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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Jolly olde England is the fifth stop on our grand tour of Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey, my new hour-long special that debuts on public television this month. Romantic music provided a soundtrack for the Victorian Age, back in the days when the sun never set upon the British Empire. And, while Edward Elgar’s most famous work is more associated these days with American graduation ceremonies, its celebration of “Pomp and Circumstance” feels distinctly English.

Re-watching this clip, I remember the fun challenge of introducing each of these great works of patriotic music. I had to give each piece some historical and cultural context — just as all of our tour guides at Rick Steves’ Europe endeavor to prepare our tour members to find both meaning and joy in new cultural experiences.

Enjoy this stirring little musical trip to England. If you like it, share it with your friends — and find out when the full one-hour special airs on your local public television station.

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

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As Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey debuts across the USA on public television this month, I’m bringing you clips all this week. In part four, we’ll see how, in the late 19th century, composers like Giuseppe Verdi partnered with freedom-lovers as Italy struggled heroically to unite and join the family of nations. Enjoy this stirring little musical trip back to the days when Italy won its independence.

Remember, the full hour-long special is available for free to any public television station. If it isn’t scheduled to air in your city yet, call your station to request it.

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

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In our third installment of Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey (which is debuting all across the USA on public television this month), we drop in on the Czech Republic. As throughout Europe in the late 19th century, Czech nationalists and Romantics teamed up to celebrate their unique cultural heritage. Bedrich Smetana’s masterwork, “The Moldau,” is the unofficial anthem of the Czech Republic… and if you’re headed to Prague, you’re sure to hear it.

Enjoy this little musical trip to the Czech lands. Share it with your friends (as there are five more symphonic journey clips in the next five days), and find out when the full special airs on your local public television station.

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

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On Friday, I filled you in on an exciting new project that’s currently debuting on public television stations nationwide: Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey.  This hour-long special celebrates the Romantic, patriotic music of seven European countries. This week, I’ll be sharing some clips to give you a taste. Today’s clip: Richard Wagner, the great German composer whose works stirred the souls of German kings and princes, nobles and peasants…and a certain Führer.

Setting up each piece as the event’s tour guide, it occurred to me that this represents how all of our guides at Rick Steves’ Europe prepare our travelers to be open to new cultural experiences. On our tours, we not only bring our travelers to exciting culture — we do our best to give it all meaning.

I hope you enjoy this little musical bit of Germany. Share this with your Facebook friends who enjoy travel and music. And find out when your television station will air Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey — or buy the DVD and CD on my online Travel Store.

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

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I am so happy that our newest production, “Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey,” is debuting all across the USA on public television. This hour-long special flies us musically to seven different countries in Europe. It celebrates how, in the late 19th century, music partnered with freedom-lovers; Romanticism and Nationalism were on the same team. For me this was a fun opportunity to partner with my local volunteer community orchestra here in Edmonds. I happily huddled with its wonderful conductor and came up with a concert plan, hosted the concert (three times in order to film it thoroughly), and then let my brilliant TV production team (Producer Simon Griffith and Editor Steve Cammarano) expertly cut gorgeous video clips to the music.

As the musical tour guide, the challenge for me was to say more while saying less. The joy was to let the gorgeous images simply play with music from that country–rather than having my script explain everything. With this first entry, we start in Austria. Then, over the next two weeks here on Facebook, we’ll share six more concert clips featuring six different, proud nations–ending with our big, fat Beethoven finale. I hope you enjoy this. Share this with your Facebook friends who enjoy weaving travel and classical music together. (BTW, the entire “Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey” special is airing across the USA on public television this season. If it’s not showing on your station, it is available to them for free. Give them a ring with a request, and it’s likely that you’ll have it on the air. If you can’t wait, the DVD and CD of the concert are now in our Travel Store on the Web.)

Now, I’d like this waltz with you.

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

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I was recently asked these questions, and thought you might enjoy the answers:

We’ll be traveling abroad with our kids in 2013. Is there one must-have item for an international family vacation?
I believe kids should have their own money belt, an expanded “vacation allowance,” and the responsibility to manage their funds and understand the foreign currency. They should also keep (as a precondition for getting the expanded allowance) a trip journal with meaningful thoughts and observations. That will end up being their favorite souvenir.

I’ve noticed that on your PBS show, you often carry a day bag. What’s inside?
In my day bag, I carry a camera, a sweater, an extra pencil, travel notes, my script (when making TV), a small water bottle…and, very often, a small ham-and-cheese sandwich swiped from the breakfast buffet.

When traveling to a foreign country, how important is knowing the native language? Are there any apps or books that you recommend for translation?
While I wish I spoke a foreign language (and Ireland is one of my favorite countries partly because, when hanging out with locals there, I have the sensation that I’m understanding a foreign language), I find that speaking the local language is not important for the basic needs of a traveler. For the same reason, I personally haven’t used a phrase book much, and I don’t think I’d bother with an app. A bold spirit of adventure, a dollop of common sense, and a big smile are all I need to communicate in my travels. These days, you’ll find anyone who’s young, well-educated, and/or working in tourism very likely to speak English.

What new places will you be visiting in 2013?
The West Bank (Palestinian Territories), Alexandria in Egypt, and Reykjavik. This summer, I’ll be taking a Rick Steves’ Scotland tour and expect to learn plenty as I visit some exciting new places with our Scottish guide. I’ll cap my travel year by taking a cruise on the Baltic Sea (working on our new Northern European Cruise Ports guidebook — coming out in its first edition this July). I’ll jump ship in St. Petersburg, Russia, where I’ll spend about five days, then stop by Iceland on my way home for my first-ever visit there.

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02-23-13 FB Rick LaptopWe are just about the only guidebook publisher who still endeavors to visit–in person–every sight in our top-selling titles every year. (And even our lowest-selling titles get a personal visit every other year.) That’s a lot of territory to cover, and we have a team of talented and hardworking researchers who are preparing to set out on their annual research rounds. While I still enjoy the work and wish I could do it all myself, it’s just far too much for me to cover in the 60 to 80 days I dedicate to guidebook research each year. Each spring, we meet with our researchers to review our strategy and share advice on smart researching. Here are just a few of the tips that came up this year:

Tourist Information
To identify English-speaking locals, look for young people who are well-educated and/or work in tourism.

The TI clerk may freeze up when they realize you’re a “journalist”; therefore, just ask questions as a confused tourist as long as you can.

Many tourist information offices (TIs) are now privatized–and have become ad agencies in disguise. Use them, but be savvy. Recognize when TIs are pushing their own pay phone numbers (when a toll-free alternative may still be available) or talking up hotels and tour companies that buy their favor. Be skeptical of gimmicky sights, restaurants, and activities that advertise in the TI magazines–in many places, a TI seal of approval means only that that outfit gave them money. TI scorn is likely just a blacklisting of small businesses that refuse to buy into their game.

Hotels and Restaurants
When visiting hotels and restaurants, to be sure you have the correct contact details, write your research notes on the establishment’s business card. Cross your 7s–European-style–so you don’t mistake them later for sloppy 1s.

Look for decals on doors of hotels and restaurants to see which guidebooks and organizations recommend them. If it’s in all the guidebooks, that’s a negative.

At a hotel, pretend you intend to sleep there, and ask for only one night. That way, you’ll be considered as “undesirable” as possible, so you’ll be offered the worst-scenario price and see their hardest-to-sell room. Don’t worry about the quality of beds–the days of saggy beds are past. And if we cover something in one listing, it needs to be consistent and specific in all the others.

Walk different routes to maximize your learning about neighborhoods where we recommend hotels.  Also be sure to walk through these neighborhoods late at night to gauge possible lowlife and noise problems. We won’t necessarily delete a place with these problems, but we need to be candid and warn people who might find this a problem. Don’t let hoteliers edit our listings. If they are above a porn shop and don’t want us to mention it, ignore their request. The listing is not a paid ad. They are lucky to be in the book at all.

Museums
List when the museum actually closes, not when they shut the ticket window. If researching during the off-season, be sure to ask about peak-season hours.

Combo-tickets are generally a scheme designed to let mediocre sights that few people will pay to visit enjoy the coattails of sights that everyone will see at any price. The disadvantage of combo-tickets: They cost more. The advantage: You can buy your ticket at the unpopular sight and walk directly into the popular sight without waiting in line (examples: Correr Museum for the Doge’s Palace in Venice; Palatine Hill for the Colosseum in Rome).

Nothing temporary is worth knowing about for your guidebook research. Don’t be distracted by something that won’t be there anymore by the time the book is published.

Be a cultural lint brush. Live the book. Stay on top of your research. Try your hardest not start the next town until all your notes from the last town are carefully typed up. Remember: The quality and thoroughness of the work you do will impact thousands of travelers next year, and will make for more happy travels than you can imagine.

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I spend most of my work time addressing the travel needs of adult travelers and marketing to that segment of our traveling population. My son, Andy, who’s running a tour program for students in Europe, does the same–but for the 20-year-old crowd.

I love watching Andy’s promotional video and putting myself in the mindset of a college-age traveler. I’ve been at this for over 30 years now, and it’s inspiring to see the ways things have changed…and the ways they’ve stayed the same. Today there are dirt-cheap plane flights, disposable cellphones, the same coins in nearly everyone’s pockets, bullet trains, hostels serving gourmet tapas, and no need for travelers’ checks. There’s a tunnel under the English Channel, and you can Skype home to Mom for free. Yet the adventure and thrills of good, old-fashioned vagabonding survive.

As a travel writer and teacher, one of my favorite discoveries is that the journal entries I wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate with the generally much-less-scruffy 20-year-old American exploring Europe in 2013. Today the same timeless magic is there…and it’s a lot more convenient and comfortable to find it. As it was for me a generation ago, students are still awakening to the wonders of our world and establishing the parameters of their worldview.

Immerse yourself in a 20-year-old’s wanderlust for 100 seconds and let this video clip connect you with a vivid and people-filled Europe that has nothing to do with a having lots of money. Smiles spring, taste buds pop, sunsets warm, and the world opens up like a Dutch tulip in springtime…even on a student’s budget. Then, in the Comments, share a vivid, perspective-bending experience you had on your student European adventure…perhaps so long ago.

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

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When a country or region is in turmoil, people ask me, “Are there deals to be had for travelers there?” Not that I’m any kind of saint, but when I travel to places in crisis, it’s not to take advantage of their hardship —  but to learn from their reality and to contribute to their economy through tourism.

When I do travel to a place that’s going through hard times, I know I’ll be spending substantial money there — and I try to spend it in a way that helps the locals. Visiting Greece from a cruise ship is easy and fun, but your serious money (accommodations, dinner, and tour guiding) sets sail with you. I remember how, immediately after the fall of the USSR, the Baltic States had lots of “joint venture” businesses — such as fancy hotels that were mostly owned by Germans and Swedes. These slick bits of Stockholm were being planted in Vilnius in hopes of big profits down the road for foreign investors. I always felt better staying in a humbler hotel with local roots.

This April, I’ll be navigating the complex touristic waters of Israel and the West Bank. I asked an Israeli tourism official if he cared that I’d also be featuring the West Bank in my work. He basically said, “We’re happy if you can send Israel and the people in the Palestinian Territories some tourism. It’s really important for our economies. And if it is good for the West Bank’s economic health, then it’s good for Israel, too.” By promoting tourism in the West Bank, I hope to play some small role in helping the struggling local economy…and, in a small way, promoting peace at the same time.

Where would I travel in Europe this year with that ethic in mind? For one thing, I’d be careful not to let hysterical “if it bleeds, it leads” news coverage skew my assessment of where it’s safe to travel. I would also not let the possibility of strikes or demonstrations keep me away from a country that’s facing challenges.

Travelers are like skiers: Some like the smooth, predictable slopes. Others find those a little boring, and prefer a few moguls here and a trail through the forest there. The key to enjoying moguls is to bend your knees. And, if you’re venturing into the forest, you better have the necessary information.

Likewise, the key to enjoying Europe, from Portugal to Rhodes, is to be flexible and to have the right information. As Europe continues to face trying times, I’m not expecting prices to go way down. But the relief-per-dollar my business brings to these places will be way up. That’s why, on my next trip, I’ll be visiting these countries: Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Happy — and thoughtful — travels!

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My son, Andy Steves, continues to build his Weekend Student Adventures tour program, offering American students in Europe three-day weekend tours of the top cities for about $250. (I got to be an assistant tour guide supporting Andy with one of his groups in Barcelona, and I can personally attest that his tours have to be about the best deal going for students looking to have a fun and well-organized weekend.) His bestselling trips each year are the famous festival weekends: Carnevale in Venice, Easter in Rome, Queen’s Day in Amsterdam, and St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin. These are the times when lifelong memories are created.

Andy’s St. Patrick’s Day weekend is almost sold out, as about a hundred students will join him and his Irish guides on the only day when anyone can be an honorary Irishman. Here’s Andy’s take on the celebration:

Historically, the first St. Paddy’s Day parades started popping up about 250 years ago in NYC and Boston; Irish soldiers would march through the streets on this day to reconnect with their roots. While at some point today’s celebration morphed into one that has little to do with the man it’s named after, I believe the day still presents an opportunity for millions around the world to reconnect with their Irish identity. With 37 million Americans claiming Irish ancestry (8 times the current population of Ireland itself), it makes sense that the biggest parades happen in the States: NYC, Boston, Chicago, and Savannah. But Ireland isn’t far behind. And what better and more authentic way to celebrate being Irish than on the streets of Ireland itself? Last year I was there as over 600,0000 revelers come in to Ireland’s capital to celebrate the weekend, wearing green and kissing lots of Irish maidens.

It took Ireland until the year 2000 for the Irish Department of Tourism to recognize this opportunity, but now they’re embracing the festive event as a way to pump up their economy. They’ve titled the weekend of celebrations “The World’s Friendliest Day,” and this year for the first time, they are inviting the general public to participate in the parade along with 17 bands and hundreds of performers from around the world.

While the parade and festivities are quite mainstream by now, my favorite place to be is off the beaten path next to a toasty wood oven in a little Irish pub near O’Connell Street, listening to an impromptu “trad” session. I love being around a group of locals singing the songs they’ve sung their entire lives. The musicians playing aren’t there for any reason besides the love of their musical repertoire and the convivial atmosphere. It doesn’t hurt that the local audience knows every single word of every single song they play. Old and young alike gather in pubs like these all across Ireland to create an atmosphere that I find absolutely unique to this country. This spirit is the reason I love coming back again and again.

Wherever you find yourself this St. Patrick’s Day weekend, my merry band of student travelers and I will be raising one of the 12 million pints of Guinness to be consumed around the world to you and all that is green. Slainte!

If you know any students studying in Europe, Andy has a great program worth checking out. Click on over to WSAEurope.com to see what he’s offering.

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