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

Booked in New York City

Stepping out of customs at JFK Airport, I spotted my name on a sign held by a man who looked like Kojak. I love it when people look at my luggage and say, “That’s all?” I’m stopping 24 hours in NYC for the big American booksellers’ convention.

Stepping out of the car in the canyons of Manhattan, I felt like Crocodile Dundee — actually giddy to be back in the USA and actually a bit clumsy with the whole scene. I’m out of practice with America.

News is everywhere. I’ve had no news for 60 days. Like being in a cave and suddenly stepping into the light, my mind was squinting. Noisy, stupid headlines. Paris Hilton out of jail. Bush declares he will fight climate change (but still refuses to call it global warming). 130 dead this month in Iraq…more than usual. I turned around…but the cave was gone.

At breakfast the next morning I share my take on Europe with a roomful of bookstore owners and publishers. The theme of my talk: the big news in Europe — affluence. The helpful new insight — if Italy is “the land of a thousand bell towers,” Europe has even more. As globalism takes hold, and the metabolism of Europe revs up, regionalism and local pride satisfies a deep seated hunger.

The creator of www.gather.com, who doesn’t like his site to be called “Face Book for Adults,” pitched me (quite effectively) on creating a little corner there. New York’s Javits Convention Center is bursting with clever ideas, as the American publishing industry huddles. There’s a frantic, almost desperate scrambling…a clamoring for niches: Chicken Soup for the Coffee Lover’s Soul. The new niche in guidebooks is “pocket color” — slimmed down, cheaper versions of existing city guides with color photos. It’s an easy retool and you fill a different price point. I don’t want to offer two versions of one book, asking, “Why can’t one book do it all?” My publisher explained, “We need to hit different price points.”

I dropped by Lonely Planet. And I enjoyed telling people, I had breakfast yesterday in Zagreb. Lonely Planet founder, Tony Wheeler, was there…hands on and enthusiastic as ever. While Tony flew in from farther than me — Australia, Arthur Frommer — who was in the next aisle over — lives close enough to walk to the convention center. I’m impressed by how these icons of travel writing keep working. Rather than dream up another Chicken Soup for the Greedy Soul, their niche is a God-given love and enthusiasm for smart travel.

The big travel publishers (Fodors, Frommers, Lonely Planet, and Avalon — that’s mine) met at lunch to discuss “coop-itition”…or was it “compit-oration” (the value of working together to keep traveling consumers enthusiastic about carrying their travel information around in printed books rather than dumping guidebooks for the web and “new media” alternatives).

I signed a hundred of my new Europe 101: History and Art for Travelerbooks for a line of librarians and book store owners. (The fine folks I met made me recall two conversations I’ve had with taxis: In Barcelona last month during the massive Building Construction convention one cabbie told me they bused in legions of prostitutes–“the biggest brothel anywhere.” Another, here in the USA, told me that at the massive American booksellers’ convention, prostitutes don’t even bother showing up for work.)

The guy who signed after me was Scott Ritter, the weapons inspector who courageously told a nation what it didn’t want to believe — that we bombed an Iraq without WMDs. He wanted to go to Ireland. I had been. I wanted to get on Jon Stewart. He had been. We talked.

I enjoyed meeting the CEO of Borders (the massive chain that sells roughly 20 percent of all travel books…less than Barnes & Noble…but impressive nevertheless). They seem really energized and have chosen travel to be one of their “destination” genres.

Everyone is thrilled with how Costco sold 50,000 of our new DVDs. The scary thing about a Costco venture is that publishers often get mountains of returns. With this foray into the “big box” world, they returned nothing. With a touch of Bill Gatesian megalomania, I said, “We can do better. I want a Rick Steves Europe DVD anthology — all 70 shows — on every American bookshelf.”

Right through the 1990s, this convention was an annual think tank for me. I’d systematically walk the vast floor, talking, dreaming, and scheming. As an old habit, I started to make another walk but abruptly stopped — enough ideas for now. I’m maxed out. It’s so intense. I just want to make old-fashioned guidebooks. Thankfully, my publisher knows about the price points, niches, and new platforms. Without their business savvy, I doubt anyone would be reading this blog right now. Coming to this convention reminds me of that.

Twenty-four hours after touching down at JFK, I was back at JFK taking off again.

Europhiles Get Defensive

My wonderful staff — the 70 people I work with at Europe Through the Back Door — is filled with specialists…people who are passionate about their favorite slice of Europe. I value that because it gives me, the generalist, experts to collaborate with and do better work. Lately I’ve noticed how my staff is actually jealous…defensive…even touchy…about their favorite regions.

Cameron, who spear-heads our Eastern Europe program and has single-handedly made Slovenia and Croatia an important part of our work, lamented how the book he co-authors doesn’t sell as well as some of my other co-authored guidebooks. And it has nothing to do with royalties. He really is saddened by the fact that Slovenia isn’t appreciated like Ireland or France. I no longer jokingly mix up Slovenia and Slovakia. (I don’t think Cameron thinks it’s funny.)

Cameron recently spent a day showing me the wonders of Istria, a trendy peninsula in Croatia. We were doing primary research — running down leads, driving down tiny dirt dead-ends, hitting and missing as any good guidebook researcher must do. All day long we were missing. It’s the hardest thing about writing a guidebook. Cameron was disappointed, concerned that I was getting a bad impression of Istria, whose fans mention it in the same breath as Tuscany and Provence. Now I know those comparisons are a bit of a stretch. While deep down, I think Cameron accepts this, he’d never actually say so.

Thankfully, the next day we hit Rovinj — a new favorite of mine. Standing on the rampart, overseeing the enchanting scene after an exhilarating day or research and writing, Cameron said triumphantly, “Sir, another back door gem in your domain.”

Steve Smith motors our France program and co-authors our France, Paris, and Provence books. Steve has single-handedly turned me into a Francophile — no easy chore — for which I am profoundly grateful. He taught me to pronounce formidable just like Louis XVI (for-mee-dah-bluh).

Steve also helps out on the TV productions in France. On our recent shoot, I closed the show saying, “The more I understand France, the more I appreciate this complex and fascinating culture.” Steve thought this was pejorative (needlessly repeating a cliché that makes the French sound aloof). I argued, “Complex is good. You want a complex wine, movie, woman…France. It’s good!” Steve, surprising me with his sensitivity on this issue, didn’t really buy it.

Dave Fox, an ace Scandinavia guide for us, is a rare Norway nut. (I am too, as I like the ear-waxy Norwegian goat cheese and three of my grandparents were born there.) The region (both books and tours) is a slow seller. For years we’ve pulled out all the stops to turn people on to the “ya sure ya betcha” wonders of Nordic Europe—and used that clichetic phrase liberally. One day recently, Dave sent me a carefully written email requesting that, out of respect for the Norwegian culture, we take “ya sure ya betcha” out of our marketing vocabulary. At first I thought he must be kidding…but (even though he’s a comedian, see www.davethefox.com) he was dead serious. Respecting Dave more than our miserable Scandinavian bottom line, we agreed. Ya sure ya betcha. It goes on and on. Every time I see tour guide Ian Watson he advocates for a TV episode on Iceland. Tour guide Karoline Vass realized a life’s dream by moving to the city of her wildest fantasies…Berlin. Our first employee, Dave Hoerlein, married his Danish teacher on a Viking holy ground in rural Denmark. And Tooraj Fooladi, another of our tour guides, just sent me a lovingly and laboriously written chapter on Valencia — his hometown — in hopes that I would wake up, smell the paella, and include it in my Spain guidebook.

So what? Well, thanks to the passions of my staff, I’ve learned that while Italy may sell the best, each corner of Europe has a unique and real charm. A destination is worthy simply because it exists with people who proudly call it home. And it’s clear to me (thanks to all our specialists), that the more you understand a region, the more you appreciate and enjoy it. And — not in spite of their sensitivities but because of their sensitivities — I’m thankful to have these travelers on my team.

Europe Gives Me the Shutters

On this trip, I’ve had a wonderful series of heavy wooden shutters on my hotel windows. And I’ve made a point to use them. (Anne and I have an electric louver in our Seattle house…and on this trip I realized why I don’t like it.)

To open and close a classic European shutter, you need to get physical. You reach way out, struggle with the clunky hardware, and pull them one at a time. They lumber slowly around, shutting the outside world away with a prison-door clank. They are painted so many times the louvers no longer work. Hurricane-strength hooks fitted to heavy stone walls batten things down.

With shutters shut, I never know what a new day will bring. I don’t even know the weather. But each morning I enjoy the ritual. I swing the shutters open…and with sunlight filling my room comes promise of another day, carbonated with people and learning.

I guess lots of shutters means I’m staying in the old centers of towns that care about the architectural harmony of their streets.

While the building interiors come with all the modern comforts, the exteriors are loyal to the past — stout, layered with paint, and ornamented in a way too impractical for our efficient world.

From Umbria to Andalusia to the Dordogne to Bosnia, I was opening and closing venerable old shutters. And — even when there were no shutters — each day began with an “open the shutters” ritual. Like a happy yawn and stretch, push open the blinders and embrace a new day.

Rovinj Saves Istria

 

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Rovinj — just a two-hour speed-boat ride from Venice — is the best coastal stop between Venice and Dubrovnik. I absolutely love the place. I’m not sure why. Let me just dig through its charms and maybe you’ll understand.

It’s small — like a little hunk of Venice draped over a hill, surrounded by the Adriatic on three sides. Peering through my camera viewfinder I keep thinking, simply, “romantic.”

Rovinj is a collage of vivid travel memories: shiny stones, boats — laden with kitschy shells for sale — rocking giddily in the harbor, and a bell tower with a rickety staircase that requires a powerful faith in the power of wood. From the top a patron-saint-weathervane boldly faces each menacing cloud front that blows in from sea.

Walking through the market puts me in a good mood. I feel like Marilyn Monroe singing to a bunch of sex-starved GIs. Women push grappa and homemade fruit brandies on me. Their sample walnuts are curiously flavorful. I’ll buy a bag on my way out of town…make someone happy.

The old communist monster hotel stands bold and garish on the horizon. Retro Tito-style cafés vie for your business. The woman who runs the Valentino cocktail bar hands out pillows as you arrive — an invitation to find your own nook in the rocks overlooking the bay.

Ducking away from the affluent Croatian chic on the main drag, I walk a few steps up a back street and step into a smoky time-warp bar that took “untouristy” to scary extremes. In fact, it was too untouristy to recommend in the “untouristy bars” section of our book. The town fishermen and alcoholics (generally, it seemed, one and the same) were smoking, bantering loudly, and getting too drunk on cheap homemade beer to notice the nude pinups plastering the walls. I no longer feel like Marilyn Monroe singing to sex-starved GIs. I feel like a rabbit at the nocturnal house at the zoo.

The guy who runs my hotel is Igor. His sales manager is Natasha. Interviewing them for our guidebook, I feel like I’m talking to cartoon characters. For all they know, I’m Boris. No one here knows me yet….it’s strange not to be taken seriously.

Romantic Rovinj is also humble: the fountain on the main square celebrates the water system arriving in 1959. The main monument on the seafront is a Social Realist block of concrete honoring the victims of “fascism” (read: Hitler and Mussolini).

The town’s tiny Batana Boat Museum celebrates the culture around the town’s beloved batana boat — an underwhelming flat-bottomed wooden craft little bigger than a dinghy. A video shows a time-lapse construction of a boat; another exhibit lets you move a wine glass from stain to stain on an old tablecloth, activating recordings of people speaking the local dialect (which apparently is more Venetian these days than Venetian itself); and a TV with a pair of headphones lets you listen to the local betinada music — a small choral group in which one man sings lead while the others imitate instruments.

On the prettiest corner in town, we spot a charming blond woman meeting two travelers to set them up in her rental apartment. My co-author Cameron and I wait until she’s finished, then ambush her with a request to show us the rental, hoping to add it to our guidebook listings. She says, “But I’m just a single woman with four rooms to rent and no agency.” That’s exactly who we want to partner with as we look for budget accommodations in Rovinj. We take a tour and the rooms are great. She can’t believe she’ll be in a book and pay no fee for the promotion.

Cameron and I high-five happily as Rovinj gets even better: We have a new listing for half the price of the town’s cheapest hotel (Miranda Fabris, at Chiurca 5, Db-€40 or €50 in July-Aug, lots of steep stairs, mobile 091-881-8881, miranda_fabris@yahoo.com).

Ivana’s Istrian Fingers

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I woke up in the dark. I pushed open my lumbering shutters. The heavy rain storm had cleaned the air, and an early-morning light invigorated the colors. Glistening red-tile roofs led to a rustic stone rampart. On the rampart was my co-author, Cameron, pointing his camera at a lush landscape of rolling hills and simple farms. This was Istria.

Feeling overworked, I scheduled a massage for 8:30. When I booked, for some reason I decided I’d enjoy it more if it wasn’t a male Croat working me over. I requested a woman. The receptionist assured me it was a woman…“a young woman.”

So I traded breakfast for a “sport massage” and climbed up to the hotel’s spa room, where Ivana met me. The experience seemed Yugoslavian (even though that country is long gone): No chat…no soft music…no candles…just the radio and hanging neon lights. Still, Ivana’s hands were strong. She did her work dutifully. It was an hour and $40 well spent.

With me in tow, Cameron valiantly tried to unearth some gems in Croatia’s Istrian interior. But either our luck was bad, or (more likely) there are few true gems to be found.

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Compared with the rest of the former Yugoslavia, Istria is charming enough. But a history of poverty leaves it with a disappointingly weak veneer of culture — an ersatz Tuscany. While nice roads lace together a lush green countryside, it’s cinderblocks rather than bricks, broken concrete rather than marble, rust rather than rustic. Istria’s much-flouted truffles may be tasty…but not tasty enough to shape an itinerary. The hill towns are hill towns…but so poor that they inherited nearly no distinctive architecture.

My advice for Istria in a nutshell: Motovun (where we slept…and Ivana works) is a fine hill town, uniquely Croatian with a fun splash of Italy (Mario Andretti was born here). The smaller hill town of note, Groznjan, was too sleepy for my taste on our visit in the shoulder season. The big city of Pula is great for its Roman amphitheater and a walk through work-a-day Croatia. But the saving grace of Istria…and one of my new favorites anywhere in Europe…? I’ll tell you later.