See You at the Air Show: A Not-So-Glamorous Day in the Life of a Travel Writer

My wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred traveled far and wide, long before such a thing was fashionable. Late in life, Aunt Mildred wrote a memoir about her experiences. 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, 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 part of my “Jams Are Fun” series about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it, takes place in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Czech Republic.

As a travel writer, I pride myself on coming up with creative solutions to vexing itinerary challenges. It’s a fun problem-solving exercise. But sometimes, things just don’t pan out.

On a recent guidebook-research trip through Eastern Europe, I wanted to drive my rental car from Prague to Kraków, with some countryside stops along the way. However, the international drop-off fees for going between the Czech Republic and Poland were prohibitively high. I was mightily pleased with myself to come up with a clever plan: I’d drop my car at an obscure little airport on the outskirts of the small city of Ostrava, just a 30-minute drive from the Polish border. And then, for the second part (and masterstroke) of my plan, my Polish driver friend, Andrew, would come pick me and bring me the rest of the way to Kraków, with some sightseeing stops en route. Brilliant! What could go wrong?

Excitedly, I emailed Andrew to set up the plan. He was totally game. By the way, Andrew Durman is a prince of a guy and one of my favorite Polish people. I’ve recommended him in our Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook for years, and he’s provided hundreds — maybe thousands — of our readers with a warm welcome and a worry-free side-trips to outlying sights, or even scouring the Polish countryside in search of their family roots. When I brought my Chicago-area Dabrowski cousins to Kraków several years ago, it was Andrew who piled us into his van, drove us deep into pig-farming country, and translated our conversations with our newly discovered, long-lost Polish cousins. I always think of Andrew as my honorary Polish uncle.

The day of our big meetup arrived. And as I left the charming little Moravian village of Štramberk en route to the airport, I was feeling pretty smug about how well this was going to go. I love it when a plan comes together! Strangely, my GPS was showing the drive to the airport at more than double the 20 minutes I had expected. Hm. Must be a glitch.

Except…it was no glitch. After a few minutes, I ran into a long column of backed-up traffic, inexplicably jamming the remote country road. I bailed out and went looking for an alternate route. But that one was backed up, too. And the next one. And the next one.

And that’s when I heard the jet engines.

A fighter jet went screaming overhead. And then another one. And it slowly dawned on me that this was no random traffic jam. I crawled past a billboard and slowly deciphered its Czech message: “Air…Force Days…Saturday…September 20.” Wait, that’s…that’s…well, that’s today.

According to its website, the NATO Days in Ostrava and the Czech Air Force Days are “the biggest security show in all of Europe.” And I’m quoting here: “The main program, taking place at Ostrava Leoš Janáček Airport, consists of presentation of heavy military hardware, police and rescue equipment, dynamic displays of special forces’ training, flying displays, and presentations of armaments, equipment, and gear of individual units…the most-visited two-day family event in the Czech Republic.”

And so, I had scheduled a rendezvous at what I imagined to be a deserted regional airport on the very day it was hosting 200,000 visitors from all over Europe.

I called Andrew, who had figured out what was going on right around the time I did. “Hello Cameron! I have been sitting still in traffic for 20 minutes. What do you want to do?”

I had to drop off this car at this airport, before crossing into Poland. I had no choice (other than, perhaps, driving myself three hours to Kraków, then driving back three hours tomorrow to return the car, then finding a ride for the three hours back to Kraków). By hook or by crook, Andrew and I had to figure out some way to meet up…and leave this car behind.

Andrew and I — coming from opposite directions — inched toward each other and the airport, periodically calling each other to track progress. I called the rental car office and said, “I’m trying to get to the airport to drop off my car.” Nonplussed, the bored agent replied, “Oh. You know, there’s an air show today.”

As I got closer to the airport, Andrew called me to say he’d parked his car, and was walking back to direct me to the terminal. I pulled over to the side of the road and went looking for him. By this time, the air show was in full swing, with military jets doing their eardrum-piercing loop-de-loops overhead. We might as well have been on the deck of an aircraft carrier on family visit day. Employing a kind of surreal doppler radar, Andrew and I followed the deafening sound of jet engines through each other’s cell phones to triangulate our way closer and closer to each other. Finally, Andrew came into view, far down the road, and we greeted each other with a big, fraternal, Polish bear hug.

Andrew hopped in my car and said, “I told the cops up there what’s going on. He said you can just ignore all of the ‘no entry’ signs and drive up to the terminal anyway.” Gingerly, I navigated my car between throngs of aviation enthusiasts, and — with Andrew’s encouragement — drove the wrong way down a one-way service road. Approaching the police checkpoint, Andrew looked a little concerned. “Hm. That guy I talked to earlier isn’t here.” He hopped out of the car and, after a very animated conversation, told me it was OK to proceed. And so, by some miracle, we got the car back to the rental office.

We hiked a half-mile back to Andrew’s car, occasionally peering up to see the warplanes swirl overhead. By the time we reached the car, traffic had cleared out, and we zipped across the border and headed for Kraków. By the time we pulled up to my hotel — hours later than planned — Andrew and I were already laughing about our impromptu visit to Europe’s biggest air show.

If you savor the Schadenfreude of hearing about good trips gone bad, check out the other posts in my “Jams Are Fun” series.

How about that time I was stuck on a cruise ship during a massive storm in the North Sea?

Or that time I got pulled over by keystone kops in a remote corner of Bosnia?

Or, really, the entire experience of driving in Sicily.

Aunt Mildred was right: Jams are fun, indeed. What’s your favorite travel jam?

How to Drive in Sicily: Just Go Numb

I recently spent three weeks driving 800 miles around Sicily (working on our new Rick Steves Sicily guidebook, available now). And let me tell you, that’s no easy task. While touring Sicily by car is a smart, efficient approach for travelers, the timid and the uninitiated may find it challenging. Hold on, is “challenging” the right word? Hmmm. No, wait. I’ve got it: “Terrifying.”

The trick to driving in Sicily is keeping in mind that you are driving in Sicily. It took me a few days to dispense with my preconceptions about things like obeying traffic signs, or why it’s a bad idea to triple-park in the middle of the street, or the importance of cars staying in their lanes (or, really, the very concept of “lanes”). Drivers who refuse to accept Sicily on Sicily’s terms will need to end each journey by popping a Xanax and prying their raw, white-knuckled, death-grip claws from the steering wheel. But, like with other things in Sicily, if you just sort of go numb and roll with it…you’ll be just fine. (Oh, and while you’re at it, spring for the zero-deductible insurance. Not joking.)

Entering a big city like Palermo or Catania, forget about right of way and obeying signs — just go with the flow of local traffic. I was taught to drive defensively, which works in Sicily…to a point. But don’t be too stubborn about it. Assuming you actually want to get where you’re going, occasionally you need to drive like a Sicilian. Just today, in the very heart of Palermo, I obediently pulled to a stop at a red light, instantly generating a chorus of furious honks from the column of cars behind me. I shrugged, checked both ways three times, and ran the red light…followed, without a moment’s hesitation, by everyone else.

Meanwhile, there are the motor scooters — the true love of most Sicilians. Knock-off Vespas weave between cars stalled in traffic, brushing past your side-view mirrors, bushwhacking their own path through an urban jungle. Pausing at a red light, my car was instantly enveloped by motor scooters squeezing around me on both sides. They gathered in front of me, cramming into the tiny no-man’s-land between my hood and the intersecting traffic, forming a scrum of eager beavers at my front bumper. When the light turned green, a half-dozen little engines buzzed to life, like a swarm of bees taking flight, and off they zipped…leaving me in a cloud of dust and exhaust.

While urban driving is challenging, driving in the Sicilian countryside is, for the most part, a delight. The roads are empty — it’s easy to make great time. But be prepared for the dramatic variation in Sicilian cruising speeds. On a road with a limit of, say, 100 kilometers per hour, virtually nobody actually goes 100 kilometers per hour…except me. Approximately half of all Sicilian drivers go far, far below the speed limit. The co-author of our upcoming Rick Steves Sicily guidebook, Sarah Murdoch, quite rightly pointed out that Sicilian roads are clogged with dinky, boxy Fiat Pandas from the early 1980s, which appear to have a maximum speed of about 70 kmh. Sure enough, I spent enough long journeys stuck behind Pandas to become something of an aficionado. (The lines on the 1982 Panda 45 Super were nothing short of breathtaking.)

Meanwhile, the other half of Sicilian drivers go far, far above the speed limit. And if you’re going even a smidge below their preferred speed — even for a fleeting moment, even if there’s a stop sign a hundred yards in front of you — they’ll ride your bumper so close, it feels like you’re giving them a tow. Passing on blind curves is a high-risk national pastime in Sicily (like bullfighting in Spain), and drivers take insane chances. On a busy parkway into the city of Siracusa, a motorcycle screamed past me at around 120 kilometers per hour. As he faded into the horizon, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the daredevil driver riding sidesaddle, his bike leaning at a precipitous angle.

Navigation is tricky. Sicily’s roads are potholed and inconsistently signed. And when there are signs, they can be more confusing than no signs at all. Highways can be unexpectedly closed — or exist only on maps despite never having been completed (I spotted quite a few on-ramps to nowhere).

I am a fanatical devotee of using Google Maps on my phone for navigation, and — with only a few memorable missteps — it has been my reliable copilot through dozens of European road trips. But it was patchy at best in Sicily.  Late one night, returning to my agriturismo in the hills near Agrigento, I was counting on Google Maps to get me home. It treated me to a fun little detour, 10 minutes high above the seashore, before dead-ending me at a three-way intersection with two rutted, overgrown trails suitable only for tractors and herds of goats. (About 20 minutes of backtracking later, I finally found my way home.) I can get away with blindly trusting my GPS in most of Europe and the USA…but not in Sicily.

A word about roundabouts: I deeply believe that they are humankind’s greatest invention, a notch above penicillin and smartphones. We should have roundabouts at every intersection in the United States. I’ve driven miles and miles through the British countryside, zipping around the outskirts of major cities and through the historic cores of quaint villages, without ever coming to a full stop. When properly utilized, roundabouts make traffic flow like poetry.

But Sicily is a long way from Britain. And it’s the only place I’ve been where a roundabout is treated like a lawless intersection: Everybody just aggressively plows through, willfully defiant of silly concepts like “right of way.” Yield to vehicles already in the roundabout, and those entering from the left?! Per favore! What a ridiculous concept. You just go, and let God sort it out.

All of this sounds like madness…chaos. But if you manage to approach Sicilian driving with the right attitude, it becomes clear that it’s a controlled chaos. The thing is, it works. It works not because it’s “every driver for himself,” as it might seem at first glance…but because there’s an unspoken understanding that we’re all in this together. Other drivers are watching you. They see how fast you’re going, how big your car is, and where you’re headed next. They probably know more about your driving skills than you do. And they adapt — constantly, intuitively, and effectively. If you get stubborn and use roundabouts the way they were intended to be used, dammit! — you’ll get everyone angry (at best) or cause a fender-bender (at worst). Put another way: If you’re the only one using the roundabout “the right way,” then you’re the one using it the wrong way.

A cadre of road engineers in Britain and the Netherlands are pioneering a new way of handling complicated intersections: You simply remove all of the signage. There are idyllic little English and Dutch towns where, upon reaching the village green, suddenly there are no traffic lights, no roundabouts, no bike lanes, no crosswalks, no signs of any sort. You just have to pay attention. You have to. And so, everyone does: Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians all make eye contact with each other, ensuring that everyone’s on the same page regarding what’s about to happen. It sounds counter-intuitive, but removing all signage from intersections not only drastically reduces accidents — it actually makes traffic flow more smoothly, reducing congestion. (This is just fascinating. Check it out.)

On about my third day driving in Sicily, I was cursing my fellow drivers who refused to abide by the universally accepted rules of using a roundabout, when it suddenly dawned on me: Sicilians long ago intuitively figured out what all those Northern European eggheads have spent their careers researching. The road is a shared venture — a communal enterprise. And as long as we all look out for each other, we’ll get through it in one piece. And if you can do that, and just dive in…well, then, you might just come to enjoy it.

Bruised and battle-hardened, but wiser, I leave Sicily thinking it’s a fine place to drive. A car gives you maximum flexibility for linking up the remote and rural highlights of Sicily, even on a short trip. And distances are short, making fuel prices reasonable — I circled the entire island on just three tanks of gas. So don’t be afraid to tackle the Sicilian roads. Remember: Just go numb. Go with the flow. And keep in mind that, like all things Sicilian, everyone’s in this together.

If you’re ready to tackle the Sicilian roads, our Sicily guidebook is available now.

In other blog posts, I wrote about my top 10 tips for visiting Sicily, Palermo’s amazing street food scene, and the challenge of driving in Sicily.

This post is part of my“Jams Are Fun” series — designed for those who savor the Schadenfreude of hearing about good trips gone bad. How about that time I ran out of gas on Scotland’s remote north coast? Or that time I was stuck on a cruise ship during a massive storm in the North Sea? Or the time I became embroiled in a gelato feud in a small Italian village?

If you’d like to visit Sicily — but would love it if someone else did all the driving, took care of the hotels and half of the meals, and explained it all to you — well, then, we have a great 11-day tour for you.

We also have a wealth of free Sicily content on our website, including a recommended itinerary, links to two new episodes of Rick’s public television series about Sicily, several interviews from Rick’s public radio show about Sicily, more gorgeous photographs, recommended books and movies about Sicily, and much more.

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.)

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.

D’oh! A Deer: Taking Two “Sound of Music” Tours Back-to-Back

Salzburg’s tour guides are understandably jaded.

“Understandably” to me, anyway, because I’m not really a fan either. I mean, like any red-blooded American, I grew up watching The Sound of Music — or bits and pieces of it — every Easter and Christmas on TV. Some of the songs are catchy. Pretty scenery, and all that. But I never loved it loved it.

The thing is, I only have to deal with the Von Trapp clan twice a year — and at that rate, they’re harmless and quaint. But if you’re a tour guide in Salzburg, you have no choice: The Sound of Music is your entire life.

Sound of Music tours are a huge business in Salzburg. I was told they attract 100,000 Von Trapp pilgrims annually. At around $50 a pop, that makes it cool $5 million-per-year industry. Our Rick Steves guidebook recommends two Salzburg-based Sound of Music tours: one with a big bus, and the other with a minibus. Both get an unusual number of reader complaints. To get to the bottom of things, I devoted a little Salzburg research time to trying each one — to re-evaluate them, to better explain them in the book, and (hopefully) to make sure our readers fully understand what they’re investing fifty bucks and a half-day in.

(You may be wondering why someone who isn’t a fan of the movie would be given this assignment. I would counter that someone who isn’t a fan of the movie may just be the perfect person for this assignment. My steely-eyed analysis isn’t clouded by gauzy memories of whiskers on kittens and schnitzel with noodles. And while we’re on the topic, nobody actually eats schnitzel with noodles. Too many carbs.)

And so, here I am, in a minibus with six North American SoM devotees — the only one not singing along to “Doe, a deer…” My travel companions for the day are two fiftysomething Canadian women whose husbands skipped out on the tour to visit Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden (smart guys) and four American college students. It’s clear that the movie — 50-plus years young and still going strong — exerts a powerful, cross-generational appeal.

Everybody — young and old alike — knows every word to every song. They know when to sing “flibbertigibbet” and when to sing “will-o-the-wisp.” They’re full-on geeking out on each little morsel of information. And everybody “oohs!” and “aahs!” on cue when our guide shows us, for example, the trees where the kids were hanging from the branches in their curtain clothes, or whatever…I wasn’t really paying attention.


We pull up to a mansion on the shore of a beautiful alpine lake. This is not the actual Von Trapp family house. And it’s only one-third of the movie Von Trapp family house. (The back of the house, and the interior, were each filmed elsewhere.) But even so, people gobble up the stories of the youngest Von Trapp falling out the wrong side of the canoe and being rescued by Liesl.

Our guide explains that The Gazebo (where Liesl hooks up with a teenaged Nazi) was built just for the movie, next to the mansion. But then, years later, cinephiles were still showing up in droves, making a racket, singing and waltzing and taking pictures. So they moved The Gazebo across the lake to a biergarten. But the same thing happened: Tourists would make a ruckus, disturbing the biergarten patrons.

Just to be entirely clear on this point: The Sound of Music fans were so rowdy, they were bothering a bunch of Austrian drunks chugging one-liter mugs of beer.

And so, The Gazebo is not anywhere near this lake anymore. They moved it several miles away, to Hellbrunn Palace, where they dumped it outside the wall near the parking lot, between the garbage cans and the toilets. And there, each day, a steady stream of tour buses pull up to let 50 people take turns photographing each other in front of The Gazebo, gazing wistfully into each other’s eyes. Then they use the toilets and get back on the bus. Very handy.


All of this fuss is about a movie prop from the 1950s. And it’s not even a pretty prop. In my hazy memory of the movie, I pictured some fanciful, lacy, wrought-iron objet d’art with leaded glass that twinkled in the moonlight. But no. In real life, it’s a boxy white frame with clear glass. I’ve seen nicer prefab ones at the Home Depot.

And what about The Meadow — the one where Julie Andrews spun herself silly? Like Hitler’s Bunker in Berlin, its real location is shrouded in mystery: Everyone claims to know where it is, but each one of them will take you to a different place. (Apparently, the actual The Meadow is on private property, and strictly off-limits to the curious public.) But it doesn’t really matter anyway. Guides told me that for their American visitors, any alpine meadow will do — so they just pull over wherever it’s handy. One of them told me, “Local farmers can’t figure out why all of these Americans are always spinning in their fields.”

Our guide, an elderly Austrian gentleman, has a real knack for doling out Julie Andrews trivia at the appropriate rate. (“Did you know that Audrey Hepburn also auditioned for the role of Maria?” he asks. “Yes, in fact, I did know that!” no fewer than three of my fellow SoM aficionados exclaim.)

But there’s a lack of mirth in our guide’s delivery. I don’t sense a deep-in-his-bones love affair with “The Lonely Goatherd.” He seems to get a minor kick out of the story of the Trapp Family Singers…but would he lie down in traffic for Christopher Plummer? As a SoM cynic myself, I can relate. When he asks if we have any questions, I can barely stop myself from asking, “So, how do you solve a problem like Maria?”


Day two. The big bus tour has a similar itinerary but more people. Lots and lots more people…49 SoM fanatics on a 50-seat bus. A sneezing Fräulein Maria on the side of the bus (Gesundheit!) seems to guarantee that this will be one heck of a fun day. And our lederhosen-clad guide — even more polished than the minibus guide — recites his tightly crafted spiel with the poise of a seasoned stand-up comic. I imagine he’s been regaling his audience with these same quips, puns, and factoids, twice a day, for many years. The bus offers a comfy ride and a higher vantage point. But loading and unloading at each stop is a chore. And, by the trip’s end, rather than feeling the warm camaraderie of the minibus, I feel a need to escape.


All told, each type of tour has its pros and its cons, but both were perfectly fine. So what’s with all of the complaints? After taking both tours, I think I figured it out: The Austrian local guides never can, and never will, equal their customers’ intensity of affection for the movie.

The Sound of Music is an American phenomenon. Yes, the exteriors were filmed in Salzburg. (And after these tours, I’m wondering if there’s a square inch of this city that didn’t wind up somewhere in that movie.) But fundamentally, it’s an American movie, based on an American stage play, by American composers who wrote songs in English that have nothing to do with Austria’s musical tradition. Most Austrians haven’t even seen the movie; those who have, certainly weren’t reared on it. Mozart is in their bones. But Sound of Music is this weird thing that just happened to them.

And so, when our guidebook readers go on one of these tours, then write us a note complaining that the guide was gruff, or the tour felt rushed…I’m not saying these people are wrong to be disappointed. But it’s hard to blame the guide for maybe phoning it in, just a little bit.

OK, look at it this way: Imagine that some obscure-to-you movie was filmed in your hometown. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say it was the 1990 Tom Hanks comedy Joe Versus the Volcano. So, Joe Versus the Volcano was filmed in your hometown. That’s cool. But it’s been decades now, and you’ve moved on. Everybody in your hometown has gone on to bigger and better things. As it should be.

But here’s the thing: People keep showing up, having traveled at great distance and great expense to see everything in your town relating to Joe Versus the Volcano. They want to see the shop where Joe bought his four steamer trunks that he later lashed into a raft. They want all of the tinseltown tales about Meg Ryan’s artistic journey in playing three different roles. They are desperate to see the very pier from which Joe set off on his sailboat trip to Waponi Woo.

Now, these people are willing to pay you a lot of money. Like, every day, a dozen of them will hand you fifty bucks apiece to show them this stuff. There are many other things in your town that you are legitimately passionate about. But these people don’t want to see those things — and six hundred bucks ain’t bad for a half-day’s work, am I right? So you take them to see the vacant lot where Abe Vigoda and Lloyd Bridges had their trailers. Because you’ve got to give the people what they want. But — and this is a big but — that doesn’t mean that you actually enjoy it.

There’s more to Salzburg than just The Sound of Music. But you are really excited about The Sound of Music. And that’s great! Just be prepared for an enthusiasm gap between you and your guide. They’ll take you to the locations. They’ll tell you the stories. And they’ll play you the songs on the bus. And they’ll do it all with a smile (as much as Austrians ever smile). But cut them a little slack…and don’t expect them to sing along.

If you savor the Schadenfreude of hearing about good trips gone bad, check out the other posts in my “Jams Are Fun” series. How about that time I was stuck on a cruise ship during a massive storm in the North Sea? Or the time I ran out of gas on Scotland’s remote north coast? Or that time I got pulled over by keystone kops in a remote corner of Bosnia? Or, really, the entire experience of driving in Sicily

If, on the other hand, you are so excited about the idea of a Sound of Music tour that you can’t wait to learn more…then pick up our Rick Steves Vienna, Salzburg & Tirol guidebook.

And for a taste of Austrian Christmas that isn’t quite so, um, Julie Andrews-y, check out Rick’s classic European Christmas special.