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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My favorite party of the year is the day in January I open my house to our guides. Last year was packed to the max. We had 30 percent more guides this year — giving us a good excuse to clean out the garage and rent a heater.

Large group of tour guides laughing

Our tour guides’ international talent show has become a tradition, and this year we packed our living room to enjoy ten acts from ten countries. (I’ll be sharing video clips of my favorites over the next three posts.)

Rick Steves and tour guides

The best advice when serving dinner to 130 hungry guides: Hire a food truck. Another tip: Clean up the laundry room and let the island become a stand-up dinner table.

Two tour guides switching name tags

We insist on the guides wearing name tags at all times (each with the flag of where they guide our tours). But we forgot to insist on wearing your own. Here, Robert and Cynthia did their best to confuse our newbies. Photo: The Travelphile

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I need to record lots of interviews — about 150 each year — for my weekly one-hour public radio program. With so many brilliant guides in town for our summit, my radio staff and I take full advantage of the opportunity, and line up about 18 hours of recording sessions during our summit week. Along with generating great content for our radio show, podcast, and Rick Steves Audio Europe™ app, it gives me a valuable opportunity to get to know our guides’ teaching styles.

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More than 20,000 Americans entrusted our guides with their European vacations in 2015. That’s a huge responsibility, and one we take very seriously. That’s why we fly in our guides (more than 100 this year from all over Europe and the USA) for a one-week series of workshops and itinerary roundtables to fine-tune our tour program and ensure that we’ll offer the best possible European tours in 2016.

Group photo

I’ve got to admit, stopping traffic to gather our entire family of guides for a group photo in the street — and getting to be right in the center of this amazing group of travelers and teachers — is a feeling I really enjoy.

Group meeting

We have about 40 different tour itineraries. For each individual itinerary, the guides who lead the tour and the home-office tour operations person who makes all the reservations gather to brainstorm, debate, and fine-tune each day of the trip. Getting these itineraries just right is the meat of our tour guide summit. We know Americans have among the shortest vacations on earth. Our goal: to be sure our travelers get maximum experience out of each tour minute. Photo: The Travelphile

Tour guides and colored folders

We’ve hosted our guides each year for the last two decades, and my staff has it well figured out. Color-coded guide packets explain it all. How well our annual summit is run is a reflection of how well we run our tours. Photo: The Travelphile

Rick Steves talking to group

Filling our town’s Masonic Lodge with the entire gang, I gave two three-hour talks (plus another talk just for our first-year guides) to ensure that all of our guides understand our stateside operations — and are clear on exactly what distinguishes a Rick Steves tour. A favorite and particularly instructive event: an afternoon-long workshop in which nine of our senior guides gave individual talks as if to a tour group in Europe…and we all constructively critiqued their performance. Photo: The Travelphile

Presentation

Each year at our summit, we fly in experts to teach workshops on safety, communication, technology on the road, sexual harassment, first aid, and conflict resolution. As we’re entrusting our guides with the care of so many tour members each year, these skills are critical in my estimate for any professional tour guide. Photo: The Travelphile

Four people wearing Rick Steves t-shirts

After discussing safety, the refugee crisis, and people’s concerns about terrorism, everyone got one of our wildly popular new “Keep On Travelin’” T-shirts. To be sure everyone got the right size, we had human size models: XXL, XL, L, M and S. (Want your own t-shirt? You can pick one up in our online Travel Store.) Photo: The Travelphile

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To kick off our 2016 Rick Steves’ Tour Guide summit, we gathered over a hundred guides at the neighborhood bar here in Edmonds, Washington. I find tour guides generally smart, interesting, and with great social skills. Bring 100 of them together from about 20 different countries after collectively leading 900 tours successfully, add lots of beer, and you’re in for a delightful evening. By the way, over the next several days I’ll be posting many more reports from our busy week of work and play. Stay tuned.

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Back in the early days of our tour company, a group once made a theme of mimicking me for saying, “This is reeeeely great” (like the chubby nerd in Animal House). Every time I’d park the nine-seat minibus at a new sight, I’d try to pump up the group’s enthusiasm with that declaration. I guess twenty years of trying to make people happy on your tours can turn you into an almost annoyingly positive cheerleader for happy travels.

Young Rick Steves in van

This is reeeely great!

While a key to happy travels certainly is a positive attitude, I do have my pet peeves while traveling in Europe. Just between you and me, here are a few things that I do not find reeeely great:

• Museums that display mostly photocopies of documents and photos — giving you the sensation of reading a book standing up while walking from page to page (as I recently tried to enjoy in a Mozart museum in Salzburg).

• Americans who talk twice as loud as anyone else in a restaurant or public place in Europe, and carry on oblivious to the peace they are destroying.

• “UNESCO sights.” It seems every time a local tries to sell me on a sight I find mediocre, they brag, “It’s on the UNESCO World Heritage list.” While I am a big supporter of the UN, you will not find the UNESCO acronym in any of my 30 guidebooks. I forbid it.

• Concerts that charge $50 for a seat and then $4 for a program so you can know who and what you’re listening to.

• Americans who complain about the heat and lack of air-conditioning. (Europeans believe the typical person from our Southwest consumes more energy to stay cool in the summer than arctic Norwegians do to keep warm in the winter.)

• Museums that post “don’t do this” and “don’t do that” signs in English, but don’t provide English descriptions of their exhibits (even though half their paying public speaks English either as a first or second language and can’t understand the potentially interesting displays).

• Hotels that save a few bucks by serving orange drink rather than orange juice, and skimp on light-bulb wattage.

• Over-earnest British people (especially on British Air) apologizing for something more than once and saying “mind your head” every time you near a low doorway.

• People at security and check-in lines who recognize me from my TV show…and then say, “Can I see your ID?”

• Seeing twice as many (2) as necessary (1) highly-trained TSA professionals guarding exit corridors at US airports.

• People who tell me, “I love your show on the Travel Channel.” (It only runs on public television.)

• Sweating all night in hotels that put rubber mats under the sheets to protect mattresses from “getting stained.”

• The rumble of a herd of rolling suitcases crossing a tranquil cobbled village.

• Getting one meal ahead of my needs when surrounded by a cruel abundance of fine food…and then not sitting down actually hungry to a meal for days.

• Airport and train station kiosk sandwiches that are deceptively packed with lots of good stuff spilling over the bread crusts — with almost nothing actually inside the bread.

• Hotels that put a decorative footboard on their beds, robbing good sleep from guests like me who are over six feet tall.

• Overactive hotel maids. When I follow their “save the world by minimizing washing” request and hang up my bath towel to reuse it, and they change it anyway. And when I try to conserve by reusing the little soap bar, but the hotel maid throws it out, forcing me to open a new one each day.

• European sinks that have separate cold and hot faucets (why on earth?).

• Having to walk back and forth through a long, empty slalom of needless stanchions to get to a security check.

So there…I just had to get that off my chest. What are your pet peeves?

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From time to time we share a random video clip to fuel your travel dreams. Join us today as we visit the evocative Jewish Quarter in Prague.

Watch my complete TV episode about Prague for free on our website.

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I’ve long noticed that many travelers seem younger than average in their appearance, attitudes, and energy levels. And I have a theory that just might explain it.

Perhaps travel actually functions — physiologically — as a kind of fountain of youth. We’ve evolved into our sedentary, climate-controlled, modern lives faster than our physical bodies can keep up. In other words, in 10 or 20 generations we’ve gone from the wilderness to the office park, but our cells are still geared toward the hunter-gatherer struggle for survival. As long as we are dynamic — hunting in the summer and hibernating in the winter — our cells regenerate. When we quash any need for that struggle, our cells don’t regenerate so vigorously. That’s when we start to physiologically run out of steam, and we age.

My annual routine of activities matches that old primordial hunter-gatherer cycle: actively struggle in the summer (travel, learn about new places, cope and thrive in the face of new challenges), then hibernate in the winter (dial back to a more sedentary, predictable office work and home life). Consequently, by sticking with this cycle, my cells still think I’m youthful and vital — out there in the elements, fighting to survive and thrive. And they forget to age.

Sure, it may be scientifically laughable. But you have to admit, something makes us travelers a bit more frisky. (And, floating a theory like that sure is an innovative way to sell Rick Steves tours!)

What do you think? Have travel thrills kept your life unpredictable and filled with serendipity? Is your attitude convincing your cells that you’re still in the prime of life?

P.S. Someday soon I’ll share my theory on how decades of sleeping in strange beds and walking barefoot in grotty shower stalls builds a kind of super immunity.

Rick Steves jumping

 

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From time to time we share a random video clip to fuel your travel dreams. Join us today as we cruise the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy.

You can watch my complete TV episode about Venice for free on our website.

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slide-test-drive-streaming-2016

Join me this Saturday, January 16 — no matter where you live!

All day long I’ll be hosting a free webcast at ricksteves.com/live about Europe’s best destinations for 2016 as they’re covered by Rick Steves Europe Tours.

You can watch anytime between 8:45 a.m. and 9 p.m. PT on Saturday. Find the schedule now at ricksteves.com/live. (No registration is required).

It’s all part of our annual Tour Reunion and Test Drive a Tour Guide festival in Edmonds, WA. Nearly 2,000 tour alums and 130 guides will be celebrating here — and now you can join in too. I hope you can tune in!

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As I like to do every couple of weeks, I’m sharing a post from Cameron Hewitt (co-author of many of my Europe guidebooks) today. If you like this intimate slice of Tuscany, be sure to “like” Cameron’s Facebook page. There’s a world of good travel there. In this piece, Cameron inspires us to take some time to slow down, step away from the famous cities and must-see museums, and really connect with salt-of-the-earth Tuscany. Enjoy!

Every night at around 9:30 or 10:00, there’s a knock on the guest room doors at Agriturismo Cretaiole. It’s Luciano — the 75-year-old farmer who owns the place — inviting people down to the veranda for a nightcap. There’s no point fighting it. Yes, you’re tired from your busy vacation. But Luciano has been working the fields all day, and he’s ready to party. You have no excuse.

Trading your pajama bottoms for blue jeans, you make your way to the glass-enclosed patio. Luciano has laid out his little plastic cups, and bottles of his three homemade spirits: grappa (grape brandy), limoncello (grappa infused with lemon rinds), and Vin Santo — the prized “holy wine” that’s made with concentrated grapes, fortified with grappa, then aged lovingly in special casks.

Luciano pours everyone their slug of choice, then puts on his Sinatra records. As the sprits flow and Frank croons the classics, Luciano nudges his guests to the dance floor. Emboldened by the Vin Santo — and by the general aura of Tuscan romance — couples who haven’t slow-danced in eons grip each other and sway to the music. Occasionally Luciano cuts in for a dance of his own.

The old man loves to talk, even though he speaks no English. Despite his guests’ protests that they don’t speak Italian, Luciano just keeps chattering away — making himself understood (more or less) with meaningful eye contact and by speaking slowly.

Recently Luciano discovered the Google Translate app. So now, when he wants to convey a more complex point, he borrows someone’s smartphone. He speaks into it with a measured, gentle ease — his velvety voice submerging the phone in Italian charisma. After a pause, the phone spits out a rough translation in Siri-speak. It’s a jarring juxtaposition. But — like the traditional-meets-modern mix of the agriturismo itself — it just works.

cameron-italy-tuscany-luciano-farm

The old man is stubbornly old-fashioned. One of his relatives joked, “Luciano’s idea of progress is getting two new sheep for the farm.” Luciano may be the paterfamilias, but his daughter-in-law, Isabella, is the business brains of the operation. By converting his farm into an agriturismo, she created a bridge between Luciano’s rustic ways and a steady stream of visitors from faraway lands. Now that he’s gotten used to it, Luciano has a newfound purpose in life: connecting with tourists, and proudly sharing his traditions. This old dog is learning some new tricks…and loving it. Well, most of the time.

One day, Luciano invited his agriturismo guests to participate in the olive harvest. A few hardy and curious souls showed up, and put in a couple of hours’ work: spreading out tarps, gently raking plump olives off of spindly branches, then stooping over to gather them up.

cameron-italy-tuscany-cretaiole-045

At the day’s end, as the sky became a deep purple, Luciano built a roaring campfire deep in the grove. He pulled out a straw-wrapped bottle of his homemade wine, and began to cut slices of bread to toast on the open fire. He rubbed each crispy slice with garlic, drenched it in a generous dollop of his bright-green, fresh-pressed olive oil, and handed it around. “Bruschetta,” he said. “This is the real peasant cuisine.”

cameron-italy-tuscany-luciano-fire

Luciano’s exhausted work crew of tourists huddled around the fire and crunched into our reward for a hard day’s work. But Luciano wasn’t quite as impressed with us as we were with ourselves. “Here’s the thing about this agriturismo business,” he muttered to me with a wink. “It’s an awful lot of turismo and not much agri.”

While people come to Cretaiole for the food, wine, scenery, and cultural activities, I think that when all is said and done, some of their most prized memories come from their time with Luciano. Yes, things would be easier if Luciano learned some English. But I sure hope he never does.

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