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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Twenty years ago, unleaded gas was a novelty — if your car needed it, you had to look for stations that provided it. And you’d purchase coupons in lire at the border of Italy to save money on gas. In this clip, you’ll see me driving my beloved Vinnie Van Go, a Westphalia VW van I co-owned with Steve Smith. Vinnie was both our guidebook-research vehicle and a cheap place to sleep for years. But ultimately, Vinnie got firebombed in a Paris protest. People were demonstrating for better schools in poor Parisian neighborhoods with smaller class sizes, and Vinnie was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Vinnie Van Gone.

 

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The people have spoken — the voters in two more states, plus the District of Columbia, say, “Stop locking up pot smokers.”

After last night’s election, drug policy trends in the USA are clear: Let’s regulate, tax, and legalize adult recreational use of marijuana and put an end to a huge black market and a racist and counterproductive prohibition.

Last month I enjoyed doing a 10-city barnstorming tour of Oregon to help explain why this is good public health and smart law enforcement policy. And yesterday, 55 percent of Oregonians agreed. Alaska voted the same way. (Four states down, 46 to go.)

To get a quick glimpse of the excitement of our work in Oregon, check out this little video clip:

I’m bringing this up to encourage caring citizens in states where legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana seems like an impossible dream to realize that the end of our federal government’s war on marijuana is well within reach, and there are organizations that need your help in your state. Because of the work my friends and I have invested in this cause, 5,000 fewer people in my state of Washington and 13,000 fewer people in Oregon are being arrested each year.

If you’d like to help spearhead a new approach to marijuana laws in your state, consider joining me as a member of NORML. As my personal challenge to you, I’ve donated a thousand DVDs of the film Evergreen (the documentary that tells the exciting story of how we did this in Washington), which you’ll receive as a “thank you” for becoming a member at the $50 level. Just click here.

Thanks… and happy travels!

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Rick Steves and scarecrow

Booo!

I was out taking a walk, turned a corner, and nearly ran into a scarecrow. We were both startled, and I remarked at how much fear there is in our society these days — even apart from Halloween.

The scarecrow said, “Let me buy you a cup of coffee with a nice plate of cornpone,” and proceeded to give me an earful. He said that the most fearful people he sees are those who don’t travel and dig themselves deeper into America. Then he said, “That’s ironic…it seems to me that if we just stay here on the farm and hunker down, we’ll never understand the rest of the world — and eventually we’ll all be as scared as my friend the cowardly lion.”

My scarecrow friend then proved he had more than hay for brains. He said that the flip side of fear is understanding. And we gain understanding by venturing away from our homes. He said, “When we get out of our comfort zones and engage with the other 96% of humanity, we gain empathy for people who may seem scary, but really aren’t.”

Fear-mongering politicians and ratings-crazed news is giving us Halloween 24/7 these days. Don’t let that rewire your outlook and sway your vote. Stakes are high. Take it from the scarecrow: If you care about a strong and free America, vote with wisdom rather than fear.

Here’s to a really scary Halloween (and a less frightened electorate next week)!

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Reviewing this 25-year-old clip from our pilot series, I’m impressed by several things (beyond how young and gawky I was back then): The tips are still good. The sights are still there. And, anywhere in Europe, the fun is still ours to have — if we know how to travel smart.

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My staff and I are teaching a full day of classes in my hometown of Edmonds, Washington this Saturday – and you’ll be able to watch many of them online for free!

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Just click this link on Saturday, November 1, to join in on the fun. You’ll see eight information-packed slideshow presentations complete with the latest European travel tips, insights, and discoveries. Plus, I will be teaching a brand-new class to help make your sightseeing more meaningful: Art for Travelers. During this four-hour class, we’ll take a practical and fun sweep through the story of Europe from the fall of Rome to the rise of the EU.

Here’s the full schedule of classes you can watch online this Saturday. All classes will be taught by me unless otherwise noted.

9-10 a.m. – Venice, Florence & Rome
10:15-11:15 a.m. – Italy (Beyond Venice, Florence & Rome)
11:30-12:30 p.m. – Scandinavia
12:45-1:45 p.m. – Greece with Reid Coen
2-3 p.m. – Turkey
3:15-4:30 p.m. – Packing Light & Right with Sarah Murdoch
4:45-5:45 p.m. – Paris & the Heart of France with Steve Smith
6-10:15 p.m. – Art for Travelers: Medieval Through Modern

(All times are Pacific Daylight Time)

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Everybody loves to snap “selfies” on the road these days. But what about your guidebook? At home, a man’s best friend might be his dog. But on the road, if your guidebook’s any good, it can be your best friend, too. On my last trip, I was in Dresden and realized the view I was enjoying was on my guidebook’s cover. It was as if it had come home to spawn.

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Do you find yourself taking “guidebook selfies” while on the road? If so, let’s see it! Please share your photos with me on Facebook.

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I’m out of the office this week, traveling across Oregon. I thought Washingtonians were cool, but we’ve got nothing on Oregonians. I’m meeting wonderful people at each stop.

I just have to share this interview with KGW-TV’s Reggie Aqui. Reggie is the first reporter who has managed to find out how many pairs of underpants I pack on a two-month trip.

 

KGW interview with Rick Steves

KGW interview with Rick Steves

I’m here on a ten-cities-in-six-days barnstorming tour, in support of Vote Yes on 91. The campaign hopes to regulate, tax, and legalize marijuana use for adults in next month’s election, as Washington and Colorado did in 2012. It’s a very busy time at Rick Steves’ Europe and I should be selling tours and working on our guidebooks…but this is actually much more important work from a citizenship point of view. In addition to speaking about the skills and fun of good travel, I’m also talking to Oregonians about the importance of ending our government’s war on marijuana.

My time between lectures is filled with interviews. In our first two days, we generated a storm of newspaper, radio, and TV interviews.

Tuesday was Portland, yesterday was Beaverton and Salem. Today, it’s Corvallis and Eugene. And then…heads up Medford and Ashland.

And, if you’re not in Oregon, you can still join the fun. I’ve donated several hundred DVDs of the amazing documentary Evergreen, which tells the story of how we legalized marijuana in Washington State, as a thank you gift for people donating to or joining NORML.

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I was recently interviewed by Chuck Robinson, who runs the delightful Village Books independent bookstore in Bellingham, Washington (an hour up the road from my hometown). I thought you may find our conversation interesting.

 

Q: You’ve been traveling in Europe for more than thirty years.  What are you most excited about seeing each time you go back?

A: I spend four months a year in Europe with a pretty scattered itinerary, ranging from the deep south to the far north. My goal: to update books, scout TV scripts (a happy byproduct of guidebook research), and produce our TV shows (about 7 a year, 6 days per show). I’m most excited each year to enjoy — to personally experience — new Continent-wide trends. This year, I enjoyed walking the harborfronts of former industrial wastelands that are now people-friendly parks, and grazing through Industrial Age glass-and-steel market halls that are now trendy food courts.

 

Q: There have been amazing changes, both social and technological, all over the world, including in some remote parts of Europe.  What do you find has not changed, or has changed the least?

A: When you’ve traveled annually to the same place for 40 years as I have, you can’t help but think back and marvel at how things have changed. What strikes me most about what has not changed is the cultural diversity within Europe. As borders have fallen, fast food and hotel chains have proliferated and permeated everything, and everyone is looking at the same little screens. And yet, somehow, the unique cultural passions survive. Basque men still gather in their gastronomic cooking clubs to chop their mushrooms in a place where wives are not permitted. A new generation of Greeks are clicking their worry beads. The French still consider lunch a sacred break in their work day. And Finns still prefer an office with a sauna on the rooftop.

 

Q: We know it’s a little bit like asking which of your two children you love best, but is there a place in Europe that consistently tugs you back?

A: I’ve been working on my guidebooks all over Europe since the first edition of my first book (Europe Through the Back Door) in 1980. And over that time, for some reason, I have many, many more friends in Italy. I can research my guidebook (which has been out and selling great for 20 years) to Denmark or Spain or Vienna, and it’s all pretty businesslike. But when I go to Italy, it’s like old home week — I’ve got friends everywhere I turn. Part of that, I’m sure, is Italy’s expertise in cronyism (I bring them a lot of business). But I love the social scene in Italy, where it’s routine to hang out with the chef long after the dessert plates are swapped out for the firewater beakers. That’s one of many reasons why Italy is my favorite corner of Europe.

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Q: What do you think is the biggest mistake most people make in planning a trip to Europe?

A: People focus on saving money while forgetting that their time is an equally valuable and limited resource. If ever time was money, it’s when you’re trying to get the most out of traveling abroad. Hop in a taxi — even if it costs you and your travel partner $5 more than two bus tickets. You’ll save 20 minutes. That’s a great budget tip. But the most important tip — if I may plug the notion of buying a guidebook — is that people try to save money by economizing on information. Guidebooks are $20 tools for $4,000 experiences. A guidebook justifies its expense (assuming it’s any good and you use it) on the ride into your first hotel from the airport.

 

Q: Is there a place in the world, where you’ve never been, that you really long to see?

A: I long to see the South Pacific in a dreamy, idyllic way. I’d also like to motorcycle across the Sahara, ride the Trans-Siberian Railway, go to “the new Thailands” of Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma), and relive the dreamy afternoons I enjoyed at “Pie and Chai” in Katmandu. Oh…and bodysurfing in Sri Lanka. But I can only get away for four months a year. And I spend that doing the work I love — in Europe.

 

Q: Ask yourself a question you’ve never been asked, but wish you had (and answer it, please).

A: Your name is a brand now, but it’s not a very good name for a travel writer. Why?

My dad wanted to name me “Robert Louis Steves,” but my mom nixed that. My dad was originally Romstad, but his birth father was a pretty rough, heavy-drinking, Norwegian ski jumper whom my grandmother eventually divorced. She changed my dad’s name to his step-father’s name — Steves. Consequently, I’m a Norwegian travel writer who would have liked to be named Rick Romstad, but who is forever Rick Steves. I’ll live with it.

 

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I’ll be at a Village Books event at Bellingham High School on Nov. 19 for presentations on budget travel in Europe & my new public television special, “The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today.” Call the bookstore at 1-800-392-BOOK for more information.

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Thank you to the hundreds of you who joined NORML in the past week. Your free DVD copy of Evergreen” is on its way to you now. (Evergreen is an exciting new documentary that tells the story about how my friends and I helped legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana in Washington State.)

My state finally considers responsible, adult recreational use of marijuana to be a civil liberty. And now, we are working to legalize marijuana in Alaska and Oregon. If you’d like to get involved, you’re still welcome to contribute $50 to NORML and get your DVD copy of Evergreen. Click here to find out more.

Again, this is not “pro pot.” This drug policy reform work is “anti-prohibition” and I consider it good citizenship. Our country’s insistence on criminalizing marijuana is an expensive and racist disaster and, one by one, states are opting out. I’m so proud of the work we’re doing and the support from caring citizens who understand that we can take crime out of the equation and treat marijuana abuse as a health and education issue – and recognize its mature adult use as a civil liberty.

We have momentum. And there is a lot more to do. That’s why I’m donating these DVDs to NORML for this campaign. And that’s why I’m spending this week in Oregon on a ten-city, seven-day, barn-storming tour.

(By the way, if you’d rather just stream Evergreen online, you can find it on iTunes and on Netflix.)

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All this week, I am sharing a behind-the-scenes look at the production of my new public television special, “The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today.” Here’s a little clip I took on a no-man’s-land street….until a soldier told me not to shoot there.

Hebron is a thriving city in the West Bank or Palestine. With the Tomb of Abraham — so revered by both Jews and Muslims — it’s the place where I felt the most tension in the West Bank. Jews expect access, as do Muslims, and, with a history of massacres on both sides, trust is fragile there. Palestinians can do little but annoy the huge number of soldiers stationed there. Talking with soldiers who seemed to have little empathy for the people they were controlling, I thought of the troubling fact that in World War I, the French and Germans were so willing and able to slaughter each other on the Western Front because the vast majority of them had never broken bread with someone from the other side. The society in Hebron seems purposefully structured to prevent people from knowing each other. (I asked a Jew why, in a lifetime of living there, he had never shared a meal with a neighboring Muslim, and he blamed the dietary restrictions of their religions.) Seemingly likeable young soldiers were fun to chat with. Then, when it was time to go, one of them happily told me, “Time to bust down a door.”

The Holy Land” has already aired to great success on stations in several locations. Many other stations, such as WTTW 11 in Chicago and KCTS 9 in Seattle, are excited to air it soon. Call your local public television station to find out when you can see it too.

 

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