A Note from Rick Steves: “When people ask me about my favorite travel writers, I don’t need to look far. When I read the words of my most prolific co-author, Cameron Hewitt, I’m inspired to dig deeper into complex cultures, to experience the ups and downs of travel more intimately, and to share that essence of good travel more vividly. And, while I enjoy taking credit for a lot of what Cameron does, his blog is the place where his own personality can really shine through. Cameron’s blog is an entertaining, informative, often funny behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a travel writer. He shares his infectious love of travel, mixed with savvy insights on how to do it better. I see Cameron as the ‘next generation’ of my style of travel. —Rick”
This post marks the 200th installment of my travel blog. Since my first post, three and a half years ago, I’ve enjoyed packing my readers along as I travel through Europe, writing guidebooks and producing travel content for Rick Steves’ Europe. Thanks for traveling along with me!
As I worked on this 200th post, I flipped back through the 199 that came before it. Here are a few of my favorites from the last few years:
I try to make my blog practical: tips for finding Europe’s best gelato, a list of all the little things I pack along on every trip to Europe, advice for planning an itinerary in Iceland, an attempt to decode Spain’s tapas culture, a vicarious stroll through Palermo’s street food scene, tips on enjoying the thermal bathing culture in Hungary and in Iceland, and lots more.
But I also like to keep things fun. A good traveler has to maintain their sense of humor, whether it’s the time I found myself embroiled in a small-town gelateria war, or my run-in with a particularly surly ticket-taker at The Last Supper in Milan, or the time I went on two different Sound of Music tours in Salzburg, back to back — for work, I should stress — even though I am not a fan of the movie. (While this post is a personal favorite of mine, serious SoM fans were not amused…)
Speaking of laughing at my own misfortune, my “Jams are Fun” series — inspired by the travel motto of my wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred, who believed things really get good when a trip goes sideways — includes an account of the time I was stuck on a cruise ship during a hellacious storm on the North Sea, and the time I very nearly ran out of gas on Scotland’s desolate north coast.
A more recent favorite is Iceland, where I spent a few weeks working on our brand-new Rick Steves’ Iceland guidebook (co-authored by Ian Watson) — which, since it came out in March, has become the bestselling guidebook in North America. Iceland is extremely (and deservedly) popular — my Top Ten Budget Tips for Iceland is my most-viewed post of all time.
Writing new guidebooks is challenging but gratifying work. Since I started this blog, I’ve also worked on our new books on Scotland, Berlin, and (coming in 2019) Sicily, plus updating our guidebooks everywhere from the Greek Islands to Wales to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast to Oslo.
One of my all-time favorite travel experiences was the Thanksgiving I spent at an agriturismo in Tuscany with my wife’s family. From sniffing out truffles in a forest, to a variety of memorable cooking classes, to connecting with the artisans of Montepulciano, it was simply peak travel.
In my 18-plus years working with Rick Steves, I’ve worn a lot of different hats — including guiding for Rick Steves’ Europe Tours. Being a tour guide is not always what it’s cracked up to be…but at least you collect plenty of memorable stories along the way.
I’ve also taught a variety of travel classes (including a new one on Iceland) and helped out with Rick’s public television series — scouting, writing, and producing two new episodes on Bulgaria and Romania. (It was a, let’s say, memorable place to film…even if a few great bits wound up on the cutting-room floor.) It’s fascinating to be behind the cameras on one of America’s best-loved travel shows.
Thanks again for traveling along with me. And stick around — lots more is coming up soon. I take off in about a month on a swing through Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Iceland.
My Travel Origin Story
This “200th post” benchmark has me feeling nostalgic for my earliest days of traveling. The funny thing is, for someone who’s made a career out of traveling in Europe, I had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming.
When I was about eight or nine, my parents — who had lived in England and Switzerland in the late 1960s — announced that it was time for a family trip to Europe. My temper tantrum brought that discussion to an abrupt and definitive conclusion. I don’t remember why, exactly, I was so terrified to go to Europe. I guess it all just seemed so…unfamiliar.
My sophomore year in high school, my Dad invited me to join a language-immersion program he’d set up for his students in Oaxaca, Mexico. By that time, I was just adventurous enough to say yes, but clueless about how impactful the experience would be. Which turned out to be a beautiful thing: Oaxaca gobbled me up whole, my wonderful host family took me in as one of their own, and I discovered a passion for learning about the world that I never realized I had…despite a torrid case of dysentery that went on for days (but that’s another blog post). I loved it so much, I went back to Oaxaca the next two summers, too.
Then, in college, a professor talked me into joining his semester abroad program in Salamanca, Spain. And when I finally set foot in Europe, it lit a fire in me. My semester abroad whetted my appetite.
Then, after graduation, I went back for the classic two-month backpacker adventure (equipped with a railpass and the 1999 editions of Rick Steves guidebooks). It was one of those trips where my shoestring budget and utter lack of travel savvy conspired to create indelible travel memories: Standing in the “Groundling pit” to watch a three-and-a-half-hour play at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Visiting Munich three different times — on daylong layovers between night trains — without ever actually sleeping there. The suspiciously cheap neon-blue clothesline that left a cyan stripe across my entire wardrobe. Hiking down from the Schilthorn, in the Swiss Alps, in frigid temperatures, shivering in just a T-shirt.
My favorite travel memory from that first trip was the culmination of a journey that was, in retrospect, foolhardy. I was staying with family friends near Dartmoor National Park in southern England. My friend Trevor, who was in the Peace Corps in Slovakia, suggested that we meet up in Kraków, Poland. In an age before cell phones and budget flights, I figured out a ludicrously long, Rube Goldberg route to get from Plymouth to Poland. It would take two full days and wring the maximum value out of my 10-days-in-2-months railpass.
Trevor and I made our arrangements on a quick England-to-Slovakia phone call. “I’ll see you on Tuesday morning around 8:00 in Kraków,” I said. “Where should we meet?” Trevor said, “They must have a main square, right? So I guess I’ll just see you on the main square.”
The next 36 hours are a blur: Train from Exeter to Plymouth. Ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff. Train from Roscoff to Paris. Night train from Paris to Munich. A few hours stretching my legs in Munich. Then an afternoon train from Munich to Berlin, just in time to catch my night train from Berlin to Kraków.
On the Paris-Munich night train (my first ever), I hadn’t bothered to reserve a couchette…so I spent a mostly sleepless night sitting up in a three-facing-three compartment, jockeying for position with five other sets of huge, hairy legs. (The Teutonic he-men sharing my compartment probably weren’t the Austrian national weightlifting squad…but they could have been.)
Stepping out of the Munich train station, bleary-eyed at six in the morning, I stood at the curb in the pouring rain waiting for the light to change. I looked left, looked right, looked left again…and even though there wasn’t a motor vehicle within sight, the five German pedestrians next to me stood still, patiently waiting for the green.
That final night train — from Berlin to Kraków — had me a bit terrified. Like all backpackers in those days, I’d heard harrowing tales about people being “gassed” or drugged on Eastern European night trains and robbed blind. (Thinking back, it’s hard to imagine what they possibly could have stolen from me. Really, how much would a used Discman and a few Led Zeppelin CDs fetch on the Polish black market?)
Having learned from my earlier night train experience, I booked a sleeper compartment, which I shared with an extremely anxious elderly Polish couple. I remember the terror in their eyes as the train pulled away from the Berlin station. A decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was clear that this journey — or, likely, the idea of crossing any border — still felt exotic, even dangerous. I have rarely seen people so deeply rattled.
When we reached the border in the middle of the night, the German border guard woke us unceremoniously, with his practiced routine: abrupt rap at the door, then reaching up to instantly flick on all of the cabin’s lights full-blast. My nervous compartment-mates handed over their passports, with a wrinkled 5-Deutschmark bill poking conspicuously out of the middle. The guard sneered — at their attempted bribe, at the pathetically small amount, or probably at both — and made them take it back. After he stamped their passports and moved on to the next compartment, they shared a celebratory hug.
Finally the train pulled into Kraków’s station, leaving me alone at the crack of dawn in a completely unfamiliar country. Walking through the lush Planty park that rings the Old Town — still and serene at this early hour — my sleep-deprived brain struggled to catch up.
Not only does Kraków have a main square, as Trevor had assumed — it’s one of Europe’s prettiest, and not a bad grand finale to my epic journey from the moors of South England to the plains of Poland. Stumbling slack-jawed through the Main Market Square, I found a bench and waited out the few remaining minutes before our meeting time. And then, as the bells of St. Mary’s Church clanged eight times, Trevor popped into view at the opposite corner of the square. “Hey, Hewitt. Welcome to Poland!”
And that’s when I thought: I could get used to this travel thing.
What’s your travel origin story?