Don’t Trust UNESCO

I spent all day yesterday climbing steps to Barcelona hotels and sorting through tourist propaganda fliers. As I research my guidebooks, it seems nearly everything I read is promotional — designed to get my traveling readers’ money.

Every town has 2,000 years of history. They all want to pump up their off-season charm. And anyone can claim a “vast gastronomy.” I pick up a pack of fliers at the tourist office, sit in the park and sift through it — putting all that advertising through my centrifuge and coming up with straight, descriptive material explaining a traveler’s options. At least that’s my hope.

When it comes to evaluating sights, I disdain the word “UNESCO.” I find that throughout Europe, places desperate to rise above the din of tourist attractions brag that they are on the UNESCO list of cultural treasures. It seems every time I reject a place, proponents of it come at me with the “We’re on the UNESCO list” line. I normally want to like the United Nations (something that really irks my conservative detractors). But in the case of mediocre destinations for travelers, I’m with them — butt out, UN!

Now that I have guidebooks covering all of Western Europe, I can no longer remember everything I’ve seen and reported on. I’m not sure if I should feel good or bad about a strange mental phenomenon that has been reoccurring at an alarming rate to me lately. I think I’ve discovered something new or found a new, clever way to better describe something. I write it up with great satisfaction. Then I turn the page and see that it’s already written up from a previous year’s visit precisely as I just did. At least my thought processes are consistent.

Reviewing 20 to 30 hotels in a day (average of four per hour if I get my ducks in a row smartly — and don’t let friendly proprietors kill my momentum with a drink), I run out of descriptors. With the dollar where it is, Americans need a frank description of their low-end options. There’s an interesting spectrum ranging from charming to characteristic to funky to quirky. Places can be: Old school. A slumber mill. Time warp. Professional-yet-friendly. Thoughtfully appointed. Minimal-yet-comfy. Gaudy in the city of Gaudi. They can have: “a bomb-shelter charm” or “the ambience of a locker room.” Popular with backpackers and dust bunnies. Warmly run by Juan and the man he thinks may be his father. If the starship Enterprise had a Motel 6, this would be it.

Occasionally, I need to defend a description. I called one place “uppity.” The next year, the manager there asked me what that meant. Thinking quick, I said, “elegant and proud.” One place didn’t like to be described as “one floor above the sex shop.” But that’s exactly what it is.

When I find receptionists I think I can trust for leads, I milk them. Many are so wired to sell things that if I ask for advice on the best flamenco show, they respond, “We sell tickets to this one.” “Best restaurants” are generally run by relatives.

Trends are fun to keep up with. In Barcelona, several hotels have replaced the mini-bars in their rooms with a maxi-bar (called tentempié bar) in the lobby. It’s stocked all day with cold drinks and light plates of food and fresh fruit, free for guests. Also, Wi-Fi is on its way to becoming standard as more and more people are traveling with their laptops. I don’t like a hotel that charges $200 a night for a double room and then nicks its guests with a Wi-Fi fee. (In my books, I only list Internet access and Wi-Fi if it’s offered for free.) Many hotels have their website run by a booking service (which takes a cut). They give you a discount only if you send an email direct, skirting their own website.

There are some wonderful, big, new, urban youth hostels — I just visited a great new 400-bed place in Barcelona’s ritziest zone. No membership or age requirements and dorm beds for $25 each…great news for traveling students. (My co-authors and I call these places “Andy beds” — for my son and his college-aged friends slumming through Europe as we used to.)

A decade ago, we had a page in our guidebooks for travelers to rip out and leave in the hotel bathroom if they didn’t want their towels changed. Then it became trendy for hotels to claim, “Help us be green…leave towels on the floor if you want them changed.” Today, I find hotels have dispensed with the token environmentalism and insist on changing your towels each day. We’ll reinstate our “don’t wash my towels today” page next year.

Speaking of washing — people are surprised I still wash my clothes in the sink. It’s faster than hotel service or going out, and hotel shampoo works just great as detergent. If I ring things really tight, they’re dry by morning. (I must be a quite a wimp though, because if I’m not careful, I can actually get blisters on my hands by wringing too hard.)

It’s fun to analyze chapters in my current editions to see what state I was in on my last research round. If I list a masseuse, it’s fair to guess I must have been really exhausted on my last visit.

(P.S.: I hope you can scroll down and enjoy some of the photos we’ve just added to previous entries.)


32 Replies to “Don’t Trust UNESCO”

  1. Rick

    I think I am getting addicted to your blog. If there is a gap of more than a day are two between entries I go into withdrawal.

    Regarding your room descriptions including your descriptions of the owners and staff
    I have come to rely on them as being very accurate. You seem to be able to convey the flavour so that I know exactly what to expect from the proprietors –friendly, efficient (which often means brusque) and also the establishment itself. You describe the rooms in terms that convey the atmosphere and I cannot remember a time recently where your description was not excellent. One place that was a real gem, very clean and inexpensive was Millfield in Edinburgh. The lady was very very nice and I was almost like visiting an aunt. Perfect place and perfect description.

    Thanks again Rick.

  2. Rick, you are my favorite, I live in Ireland and dont go anywhere without your books. I am from Washington as well, just for kicks you should write about Washington culture sometime.

  3. I’m leaving for Spain in 10 days. It’s interesting to hear what it’s like to check it out from a writers perspective. Thanks for keeping the blog. It’s very informative.


  4. Evaluating hotels for your guidebooks sounds like an adventure of its own. I like the ‘frank’ descriptions. Especially ‘bomb-shelter charm’ and rooms for ‘dust bunnies’. Thanks for the smile. Happy travels! :)

  5. Rick,

    Thanks for all that you do. Watching all of your videos/shows – especially the behind the scenes ones – it looks exhausting – but very exciting! I recently traveled with a friend to Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic using your guidebooks. She was using a Lonely Planet guide, which was great to supplement your guidebooks, but I think I managed to convert her to the Rick Steves guidebooks!

    I hope to go to Spain next, and so I’m looking forward to the 2008 guidebook when it comes out. Until then, I’m enjoying the blog. Gracias – hasta luego!

    Burlington, VT

  6. Im from the UK and have traveled all over europe most of my life, I can honestly say that Rick Steve’s lol has not got a clue about europe reading this web site has made me laugh quite a lot, I didn’t know how big he was in the states, no one outside the hotelier trade has heard of him in europe.

    Although his information is extremely inacurate he is quite a good writer, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend using one of his guides as a itinerary for a vacation

  7. It is dangerous to become obsessed with your own stuff – just like you do it in this blog. Not because you have bad guidebooks, but because there are better ones. It would be great to read something about the limits of Rick Steves…

  8. You need to travel state side. Americans have their own style. Rick’s infor is well done. He’s a happy traveler! :) Unfortunatley, grumpy travelers do exist.

  9. Rick, WHAT ABOUT OFF SEASON? I love Europe – especially Italy and will be there with my teenage daughter in November. But your guidebooks (that I always refer to) do not say much about off season. WHERE ARE THE BACK DOORS IN OFF SEASON? I read that I should make a “quick side trip” to Civita di Bagnoregio “or skip the area altogether” in the off season, etc. BUT WHERE CAN WE GO IN NOVEMBER BESIDES THE BIGGIES (e.g, Rome, Florence, etc)?

  10. Greetings Rick!

    Like the rest of the folks reading about your trip, we anxiously await the next chapter!

    I have a question for you..have you heard of Gap Adventures? I was thinking of booking a sailing trip of Greece and wondered if you have any info or rating on this company?

  11. Hi Rick:

    I enjoy your blog and will be headed to Barcelona in a couple of months. Hope that you will continue to share your thoughts and info.
    Thanks for the “download” of your days travel!

  12. Rick-
    I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you. I have watched you on Public Television since I was young. You showed me the world-and I wanted it. I am now a history professor and when I go to Europe I travel alone- but I do have your guidebooks. I still listen to you on NPR, and I am so grateful for the tips and stories that you share. Your books, your programs really paint a picture of how exciting travel can be.

    Thanks for helping me find the real Europe and step out of my ethnocentric little world. I plan to take my daughters on their first European trip next summer- along with an entire Girl Scout Troop!

  13. To the UK ‘jester’…
    IMHO Your ‘critique’ of Steve is obviously self serving…if you were to visit the States, you would appreciate some guidance, as a tourist you would be ‘lost’ as well.
    No matter that you have traveled Europe ‘extensively’ your experiences most likely consists of local sex clubs..
    Not my, nor most others,’cup of tea’…

  14. The UK traveler needs a trip abroad to North America. :) More culture awaits to delight the senses!

  15. Hi Rick!

    You’re not a wimp when you wring out your wash and get blisters. It’s the water and the friction of the wringing that is doing it.

    Think of it the same way as rowing a boat – if you don’t keep your hands dry, you’ll risk getting blisters really fast.

    Keep on writin’! :-)

  16. Hey, love the blog. I’m amazed you have time (let alone the energy) to write this after everything else you do! I’ve enjoyed reading, keep up the good work!

  17. Rick
    I too would be interested in seeing a short list of UNESCO sites that disappoint you. You’ve made quite a blanket statement about disliking the UNESCO distinction. I too think some seem trivial, but what are your top poorly designated ones?

  18. Hurray for washing clothes in the sink (or bathtub) with hotel shampoo! That’s just what we did on our 10 day trip (from which we returned this week) to London and Paris!

    My husband and I packed the “Rick Steves” way. Each trip I take a photo of all of our baggage, we go carry-on only. Here’s our luggage photo from this trip!

    Bon voyage Rick! I’m really enjoying reading! – Cat

  19. Wow! I have to try that. Fit all my stuff for a week trip to London into a small carry-on bag. It’s going to be a challenge!

  20. Hey steve,
    I am going overseas in october
    I was wondering if you could tell me what the name of the new hosel was in Barcelona and maybe what the address is? or phone #
    Thanks Diane

  21. Hello Rick-
    We are taking our family of six to Europe in a few weeks and will be in Barcelona for 3 nights in June. Where would I find your hotel reviews from the hotels you visited this week? We want to find a place near beach and Las Ramblas that on’t costt a college education for a family with 4 children.

  22. Hi Rick,
    We just returned from Germany after 17 days. We had two indispensable items: a “Navi” or built-in GPS in our rental car AND your book. Without either, we could not have traveled as efficiently or as enjoyably. Both guided us right to the door step of each hotel or gasthof. Your advice regarding rental cars in large cities (Munich in particular) couldn’t be wiser: they are worse than useless and 24 Euros a day in a Parkhaus. Next time, we’ll bracket our vacation by arriving and departing from large cities, and rent a vehicle just for out of the way sights or places. I also dumped my day pack for yours and it’s much lighter and handier.
    Thanks for your great publications and products.

  23. The point about UNESCO sites isnt to please the tourist, but to preserve the place for the future generations because it has some cultural interest.

  24. Rick, This may sound strange, but I’m glad to hear about your blisters. I bought your clothes line for our 5 week trip last year but the 1st time I washed our clothes by hand I had blisters from ringing them out. After a few times I gave up and used launderettes. It’s OK though because I value most everything you have to say!

  25. I’m sooo glad you’re bringing back the multi-lingual towel!!! My old originals, which I use to make copies, has just about seen better days.

    I’ve never used laundromats or laundry services while traveling through Europe. For me, it was a waste of time & money. In Andorra, I laundered in the sink (light clothes) & the bidet (dark clothes)!

    Covering up the air conditioning vent in a private sleeping car so I wouldn’t freeze to death was solved with a towel, freshly laundered socks & under garments. They were dry by the time I’d reach every destination.

    I’ll be watching for the multi-lingual towels! Thanks again!!

  26. UNESCO’s pride and joy,

    We drove to Wieliczka, 6 miles southeast of Kraków, Poland, to visit the old salt mine and the Chapel of Blessed Kinga, located more than 300 feet below ground. The Chapel’s chandeliers consist of dangling salt crystals, the floor is carved as if it were tile. The many works of art on the walls, include several bas-reliefs (maybe 20 feet by 30 feet), especially the one of da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” that includes the spilled salt shaker. In a way, we think this reproduction is almost more of an artistic achievement than the original in Milan. UNESCO says, “The historic Salt Mine in Wieliczka lies on nine levels, its major shafts, and 3,000 chambers stretch for the total of 186 miles, reaching the depth of over 1,000 feet.” Of course our tour group only walked a very few of these miles, on just a few levels, but it was fascinating, especially the artwork carved in the salt, in many places, not just in the Chapel.

  27. Rick, I really like this paragraph: “Now that I have guidebooks covering all of Western Europe, I can no longer remember everything I’ve seen and reported on. I’m not sure if I should feel good or bad about a strange mental phenomenon that has been reoccurring at an alarming rate to me lately. I think I’ve discovered something new or found a new, clever way to better describe something. I write it up with great satisfaction. Then I turn the page and see that it’s already written up from a previous year’s visit precisely as I just did. At least my thought processes are consistent.” You describe what its actually like to live in the moment! When we are living from true aliveness (not the memory), then it doesn’t matter if we do the same thing every day,… its still fresh and new and there’s gratitude for just being. Happiness comes from not getting what you want, but loving what you got…..remembering this and your trip will be great even if your camera is stolen! AMW

  28. Rick, I’ve been using your guide books since 1993 for my 3-5 European vacations every year, and during my 4 years living in UK/France/Italy/Austria. As a single female traveling alone, I have always relied on your recommendation for centrally-located 2-3 star lodging options. Your descriptions are always on the mark. Would you consider adding 2 things to your lodging description — 1) is there an elevator or is this a 5th floor walk-up? 2) how clean/big is the shared shower and bathroom in the hall? As my knees get older, how many flights of stairs do I have to drag my luggage up becomes an important factor in my choice of lodging. At the 2-3 star range, lots of single rooms don’t have private bathroom/shower. Would really appreciate knowing the condition of the shower/bathroom in the hallway in advance, since hotels don’t usually show the photo of shared shower/bathroom on their web page. Thank you for your good work!

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