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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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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Rick Steves radio show

Next week, I’m hosting 100 of our European guides here at the Rick Steves’ Europe home base in Edmonds, WA. While they’re in town, I’ll be taking advantage of their passion and expertise by conducting dozens of new radio interviews with them. This is your chance to ask me — and my favorite European tour guides — your travel questions and share your travel highlights.

From Ireland to Istanbul and from history to politics, please have a look at our recording lineup and submit your questions and comments for a chance to be on air.

You’ll hear these interviews over the next year on the Travel with Rick Steves public radio show and in our weekly podcasts.

And if you want to listen in on the live taping sessions as they happen Jan. 12-18, join me!

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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 underground world of Kaymaklı, Turkey, which provided an almost ready-made refuge for Turks during invasions and persecutions through the centuries.

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

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Back in the 1970s as a tour guide, I drove small groups in little minibuses around Europe with a passion for getting my travelers beyond their comfort zones. It’s fun to look back on the crudeness of my techniques. Today we have the same goals, but pursue them more maturely, gracefully, and effectively — for which the 20,000 travelers who join us annually on our bus tours are very grateful. Here’s the “redemption story” (in the spirit of Ben Carson) of how I overcame my basest guiding instincts:

As a 25-year-old hippie-backpacker-turned-tour-organizer, I harbored a misguided notion that soft and spoiled American travelers would benefit from a little hardship. (In retrospect, I was pretty cruel.)

Rick Steves at age 25

I’d run our early tours with no hotel reservations and observe the irony of my tour members (who I cynically thought were unconcerned about homelessness issues in their own communities) being nervous at the prospect of spending a night without shelter. I had noticed that if, by mid-afternoon, I hadn’t arranged for a hotel, they couldn’t focus on my guided town walks. Believing they’d be more empathetic with people who never have a real bed, I thought it might be constructive to let my travelers feel the anxiety of the real possibility of no roof over their heads.

I remember booking a group into a horrible hotel above a sleazy bar, thinking that would put what I considered petty complaints about hotels in perspective. Seeing a woman from my tour group shivering with fear on top of her threadbare sheets at the threat of bugs, I felt triumphant.

Back when I was almost always younger than anyone on my tour, I made my groups sleep in Munich’s huge hippie circus tent. With simple mattresses on a vast wooden floor and 400 roommates, it was like a cross between Woodstock and a slumber party. One night I was stirred out of my sleep by a woman sitting up and sobbing. With the sound of backpackers rutting in the distance, she whispered, apologetically, “Rick, I’m not taking this so very well.” I gave her some valium — which was about all I had in my “first aid kit” — and she got through the night.

Of course, I eventually learned that this was the wrong approach: You can’t just force people into a rough situation and expect it to be constructive. Today, after learning from 30 years of feedback from our tour members and the experience of our team of guides, I am still driven to get people out of their comfort zones and into the real world with the help of our tours. But we do it in a way that keeps our travelers returning. (In fact, last year about half of the 20,000 those who signed up on our tours were alums, coming back for more.)

For me, taking a group of Americans through Europe is a rich opportunity to experience a little reality: Seeing towering stacks of wood in Belfast destined to be anti-Catholic bonfires and talking with locals about sectarian hatred helps make a trip to Ireland meaningful. Taking groups to Turkey during the Syria’s civil war has helped me share a Muslim perspective on that conflict. And visiting a concentration camp memorial is a required element of any trip we lead through Germany.

As a tour guide, I always made a point to follow up these harsh and perplexing experiences with a “reflections time” when I tried only to facilitate the discussion and let tour members share and sort out their feelings and observations. I’ve learned that, even with the comfortable refuge of a good hotel, you can choose to travel to complicated places and have a rich experience. (And when our tour members complain about something, I can’t help but think back on what we used to inflict on our paying customers.)

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I love sunsets. They can be a vivid and romantic capper for a beautiful day on the road. Here are a few dramatic and memorable sunsets that come to mind:

1. On the Greek isle of Santorini, nursing a drink with a single flower in a vase on my table, as I sit on the lip of the crater high above the glittering Aegean Sea.

2. On the Nile, just across from Luxor, as the sun sets, the temperature drops, and villages come alive. As I’m poled along the shore in a classic felucca boat, children frolic, long-legged birds strike a pose, and I glide like a silent voyeur through the reeds.

3. On Denmark’s Aerø Island, warming myself by a beach fire while children splash in the shallow waters of the bay, and parents sit peacefully on the porches of tiny beach cabins.

Ærøskøbing homes

The sun sets on Denmark’s Aerø Island. (Photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

4. In Granada, Spain, joining the “Gypsies and hippies” at the St. Nicholas viewpoint as the setting sun makes the Alhambra glow red, evoking the tumult of its violent history.

5. On a ferry charging across the Greek sea, with dolphins — who seem to come out for the sunset — playfully loping ahead of the ship’s bow.

6. In England’s Cumbrian Lake District, sitting pensively on a stone at the Castlerigg Stone Circle just outside of Keswick, savoring a moment which inspires anyone to poetry…especially as sheep stir up the fragrance of the wild grass and the scent comes with a whiff of mystical druids, who once used these stones for their worship, dancing in the long shadows.

7. In Paris, sitting on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur atop Montmartre, surrounded by backpackers, buskers, and local lovers as Paris spreads out before me and slowly the sky grows dark and the City of Light is turned on.

8. On a Norwegian fjord, taking my dessert of ice cream and fresh berries out of my hotel’s dining room and sitting along at the end of the pier. The water is glassy and frightfully deep, black rock cliffs rocket into the sky above me, and the sun dips too early behind the peaks.

9. In Assisi, on the rampart of a ruined castle, with olive groves at my feet leading to a vast and lush Umbrian vista; imagining the age when each town was its own little state, and enjoying the same birdsong that inspired St. Francis.

10. And my favorite sunset: from my deck back home, on the Puget Sound just north of Seattle, as a golden path of sparkles leads across the bay to snowcapped Olympics. The sun settles behind the latest in a series of chosen peaks, and the ferries ply silently across as the water begins to glow like floating lanterns.

What is your favorite sunset far from home?

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