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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For me — and my amazing team of guides at Rick Steves Europe Tours — the great joy of guiding is to take tour members’ lifelong imaginings, transform them into actual experiences, and then into lifelong memories.
On a recent evening in Venice, my merry gang of Best of Europe tour members and I did just that. We shared a family-style feast at Trattoria da Bepi as Loris served us the seafood bounty of the lagoon with deliciously grilled local vegetables and polenta. Then, twinkling from our sprightly Venetian white wine, we wandered through back lanes musty with history, paused on lonely bridges to watch gondolas glide silently by, and then, just a few blocks farther on…
This all brought back vivid memories from when, as a very young tour guide, I would bring my groups out of the tangle of back lanes and suddenly onto Piazza San Marco, perhaps the most beloved square in all of Europe, where the age-old glories of Venice still swirl. I watched the wonder sweep over my travelers’ faces…years ago…and again tonight. The sun was down and the lights were on. The crowds were gone and, at the last corner before St. Mark’s, I blitzed ahead so I could turn around and watch every one of my travelers’ expressions as they arrived on the piazza. A “wow” moment, amplified two dozen times.
As my re-energized group dispersed to enjoy the dueling orchestras on the piazza and to make their own after-dark discoveries in this magical city, I popped into Gran Caffè Lavena, which our guides use as a rendezvous point on the square. Tonight there happened to be six Rick Steves tours staying in Venice, and I joined a group of our guides and bus drivers as we compared notes and stoked our collective guiding skills over drinks together.
Other companies have tour managers. We have guides who both manage our tours and teach our travelers. They create lifelong memories with talent and passion unmatched by other tour companies. Our team of guides makes me proud and thankful. (And I believe that Judy, one of our current tour members — who’s been on 17 of our tours and enjoyed 17 of our guides — would agree.)
We include half the dinners on Rick Steves Europe Tours, and for the other dinners, we set people free to enjoy meals on their own. That means we can dine in smaller places where larger groups can’t fit. One of my Venice favorites is Luca’s Osteria alle Testiere. Luca is a classic quality restaurateur — look at the joy on his face as he describes the vintners who produce his carefully chosen wines as friends, and then how he cuddles up with his beloved wine drawers. The challenge of dining in Venice is finding a quality, personality-driven restaurant. It can be done, but you need a good tour guide or a good guidebook. Buon appetito!
(Thanks for following along here on my blog and on Facebook as I guide our Best of Europe in 21 Days Tour.)
One of the joys of travel is eating well. And one of the challenges of leading a good tour is to connect our travelers with great local cuisine served with passion and pride by local chefs in small, characteristic, family-run restaurants. We did just that with our group on our first evening in Venice. I’ve long enjoyed Trattoria da Bepi and its chef/owner, Loris (who plays a sizable role in my autobiographical “Postcards from Europe” book). I phoned Loris, asked him if he could seat a group, and welcomed him to assemble a “maximum-experience Venetian gastronomic extravaganza.” I explained we wanted to eat seasonal, local, and family-style, and that I’d trust him with the “tasting festival.” As you can see in this clip (edited by Trish Feaster), we had an unforgettable dinner. And, as our guides share our collective triumphs, I’m sure Loris will be seeing more of our groups.
Leading my hearty group on our Best of Europe in 21 Days Tour, we are stacking up the memories — and that’s our goal. Here, we’re in Austria’s Tirol at the Ehrenberg Castle ruins above the town of Reutte.
Imagine the fun I have: hiking with our group up to my favorite ruined castle, then wobbling over the recently built “longest suspension bridge” 300 feet above the ancient Roman Via Claudia, teaching my fellow travelers why the route below us (nicknamed “the salt way”) was so strategic in centuries past, explaining how castle architecture evolved with the advent of cannon fire, surprising the group with cold beers once we reach the ruined castle, and then setting them loose amid sword ferns and broken ramparts to let their medieval imaginations go wild.
Here’s one last look at the fun of Oktoberfest. Since our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour happened to be passing through Munich, we guides made it a point to drop in with our group (as we do whenever there’s a festival nearby). Our Rick Steves’ Europe Tours mantra: maximize the experience. Driving south from Rothenburg, we spent the morning with a powerful visit to the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau (a suburb of Munich). Then after lunch, for a whiplash change of scene, we popped into the fairgrounds for Oktoberfest. Again, anyone can do this. Just drive or take a train from the city to enjoy the festive scene — parades, rides, amusements, 16 giant beer tents to choose from (and huge beers), lots of traditional food, and some of the happiest people-watching in Europe. After three hours of Oktoberfest fun, we continued on our route, driving south to Reutte in Tirol to enjoy the “King’s Castles” the next day. Prost!
Munich is in the midst of its annual 16 days of Oktoberfest. It’s massive (serving literally millions of people each year in 16 tents, each filled with about 8,000 people). Each of the leading local breweries has its own tent. It’s well organized (they’ve been at it annually for 200 years). And I was impressed by how easy it was for a traveler to enjoy. Here are five photos illustrating a few observations from my visit:
Oktoberfest would be an ideal target for terrorists, so security is tight. Each tent has its own security and a new fence has been placed around the perimeter. There is a heavy police and security presence at each entrance, and no large bags are allowed in. In spite of all this, however, it felt relaxed and fun.
With 16 temporary tents set up to accommodate over 100,000 beer drinkers at the same time, and with literally millions of liters of beer drunk, there are lots of urinals set up in the men’s rooms. And, in the saucy spirit of this festival, posters of randy girls sporting traditional dirndls are hung above, looking on and commenting on what they see.
Bavarians love their big liter-sized glass beer mugs (and so do I), but you can imagine the security concerns these days with these potential weapons. In the USA, you can’t use glass bottles in stadiums, but in Bavaria, the people insist on keeping their glass steins. I made a local friend at our table and he told me the Bavarian solution: design the handles so they break off easily if the mugs are used to hit someone and consider any attack with a big glass mug attempted murder. Consequentially, everyone gets their big glass mugs — and no one uses them as weapons.
If you head down to an early breakfast at your hotel during Oktoberfest, you’ll find yourself in an empty room. (It seems everyone was out pretty late.) And, while a nice fresh pretzel can be appealing for breakfast in Bavaria, I noticed that after eating huge pretzels the night before at the fair, they’re the last thing I crave in the morning.
I joined my film crew in Munich this year for Oktoberfest — the last festival we’re filming for our “Europe’s Top Ten Festivals” special that will air on public television in 2017. Oktoberfest goes for 16 straight days, usually starting on the third Saturday in September. Here are some thoughts and a few tips after my visit this week:
- It’s massive (serving literally millions each year in 16 tents, each filled with about 8,000 people). Each of the leading local breweries has its own tent. The famous ones (Augustiner Bräu and Hofbräu) are most crowded and touristy.
- It’s well organized (they’ve been at it annually for 200 years).
- Security is tight as this would be an ideal target for terrorist (a fence is newly added around the perimeter, there are thousands of police and security at each entrance, each tent has its own security, and no large bags are allowed). In spite of the high alert, it all felt relaxed and fun.
- Anyone can enjoy this. It’s busiest late and on weekends, but weekday afternoons and early evenings are a delight when it’s family-friendly. (I’d highly recommend enjoying it Monday through Thursday during the late afternoon and early evening; if you don’t like drunken brawls, avoid it after dark.) Popular tents do fill up and can have long waiting lines. It’s free except for your €10 beers (that’s for an entire liter), food, and rides. English works everywhere and people are friendly. It’s tradition to sit at any table that can fit an extra rear end. Jump right into the conversation with a clink of the glass mug.
- It feels local. While there are plenty of tourists, it’s estimated that 90 percent of the attendees are Bavarians. Locals love to dress up in traditional garb and gather their friends at their favorite beer tent to enjoy a fun evening meal with drinking and music.
- The famous beer maids make you think, “Who needs Hooters?”. These women are generally amateur servers who take two weeks of their generous paid vacation time to work hard here and make some serious extra money. Each tent considers them independent businesses — they buy the beer or pretzels or whatever at a wholesale price from the big kitchens, and then are free to sell them anywhere in the tent. And pricing beers at €10.50 makes it hard not to tip (if they were an even €10, I imagine earnings would take a huge hit).
I must close with a political observation. (If that will anger you, you might just stop reading now and leave today’s post with nice beer-and-dirndl thoughts.) While enjoying this happy festival, I was struck by how the crowd was 90 percent local and how I felt I was in a country with a healthy middle class. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of Germans are middle class. They live in a country where progressive taxation, a $15 minimum wage, one-month paid vacations, and affordable health care are not controversial issues. And they easily afford fun such as this. In my travels, I’ve observed that when a society’s middle class is shrinking and under siege, so is the societal well-being of that entire nation. Over all, Germany and the USA are similarly successful economically. But Germany has more people in the middle and fewer at the extremes, while America has more of the rich and far more people struggling. If I had a red hat with a political slogan to wear, it would say, “Make Our Middle Class Great Again.” And I wouldn’t buy that trickle-down stuff our big-business elites (“job creators” and their friends) keep preaching.
I’m taking a quick break from our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour, while leaving our group in the good care of guides Ben and Trish, to join my film crew in Munich to film Oktoberfest — the final festival for our “Europe’s Top Ten Festivals” special that will air on public television in 2017. An hour before the tents open, our guide Georg Reichlmayr shows off his fancy lederhosen and introduces us to his favorite white sausages and sauerkraut.
The Arnhem Open-Air Museum, about halfway to Germany from Amsterdam, is like a fun dose of Dutch culture on a lazy Susan for busy travelers. Here’s a bit of the fun our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour group had here. Thanks to Trish Feaster (The Travelphile) for shooting and assembling the clip before we say “tot ziens” to the Netherlands and “Guten Tag” to Germany.
We have a vast selection of travel talks posted on YouTube and at ricksteves.com/travel-talks. YouTube likes everything to be captioned, so they use voice-recognition software that does an amazing job of automating that laborious transcription process. But occasionally, what I say and what their robotic ears hear are quite different…amusingly different. My assistant Skyla Sorensen has been busy proofreading YouTube’s automated work and found some crazy mistakes that we are thankful she caught. Here are some actual examples of how a voice-recognition robot can mangle a phrase in a Rick Steves travel lecture:
- Visit places like the beautiful Italian villages of “Gym Daddy”…or is it “Chicken Patty”… (Cinque Terre)
- On the coast of Portugal, eat some delicious “burning coals” (barnacles)
- Taste some local “Vietnamese hookers” in the Italian countryside (Vignoles)
- Check out the pietà Michelangelo made in his “girly” 20s (early)
- Travel to the best place to go in Poland, “crack house” (Kraków)
- Warsaw is the capital, “butt-crack houses” the university (but Kraków has the university)
- If you don’t know what to order in Provence, just “do your best” (get bouillabaisse)
- Two hours north of Rome, visit the beautiful “Chiquita banana Rachel” (Civita di Bagnoregio)
- Look at the Armory where Venetians would take potential enemies to say, “Don’t mess with Dennis” (Venice)
- Go to the Uffizi and see “peanut butter and jelly” (Venus by Botticelli)
- If you venture to the Holy Land, be sure to notice the “terrorist” settlements, the “terrorist” hills, and the “terrorist” vineyards (terraced settlements, hills, and vineyards)
- Sample the gastronomic “papas” in Spain (tapas)
- Throughout northern Europe you’ll see coastal towns with an “antibiotic” heritage (Hanseatic)
- Try doing “man-licking” in the high Alps, it’s very accessible for all ages (Männlichen)
- In France, don’t miss the exciting city of “Blah!” (Blois)
- Get “beat stupid” in Eastern Europe. It’s a local favorite (beet stew)
- In Iran, you’ll hear religious sayings ingrained in their culture, like “enchilada” (insha’Allah)
- Another cultural aspect of the Middle East is that “veterans” eat camels (Bedouins)
- If you want to make a difference without leaving your house, donate to “Bred for the Road,” my favorite charity (Bread for the World)
- For more information on my travel philosophy, check out my “Travel As a Blood Clot” talk (Travel As a Political Act)
- And finally, don’t forget to try out the local language. When you meet a German, greet him by saying “Good dog!” (Guten Tag)