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

Eagle Bone Flutes and Whirling Turks

Flying to Greece to meet our “Best of Greece” tour, I anticipated big, noisy Athens followed by vivid village experiences.

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I started daydreaming about the fun I’ve had in Turkish villages (where I’ve had more experience) and how that offered an insight into that culture. Like little flip-floppy butterflies, I caught them somewhere over Greenland and lay them out here: I was in Güzelyurt for everybody’s favorite festival of the year: a circumcision party! Locals call it “a wedding without the in-laws.” The little boy, dressed like a prince, rode his donkey through a commotion of friends and relatives to the house where a doctor was sharpening his knife. Even with paper money pinned to his uniform and loved ones chanting calming, spiritual music, he must have been frightened. But the ritual snipping went off without a glitch — and a good time was had, at least by everyone else. On another occasion in central Turkey, I was invited into a village home for tea, or chai. While my hostess prepared the chai, her little boy let me finger his ancient-looking eagle bone flute. While we played, I heard his father playing another flute from a hill above the village. The woman went about her day with the comforting sound of her husband tending their flock. He was away…yet they were somehow still together. Turkish villages are ugly, with unfinished buildings bristling with rough rooflines of rusty concrete reinforcement bar. For years I assumed Turks just didn’t care how things looked. Then a friend told me, “In Turkey, rebar holds the family together.” In times of demoralizing inflation, rather than watch its value shrink in a bank, Turks invest any extra money in a family home. One wall, window, and roof at a time, they slowly construct a house bit by bit. Turkish parents strive to leave their children the security of their own home. At the edge of town I came upon a school stadium filled with students thrusting their fists into the air and screaming in unison “We are a secular nation.” I asked my guide, “What’s going on — don’t they like God?” She explained, “No, we love God. But with the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism just across our borders, we Turks are concerned about the fragile ‘separation of mosque and state’ — which is guaranteed by the constitution the father of our nation, Ataturk, gave us.” One evening, a village mayor invited us into his home. Children played squawky instruments and beat drums as all present danced in stocking feet on hand woven carpets. Dancing in Turkey is easy — just hold out your arms, snap your fingers, and wiggle your shoulders. I was dancing with the mayor’s wife. Between tunes, he wanted me to know I was completely welcome in his home. He pointed to the most sacred place in the house — the Quran bag which hung on the wall. He said, “In my Quran bag I keep a Quran, a Bible, and a copy of the Torah. It reminds me that Jews and Christians, like we Muslims are ‘people of the book’—we all worship the same God.” Village artisans enjoy showing off. I visited a woodcarver famous for creating exquisite prayer niches. Every village in the region wanted one for their mosque. My friends and I observed while chips flew. Suddenly he stopped, held his chisel high to the sky, and declared “a man and his chisel, the greatest factory on earth.” I asked to buy one of his carvings. He gave it to me saying, “For a man my age, just to know that something I carved would be taken to America and appreciated…that’s payment enough. Please take this as my gift to you.” As the sun prepared to set, we climbed to a roof top to observe a dervish whirl. Dervishes are a Muslim sect who follow the teachings of Mevlana. While tourists typically see the whirling dervishes as a kind of cruise-ship, shore-excursion entertainment, it is a meditative form of prayer and worship. The dervish agreed to let us observe if we understood what the ritual meant. He explained that with one foot anchored in his home, the other foot steps 360 degrees around as if connecting to the entire world. One arm raised and the other lowered, as he turns he becomes a conduit, symbolically connecting the love of God with all of creation. He spun himself into a trance. With his robe billowing out, his head cocked peacefully to the side, and his arms a tea kettle of divine love, the sun set on the village that offered such a rich insight into a world so far from my own. Simple encounters in a remote village anywhere in the world remind me that other people don’t have the American dream. They have their own dream. Turkey, the size of California with 70 million people, has the Turkish dream. That doesn’t scare me. It doesn’t threaten me. It makes me thankful.

A Romantic Road Bus Tour Comeback?

This summer while updating my Germany guidebook, people in the Würzburg tourist board asked me why I no longer recommended the Romantic Road (the bus route connecting the Rhine and Munich/Füssen with a stop in Rothenburg). The Romantic Road was one of the 16 original “back doors” back in my 1980 first edition of Europe Through the Back Door (read the excerpt) and it slowly went downhill until I realized it was still in the book only because of my fond memories. They asked for my reasons. I gave them. And they responded impressively concerned and now I have hopes that the Romantic Road could once again be worth a day of your German vacation. This exchange of letters is kind of wonky, but anyone who loved this bus ride back in the 1970s and 1980s may find it nostalgic. And it does give an insight into how the general cultural environment has changed, making it more challenging to connect with charming slices of traditional cultures. (If you have any personal experience with the Romantic Road bus tour — then or recently — please share them with us on this blog. And hopefully, next year, we can share happy news about the new and improved Romantic Road bus tour.)

Dear Sir,
Thanks for asking my opinion on the Romantic Road. In my career as a travel writer I have seen it slowly slip from a fun-loving, economic peek at the best of Germany perfectly designed to fit a Eurail travelers needs to a greedy, lost opportunity trying to capitalize on a once upon a time good reputation among travelers. I used to consider it a key element to any best of Europe trip itinerary. Now I hardly mention it (except for drivers looking for a pretty route they can do themselves). What do I miss? There used to be friendly bus drivers who knew the locals and had fun with the tourists on board. A famous driver named Charlie Brown used to stop and chat with locals, let dogs hop on the bus, and say goodbye to travelers at the end of the day as if they had a new friend. The ride used to be covered on the rail pass and bags used to be free to stow downstairs. There used to be good information in the form of a handout guide booklet. I don’t know the latest because I stopped paying attention. But the feedback I get from people is somewhere between disappointed and betrayed. I think it would be wonderful if there was a good economic and friendly and information-filled excuse to get off the trains for a day and explore the more characteristic slice of Germany by bus. Perhaps someday, the Romantic Road bus tour will offer just that. Best wishes,
Rick Steves

Dear Mr. Steves, According to the Würzburg tourist office, you no longer recommend our bus service on the Romantic Road because you believe the service is so bad. As General Manager of the Romantic Road, I have a great responsibility for this service and it is, therefore, a matter of great importance to me that any such problems should be cleared up. The ‘Europabus’ line was opened with the founding of the Romantic Road in 1950, because people fortunately saw that, given the absence of a railway line, a bus route would be of considerable service to international guests. The buses were well-filled until the end of the eighties. Since the early nineties, the proportion of travelers using rented cars has increased continuously. And, since this time, the bus service has mainly been used by Asian guests. Thanks to my fatherly friend Charly Brown, someone who loves the Romantic Road with all his heart and with whom I am still in very close contact, I began my career in the tourist sector aged 16 as a guide on the Europabus service. And the Romantic Road has always been part of my professional life since this initial contact. Due to changing customer behaviour, it became necessary to make cuts so that only 2 of the German ‘Europabuses’ still serve the Romantic Road route. Moreover, they are only manned by a driver and no longer have a courier on board. Nevertheless, our drivers do all they can to ensure the well-being of the passengers: they make warm beverages, serve wine and beer, organize accommodation, load bikes and luggage. Our longest serving driver, Köksal Baliki, has been plying the Romantic Road for almost 20 years and looks set to break Charly Brown’s record mileage. Every day, I hear at first hand about the personal services provided on the Romantic Road. Hence, I was very shocked to hear that you no longer recommend this line to your readers. Naturally, it is no longer possible to repeat Charly’s little pranks. The small villages have changed. Virtually no dog is allowed to roam freely (incidentally, the little one from Wallerstein was called ‘Struppi’). No longer do children pick flowers for the passengers or bring fruit on board the bus, something I was always proud to do as a child. After all, decades ago the Europabuses were our gateway to the big wide world and filled with fascinating people from far away. Today, our visitors are no longer so exotic to attract local children with flowers and the statutory regulations governing bus personnel are so strict that much of what the drivers do for the guests cannot be published officially: unfortunate but a sign of the times. Nevertheless, we are looking forward very much to 2008 when the Romantic Road Europabus line will be re-launched with a new route. You are the first travel journalist to be told about this and I hope you will pass on the following information to your readers: Our bus will leave Frankfurt at 8 a.m. and drive directly to Würzburg, then past the ‘Residenz’ and the vineyards along the River Main to Rothenburg. The bus stop there is within walking distance of the Town Hall. The route continues via Dinkelsbühl (lunch break), Nördlingen and Augsburg, each with a photo stop of a good 30 minutes, to Munich (arriving at 4.25 p.m.). From there, the same bus continues to Ettal, where passengers have time to visit the monastery, before continuing to Schwangau and Füssen with photo stops in Oberammergau, Echelsbacher Brücke and the Church in the Meadow. Bus 2 travels in the opposite direction. Thanks to the new routing, guests will be able to travel rapidly from Frankfurt to Munich along the Romantic Road or, if they continue to Füssen, view some of the highlights of any journey through Southern Germany – in our opinion, a great enrichment for all travelers. I would very much like to present this new route to you personally and cordially invite you to join me on board the new Europabus along the Romantic Road. Charly Brown would also like to join us on this journey, which would give us the chance to relive common memories, to take stock of the many changes and to see once again what a wonderful part of Germany is waiting to be discovered between the River Main and the Alps. I look forward to hearing from you again and very much hope you will be able to find time to visit the Romantic Road. With best personal regards,
Jürgen Wünschenmeyer
General Manager
Romantic Road Tourist Association

Cold in Kyoto

Once upon a time, I was in Japan staying at a Kyoto ryokan in January. It was so c-c-c-cold I could see my breath. There was no central heating (as is often the case there). In the middle of the night, I needed to go down the hall to the toilet. I put on my kimono, which was about the size of a lady’s medium. It was comically tight. I slipped into my hallway slippers with the heels hanging over the edge. Dark and very cold. I shuffled on creaky floorboards down the hall and past balsa-wood-like walls. I didn’t want to wake anyone. It was really cold. When I reached the bathroom, I slipped out of hallway slippers and into the awaiting bathroom slippers. Just as small. Dreading the frigid toilet seat, I jockeyed my big body into position. I could still see my breath. Sat down gingerly. The toilet seat…was heated. I love the way different cultures can surprise us…whether in Europe or beyond. I’m heading off to Greece and Turkey tomorrow…anticipating lots of fun and, I hope, a few hot toilet seats. Anne and I will actually be on vacation (but I’m sneaking along my laptop). (By the way, I’ve enjoyed writing this blog far more than I imagined. I enjoy the community of travelers that is part of our conversation. I’m thankful we’re not all in agreement on things that I write about here. I try not to get involved in the back and forth, but I need to respond to some people on the last entry. Before you say that I favor children smoking pot, take a moment to understand my position, and the thinking behind it. When I try to inject European-style pragmatism into an issue we find controversial in our country, I do my best to share my thinking on my website. Simply go to the Social Activism corner and snoop around.)

Travel Guru Cultivates Winkerbean Look

A priest professor at El Salvador’s prestigious University of Central America once told me “when I hear the word democracy, my bowels move.” They drink sangria in Spain. Ireland is the Emerald Isle because it rains a lot. The people there are friendly. Foie gras, while outlawed in Chicago, is the primary reason so many Brits travel to the Dordogne in France. For a travel writer, can you imagine which ideas are most challenging and rewarding to share? When I travel, I’m hungry for experiences and lessons that challenge us…that confront us. This politicizes my writing. It makes it much more fun for me. And, lately, it’s getting me more media exposure than ever. I’m giving a talk tonight at Seattle’s Town Hall called “Travel as a Political Act.” I’ve had several TV, radio and newspaper interviews leading up to this event. Yesterday, the Seattle Times ran a feature story on me with Mark Rahner. Mark wrote that “Travel as a Political Act” may sound about as bourgeois as Yachting for Peace. It was a fun-loving, Colbert-esque interview which caught me by surprise time after time. He pointed out that I’ve cultivated a trademark Winkerbean look…which somehow led to discussing famous rock stars hanging babies out windows in Berlin. With questions like “When you bring up ‘travel as a political act,’ won’t you be talking exclusively to prospective shoe-bombers,” I had no choice but to get into uncharted waters. Read Mark’s interview here: Travel Guru Speaks his Mind on Foreign Policy

Two-Bit Celebrities Like Each Other

Regardless of my “celebrity,” I love it when other well-known people who I enjoy or respect travel and use my books. Bette Midler came to town recently. She has no idea who I am. But her trumpeter (the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy) is an absolute fan…he just loves my books. He contacted my office and gave me tickets to see Bette’s show. It was great. Afterwards, backstage, I joined the groupies waiting to say hi to “the Divine Miss M” and this groupie had a groupie of his own to chat with while he waited. Fun. My publisher was just bought out by a bigger publisher. In a typical consolidation thing, everyone was nervous. Thankfully, our new, bigger, parent publisher really likes our line of books. In fact, just last week I received a call from the CEO, who used my book in Ireland with his family and had an absolute blast. That made my day. When I go to political gatherings here in Washington State, it’s so strange to jockey myself up to Maria Cantwell or Patty Murray with health care, civil liberties, or FCC concerns on my mind — and end up talking my shop (Europe) rather than theirs. At a dinner before the last election, my congressman, Jay Inslee, invited me to a dinner he threw for then-Ohio state congressman Ted Strickland, who was running for the governorship of Ohio. Jay sat me next to Ted…so we could talk travel. While Ted won, and is currently the popular governor of Ohio, he still travels through the Back Door. My wife just got back from a Garrison Keillor cruise through Norway’s fjords. Anne, my biggest fan, got me on the cell phone with Garrison (who didn’t know my books). But Garrison’s PHC sidekick, the talented Tim Russell, couldn’t stop talking with Anne about the fun he’d had traveling “through the back door.” It’s funny to me how “celebrities” are so busy being celebrities that we are routinely oblivious to what other “celebrities” are up to. Thank goodness for the Annes, sidekicks and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boys to clue us in on what’s going on out there!