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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Our latest guest blog from The Travelphile, Trish Feaster, describes some memorable meals she’s enjoyed in Europe. One thing I appreciate about traveling with Trish is her foodie sensibilities. If you’d like to hear more, follow her blog.
There’s something so evocative to me about pictures of food and the power they have to vividly remind me of mouth-watering meals and moments that I’ve had on my travels. I can look at my culinary photos and remember exactly where I was, the scent of the dish just placed in front of me, and the way the flavors open up on my palate. The best currywurst I ever had was in Berlin, just a few blocks from Under den Linden. When I look at the photo of that dish — a steamed then fried plump pork sausage laden with a tangy yet sweet blend of ketchup, curry powder, and Worcestershire sauce, protected by a crispy and salty French fry fort, and accessorized by caramelized necklaces of onions — my mouth just waters. And I’m reminded that over sixty years ago, in West Germany, because of the kindness of some British soldiers, a Berlin chef was given these now-seemingly common ingredients and invented this saucy recipe that is now served over 80 million times a year in Germany. Food, especially when you’re traveling, is not merely about sustenance and nutrition. It’s about the culture of the place.
Countries reveal themselves through their foods. Regional specialties are shaped by the climate, season, and terrain of the area. In France, many pair their wines with cheeses from the same region because they’re designed to go together. They have a common terroir (the idea that agricultural products and even livestock from a particular area are influenced by the geography, geology, climate — coupled with human tradition and pride — and are therefore embodied with flavor characteristics that are particular to that region), so their flavors complement one another. Italians would call that “ben sposato” or a good marriage. In Italy you’ll find that Northern specialties tend to feature creams, cheeses, butter, beef, and pork (although seafood is common on the coasts) while Southern dishes often spotlight seafood, vegetables (particularly tomatoes and eggplant) and olive oil. Spain’s northwestern coastal region of Galicia is heralded for its seafood and sauce-laden dishes, while its central mountainous and agricultural region of Castilla-Léon dominates in the preparation of pork, beef and game dishes, as well as stews.
National cuisines are also spiced up by newer immigrant cultures melding with established ones (whose modern-day traditions were also shaped long ago by conquerors and visitors of ages past). Döner Kebabs (Turkey) are found on practically every other corner in Berlin. Bun Thit Nuong (Vietnam) and Tagines (North Africa) are commonplace in Paris, and Chicken Tikka Masala (an Indian-influenced recipe) is actually considered to be Britain’s national dish. Culinary diversity reflects cultural diversity.
The same is true in America. Our varied regional staples range from New England clam chowder to Texas BBQ, from Wisconsin cheeses to California avocados, and from Idaho potatoes to Hawaiian poi. And even within regions, influences from cultures, as well as lifestyles, have helped impacted the ever-changing American cuisine scene. Throughout our history, our diets have been shaped by the British, Native Americans, Spaniards, the French, Germans, the Dutch, African cultures, Italians, the Irish, Latinos, Asians, Caribbean cultures, Jews, Indians, Middle Eastern cultures, and by so many others. Within and beyond specific cultural cuisines, we also have foods that cater to the health-conscious, the gluten-free clientele, low-carb eaters, vegetarians, people on low-sodium diets, foodies, those who only eat organic foods, and so on and so on. “Fusion” foods are ubiquitous, food trucks are all the rage, and desserts are practically considered their own basic food group.
Foods can remind us of the struggles of our forefathers. When times were tough and resources scarce, families made due with what was available. In Estonia, harsh living conditions due to weather, the tumult of living under the rule of at least five different foreign countries, and collective farming systems under Communist rule that exported Estonian products to other Soviet countries often left people in precarious circumstances without much access to wealth or food. But one thing remained essential, even sacred, to Estonians – black bread. It is always served with a meal. No Estonian would dare complain about the bread saying it’s too hard or too dry, and if a piece fell to the floor, one would pick it up, kiss it to show respect, and eat it. In fact, instead of saying something like Bon appétit, Estonians say jätku leiba—may your bread last.
We, too, can think of our family traditions and realize the crucial role food plays in our own cultures. In my own family and throughout the Filipino culture, we have stories of limited access to certain foods due to poverty, war, or unavailability. Because of that, it’s ingrained in us to always share what we have and to insist that our guests eat heartily. When you can provide, you do so to the best of your ability because one day you may be in need and have to rely on the generosity of others. Whenever I go to any of my relatives’ houses, the first question they ask isn’t “How are you?” it’s “Did you eat yet?” And I’ve never left a Filipino party without the host insisting that I baon (BAH-ohn) some of the dishes or take some home as leftovers.
When you consider what you consume, whether you’re traveling across the sea or across the street, think about the history behind that meal. Let it be a bridge into that culture — culture resides at the hearth as much as in the museum. Think about where the ingredients came from or how they were cultivated/harvested/raised/processed. Reflect on why that dish became important to that region, why it became popular outside of that locale or why it’s part of the national cuisine. Ponder why it may be considered a delicacy in the country you’re visiting but not in your own and why that distinction exists. There may be a real history, tradition, and culture behind that meal, and when you become more aware of that, the food takes on a whole new cultural flavor that makes your dining and travel experience that much more pleasurable.
Capturing a photo of the meals I enjoy isn’t just about capturing a culinary memory. It’s a way to add another layer to how I learn to understand and better appreciate the culture of the place I’m visiting through food. Create your own food porn to stoke memories and gain better insight into the cultures you explore. You’re not just eating something tasty…you’re ingesting a piece of that very culture. With an understanding of the context of what you’re eating vis-à-vis the people who made it, you are, in a sense, communing with that culture. And that’s well worth the calories.
Can’t get enough food porn? Check out some of these finger-licking foods.
As I noted in yesterday’s post, I’m featuring a few entries from my frequent travel partner, Trish Feaster, who blogs under the name The Travelphile. If you enjoy her stories and photos, I hope you’ll follow her. This entry dates from a recent non-European trip we enjoyed: a cruise to Alaska.
There’s More to Nature than Meets the Eye
Alaska is big. I mean it’s huge. It’s twice the size of Texas. On this seven-day cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage, we would explore a mere fraction of this massive state, but what we would see was enough to fill my camera with almost 1,400 photos and my mind with countless unforgettable memories.
While I expected we’d see mountains, trees, glaciers, and hopefully some animals, I had no concept of the scale, quantity, and diversity that Alaska — often called “The Last Frontier” — had to offer.
When we awoke the first morning to breaching whales on all sides of our ship, I was stunned by the beauty, grace and agility of these colossal aquatic mammals. But really, you’d have to be a fool not to be. They are, in the most accurate use of the word, awesome.
Moving beyond the obvious was a bit more challenging for me. As we cruised through Icy Strait and admired the passing scenery, the running internal soundtrack of mind kept repeating, “Oh, it’s so beautiful.” Well, yeah.
But Ranger Andrew changed all that. After our whale morning, we picked up Ranger Andrew at Bartlett Cove near the entrance to Glacier Bay. He joined us for two days and shared his expertise about the wildlife, plant life, and geology that comprised Glacier Bay.
While I can’t remember all the names of or facts about the things we saw, I can remember one thing: his enthusiasm. It was contagious. I have never met anyone as excited about his job and so eager to share his wealth of knowledge as Ranger Andrew. From birds to sea lions, from lichens to flowers, and from shale rocks to glaciers, he made everything fascinating. He didn’t just impart information, he made the complicated simple and the simple magnificent.
At South Marble Island, we ogled several harems of sea lions lounging on rocks like celebrities on the French Riviera, surrounding their respective dominant males. While the decibel level of these yelping beauties reached peak levels, what was even more powerful was their stench. Even from 100 yards away, that smell was brutal. Every now and again a sea lion would silently slink away and slip into the water and then suddenly reappear scaling another part of the rock. We noticed several who were branded with a mark so that researchers could track them.
Some of their neighbors on South Marble Island included puffins, common murres, and various gulls. The variety and bounty of animal life on this relatively small island was astonishing, but, as we came to expect, Ranger Andrew had the explanation. The island (composed of limestone and featuring a dense spruce forest, sloped cliffs, and grassy round hilltops) is an ideal sanctuary for all these creatures because the diverse terrain of the island offered perfect spaces for shelter, resting, hiding, and nesting.
Ranger Andrew also ran us through exercises in patience and what could possibly be used as a replacement for an eye chart test when he had us scour the mountainous face of another island to search for elusive mountain goats. For over half an hour, every passenger with binoculars or a camera with a decent lens panned up and down and left and right, across the lines of trees, below the grey stripes in the rocks, and into every single possible nook and cranny we could find. Ranger Andrew was, of course, the one to spot our first mountain goat, and his face just beamed when he explained to everyone where to look. Victory was his…and ours.
When we dropped anchor near the glacier, we had the option of exploring the coastline in a small skiff, doing a relaxing beach walk, or hiking the along a craggy-faced mountainside and crossing onto a glacier. Guess which one we picked.
With Laurie (expert expedition guide) and Ranger Andrew leading us, we scrambled up and across the face of the mountain. Despite wearing six layers on top, four layers on the bottom, a scarf and a wooly hat, I still felt the rain, the whipping wind, and the chilly 40-degree air temperature bite into my core. Being next to an ice mass that was, at its mouth, as wide as three football fields, as tall as a thirty-story building, and was miles long intensified the chill. I was grateful to be on the move and work my body into a warmer state. I was equally thankful that I had two walking sticks to steady my balance. Between the slithering streams that glided down the slope, the slippery shale fragments that slid out from under us, and the jungle-gym boulders we had to clamber over, staying upright was a real challenge.
I found myself being the frequent straggler, partly because I cautiously tried to stay sure-footed, but mostly because I liked looking at all the stuff around me. Since Ranger Andrew was acting as the caboose for our hilly scramble, it gave me a chance to ask questions and eavesdrop on the info he was sharing with my fellow inquisitive hikers. While I was initially struck by the grandness and color of the glacier on our left, the vivid bursts of the plant life along the hillside, and the countless waterflows that cascaded through every path we took, both Ranger Andrew and Laurie helped me to see the deeper beauty of the nature that surrounded us.
One hundred years ago, the slope on which we stood was completely covered by that glacier. Since it receded, life found a way to emerge where there once was no life. Lichens, fungi, and flowers now fight their way for survival and provide the basis for new life. Despite the difficult conditions and terrain, they strive to thrive. They cling to edges of rocks and reach their way across streams to proliferate, reshape and redecorate the landscape. It’s nature triumphing over itself.
And the rocks reveal their own histories through their composition and color. These sedimentary and metamorphic mineral and organic life composites were formed over millions of years, subjected to a geological tango of intense pressure, extreme weather conditions, erosion, and glacial movement. While I lack any expertise to interpret their geological record, Ranger Andrew taught me that these rocks — with their streaks of orange or blue that separate layers of white or green or black or grey — invite me to recognize and appreciate the history that formed them.
The experience all came together the moment I stepped onto the glacier. I felt the world fall silent and still, and all at once, I felt small and grand. I understood that the force of nature that created and maintains this glacier is the same that shaped the adjacent mountains, fosters the life that blooms on the rocks, nourishes and shelters the wildlife of this region and sustains and produces life everywhere. In geological time, everything was churning…living and dying, then living again. I realized that I am a part of that. I am connected to this, even if time and distance separate me from it. We are all a part of it.
Perhaps I already knew all of this on an intellectual level before. But thanks to the Ranger Andrew (and Laurie), I’m gaining a deeper understanding of that. Experiencing nature, not on a screen or in a book, but in the shadow of a thundering glacier with the bite of the Alaskan wind in my face, I have connected with my world like I didn’t know was possible. And I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Where we travel and how we travel shapes our travel experience — obviously. And who we travel with does, too. I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately with a remarkable woman, Trish Feaster. We’re different types of travelers — and I’ve been struck by how those differences broaden and enrich my travel experience.
Trish is a linguist, while I am a confirmed monoglot. Her love of language has given my recent travels a new dimension. She’s a foodie, while I’m an “intermediate eater.” Her ability to get the same joy out of a menu that I get out of an art gallery has broadened my cultural experience (and even — a little bit — my waistline). And her emphatic joie de vivre tempers my workaholism in a way that — ironically — makes me especially productive as a travel writer. I find that now I experience, and write about, things that I wouldn’t have made time for if I were on my own.
Trish is an avid photographer as well as an inspiring writer. Her blog, The Travelphile, provides a showcase for her work. (It also gives a more candid look at my non-European travels than you’ll get on my own blog, as we enjoy lots of travel fun that has nothing to do with Europe.) I think her insightful blog entries complement my own, and she deserves more readers. To give you a taste of Trish’s writing, she’ll be occasionally guest-blogging here in the coming weeks. I hope you’ll enjoy her take on traveling; if you do, please follow her blog. Thanks.
A Place That’s All Your Own
One of the most annoying things about travel/tourism is that if you’re going to someplace that’s popular, everyone else is too. That means crowds, lines that seem to have no end, pushing and shoving, and odors that you didn’t think were humanly possible. With all of that mass of humanity, patience and a good sense of humor seem to melt away quicker than ice under a scorching sun.
Although most people would prefer to travel in low or shoulder season to avoid crowds (and elevated prices), for many, that’s simply not possible. One way to get around that scene is to not be in it. Find a better way to enjoy your travels by being in a place when there are few people and make it a place that’s all your own — even at the busiest time of the travel season.
This summer, because I’ve been working as an assistant guide, I have been, by necessity, out and about when everyone else is. While being on a tour has its privileges (such as guided tours with incredibly talented and smart local guides or entrances to sites/activities without waiting in line), it’s still next to impossible to avoid the fact that everyone and their mother is at the same place you are everywhere you go.
To have a more peaceful and intimate experience, I made a conscious effort to enjoy the places we visited either really early in the morning or really late at night. Now obviously I wasn’t getting into museums with an Early Admission Ticket like at Disneyland (Whoa, there’s a idea! Museums, get on that!), and I certainly didn’t do this every day. But, I did get to see places in ways that most travelers — or even locals for that matter — don’t. It takes effort and sometimes a little bit of planning (going to bed early so you can be up at 6 a.m., resting in the afternoon so you can be up until 1 a.m.), but it’s so worth it to watch the sunrise over a glassy lake, to be one of twelve people standing on the Mont Saint Michel causeway at midnight listening to the waves kiss the shores of the sandy bay, to dance like no one is watching in front of the Eiffel Tower, to smell the fresh cut hay just two miles away from the nearest castle, or to be the first person of the day to stroll through the main street of a town that is just on the verge of waking up. Even if you do it just to get a pristine photo without others blocking your view, you can have a really magical moment if you can find a way to enjoy a place all on your own.
Here are just some of the places where I took advantage of being out and about when the the crowds were getting their beauty sleep.
Before, during, and after the recent election, I wasn’t afraid to let my customers know my politics (as usual). I believe that it’s very American to openly share ideas with people you have things in common with (in the case of my fans, travel). I enjoy explaining the way Europeans view political issues…and you can take it or leave it. While this approach is risky (and I was “un-friended” by a few former Facebook fans post-Election Day), I’m relieved not to have to hide my beliefs from the people who buy what I produce. Seattle Business magazine recently ran an article about this (admittedly unorthodox) approach to running a business.
Speaking of my quirky business and travel sense, I recently gave an interview to Allyson Marrs from Bellevue Club Reflections magazine about my travel philosophy. I thought you might find my answers interesting:
Are you constantly looking for new places to explore in each country because of all the tourists who now visit previously “low key” spots after reading your guides?
Yes, but the real coup is to go to the best places (which are now “discovered”) and figure out how to experience them in a candid, “Back Door” way. Rather than find an untouristy French city, do Paris in an untouristy way. I also like to challenge people to break loose when it comes to going east or south.
What are you specifically looking for in locations, hotels, and attractions to recommend to your many fans and readers?
Mom-and-pops rather than chain hotels and restaurants and pubs. Hands-on experiences rather than sitting in an auditorium with lots of tourists to see clichés on stage.
How do you think traveling in Europe benefits Americans’ everyday lives and thinking?
If you never leave America, your worldview is shaped by our media, which has an agenda to keep us fearful and ethnocentric. When we travel, we gain an empathy for and understanding of the other 96 percent of humanity. What’s not to like about that?
You said in a Salon interview, “As a travel writer, I get to be the provocateur, the medieval jester. I go out there and learn what it’s like and come home and tell people truth to their face.” Tell me about some of these experiences in European regions.
A big opportunity here is to see how counterproductive it is for a society to try to legislate morality. Europe is pretty good at living in close quarters with people who see things differently and live differently. Europe is far from perfect, but they learn from their experiences. Think of how militaristic Germany used to be, and how pacifistic it is today. Spaniards still gravitate to the town square for the evening paseo. Italians still spend long evenings lingering over a meal. Scandinavians may be the least church-going people in Europe, but they celebrate humanism as a religion. It’s all very thought-provoking and stimulating to me.
How do you transform from a tourist to a traveler?
A tourist sees spectacles on stage, collects souvenirs, and leaves home with no desire to come back any different than when they left. A traveler becomes a temporary local, collects experiences, and returns with more empathy for people who have different cultural baggage and see things differently than he or she does. A traveler wants to grow and come home changed. I’m not saying one is right and the other is wrong. And they aren’t mutually exclusive. These are two different kinds of activities that both involve travel — one recreational and/or hedonistic, the other transformative.
Why is it important to you to make Americans more thoughtful, curious world travelers?
There are powerful forces in our society that would rather we’d all just stay home and live out our lives as mindless producer/consumers. They’d prefer we had no interest in challenging our societal norms by hanging out with people who find different truths to be self-evident and God-given. In a globalized world, we need a global outlook — or we, as a society, will be victims of change rather than shapers of change.
Anything new coming up? New book? Television special?
I’m planning on researching and producing shows on Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian lands in the coming year. And my big challenge will be producing an hour-long special on the Holy Land that sorts out and cultural and historic foundations of the stress and strife between Israel and the Palestinian territories today — similar to the way we tackled Iran a few years ago with a public television special. Raising awareness of the context and roots of the problems in the Middle East from a sightseeing and travelers’ perspective, in a way that simply humanizes the region rather than gets bogged down on specific political controversies, is a challenge I am eager to take on.
The world’s leading democracy, in a hard-fought election with a polarized electorate, just peacefully elected a new leader.
It’s often said that the results of an American election can have a bigger impact in the day-to-day lives of people in other countries. And, as the rest of the world — the other 96 percent of humanity — watched our results come in, most of them were satisfied with our choice. (While 49 percent of Americans aren’t so sure, in many parts of the planet, President Obama is much-appreciated. As never since Roosevelt or Kennedy, Obama is a world favorite.)
Here in the world’s richest country, the dominant issue was our “financial crisis.” And we were closely split in choosing a leader to deal with our economy. Meanwhile, we basically ignored topics critical to much of the rest of the world — issues of war and peace, climate change, and support for the half of humanity struggling to live on $2 a day. But because we’ve re-elected a proven multilateralist with a track record sympathetic to those concerns, today there is happiness beyond our borders.
My European friends are particularly impressed that America has granted a second term to a president who has already expanded heath care rights and ran on a pledge to increase taxes to defend social programs–two Europe-friendly issues that were a political live wire here just a few years ago. These, along with the breakthrough state-level success of some same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization initiatives, may indicate that America is inching philosophically closer to Europe.
Perhaps most importantly, over these last several months, we’ve shown the world how a democracy works: We can stage a heated, but still respectful, debate about differing values. And, even as a huge and powerful nation of 300 million people, the title of most powerful person on earth is decided not on a battlefield or in a smoke-filled back room, but as tens of millions of individual voters fill out their ballots. The challenger was classy and statesmanlike in his concession speech, and deserves our respect and our thanks for prodding a healthy political discourse. This election demonstrated to the world not just the American values of today, but the democratic principles our nation is founded upon.
It’s pledge season again. Across the nation, public television and radio stations are reminding their viewers that non-commercial broadcasting “is possible only with support from viewers like you.” KQED in San Francisco is one of our nation’s top stations, and I really like flying down to do travel marathons with them, as I have for the last 15 years. With this clip, you can see the action from my seat during an actual break. (We’re nearly done, and my co-host, Greg Sherwood, is just wrapping up the break, thanking volunteers and groups that helped out.) There are three cameras, a floor director, a table full of gifts to fondle, a room full of volunteers hoping to answer lots of phone calls, and my co-host and me. We ad lib it back and forth for about 12 minutes per break, with video “roll-ins” showing off the gifts and reviewing the thank-you packages. It was exciting for me, because this is the first time I’ve seen our new series actually broadcast. And better yet, even though we were up against the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 of the World Series, the phones were ringing like mad. In a good six hours of travel like we did last Saturday, we raise about $80,000 for the station.
In Europe, they dispense with all this, figuring it’s worthwhile and more efficient just to have the government pay for it with tax dollars. In the USA, we do it this way — in a hundred such stations across the country. Either way, I’m thankful people recognize the value of having one place on the dial that treats its viewers as citizens rather than as customers, and broadcasts high-minded and challenging programming.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
Last week, I squeezed in a quick trip to New York City to give three talks at an industry conference hosted by Visit Britain (the national tourist board for Great Britain). In order to fit the event into my schedule, I had to sleep on the plane and give my first talk in a pretty disheveled state of mind. The impressive conference was run to the minute with a frantic series of 12-minute, one-on-one meetings at little tables where tour wholesalers tried to sell their products (hotels, tours, experiences) to retailers (travel agents). The energy in the room was intense. I was hired to provide three breaks over two days, giving 30-minute talks on Great Culture in Britain, Great Heritage in Britain, and Great Nature in Britain. It was a bit unnerving to give my talks to a room full of professionals — half of whom were actually British — but it turned out just fine. I accepted the gig on the condition that I could talk candidly about what I really like and don’t like about Britain, and I think the crowd actually found that refreshing. But I was cornered by the Birmingham promoter, who wondered why I never mentioned her city.
In any event, here’s a quick look behind the scenes of the mainstream travel industry.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
My travels have been in-state lately — bringing a European sensibility toward drug policy to my neighbors.
I’ve just returned from my ten-cities-in-seven-days, state-wide road trip. From the East to the West, conservative and liberal Washingtonians are learning that I-502 — which will legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana for adult use — is not pro-pot. It is anti-Prohibition, pro-public safety, creates a better situation for children, actually makes our roads safer, and undercuts a vast black market industry — all while raising some serious money for our state.
I care about this for lots of good citizenship reasons. Watch this video to see highlights of my talk in Spokane last week at the Bing Crosby Theater. (B-B-B-Bing, by the way, enjoyed the responsible adult use of marijuana quite famously.) This is an important issue. It’s on track to win in our state, and I’d love a chance to explain to you the case for I-502.
Please watch the video and check out my editorial. And, one way or another…please vote! Thanks.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the devastating floods and mudslides that ripped through the Cinque Terre villages of Monterosso and Vernazza, burying their streets under as much as 12 feet of mud and debris. I have written about this disaster before, and more recently about each village’s remarkable recovery. Today I’d like to tell you a different side of that story — what happened to a group of travelers we had in Vernazza and Monterosso on that day one year ago, and how their tour guide’s hard work and focus helped them get through the crisis safely.
Our “Heart of Italy” tour’s free day in the Cinque Terre is normally devoted to hiking the scenic trail that connects the five coastal villages running from Riomaggiore to Monterosso. On the morning of the disaster, because of rain, guide Karin Kibby (pictured) and her group of 28 hopped on the train from Monterosso to Vernazza, where Karin arranged a tasty cannoli treat for everyone. As the rain poured down more heavily and ankle-deep water began rushing down Vernazza’s main street, some of the group decided to remain in Vernazza to wait out the storm, while the other 20 or so, along with Karin, chose to take the short train ride back to their hotels in Monterosso.
As is common with our tours staying in the Cinque Terre, this group was split between two hotels — the Villa Steno, up the hill from the train station, and the Pasquale (owned by the same family), located closer to the beach. By the time the train pulled into Monterosso, water was rushing down the hill fast and deep enough to block the path to the Villa Steno. Everyone ended up wading “downstream” to the Pasquale.
As the rain kept coming, stronger and stronger, Karin and her soaking-wet tour members sat in the hotel’s breakfast room, watching the water rise higher outside. Before long, a stream pushed its way in through the doorway, flooding the room. The group moved up, first to the stairway, then to the hotel’s upper floor. The power went out, and everything was plunged into darkness.
As tour member Paul Moss put it, “There’s something about extreme stress that can undo a person’s language skills.” The hotel’s staff, frantically coping with a situation that had gone from inconvenient to dangerous, gave up on English, and spoke with Karin in rapid-fire Italian. Their first concern, according to Paul, was something he’ll never forget: “None of us knew how bad the situation could get, but it was deteriorating rapidly and it had to be heartbreaking for the owners of the hotel, watching their investment and community being devastated. And at that moment they turn to Karin and tell her they are worried about not having enough clean sheets for everyone who will need to spend the night in shared rooms. All they cared about was the welfare of their guests! If that isn’t a WOW moment, I don’t know what is.”
The group was cold, wet and stranded — without power, food or plumbing. Half of them had none of their belongings, as their bags were still up the hill at the Villa Steno. And four were still somewhere in Vernazza. It was a situation ripe for fear, frustration and anger, but Karin’s leadership made all the difference. As one tour member put it, “Karin was literally our ‘port in the storm.’ I know how stressful our situation was for her. I believe that what kept us all calm and in control was our confidence in her abilities.”
Throughout the night and into the next morning, Karin kept in touch — in-person and via cell phone — with police, emergency workers, people at the train station, and our office in Edmonds, relayed constant updates to tour members, and made sure people had everything they needed. Early the next morning, she even led a commando-style mission of several volunteers, climbing over fences and rooftops (evading police who might delay them) to retrieve tour members’ luggage from the dark and abandoned Villa Steno up the hill. Once they had what they’d come for, they could more boldly (and safely) return via the streets, which were about six feet higher than normal, packed with mud and debris. Then, discovering they hadn’t gotten quite everything, Karin scrambled back up the hill.
Soon after returning, Karin gathered everyone up and led them to a special evacuation boat, which she had learned about as a result of her constant contact with everyone who could possibly be of help to her group. The boat, packed with shivering, exhausted travelers and locals, made its way through the debris-filled sea to the Vernazza breakwater, where the four “lost” members of her group (who’d made it through their own ordeal) awaited rescue. They were thrilled to see Karin at the bow of the approaching boat, waving her arms to welcome them.
One tour member summed up his feelings about Karin Kibby this way: “Karin is simply amazing — helpful, knowledgeable, smart, interesting, clear, personable and friendly under normal circumstances — calm, level-headed, even-tempered, confident, and decisive when everything is going to hell around her. I’ve known very few people like her in my life, and it was a genuine privilege both to have her as a tour guide, and to be caught in a disaster with her.”
One year later, Vernazza and Monterosso are nearly back to normal, the Villa Steno and Pasquale hotels are filled with happy guests, and Karin Kibby is a hero to a special group of Rick Steves travelers — including Rick Steves.
In my last few years of European guidebook research, it’s increasingly impossible to ignore a new power on the block: TripAdvisor. Many guidebook mainstays have faded, and now small hotels and restaurants can be made or broken by their TripAdvisor rankings. While I am still committed to finding, evaluating, and listing the best hotels for my travelers in Europe, I expect that in the future, fewer people will rely on guidebook listings for their hotels and more will use online services.
I never even visited TripAdvisor.com until a few months ago. Considering the power it wields over so many of my hotel and restaurant friends in Europe, I was curious. It is, admittedly, an impressive collection of reviews from travelers. But anyone can submit feedback, and my hunch is that a significant percentage of them are by friends of enemies of the place being reviewed. I find more and more small hotels offering a free breakfast to people who promise to write kindly about them on TripAdvisor. Conversely, several hoteliers have told me that occasionally guests threaten them with a bad review unless the hotel gives them a deep discount.
I also have serious doubts about TripAdvisor’s restaurant rankings, which reflect the tastes of tourist reviewers rather than local foodies — and therefore skew toward glitzy, obvious places rather than good-value, authentic, hidden alternatives. (If you’re not convinced, see how your favorite restaurants in your hometown stack up on TripAdvisor.)
While it can be helpful to look over TripAdvisor’s hotel and restaurant listings, I wouldn’t rely on them blindly. On the other hand, I’ve found the most helpful categories are those listing tours, sightseeing experiences, and entertainment. When in Salzburg, I clicked around the TripAdvisor reviews to survey the many little outfits doing Sound of Music tours. And from TripAdvisor, I learned that the big shot who owns Red Bull (the energy drink) has an ego-boosting space at the Salzburg Airport (called “Hangar-7″) where he displays his hot cars and fancy personal airplanes, viewable by the public for free.
For me, the most interesting dimension is the huge impact TripAdvisor and other Web booking services are having on hotels all around the world. Hoteliers in Europe have told me they see all marketing these days as two branches: publicity (traditional ads) and recommendation (TripAdvisor). They know that a good TripAdvisor ranking can make their business — and a few bad reviews can sink them. They’re awed and terrified by the power of this one website.
As “recommendation marketing” becomes the dominant force, powers in that arena are jockeying for position. The rise of TripAdvisor goes hand-in-hand with the new power of booking services like Booking.com, Venere.com, Hotels.com, and Expedia.com. All of these services pay to have a link on TripAdvisor. That way, when people search hotels on TripAdvisor, they simply click through to reserve — not directly with the hotel, but through the booking agency (which the hotel must pay a commission).
If you own a small hotel needing to rent rooms via the Internet, you now feel like things are out of your control. To be listed by any of these services, hotels are pressured to pay fees, additional fees for good placement and photos, plus even more fees to allow travelers to book rooms directly. A “parity clause” requires hotels not to advertise or sell rooms for less than the price promoted on these booking sites. While a few hotels refuse to be controlled by online booking services (and don’t play the Internet booking service game), most find it’s the only way to stay in business.
I’ve talked to hoteliers who are trying to migrate to Facebook, where they can sell rooms outside of the booking-site commission racket. To get around the “parity clause,” they are creating clubs where members can get “fan rates.” Even if this works for them now, the hotels fear that Facebook is just waiting for them to do the hard innovation work…and then Facebook will come in, co-opt the business, and extort their own charges and fees. (By the way, Europeans trying to get into the social media swing find Facebook viable for reaching American adults, while it attracts a younger clientele in Europe.)
Now Google is getting into the mix and positioning itself to be the default way to book a room. Hotels report that Google is dropping by to film 360-degree views of their places. European hoteliers told me they worry that Google may soon threaten to make everyone play by its rules for placement in searches.
In short, European hoteliers tell me that if you’re an investor, pull out of TripAdvisor and invest in Google and Facebook. That’s where they predict the next power will reside.
So, in a nutshell, as a community of travelers, we are enjoying new recommendation and booking services — but, whether hotels like it or not, we are all paying 20 percent more than before for our accommodations. This money is not going to the hotels, but to Internet companies.
What’s your take on Trip Advisor as a source of information for your European travels? Have you enjoyed good experiences through TripAdvisor, or do you find the rankings biased? When you book a hotel, what do you find the best method?