if standard accounting practices addressed the real costs of their success, and the costs to make that success sustainable? That balance sheet would include needed infrastructure improvements, prorated payments on future environmental damage caused by climate change, treating our immigrant laborers with dignity, and providing the child care, health care and education that would help build a workforce of the future.

I believe that, in a strong America, sustainability, economic justice, and a measure of compassion for our society’s lower rungs should be a prerequisite for corporate profit. And if corporate America knew what was good for itself — and read history — it would agree.

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For my holiday season gift to you, I’m sharing three exciting glimpses of why I love traveling in Europe — and beyond. Over the last two days, we’ve covered remote and sacred slices of Europe. Today, we’re focusing on a wild sort of travel, venturing into the Judean Desert of the West Bank, in Palestine.

These images share the joy I get from my work. Along with my 100 workmates here at Rick Steves’ Europe, I’m working harder than ever. And knowing that because of our hard work, thousands of our travelers (whether taking our tours, watching our TV shows, listening to our radio programs, or reading our guidebooks) are inspired to get out of their comfort zones brings me great satisfaction. In a sense, our writers and guides here at Rick Steves’ Europe are all about helping travelers take home the very best souvenir: a broader perspective.

Happy dreams of exciting travels…

-Rick

(By the way, for an hour of this kind of travel, be sure to watch our new special, Rick Steves’ The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today, on your local public television station.)

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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For my holiday season gift to you, I’m sharing three exciting glimpses of why I love Europe on three successive days. Yesterday was remote. Tomorrow is wild. And today, it’s sacred.

In this clip, let’s savor perhaps the most exquisite medieval art in Europe: they Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, and the soaring Gothic architecture and stained glass at Chartres, France.

These images share the joy I get from my work. Along with my 100 workmates here at Rick Steves’ Europe, I’m working harder than ever. And knowing that because of our hard work, 20,000 happy travelers who join our tours this year will learn that they have been art lovers all their lives — and never realized it until now — brings me great satisfaction. In a sense, our writers and guides here at Rick Steves’ Europe evangelize an appreciation of art, history, and culture.

Happy dreams of travels filled with sumptuous art treasures…

-Rick

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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