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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If you’ve ever been on a bus tour, you know what an important part of the mix your driver is. And if you’ve ever been a tour guide, you know that the driver can be your best friend…or a real obstacle to a smooth tour. We love our bus drivers and consider them part of our traveling family. (While we can’t promise this, several of our drivers have actually fallen in love with and married our tour members.)
Bus driver Richard plays tour guide, and lets me imagine driving his wonderful coach.
Each year we give our tour members a patch as a memento of their tour. About 40 percent of the more than 20,000 travelers who joined us this year were return travelers. Here, Mike — a proud six-time tour alum — shows off the six patches he’s collected over his many years of touring with us.
Travelers on our tours are limited to a carry-on-sized bag. While we don’t strictly enforce that limit, our tour members are expected to carry their own bags from the bus to the hotel, and then to their rooms. And, because we strive to have centrally located hotels in delightfully traffic-free towns and old city centers, there are many times when getting to or from the bus involves a bit of a hike. Here’s our group leaving our Florence hotel (in another newly pedestrian-friendly, traffic-free center), and ready for Rome.
As museums get more and more crowded, the value of the free audio tours on our Rick Steves Audio Europe app is increasing. This year, we’ve been producing several very important new tours and spiffing up existing ones, and I’ve been road-testing them as I travel. As our local guide led us through the Vatican Museum, I kept switching my earbuds between her tour and my recorded tour. Both worked great. (We fear that in the future, places like the Vatican Museum could get so crowded that leading a tour group through the collection will become simply impractical. In that case, it may be easier for our travelers to go through on their own. As guides, our job would be to simply get people in the front door, and then turn them loose with a Rick Steves audio tour.)
I enjoy many aspects of my work. But perhaps the most gratifying is to stand before a great piece of art and explain it in a way that helps travelers fully appreciate it. And that’s what I got to do in Florence, in the inspirational presence of Michelangelo’s David, as I guided our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour.
(If you can’t physically be with me or one of our guides at David’s beautiful feet, you can still have my voice in your ear. Just download the free Rick Steves Audio Europe app and search for the “Accademia & Michelangelo’s David” audio tour.)
One of the great things about taking a tour is the people you get to travel with (assuming you join a tour that markets itself in a way that attracts enjoyable travel partners). With our “no grumps” policy, our “carry-your-own bags” policy, and our unapologetically “characteristic” hotels, we do our best to scare away the high-maintenance travelers. I love looking at the happy faces of a group like the one I was fortunate enough to guide — especially after two weeks together.
Here’s the group, giddy to be with each other (or maybe it was just the thin air — at 10,000 feet above sea level, high atop the Schilthorn in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland).
While touring the newly renovated and wonderful Museo del Duomo in Florence, we stayed until the very last minute. The museum guards, eager to call it a day, made sure we all packed onto the huge elevator at closing time and headed for the exit. Ciao!
Part of the fun of leading a group through Europe is introducing them to public transportation — whether subway or bus. In Rome, our bus #280 from St. Peter’s Square to Trastevere for dinner was running late, meaning that when it finally arrived, it was jam-packed. With 28 of us on board, let’s just say it was a very local experience. Our “whisper system” headsets allowed our local guide to be in communication with each tour member…no matter whose armpit they were staring into.
As a guide, it’s fun to grab spontaneous experiences when they present themselves. There are always two considerations: Can 28 people actually do it efficiently? And is it a budget-killer? On my orientation walk through Venice before dinner, we were running a bit late. I came upon the traditional traghetto (gondola ferry) that crosses the Grand Canal where there’s no bridge, and I thought, “Wonderful — that’ll get us to dinner on time, and be memorable, as well.” The maximum capacity is 14 per boat, and they go every 3 or 4 minutes for €2 per person — so two boatloads got the entire group across quickly for less than €60…and we all enjoyed an experience we’ll never forget.
Just after crossing from Switzerland into France we made a quick lunch stop at a modern mall next to the expressway. In this clip, one of my tour members (Jill) explains her clever souvenir tradition (buying frames for her glasses), and I cap my welcome-to-France lunch with a Nutella-and-banana crêpe. It’s fun to be in France.
I’ve been leading bus tours since the 1970s. Back then, my groups were nearly all women. (My theory: Guys were comfortable having a travel adventure on their own. But the women, just as eager for excitement on the road, felt safer in a small group.) They would fill the bus with girl talk as if I weren’t there. I would just put on my earphones, listen to my favorite playlist, and drive. I drove countless hours and listened to the same short list of tunes on my Walkman over and over. Today, so many years later, I satisfied the urge to play one of those favorite and well-worn tunes that take me back to those minibus tour days. It’s decades later, and I’m guiding a tour on a big fancy bus with a great sound system filled with young-at-heart travelers. We have a fun music-sharing game called “Tour Member DJ Party Party” (invented by tour guide Trish Feaster). It’s a great way to help pass a long drive — open mic and any traveler gets to share a personal favorite. It’s my turn, and we’re rocking out to the great road-trip groove of “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex.
We’ll do just about anything to give our travelers memorable cultural experiences when they join us on a Rick Steves bus tour. And this passion for creating memories goes way, way back. In my student days, I’d both drive and guide minibus tours — groups of 7 or 8…nearly all women — around Europe. I did the same 3,000-mile “Best of Europe” route that I’m doing this month. Once — I think it was in 1979 — while driving my group through the Swiss Alps, we approached a Swiss hitchhiker. He was cute, and the women on my bus said, “Pick him up.” I said, “Only if he’ll teach us to yodel.” They agreed. We stopped and I told the man — whose name was Christoph — I’d give him a ride on two conditions: 1) He’d be OK sitting with seven American women, and 2) If he would teach us to yodel. Christoph agreed. We gathered around him, and — arcing his back and as if singing in the towering distant Alps — he yodeled. We learned…and I’ve never forgotten. Now, every time I drive that stretch of road in Switzerland, I feel a strong urge to sing the yodel Christoph taught my group so long ago. The other day, I passed it with a big bus loaded with 28 travelers. Unable to resist, I picked up the mic and did the Christoph yodel. (Don’t listen to this if you’re a music critic!)
Every guide dreams of having his or her group enjoy the happy moment when the farmers bring their cows down from the high meadow. They don’t announce the event, and even locals are taken by surprise when it happens. The Swiss will empty out of their shops and homes to smile at the farmers and their cows — all decked out in flowers and clanging bells — as they lumber by. You can’t plan it, but you can jump into the streets when you hear that bovine parade approaching. I was just settling into my room after a long and demanding day’s hike when I heard the cowbells in the distance. My first thought: “It must be something different.” But they got closer and closer and suddenly I realized, “This is it!” Grabbing my shoes and sweater and camera, I ran out to enjoy this ancient Swiss ritual. So did most of our tour group. Here’s the clip of a moment that capped a wonderful day in the Alps.
I love Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley, which is named for its many “loud waterfalls.” The loudest of these waterfalls is Trümmelbach, which for eons — like God’s bandsaw — has been slowly and steadily cutting its way deeper and deeper into the mountains. I always feel the power of nature here, so sharing this with our tour groups is really a joy. Follow me with this clip for a peek at this powerful example of the wonders of nature — so accessible in Switzerland. Where have you enjoyed the raw power of nature in your travels?
The Swiss, who are both great engineers and great lovers of nature, know how to make Alpine thrills accessible to almost any traveler. Follow me on the latest addition to the Schilthorn experience. At the Birg station, which until a year ago was just a place to change cable cars, they have opened a wonderful restaurant with a view terrace and a fun, 15-minute “Thrill Walk.” Put on your helmet and let’s go!