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

Behind the Scenes: How We Make TV

I work with a really small TV crew — just me, my producer, and one cameraman. And after shooting about 140 episodes over the last 20 years, we have a great filming process. These photos from our Scotland shoot give a few peeks at how we work.

rick steves with a scottish piper being filmed by a tv crew in front of a large camera
While you can shoot an “on camera” just about anywhere, we search out beautiful and meaningful settings for me to talk directly to the camera.
rick steves standing on a white sand beach while his tv crew are huddled over a camera that's pointing at him
We only shoot “on cameras” for material we can’t cover well with images of locations — generally heavy history. Here on the Isle of Iona, I’m recalling a horrible act of Viking plunder.
rick steves looking at a script and discussing it with his producer simon griffith while standing in a field in front of a castle
I love working on scripts with my producer Simon while we’re on a shoot. In the field, we debate and fine-tune each sequence as the situation unfolds.
rick steves sitting on a bed in a hotel room with a laptop on his lap and simon griffith sitting in a chair next to him
Back in the hotel or B&B, we “scrub” the script. Our final text couldn’t be more lovingly crafted. Each word earns its keep.
rick steves sitting on the edge of a cliff and the tv crew pointing a camera at him in the foreground
My producer Simon and cameraman Karel routinely climb like mountain goats up rock faces or do other heroics to get the right camera angle, making me a nervous wreck.
rick steves sitting on a beach overlooking the sea with food in his lap and a seagull is overhead very near to him
I often try to replicate on camera an experience I had on a previous trip. Last year, on the Isle of Skye, a seagull stole my fish and chips. I decided to make that a fun bit for TV, and we shot me trying to eat my lunch without another cod-napping.
rick steves with his arms around karel bauer and simon griffith and karel is holding a large camera. the three are standing in a green field
I am grateful for my small and mighty crew: cameraman Karel Bauer and producer Simon Griffith.

My three new Scotland episodes are airing now on public television across the country. Check your local listings for Season 10 of Rick Steves’ Europe — and keep on travelin’!

 

Christmas Traditions: Why We Decorate a Tree

What’s on your tree? Some of my favorite ornaments are some little skates with paper-clip blades my grandmother knit before her last Christmas, an ancient string of popcorn I strung with a girlfriend back in high school, and a tiny carved cross I picked up one Christmas season in Nicaragua that reads “Paz con social justicia.”

I wrote about how our tradition of decorating Christmas trees came to be in my Rick Steves’ European Christmas book. Here’s an excerpt:

The Christmas tree’s roots run deep into the origins of the midwinter celebration. When winter’s gloom descended on ancient pre-Christians, they looked around and saw a few things that didn’t die: evergreens. This seemed to promise that the warmth and fertility of summer would return. After they decorated their huts with holly, ivy, or laurel, they likely took a deep whiff… and dreamed of spring.

The mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, adorned their temples with evergreens as a symbol of everlasting life. The Vikings of Scandinavia considered evergreens the favored plant of their sun god. In many regions, people believed that evergreens, especially mistletoe (which was considered a sacred plant), would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

The custom continued in Christian times, but it wasn’t until about 500 years ago in Germany that the practice of decorating evergreen trees became a part of Christmas. These first trees were strewn with cookies, apples, nuts, and sugar sticks — which children eagerly raided. In the 1800s, when candles became affordable, the tree of lights arrived, and the tradition of the family gathering around the tree to exchange gifts was established.

Lutherans like to believe (wrongly, according to scholars) that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. The story goes that when he was walking home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

Christmas trees as we know them got a big boost in popularity in the mid-19th-century, after a London magazine showed Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their family gathered around a Christmas tree. Victoria was a favorite with her subjects, and what she did immediately became fashionable — not only in Britain, but in East Coast American society as well. In the early 1900s, during the Art Nouveau age, trees began to be draped in tinsel and ornamented with lovingly painted glass bulbs. The Christmas tree had arrived.

In Germany — the land of — Christmas trees became so popular that during World War I, thousands of them were actually mailed to soldiers on the Western Front. These tiny fake trees, made of feathers and paper, came in a kit, ready to be assembled right out of the postage box. (Next time you’re in Germany’s Rothenburg, you might enjoy the excellent little German Christmas Museum at the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store.)

Highlands, Islands, and Scottish Passions: Three New Episodes from Scotland

rick steves with a scottish piper

 

I love making TV — because it means I can share my love of Europe with millions of travel partners all across America. And I’m especially excited about Season 10 of Rick Steves’ Europe, which is airing now on public television throughout the country. Over the last few months, we’ve taken you to Portugal, England, the Greek Islands, and Sicily — and now we’re wrapping things up with three full episodes about Scotland.

 

karel bauer holding a large camera on a tripod very close to a cow that is sniffing the camera
Cameraman Karel Bauer

We spent 18 days filming these episodes, and we never stepped foot in Edinburgh. We started off with Glencoe, Inverness, the Culloden battlefield, and Loch Ness (“Scotland’s Highlands”). Then we wandered across the isles of Iona and Skye and set sail for Orkney’s wartime harbor at Scapa Flow (“Scotland’s Islands”). And we finished things up with trips to Glasgow and Stirling Castle — enjoying a taste of whisky and a sheepdog demonstration along the way (“Glasgow and Scottish Passions”).

 

colin mairs, simon griffith, karel bauer, and rick steves smiling at a restaurant bar and holding beverages

 

We spent 18 days filming these episodes, and we never stepped foot in Edinburgh. We started off with Glencoe, Inverness, the Culloden battlefield, and Loch Ness (“Scotland’s Highlands”). Then we wandered across the isles of Iona and Skye and set sail for Orkney’s wartime harbor at Scapa Flow (“Scotland’s Islands”). And we finished things up with trips to Glasgow and Stirling Castle — enjoying a taste of whisky and a sheepdog demonstration along the way (“Glasgow and Scottish Passions”).

 

rick steves and tour guide colin mairs similing in front of a wall with street art
With my friend and fellow tour guide, Colin Mairs.

I’m really excited to be able to share 90 minutes of pure, hardcore Scotland with our traveling viewers. Check your local listings — and keep on travelin’!

 

Happy Little Trees: Channeling Bob Ross

rick steves at a painting easel with a painting of mountains and a lake and trees and a paintbrush in hand, smiling. there's a smiling photo of bob ross in the background

 

There’s an artist inside all of us. I discovered that after I picked up a brush and some oils for literally the first time in my life and was freed by my Bob Ross teacher to paint. This “happy little trees” lake scene was an easy one (perfect for a rookie) — and it was close to my heart, as it matched my memories of boating in the San Juan Islands in Washington state as a kid.

I got snared by the Bob Ross gang in Baltimore, at a convention for public television programmers. I was there to talk about my TV show, Rick Steves’ Europe — and they were there to promote the late, great painting guru’s program, so beloved in public TV, The Joy of Painting. I ended up (uncharacteristically) sitting down for an hour and enjoying the stroke-by-stroke instructions. And I loved every minute of it.

Thank you, Bob, for the delightful reminder that there’s lots of adventure and self-discovery out there that doesn’t require a passport — and thank you, public television, for reliably sharing both our shows across the USA.

 

Jaunty Fashion, Proud Cultures, and Fighting Hunger in Guatemala and Ethiopia

men in red striped pants in guatemala

 

After a very productive scouting trip in Ethiopia and Guatemala, I’m home again — and I’m already looking forward to going back. I’ll be there again in April with our crew, to film a one-hour public television special on the hows and whys of modern development aid.
 
My trip was made possible by many wonderful non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and I’d like to credit them now for their support and commitment to making our world a better place.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a great impact on Ethiopia. They were my primary “fixer” there, and Meron Semunegus, from their Addis Ababa office, was my guide. Gates is synonymous with smart development in Ethiopia — a country with a changing image, thanks to recent progress.

I’m a big fan of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), and part of the inspiration for this project came from David Beasley, the executive director of the WFP. A year ago, I had dinner with him in Rome, where he oversees the distribution of UN funds to fight hunger, and his passion for this challenge was contagious. On this trip, I visited WFP health posts in southern Ethiopia and Guatemala. In Guatemala, I worked the director of the WFP there, Laura Melo.

In Ethiopia, I visited a village in the Tigray region supported by A Glimmer of Hope, which provided many vivid examples of how to help people help themselves. And we visited with Bete Demeke, who heads up Project Mercy — an NGO that’s innovating winning ways to stoke development.

In Guatemala, I hired Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education and Experience (my alma mater in Central American educational tourism) to provide me with essentially a private tour. CGEE’s Guatemala Site Coordinator, Fidel Xinico Tum, was my primary guide there. We met with Nate Bacon, of InnerCHANGE, to learn about Guatemalan gangs and life in a Guatemala City barrio, and Karen Larson of Friendship Bridge took us to see their microloan and women’s empowerment work at Lake Atitlán.

I spent a very busy day in Huehuetenango with the Guatemala director of Project Concern International, Pascale Wagner, seeing the impressive work they do — and another experience-filled day in Nebaj with Chris Megargee, seeing the inspirational work of Agros International in three communities (El Paraíso, La Esperanza, and Cajixay).

Every day on this trip, I met people whose mission is to help struggling people lift their lives out of poverty. And I flew home excited to make a TV special that shows that the battle against extreme poverty is a battle worth fighting — and it’s a battle we can win. Stay tuned.

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