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

$60 to Iron My Shirt?

Coming from France into Switzerland, there’s a clear contrast. France has a rough patina. Switzerland has paved over its patina with success. I had to remark as we entered Lausanne, our first big Swiss city, “There’s just too much money here.”

While the French are discreet with sex, the Swiss are discreet with money. There are actually unmarked banks — perfect for unmarked deposits. (People come from around the globe to store their black money in Swiss banks…happy to earn negative interest. They actually pay Switzerland to keep it for them — anonymously and with no questions asked.)

The tourist board put us up in one of the finest hotels in the world — the Lausanne Palace and Spa Hotel. When I notice “thread count” under the sheets, you know it’s really top quality. (Ironically, the place is so nice it actually cuts into our productivity.) There’s even an unmarked bank in the hotel.

At breakfast, I was surrounded by people speaking Russian and Arabic. I sat between an old woman talking Russian on a cell phone and a guy in a bowtie who looked like Paul Wolfowitz with nothing to do. Tearing off a bit of my warm-out-of-the-oven mini-croissant, I wondered if it’s worse to blow obscene amounts of money if you are from a poor country or a rich one. (If I were paying for my room, it would run $350.) Where did these people get their money? Cynically, I thought, “They didn’t earn it.”

Starting a new TV episode, I needed to change wardrobe. (It was good to get that Burgundy shirt off my back after five days.) I called room service. Asked if I could get two shirts and a pair of pants ironed. They said sure. Something deep inside screamed, “Ask the price.” I did. They said, “74 Swiss Francs.” I thought, “At $60, I’ll body iron them.” I then did a little laundry in the sink. Rather than succumb to the temptation to hang it on my balcony — with a view of Lake Geneva — I put my heated towel rack to good use. It dried in a jiffy.

48 Stars over Burgundy

I’m happily sunburned today — after a day barging Burgundy. We filmed the luxury barge experience, and captain Arnaud and first mate/chef Marie made sure the day was smooth and stress-free. I’ll never forget producer Simon and cameraman Peter running along the tow path to get ahead of our barge, then filming Steve’s family and me stretched out on the deck as we floated elegantly by.

It was an idyllic scene: Gliding by fields of sunflowers, playing with my tapenade, being careful not to let the fine red wine mess up my ability to remember my lines, savoring the sight of Steve’s in-laws enjoying their grandchildren so…and doing the arithmetic to try to justify the high cost of a luxury barge (while expensive, the experience includes absolutely everything: sleeping, eating, drinking, excursions, transfers, transportation…and the scenery comes to you).

It’s spendy, but it’s easy to make the case that luxury barging is a reasonable value…especially if you share a barge with three or four couples you really wanted to be decadent with. The glide is punctuated each mile or so by a lock — each a model of 19th-century Industrial Age efficiency, with a tidy lock house providing government-subsidized housing for the bohemian couple who runs the lock. These characters are fixtures in France’s lazy canal culture.

Later we filmed Château de la Rochepot. For years I’ve had a negative feeling for the national chauvinism of this castle. Its owners, the noble Carnot family, refused to offer English descriptions of their fine rooms as a matter of principle (“As part of the patrimony of France, it should be explained only in French”).

Today, I came with my film crew, and after we filmed the wonderful centuries-old kitchen, the staff announced that Madame Carnot had a special treat for us. They opened a fine ancient chest and pulled out a huge 48-star American flag, explaining this was the flag that the Carnot family flew on the day of Liberation in 1945. And, to this day, they love their American guests.

For two decades, I led groups through France and was constantly impressed at how Americans expected the French to speak English. People would go to the post office in some little town and be frustrated and upset because there was no help in English and the people were not friendly. I had to remind them that small-town French postal clerks are every bit as speedy, cheery, and multilingual as those you’d find in the USA. It’s important when we are frustrated by the language barrier that we don’t expect linguistically more than we give.

Escargot and the Great American Buffalo

Filming a TV show in Burgundy this week has caused me to think a lot about the French. The great issues of the day seem to deal with food and drink.

Take the sad story of snails. Good escargot must grow wild. But as effective chemicals have successfully killed off weeds and undesirable insects, they have also decimated the slug and snail populations. These days in France, much of the escargot is farmed. Locals know the grey snails are farmed and mediocre at best.

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Perhaps the snail is to France what the buffalo is to America. The great French snail — once so common that early-19th-century train companies hired women and children to clean the tracks of them so the trains could get a grip — has gone the way of the great American buffalo. I hate to burst any bubbles…but if you’re slurping top-quality “free-range snails” in a little Paris bistro, they most likely last slithered free in Poland.

The French, in an attempt to cut back on farming chemicals, are resorting to “sexual confusion.” Farmers use an organic spray that covers everything with the scent of a female insect. Male insects smell females, find nothing, get mad, and in their sexual funk…refuse to reproduce.

Wine is another topic that arouses the French. Walking through the finest vineyards in France, the fabled Côte d’Or (or “Golden Hillside”) of Burgundy, an elegant vintner evangelizes:

“A good grape must suffer. Look at this soil — it’s horrible…just rocks. And these grapes have character. The roots of these struggling vines are thin as hairs, searching as much as 30 meters down for moisture. The vines in the flat fields” — she motions to fields just a kilometer away — “have it too easy…a silver spoon in their teeth. It’s like people. Paris Hilton, she is not interesting. The fine wines of humanity, they are the ones who have suffered.” (I found myself comparing Paris Hilton and Tina Turner.)

“The best vintners don’t force their style on the grape. They play to the wine’s strength, respecting the natural character of the sun, soil, and vine…the terroir.They play the wine like a great musician plays classical music. You don’t want to recognize the musician…you want to hear Beethoven.”

After biking through the idyllic vineyards, where road signs read like a list of fine wines, I was determined to film a restaurant set in a vineyard. Steve and I had enjoyed a place called Le Relais de la Diligence. Two years ago, the vines were lapping at its tables. Today, it’s in a wheat field. With the whole world making good wines, the French are cutting back on quantity, using marginal land for other crops, and working to build the quality.

The next restaurant we tried was aghast that we would even think of filming there. It was a matter of discretion…as if most of their clientele were enjoying affairs. (Only in France is this a major issue in restaurants. Even so, wherever we film in restaurants, we politely visit with each table and confirm that they are okay being shown on TV.)

I have long thought there was something affected and pseudo-sophisticated about all this finicky French culture. While buying wine, you ask what would be good with escargot, and the wine merchant needs to know how you plan to cook the snails. I envisioned a good Chardonnay…oh, you’re cooking it that way? Then you need something flinty — a Chablis.

Then I thought of the way I (or someone who pooh-poohs the French passion for fine points in cuisine) might celebrate the nuances of baseball. Take a Frenchman to the ballpark. All the stuff that matters to me — how far the runner is leading off first base, who’s on deck and how he does against left-handed pitchers, how deep is the bullpen, put in a pinch runner! — would be nonsense to him.

The next time I put a little ketchup on my meat and my French friend is mortified, I’ll just remember that with two outs and a full count, he’ll have no idea why I know the runner’s off with the pitch.

Burgundy: I’m Not the First to Yank the Snail

I just met my film crew, Simon and Peter, in Burgundy. Steve Smith — my favorite Francophile (and co-author of my France guidebook and Manager of Tour Planning) — has joined us, too. I’m done researching guidebooks and for the next four weeks we’re making TV — four new episodes: Burgundy, great Swiss cities, Czech Republic (without Prague), and Vienna with the Danube.

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It’s fun to get back into the TV production mode. Each day is an odyssey. Five of them add up to a 30-minute episode. Today was no exception:

This morning was market day in Beaune — I bought a big golden baguette to fit in. Locals treat their reusable shopping bag as an accessory. Lots of little dogs.

We’ll be cooking up some snails in this show — and I learned something a little disappointing about escargot. I always thought when I dragged a snail out of his shell, I was the first to do so. But no. Snails are purchased in a jar, prepared, and then stuffed into reusable shells that aren’t even theirs to be cooked. In a charcuterie you can buy them pre-stuffed with all the garlic and butter packed in…or by the jar with a pile of empty shells (although most French people have a huge supply of empties already at home).

Midday was in a medieval hill town — perfect for illustrating the administrative headquarters of a feudal lord whose church and castle came with commanding views of his domain. The population of Brancion is down to about one family — and François is both the grandfather and the mayor. When we stopped at his place for lunch, he couldn’t fathom the fact that we needed to eat quickly, then shoot.

The French keep lunch sacred. When I’m filming and push the schedule, I’m convinced they do their best to sabotage my mission to keep the work momentum going. I got frustrated as we fell behind schedule.

At Brancion’s stark and humble Romanesque church, I did a video trick I’ve always wanted to do: walk out of a serene religious space and disappear into the light (which is what you do when you expose for the inside, which causes the sky outside the door “burn out”).

Next stop: Cluny — headquarters of a chain of about a thousand monasteries that actually rivaled the Vatican as the greatest power center in Christendom back in the 11th century. We parked right in the town center, and while Simon and Peter set out to shoot, I fumbled with coins for the meter. As the meter maid walked by and saw this, she said, “J’ai fini mon travail.” (Don’t bother…I’m done working for the day.)

While Cluny’s church was once the biggest anywhere, today almost nothing is left. Great history here…but very little to actually see. That meant lots of “on-camera” presentation of information. And covering the script “on camera” means it is unchangeable later — so accuracy is critical. And it’s hard to get precise when distilling the complicated story of monastic orders into a nutshell — as we need to do for TV.

For instance, one of today’s “on-cameras” had me saying, “The abbey’s success has been attributed to a series of wise leaders or abbots. In fact, four of the first six abbots actually became saints. They didn’t answer to kings or bishops, but directly to the pope. They preached the principles of piety and the art of shrewd fundraising. Piety — they got people to stop looting the monasteries. Shrewd fundraising — they convinced Europe’s wealthy landowners to will their estates to the monasteries in return for perpetual prayers for the benefit of their needy and frightened souls.” I confirmed this with a delightful but not very scholarly local guide.

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We wrapped up Cluny at exactly 6:00 and drove to Taizé. After all the ruined thousand-year-old monasteries, I wanted to show a contemporary monastery. Taizé (www.taize.fr) is a Christian Woodstock with thousands of young pilgrims here on retreat each week. We staked out a square meter in the vast and simple church as, like a worshipful rising tide, 3,000 young people from 100 countries flooded in. It was all Steve and I could do to hold our spot until Simon and Peter (good Biblical names for the gig) joined us.

The immense congregation sat knee-to-knee on the floor, holding candles and singing chants of praise round and round while being led in worship by fifty white-robed brothers. Looking up from my cross-legged position at the big camera atop its tripod capturing this phenomenal gathering capped the day perfectly. (More on our shooting in Burgundy in a future blog. It’s 1:00 a.m. and I’m beat.)

Cheered on by the Gnomes of Gimmelwald

Every two years my guidebook research brings me to my favorite corner of the Swiss Alps, as I visit my friends who run the little places that accommodate my traveling readers in the tiny village of Gimmelwald.

Walter, who runs Hotel Mittaghorn, is 82 now…slowing down but shuffling on. To most people, he just giggles and muses about this and that incomprehensibly. But it all makes sense to Walter. Tim from Britain looks after Walter and the hotel. Tim’s in a brace after a parasailing accident. Hard landings seem to make him seem shorter each year I visit. We have our annual meeting to lighten Walter’s workload. A new fire regulation cuts his hotel capacity to 15 — a blessing. Later, in the village center, I meet a stream of Walter’s guests…all thrilled to stay at Hotel Mittaghorn.

Down in the town, I drop in on Olle and Maria, the school teachers who share the 120-person village’s single teaching position. They cut me some hard alp cheese as we review their B&B business. Maria says she doesn’t understand why, in 12 years, they’ve never had a black visitor from the US. She promises to give a free room to the first black American family that comes. I wandered how that offer would look in my guidebook. I joked I wanted the offer for all black people for an entire year. (Anyway…if you’re a black American, you’ve got a free room here in paradise!)

I drop in on Esther, the dynamo farm girl who now, with her expanded guesthouse, has the biggest business in the village. She asked if my describing her place as an “upscale mini-hostel” wasn’t a bit off. I agreed.

Esther also rents rustic spots across the street in her barn. She’s received some complaints, and was concerned we were overselling it in the guidebook. She asked, “Shouldn’t we call it a ‘stable?’ And you should tell of the smell and the flies. Americans don’t handle flies well. It smells like a barn — manure. You must tell them directly.” With my new, more frank write-up, I told her, “If anyone complains, it’s their own fault.”

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My favorite visit in the village is the Mountain Hostel run by Petra. After dark it’s a glowing light of travel happiness in this sleeping village. It was filled with a likable, well-scrubbed gang — kids any parent would be thrilled to see their teenager hanging out with. Everyone seemed to be instant friends. I meet a Jeremy, a 15-year-old with his dad. He was immersed in a raucous world of 18-to-25 year-olds with the world by the tail. This was his first hostel…we celebrated the fact. A college student from San Diego with big hair, “carpe diem” tattooed on his underarm, and a determination to be a great high-school teacher, joined in the conversation. All agreed the world needs more “Dead Poets Society” teachers. The topic turned to whether history as taught in the USA is ethnocentric. A woman who left her five-year-old daughter sleeping in the barn (swatting flies), said, “I’m a history teacher”…and joined in the conversation.

I met with Petra — sitting in the kitchen while she cooked up her famous pizzas. She grew up by the hostel in the next village, and remembered loving the way American couples called each other “honey.” She married local boy Wally, and they did wonders making the Gimmelwald hostel the money-less mountain-lovers’ El Dorado it is today. As a courageous woman with a vision, she ruffled village feathers. Her father-in-law never even visited the work of Wally and Petra for years.

Petra’s only request for the next edition of the guidebook: Shame the guys into splitting lumber for the wood-heated hot tub. I stepped out back to a gleeful gang of happy hikers in a half-barrel-design hot tub. Standing in the tub posing for photos, they looked like a bundle of white asparagus. As I always say, “If heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be…send me back to Gimmelwald.”

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An artist sketched a funny cartoon entitled “The Adoration of Rick Steves” with hostellers using my guidebook like the Bible. And it occurred to me: If any place was a springboard for my career, it was this hostel back in the 1970s.

When I first came in 1976, goats lived downstairs. Bent old Lena (who sounded like a goat when she talked) would hobble over once a day and collect two francs. Today it may cost 25 francs to sleep here — but Gimmelwald hostel provides the same magic. I told Petra she should have a photo of Lena on the wall. She pointed to the space above the bar…and there she was.

Lena’s gone. There’s not only a shower…but a hot tub. And a generation after me, the essential magic of slumming it in the Alps is unchanged. Walking home through the darkness, I could almost hear the gnomes of Gimmelwald cheering me on. My work brings me great joy.