Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe

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 Best of Europe tour is finished. (I feel like sending that Rick Steves fellow a letter to tell him what a great time I had.)  I hope you enjoyed following my adventures these last three weeks. Of course, we’re really proud of our tour program. This year, we’re having our best season ever. So far over 19,000 travelers have signed up on over 800 of our 2014 tours, and plans for our 2015 season are well under way. The Best of Europe tour you joined me on is just one of over 30 different itineraries.

If you’re curious about our tour program, go to my tours website and browse around. We understand trusting a tour company with your precious vacation time and money is a huge decision, so call 425-608-4217 if you have more questions after you’ve looked at our website.

Each year we throw a big party for our tour alums and our guides. This little video clip lets you join the party for a few minutes. Check it out and think about letting us turn your travel dreams into smooth and affordable reality. Thanks.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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joe-tour-bus-rick-stevesJoe–as he’s done well over a hundred times before with our groups–drove masterfully from Amsterdam to Rome and up to Paris and was adored by all. After getting us to Paris, Joe had a five-hour drive back to his home in Belgium, where he enjoys a few days off before meeting his next Rick Steves tour group. I’m thankful that our bus drivers are a part of our traveling family. (Several times on this tour after a long drive, we’d walk across town for our group dinner. And, when we’d arrive at the restaurant, Joe would already be there…enjoying a nice glass of wine while awaiting our arrival. On other companies’ European tours, the last thing a driver would do is join his group for dinner during his time off. Not so with our drivers.) It’s always emotional for our groups when we unload for our last time and bid our driver farewell. Ciao, Joe!

rick-steves-builds-human-cathedralIn Europe, most commercial tour guides are called “tour managers.” They don’t really teach–they run the tour. They hire local guides that come and go in various cities to do the teaching. On a Rick Steves tour, the guide is more than a tour manager. He or she is also a teacher, and we do what we can to lace together and curate all the information we pick up from our many local contacts. We work to give the lessons context and more meaning…to make the art and history graspable. One of my great tour-guiding joys is introducing a group to its first Gothic cathedral by “building” one out of our tour members before entering. At Paris’ Notre-Dame, our guide Reid–knowing how much I always enjoyed this teaching stunt–asked me if I wanted to build a Gothic cathedral with our group. I jumped at the opportunity. Here you see me lining up our columns and making sure the buttresses are flying in with their support before erecting the spire.

human-spireStanding in the shadow of Paris’ Notre-Dame, our group built a Gothic cathedral with 13 tourists. With buttresses in place, columns strong, and ribs coming together at pointed arches in good Gothic style, we had created the skeletal structure of a Gothic cathedral. Little Brogan then hoisted himself high above it all, crowning our structure with a spire.

louvre-main-hallEurope’s biggest palace, the Louvre, contains its greatest collection of paintings. It just makes sense: You have a revolution, cut off the king’s head, take his amazing collection of art, hang it in his palace, and open it to the people. That’s exactly what happened and, since the 1790s, the unwashed masses have enjoyed a royal collection of paintings.

louvre-grand-galleryIn its day the Louvre was the biggest building in the world. The Grand Gallery is about a quarter mile long…lined with amazing art.

pickpocket-sign-in-louvreEven with warning signs flanking the Mona Lisa, pickpockets earn a fine living jostling with the masses as everyone ogles in front of Leonardo’s smirking masterpiece.

rick-steves-tour-group-eiffel-towerOn our tours, each guide works hard to create a beautiful-and-memorable last evening together. Here in Paris, we stroll from our dinner restaurant to the Champ de Mars for a memorable send-off in front of the icon of European travel, the Eiffel Tower.

rick-steves-tour-jump-eiffel-towerSometimes, when you’ve shared a great European tour, you’ve just got to cap it with a joyful “jumpie.” Happy travels!

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Paris is the finale of our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour. And our first order of business (after checking in at the hotel) is getting our group comfortable with perhaps the world’s greatest subway system, Le Métro. This little video clip, taken as we were passing a group of Russian troubadours, captures the energy of being underground with the Parisians.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Guides and drivers inhabit their buses in ways tour members can hardly appreciate. And during rest stops, I enjoy being locked in to do a little writing. This little clip is, literally, a “bus tour.”

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Sorry to interrupt my reports from Europe, but there’s big cinema news coming out of the USA that I just have to share. I’ve been in lots of TV shows but, until now, never in a movie. In a few days, that’s about to change.

In 2012 I had the opportunity to help lead the historic campaign in Washington State to legalize, tax, and regulate recreational marijuana.  Along with Colorado, legalizing marijuana got more votes than President Obama (56 percent). The citizens of two states stood up and voted overwhelmingly to end the failed War on Drugs and stop the mass incarceration of our most disadvantaged citizens for petty marijuana arrests.  We made history together…and it was an exciting story I’m very proud of.

Thankfully, a group of talented Seattle filmmakers was there from the start to capture the story.  The award-winning and critically acclaimed documentary “Evergreen: The Road to Legalization” shows the candid, behind-the-scenes drama of this historic change in American drug policy through the eyes of those who lived it (including yours truly!). And it gives a glimpse at just how–I believe–state by state, the Prohibition of our age will be ended.

I am thrilled to announce that “Evergreen” is beginning its theatrical run starting this Friday, June 13th, in New York City and continuing in select cities throughout the country this summer.  Here is the run-down of screenings and dates:

New York, NY
Opens June 13, 2014
Cinema Village  

Denver, CO
Opens June 20, 2014
SIE Film Center

Dormont, PA
June 26 – 29, 2014
Hollywood Theater

Seattle, WA
Opens June 27, 2014
SIFF Cinema

Webster Groves, MO
July 25 – 27, 2014
Webster University Film Series 

Read a review here.

The theatrical run will be followed by an online release in the fall, just as a handful of additional states will be preparing to vote on their own legalization measures.  Please support independent film-making and the movement to end the War on Drugs.  Go see this movie!

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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We took our kids out of school every May for many years, and I always considered it good parenting, great education, and a bonus for the adult tour members to have kids as part of the group. Having Annaleise and Brogan on this tour was, for me, particularly fun. It reminded me of the joy of a parent who is introducing a child to the broader world (and the wide-eyed wonder I traveled with on my first schoolboy trip in 1969). Annaleise and Brogan were great travelers, and it just seemed right to raise a glass to our youngest travel partners (FYI–this video starts in the middle of my toast).

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour is a carefully balanced design of intense big cities and relaxed small towns. It starts easy in Holland and finishes with a cultural bang in France. As a tour guide, a favorite challenge is to prep our travelers so they enjoy and appreciate French culture rather than find it threatening. A nice intro to France is the charming, wine-soaked town of Beaune in profoundly French Burgundy.

After the Alps, we need to raise the cultural bar a bit. All dressed up (pardon my wardrobe malfunction), we embrace the French joie de vivre. Pas de problème!

After the Alps, we need to raise the cultural bar a bit. All dressed up (pardon my wardrobe malfunction), we embrace the French joie de vivre. Pas de problème!

A fun way to take our travelers to new gastronomic heights is to order escargots. At first the reaction was, as you can see here, “Snails!? No way!” But with a gentle but firm hand, all but one in our group ate their escargot. And they liked it.

A fun way to take our travelers to new gastronomic heights is to order escargots. At first the reaction was, as you can see here, “Snails!? No way!” But with a gentle but firm hand, all but one in our group ate their escargot. And they liked it.

As a guide, it’s fun to introduce people to something they’ve never experienced before...especially if they’re afraid for no good reason. There must have been six or eight people in our group who had never eaten a snail before. I managed to get all but one in our group to try one...and all responded with a yummy thumbs up. After a little coaching on fork technique, our two youngest travelers enjoyed their first (of several) escargots as well.

As a guide, it’s fun to introduce people to something they’ve never experienced before…especially if they’re afraid for no good reason. There must have been six or eight people in our group who had never eaten a snail before. I managed to get all but one in our group to try one…and all responded with a yummy thumbs up. After a little coaching on fork technique, our two youngest travelers enjoyed their first (of several) escargots as well.

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otto-teaches-fondue
In Switzerland, it seems the traditional lifestyles have retreated to the high country, where they survive with an impressive vigor. That was clear when Otto, whose family runs the Hotel Stechelberg (which our groups love), gave us a lesson in why his fondue is so darn good.
trish-eat-fondue
After seeing how fondue’s made, it’s only right to dip in. Trish has the technique down just right. (Many of these photos are shot by Trish Feaster, check out her blog at The Travelphile.com.)
rick-steves-avalanche-shelter
Stark concrete structures in Switzerland, which seem like random bus stops, are actually avalanche shelters. While these are no-nonsense bunkers designed to save lives, there’s no rule against cheering them up. How about a few butterflies?
dave-and-terri-geo-caching
As a tour guide, I enjoy how different travelers bring their hobbies on vacation with them. Tour members Dave and Terri enjoy geocaching. It’s an impressively extensive network of people playing high-tech hide-and-seek at remote places all around the globe. At each stop, Dave and Terri get out their GPS gadget and search for a capsule hidden by a fellow geocacher. With success, they return to the bus all smiles. Here, at a Stechelberg campsite, they’re about to hit the geocache jackpot. How’s your experience with geocaching?
reid-coen-riding-cow
Our tour guide, Reid, granted us this photo op. And it’s dying for a clever caption. Any ideas?
rick-steves-splitting-wood
This tree tried and failed to block our way. Instead, it gave us a photo op begging for a caption. How would you title this shot?

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By the end of the day, Trish and I just couldn’t stop hiking. So, rather than taking the standard gondola ride down to our hotel, we continued on foot…steeply and through the trees, hearing the rush of waterfalls one after the other all the way. Thankful for the great trail signage, I took a moment to share how the trails are organized for visitors. (Sorry–I misstated the hiking time in the clip. I won’t even blame the altitude.) Between the 25- and 40-minute options, we took the 25-minute trail. Remembering to put weight on the balls of our feet rather than our heels when descending for sure-footedness, we got back to the hotel just in time for fondue.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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One of the highlights of our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour was our group hike. As this was pretty demanding–and there was a concern about snow on the trails this early in the season–only the fittest of our group participated.  For me, it was a joy not to be saddled with research chores but to simply enjoy half a day hiking in Switzerland with a wonderful group of traveling friends.

We started our day gazing down at this high alp--where the cows spend their summers Heidi-style--from the revolving restaurant capping the Schilthorn in Switzerland's Berner Oberland. Looking down at these high meadows, I’m always tempted to actually hike through them. And that’s exactly what we did, taking the North Face Trail from Mürren under the Schilthorn. Coming upon this meadow, high above the tree line, was a delightful reward for the climb.

We started our day gazing down at this high alp–where the cows spend their summers Heidi-style–from the revolving restaurant capping the Schilthorn in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland. Looking down at these high meadows, I’m always tempted to actually hike through them. And that’s exactly what we did, taking the North Face Trail from Mürren under the Schilthorn. Coming upon this meadow, high above the tree line, was a delightful reward for the climb.

Assistant Tour Guide Trish and I both love our Sony RS100 cameras. With this angle, she captured how the alpine flowers were a big part of our experience.

Assistant Tour Guide Trish and I both love our Sony RS100 cameras. With this angle, she captured how the alpine flowers were a big part of our experience.

(Many of the photos on this blog are shot by Trish Feaster. For more of her photos, as well as her take on this tour, check out her blog at The Travelphile.com.)

When hiking in the Alps, take layers of clothes, sunscreen, a mobile phone, appropriate shoes, and big smiles. These travelers, the most rugged third of our tour group, were great walkers.

When hiking in the Alps, take layers of clothes, sunscreen, a mobile phone, appropriate shoes, and big smiles. These travelers, the most rugged third of our tour group, were great walkers.

The Swiss organize their firewood like they organize their populace: extremely tidy. It’s dangerous to generalize about different nationalities...but I love to. The Swiss are neatly stacked. How would you characterize the Swiss?

The Swiss organize their firewood like they organize their populace: extremely tidy. It’s dangerous to generalize about different nationalities…but I love to. The Swiss are neatly stacked. How would you characterize the Swiss?

A highlight of our hike was venturing under this powerful waterfall called Sprutz.

A highlight of our hike was venturing under this powerful waterfall called Sprutz.

Our hike had a happy ending, popping out in a flowery meadow at the tip-top of my favorite Swiss village--Gimmelwald. And, as he has for 30 years of visits, Walter Mittler was waiting at his Hotel Mittaghorn. Way back in my student days, I kept our groups in the rustic youth hostel here in Gimmelwald. Walter invited me to upgrade and keep my groups at his place, and I did. Walter symbolizes our leap from hostels to hotels, and the importance of personality-driven hotels and restaurants in our tour program. While we no longer sleep at Walter’s hotel, I always drop in to say hi to my old friend. He’s 90 years old now...and still going strong.

Our hike had a happy ending, popping out in a flowery meadow at the tip-top of my favorite Swiss village–Gimmelwald. And, as he has for 30 years of visits, Walter Mittler was waiting at his Hotel Mittaghorn. Way back in my student days, I kept our groups in the rustic youth hostel here in Gimmelwald. Walter invited me to upgrade and keep my groups at his place, and I did. Walter symbolizes our leap from hostels to hotels, and the importance of personality-driven hotels and restaurants in our tour program. While we no longer sleep at Walter’s hotel, I always drop in to say hi to my old friend. He’s 90 years old now…and still going strong.

A beer hits the spot after a good hike. Here we sit, in front of Walter’s Hotel Mittaghorn, in Gimmelwald...high in the Swiss Alps. Many travelers have fond memories of a nice frosty (or whatever) treat after an exhilarating natural or cultural experience in Europe. How about you?

A beer hits the spot after a good hike. Here we sit, in front of Walter’s Hotel Mittaghorn, in Gimmelwald…high in the Swiss Alps. Many travelers have fond memories of a nice frosty (or whatever) treat after an exhilarating natural or cultural experience in Europe. How about you?

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