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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Thanks so much for the helpful tips and suggestions for my upcoming work in Egypt.

Last year I had an op-ed piece published in USA Today about the value of understanding the Holy Land. I proposed that finding a way to humanize and give dignity and security to all its residents would be the best thing for Israel’s national security interests. This generated an amazing amount of feedback, both angry and encouraging. And this inspired me to produce a TV show with the same intent that my Iran TV special had: Take a troubled and complicated land that is embroiled in tension (or worse) with our government and treat it as a travel destination. It’s not hammering away at the typical divisive issues, but simply trying to understand the heritage and history of the people who live there. And it’s for viewers to see the value in visiting as a curious tourist who, rather than taking sides, simply wants to learn from a firsthand experience.

Our Iran experience was hugely gratifying. I’m hoping our Palestinian experience will be the same. In April (after Egypt), I’ll be in Israel and the West Bank to scout for two new TV shows: one on Israel and one on the Palestinian Territories. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what to feature in the Israel show. But I’m excited to learn about the West Bank as a tour guide.

There are a million video projects that take sides on the Israel/Palestine issue. The world doesn’t need a Rick Steves TV show piling it on that way. I simply want to feature the West Bank (no Gaza) as a tourist destination…to see its sights and learn about the age-old culture of its people. To humanize and better understand it.

If you have travel experience in the West Bank, what are some facets–cultural and geographic–that I should be sure to weave into my script? If you have a favorite guide who is Palestinian, I’d love the contact information.

Thanks!

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I have a New Year’s tradition: I lay all my travel dreams on the table, sort them out, prioritize, and begin the process of turning those dreams into reality. My spring 2013 trip will be, as always, heavy on the Mediterranean (Egypt, Israel, Palestinian territories, Turkey, Italy, Spain, and Portugal). I’ll be scouting TV shows in the Middle East, shooting two shows in Turkey, and then updating guidebooks.

What I’d like is a little advice on Egypt from my good travel buddies here on my Blog.

I know Egypt is in a bit of turmoil and that tourism is way down, but I expect it will bounce back when things stabilize. A decade ago I did a single TV show on Egypt (featuring the predictable tourist attractions in Cairo and Luxor). This April, I hope to scout there for 10 days and then, in a year or so, take the film crew there to shoot two shows.

Here’s what I featured in my last show: Pyramids of Giza, a camel ride, Khan el-Khalili (medieval bazaars,   including a spice bazaar), smoking a sheeshaw, Cairo’s Egyptian National Museum, the night train to Luxor, great temples of Luxor, Valley of the Kings, a Nile ferry, a bike ride into village Egypt, and sailing in a felucca on the Nile at sunset.

In the next show I’ll have double the time and want to include the great city of Alexandria.

So, if you have any first-hand (or second-hand) experience from the road in Egypt, I’d love to hear about it.

Here are my questions:

• What’s it like for a Western tourist in Egypt right now?
• In what condition are the big, obvious “must see” sights for tourists?
• In Alexandria, Cairo, and Luxor, what would be some great sights and experiences (beyond the ones I listed above) to work into the script?
• Do you know a good and reliable local guide in Cairo or Luxor?

Thanks for the help and Happy New Year,

Rick

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This is a time of year when we think about what’s really important. One of my favorite thoughts: “These are the good old days.” Considering our beautiful lot in life here in USA 2012, I can’t imagine it getting much better. I’m making a point to enjoy where we’re at, to be thankful, and — as much as is honest — to give things a positive twist.

Below you can watch part two of the blooper reel from the just-completed new season of my public television series, Rick Steves’ Europe. Reviewing these clips, I’m reminded what a blessing it is to have work — especially work you enjoy and believe in — and how good it is to laugh while working hard with people you enjoy.

In this series of screw-ups, we see my producer Simon at work — carrying a huge tripod to the top of the Florence cathedral in case the cameraman might need it. While climbing, Simon repeats a phrase we all tell our children: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

While I still prefer no “product” or makeup while working, we have discovered hairspray. After 20 years of cursing the wind and dribbling water on springy hairs, we now pull out the hairspray when needed. To be able to work with the wind kicking up has saved our hides many times.

Whether savoring delicious food with local friends, teaching ancient history on an ancient toilet, demonstrating the importance of a helmet deep inside the mine, imagining barbarians from present-day Scotland storming Hadrian’s Wall, finding a piano to pound on, pitching hay high in the Alps at Gimmelwald, or skipping through the rain at Castlerigg Stone Circle in the Cumbrian Lake District, watching these bloopers reminds me how much fun it is bringing home the wonders of Europe — either with our guidebooks, tours, or TV shows. Thanks for traveling with us, and Merry Christmas!

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

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With the release of each new TV series, we collect our favorite bloopers and wrap them up in a goofy little video package. We’ve posted this batch of the-camera’s-rolling screw-ups to brighten your holiday just a little bit and to share some of the fun we had while filming our latest season.

In reviewing these, I notice how I struggle to remember my lines, how we work hard to get just the right light (often in the last 30 minutes before sundown), how we scout just the right spot for “on-cameras” (like in the mud of the Venetian lagoon), how I’m determined to include the heavy history, and how I can hardly contain myself when it all comes together (like sitting in Casanova’s prison cell).

These clips also remind me how thrilling it is to be all alone in great places (like in Florentine palaces and with Monet’s water lilies)…and how we have no control over who veers into our shot. It seems we’re always dealing with limited time — either how long we’re allowed in a place, or how long we’ll have the good light. Many of the actual on-camera lines are crafted right there on the spot, when we better understand what we will have in the program (and with time running out). And another big concern is helping those making guest appearances on camera with me to be loose and have fun. I love to get other voices in on the program.

We have fun ongoing jokes with our crew. For a decade, I’ve been trying to sneak in my various favorite little factoids. For example, years ago I was told that the word “barbarian” comes from the Roman notion that non-Romans were little more than animals with a language that sounded that way: “bar bar bar bar.” But my crew always outvotes me on the veracity of that notion.

Anyway, enjoy these little bloopers as you enter into what I hope is a very happy holiday season for you and your family.

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

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One of the joys of my work is hearing from people I’ve encountered in my travels about how the things we do here as travel writers have impacted their lives. So many Europeans we meet are favorites of mine because of their passion for their culture and their gift for sharing it.

Recently, out of the blue, I received an email from the daughter of a dear man I met on a desolate roadside in the Highlands of Scotland. It was about twelve years ago, when I was scrambling to make a TV show about the Highlands. As if placed there by heaven’s Central Casting, this tender giant of a man was bagpiping to the birds, the passing clouds, and the occasional motorist. He chose a spot that seemed intentionally miles from nowhere. We stopped, and he graciously demonstrated his pipes to us, giving us a tour of that fascinating symbol of Scottish culture. I’ve never forgotten that wonderful chance meeting…and it ended up a fine little part of our TV show.

The piper’s daughter wrote to me just last week, saying, “I want to thank you for the video on YouTube titled ‘Rannoch, Scotland: Highlands Roadside Piper.’ The piper in the video was my father Isaac, who sadly passed away 5 years ago in 2007. I only learned of this video today and was utterly stunned to hear his voice and see him the way he was.” She went on to say how much the video meant to her and that she hoped we’d never remove it, because he was an amazing man and now she can see her father whenever she needs to. Apparently, this is the only video clip she has of her father doing what he so loved to do…play his bagpipes surrounded by the glory of his Highlands deep in Scotland. She said, “I can now see my Daddy any time I like and remember him for the great man he was, and hear his voice and music again.”

It was with great joy that I sent her a DVD of her dad with the entire Scotland show. And it’s with great joy that I share this video clip of Isaac, the Highlands Roadside Piper, with you.

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

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To the 650 people who donated $100 apiece to Bread for the World to help fund their work in protecting hungry and homeless people from the budget cuts our government needs to make: Thank you very much! This money will help very much in their important work.

For a little more insight into the situation from a caring and faith perspective, this article by Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine is interesting. Also, Jim visited our studio last year for an interview on my radio program.

Of course, when you need to get elected, you talk about the struggles of the middle class. But many people on our planet are struggling just to have the struggles of the middle class. We just gave many of them a bit of a Christmas present.

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As we enjoyed breakfast aboard our American Safari Cruise, our guide reminded us that with the beautiful full moon we enjoyed last night came a very low tide this morning. And in 15 minutes, the first skiff would head out for some tide pooling in Port Houghton. The little boy in me jumped into action, as I once loved nothing more than to lose myself in the wonders of a bay drained of water and entirely exposed at low tide. Every tide pool was both crisp and slimy, a salty wonderland. Every rock was some crunchy creature’s castle.

Tide pooling — life underfoot.

(All photos by Trish Feaster)

Landing with a dozen cruisers, our guide oriented us. I figured I’d wander off on my own. But he gave meaning to each discovery in a way I had never appreciated. He wielded a guidebook to the sea life (Audubon Society Nature Guide: Pacific Coast) like I would employ a guidebook to the Renaissance. Empty clamshells had a neat hole hammered by the beak of an oystercatcher. Chitons, considered one of the oldest life forms, clung to rocks as if part of the rocks themselves. An array of barnacles adapted to their environment so obviously that they inspired Charles Darwin to pursue his notion of evolution.

Standing alone in my mighty rubber boots, I just listened to the crunching, squirting, wilting, and tilting of the fertile compost pile of life all around me. With each step, I killed things… while convincing myself that they were heartless things that would kill me if they could.

Eagles soared overhead. Our guide said something about “obligate siblicide” among gulls, who had to kill their brothers and sisters to survive. I wondered, “Why? With this buffet of free and fresh seafood exposed with the falling tide twice a day, isn’t life pretty easy?”

After the ebbing tide reached its lowest point, it began its steady march back in. Watching a limpet go from high and dry to underwater a matter of minutes, I pondered the flexible toughness of these creatures — under the sun for half their lives, and then under the cold sea for the other…first the prey of grazing birds, then the prey of scary-looking crustaceans.

And surveying all this life — from that which the low tide never quite reached, to tide pools abundant with fanciful creatures; from the yellow lichen blanketing high rocks nourished only by sea spray, to birds overhead — I saw strata. It was a parfait of sea life.

A salty parfait of sea life.

Our ship’s dining room — 10 tables for the 60 of us, with the crinkled surface of the sea at about table level just outside the big windows on either side — was a place of conviviality, for feasting on seafood while still marveling at the majesty of Alaska. Sitting down for dinner, we left Port Houghton and were heading up Frederick Sound to Stephens Passage. Just before dessert, our captain suddenly slowed way down and turned 90 degrees starboard. On one side, the sun was dipping behind glacier-blanketed mountains in the distance. On the other side, a big full moon was rising over glacier-blanketed mountains in the distance.

After five days, I thought I had experienced all that a cruise through Southeast Alaska could offer: breaching whales, calving glaciers, bears dragging salmon out of waterfalls, kayaking among harbor seals in desolate inlets, and hikes through temperate rainforests. Now, with this meal, bookended by the sun and the moon, I thought, probably not. Southeast Alaska goes on and on.

Southeast Alaska goes on and on.

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The beauty of my recent Alaska trip with American Safari Cruises was that there was no contact with civilization on land. The closest thing we got to civilization was hiking down a desolate logging trail through a peaceful forest. I parked my rubber boots at the shore and slipped on my normal hiking shoes, not realizing we’d encounter giant puddles. Thankfully my guide went above and beyond the call of duty by carrying me piggyback across four such puddles during our memorable-for-many-reasons hike…while my travel partner, Trish Feaster, filmed it (over the giggles of my fellow hikers).

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

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Drug law reform advocates worked very hard over the last year, won the election, and today marijuana is legal in two states: Washington and Colorado. As the new law (Initiative 502) kicks in today in my state, I was wondering how to celebrate. While many will just smoke a little pot, I would rather focus on building on our victory and contributing further to the end of the Prohibition of our age. Should this movement go nationwide? Watch the following clip, from today’s CBS This Morning, and tell me what you think.

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Still thrilled after our bear encounter (see my post from last week), our American Safari Cruise motored to the next stop. Up in the bridge, I studied the traditional yellow charts and learned to navigate the software program with those same charts digitized. A channel led to the distant horizon, evoking the mystique of the Pacific Ocean. Between us and the open sea was a dramatic landmass. The captain said, “That’s Admiralty Island — 1,700 square miles and 1,700 bears, one bear per square mile. Tlingit Indians called it the ‘Fortress of the Bears.’”

Anchoring in Thomas Bay, we geared up for a hike along Cascade Creek. In Southeast Alaska, the metabolism of nature seems to churn at a high level. While the region has a thousand estuaries, the entire area could be considered a single, vast estuary. Geologists figure more freshwater flows into the sea in Southeast Alaska than in the Amazon basin.

Everyone on board was issued rain pants, rain jackets, and rubber boots. While I wanted to use the hiking boots I packed from Seattle, it was the ship’s rubber boots that served me best. In this area, there are almost no trails and certainly no docks. Skiffs skid to a stop on wild beaches. Boatswains expect to ding up propellers on their outboard motors. Our 90 HP Yamaha outboard has a guard for the propeller — but they still get bent up, and the ship comes with four replacements for each skiff. Hopping out, then walking through marshy tidal flats, we often encountered the notorious “boot-sucking mud” — mud that could literally pull the boot right off your foot. The other risk was “topping off” — stepping into a river or tide pool that was deeper than your boots were high.

Boot-sucking mud at low tide.

(All photos by Trish Feaster)

Our hike followed the aptly named Cascade Creek up and up. As is the case when experiencing Southeast Alaska, the trail didn’t actually take us to a particular destination. Time after time, we’d venture in some direction, and the venture itself was the reason. We’d hike, motor, paddle, or gaze until we’d seen enough…then turn back. Things don’t seem to end around here. Stand on the prow of the ship and pan slowly in one direction, and the view doesn’t stop. Things just keep going.

It was amazing to think that the very rough Cascade Creek trail, apart from faint and unseen animal trails, was the only path through a vast wooded mountainside that towered mightily out of the sea. It led deep and high into a vast yet rare-on-this-planet coastal temperate rain forest. This climb took concentration, as each step needed to be carefully placed on a notched stone, exposed root, boggy ground, or stretch of boot-sucking mud. Walking sticks were so helpful it almost felt like I was cheating.

For the photographers, this was a chance for extremely close-up work: spider webs beaded with dew drops; armies of tiny mushrooms festooned in red, marching up a nursery log; and vibrant bouquets of little flowers growing in vertical gardens on the dirt-caked root system of a once mighty but now upended tree.

Sun and shade were nature’s sweet and sour, as a towering canopy filtered the light, and silver rims of backlighting seemed to direct my attention. Standing silently, I listened, smelled, and looked. Turning very slowly 360 degrees, it was as if I was in a fertile world where the cycle of life was a slow-moving carousel and the only color was moss.

Old growth and adventurous cruisers.

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