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

My Favorite Food Tour: Teaching History and Culture Through Cuisine in Trendy Warsaw

I consider myself a foodie. But my definition of “foodie” isn’t just about hedonism. It’s about using a country’s cuisine to unlock a greater understanding of its culture and its history. If you can zoom out to the bird’s-eye view, it’s clear that food is culture, and so much of a nation’s identity is wrapped up in its culinary reality.

I make a point to take food tours all over Europe as a way to indulge my curiosity about how food influences culture…and to indulge my palate. And the best one I’ve ever experienced was in an unlikely place: the Polish capital, Warsaw — which has, over the last few years, quietly transformed itself into Europe’s budget foodie mecca.

In Warsaw, I spent a fascinating (and delicious) half-day with Eat Polska, in the company of an excellent guide named Michaś. Now, Poland is one of my favorite countries. My grandfather was Polish, I’ve written guidebooks about Poland, and I’ve traveled to Poland more than 20 times for both work and pleasure. I thought I had a pretty good handle on this place. But Michaś opened my eyes to how the country’s epic history, hardships, victories, and persistent personality flavor every bite of every dish. Whether you’re going to the land of borscht, pierogi, and vodka — or a place better known for pasta or foie gras — a great guide can turn a food tour into a food tour de force.

After we met on a busy urban street corner, Michaś brought me to a traditional restaurant to build a foundation for the rest of the tour. We sat down to a table laden with bread smothered in lard, pickles, a bowl of bright-red borscht, and a shot of vodka. Just as I was about to dig in, he said, “Wait! Before you eat, look at this table. Only two items here are not fermented. Which ones?” After several wrong guesses, he gave me the answer: the salt and the vodka. Even the beets are fermented (for days, weeks, or even months) before they go into the borscht.

Michaś explained the importance of fermentation in Polish cuisine: Historically, Poland has been a poor land of hardscrabble peasants. Nourishment is a perennial challenge. And in a place with harsh winters, fermentation preserves nutrition — and, in some cases, actually increases the levels of important vitamins. (All that fermentation is why Polish cooking has such abundant umami flavors.)

When it was time for the vodka, Michaś explained the procedure: First, you eat a bite of bread with lard. Then the shot. And finally, the pickle. This routine is rooted in science more than superstition: The fat in the lard coats the digestive tract; the acidity and mineral salt of the pickle replace those killed by the alcohol; and both bites mask the burn of the vodka.

Strolling through a park to our next stop, we talked about the importance of thick, hearty soups in a peasant culture. These allow poor people to nourish their families, even if they lack protein. Most Polish soups are thickened with flour, cream, or chunks of vegetables — replacing the substantial-ness that would normally be provided by meat. “You could say that Poles were vegetarians — not by choice, but by circumstance,” Michaś said.

In olden times, meat was a major status symbol in Poland. That’s why Poles still sprinkle little fried chunks of bacon fat on just about every dish. Rather than hide it inside the dish, they perch their paltry protein on top for all to see.

Our next stop was a trendy foodie restaurant that takes some of the traditional recipes we’d just tasted, and modernizes them. Speaking of fermentation, they have an entire wall with jars of fermented produce, which looks a demented chef’s chemistry experiment.

The server brought out a plate of individually labeled sausages and cheeses. Now, there’s “Polish sausage”…and then there’s Polish sausage. And this sausage was delicious. Michaś gave me a guided tour through the subtle flavor differences of each one, as if sampling wines: Lightly smoked. Garlic. Marjoram. Peppercorns. Juniper. He explained why Poles smoke their ham hocks, rather than air-curing them, as in Mediterranean lands: It’s simply too wet here.

And he explained how the best sausage actually came about during the lean communist times. Back then, people had to raise their own livestock to supplement the paltry, poor-quality, government-rationed foodstuffs. (Most of the official production of Polish pork was exported. “The only things you’d find in a grocery store,” Michaś half-joked, “was shelves and vinegar. And sometimes mustard.”) Raising your own pig became a cottage industry…“farm to table” in the most literal sense.

In the spirit of “let them eat cake,” Michaś pointed out what really brought down the USSR: For most of the front-line protesters here in Poland, it wasn’t about political philosophy, or economic -isms, or craving democracy and freedom. At the end of the day, it was about feeding your family. If the communist system had succeeded in providing for all of its people, it may well still be the law of the land.

Since the end of communism, people can buy sausage in supermarkets rather than raising and butchering their own pigs. And so, traditional, organic, locally rooted farming has given way to modernized factory farms. These days, pigs are grown as big as possible, and pork is pumped with brine before it hits the supermarket. Poles may not be nostalgic for much from communism — but they do miss the delicious kielbasa from that age.

Our next stop was Bibenda, a hip bar with clever fusion food. The chefs pride themselves on deconstructing Polish classics, then reinventing them by pulling in elements from comparable dishes in other cultures. Digging into our dish — a reinvention of the Polish cabbage roll (gołąbki), but wrapped in a grape leaf — Michaś pointed out the subtle and surprising Turkish connection to Polish cuisine.

In the 17th century, when much of Eastern Europe feared the Ottomans, Poland maintained relatively good diplomatic relations with the sultan. (Even during the Partitions — when the state of Poland was divided among its neighbors, formally ceasing to exist — the Ottomans continued to recognize the Polish ambassador.) And to this day, Polish cooking retains a few surprising echoes of that history: Cinnamon. Raisins. Apricots. And what is the classic Polish cabbage roll, but a supersized version of the Turkish dolma (stuffed grape leaves) with a more locally sourced wrapper?

One of the themes in Polish history is that this vast, flat land — smack in between powerful neighbors Germany and Russia — has always been a crossroads of mighty civilizations. And you can taste that cultural mingling in the food. For example, Polish cooking uses more celery and cauliflower than its surrounding nations. That’s because, in the 16th century, King Sigismund the Old had a young Italian bride, who imported this Mediterranean produce to her new homeland.

And what about that quintessential Polish staple, pierogi? They’re so similar to Asian dumplings. (Think about it: The main difference between gyoza and pierogi is the seasoning.) Maybe that’s because pierogi arrived in Poland in the 13th century — exactly when the Tatars rode from Asia, all the way across the steppes of Russia, to ransack the Polish countryside.

Enjoying the last few bites of our meal, Michaś grows philosophical. “Of course, many cultures respect bread. Especially poor countries, where bread is the staple that keeps you alive. But here in Poland — so historically poor, and so very Catholic — it’s actually revered. Remember, bread is considered the body of Christ. Fifty years ago, people would remove their hats in the presence of bread. And they’d make the sign of the cross over a loaf of bread before cutting into it. Even to this day, if you drop a piece of bread on the floor, many traditional Poles kiss it before throwing it away.”

“In French, they have a style called à la polonaise — “Polish-style” — with buttered bread crumbs. That’s because Poles are determined to use the very last little bits of bread to its fullest. It’s not because Poles are cheap, but because we’ve had to make do with less, at many points in our history. There’s a local saying: Zastaw się, a postaw się…roughly, ‘Go in debt, but provide.’ Being poor is no excuse for not feeding your family.”

Many Poles still bake their own sourdough bread, using bacteria cultures more than a century old. In this modern age, there are online message boards to arrange for someone to “feed” your sourdough starter when you’re on vacation.

I asked Michaś about my favorite polish dish, bigos. Sometimes translated as “hunters’ stew,” this is a thick, rich, and incredibly flavorful mix of sauerkraut, mushrooms, sausage, and any kind of meat available. “It’s like American chili,” Michaś said. “There’s no one recipe; everyone makes it their own way. Even the ingredients can change — whatever protein you have available, you can put in the pot.” Also like chili, bigos tastes better the next day…or the day after that. Traditionally, you’d make a pot of bigos to use up any leftovers after your Christmas feast. After a long simmer, you’d put the pot outside to freeze overnight, then bring it in again to thaw. Sometimes you’d do this for many days — freeze, thaw, freeze, thaw — each time rupturing the cells of the plant matter inside, breaking down and marrying all the flavors. By the time it’s done, it’s incredibly delicious.

Nearing the end of our tour, I asked Michaś about the state of Polish cuisine today. “Many of the things we’re discussing today — the importance of bread; fermentation; hearty soups; and so on — are beginning to fade away to some degree, as modern life is changing our eating habits. On the other hand, artisanal, traditional foods are on the upswing. Many thirtysometings and fortysomethings — who came to the cities for work in the years after communism — are giving up on the rat race, moving to the countryside, and dedicating themselves to reviving these old customs. So I do have hope for the future of Polish cuisine.”

I heartily concur. After a few hours with Michaś in Warsaw, now when I bite into a Polish dish, I can practically taste Tatars and Turks shaping Poland; I can taste hardworking peasants cultivating a barren countryside; and I can taste a deep, soulful national pride that goes beyond salt and pepper.


For more tips on what makes a great food tour, check out my blog post on the topic. And if you love Polish food (like I do), join me on a visit to my favorite milk bar.

If you’re inspired by the idea of using food as a way to better appreciate a place’s history and culture, you might enjoy my “Europe for Foodies” talk. I’ll be presenting this class next Saturday, March 3, at our Travel Center in Edmonds, WA (free for anyone in the Seattle area). If you can’t make it, check out my class handout. (Later this spring, we’ll be adding a video version of this talk to our Travel Talks page…stay tuned! In the meantime, you can watch Rick’s travel talk about eating in Europe.)

And, of course, the best food tours we discover — in Poland, or anywhere in Europe — go straight into our Rick Steves guidebook series.

Jams Are Fun: A Rough Day on the North Sea

My wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred traveled far and wide, long before such a thing was fashionable. Late in life, Aunt Mildred set about to writing a memoir. The title: Jams Are Fun. It turns out that, after seeing so much of the world, Aunt Mildred realized that it’s not always the big museums, the fancy dinners, the castles, or the cathedrals that stick with you most. It’s those serendipitous moments when things go awry. And so, in the spirit of Aunt Mildred, this post is part of my “Jams Are Fun” series about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it…if only in retrospect. I wrote this a few years back, while working on our Northern European Cruise Ports guidebook, somewhere in the churning North Sea.

As I write this, my cruise ship is rocking violently to and fro. My mascot baboon — which my cabin steward cleverly made by folding a towel in a special way they must teach at cruise-ship steward school — is clinging to the ceiling in the corner of my room…having the ride of his short life. In addition to the slight but persistent listing to port, with the occasional, violent bob to starboard, every ten minutes or so the ship shudders and shakes as if the captain just accelerated over a speed bump.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I went to bed last night as we cruised out of the Sognefjord. Next stop: Norway’s other top fjord, Geiranger. But I awoke to news that, due to extremely high winds, they were cancelling the stop. And so, the captain turned this bucket around and headed back out of the Geirangerfjord.

The screaming winds managed to momentarily clear out some of the thick cloud cover we’ve been huddled under since entering Norwegian waters, shining a spotlight on wicked whitecaps all around us. The brief sun break also teased us with an enticing view of an idyllic Norwegian countryside of green forest, red cottages, and chalky gray cliffs. It was a Norway we would not actually visit, nor one we would see again for the rest of the day. This would be, in the parlance of the cruise industry, an unplanned and very turbulent “day at sea.”

As we navigated out of the fjord and into the North Sea, the seas grew dramatically rougher. All over the ship, subtle indicators popped up to hint that we were in for an even bumpier ride: Little plastic bags discreetly appeared in the hallways. All of the water was drained first from one swimming pool, then from the other, to keep it from sloshing out onto the deck. Precautions were being taken.

This was the first time I’d been on truly rough seas…and I was pleased to discover I was handling it relatively well. (My family lore includes the unfortunate tale of a friend who didn’t realize she was prone to violent seasickness until she boarded her honeymoon cruise to Bermuda — and spent the week hugging porcelain.) Maybe my 25 percent Norwegian DNA came with an iron stomach…and those sea bands don’t hurt, either.

In a bit of delicious serendipity, the afternoon’s scheduled entertainment was — I am not making this up — a troupe of Chinese acrobats. Now, I would pay any amount of money to see acrobats perform in these conditions. But this show? This show was free. As the time of the show drew near, morbid curiosity drew me down to the theater. But a polite notice explained that the show was postponed. Wise move, Chinese acrobats. So instead I strolled around the ship to survey the damage.

At this point, we’d left “rough” and entered “rodeo.” People were either green in the face or, like me, immune and chuckling at the absurdity of it all. Everyone — even seasoned crew — walked with the same unusual gait: first leaning a bit and plodding slowly to the right, then rushing with sudden urgency to the left, then slowly again to the right, and so on. I sat looking out a window for a while, watching through the fire-hose spray the mesmerizing rhythm of the railing as it teeter-tottered dramatically waaaay above, then waaaay below the horizon.

Curious, I made my way up to the top deck, and was surprised to find the door unlocked. I stepped outside and wandered around for a while — one hand in a death grip on the railing, the other in a death grip on my camera — feeling like the only person on the entire ship. Somewhere in the control room, I imagined someone watching surveillance feed of this idiot wandering around outside in the worst storm the ship had ever weathered…taking bets on when he’d be blown overboard.

As dinnertime approached, I wondered whether, like the Chinese acrobats, the main dining room staff would have come to their senses and just called the whole thing off. But dinner, much to my surprise and my delight, was on. I knew I was in for an entertaining night when I walked past a Dutch teenager who suddenly — and, apparently, with as much surprise to herself as to me — vomited a little bit into her hands.

Stumbling and careening to my table, I noticed that at least a third of my fellow diners had decided to skip it tonight. My waiter hustled awkwardly toward me — propelled by an unwanted inertia and briefly overshooting his target — to drop off the menu.

Now, I’m sure there was a good reason for the ship designers to locate the main dining room at the bottom-rear of the ship, directly above the engines — but on a rough night like this, it seemed like a cruel prank. Things were far worse down here than in my stateroom up on the eighth deck. The entire dining room tilted violently this way, then that. Every few minutes, the curtains slid themselves open and closed, as if possessed. At one point, a precarious angle sent plates and glasses cascading off tables. And periodically there was a deep, loud humming noise — as if the engines had been lifted out of contact with the sea, immediately followed by a sickening thud that shuddered the whole ship and rattled the wineglasses.

And then there were the diners. Those of us who had showed up for dinner tonight were, no mistaking it, here on purpose. We were not about to let this thing get the best of us. And yet, some of us must fall. The woman who sits at the table in front of me — who has this funny habit of staring off into space, which happens to be directly at me — began fanning herself with her menu. The sweet French lady at the next table got up after the first course and never came back.

Having grown up watching the movie Stand By Me, I kept envisioning a Lardass-at-the-pie-eating-contest chain reaction. So I made a game of it. Looking around, I tried to guess: Who would be the first to pull the trigger? Would it be the balding, bespectacled fellow who lifted his napkin to his lips for a suspiciously lingering moment after each bite? The young lady who kept coughing loudly, then swallowing and rolling her eyes? The little girl resting her head on the table? Or maybe…the American smart aleck at table 103, smugly pondering the suffering of others?

I think I psyched myself out, because suddenly I found it next to impossible to swallow. I wasn’t sick — just tired of proving I wasn’t. I decided that a violently swaying room full of gastrointestinal time bombs was not a smart place to be, and — like so many before me — politely excused myself.

Still hungry, I wandered up to forage at the 24-hour shipboard pizzeria. But, inexplicably, their lone variety tonight was topped with a less-than-appetizing combination of tuna fish, capers, and onions.

Oh, well — it’s bedtime anyway. If I don’t get physically tossed out of my bed, manhandled by Mother Nature while I sleep, I’ll wake up tomorrow in Bergen…and, hopefully, better weather. And if I’m lucky, maybe they’ll reschedule those Chinese acrobats.

(P.S. They did. And they were spectacular.)

The Trouble with Tapas: 8 Tips for Enjoying Spain’s Tapas Scene

Recently, my wife joined me on her first-ever trip to Spain. Before we arrived, she couldn’t wait to dive into the fabled tapas scene: an endless array of bite-sized baguette sandwiches, deep-fried sea creatures, grilled veggies soaking in garlic-infused olive oil, and toothsome tortilla española. We arrived late one rainy Friday evening in Bilbao. By the time we’d checked into our hotel, it was around 9 p.m. — prime tapas time. This was going to be fun.

But then…it wasn’t. The bars were jammed. We could barely get inside. And when we finally managed to muscle our way to the bar, we couldn’t get served. I’ve spent several months in Spain, dating back to a semester abroad in college — and even I was overwhelmed by the experience. On a busy Friday night, Spanish tapas are a full-contact sport…an eat-or-be-eaten world.

Americans who are used to “small plates” restaurants back home might underestimate the cultural hairiness of the true tapas experience. Don’t get me wrong: Tapas are quintessential Spain. What’s not to like? You get culinary variety and an authentic encounter with Spanish culture for reasonable prices. But wading into a claustrophobic mosh pit of tapas aficionados is no fun for nervous novices. Here are my top tips for navigating tapas bars with the savvy of a local.

Don’t be shy — stake your claim at the bar. If you walk in and see a wall of people, don’t bother looking for the end of the line. There is no line. Instead, tuck your elbows up like chicken wings and plow through the melee until you reach the bar. If you smile demurely, wait patiently, and expect to be waited on…waiting is exactly what you’ll do. The onus is on you to get the bartender’s attention. Introverts starve, and the person who makes the biggest fuss gets served first. When you’re ready, wave your hand, make eye contact, and boldly say, “Por favor!” or “Perdón!”  (Observing the dominance displays required to get fed, it suddenly makes a little more sense that the national pastime involves the ritual slaughter of an innocent animal.)

Survey the options on the bar, but don’t overlook the menu. Most tapas bar line up a few ready-made dishes on the counter, or in a glass display case. But these have been sitting out for who-knows-how-long. And at many tapas bars, the most interesting options can only be ordered from a menu. In more traditional places, you’ll squint at the handwritten menu, hung in low light at the back of the bar. Even if it were in English, it’d be next-to-impossible to read.

You can try asking for a printed English menu. But even if you get one, your choices can be far from straightforward. (Trendy eateries have a penchant for naming their dishes creatively. Is “Flavors from the Briny Depths” some sort of seafood salad? Paella? Dredged sewage with a seaweed garnish?) You can ask the bartender for some clarification, but don’t overdo it (see the next point). When I go for tapas, I pack along a sense of culinary adventure: If I can identify roughly what the key ingredients might be, and it sounds good, I’ll give it a chance. Sometimes it’s delicious. Other times…not so much. But one thing’s for sure: It’s always different from back home. To increase your odds of getting ostras (oysters) instead of orejas (pig’s ears), equip yourself with a list of key food terms. An extensive menu decoder designed precisely for this purpose is a major feature of the Rick Steves Spanish Phrase Book. The Google Translate app also works well, but isn’t tailored specifically to menu decoding.

Be ready to order. The bartender’s job is not to chitchat. She’s not there to conduct a nuanced dialogue about the provenance of various ingredients, or the pros and cons of each dish. And forget about substitutions. Just watch how hard the bartenders work — a perpetual-motion machine of order-taking, drink-pouring, and cashiering — and you’ll understand why they seem rushed. So, be prepared: Once you get the bartender’s attention, cut to the chase — clearly and succinctly. (“Glass of vermouth, glass of beer, grilled beef loin, tortilla española. Por favor.”) On rare occasion, you may luck into a bartender who has the time and language skills to explain your options. But it’s safest to assume you’re pretty much on your own.

Know the specialties. A dozen bars on a given street might do serviceable gambas a la plancha (garlic-sautéed shrimp) — but discerning locals know which one does it the best. And that place might do another dish the worst. Octopus (pulpo) can be rubbery and gross at one place, then tender and delicious at the next. Some tapas bars are hip, trendy, foodie, and fusion; other places are old-school, serving just the classics to appreciative traditionalists. If you’re an “A+” eater, do some homework to find out not only which tapas bars to try, but what to try at each one.

Order sparingly, and share everything. Then repeat. With so many temptations all lined up, it’s hard to resist overdoing it at your first stop. But  Spaniards would never eat an entire meal at one bar. The whole point is to assemble a moveable feast. People stroll from bar to bar, running into different friends and neighbors at each place. And at each bar, they order a drink, and a plate or two to share. Everything is family-style by default — don’t even try to order a tapa just for yourself. (That’s why many places serve plate-sized raciones alongside the bite-sized tapas. And in many cases, the tapas are designed to lure you in the door, but the raciones kick things up a culinary notch.) This works even better in a small group, which allows you to maximize the number of raciones you can sample. Try to see how many different dishes you can taste without getting stuffed. To pace yourself, alternate between hard drinks and soft drinks (for this very reason, most bars have cerveza sin alcohol — N/A beer — on draft; just say “thervetha seen”).

“Basque-style” self-service tapas bars are more user-friendly. The Basque Country has a more streamlined, self-service approach: The bar is lined with a wide variety of bite-sized tapas, each one pieced with a toothpick. Just grab whatever looks good, leaving the toothpicks in a little pile on the plate as you graze. At the end, flag down the bartender to tally the toothpicks and give you your bill. This “Basque approach” is also beginning to catch on in other parts of Spain, especially Barcelona; look for eateries with the name “euskadi” (the Basque word for “Basque”).

For a less intense experience, go earlier in the evening. Spaniards eat notoriously late — dinnertime begins around 9 p.m. (When I was a student in Salamanca, I would marvel at families taking their kids out for a walk after midnight.) While this might seem mystifying to outsiders, the siesta-then-a-late-dinner tradition perfectly suits Spain’s blazing-hot climate. However, most bars are open all day long, and start to lay out their tapas for early birds at what approximates a reasonable dinnertime back home — say, 7 or 8 p.m. — to catch office workers for a bite on their way home. If it’s your first time experimenting with tapas, get your bearings at an off-time, when it’s far less crowded. As you master the tapas tango, you can start nudging your dinnertime later and later, eventually achieving the all-in, late-night, fully authentic Spanish tapas experience.

Take a tapas food tour. All of this might seem bewildering. And, for many travelers, it is. But these days, most Spanish cities have tour companies offering fully guided, thoughtfully curated culinary walks that link up a representative sampling of tapas bars. (I took a great one with Mimo San Sebastián; others are listed in our Rick Steves Spain guidebook.) Food tours know which bars specialize in which dishes, and offer cultural context that brings meaning to your munching. You guide can point out, for example, that if you walk past the premade tapas in front, there’s a grill counter in back where they’ll cook up a fresh dish for you while you wait. And without a guide, you might order a delicious plate of pimientos de Padrón —miniature green peppers, flash-fried and coarsely salted — and discover the hard way that a random number of the peppers on that plate are jalapeño-hot. Doing a tapas tour early in your trip provides an ideal crash course in how the whole scene works, emboldening you to delve into a swarming tapas bar with the confidence of a local.

Just a few days after her baptism by fire, my wife was already an old pro. And she’s already looking forward to her next trip to Spain. Armed with these tips, being steep on the learning curve in a Spanish tapas bar is fun rather than frustrating. Dive in!

Confessions of a Rick Steves Tour Guide

It has been a frantic week here at the Rick Steves’ Europe home office in Edmonds, Washington. We’ve been playing host to an invasion of about a hundred tour guides from all over Europe and beyond, in town for our annual guide summit and reunion — 10 solid days of strategy sessions, business meetings, reconnecting with tour members, and, of course, parties. I love having all the guides around. It’s exhilarating…but exhausting.

Having all of my tour-guiding buddies in town has me nostalgic for my own days of guiding. For several years, I split my time in Europe between writing guidebooks and guiding our Best of Eastern Europe and Best of the Adriatic tours. About ten years ago, I realized I didn’t have time for both. I went all-in with the writing, and “retired” from guiding.

People sometimes ask me how to be a Rick Steves tour guide. The answer: Be a passionate traveler…then do it with 26 people in tow. Guiding is hard work. It’s fun and rewarding. But most of the time, it hardly qualifies as “glamorous.” Every tour guide collects funny anecdotes about those little serendipities — good and bad — that befall them and their tour members as they travel around Europe. Here’s my own collection of warts-and-all stories that, if nothing else, might give you a little empathy for your guide.

First off — and I say this from the heart, not out of any professional obligation — the tour guides I have the pleasure to work with at Rick Steves’ Europe are astonishingly cool people. My wife and I have a tradition of inviting our Eastern European guides to our home for dinner, offering them a homey and casual break from a week of meeting rooms, happy hours, and catered meals. We did it again last Saturday. And our hundred-year-old craftsman house in Seattle was filled with what has to be the most riotous laughter it’s ever witnessed.

Despite our attempts to herd our friends to our dining room table, they all insisted on squeezing into the tiny nook in the corner of our kitchen — a dozen Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Slovenes, and Bulgarians sitting cross-legged and cracking each other up. It turns out every single nationality has their own set of jokes to tease Hungarians about their uniquely tongue-twisting language. I learned a lot on Saturday, including how Czech parents enjoy sending their kids to Native American-themed summer camps to live in tepees, what my nickname would be in Czech (Kamerka), and how Bulgarians have a bizarre tradition of letting their kids “ride” the freshly slaughtered Christmas pig for good luck. (Hearing this last story, several of the guides glanced over at me and said, “You writing this down, Cameron?” They know me so well.)

We’ve been doing this for years, and it’s fun to look back on the history we share as members of the same guiding family.

Wherever they go in Europe, tour guides exert a powerful magnetism on each other. In very popular cities — like Venice — there can be several Rick Steves tours in town on the same day. We try to avoid having groups run into each other. But after hours — once our tour members are properly oriented and our accounting spreadsheets are filed — guides can’t resist slipping out to hoist a glass together. I once hopped on a milk-run train to have a beer with a couple of guides three towns away. Sometimes it feels like there’s an unspoken contest to get as many guides together in one place. I think this camaraderie — our spirit of “we’re all in this together” — is a hallmark of the specialness of Rick Steves tours. (What other company would fly a hundred guides to the USA for a week of meetings?)

Anyone who’s been on a tour knows that the bus driver is another essential part of the experience. And in the European tourism world, bus drivers occupy their own subculture. In big cities, there are entire bars that are patronized entirely by a Babel of drivers from across the Continent. And in places with a mass tourism tradition, it’s the bus drivers — who have the power to whisper to an overwhelmed guide, “I know just the place for this busload of tourists to stop and buy lunch” — who are treated like kings. In one of these areas, there was an only-game-in-town roadside restaurant where we took our groups. Tucked in a corner of the sprawling dining hall was a special little drivers’ dining area, roped off like a VIP lounge. One time, curious about the experience, I took our driver up on his offer to join him there. We were given menus without prices and waited on attentively, practically being hand-fed peeled grapes. From our privileged dais, we looked out over the congested dining hall, trying to avoid eye contact with our tour members as they shuffled through a self-service cafeteria line.

Of course, Rick Steves tours are distinguished by our insistence that the driver is part of our group. At most meals, we insist that the driver sit with our tour members for lively conversation. (The restaurant I just described was a special exemption to this policy. In fact, my driver was afraid not to dine in the VIP section, for fear of upsetting the delicate social order.) My all-time favorite driver trained with me on his first-ever Rick Steves tour. When I told him that we actually wanted him to interact socially with our tour members — which was unheard-of at his very traditional company — he was at first aghast, and then excited. It turns out he’d been stifling his gregarious instincts for many years…and on this trip, he made up for lost time, becoming dear friends with virtually everyone on the tour. He even joined us on some of our town walking tours, and participated in my bus lectures when we arrived in his home country. He went on to work exclusively for us for many years…until retiring, a very happy man.

One year, two of my other favorite bus drivers came to Edmonds for our weeklong tour reunion festivities. They were hardworking, blue-collar guys from Slovenia who had never been to the United States. I took them to Fred Meyer, where they filled their oversized suitcases with electronics, jeans, and toys that would’ve cost double back home. During that week, while the guides were tied up with meetings and the drivers had free time, they got into a nice little routine of having meals at the local main-street diner. On their last night in town, they insisted on taking me and one of my fellow tour guides to dinner. But when the bill came, they left exactly the amount noted on the bill. In explaining our customs to them, it dawned on us that they had not been tipping all week long. The next day, after taking our driver friends to the airport, we stopped by the diner with a few 20-dollar bills: “You remember those two Eastern European guys who kept coming here last week and stiffing you on the tip? Well, here’s the thing…”

As a tour guide, you’re equal parts historian and shepherd. Bus time is for teaching tour members the story and culture of the place they’re visiting, and for getting them oriented to the logistics of the tour (explaining what we’re doing today, taking orders for dinner tomorrow, and making sure everyone knows the exchange rate and the nearest ATM). Tour members have varying appetites for different types of information, and — understandably — they tend to zone out on the bus. So if something is important, I’ll repeat it. And if it’s really important, I may repeat it several times. One time, when I passed out little slips of paper for mid-tour evaluations, one of my tour members hand-delivered it back to me. “You know,” he said, “I was just about to write that you repeat yourself too much. But at that very moment, someone next to me asked about something I have heard you say at least five or six times already. So my feedback is: Keep up the good work.”

On another occasion, we were at the bitter end of a very long day on the bus. We’d had some weather-related delays, but had finally checked into our hotel. My tour members met in the lobby and dutifully trudged 10 minutes through the drizzle until we were all standing under a leaky awning on the town’s main square. They were tired. I was tired. Tempers were flaring. But they needed to eat. As efficiently as I could, I did a little spin-tour of the square, pointing out the locations of three or four of my favorite restaurant options, ending with, “Any questions?” There was a tense moment as the soaked and famished group clenched every muscle, hoping the answer was no. But one woman pointedly raised her hand. “Yeah,” she said impatiently, “but when are you gonna tell us where we should go to eat?” The entire rest of the group groaned in unison. (She survived.)

One time I celebrated my birthday at a tired old communist-era hotel on a Croatian island. The hotel had a large population of stray cats, who swirled around tour members enjoying a drink on the terrace, and often wandered inside. (Almost everybody viewed this as a big plus. The biggest concern was resisting the urge to adopt a kitten, or five, to bring home as a souvenir.) My tour members had thoughtfully tracked down a birthday cake for me, and threw me a nice little surprise party in the lobby. I turned my back on the cake to chat with a tour member, and when I turned around to cut some slices, a cat had climbed up on the table and was feasting away.

I led the first-ever departure of our Best of the Adriatic Tour, which I’d carefully co-designed with a couple of other tour guides and our office staff, stitching together all of our favorite experiences and restaurants. I was particularly excited to take my group to a rustic little tavern in the hilly, vineyard-draped interior of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula. I’d had an utterly delightful meal there the year before, sitting out on a breezy terrace, with distant views of the sun extinguishing itself in the shimmering Adriatic. It was a perfect memory. And as our bus pulled up to the restaurant at the end of a long day enjoying the blazing sun, I couldn’t wait to share that same experience with my sunburned tour members. But my heart sank as the owner walked us through the already-full terrace to get to the interior. There he’d laid out a glorious table for us…directly in front of the huge hearth, where glowing coals did all of the cooking. Already sweating from the heat outside, but with no other seating options available, we settled into the sweltering stone dining room. And then the owners — seriously overestimating the appetites of their honored guests — fed us at least two courses more than anyone could possibly eat. By the meal’s end, we were stuffed, and we could have wrung out our shirts. (Rest assured that’s a mistake we only made once — on every departure since, that restaurant serves us a more manageable-sized meal…and the terrace table is permanently reserved for our groups.)

These days, of course, we invest mightily in advance-scouting new itineraries. By the time the first tour bus sets out with paying tour members, our Tour Operations staff and guides have already driven the entire route by car, and know every stop down to the minute. But back in the day, we were far more by-the-seat-of-our-pants. I was the assistant guide on the first-ever departure of our Best of Eastern Europe tour, 17 years and several itinerary iterations ago. We felt like trailblazers, improvising much of the tour, but everything clicked…and our tour members were having a blast.

When we reached Budapest, our lead guide decided he’d be more comfortable hiring a professional local guide to add some color commentary to his city tour. Our hotel insisted they knew the perfect agency, which employed only the very best guides, so we let them set it up for us. Our guide was energetic, personable, and knowledgeable…but the moment she opened her mouth, it was clear she spoke virtually no English.

We loaded our group onto the bus and set off on a driving tour around the city, our guide providing commentary in German with a smattering of English. She got the words “left” and “right” mixed up, which — one would think — should disqualify anyone seeking to become a tour guide. But she was undeterred. Soon after leaving the hotel, we passed one of Budapest’s most venerable thermal baths. “And on the left,” she said — meaning, of course, “right” — “you see example of our baaahs. We are sehr famous for our baaahs.” It just so happened, at that very moment a bus drove by on our left side. Stifling giggles, I watched as every tour member’s head swiveled left to see the bus, instead of right to see the bath. After a few minutes, our lead guide wisely pulled the plug, and directed the driver to pull over at Heroes’ Square. The local guide announced, “Now we have fünf minute to see square, then back to bus.” Our lead guide politely but firmly whispered that she would, in fact, not be getting back on this bus. Seeming to understand, she dejectedly got on the mic one last time: “So, jetzt I must say goodbye. I am sorry if you no understand. This my first tour in English!”

Finally, a tour guide has to be prepared for anything…including impromptu bathroom breaks. On one tour, I was hiking my group through a lush national park of gushing waterfalls. We reached the boat dock at the midpoint of the hike, and one of my all-time favorite tour members came up to me and discreetly asked when the next bathroom break might be. I explained that there were no toilets at this dock, but there was one at the other end of the 20-minute boat trip we were about to take. In the meantime, he could use the bushes. Glancing around, he said, “No, I’m OK. I think I can wait.”

We boarded the boat. About five minutes later, my wide-eyed tour member approached me again, with a newfound urgency. “Nope, can’t wait. What are my options here?” We scanned the deck of the open boat, and came up empty. Sensing his desperation, I led him to the little steering cabin in the back of the boat, where the captain and first mate stood stoically. I stuck my head in the door and asked if there were any WC options. They shook their heads vigorously and pointed to the dock we were approaching…10 long, watery minutes away. At this point, what was going to happen was going to happen now, so my tour member stepped into the little cabin and said, “Look, I’m gonna go. You just tell me where.” At first they tried to point him back out. But when he made a beeline for a little garbage can in the corner, they realized he was serious, and directed him to stand at the back of the boat.

And so we glided silently across the pristine lake, my tour member peeing out the back, and me standing discreetly in the cabin doorway to block the other passengers’ view. To this day, I don’t think any of his fellow tour members knew what happened on that boat. As for the people on the boat that passed us going in the other direction…well, that’s another story.

One of these days, I might just get back to guiding. (I have agreed that, if we ever do a Poland tour, I’ll come out of retirement. So if you’d like me to lead a tour you’re on…lobby for Poland!) I miss my tour guide and bus driver colleagues. I miss the wonderful tour members who join us on our buses. But most of all, I miss the crazy stories.

Jams are Fun: Speed Traps and Bribes in Republika Srpska

My wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred traveled far and wide, long before such a thing was fashionable. Late in life, Aunt Mildred set about to writing a memoir of her experiences. The title: Jams Are Fun. It turns out, after seeing so much of the world, Aunt Mildred realized that it’s not always the big museums, the fancy dinners, or the castles and cathedrals that stick with you most. It’s those serendipitous moments when things go awry. And so, in the spirit of Aunt Mildred, this post is the first in what I hope to be a recurring feature about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it. This travel jam takes place on the dusty back roads of rural Bosnia-Herzegovina.

I remember a time, not long ago, when crossing any border in Eastern Europe came with the possibility —  or probability — of being shaken down for a bribe. If you slip the guy 20 Deutschmarks, you enter Hungary now. If not…you wait two hours.

I’m happy to report that, in most places, those days are in the distant past. The allure of EU membership was enough for most countries to crack down on corruption. Still, in a few out-of-the-way enclaves, bribery is still a way of life. And one of those places just cost me €50.

After two fascinating days road-tripping through Bosnia with my buddy Ben, we were on our way out of Republika Srpska, within sight of the Croatian border. Leaving the little town of Vrbaška, the country road entered a sparsely populated area, and the car ahead of me slowed way down. Now, in Bosnia, this is far from unusual. Most Bosnians drive either recklessly fast or tortoise-slow — anything but the speed limit. So I zipped around him, just in time to see a roadside policeman flick his handheld “stop” sign at me.

Pulling over and rolling down my window, I trotted out my best “clueless tourist” routine (which, in this case, was not an act): “I’m sorry, was I speeding? I didn’t see any signs!”

The scruffy policeman, with a ragtag uniform cobbled together at an army surplus store, was polite but matter-of-fact. “You go too fast,” he said. He motioned me out of the car and over to his English-speaking partner back at the police cruiser.

Standing proudly by their radar gun, they showed me a stack of documentation in Cyrillic lettering. “Limit here is 50 kmh,” he said, gesturing at the fine print. “You go 66 kmh. Fine is 100 Bosnian marks, or 50 euro.”

They explained that I’d need to take the paperwork back to the town I’d just left, and pay my fine at the police station or post office. The problem was, it was Sunday morning, when every office in town is shut up tight. Meanwhile, back in the car sat Ben, who had a flight to catch in Zagreb, just over the border. Time was not on our side.

“Is there any way I can pay you the fine?” I suggested helpfully. The cops exchanged knowing glances, scratched their heads theatrically for a moment, and held a quick conference in Serbian. Finally came the answer: “We can pay fine for you later today. You pay us 50 euro, we take it to police station.”

Very pleased with themselves for brainstorming this solution, they filled out the byzantine paperwork in triplicate. Meanwhile, a strange sensation began to crawl its way up the back of my neck — a creeping certainty that my money would never make it back to that police station. Oh, they were doing someone a favor…it just wasn’t me.

The paperwork complete, I decided to experiment a little bit. “Can I have that carbon-copy of the ticket?” I asked them. They shot each other an alarmed glance, and shook their heads vigorously. “No, no, no, not possible, not possible,” they insisted. “This paper, you get only when you pay in office,” he explained.

Well, since we’re all being completely aboveboard here, certainly they couldn’t object to my taking a photograph of the speeding ticket…right? I pulled out my phone and held it up to frame a snapshot of the paperwork. They both jumped out of their uniforms and practically reached for their guns. “No! No! No! No! No!”

Really amping up the “stupid tourist” routine, I said, “Oh, I’m sorry! I need a photo for my company.” But they were on to me being on to them. They shot me a “nice try, bub,” look, and, using only gestures and a few gruff words, made my choice clear: You give us 50 euros and drive away with no more questions, and this is over. Otherwise, you’re about to spend a frustrating Sunday morning in bureaucratic hell, wandering around a two-bit town, begging somebody — anybody — to take your money.

I hate to contribute to corruption. But I had places to go. Would I make a principled stand against greedy small-town cops who clearly savored shaking down passing tourists? Or would I toss a bone to a couple of likely underpaid, hardworking guys in a hardscrabble corner of Europe, salvage the rest of my day, and get Ben to his flight on time?

The policeman took my 50-euro note with a tip of the hat, and we were on our way. Crossing the Croatian border minutes later, I was filled with a mix of regret and relief. While much of my beloved Eastern Europe has made great strides in joining the rest of the civilized world, it seems that Republika Srpska is trapped in their old ways. No doubt, those cops enjoyed a few laughs (and a few beers) at my expense. But little did they realize that today’s target was a travel writer who’s devoted much of his career to celebrating their overlooked little corner of Europe. And who would later be blogging to the whole world about just how corrupt the police force is in Vrbaška, Republika Srpska, Bosnia-Herzegovina, postal code 78400. Ask for Srđan and Saša.

When it comes to getting out of a jam, 50 euros is a hefty price to pay. On the other hand, I came away with a vivid memory. And in the grand scheme of things, I suppose I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less.