I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Small Sardines in Portugal

I’m two days in Lisbon, and I can hardly stop to write up all I’m learning.

I’m staying in a hotel the tourist board put me up in. Every time I accept the tourist board’s offer of a free room, they seem to be pushing a “design hotel” — where function follows form. Everything is clever yet impractical. The outdoor sign is knee level and tiny — I walked past the place several times. The lobby is vast, but there’s nowhere to sit. The room’s very chic, but no drawers, no hooks, no rack for towels, and not even a bar for the roll of TP. Coffee cups are V-shaped…to cool my drink ASAP. The tub comes with far-out lighting…but sits in the center of the room. Give me an old-fashioned hotel with a boring garbage can and knobs on the closet doors.

Still, I slept very well on my jet lag night. (Like I mess things up by anxiously re-clicking my mouse when things don’t happen fast enough on my laptop, I popped an extra quarter-tablet of Ambien at 4:00 a.m. after an earlier one didn’t seem to knock me out…and I slept until noon. I had to research on a tear to make up for the lost morning.)

The big question that everyone in the states seems to be asking is: How’s life over here, when Americans are spending what a guy on the plane called “the Bush peso”? Well, prices are actually pretty good (in Portugal, anyway). Here are a few examples of prices I’ve personally encountered on my first two days (with rough dollar estimates):

Getting in from the airport to my hotel by city bus — €1.50 ($2.25)

Glass of good red wine in a very characteristic pub — €1 ($1.50)

Dinner of fish, potatoes, and salad with a glass of wine — €10 ($15)

Cover for a great evening of live Fado music — €7 ($10.50)

Most expensive sight admission in town — €5 ($7.50)

Buying a new cell phone (unlocked for use anywhere in Europe, and including €10/$15 of calling time) — €40 ($60)

Ferry ride across Tagus River to leave town for a salty waterfront dinner — €1 ($1.50)

Typical taxi rides around town — €4 ($6)

Lisbon is well into its European Union upgrade. Cobbles no longer have the grit of life ground between them. Once-characteristic fish stalls are off the streets and into “more hygienic” covered shops. Widows no longer wear black. The old fishermen’s families in the characteristic Alfama (one of the places that charmed me into becoming a travel writer back in the ‘70s) are now replaced by immigrant laborers.

The traditional fisherman widow’s blues, or Fado, is still filling characteristic bars. Fado is like a musical oyster — sexy and full of the sea. While most tour groups go to big, stuffy, venerable venues, I like the amateur bars where old-timers croon and diners pay only for their sardines and green wine.

I went to the Clube de Fado, where a well-established Fado star provides a springboard to Fado stardom for a new generation of Fadistas (Fado singers).

A diminutive Norah Jones look-alike wailed soulfully, while the man next to me said, “In Portugal, the women are like sardines — the smaller, the better.”

Packed and Ready After a Wild Week…

I have had the wildest week.

Last weekend, I performed with the Seattle Men’s Chorus (the biggest gay men’s chorus in the country) at McCaw Hall, the Seattle opera house. We did a fun musical extravaganza about Europe and the value of travel.

Early this week, I was featured in a New York Times editorial by Tim Egan (to see it, Google “Rick Steves Egan”…but skip it if you’re tired of my drug-policy stance).

My little sister’s in town from Rhode Island. It’s extremely rare that all five in my family are in the same place at the same time. We’re remembering my 95-year-old Grandmother Erna, who passed away a couple of months ago. (She came over on a WWI-era boat to homestead in Edmonton, Alberta — living what to me is the classic emigrant’s life and leaving a huge and happy American family.)

My friend David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, was just interviewed on Bill Moyer’s show (airing tonight on PBS). David said that after he suggested Bill have me on to talk the value of travel, my favorite TV journalist said he’d be interested.

My daughter Jackie has been accepted to four great universities (Claremont, Notre Dame, Grinnell, and Whitman) and will hit the road with Anne next week for an in-person look to make the tough decision smartly.

Tomorrow, we are teaching an all-day travel festival that will inundate our little town with travelers.

And the day after tomorrow, I fly to Portugal, kicking off a two-month trip. I’ll be in Portugal for two weeks (researching our guidebook), in Greece and Turkey for three weeks (making TV), and researching in Italy (Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre — I took the good assignments this year), Germany, and Paris. I’ll fly home for Jackie’s graduation in June.

There you have it. A cheap “what’s up with Rick” entry before hopefully blogging some fun travel experiences in the coming weeks.

Next stop: Lisbon!

Comparing Apfels to Pommes: Relative Costs from Country to Country

With the poor health of our dollar, more and more people are asking, “Which places are less expensive?” My first reaction is to remind people: “If your travel dreams are taking you to Ireland, and things are cheaper for Americans in Portugal, your best value is still Ireland — it’s just essential that you travel smart.” Clearly, a good traveler can enjoy a better experience in an expensive country (such as Ireland) for less money than a sloppy traveler bumbling around in a cheaper country (such as Portugal).

Having said that, it is still worth considering the relative cost of traveling in various European countries. It does vary substantially, and we’ve worked hard on this chart to help travelers compare apples to apples.

When we embarked upon the project, I was sure it was a great idea. But in actually trying to put this together, we realized that it’s tough to truly compare apples to apples. I know hotel values in Paris are much better than in London…but the figures don’t bear that out. Anyway, here’s what we came up with. (Your suggestions on making this more helpful are welcome.)

*Many top museums are free in London.

Fine Print: All prices here are extremely approximate, based on the most recent edition of Rick Steves guidebooks to the areas (and assume the exchange rate €1 = $1.50). All hotel rates are for a double room with private bathroom, during peak season (typically June-Sept), and include breakfast. Train prices are for one-way, second-class tickets on regional (non-express) trains, and do not include reservations or supplements. For simplicity, some similarly priced cities (such as Copenhagen and Oslo) have been combined.

Gripes and Grumbles about Portugal

Thanks for the feedback…

We are just now sending out our researchers to every corner of Europe as we update our series of guidebooks. My assignment: Portugal — where, for 10 days, I’ll visit these cities with a long list of places to check and feedback to run down. We used to get feedback by mail. Now it comes to us by email. My staff collects and distills it. This pile of suggestions from our readers (we focus our energy mostly on the negative ones) is what I’ll pack along with my little bag as I fly away in a few days…ready to make our Rick Steves’ Portugal guidebook better than ever. (Remember that all of this feedback is unverified — take it with a grain of salt…just like I do.)

Portugal Feedback, distilled March 2008

General

Car Rental: Include info about CDW when renting cars in Portugal. Had CDW coverage with credit card, so didn’t purchase from the rental company. But when we got to Portugal, they didn’t honor that since our agreement is with credit card, not the car rental company. We had to buy the additional CDW (approx. 100 Euros), so our rental was 33% more expensive than planned. The lady at the counter said that if we’d booked our car through the rental company’s Portuguese website instead of the international site, we’d have been told this.
Money: Get cash before entering Portugal. Many people couldn’t use Mastercard/debit card in Portugal. Readers had bankers insist that it would work because it had the Mastercard logo on it, called their bank confirming there were no holds and that everything was okay, they had plenty of money and the bank knew they were traveling. Had trouble for hotel payments, ATMS, at restaurants. NOTE FROM A READER: The Portuguese banking system is still primitive by international standards. MultiBanco is a Portuguese bank association. Most merchants, especially outside the main tourist areas, only take MultiBanco credit cards, but many merchants are not even aware that they are not the same thing as Mastercard, etc. When you go to a specific MultiBanco ATM it only connects to the international ATM networks associated with the owning bank. So the Mastercard symbol means that you can probably get a cash advance out of the machine, but can’t get money from your personal bank account. To get money from your U.S. bank account, look at the other symbols on the back of your ATM card to find the associated ATM networks. Almost all machines will accept either Star or Cirrus.
Food: Had a few excellent meals, but food in general was disappointing. Many restaurants in the book are closed/opening times incorrect, add more translations of soups.
Language: No one says Adeau; use Ciao for goodbye.

Lisbon

Lisbon General
Viuva Lamega tile shop: moved from Chiado; store in the NE part of Baixa–Largo do Intendente, 25 1100-285 Lisboa Tel: 218 852 408. Belem: Map needs adjusted–suggests that the Alges train stop is right next to the tower of Belem, while almost a mile apart (map suggests it is drawn to scale, which is misleading).
Several readers disappointed with city–dirty and overrun with drugs and prostitution. Getting through the airport was an absolute nightmare; it was totally chaotic and the immigration agents had no control over the unruly crowd. My 52-year-old mother was literally shoved to the ground and similar incidents happened about every 15 minutes. It took us over two hours just to get our passport stamped so that we could leave the country.
Parking: very expensive (used an underground car park in Restauradores and didn’t move the car 3 days while in Lisbon–cost €130, almost $200).
Took the train from Lisbon to Lagos from the Entrecampos station–easier and faster to get to from my hotel by bus and/or metro than Oriente.
No longer Amex office (p. 46).
No “free guided tour” for Sao Jorge (p. 59) (Oct 2007).
Trolley fares: reader confused as to who and when you pay fare. In one place we say pay the driver, then lower down we say pay the conductor. Are these the same guy? Also, reader shook down on the #15 to Belem by 4 uniformed men who took their passports and then fined them ¬210.60 in cash on the spot for not having already paid the fare. The readers say they really were intending to pay but didn’t see anyone to pay on board. Is the procedure different for newer buses? Were the uniformed guys legit? If so, we should add a warning about how not to run afoul of them. If not, we should warning about scam.

Lisbon Sights
Barrio Alto overlook view from a terrace near the Gloria funicular was fenced off for renovations.
LisboaCard is not necessary if you have a student card–then most museums are 1/2 off/free).
Cristo Rei: In Cacilhas across the Tagus from Lisbon, bus 101 doesn’t operate every 20 minutes–sometimes there is a 40-minute gap, so allow plenty of time. Also, the Carris transit cards don’t work, so get a ticket at Cacilhas before taking the bus.
Lisbon fado museum (near Santa Apolonia) is really wonderful and a great intro to fado.
Directions in 2007 book for getting to the Gulbenkian Museum are terrible–provide street names and distances rather than “walk downhill”.
Bus is so easy but never mentioned. Also, include name of sight in Portuguese, not just English.
Lisbon walking tour: called Lisbon, city of Spies. José, a super friendly/charming, awesome price, good English, gave a fab 2.5 hour tour.
Your recommended guide had to cancel but set us up with Rita Mateus, 011-351-966, who was great.

Lisbon Sleeping
Pensao Santa Cruz: Oswald was VERY kind BUT it is truly for the BUDGET conscious.
Hotel Lisboa Tejo: Our room was extremely spacious and clean–but street on the west side of the building was full of young and very busy prostitutes–pretty social in the later hours of the evening and the noise made it difficult to sleep.
Pensao Residencial 13 da Sorte, Lisbon on page 99 of 2007 book no longer open mid-Nov 2007. A sign referred guests to another location in the city.

Lisbon Eating
A Baiuca in the Alfama: once it fills up (about 8 PM), the earliest space available is 11 pm, so get there before 8 and make reservations. Reader rec: Restaurante Maria da Fonte, Largo Chafariz de Dentro (Alfama), Rua de S. Pedro, 5-A for a nice fado experience Thu-Sun. Three singers and two guitarists in this tiny resaurant with no more than twelve tables. It was a thoroughly enjoyable show and the food was not bad at all.
Reader rec: Bonjardin has the most flavorful roasted chicken, french fries & sangria, setting is great fun, outdoor seating in a lively area.
Fix map on Barrio Alto to reflect both fado places with the same name – Canto de Camoes. Only the overpriced one is included on the map–so missed the more authentic place. Describe better the location of the jijinga (sp?) bar since it’s hard to find when it’s closed.

Fatima

If you take the train from Lisbon to Fatima, you’ll be stuck with a big taxi fare. Upset people in the train station were pooling their money.

Sintra

Queluz-Belas–good stop on Sintra train line, easy, 20-min walk from station to Queluz Palace–no crowds, made seeing Tile Museum redundant.
Reader rec: Sidecar Touring Co: 8 1/2 hr-guided tour in a motorcycle with sidebar for 112 euros (20% off with the Lisboa card) for two people, owner, Joao de Lemos Soares, door to door service, 14 bikes in great condition, drivers go through all sorts of training, never felt in danger, www. sidecartouring@netcabo.pt.
Pena Palace: Sun morning discounts apply to the gardens–not the palace itself. There are Sunday morning discounts for the Moorish castle, though–so reverse book rec. so people visit Moorish Castle first and then Pena PalaceT. Cost is 10 euros combo ticket for Pena Palace/Moorish Castle. Sunday day trip to Sintra from Lisbon not cheap (with 3.20 euros round-trip by train and the 4.00 euros 434 Scotturb bus).
Inside Lisbon gave great daytrip to Sintra/ Cascais, guide Edgar fantastic, much better than the walking tour guides with the same company, http://insidelisbon.com/EN/en_passeios_sintra.htm. Reader rec: Hotel Alif, http://www.hotelalif.pt/.
Cabo da Roca: TI that sells certificates closes at 18:30 or 19:00, and the bus from Cabo da Roca stops running at a certain time…about 19:45 or so. I just barely made the last bus.

Evora

Restaurante Cervejaria 1/4 Para As 9 (quarter to nine) has wonderful arroz de tamaboril – rice and seafood stew. Owner rec: www.monteserralheira.com, monteserralheira@mail.telepac.pt, Lucia van der Feltz. Batata Quente Restaurante has closed (now a pizzeria there). Alentejo area section incomplete: really interesting places, wineries, cheesemaking places, great place to visit. Portuguese people said that about three years ago people from North America stopped visiting and they have no idea why.

Nazare & Nearby

Some places recommended in Nazare are now closed.
Locate Nazaré Amada rooms on the map and try to get a specific address on Rua Adrião Batalha, tel. 262-552-206, mobile 962-579-371). Percebes available only in the spring/summer, so I was told. The beach dancers are on their break until about late March or so. Reader rec: Quinta Princesa do Pinhal, 3 KM north of Nazare, this beautiful B&B, 9 bedrooms, a swimming pool and fresh fruit from Leonhilde’s orchard, fluent in English, www.princesadopinhal.com. In the summer, almost as touristy as the Algarve–can’t believe there’s a chapter on this place.
Julia Pereira rooms: Asking for ocean view means you face plaza, which has very noisy bar, very loud music until 4 am and then people come out yelling, talking, whistling. You also couldn’t see the ocean because of the distance to the water and the large stage. Alcobaca: National Wine Museum (p. 187) permanently closed. (10/07)

Coimbra

Felt book overrated this destination.
Had very bad time driving into the city, and chose badly from suggested activities.
Driving to Coimbra from Spain was difficult-not clearly marked.

Porto

Cover Porto better–wonderful, but not if you try to drive in it. The Port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia are worth a visit.
Solar do Vino do Porto just showcases of lots of bottles of Port, unfriendly, unhelpful guy there, four of us were the only visitors there on a Saturday afternoon.
Guimaraes: great side trip from Porto.
Add more detailed directions from Porto to the Douro Valley–info gap between Armarante and Mesao Frio; hard to find N-101 just east of Armarante near Maladena.

Douro Valley

Many readers said include more on Duoro Valley– highlight of trip yet book coverage seemed an afterthought.
Pousada Solar da Rede: For the expense and stiffness of service, the quality of the food was not worth the splurge.
Reader rec: D.O.C., a delightful riverside restaurant in the Douro Valley, is located between Regua and Pinhao (closer to Regua). Roy, the owner, walked us through everything he served, providing commentary in broken English on preparation, ingredients and anything else he wanted to talk about. He worked hard to ensure that we savored the meal at his new restaurant. It was a memorable dining experience, a definite worthwhile splurge. Tel: 254-858-123. Email: doc@arisdouro.com.
Reader rec: Casa de Vilarinho de S. Romao, lovely restored 16th-century quinta between Pinhao and Sabrosa (drivers only). Six lovely rooms, private baths, swimming pool, outstanding view, vineyards, great breakfasts, relaxing porch, owned by helpful Christine Olzafabel von Zeller, must wind up/down gorgeous mountains on narrow roads with hairpin turns, but the surrounding villages worth it, just 2.5-hour drive to Santiago de Compostela.
Reader rec: Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros outside Pinhao, Eu 120/day, breakfast included; dinner Eu 30, www.chanceleiros.com, owners (Ursula Bocking and her husband) are very knowledgeable, friendly, and fluent in English. The staff are local, have been with them for years, and the food is local, traditional, and wonderful. Pinhao had tiles), river boat tour, and walk by the river. Peso da Regua: Duoro Museum closed while the new museum is being built (7/07).
Santuario de Panoias near Vila Real, pre-Roman/Roman site of worship and animal sacrifice is a National Monument, connected to the Instituto Portugues do Patrimonio Arquitectonico. 7 km from Vila Real, through Mateus via EN322 toward Sabrosa. Brief film with audioguide in English and guide info around the various rocks, still marked with inscriptions and basins used in various sacrificial ceremonie; friendly bar across street.

A Log Cabin or a Guidebook

I was recently asked to recount my “start as a travel guidebook writer.” Perhaps you’ll find this obscure history interesting. (If not…I’ll be in Portugal in a week…which will enliven this blog with fresh from the field observations.)

I wrote my first book in the mid-1970s — accidentally — over years of giving my Budget Travel Skills talk at the University of Washington’s Experimental College. The book matured and its structure tightened with the class. When a relative suggested I write a book, my first thought was, “You’re crazy.” Then I realized it was already there. I just needed to transcribe it from my mind onto paper.

In 1979 a little battle was waging in my mind: Should I build a log cabin or write a travel book? I had the wooded lot in the Cascades, had picked the spot for the cabin, and took a log-cabin building class. I even had a line on the trailer I’d live in while constructing the cabin. When the reality of peeling logs and aging them set in, the competing big project, writing the book, won out.

I wrote Europe Through the Back Door by simply writing out my lectures. The book came out almost effortlessly. My girlfriend typed it, my UW roommate sketched the illustrations from my favorite photographs and my dad’s friend, who was in advertising, helped me design the cover. Corrections were typed, carefully cut out and glue-sticked onto the pages. And one winter day in late 1979, I drove the precious 180 pages of that first edition an hour north of Seattle to Snohomish Publishing with a check for $2,400. A few weeks later I drove home with two thousand books in the back of my station wagon.

I was so green, I forgot to put on an ISBN. The cover was so simple, people in the media thought the finished product was a pre-publication edition. But it sold. In 1981 I invested in typesetting for the second edition. (I remember rationalizing the substantial expense because typeset copy took up ten percent fewer pages than the same typewritten copy.) In 1982 the book looked less like the Beatles’ White Album when I put a sketch of “the” back door (an old door in Rothenburg) on the cover.

In those first years, Ira Spring (of Mountaineers Books) and I went to computer classes — we were so in love with Spellbinder and our clunky Eagle computers. Cliff Cameron (of Signpost Books) would join me for brown bag lunches to explore ways to distribute books. I still remember my first customers: Cliff, who’d stick a box in his trunk before visiting bookstores up and down the Oregon coast; Leroy Soper, then the trade book buyer at the University of Washington Bookstore, who purchased several boxes (that was my first big break — one year they even had them on their Christmas table); George Bradt of Boston’s Globe Corner Bookstore, who gave me my first out-of-state order. And then, the big break: Vito Perillo, of Pacific Pipeline, agreed to distribute it. He seemed to really enjoy giving self-publishers a boost. I’d meet Vito late at night in Seattle, where —as if passing drugs in the wee hours — I’d shuttle a couple of boxes from my trunk into his.

In 1984, for the fourth edition of Europe Through the Back Door, I landed a publisher. I was at a little book festival sponsored by the Edmonds Library in Edmonds’ Milltown shopping mall. I remember meeting Lensey Namioka, author of the marvelous Japan: A Traveler’s Companion, which I had used to get the most out of a trip there — and I didn’t even know she was local. And across the aisle from me and my pile of books was Carl Franz and his pile of books — a whole pile of his (now classic) The People’s Guide to Mexico.

Carl had wanted to meet me and I had wanted to meet Carl. When we finally met, we clicked, finding that we were both motivated by a love of travel and wanting to turn people on to that. I explained to him my frustrations of being self-published, and my fear that a publisher would take the fun out of the work. He sold me on his publisher, John Muir Publications (of How to Keep Your Volkswagon Alivefame). Back then, JMP was a hippie publishing house with a handful of books in their catalog and an interest in expanding their line of travel books. Turns out we were a perfect fit.

Steve Cary came to JMP and replaced the munchies with a serious appetite for book sales. I distinctly remember the American Booksellers’ Convention in San Francisco when, walking down the street to the convention center, Steve and JMP boss Ken Luboff put their arms around my shoulders and said, “Rick, if you want to make it as a travel writer, you need to give us more titles to sell.” (At that time, in the late 1980s, I had four or five titles.)

I got the message and have since then added about one book a year. Today, I have over 30 guidebooks in print (20 which are updated annually). JMP is no longer, but their wonderful spirit survives at Avalon Travel Publishing, my current publisher (who purchased JMP). I now have a well-traveled staff of 70 employed at the home office in Edmonds. The books are selling better than ever. And I’m one hard-working, and very happy, travel writer.