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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We’re waiting to catch our early train out of the Italian Riviera. We have six days left in our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour and I’ve asked our group to recall their tastiest bites so far. Along with the creamy pumpkin ravioli we enjoyed in Rome’s crusty Trastevere neighborhood, yummy favorites include octopus, pineapple-mint gelato, pesto, and (my favorite) wild-boar salami. Great food is an essential part of any good European vacation.
After a glorious free day on the beaches of the Italian Riviera, my tour group is heading north for the Swiss Alps. Because we sleep deep in the characteristic nooks and offbeat crannies of Europe, we often can’t get our bus to our hotel. In this case, we need to hop a train for a five-minute ride from Monterosso to Levanto, the nearby bigger town. In this clip, our hearty gang of tour members is packing light, and walking (past the stretch of beach where we had our happy hour last night) to the train station as the sun rises over the Cinque Terre.
On a Best of Europe in 21 Days tour, we are admittedly getting just a quick introduction to the greatest sights in Europe. But this route (with eight days in Italy) is clearly the best of the best, and we get the most travel thrills out of every mile and minute.
Here’s a montage of the types of experiences we wrangle for our groups as we enjoy Venice, Florence, and Rome. As you watch, imagine the joy of being a guide who is connecting a wonderful gang of travelers with all this travel fun.
You’ll see: me dutifully holding up the Venice map as our local guide Elisabetta tells us the story of her city; an artisan sharing the Venetian tradition of mask making; how we cap our day with a convoy of gondolas gathering on the Grand Canal for a serenade at the Rialto Bridge; our Florence guide bringing meaning to Renaissance art in the Museum of the Cathedral; images of our night walk through Rome and an unforgettable dinner in Trastevere; a rare chance to actually enter the Colosseum through the “gladiators’ gate”; and finally, orienting our group to the quintessential Italian hill town, Orvieto. This montage shows how going on a Rick Steves’ Europe tour is as much fun for the guides as it is for our tour members. Italy!
When leading a busload of merry travelers around Europe, our practical challenge is to keep things on time and everyone safe, happy, and well fed. Europe’s freeway rest stops are generally excellent — and getting better all the time. Europeans insist on decent food — even at these fast cafeteria-line eateries. In Italy, we pulled into this rest stop on the autostrada (midway between Venice and Florence) for an hour, which was plenty of time for lunch, coffee, a rest stop, and a bit of shopping. Sixty minutes later, it was wheels up — next stop, Florence! In this video clip I’ll take you on a quick rest-stop tour.
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.