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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Exploring polder land with Majel, our Wetlands Safari guide, we learn that the ground is just a mat of vegetation, and below it is the inland sea — and when you throw your weight around, the world becomes your own private trampoline.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
An amazing thing about Amsterdam is that, in 10 minutes (by bike or public bus), you can be in the wide-open polder land — the vast fields reclaimed from the sea where cows graze, tiny canals function as fences, and only church spires interrupt the horizon. A fun way to experience this is by canoe with a local guide. And that’s the mission of Majel Tromp, a friend who runs Wetlands Safari (which I’ve recommended in my guidebook for many years). In a couple of months, I’ll be taking my film crew on a canoe ride with Majel.
Paddling through villages where front doors face the canal rather than the road is a reminder that there was a time when the main form of transportation in the Netherlands was by boat.
In July, my film crew and I will be on Majel’s tour. So, this month I took her tour to preview what we might shoot. In this natural preserve, the water is shallow. When you stick your oar into the mud and twist you wring bubbles out of the sod: methane — natural gas. (You can smell it.) And, sticking a pole into the ground, you discover the “land” is thin — about a meter thick before you hit the water table underneath.
There’s no dry ground in the polder land, so a Wetlands Safari picnic is always spread out on a plastic sheet.
Two and a half years ago, horrific flash floods buried two of the five Cinque Terre towns in mud. My favorite town, Vernazza, was left uninhabitable for months as the Italian army and emergency workers helped dig it out. I wanted to be sure the Cinque Terre was ready for prime time before we produced our new show on the area — and thankfully, after lots of hard work, it is.
Imagine five wonderfully remote and rustic port towns dotting the most rugged part of the Italian Riviera. Here are two of those towns — each connected by very scenic trails.
Throughout Europe, there are towns built along ravines where rivers run into lakes or the sea. As their town grows, someone gets the bright idea to pave over the ravine and build a practical main road, rather than a charming but impractical line of little bridges. Vernazza (whose name means “little Venice” in the local dialect, for its many long-gone bridges) was one such town. Generally it’s not a problem, and the stream runs peacefully in a canal under the main drag. But in October 2011, a year’s worth of rain fell in a couple of hours. The steep surrounding hills functioned as a funnel, a wall of water hit the town, and the underground stream got jammed up. The violent torrent washed cars and mud and rocks — anything in reach — through the city and into the sea, and buried every ground floor in mud. Today, Vernazza has made sure its drainage system is ready for violent weather — destructive weather that all the world likely will find routine in the future.
While the flood of 2011 was a disaster that swept several locals out to sea (their bodies actually washed up in France), one benefit of the flood in Vernazza was the creation of this wonderful beach at the edge of town.
When I first came to the Cinque Terre as a scruffy backpacker, Monica’s father, Lorenzo, befriended me and made me welcome at his restaurant. That was back in the 1970s. Lorenzo is now enjoying an eternal view from a cemetery high above his town, and his daughter Monica, seen here, runs the family restaurant. Twelve years ago, Monica took me to the cemetery overlooking her town, with our cameras rolling. And with this visit she took time out (on the day her restaurant was opening after being closed for the winter) to take us up to the cemetery again. To follow my dear Vernazza friend Monica through her town’s cemetery and hear her remember her departed friends illustrated the beautiful function cemeteries provide.
Having visited Vernazza for over 30 years, I now have many friends in its cemetery. I remember following one of these dear friends, Monica, past the tombs in her town’s cemetery as she recalled her departed friends — illustrating the beautiful function that cemeteries provide.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
My son, Andy Steves, runs his own tour company. His mission: to help American students in foreign study programs enjoy smart, experiential, and inexpensive three-day weekends. The students never have classes on Friday, and discount airlines make it easy to fly just about anywhere for $50 round-trip. So, Andy’s company, Weekend Student Adventures, offers €200 three-day tours all over Europe. He’s taken literally thousands of students on great trips in the past few years…to rave reviews. See WSA on facebook – https://www.facebook.com/wsaeurope?ref=ts&fref=ts.
My son, Andy, spends more time than I do in Europe. But we rarely connect because his tours run during the school year and I’m normally in Europe in the summer. However, Andy just finished his tour season and was able to drop by and hang out with the crew and me while we filmed for four days on Italy’s Cinque Terre. Though Andy had other things to do during the day, each evening he managed to show up…just in time for dinner. I was happy to have Andy dining with us for two nice meals on camera for this episode.
Andy has become a workaholic tour organizer…just like his Dad. Well, not quite as bad. But this moment, with both of us on our beds and hard at work on our laptops, with the wonder of the Riviera just a block away, struck me as interesting.
Seeing Andy off at the Monterosso train station was really fun — and tear-jerkingly beautiful for his proud Dad. Andy is an amazing traveler who, I’m sure, knows his angle on European travel better than anyone.
We’re having a great time filming our new public television show on the Cinque Terre, Italy’s perfect little traffic-free stretch of Riviera. Here are some behind-the-scenes shots from our shoot.
Our crew was out shooting on the breakwater in Monterosso. We scrambled for six days to finish our new Cinque Terre show. The weather was horrible for three days and just fine for three days. So whenever the sun was out…we were very busy shooting. We had just enough gorgeous weather to continue our mission of showing Europe as if it’s always sunny.
With so many of my guidebook readers enjoying the Cinque Terre, whenever I needed a bit player or two, I’d just tell the crew “I’ll be right back with people.” I snared a fan of our TV show from New Jersey with his French girlfriend, and they enjoyed a nice glass of the local dessert wine, sciacchetrà, with biscotti.
This scene looked very romantic on video. But in reality, they had a camera on one side and a reflector on the other as they looked into each other’s eyes and dunked their biscotti.
Shooting the back lanes of Vernazza, I had a list of things I needed to film in order to “cover the script.” One was the inside of a B&B or rented apartment — the best way to sleep on a budget in the area. This can be a headache to set up for the camera. But as we were filming, a couple stuck their heads out a window high above us and said hi. I invited myself in to check out their digs. It was perfect. Moments later, the film crew was in their private rented apartment showing our viewers exactly what an independent budget traveler’s accommodations look like.
If we are on target with our work — after we’ve filmed everything and know exactly what we have — we huddle to polish (or “scrub”) the script. Then I record a “scratch track” in the hotel room, which Simon brings home to use as the rough audio track for editing. When the show is all edited together, then we go to a professional recording studio in Seattle and record the formal voice track. The day after we finished shooting (and recorded this track), Simon and Karel flew home, ready to dive into post-production work.
We all love seafood, and it was seafood salads, stuffed mussels, and anchovies for lunch and dinner all week. When the show was finally in the can, we celebrated at Monterosso’s Belvedere Restaurant with their much-loved “Seafood Amphora.” When the waiter emptied the amazing pottery jar full of seafood into the big bowl on our table, we knew we were in for a memorable final meal on the Riviera.
This spring and summer, we’re filming six new public television programs to wrap up our new season: Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, the Veneto, and the Cinque Terre. We do two shows (12 days) per shoot. Right now, we’re having great fun in Italy shooting episodes on the Veneto and the Cinque Terre.
Cameraman Karel and producer Simon are artfully capturing some of Europe’s greatest art on this shoot. Here, we’re surrounded by exquisite mosaics in Ravenna.
I love all the new technology that makes travel easier than ever. With the help of this rudimentary GPS system, we knew we were in Italy.
I generally don’t care that much about the weather. But when filming, I live by the weather forecasts. We enjoyed perfect weather for six days shooting our Veneto show. But when we headed to the Italian Riviera, when the weather was critical, the forecasts were horrible. I search and search online for a decent forecast, and sometimes, I come up with nothing but drizzle. We started our Italian Riviera show (near La Spezia) with nothing but rain in the forecast.
Our crew in Vernazza 2001: This favorite view of my favorite town on my favorite stretch of Mediterranean coastline doesn’t change much. This is our crew (me, producer Simon Griffith, and cameraman Karel Bauer) in 2001. It was fun to update this episode with many of the same players among the townsfolk…and with my same, wonderful crew.
Same crew in Vernazza 2014: And this is the same crew, at the same viewpoint in 2014. Thankfully, as we get older, the camera gear gets smaller and lighter. At this rate, we’ll be producing TV for a long, long time. By the way, TV production today is every bit as challenging — and rewarding — as it was in 2001.