My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

Want to Avoid the Crowds? Europe’s “Third-Rate” Towns Are Truly First-Rate

Europe is crowded — especially its big, famous sights. As you plan your 2020 travels, you may be looking to escape your fellow travelers. Here’s an idea: Consider going easy on Europe’s top-tier destinations, and instead check out some lesser-known places. Last year, I made a swing through what I think of as The Big Three: London, Paris, and Rome. But I also mixed in some smaller towns, including ones few travelers have heard of: Arezzo. Canterbury. Sarlat. And you know something? The experiences I had in Europe’s “third-rate” towns were truly first-rate.

Virtually everyone visiting Italy wants to go to the “first-rate” cities: Rome, Florence, and Venice. With more time, they add some “second-rate” destinations: Pisa, Assisi, Siena, Milan, and so on. But even once you get beyond those top tiers, Italy is rich with rewarding destinations.

I had this revelation when I spent a sleepy, rainy Saturday in the Tuscan town of Arezzo. It’s a midsize town that’s not included in our Rick Steves’ Italy guidebook — even with 1,250 pages of coverage, Arezzo doesn’t make the cut. I was here on the recommendation of an Italian friend, specifically to take a day off from the busy tourist towns I was visiting elsewhere in Italy: Assisi, Rome, and so on.  And I got exactly what I was looking for.

I love the endearing way that smaller cities have their own idiosyncratic claims to fame, which swell their residents’ pride. Arezzo has two: It’s home to a thriving weekend antiques market; and its Basilica of San Francesco is slathered with colorful frescoes by Piero della Francesca. I enjoyed those aspects of Arezzo. But mostly, I savored simply being alone in Italy…wandering all by myself through colorful and cobbled back lanes; having a memorable lunch at the town’s foodie splurge restaurant, just dropping in without a reservation; discovering a world-class neighborhood gelato shop; and browsing antiques alongside Tuscans furnishing their homes rather than tourists seeking souvenirs. I left Arezzo re-energized — and ready to plunge into Rome.

In England, everyone wants to go to “first-rate” London. With more time, they add some “second-rate” destinations — Bath, York, the Cotswolds, and so on. But there’s a steep drop-off in traffic when it comes to a town like Canterbury, where I retreated after two exhausting weeks of guidebook research in London. And, much as I love London, this trip reminded me that Canterbury is one of my favorite places in the UK.

Canterbury is best known for two things: First, its cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who leads the Church of England. And second, English majors know the town for its role in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales, in which a ragtag assortment of pilgrims swap tall tales and parables on their journey to that famous church.

Of course, Canterbury is not entirely “undiscovered.” The knot of half-timbered streets ringing its cathedral and its bustling High Street are packed with visitors. But many of them are day trippers, and most never leave that compact core of town. I loved simply wandering Canterbury’s back streets, following its idyllic river, discovering lush parks, ogling its tidy brick row houses mixed in with tipsy Tudor black-and-white half-timbered homes. Even just a few steps off High Street took me to areas that have never seen a tourist.

Near Canterbury, I also spent time hiking along Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters (a less famous but drastically more pleasurable stretch of white cliffs than Dover’s); explored the characteristic Sissinghurst Gardens; took a day off in the English beach resort of Brighton; and toured the sprawling and fascinating Hampton Court Palace, infused with vivid memories of Henry VIII. I also visited far-better-known Cambridge, Oxford, and Windsor, where the oppressive crowds left me exasperated. But thinking back on my little swing through southeast England fills me with a happy glow…even though it was socked-in and drizzling the entire time.

In France, Paris is the first-rate, world-class “must.” Second-rate destinations include Provence, Nice and the French Riviera, Mont-St-Michel, and Normandy. But my personal favorite slice of France is third-rate: the Dordogne, huddled deep in the southwest, and its lovely market town of Sarlat.

Built of a lemony sandstone that seems to suck in the warmth and glow of the sun, Sarlat looks like a film set. It’s a town that celebrates geese: A bronze statue of two proud waterfowl honors the importance of foie gras in the local cuisine (and commerce). Twice a week, one of France’s best street markets (and that’s saying something) curls through Sarlat’s interlocking squares. On market day, Sarlat is one of the most engaging places in all of France…a feast for all the senses. On other days, it’s still an utter delight, exuding a “let’s-retire-here” serenity that has tourists checking their 401(k) balances.

Italy is richer with life-alteringly-wonderful “third-rate” towns than perhaps any country in Europe. In addition to Arezzo, many of my favorites are in Tuscany, Umbria, and other parts of Central Italy: LuccaVolterraMontepulciano,  Orvieto… the list goes on.

And then there’s Sorrento, perched over a serene bay just south of Naples, offering a genteel springboard for exploring the Amalfi Coast. And up north, a short train ride from Venice leads to the thriving university town of Padua, Romeo and Juliet’s hometown of Verona, and alpine Bolzano — so close to Austria you can practically hear the yodeling.

This is a fun game to play. In Germany, I love Berlin, Munich, Rothenburg, and the Rhine Valley — but Dresden, Erfurt, and Freiburg caught me off guard and captured my heart.

In Poland, Kraków is an all-star, but Gdańsk is an overlooked gem.

In Belgium, Brussels and Bruges are at the top of every traveler’s list, but Ghent and Antwerp are delightful discoveries that feel more authentic.

In Portugal, Lisbon is the undisputed champ, and Porto is the up-and-coming second city, but the sleepy university town of Coimbra is an unheralded joy.

In Croatia, everyone flocks to Dubrovnik and Split. Why not check out Slovenia’s Piran, just up the coast?

In Iceland, Reykjavík, the Golden Circle, and the Blue Lagoon get all of the attention. But my favorite corners of Iceland are the Westfjords, Lake Mývatn, and Seyðisfjörður on the Eastfjords.

In Hungary, Budapest is top dog, but Eger and Pécs are woefully underrated.

In Spain, it’s hard to resist the pull of Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, and Toledo. But my favorite Spanish memories take place in Salamanca, Bilbao, Arcos de la Frontera, and Santiago de Compostela.

I’m not (necessarily) saying to skip those world-class destinations entirely. If you’ve never been to Paris…then go to Paris. But consider changing it up by also visiting a smaller city or town that isn’t a household name back home. If nothing else, see Europe’s “third-rate” towns as an antidote to the crowds.

By the way, reviewing these photos, I notice two things: Gorgeous places…with virtually no people. I mean, just look at all of those empty cobbles. If you want Europe to yourself, go third-rate.

What are some of your favorite “third-rate” towns in Europe, and why?


For more ideas of lesser-known places to visit, check out my recent list of 10 European Discoveries for 2020…and my Discoveries for 2019 and 2018, too.

For more details on all of the destinations mentioned here, check out our Rick Steves guidebook series, which includes coverage of the biggies along with the “third-rate” alternatives.

10 European Discoveries for 2020

In 2020, Europe will be more crowded than ever. Fortunately, there are still plenty of undiscovered alternatives: A sweet little beach town in Portugal. The quieter sides of London and Tuscany. The thriving tapas scene in an underrated Basque city. Street markets in Ljubljana and Provence. Switzerland’s capital and Bulgaria’s cultural capital. The wilds of northwest Iceland. The Tuscan island where Napoleon rallied for his final stand. And even a pilgrimage to a newly trendy nuclear meltdown site. These are my 10 European discoveries for 2020.

In 2019, my travels took me to London, Paris, and Rome; to Tuscany, Provence, and the Swiss Alps; and to the fjords of Iceland, the Julian Alps of Slovenia, and the white cliffs of England’s South Coast. And yet, reflecting on a  very busy year, I’m struck by how many of my fondest memories were forged not in the big-name destinations, but in out-of-the-way places. Continuing my annual tradition (check out my discoveries for 2018 and 2019), I’ve collected this list of Europe’s lesser-known highlights. You’ll notice a theme: Most of these are close to extremely famous — and extremely overrun — European biggies. It’s striking how, with a little effort, you can discover a little corner of Europe all to yourself.

 

The Westfjords, Iceland

About nine in ten visitors to Iceland hew close to the capital, Reykjavík, making speedy day trips to the Golden Circle, South Coast, and Blue Lagoon. That’s efficient and satisfying, if time is short. But to strike out on your own, head north — way north — to the Westfjords. Up here, just shy of the Arctic Circle, you’ll find boundless fjordland vistas, thundering bridal-veil waterfalls (including one of Iceland’s best, Dynjandi), plucky and kind locals, and one of the world’s top bird cliffs, a magical place called Látrabjarg. If you’ve made brief “layover” forays into Iceland and are ready to invest a few days in getting way off the beaten path…the Westfjords are for you. My trip to the Westfjords in September of 2019 — to write a brand-new chapter for the second edition of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (coming soon) — ranks as one of my all-time favorite road trips.

 

Untouristy London

London is a world in itself — endlessly, relentlessly, exhaustingly engaging. For some, it can be too much. When visiting London, hit the big sights, sure. (Ideally equipped with some smart crowd-beating tips.) But make a point to also break out of the tourist rut and become a temporary Londoner. During my two weeks in London in 2019, I cycled through “Little Venice” along the Regent’s Canal, explored hipster street markets (my favorite is Maltby Street Rope Walk Market), hiked across the urban wilderness of Hampstead Heath, explored the Shoreditch street-art-and-foodie neighborhood, checked out the food halls of Brixton, and rode a commuter train to the lovely suburban neighborhood of Dullwich. London is one of Europe’s most satisfying cities to explore. So…explore.

By the way, this approach also works like a charm in other overcrowded cities. For example, in Rome, consider skipping the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum and heading to some exponentially less overrun alternatives. (I love Rome’s Monti neighborhood, across the street from the Ancient Forum.)

 

Bern, Switzerland

Switzerland’s seat of government is also its most appealing urban playground. Livable Bern is tucked quietly between some of Switzerland’s most heavily trafficked destinations — namely, the Berner Oberland and Lake Luzern. And yet, it’s one of the only European capitals where locals complain about how few tourists visit, rather than how many. Updating our Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook in Bern this fall, I enjoyed the city’s pristine arcaded streets, playful fountains, engaging museums, super-scenic bridges, warm sandstone townhouses, low-key students-and-politicians pace of life, and convivial park huddled under its towering church steeple. One Friday evening at sunset, I hiked up to a tranquil rose garden where everyone was just hanging out, peering out over the handsome cityscape, and waiting for the sun to go down. It was — in a most unexpected place — one of my favorite travel memories of 2019. (Our Best of Switzerland Tour ends with a night in this fine little city.)

 

Ljubljana’s “Open Kitchen,” Slovenia

Speaking of underrated capitals, Ljubljana has long been my favorite little city in Europe. And it just keeps getting better. While Ljubljana is inviting anytime, do your best to visit on a Friday (from mid-March through mid-October, weather permitting). That’s when the market square plays host to the wonderful Open Kitchen, one of my favorite food events in Europe. Each of the several dozen stalls is operated by a brick-and-mortar restaurant, from internationally recognized chefs to hole-in-the-wall dives. And the variety is bewildering: During my visit in early October, I saw vegan burgers, huge simmering pans of paella, Argentinian steaks, ribs and pulled pork, Indian dosas, Belgian waffles, poke bowls, Slovenian microbrews, Chinese noodles, hearty sausages and čevapčići, delicate macarons, and an entire roast pig on a spit. People settle into big shared tables or grab a seat on the cathedral steps to graze and socialize. It’s a melting pot of culinary Slovenia — home to one of Europe’s most underappreciated food scenes.

 

Salema, Portugal

Of the many things that Rick and I agree on, this tops the list: Salema — a tiny town on Portugal’s Algarve Coast — may be the best beach town in Europe. It’s just down the coast from big, glitzy resorts (like Lagos, Abufeira, and Portimão). But Salema feels like an idyllic, Old World hideaway. Visiting recently to update the Algarve chapter for our Rick Steves Portugal guidebook, I was utterly charmed by Salema. It doesn’t have enough hotels, and the ones it has are past their prime (or humble-by-design). Sunbathers share the beach with fishing boats, pulled just beyond the reach of the tide. Grizzled fisherfolk grab the shade at a beachfront café near the communal tractor they use to hoist those boats up onto the sand. The cobbled main drag climbs up through a whitewashed world of simple homes. And Salema’s beach — with powdery yellow sand, just the right amount of surf, vivid-yellow cliffs, and beach bars happy to rent you a thatched umbrella and a lounger — is made to order for a day of sunbathing and splashing.

 

Chernobyl, Ukraine

Yes, really. Chernobyl — a two-hour drive north of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev — is a compelling, moving, and (if science is to be believed) safe place to visit. I went to Chernobyl in late 2018 (before it was “cool”) and found the experience captivating. With the smash success of HBO’s award-winning Chernobyl miniseries in 2019, the site of humankind’s worst nuclear accident is becoming known as a travel destination. Why visit? Touring Chernobyl offers an unforgettable lesson in radiation, and its capacity for both technological achievement and destruction. It lets you walk through a trapped-in-time, Cold War-era Soviet workers’ town, and witness the power of nature to reclaim abandoned civilization. And, most importantly, it shares the poignant stories of the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives to contain the meltdown, saving Ukraine — and, likely, much of Europe — from a horrifying fate. It’s hard to imagine a more memorable day out, anywhere in Europe, than Chernobyl.

 

Lesser-Known Markets of Provence, France

In the fall of 2019, my wife and I spent a week in Provence, making a point to visit a different market each day. We enjoyed the biggies (like the ones in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Aix-en-Provence, and Uzès). But our favorites were the lesser-known alternatives. On Tuesday in Vaison-la-Romaine, we browsed the floral soaps and lavender sachets that were piled on rickety tables between Roman ruins. On Friday in Lourmarin, we strolled into town along a plane tree-shaded boulevard, lined on both sides with stacks of colorful, plump produce and mounds of glistening olives. And on Sunday in Coustellet, at a lowbrow market filling the crossroad village’s dusty parking lot, we picked up a droopy bouquet of sunflowers, plus some smoked meats and mountain cheese for a picnic. The fact is, every day of the week,  a variety of markets enliven no-name towns all over Provence. Figure out which one’s nearest to you (listed in our Rick Steves Provence & the French Riviera guidebook)… and check it out.

 

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Bulgaria remains one of Europe’s most underrated destinations. And if I had to pick one place to visit in Bulgaria, it’d be Plovdiv. This small city of 340,000 has a modern bustle, with a pedestrian-friendly shopping boulevard slathered in vivid street art. It has a funky hipster zone — nicknamed “The Mousetrap” — where communist-kitsch posters laugh down over diners feasting on upmarket Bulgarian fare. And draped over a hillside above the modern city, the atmospheric old town has a remarkably well-preserved Roman amphitheater, colorful traditional homes in the Bulgarian National Revival style, and one of Europe’s very best “hidden gem” art museums, featuring the works of Zlatyu Boyadzhiev —  the “Bulgarian Van Gogh,” who taught himself to paint left-handed after a stroke. If more people knew about Plovdiv, it’d be a tourist mecca. But they don’t…so for now, it’s all yours.

Plovdiv is one of the highlights on our Best of Bulgaria Tour; for a sneak preview, check out this segment from our Bulgaria TV show.

 

Bilbao Tapas Scene, Spain

The Basque Country is one of Spain’s culinary hotspots, and the genteel beach town of San Sebastián hogs much of the attention. But don’t overlook the bigger urban center of Bilbao, just an hour’s drive to the west. On a recent visit to Bilbao, I arrived late on a Friday evening. From my little B&B in the heart of the old town, I stepped out into a commotion of thriving bars and restaurants, each one with a creative array of tapas proudly lined up on the counter. Facing the Atlantic, Bilbao’s tapas bars come with more than their share of mysterious seafood — mounted on a crunchy little disc of baguette or skewered with a toothpick. As a bonus, you can go for an after-dinner stroll along the serene embankment, culminating in a floodlit view of Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Bilbao. (Our Basque Country Tour ends with two nights in Bilbao.)

If you’re headed out on a tapas crawl, and want to increase your odds of getting ostras (oysters) instead of orejas (pig’s ears), consider these tapas tips.

 

The Isle of Elba, Tuscany, Italy

This island is best known as the place where Napoleon was sent into exile. Turns out, it’s also ideal for a beach break from a busy Tuscan itinerary. Connected to mainland Tuscany by an easy one-hour ferry ride, Elba comes with a textbook “salty Mediterranean harbor,” a couple of evocatively faded Napoleonic palaces, scenic drives to secluded beaches, and an unforgettable gondola ride to the island’s rocky summit in an open-air cage that had me feeling like a parakeet going for the ride of its life. The designers of our brand-new Best of Tuscany Tour deserve the credit for this one: After they included Elba on the tour route, I went there to add it to the newly released 19th edition of our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook… and I was hooked. (Check out my full report on Elba.)  In fact, I’ll be returning to Elba in 2020 as a tour member on that new Tuscany tour. And I can’t wait.

 

How about you? What are your favorite European discoveries? Where are you most excited to visit in 2020?


Need more inspiration? My “discoveries” lists for both 2018 and 2019 are still great choices in 2020.

I’ll be posting more about several of these discoveries — including Iceland’s Westfjords, the markets of Provence, and Switzerland’s underrated cities — in the next few weeks. To make sure you don’t miss anything, “like” me on Facebook.

Wherever you’re going in 2020…happy travels!

10 Movies and TV Shows that Capture the Essence of Europe

Movies and TV play a powerful role in shaping and enhancing our European travels. A Harry Potter franchise can dramatically boost tourism to the UK. Game of Thrones helped put entire chunks of Europe (Dubrovnik, Northern Ireland) on the “must-see” map.  A random little church in Scotland became flooded with tourists after appearing in a Tom Hanks blockbuster, And a recent surge in visitors to Norway is largely credited to a massively successful film — Frozen — that is not even explicitly set in Norway. Movies and TV show us the world…and inspire us to go experience it.

In a previous life, I had a two-year stint writing movie reviews for my hometown Gazette (which locals affectionately called the “Guess-At”). While my love of movies never went away, it was soon eclipsed by my love of travel. And to this day, before I go on any trip, I load up my iPad with movies and TV shows that are related to the places I’m visiting.

So, combining my two loves, here’s a list of the 10 movies and TV shows that most effectively stoke my wanderlust for Europe. A few caveats: This is a highly idiosyncratic list, weighted heavily toward Eastern Europe and 20th-century history (two of my travel passions). I’ve intentionally limited esoteric, foreign-language, art house films; instead, I’ve focused on mainstream entertainment that’s easy to find and easy to digest. And I also want to stress that these are, by no means, the 10 best movies about Europe. Rather, these are the movies that best capture the spirit of Europe, most successfully convey a sense of place…and get me excited for my next trip.

No Man’s Land (2001), Bosnia-Herzegovina

I’ve spent much of my career grappling with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. And this egregiously underwatched film (which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) is the best I’ve seen when it comes to providing real insight into the conflict. No Man’s Land doesn’t attempt to explain the geopolitical or historical reasons for ethnic cleansing. Rather, it captures the experience of normal, everyday people on the front lines — swirling inside a whirlpool of agendas bigger than them. It’s about people who never really cared that much about sectarian strife until someone put a gun in their hands and dropped them into a trench. Surprisingly funny, it’s also darkly comic in showing the callous self-interest of international participants with no personal stake in the outcome. According to many of my friends in the former Yugoslavia, this film’s absurdist tone rings painfully true.

 

Before Sunset (2004), Paris

A pair of star-crossed lovers (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) reunite in the City of Light nine years after spending a night wandering around Vienna together nine years earlier. We catch up on what they’ve been doing since Before Sunrise and watch them fall in love all over again, in real time. While Paris is only a backdrop, the film captures a real sense of place: bohemian cafés, cobbled back lanes, sun-dappled parks, and the sumptuous Seine riverbank. It’s well worth watching Before Sunrise first — just to get to know the younger versions of Jesse and Céline — but this middle chapter of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is, for me, the most compelling.

 

Saving Private Ryan (1998), Normandy

As a World War II buff and a proud American, I’ve never traveled anyplace that filled me with more humbled appreciation for my forebears than the D-Day beaches of Normandy. The only thing that can make a visit to the rusted tank barriers, evocative cemeteries, and abandoned gun emplacements on France’s sandy northern coastline more poignant? Heading back to your hotel and watching Saving Private Ryan, which captures both the epic scale of Operation Overlord and its human cost. (If you’re left wanting more, the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers — produced around the same time, by many of the same filmmakers — offers a deeper dive into the Allied invasion of Europe.)

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), Iceland

I feel conflicted about this one. While I admire its gee-whiz optimism, and I’m charmed by the lead performances by Ben Stiller (who also directed) and Kristen Wiig, ultimately it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Even so, when I’m planning a trip to Iceland, I find myself getting an itch to rewatch it, if only for the marvelous use it makes of Icelandic filming locations. In one scene, the title character — epically, if nonsensically — skateboards his way down a long, curving mountain road to a fjordside village, before escaping from an erupting volcano. Iceland also stands in for Greenland and for the cut-glass peaks of the Himalayas. And, to its credit, Walter Mitty captures the pure joy of venturing out, for the first time, into a big, exciting, fascinating world.

 

Schindler’s List (1993) and The Pianist (2002), the Holocaust in Poland

 

This one-two cinematic gut punch brings to excruciating life the reality of the Holocaust in Poland. Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece (and Best Picture Oscar winner), Schindler’s List, tells the story of the Jewish people who lived in the Kraków neighborhood of Kazimierz. (It was also filmed there, which revitalized interest in a rich Jewish heritage that had been largely swept under the rug during communism.) And The Pianist features Adrian Brody (in a role that won him the Best Actor Oscar) as Władysław Szpilman, the acclaimed Warsaw concert pianist who became a refugee hiding out in his own city. While both films do a remarkable job of dramatizing a dark chapter in Polish history, the scenes in The Pianist that show a broken Szpilman stumbling through the rubble of Warsaw are particularly poignant in conveying the full impact of war and genocide.

 

Outlander Season 1 (2014), Scottish Highlands

A love letter to the Scottish Highlands, Outlander paints a vivid portrait of rural Scotland at its zenith in the mid-18th century, immediately before the Battle of Culloden sparked the decline of the clan system. Unapologetically racy (in a Fifty Shades of Plaid kind of way), it’s also a compelling love story — thanks to a magnetic lead performance by Catriona Balfe as a WWII-era English nurse magically transported back two centuries. While working on our Rick Steves Scotland guidebook, I found Outlander the perfect way to wind down at the end of each day of driving along moody lochs, bonny glens, and stony villages. (And my Scottish friends gave it high marks for historical accuracy — particularly compared to the many liberties taken by Braveheart.) Later seasons spend more time away from Scotland — leaving much of that Highlands magic behind — but Season 1 is a Scottish treat.

 

Good Bye Lenin! (2003), Cold War East Berlin

This funny, touching, surprisingly lighthearted movie offers glimpses into what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain — before, during, and after the transition from communism to capitalism. Daniel Brühl plays a young man who looks after his fragile mother, an ardent communist who goes into a coma just before the Berlin Wall falls. When she awakens several months later, Brühl and his sister are determined to hide the potentially devastating truth from her. If you’re headed to Berlin and want a taste of “Ost-algie” (nostalgia for Cold War East Germany), Good Bye Lenin! is a must. (This narrowly beat out 2006’s The Lives of Others — a much darker, but equally insightful, take on life in communist East Germany.)

 

The Crown (2016-Present), Britain’s Tumultuous 20th Century

It’s staggering to think of all the history that Queen Elizabeth II has witnessed during her nearly seven decades on the throne of the United Kingdom. Peter Morgan’s series The Crown, grand in both its narrative ambition and its geographical scope, captures that history powerfully — from world-changing events to intimate family relationships. During the first two seasons, Claire Foy and Matt Smith created the definitive screen versions of the Queen and Prince Phillip (not to mention John Lithgow in a career-capping role as Winston Churchill). Then  season three kicked off with a time jump and an entirely new cast, with Olivia Coleman and Tobias Menzies taking over the lead roles. Since seeing The Crown, there’s no other TV show or movie that comes to mind more often as I travel around Britain.

 

The Death of Yugoslavia (1995)

Documentaries could be an entire “top 10” list of their own, but I’ve included just this one, because it’s a marvel: a five-part BBC series (hosted by Christiane Amanpour) that traces the descent of Yugoslavia into war in the 1990s. It’s expertly illustrated by copious news footage and actual interviews with every single one of the major players, from Slobodan Milošević to Bill Clinton. Best of all, you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube (start here, with episode one). It’s an astonishing achievement in capturing the “history as it happens” aspect of the most recent war to take place on European soil, and required viewing for anyone going to Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or any other former-Yugoslav lands.

 

Rick Steves Europe (2000-Present)

While this may seem like blatant product placement, the fact is that when I’m heading to Europe, there’s no better way to get ready than by watching Rick’s travelogues. They help me visualize what I’m traveling so far to see, make informed decisions about how to prioritize my time, and gain historical context for my sightseeing. Yes, I’m completely biased. But after more than 120 episodes, there’s still nobody who teaches travel on TV better than Rick Steves.

 

Honorable Mention

This was a tough list to narrow down! Here are some more favorites that didn’t quite make the cut.

The Third Man (1949), Post-WWII Vienna: Starring Orson Welles, this classic film captures a unique moment in time, when Vienna was in rubble — and, thanks to its position straddling East and West, was a den of spies.

Sherlock (2010-Present), London: Aside from being a rollicking, riveting update of a classic of English literature, the BBC/PBS Sherlock series (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) captures the spirit of contemporary London: grand landmarks, dreary Tube stations, sweeping Thames panoramas, thumbing out text messages in the back of a black cab, and so on.

Inglourious Basterds (2009), WWII Europe: Quentin Tarantino’s films are, understandably, not everyone’s cup of tea. But I’m a fan, and this is my favorite. Not only does it present — spoiler warning! — an intensely satisfying, over-the-top-gruesome death scene for Hitler and the entire Nazi leadership. But the film’s most pivotal, most riveting scene hangs on the subtle cultural difference that Brits (like Americans) count with their index finger as “one,” while Germans (like other Continental Europeans) use their thumb.

Master of None Season 2 (2017), Tuscany: The first two episodes of this Aziz Ansari Netflix series’ second season were filmed in Tuscany. The first — a takeoff of Bicycle Thieves — captures the joy of being an American in a small Italian town. The second episode basks in the sumptuous scenery of my all-time favorite corner of Italy, the Val d’Orcia, near Pienza. In one memorable scene, a little car gets stuck in a narrow lane…a hilarious nightmare-come-true for any American driver who’s tried to navigate Old World villages.

Bridge of Spies (2015), Cold War Berlin: Along with a vintage Tom Hanks performance and Steven Spielberg’s reliably engaging direction, this film offers a glimpse of Berlin just as the Cold War was heating up. In one captivating scene, a masterful continuous shot twists in and out of the Berlin Wall at the very moment that it’s being built.

Notting Hill (1999), London: Both for its intimate portrait of a colorful, gritty, trendy London neighborhood (which, thanks partly to this movie, has become touristy and quite posh), and for its sharp British wit, this one’s a sentimental favorite.

Chernobyl (2019): HBO’s acclaimed miniseries is painstakingly researched, grippingly dramatized, and required viewing if you’re planning to visit the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Don’t miss the official companion podcast with the show’s creator, Craig Mazin, which greatly enhances the experience of watching the show.

James Bond Movies: Some of the most beautiful European scenery ever filmed has been set dressing for big 007 set pieces. Recent favorites include the motorcycle chase through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (in 2012’s Skyfall), the shootout in a sinking Venetian palazzo (in 2006’s Casino Royale), a footrace across the terra cotta rooftops of Siena during the Palio horse race (in 2008’s Quantum of Solace), and the Bond family estate in a moody Scottish Highlands glen (also in Skyfall) — and that’s just the Dennis Craig Bond.

Jason Bourne Movies: The European scenery in Bond films feels just like that: scenery. The Bourne movies, on the other hand, don’t serve up Europe on a prettified platter — they live in its grittiest corners. I love the way they’re largely set in real public spaces of unromantic cities like Berlin, Zürich, and Moscow — hulking train stations, rush hour-clogged boulevards, grubby concrete squares — rather than prettied-up piazzas or alpine vistas. When I travel, I spend a lot of time in gloomy train stations…and I’ve never seen those captured so true-to-life as in the Borne movies.

Pretty Much Every Movie, Budapest: I am a Budapest aficionado (heck, I literally wrote the book on the place). And I love spotting my favorite city standing in for other European locales in a long string of Hollywood hits. The city’s patina of faded European elegance is enticing to filmmakers: Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), in which Budapest stood in for everywhere from Paris to Rome; Evita (1996), in which Budapest became Buenos Aires; I Spy (2002), an atrocious Eddie Murphy/Owen Wilson action comedy that made glorious use of its Budapest location; and the opening scenes of Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011). I even saw a movie being filmed once in Budapest: Riding on a bus in the streets near the parliament, I glanced out the window to see what looked like a shootout raging on a random side-street. About a year later, I recognized the scene in Melissa McCarthy’s Spy (2015).

This is just scratching the surface. Everyone has their sentimental favorite Europe movies. What are some of yours, and why?


If you like these ideas, there are many more things to watch (and read). Here’s a country-by-country rundown of our favorite books and movies for every place in Europe.

“You Have My Dream Job!”  —  How I Became a Travel Writer

I just got home from one of the most memorable and meaningful trips I’ve had in years: My alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University, invited me back to campus to talk about how my college experience prepared me for my job as a travel writer. I get a lot of strangers telling me, “You have my dream job!” But now I had to sit down and really think hard about how I got to where I am, and what it means to create a meaningful career doing something you love.

How do you distill 20 years of travel into a one-hour talk? Come to that, how do you get to be a travel writer? Beats me. But I can tell you how I became one, and throw in a few tips for anyone who’s just starting out. Since I’m in a nostalgic mood, first I’ll tell the story of how I got to where I am. Then I’ll zoom out to offer some advice that worked for me…and might just work for you, too.

My Travel Writer Origin Story

Travel runs deep in my family. Before I was born, my parents lived abroad — in North England and in Switzerland — for four years. This was at a time when long-distance calls were so expensive that they could only afford to talk to their parents twice a year: on Christmas and on Mother’s Day. Other than that, it was letters — written on crinkly, blue-and-red-striped “aerogram” stationery. Back then, “living abroad” meant being entirely cut off from your home culture. It required a deep cultural immersion that sent you home with a funny accent. (Returning to small-town USA, my parents were informed by friends — much to their surprise — that they had started talking like Brits.)

When I was in high school, my father — a professor at a theological school — set up a language-study program for his graduate students in Oaxaca, Mexico. He invited me to tag along and work on my rudimentary Spanish. Sensing that this was an alternative to getting a menial summer job, I said, “Sure.” I wound up spending one month each of the next three summers living with a wonderful host family, becoming fluent in Spanish, having my hometown blinders pried open, and — most important — discovering a deep affinity for the everyday adventure of travel. My sepia-toned world had suddenly been colorized.

When it was time for college, I attended Ohio Wesleyan University, in my hometown of Delaware, Ohio. (A generous scholarship trumped the fact that it was just 15 minutes from my parents’ house.) I majored in English, and I decided to take a break from Spanish and tackle German. Eight semesters later, I had a second foreign language — and a second degree — under my belt.

For a semester abroad, I took a “sabbatical” from my German classes to join Ohio Wesleyan’s esteemed program in Salamanca, Spain. The first time I set foot in Europe, I stepped off a plane in Madrid, boarded a bus, and rode across the sun-baked Castilian Plain to be introduced to my host family. I took classes at the Universidad de Salamanca, got acquainted with one of Spain’s finest small cities, stomped grapes to make wine at the family farm, and traveled to places like Galícia, Toledo, and Barcelona.

Returning home, I completed my studies and graduated valedictorian, Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude. Clearly, I had the world by the tail!

Except…I truly did not. In fact, I had no earthly idea what to do next. I had spent too much time striving to get straight A’s, and not nearly enough time considering what I’d do with that flawless transcript.

Thus began what I think of as “The Wilderness Years.” As if to scream to the world just how rudderless I felt, I grew a deeply unfortunate scraggy beard.

For the next couple of years, I floated through life like a cork in a river. Feeling drawn to the Pacific Northwest — where I had many relatives —  I drove cross-country to the Oregon Coast. Upon arriving, I realized I had no clue what to do out there, either. After a couple of months, I drove home, moved in with my parents, and got a job at the local movie theater…just to hang out with my friends who also worked there. Thinking I might want to become a teacher, I did some substitute teaching — but that wasn’t for me, either. A lone bright spot was when I got a gig writing weekly movie reviews for my hometown newspaper, at $25 a pop. I considered going to film school, because clearly another $100,000 in debt and another marginally useful degree would be the answer to my prayers.

Obviously, I was waiting for something — anything — to inspire me. And what do you do when you can’t figure out anything else to do? You go to Europe! My high school sweetheart, Shawna, suggested we take a trip to Great Britain. And then, I decided, I’d stick around and do some solo backpacking around the Continent.

We had no idea where to begin planning our trip. Around this time, the local public TV affiliate was airing a show called Travels in Europe with Rick Steves every evening around dinnertime. It became my family’s tradition to watch this goofy American, in his leather jacket and aviator glasses, work his way around Europe. We had a stack of Rick’s free travel newsletters on our coffee table, too. One night, my mom said, “I think Rick also writes guidebooks.” I suggested to Shawna that she check it out. A couple of days later, she called me and said, “I got that Rick Steves book out of the library. Now I know exactly what to do on our trip.” (Clearly, Shawna was very astute. But I must have been even more astute…because I wound up marrying her.)

We had a wonderful time in Britain…guided each step of the way by our Rick Steves guidebook. We still speak fondly of the “chirpy attic room” in Keswick, and the many other just-right places Rick directed us to.

Shawna went home (for, you see, she actually had a job) and I was left alone in England…again rudderless. So I got in touch with my friend Trevor, who had graduated with me and immediately entered the Peace Corps, stationed in Slovakia. His sister Abby was coming to travel around Eastern Europe with him…would I like to come join them?

I was staying with family friends on the moors of South England, and Trevor wanted to meet up in Poland — which felt very, very far away. But, in possession of a Eurail pass and lacking other options, I decided to make the two-day trek: boat to France, train to Paris, night train to Munich, train to Berlin, another night train to Kraków. Walking bleary-eyed from Kraków’s train station to the main square, I marveled that this crazy plan might have actually worked. And a few minutes later, when Trevor popped into view at the far end of the square, I was hooked. (You can read my full account of the journey at the bottom of this post.)

Trevor, Abby, and I spent a week traveling around Eastern Europe: Kraków, Prague, Dresden, Budapest, and back home to Slovakia. And I was flabbergasted by this corner of the Continent. Something about Eastern Europe got under my skin. I continued on the rest of my trip with a renewed energy, hitting my groove as I traveled through several more countries, eventually running out of money in Ireland and flying home.

Back in Ohio, I returned to the throes of The Wilderness Years. But something was different. I was more at peace, while also more excited. I had seen a glimpse of a world that felt like it would become important to me in some way. I just had to figure out how.

But first, I decided I should write a thank-you letter to Rick Steves. The letter ballooned to several pages, as I waxed poetic about the glories of Eastern Europe that were inexplicably not included in his guidebooks. C’mon, Rick, I chided — why no Budapest? No Kraków?!

At the end of the letter, I figured I might as well throw in my resume and mention that I was looking for work. I dropped the letter in the mail and got right back to the important business of not having a job. Somewhere in there, my mom said, “Cameron, you’ve got to take some initiative and figure out what you want to do. It’s not like Rick Steves is just going to call you up and offer you a job!”

A couple of days later, the phone rang. A familiar voice said: “Hi, is this Cameron? This is Rick Steves.”

After an embarrassing exchange in which Rick repeatedly assured me that he was actually Rick Steves, and not my mischievous friend Andy, we had a great conversation. He liked my letter. He agreed that he could do better in Eastern Europe. And, by the way, was I serious about coming to work for him?

It was November — the slowest time of year in the travel business — and Rick wasn’t hiring just then. But, he said, if I was ever in the Seattle area, I should drop in to meet him. I hung up the phone and called my Grandma in Portland, Oregon. “Grandma — I’m coming for a visit!”

I flew out to the Pacific Northwest and made the rounds with my relatives, working my way north toward Seattle. A couple of days before I was to be in town, I called Rick to be sure he knew I was coming. He answered, and I told him that I was on my way to see him.

There was a long, awkward pause. “Um, who is this again?”

You know — Cameron Hewitt. That guy from Ohio. The one who wrote you a letter. You said I should come out to meet you.

Rick ended the call with a very noncommittal, “Well, I still have no idea who you are. But if you want to come to my office, I guess I’ll talk to you.”

I could have — probably should have — hung my head and flown home to Ohio. But I’d come this far…and, frankly, I didn’t have a lot of other prospects. So I made the lonely drive north on I-5 to Seattle, and showed up on Rick’s doorstep.

At first, Rick eyed me suspiciously. But, relentlessly, I recapped our previous conversation — and finally he remembered. We had a lively conversation and hit it off. It was clear that our travel styles were perfectly in sync. He said they may be hiring in a few months and took me to meet the HR manager. She was just arriving at her desk for the day — still wearing her jacket and holding her car keys — and she looked at us like a deer in headlights.

A few months later, they were indeed hiring — and I got the job. In March of 2000, I moved to Seattle and started working at Rick’s Travel Center, where customers can come to buy our luggage and guidebooks and get advice on their trips. I worked hard there for two years, and when an editorial position came open in our guidebook department — which was my target all along — I became a guidebook editor and researcher. I continued to work hard. And I never stopped. Over the last two decades, I’ve been spending three months each year in Europe, contributing to guidebooks in more than 40 countries, from Iceland to Sicily. (Here’s a partial summary.)

(tl;dr: Overachiever-turned-loser goes to Europe, writes Rick Steves a letter, and winds up with his dream job.)

While my story is extremely specific (and, upon reflection, nothing short of bizarre), I find that many people’s stories have their own twists and turns. It’s hard to give universal advice to someone just setting out, but here are what I consider the takeaways from my journey. While these tips may not be relevant to everyone, they’re what I wish someone had told me on graduation day.

Someone has to do your dream job…so why not you?

OK, try this: Picture your dream job. Close your eyes and imagine what you would consider the coolest thing you could get paid to do. Got it?

Here’s the thing: Somebody does that job. Somebody has to. So why shouldn’t you be that somebody?

This isn’t to say that you deserve that job just because you want it. You’ll have to earn it. But why not be the one who earns it?  If it’s something you have a passion and an aptitude for, why not dedicate yourself to working tirelessly, proving yourself indispensable, and being the person who gets to do what you dream of doing?

The big caveat here is that your dream job is probably much harder (and much less glamorous) than you imagine. I realize that I will never get one ounce of sympathy from any of my friends, but…my job is very hard work —  with long, tedious days, exhausting assignments, and unforgiving deadlines. And I would imagine any career considered a “dream job” would be commensurately more challenging.

But if you don’t shy away from hard work, give it a shot. It might take a long time. You’ll be precipitously steep on the learning curve as you pay your dues. And it will require patience and persistence. But why not you?

A career is like a trip: have a plan, but remain flexible.

I help a lot of friends and acquaintances plan their trips to Europe. (Occupational hazard.) And I find that the people who have the best approach are those who know what they want to do, without being too rigid about it.

Some travelers have every single hour plotted out. I have seen itineraries that read like they were designed by aeronautical engineers (because, well, they were): “Day 10, at 10:00: Visit the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. 10:35: Ponder humanity’s place in the universe and relationship with God; if time, also see Michelangelo’s Slaves. 10:45: Coffee break in museum cafeteria. 11:00: Walk 15 minutes to the Uffizi for our reservation there…”

These people invariably have troubled trips. They can’t possibly live up to their own rigid standards, small setbacks derail their precision plans, and spontaneity suffers.

I have also seen “itineraries” that barely qualify: A sketched-out list of places that might be in the cards, and a reluctance to book even a single night in a hotel. These entirely spontaneous trips may work for some people, but my sense is that they miss out on things they may have loved, simply because they didn’t do any homework. They waste a lot of time improvising — for example, calling around to find a room when they stumble into a town that’s unexpectedly jammed with a big convention — and less time experiencing Europe.

For me, a good trip has a general plan: I book overnights and a few can’t-miss experiences (like a museum that requires reservations, or a world-class restaurant), but leave the specifics of each day wide open to flex with the weather, surprise opportunities, and unplanned setbacks. Sometimes everything works out perfectly — as if I’d plotted it out, hour by hour, months before. But other times, I’m glad I built in wiggle room to deal with changing circumstances.

Nobody setting out on a career path can know exactly what lies ahead. Saying to yourself, “I have to get my first job by August, become a senior manager in three years, and make partner within ten” is a recipe for disillusionment. Beware the bullying “Bucket List,” especially one with deadlines baked in. On the other hand, having no direction is a great plan for winding up nowhere at all. But if you have a general sense of roughly what you’re aiming for, that will keep you on track.

To that end…

Figure out what you’re passionate about.

During my Wilderness Years, I had skills and motivation, but no direction. All of that changed with a trip to Europe that lit a fuse in me. I knew that travel — and specifically Eastern Europe — had to be a big part of my future, even if I didn’t know yet exactly how. My aimless and halfhearted job search narrowed considerably, setting me — eventually — on the course that brought me to here.

Your passion is your compass — it’s what keeps you on track. Even when you don’t know exactly where you are or what’s around the next bend, it reassures you that you are, at a minimum, heading in the right direction. (In this analogy, your “career plan” is like a map. But if a bridge is washed out or a new path has been laid out, your compass makes it easier to improvise.)

I love the famous quote by Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

A few years ago, when I started my blog, I sought advice from a trusted colleague: Is there a structure that works best? What’s my target word count? How long is too long? How many pictures should go in each post? What kinds of topics will interest people?

She said essentially the same thing as Howard Thurman: People want to read things written by someone who’s passionate about what they have to say. What they don’t want to read is a rigid template that’s been half-heartedly filled in. There’s so much soulless clickbait masquerading as “content” out there. You may have to do some of that to pay the bills, but make sure you’re also making time to create something that’s fresh, personal, and bursting with enthusiasm. Write what you’re excited about, period. And people will enjoy reading it.

Find an organization that matches your values.

When I first started working at Rick Steves’ Europe 20 years ago, I noticed a funny thing: Although it’s a for-profit business, the organization had a distinctly non-profit philosophy. My co-workers would talk about “our mission” and “our travelers” and the importance of helping people have great trips to Europe…but nobody seemed the slightest bit preoccupied with the bottom line.

It turns out that Rick Steves’ Europe was way ahead of its time. Today, every jobless (or underemployed) millennial dreams of finding work at a “values-driven company.” They don’t just want to be paid well to work hard — they want it to mean something. They want their work to draw an income, but also to make the world a better place.

I see now that we were “values-driven” long before it was trendy. And we’re just as obsessed with it today as we ever were. We take every opportunity to remind each other that we are travel teachers first. At a recent leadership retreat, Rick reiterated his longstanding philosophy that what matters most isn’t gross revenue, but what he calls “gross travel happiness created.” We succeed when we make one more person’s trip better. (This works like a charm. Turns out, when you channel all of your energy into creating top-quality content and getting it into the hands of people who need it, the money will follow. Who knew?)

Back in 1999, this scraggly-bearded backpacker recognized that I was dealing with a company that did a great job at accomplishing its mission (i.e., helping me have a better trip). I took a gamble to come work here, because I had a sixth sense that I was more likely to find a meaningful career here than I would somewhere else.

When I loaded up my Honda Civic and drove from Ohio 2,400 miles to Edmonds, Washington — ahem, to sell backpacks — my friends must have thought I was nuts. But it was worth the gamble. My hunch paid off.

If you find an organization that feels like a good fit, take a chance on it. It might not pan out. But, then again, it might.

Once you get your foot in the door, work hard to prove yourself.

I realize “paying your dues” seems hopelessly old-fashioned these days…but I’m living proof that it works.

Here’s a deep, dark secret that nobody wants to tell you: An organization’s top priority is not ensuring that you feel challenged or fulfilled. A good organization does care about this…somewhat. But they care even more about whether you’re making an impact and earning your keep. Are you contributing to the mission and/or the bottom line enough to justify what they’re paying you?

When I started at Rick Steves’ Europe, I desperately wanted to work on guidebooks — but I was perfectly happy, instead, to work in the Travel Center for what turned out to be two years. I could have spent that time complaining that I was being underutilized or asking about when my dream job posting would come available. But I didn’t. I put my nose to the grindstone and worked hard every day to get to know our content and our customers, while making sure that the company was getting more out of me than I was getting out of it. I volunteered for every task and did it with pride. If someone needed to dress up like a Viking for the Travel Festival, I was their guy.

Here’s another secret: “Paying your dues” isn’t just about proving yourself to someone else. It’s an essential boot camp for understanding what the organization is all about. In retrospect, those two years I spent in the Travel Center were far from wasted; they were an invaluable opportunity to understand every corner of our business and to really get to know the people who do business with us. To this day — 18 years after I left the Travel Center — I still think back with gratitude on that opportunity. And I believe that I still “get” our customers better than many of my colleagues do, because it was my job to interact with them all day, every day. I know what makes them tick. It’s the foundation the rest of my career is built upon.

If you’re an aspiring writer, “paying your dues” means actually writing. It’s great that you have an English degree. Now show the world what you can do with it. When young people ask me how to break into the travel writing field, my answer is simple: Travel. Then write about it — a lot. Start your own blog. Build a real portfolio. This helps you develop your skills. And it demonstrates not just that you want to be a travel writer, but that you are a travel writer.  When I first met Rick, I showed him the stack of yellowed movie reviews that I’d written for my newspaper. It wasn’t “travel writing,” but at least he could see that I knew how to produce content on a deadline.

Patience, grasshopper. Later on, you’ll be very glad you did this. Have you ever heard a successful person say, “Boy, I sure wish I hadn’t paid my dues”?

Tackle big challenges like eating an elephant: One bite at a time.

Part of paying your dues is stepping up when someone needs to tackle a big, imposing job. And that can be intimidating. But you just have to begin with that first step.

The first guidebook chapter I ever updated was Lausanne, Switzerland, in May of 2001. And I was terrified. By this time, I knew that working on  guidebooks was my ultimate goal — and I desperately wanted to do it well. But I’m naturally shy, and a perfectionist, so I spent the weeks leading up to the trip tying myself in knots about whether I’d be able to pull it off.

I rode the train into Lausanne, my heart thumping in my ears, my mind racing. And then, around the time that train pulled into the station, an unexpected calm washed over me. It was go time, and the only thing left to do was what they had taught me to do: Go to the first hotel on my list and ask the first question. And then the next question. And then the next question. And when I was done at that hotel, I’d go to the next hotel. And the next one.

So that’s what I did. And by the end of the day, almost without noticing it, I had updated the entire chapter. And I did the same the next day, in Murten. And the next day, in Bern. And a couple of weeks later, I flew home with an updated guidebook.

A few years later, Rick accepted my pitch to co-author a brand-new guidebook to Eastern Europe. It was, in retrospect, a foolishly ambitious task (at the time, Rick likened it to the Louisiana Purchase). But I flew to Warsaw, went to that first hotel and that first museum and that first restaurant, and gradually worked my way south, all the way to Dubrovnik. I came home with a new guidebook, which is now a bestseller in its 10th edition.

Sometimes corny cliches contain deep wisdom. When faced with a daunting task, my father-in-law says, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Writing a book about Eastern Europe wasn’t easy. But each individual task, out of the ten thousand tasks it took to complete the project, was doable. And so…I did them, one at a time.

Play to your strengths, and collaborate with smart people who play to theirs.

You’re not good at everything. But you are good at something. The secret is figuring out what that “something” is — and then working with people whose somethings are complementary.

If I had to pick my single favorite thing about working at Rick Steves’ Europe, much to my surprise, it would not be all of the travel. Nope, it’s the wonderful people I get to work with. Everyone does their job well and proudly, we are all passionate about our mission, and we all understand that the strange and beautiful alchemy we create works because we do it together.

A lot of people never get to meet their idols. I am incredibly lucky, because I get to work with two of mine. Rick Steves…and Gene Openshaw, whose prose about Europe’s art and history sparkles with razor-sharp clarity, profound understanding, and wipe-a-tear beauty. (Gratuitous plug: Check out Gene and Rick’s stunning, brand-new book, Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces.)

Gene and I have collaborated on several guidebooks, including our titles on Greece, Barcelona, and Berlin. Gene writes eloquent self-guided tours of great archaeological sites, museums, and neighborhoods. If you’ve taken these, you know Gene’s unmatched gift for taking the traveler by the hand and introducing them to exactly what they came so far to understand. (The best part of my job is when I have privilege of being the first person on earth to follow one of Gene’s new tours. I feel like I’m a friend of the Beatles, and they’re playing me a demo just before laying down the final track.)

When Gene’s done his part, he hands the book off so I can do what I consider “the fun part”: Filling in the edges of what he’s built, fleshing out the restaurants and nightlife, writing up the minor sights and quirky sidebars and side-trips. In the Greece book, for example, Gene wrote the tours of the Acropolis, Agora, Oracle of Delphi, Ancient Olympus, and so on, while I did the street food and street art tour in Psyrri, plus Mykonos and Santorini.

Next, when Gene and I are both done with our work, we hand our contributions over to a crack team of editors and mapmakers. And then…we never have to worry about them again, knowing they are in excellent hands.

If there’s one thing I wish for anyone starting out on their career path, it’s that they find a collaborative environment that hums like a happy machine.

Relax! Celebrate serendipities. Because jams are fun.

Standing on stage in front of students at my alma mater — who sat in the same chairs where I sat 22 years ago — I could remember exactly what it felt like to be in their shoes: Enjoying “the college experience,” excited about my studies, but deep down terrified about what would come next. From the moment you get to college, an imaginary stopwatch begins ticking over your head — relentlessly counting down to the moment when you have to enter The Real World.

It’s easy for me to say, “Relax! It’ll work out!” But if I could talk to myself 22 years ago, I would say exactly that. Not that it would always be perfect. Not that there wouldn’t be Wilderness Years, or that I’d get exactly what I wanted, when I wanted it. But that all those twists and turns do wind up taking you somewhere. And while you’re worried about that “somewhere,” don’t forget to enjoy the twists and turns. Memorable problems and delightful serendipities may feel like road bumps and distractions — but they’re the good part.

Have you ever noticed that when someone gets home from a trip, and you ask them how it went, almost invariably they begin telling you about something that went wrong?

My wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred is my travel role model. A single woman to the end of her days, she traveled the world far and wide — long before such a thing was common. Near the end of her life, Aunt Mildred wrote a memoir of her travels. The title: Jams Are Fun.

After seeing so much of the world, it wasn’t the cathedrals and the museums and the grand views that Aunt Mildred remembered most fondly. It was those moments when everything went sideways, obstacles had to be overcome, and the trip was more memorable for it. (Like, say, when you call up Rick Steves for your big job interview…and he has no clue who you are.) Aunt Mildred understood that jams make wonderful memories…and dealing with them makes you a better traveler.

If you’re embarking on a career — and I know this is very easy for me to say — try to relax, lean into it, and enjoy. You’ll wind up in some interesting places, but I certainly hope that your journey isn’t without challenges and “problems.” Because, after all…jams are fun.

Remembering the Lost on Slovenia’s Day of the Dead

While the USA is busy celebrating “All Hallows Eve,” the main event in Slovenia is All Hallows Day, November 1.  As the last of the autumn leaves tumble from the trees and winter gloom descends, the Slovenes observe their Day of the Dead (Dan Mrtvih) — pausing to look back on the generations who went before. And just when most of North America is waking up and combating their candy corn hangover with a pumpkin spice latte, Slovenes head to their cemeteries, arms full of candles and flowers, to honor lost loved ones.

Slovenia is one of many Catholic countries that observe the Day of the Dead  (also called All Saints Day, All Souls Day, or Remembrance Day). The best-known variation is Mexico’s Día de Muertos, with its colorful skeletons on parade. But Slovenia’s Day of the Dead is a more subtle affair — all the more poignant for its understatedness.

Several years ago, the Day of the Dead found me in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. At the edge of downtown is one of the most beautiful final resting places I’ve seen: Žale Cemetery, designed by the great Slovenian architect and urban planner Jože Plečnik. (For those who appreciate European cemeteries, Žale is worth a visit any day of the year.)

I first stopped by Žale Cemetery on the afternoon of October 31 — All Hallows Eve. Stepping through its grandiose arcaded entrance, I was met with a deeply moving sight: Slovenians were busying themselves tending the graves. Each plot had been painstakingly weeded and scrubbed to a high shine, with not a pebble out of place. And each tomb was an artfully composed ensemble of candles, flowers, and mementos.

While back home, store shelves are stocked with plastic jack-o-lanterns, superhero costumes, and fun-size candy bars, Slovenian shops are doing a brisk trade in moss remover and headstone polish. Inside the cemetery, rickety green tables groan under the weight of red votive candles stacked on top of each other — two euros a pop. And for florists — who set up tents just outside the entrance — the Day of the Dead is their “Black Friday.”

Slovenes feel an obligation to tidy up the grave of each and every loved one. Cousins compare notes about who’s going to look after Uncle Janez’s grave, and who’s responsible for Aunt Marija. If you have a big family, you have a very busy week. My Slovenian friend said, good-naturedly, “I loved growing up as the only child in a big extended family. But these days, it makes the last week of October extremely busy.”

November 1 is a national holiday — everything is closed and quiet. But returning to Žale Cemetery, I found it overflowing with people. Everyone was wearing their Sunday best, as if attending the wedding of the year. I squeezed along the gravel lanes between elegant tombs decorated like parade floats — each one trying to outdo the next. Around mid-day, a priest appeared and began blessing the graves, and the crowd fell silent. After the ceremony, families departed to share a meal of remembrance, celebration, and fellowship.

Later that night — as the sky turned from overcast white to deep blue to inky black — Žale Cemetery was again full of people. Crunchy leaves and half-sheathed chestnuts skittered underfoot. Thousands upon thousands of flickering candles filled the gloomy cemetery with soft, dancing, deep-red light. Even when it began to rain, people still filled the cemetery. Old friends and distant cousins bumped into each other — for the first time in ages — at the grave of a shared loved one. Families huddled together under umbrellas, their tear-streaked faces shimmering in the candlelight, laughing together at treasured memories.

While this was in the capital’s most prominent cemetery, similar scenes play out in every graveyard, big and small, across Slovenia. After prepping the graves of their own relatives, Slovenes do the rounds to pay their respects to cherished friends, as well. A Slovenian friend counted about 15 different graves — spread over seven cemeteries — that her family tries to visit each November 1. And at each one, she leaves a candle or flowers. (She enjoys bringing her young boys along, if only to take in the spectacle.)

While Slovenia celebrates the Day of the Dead with a special reverence, similar observances take place in many Catholic countries in Europe. For example, recently a Palermitano told me that many Sicilians give gifts to children from their deceased ancestors. For a young child, stories about people they’ve never met can be hard to relate to. But presents? I mean, come on — presents make things real. Getting that toy they’ve been wanting from their deceased Great-Grandma helps a child feel connected to their roots.

Reflecting on these beautiful European traditions, I’m sad that American culture doesn’t set aside time for this kind of remembrance. We have national holidays to give thanks and to honor our presidents and to celebrate trees, but not to recall lost loved ones. (The closest thing we’ve got — Memorial Day, honoring fallen veterans — is, for most Americans, the unofficial start to summer and time for a big golf tournament in Ohio.) Perhaps we just have an uneasy relationship with mortality. While Europe looks back with nostalgia and respect, America races forward, as if escaping our past.

As a true-blue American, I can’t remember the last time I actually visited my family graves. Slovenia’s poignant Day of the Dead inspires me to carve out some time in my busy life to just remember…and be thankful.