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
It’s my favorite time of year when I host my European tour guides here at the Rick Steves’ home base for Test Drive a Tour Guide. While they’re in town, I’ll be taking advantage of their travel expertise by recording radio interviews with them from January 22–29.
I plan to record about 50 new interviews all focused on Europe; our topics will include updates on countries from Iceland and Poland to Spain and Croatia. We’ll enjoy fascinating conversations ranging from a paprika primer in Hungary to the perfect week in Portugal. We’ll delve into Turkish food and Scottish identity in the UK. We’ll get practical tips on managing a Vatican visit, enjoying Basque culture and much, much more.
Want to be a part of the conversation? We’d love to hear your travel tales and answer your travel questions. For a chance to join us on the air, please take a look at our recording lineup and submit your questions.
And, if you’d like to eavesdrop on the raw and crazy production as it happens, be sure to head back to our recording lineup during the scheduled times and click “Listen Live.” (The edited interviews will air over the next year on public radio and in our weekly podcasts.)
I hope you can join us — as we celebrate European travel with the best guides in the business in our studio.
On New Year’s Day 2020, Rick Steves’ Europe lost one of our oldest and dearest friends: Walter Mittler, who ran Hotel Mittaghorn in Gimmelwald, Switzerland. Walter, who was in his mid-90s, died peacefully in the hotel that was his home for the last half of his life, in a tiny village surrounded by the wonder of the Swiss Alps.
Gimmelwald is that pristine alpine village that inspired me to say (on my first visit, in my student backpacker days), “If heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be…send me back to Gimmelwald.” For four decades, a big part of the heavenly nature of Gimmelwald was Walter’s welcome.
I’ve long said that my passion as a guidebook writer is to connect people with people, and that my favorite hotels and restaurants are the ones that are “personality-driven.” There was no hotel more “personality-driven” than Walter’s Hotel Mittaghorn. In fact, by the power of Walter’s passion to house and feed travelers and nature lovers affordably in the pricey Swiss Alps, his hotel was generally known as “Walter’s Hotel”…or even simply “Walter’s.” For decades, when travelers said they stayed at Walter’s, it was the kickoff of a fun sharing of memories and stories about the conviviality and good food that sprung from that humble mountain chalet and its host.
Walter was a chef for Swiss Air. When his aunt got emphysema, he changed gears and moved up to Hotel Mittaghorn—taking his aunt with him into the high country for the healthier air.
Back when I was a budding tour operator, Walter was the hotelier who nudged me from my rustic youth hostel days to seeking out characteristic guesthouses that sparkled with the personality of their hosts. I’ll never forget the day in the late 1970s when I checked my little tour group into our rustic Gimmelwald hostel and found a handwritten invitation to hike up the hill to visit Hotel Mittaghorn. From then on, Walter’s was our home in Gimmelwald. For the next couple decades of tours, we’d book out his entire hotel — filling all of his rooms and sending our overflow (the most rugged of our tour members) up the creaky stairs to his top-floor Matratzenlager (mattress dorm).
I’d wake early and step outside with Walter. He’d look skyward and give me the yea or nay in regards to the weather. If it was a “nay,” we’d slumber on. If it was a “yea,” I’d rouse the entire group and we’d hustle to the lift and ride to the summit of the Schilthorn.
Walter simplified his life as the years went on. Eventually his menu was a board with two sides: The first night was spaghetti, and on the second night, he’d flip it over to chicken and vegetables. The salad was always fresh, picked hours earlier from his garden. Walter and I invented a “traditional” drink we called “the Heidi Cocoa” (hot chocolate and schnapps). It was a bestseller — especially when the local farmer with the accordion would drop by after dinner for dancing. With faces sunburned from our hikes, and smiling big from the high-altitude ambiance Walter created after dark, we’d cap our days in Walter’s dining room creating lifelong memories.
When I visited one winter for skiing, Walter surprised me with an invitation to sled down from Mürren (the next town above). It occurred to me that, after a decade of friendship, I’d never seen Walter out of his hotel. With a boyish smile, suddenly about 40 years younger, he put on his headlamp and grabbed me and his antique wooden sleds. We rode the lift up to Mürren, then gleefully sledded the trail — iced into what was closer to a luge course — back down to Gimmelwald…capping the fun with a nice Heidi Cocoa.
I don’t think Walter could live anywhere else but at Hotel Mittaghorn. And I think the opportunity to help house and feed travelers is what got him out of bed, long after that had become a struggle. Walter ran the hotel (with the necessary help of his right-hand-man, trusty Tim) longer than what was probably best for his guests. For the last decade, he shuffled more, muttered more, had a harder time with the stairs, and refused to join the computer age. But his passion for hospitality and travel and his good nature stayed fresh as the snow on the trees that surrounded him each winter.
While the consummate host, Walter was also the village loner in many ways — and very modest. He left a simple will asking that his ashes be placed in a common, nameless grave in the nearby town of Thun. And with that, Walter is gone.
I believe that heaven is what it’s cracked up to be. And now, a little piece of Gimmelwald has made it even better. Walter, thanks for the joy you brought so many travelers. Bless your beautiful soul.
I just got great news: the final update from Bread for the World about our holiday fundraiser. (Gifts just kept coming in, well into January.) At total of 3,435 of you participated — and together, you donated $425,810. With my $700,000 “double match” (of the first $350,000), we raised just over $1.1 million — far exceeding our million-dollar goal — to help build the political will to end hunger. Just thinking about what this money will accomplish fills me with joy and gratitude…and pride in the big hearts of my fellow travelers.
When I rave about the work of Bread for the World (as I have for 30 years), people often ask, “Just what does it do?” And when I say that it’s a lobbying organization, some people react with, “Why would you pay for lobbying when you’re fighting hunger?” I explain that “lobbying” is actually advocacy — and it’s more important and impactful than ever, with the Trump Administration pushing harsh policies that threaten great harm to hungry and vulnerable people.
Let me be specific. In 2019, Bread for the World — with our support — played a key role in three important advocacy achievements:
Bread for the World mobilized its nationwide network of grassroots activists to build broad, bipartisan support in Washington for US leadership against child malnutrition overseas. Smart, new-style nutrition programs have reduced the number of stunted children around the world by 15 million in the last 7 years. Congress and the Trump Administration committed themselves to continue US support for these programs.
Bread also plays a leadership role on funding for programs that help hungry and poor people in our own country. Bread and its partners have successfully resisted cuts to poverty-focused programs throughout the budget controversies of the last decade. And at the end of 2019 — rather than cutting these programs — Congress actually approved a long-overdue increase in funding for low-income programs (Head Start, low-income schools, child nutrition, and housing).
Bread for the World is also leading the faith community in urging the presidential candidates to focus on help and opportunity for hungry and poor people. So far, eight Democratic candidates have posted short video statements.
2020 is a critical year in the fight against hunger. It will set long-term directions for our nation and the world, for better or worse. Bread for the World is a key player in Washington, giving a voice to the hungry. Fighting hunger is both ethical and practical — it’s the right thing to do, and it makes our world safer and more stable. In short, it’s a great investment.
I know we all have a lot on our plates these days. But many people, at home and abroad, have the opposite problem. And — thanks to the collective effort of more than 3,400 of you — we’re making a huge difference. Our friends at Bread for the World report that our initiative has injected palpable energy into the organization at the beginning of a crucial election year. If you care about ending hunger…Bread gets it done. Thanks, and congratulations to all involved!
A decade ago, I traveled to Iran to better understand a country with whom we seemed perennially on the verge of war. I came home with a one-hour public television special (“Rick Steves Iran: Yesterday and Today”) that attempted to understand the Iranian psyche and humanize the Iranian people. I believe if you’re going to bomb a place, you should know its people first. Even if military force is justified, it should hurt when you kill someone.
Some things just don’t change. America is, once again, on the verge of war with Iran. And, just like a decade ago, we are not prepared for that reality. As a nation, we don’t adequately understand Iran. From my travels there, it’s clear to me that Americans underestimate both Iran’s baggage and its spine.
“Baggage” shapes a country’s response to future challenges. In the USA, our baggage includes the fight against socialism during the Cold War and the tragedy of 9/11. Iran’s baggage has to do with incursions from the West. Examples include 1953, when the US and Britain deposed a popular Iranian prime minister (after he nationalized their oil) and replaced him with the Shah; and the 1980s, when — with US funding — Saddam Hussein and Iraq invaded Iran, leaving hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers on Iran’s Western Front.
Iran is a proud and powerful nation of 80 million people — long a leader in its corner of the world. When I was in Tehran filming my TV special, I went to the National Museum of Iran expecting to film art from the great Persian Empire (the “Empires of Empires” ruled centuries before Christ by great leaders like Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes). I found almost nothing. Apologetically, the curator explained, “You’ll need to go to London or Paris. Iran’s patrimony is in the great museums of Europe.” This is baggage.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979, which deposed the US-friendly Shah, is seen in the USA as a terrible thing. It led to the rise of the ayatollahs and the taking of 52 American hostages (which — speaking of baggage — is why our president recently threatened to bomb 52 targets in Iran). But traveling in Iran, I heard a different narrative: The revolution was a people’s uprising in the context of the Cold War, as Iran’s young generation wanted to be neither East nor West (independent from the USA or USSR realms).
If you don’t know Iran (as, I fear, is the case with our country’s decision-makers), it would be easy to underestimate their spine. Filming there, I was impressed by the caliber and the goodness of the people on the street — and haunted by a feeling that we could easily radicalize them with a reckless foreign policy.
I’m no diplomat, and I realize that Iran is a challenging puzzle to solve. It seems we will always be in conflict with Iran, and the answers will never come easy. But surely whatever we do should be built upon a foundation of understanding: We must get to know Iran on its own terms. We would be foolish not to recognize its baggage — and not to appreciate its spine.
My public television special, “Rick Steves Iran: Yesterday and Today,” is as timely and important today as it was when we first released it in 2009. Back then, when people asked me why on earth I was making a TV show about Iran, I told them, “I believe if you’re going to bomb a place, you should know its people first.” And I believe that now more than ever.
Christmas in some European countries kicks off 12 more days of religious observance — the famous Twelve Days of Christmas. They end today (January 6) with the Epiphany holiday, when the Three Wise Men were said to have finally brought their gifts to the baby Jesus.
France, not surprisingly, celebrates Epiphany in an edible way. For several days from Christmas until the Feast of Epiphany, the French line up at bakeries to buy the galette des rois — the “Cake of Kings.” They bring these to dinner parties, and enjoy them as snacks and with mid-afternoon tea. The tradition of the treats dates back to the 14th century.
What’s the reason for this enormous amount of pastry consumption? (Although honestly, who needs a reason to eat pastry?) Inside each galette hides a tiny trinket, usually made of porcelain. While these once had religious significance, today they range from miniature paintings of Picasso’s Guernica or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to figurines of Zorro or even Harry Potter. The trinkets hidden inside each galette are called fèves, named for the fava beans that were the original prizes. Today, fèves are highly collectible.
Traditionally, the cake is cut while the youngest child at the table designates who will get each piece (so there’s no cheating). Everyone takes careful bites of the pastry until someone finds the fève. The excited winner gets the fève, as well as a golden paper or plastic crown that tops the cake — and becomes king or queen for the day.
In Italy, Epiphany is the time of La Befana, the legendary Good Witch of Christmas, who gives gifts to children. Find out more about La Befana.