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

Kraut in Italy’s Alps

I’m in Kastelruth, in the Italian Tirol. My chalet–sturdy as a bomb shelter, yet warm and woody–comes with a generous fluffy down comforter and serious German plumbing: Ka-chunk…ahhhh.

High in the Dolomites, tourism is huge. But April is the limbo time between the skiers and the hikers. The lifts are still. Most hotels are closed. It’s a lousy time to be researching. I survey the town from my two-chair balcony. There are no tourists…just busy-as-a-beaver locals getting things ready for the coming rush. A man in blue overalls swings a pickax. Children run free in the guest house lounges and gardens — learning to rollerblade, playing rollicking games of foosball.

As I sat down to lunch today with four representatives from the tourist board, they asked me, “Do Americans know this region as Südtirol or the Dolomites?” I answered, “the Dolomites,” and complimented their town as the only one that didn’t feel like a ski resort in the summer. We were presented with plates of shaved cabbage sprinkled with bits of bacon. Ignoring the meat, Günter, the man across the table, said, sadly, “Kraut.”

I’ve been on the road nearly a month. I’ve had just two hours of rain. I’ve enjoyed meeting countless Americans. All seemed to be having a great time (except a woman who shut the car door on her coat and needed a cleaner, a man whose wife was forcing him to tour the Siena Pinacoteca, and a kid from Michigan State who just couldn’t accept the fact that “pepperoni” was green peppers and not spicy sausage).

And during this month I’ve had absolutely no news. When at home, I consume news as entertainment — probably an hour a day. And for 30 days now I have not seen a TV or newspaper. I read a brilliant rant from Lee Iacocca (Lee Iacocca Excerpt). And I heard about the massacre at Virginia Tech…but only because so many Europeans wonder why we let anyone — even nutcases — own a gun, yet do things like legally requiring bikers to wear helmets. My news-fast will continue. It feels somehow healthy.

Enjoying this little eddy in the whirlpool of Italy, I’m savoring a quiet evening in my room. Freshly showered and in bare feet, I “cook” dinner: my tiny post-9/11-sized Swiss Army knife, a champagne flute from my minibar, and a paper bag ripped open as my tableware. The menu tonight: rough, bakery-fresh German bread, salami, carrots, a tub of yogurt, and Apfelsaft (apple juice). Everything’s in two languages here: I believe there’s a dot of yogurt on the bridge of my nose — it’s both frutti di bosco and Waldfruchte… that’s “berries of the forest.” The fact that my feast cost less than €5 makes it taste even better.

I dig out my iPod. Music takes me home — dancing with memories of family, friends, things non-European. Then, I turn off the iPod and return to Europe. With a happy soundtrack of German-speaking Italian children playing just out of sight, I watch a slow show as darkness settles on the Dolomites. Slowly those rugged limestone peaks and gaily painted chalets become two-tone, then gone.

Stars Not Crossed in Today’s Verona

Last night I was in Verona, strolling after dinner through a multigenerational sea of people on a wide sidewalk promenade. It was made so wide by the town’s Venetian overloads in the 17th century, so the town’s beautiful people could see and be seen. This morning at breakfast, a tourist asked, “What on earth was going on last night?” I said, “It was just a Thursday night in Verona. The passeggiata is a much-loved sport here. It could have been just about anywhere in the Mediterranean world.”

Here in Verona, Romeo and Juliet seem to be on every tourist’s mind. The “Balcony of Juliet” is a crass and throbbing mob scene, as every tour group in this part of Italy converges on it all day long. As they take snapshots of each other rubbing the statue’s polished breast to get “luck in love,” their guides tell stories about the completely bogus balcony.

But simply out and about, there are little love stories everywhere. I enjoy the simple moments when a snapshot of love flutters in and out of my world like a butterfly: A guy on a bike, with his girlfriend sitting on the handlebars embracing him as somehow he pedals gracefully by. A happily frenzied couple in their 25th year of running a restaurant together with a perfect rhythm of serving great food. He says their goal is to “stir emotions with their cooking.” She says, “Like a cherry under alcohol, he never ages.”

Today Verona is overrun with families: it’s a kids’ fair. Grade-schoolers in tiny numbered jerseys run a kiddie marathon…dads jogging at their sides carrying their water bottles, and countless proud little faces smiling through the exhaustion. Five-year-olds in chef hats learn to make pasta from patient teenagers. Moms give little ones coins to activate the human statues on the pedestrian mall–as kids look with wonder at the statues suddenly coming to life.

When I visited a hotel I recommend, Rosella insisted I see her wing of new rooms. Like all the others, each room had an erotic collage on the wall above a double bed with red heart-shaped pillows. I commented on the passion the rooms evoke. Rosella said her hotel is all about the union of man and woman. She makes all the art while running the hotel. While her husband steamed me an espresso, I commented on her energy. She pointed to her husband, saying, “Amato gives me energy…he’s my mezza mela–half an apple.” Apparently, when soulmates find each other in Italy, it makes the apple whole.

Here in the “land of a thousand bell towers,” people have a great love for their towns as well. As my guide walked me through the cloister of the church, she showed me the tombs of the great early scientists–local boys who made good and whose names live on in their greatest discoveries: Fallopian tubes and Eustachian tubes. Occasionally I scribble in my notebook, feigning interest so as not to disappoint my proud local guide.

Verona, so famous for love, gets countless letters addressed simply to “Juliet, Verona, Italy.” The Juliet Club (www.julietclub.com) has 10 volunteers who actually respond to these mostly lovesick people. My hunch is they live in lands where people are not so connected.

Answers to Readers’ Questions, Part Three

And here’s my final set of answers to questions posted to this blog. Thanks for everyone’s interest!

Question: What brand/model laptop do you carry, and how do you typically use it to get online?
Answer: I use whatever laptop Brooke Burdick, the Communications Manager at my office, gives me for a trip. I had three or four Toshibas — each smaller and faster and equally dear to me. Then a Compaq. And now an HP. To get online, I generally take the phone wire out of the back of the phone and plug it into the gadget that lets me plug it safely into my laptop and dial up. More and more, hotels are offering Wi-Fi (wireless Internet), which I appreciate.

Question: I’d like to know how you like your new camera, and whether you think there’s enough of a difference in image quality/photo opportunities to justify carrying all the extra gear that comes with an SLR.
Answer: My new Nikon D-40 has been great so far. I really appreciate having an SLR. There’s no extra gear needed. I have one 18-55 mm lens (which came with it), a 2-gigabyte memory card, and essentially the same battery charger that comes with any pocket-sized camera. I noticed today how it seems more people are reverting back to the bigger SLR cameras like I have. The main drawback is that it’s a pain to carry. Today I left the hotel without it and, as usual, I missed two fun shots: a massive Holland America cruise ship gliding by the Venice harborfront looking like it would destroy the Doge’s Palace, and a bunch of white-bonneted chefs gathered outside an ancient building during a fire alarm.

Question: Do you have a specific camera bag, or do you keep you camera in your day bag?
Answer: I don’t believe in protective bags for my laptop or my camera. I treat them as gently as tender parts of my body and they do fine without protection.

Question: After reading Andy’s blog, I think it would be helpful if Andy had a section in your guidebooks for the college age person.
Answer: I’ll propose that to my son. He’ll be assisting on our tours this summer for six weeks and traveling on his own for 14 days (visiting a cousin in Sevilla and a girlfriend in Toulouse). I’m in Padua today with memories of how, about five years ago, 15-year-old Andy took his first solo European adventure: riding the train from here to Venice for the day to just explore on his own. His mom and I were nervous…and we all enjoyed a celebratory gelato upon his safe return. Now, Europe is Andy’s playground.

Someone responded thoughtfully to my concern about having a passport with no pages left to stamp:
If you’re out of pages for passport stamps, just go to the American citizen services desk at a US embassy or consulate. Fill out a short form, and in about 30 minutes you’ll have additional pages added to your passport. (I did this in January in Vienna, in less than 30 minutes. I suppose it could take longer in heavier travel periods.) Your passport doesn’t need to be completely filled; just down to only a page or two of space for stamping.

Answers to Readers’ Questions, Part Two

Here are a few more answers to questions posted by readers of this blog:

Question: Have you thought about offering electronic versions of your books–perhaps as a value-added download from the site for those who purchase the paper copies?
Answer: My publisher (who’s very enthusiastic about these things) has produced a few prototype electronic versions of my books, and we are open to this. But I think the electronic guidebook needs to be cleverly designed beyond simply offering the same page layouts as the printed versions. I think the business model is yet to be developed.

Question: OK, Rick, we know how you pack, but how does your wife, Anne, pack? It would be nice to hear the female Steves version of packing light.
Answer: My wife travels with the same size bag I do (but the wheeled version). I’m traveling this week with a woman from my office (Heidi Sewell, a great Italian tour guide who speaks Italian so well locals think she’s from Bologna). Just today, as we transferred from Venice to Padua, I marveled at how mobile a good woman traveler can be. (I felt sexist to have doubted it.) Heidi (like all the women in my office…and at home) travels with a 9 by 22 by 14 inch wheeled bag. Whether going for two weeks or two months, you pack precisely the same.

Question: Do you always identify who you are when researching or do you go incognito?
Answer: I not only go incognito, I try to go stupid…as a gawky, tightwad, English-only tourist, in order to get a sense of how the clumsiest tourist will be received in a hotel or restaurant. Yesterday we dropped incognito into a recommended bar for a glass of wine and plate of fried vegetables — and were overcharged. That place will not be in the 2008 edition of my book. Most hotels and restaurants I recommend now know who I am. (I send many of them Christmas cards with my family photo each year — not to mention probably a third of their American business.) My best tool is talking to other people who have already eaten or slept there to learn if the recommendation is a good one. For restaurants, my standard operating procedure lately is to blitz known and unknown places from 8 to 10 p.m., and then drop into my favorite (which is often run by someone who by now is a friend) and just say, “Feed me — bring me a sampling of your most interesting dishes.” It’s always a great cap to a great day.

Question: Any interest on your part to relocate to Europe one day or buying property? Wouldn’t it be easier if you had a second home?
Answer: I once flirted with buying a little place in Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy’s ultimate hill town. It was a dreamy little home perched on the edge of a grand canyon with several floors of Etruscan cellars below. With each visit (on successive tours…so every three weeks, all summer), I’d get the real-estate agent and fantasize about owning it. Then, thankfully, someone else bought it. I believe there’s also a great chalet for sale in Gimmelwald (my favorite Swiss alpine village) for around $250,000 — what a dream to have a place there! But I don’t want a single place in Europe. I sleep in about 60 different hotels in about 60 wonderful towns and villages all over Europe each year. (And I already have one cabin — in the Cascades — that I only use a couple times a year.)

Answers to Readers’ Questions, Part One

While I generally don’t have time to respond individually to comments and questions posted on my blog, here are answers to a few questions I thought people might find interesting:

Question: Will you look into the Marche area or more of the “toe” and “heel” of the boot of Italy? Or any of the smaller islands off the coast?
Answer: Italy is my favorite country for many reasons. Most of those favorite aspects come from Italy’s rich heritage. And by “rich,” I mean money. Both during ancient Roman times and during the Renaissance, Italy’s extreme wealth gave it the wherewithal to fund marvelous culture. That money was in central and northern Italy — and that’s where that rich culture remains today. Southern Italy has a rustic culture. Part of its allure is that it’s relatively untouristed and much less expensive than the urban and touristic north. People love the south of Italy. (It’s one of our most popular tours.) But the goal of my guidebooks is to introduce travelers to what I think is the best first 30 days a country has to offer. And in Italy, the boot and the heel don’t make the cut. If I had 30 days, I wouldn’t go south of Naples and the Amalfi Coast. About islands: I don’t know much about the resort islands of the Mediterranean. My feeling is that the famous resort islands are often inundated with Europeans enjoying their fun in the sun. For that, I’ll take a winter trip to Mexico. The French, Italians, and Spaniards can keep their Mediterranean getaways–they have an impressive knack for enjoying extremely congested beaches.

Question: How long before the Italy updates are out? We leave October 31, 2007. Do you think printing will make my deadline so I can take the most up to date information?
Answer: Our 2008 editions will begin to appear by the end of this summer (mid-August). The first books will be Europe Through the Back Door, Best of Europe, Rome, Florence, Venice, and Italy–appearing in that order, each about a week after the last. All of our Italy books will probably be out by mid-September. The specific dates aren’t set yet, but keep an eye on our website for a specific list of arrival dates as soon as we know them.

Question: What’s a folding board that you mention (in your packing description)?
Answer: Eagle Creek makes a clever “Folder” the size of a folded shirt. It comes with a stiff vinyl board that you fold the shirt around. You stack your shirts, put the board on top, and wrap and fasten the Velcro flaps to make it a tight little package. With my TV work (both in Europe and going from PBS station to station) I travel with my backpack and, thanks to this board, still have reasonably well-pressed shirts.

Question: Do you carry a handheld GPS?
Answer: No. People rave about these. But I have never thought, “Boy, if only I had a GPS.” Part of the fun of being immersed in Europe is navigating. By being engaged, I learn and internalize the lay of the land. But then, for several years after owning a computer, I still insisted on writing out manuscripts on paper, committed to the notion that the paper was a fertile battleground upon which my ideas would be scratched and organized and pounded into a good order. And then, only when that all was in order, did I type the article or even a book into a computer. I may have been the last writer in America to cling to WordPerfect. So, it’s a fair bet that in a few years I’ll wonder how anyone ever traveled without the help of a handheld GPS.