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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In 1510, a young monk from Germany named Martin Luther walked 700 miles to Rome on a pilgrimage. He returned home disillusioned, and in 1517, he raised 95 difficult theological questions at the university where he taught — and kicked off what became the Protestant Reformation. This year, my crew and I will be filming a public television special to celebrate the 500th anniversary of that event.
Most of the show will be filmed in Germany later this summer. But this week in Rome, we took time out from producing our upcoming Easter special (more on that soon!) to film a few segments about Martin Luther.
We were scouting for an evocative trail leading into Rome, to capture the awe that filled Luther as he approached the grand finale of his pilgrimage. Our local guide and good friend, Francesca Caruso, led us to the perfect setting, on Monte Mario.
Luther was an Augustinian monk, and just inside Rome’s city gates (at Piazza del Popolo) is the Augustinian church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Just as a hostel provides a needed bunk for a backpacker today, this church provided Luther a humble home upon his arrival in Rome.
After dropping to his knees and declaring, “Hail, holy city of Rome,” Luther did what pilgrims still do to this day: He worshipped at holy sites all over town. He climbed the Holy Stairs (Scala Santa) on his knees, just as our cameraman, Karel Bauer, did today. And upon reaching the top, Luther thought the same thing Karel did: “This just makes no sense to me.”
By questioning corrupt Church practices — jumping through hoops to earn less time in purgatory, or purchasing relief from the consequences of your sins in the form of indulgences — Luther unleashed a torrent of public frustration and undercut the power of the Church. The Church fought back with the Counter-Reformation. If you know where to look, you can see Church-sponsored propaganda designed to make sure the Catholic (which means “universal”) Church remained the only permissible way to be a Christian: the Virgin Mary and toddler Jesus stepping on evil snakes; stony saints stepping on heretics; and angry cupids ripping up the pages of Bibles that had been translated from Latin into languages normal people could actually read. It was a tumultuous time for Christians of all stripes.
Rome’s beloved Trevi Fountain is drained and covered with scaffolding. But so many people come to Rome to do the fabled “coin toss over your shoulder to guarantee a return to the Eternal City” that the city has provided a small temporary pool…which, I’m sure, has the same magical powers.
When we travel, we need to celebrate the fact that 10 percent of what we’re going so far to see will be closed or out of sight for restoration. Try to see this as a blessing — it’s the reason why everything else is looking so beautiful these days. Keeping Europe’s patrimony in good shape is a big and ongoing job.
I just landed in Rome to embark on a 100-day trip. And already, I’ve learned so much.
Join me, if you dare, on what I have a strong hunch will be an unforgettable ride. My goal: to make mistakes (painful as they may be), learn lessons (the hard way, if necessary), and share my experience on this blog. I’ll be posting daily from now on. Be sure to invite your traveling friends to join in the fun.
A big part of travel is eating well. And the last place you want to dine is a place on the most high-rent square in town, with a printed menu in five languages (clearly designed for tourists and serving edible clichés regardless of the season — bad news all around) and a big, if hard-to-believe, promise in English: “No Frozen Food.”
Italians aren’t really into “foreign” or “ethnic” restaurants because, as they see it, each region of Italy provides a distinct local cuisine. Especially in Italy, a smart eater will go for the local specialties. Lasagna is simply not a Roman dish — it’s better farther north. Rome is more about hearty, working-class food, such as beans and lentils. And the neighborhood butcher sells favorite salamis such as coglioni di mulo and palle del nonno. (Pardon the crudeness, but that’s “donkey’s balls” and “grandpa’s balls.” Can you guess which is which?)
I’m noticing that a nice dessert plate, when properly enjoyed, leaves you with a lickable Jackson Pollock-style masterpiece. I will be eating very well in the next few months. Why? Because of my devotion to your travel guidebook needs.
This year at Rick Steves’ Europe, we’ll be leading about 900 tour groups around Europe on 40 different itineraries. Whenever one of our groups is in town, I enjoy surprising them with a visit. When possible, I join their group for a little sightseeing. I crashed this group’s Villa Borghese tour.
Our tour groups have great guides, who manage the tour from start to finish, and equally great local guides, who meet us at the top sights to be sure we are properly wowed. Unlike standard tour groups, we don’t just hire just the next guide on the list. Our local guides are friends, like Francesca Caruso (shown here explaining Bernini’s David), who teach history, art, and cultural insights with a skill for bringing the sights to life and giving them meaning in ways our tour members never forget.
Bob and Pam Gudas’ Best of Europe in 21 Days scrapbook
One of my favorite spring chores is looking over the top entries in our annual tour alumni scrapbook contest. Each year we invite our tour members to share their experiences with a digital scrapbook. Our grand prize is a free tour. And the competition is so spirited that we’ve just finished poring over 60 entries from our 2014 season.
As the final “sorter” of the four finalists chosen by a jury of my staffers, having so many top-notch entries created a dilemma for me. One first prize was not enough. So, in addition to the first- through fourth-place winners chosen by the jury, this year we created an extra first-place winner — Rick’s Pick!
Without further ado, here are our five winners. I hope you can browse through each of these. They really capture the joy of travel and the camaraderie of sharing that experience with a great group of travel partners:
FIRST PRIZE: Gord and Julie Braun — Best of Europe in 21 Days wins a free Rick Steves tour (1 seat on an 8-21 day tour, or 2 seats on a 7-day city tour)
RICK’S PICK: Bob and Pam Gudas — Best of Europe in 21 Days also wins a free Rick Steves tour (1 seat on an 8-21 day tour, or 2 seats on a 7-day city tour)
SECOND PRIZE: Nancy Wickstrom and Julie Wynn — Best of Turkey in 13 Days wins a $500 Rick Steves gift card
THIRD PRIZE: Michael and Nicole Goodman — Best of Eastern Europe in 16 Days wins a $250 Rick Steves gift card
FOURTH PRIZE: Mandy Fonk and Tom Boyd — My Way Italy in 13 Days wins a $100 Rick Steves gift card
Beyond the prizes, there’s a bigger reward here: The two dozen people who went along on each of these tours now have a special record of the wonderful experience they shared.
I certainly feel that way about Bob and Pam’s scrapbook, since that’s the very tour that Trish and I traveled on last summer. For all of us who went on that tour, I’m sure this feels like “our” scrapbook. The Gudas’ great tour insights, fun photos and video clips, Pam’s original sketches — and a fascinating Fitbit tally showing how much exercise each day entailed — all combine to create a vivid review of the amazing amount of fun you can pack into three weeks on a well-designed tour with a fun group of travel partners.
Thanks so much to all of you who have shared your scrapbooks with all us. They make me eager to sign up for another tour!
Today I flew — as I have every year at this time since the 1980s — to Europe to kick off another spring of exploring, checking, learning, tasting, and sipping. This photo features a bit of my “Welcome to Rome” meal — or what’s left of it — at Ristorante Fortunato. Oh, baby, I’m in for some good eating in the next couple of months!
I’m already enjoying thinking of the euro as being worth a buck. I’ve done this in the past (when a euro cost $1.35) in order to con myself into splurging a bit… but now, with a rate of $1.10 to the euro, that shortcut is almost honest.
Landing in Rome, I reviewed my guidebook for tips on getting into the center by taxi. It says, “The legal fixed rate to anywhere in the center of town is €48. Cabbies will complain and say it’s more. But insist. Say with confidence, Quarant’otto euro — è la legge (which means, ‘Forty-eight euros — it’s the law’).” Curbside at the airport, I asked the waiting cabbie the price. He said €56, maybe €60. I used my phrase and he nodded, opened his door, and we headed into town. A few minutes later, he offered me a mint and we were friends. Good information + confidence = smarter travels.
Starting on April 1st — this Wednesday — I’ll be posting entries daily for the next hundred or so days, reporting on my experiences. First I’ll be in Italy and Greece producing our Easter special, then researching my guidebooks in Rome, Tuscany, Florence, and the South of France. Then I meet my television crew in Germany to film our upcoming Reformation special before heading for London, South Wales, and southern England. Finally, in August, I’ll meet the crew again and film three shows on great German cities.
I hope you can enjoy stowing away with me here on my blog. Please share a link to the blog with your traveling friends and let them know that 2015 promises to be a great year of travel…and I’d love to have them come along, too.
Ricksteves.com may have my name on it, but it’s yours, too — a thriving meeting place where independent-minded travelers can meet, compare experiences, and share travel dreams. I’ve always enjoyed the notion that we’re all in the same travelers’ school of hard knocks, and it’s perfectly legal to share notes. And our lively Travel Forum community — so buzzing with activity — is made to order for exactly that. Whether it’s advice on a rail connection, a pesky scam you uncovered in Barcelona, or the perfect spot for a picnic overlooking the Seine in Paris, sharing experiences on our forums makes us all travel partners.
One of my favorite dimensions of our forums is the way travelers use our “Travel Group Meetings” section to actually get together in their hometowns. All over the USA, Rick Steves-style travelers are connecting in person. Right now, posts are up about meetings across the country, including ones in Nashville, New York City, Denver, and St. Louis.
Each year at this time, I perform a ritual sacrifice of guidebooks before heading off on a two-month research trip. If you don’t want to see a travel writer giddy with boxcutter joy as he slits the spine of his latest guidebooks, don’t click play. But out of this destruction comes new life, as we set out to bring forth a new season of lovingly updated Rick Steves guidebooks.
Between now and the end of May, I’ll be in Greece, Italy, and France, plowing under the old and bringing forth the new — all so we can enjoy happier travels. And for those who’d like to travel along with me, I’ll be posting nearly every day here on my blog and on my Facebook page. So get set and let your traveling friends know: We’ve got a lot of vivid (and shocking) travel thrills on the way, right here.
Rick Steves Travelers’ Café — A “Third Place” Where Travelers Inspire Travelers through Blogs and Journals
When I was in my twenties, my first really big media break came when I was invited to New York City to be on Arthur Frommer’s cable TV show. I remember Arthur putting his arm around my shoulder, looking into the camera, and — as if introducing me to the world —declaring, “Ladies and gentlemen, Rick Steves, the new Steve Birnbaum, Eugene Fodor, Temple Fielding of the travel guide industry.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I was just a scruffy kid who loved to travel and share my experiences. I was scrappy for publicity, and here Arthur was using his show to boost me. (By the way, those names — Frommer, Birnbaum, Fodor, Fielding — are from a bygone age when publishers were more willing to promote individual authors rather than brands.)
Today, a generation later, I find myself getting great joy from sharing my audience with other travelers who are, perhaps, the new Frommers, Birnbaums, Fodors, and Fieldings themselves.
Stay tuned for our new Travelers’ Café: a collection of blogs and travel journals designed to share the voices of people I consider inspirational travelers…people who may well travel with a gutsier spirit of adventure than I would these days, and who have a super-experiential approach to travel that’s well worth sharing. (And, OK, and some of them will be relatives whose trips I am personally thrilled with.)
Here’s an example: My niece has an uncle who loves her passion for inspiring children in the developing world to open up their hearts as they embrace life. She’s just flown to India to kick off an amazing project called “Hearts of the World,” which will result in a gallery show in New York City (where she works as an artist). She just landed in India and shared this quick note after half a day on the ground there:
Wow! We arrived in Delhi at 5:30 this morn… and already have had the craziest time, with so many hilarious scammers and nonsense and roundabouts. We’ve met a Sunny, a Chopra, an Ali, and a Rocky… We’ve learned how to say thank you, sorry, and crazy in Hindi, have been offered and drank three masala teas, and have found that in our hotel, nothing works. We are having such a great day! I feel so so alive and present. Based on this one morning alone it is clear that the blog is going to be immensely rich with content. Even the smallest task here is often a ridiculous and winding journey. This is my first chance at internet since we left NY and right now I am setting up the first blog and will email you and the crew when it is posted. :)
I already have soooooo much material and it’s only 1pm. Thanks for your support. I’m excited to make this project amazing.
You can follow Nicolina’s upcoming adventures at nicolinaart.tumblr.com.
On my first solo-trip to Europe, in 1973 — just after high school graduation — I wrote postcards home nearly every day. I packed so much information onto each card it was a challenge to read them without a magnifying glass. Looking back on these exuberant little reports back to my family (42 years later!), I can see a travel writer in waiting. While the writing is pretty goofy, the passion for experience was solid. Here’s a card from Greece.
My dear folks back home. This is the roving reporter writing. How’s everything with you? That’s a stupid question ‘cause you can’t possibly answer it. Right now I’m sitting on the bow of a rather small boat heading from the Island of Salamis back to Athens. I’m alone, have a stuffed stomach, I’m hot with a tan + I’m in great spirits. I guess I left you in Delphi. OK. I slept fine on the roof + then I had a breakfast in the rough with a nice view. I caught the bus to the small port of Itea on the Bay of Corinth. The town really wasn’t much but I had a restful time + a nice swim. I love to swim down here. Well, I caught the 12:45 bus back over the mts, past Delphi + Arachova + on to Lavadia where I spent 3 hours doing my standard wander trick + I really got up to my neck in Greece. The place was like a ghost-town with chickens running around everywhere. I met these 2 girls from France + at the station I had a neat chat with a bloke from Britain + his girlfriend. He was a real neat guy. After a while the bus took me to Lavadia’s station (out in the hicks) + I began my standing up 20 drachma train ride to Athens. It seemed I was in for a long ride but at the next stop, my British buddies got on (They were kicked off their train) + we had a blast talking about the Queen, Heath, Nixon, Agnew + comparing British + American cops, cars, politics, music, laws, lifestyles + so on. It was really neat + before I knew it we were back in Athens. Still looking for action (to salvage a somewhat blah day) I caught the bus to Dafni + went to the wine festival. For 30 drachs ($1.00) I got all the wine I wanted, plenty of neat people + fantastic interesting meal! There were kegs everywhere labeled + over 60 local Greek wines to taste! It was really an experience. I found a great sweet wine called Moschato that I like more than any others. I spent an hour talking with a New Zealander who traveled all across southern Asia + I really learned a lot. While watching Greek folk dancers I met a great group. Then I decided to dance a little + had great fun. The funniest thing is watching all the “sloshed” Greeks dance + goof around. I slept in a forest by the Daphni Monastery, it was great ‘cause it was free + in the morning, after taking in the Monastery, I caught the bus + it just happened to be going to Piraeus the port, not Athens like I thought so at the port I bought some bread, fruit + olives + took a boat to the Island of Salamis which is amazingly rural for how close it is to Athens. After 45 minutes I landed + took the bus to the other side of the island + looked for a nice beach. I asked this girl named Maria + her friends where a good beach was + they showed me. I had a great sleep in the sun, swim + picnic. It was weird ‘cause everyone stared at me but I didn’t mind. One lady from Athens invited me to her house, to sleep free! On the way back I stopped by Maria’s looking for a little Greek hospitality. Boy did I get it. We talked + goofed around for a while + her mom brought me a drink + lots of chocolates. Then I met all the relatives, there were lots of them + just when I was about to leave, I was invited to stay for dinner! That was great. I had a fantastic meal (soup, fresh fish, Canadian salmon, raw clams, wine, salad, cake + chocolates) with Maria translating, we all had great conversation. It was really a cool evening. I took everyone’s picture, gave Maria one of me + they took me to the bus stop. After goodbyes I bussed back to the port, looked around + caught the boat back to Athens. I’ll meet Gene + the Hanbys either tonight or tomorrow. Bye, RICK.
Sometimes I enjoy thinking that I’m “roughing it” and “off the beaten path.” But I’ve never done any travel as rough and untouristy as my sister, Jan. She’s a couple of frigid days into her fourth Iditarod race. She and her dogs are doing great — and I’m so proud of her.
With the disturbingly warm weather lately, the route was shifted north, starting from Fairbanks, after a slushy ceremonial start in Anchorage (shown in this photo). As it’s not allowed for mushers to be reporting in from the trail, communications will be sketchy as Jan and her team drive through the arctic wilderness a thousand miles to Nome. But her dog race blog gives a fascinating insight into this amazing race. Click on over and see how she’s doing. Go, Jan!