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

Steves’ Pet Peeves in Europe

In the very early days of our tour company, a group once made a theme of mimicking me for saying “This is reeeeely great” (like the fat dork in Animal House) every time I’d park the 9-seater mini-bus at a new sight. I guess twenty years of trying to make people happy on your tours turns you into an almost annoyingly positive cheer leader for happy travels.

While a key to happy travels certainly is a positive attitude, I do have my pet peeves while traveling in Europe. Just between you and me, here are a few things that I don’t find reeeely great:

Museums that show photocopies of documents and photos giving you the sensation of reading a book standing up while walking from page to page (as I just tried to enjoy in a Mozart museum in Salzburg today).

Americans who talk twice as loud as anyone else in a restaurant or public place in Europe and carry on oblivious to the peace they are destroying.

Concerts that charge $50 for a seat and then $2 for a program so you know who and what you’re listening to.

Americans who complain about heat and no air-con (when Europeans believe the typical person from our southwest consumes more energy to stay cool in the summer than arctic Norwegians do to get warm in the winter).

Museums that post “don’t do this” and “don’t do that” signs in English, but provide no English descriptions of their exhibits (when half their paying public speaks English either as a first or second language and doesn’t understand the displays).

Hotels that serve orange drink rather than orange juice and skimp on light bulb wattage to save a few bucks.

Over-earnest British people (especially on British Air) apologizing for something more than once and saying mind your head every time you near a low doorway.

People at security and check-in lines who recognize me from my guidebooks and TV show…and then say, “Can I see your ID?”

Seeing twice as many than necessary highly-trained TSA professionals (2) guarding each exit corridor at US airports.

People who tell me “I love your show on the Travel Channel.”

Sweating all night in hotels that put rubber mats under the sheets to protect mattresses from getting stained.

The rumble of a herd of rolling suitcases crossing a tranquil cobbled village in the evening.

Getting one meal ahead of my needs when surrounded by a cruel abundance of fine food and not being hungry for days.

Sandwiches at places like airport and train station kiosks that are deceptively packed with lots of good stuff spilling over the bread crusts and almost nothing inside.

So there…I just had to get that off my chest.

Joyful Exuberance in Salzburg

 

I’m in Salzburg, lying in bed about 100 meters from Mozart’s dad. He’s just outside my window in the graveyard of St. Sebastian church. When in town, I generally sleep within easy earshot of its bells. The bells of Salzburg ring with a joyful exuberance. They wouldn’t if its citizens didn’t like it that way.

Yesterday, in a tiny village church, I lingered, but it felt lifeless. Suddenly the dozen or so tourists loitering around me burst into a rich, Slavic hymn-—invigorating the church. They were a folk group from Slovakia who explained, “We can’t be in a church without singing.”

This morning here in Salzburg, I went to the 10 o’clock mass at the cathedral. As hoped, a choir and small orchestra filling the loft turned the back wall into a wall of sound. I was with my camera crew, in a dizzying perch, high on the side, enjoying a privileged birds-eye view of the musical action. Far below me a thousand people faced the altar. I faced the loft, where for 2 years of Sundays, Mozart served as organist: baroque scrolls, dancing cupids, conductors’ batons, swirling the icing on a musical cake.

 

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On the 250th year of his birth, the musical genius of Mozart is still powering worship. Walking home, a woman on a bike artfully towed a tiny wagon under the spires. On it was a tall, triangular, black leather case. I said “Wow, only in Salzburg…a bike, towing a harp.” She looked at me and added, “A Celtic harp.” At the ATM a few minutes later I met a woman from a Sweet Adelines choir. She said “We traveled all the way from Pennsylvania to sing here in Salzburg…the people love us here.”

Music seems to weather the storms of modernity very well. It wouldn’t, if the citizens didn’t like it that way.

Can I cook you a good fish?

I discovered many of my favorite “back doors” thirty years ago. Back in the 1970s, places like Hallstatt (south of Salzburg, the gem town on the gem lake in a region of Austria where lakes and Alps are shuffled together like a game of 52 card pick up) were truly “Back Doors” – untouristed. Today, many have become not only touristy…but economically addicted to tourism. I’ve noticed, more than ever, they appreciate the business my guidebooks generate. In Paris, the mayor of my favorite Rue Cler neighborhood threw me a party in the local palace – all the hoteliers, restaurateurs, and shop keepers were there…best macaroons ever. In the Cinque Terre this spring, I was hanging out on the Vernazza harbor-front listening to the town troubadour sing a folk song – not knowing I was in the lyrics. When my name came around he turned to me and cranked up the volume. In Reutte, just over the border from Bavaria’s fairy tale castle of Neuschwanstein, I was recently invited into the local knighthood. (You must be present to be knighted…so it’ll have to wait.) And yesterday, here in little Hallstatt, another of my headliner “discoveries,” my friend who runs a restaurant there welcomed me with Hallstatt’s standard “let me cook you a fish” greeting.

I sat under his wall full of big fish heads mounted like deer – gills spread like antlers. I stared at a tour group from Yokohama which filled a restaurant that once fed only locals. As the group headed out (they’ll be in Vienna in 4 hours), the waiter – in his ancient lederhosen – (which always remind me of a permanent wedgie) said “Japanese groups are very big this year.”

My challenge these days, along with finding untouristed places, is to find vivid cultural traditions that survive in places now well-discovered…like Hallstatt.

The next morning, as the sun rose late over the Alps towering above Hallstatt, the guy in the nearly rotten leather shorts took me for a spin in his classic boat. It was a ‘fuhr,’ a centuries-old boat design – made wide and flat for shipping heavy bushels of salt mined here across shallow waters. As he lunged rhythmically on the single oar, he said “an hour on the lake is like a day of vacation.” I asked about the oar lock, which looked like a skinny dog chew doughnut. He said “it’s made of the gut of a bull…not of cow…but a bull.”

Returning to the weathered timber boat house, we passed a teenage boy rhythmically grabbing trout from the fishermen’s pen and killing them one by one with a stern whack to the noggin. Another guy carried them to the tiny fishery where they were gutted by a guy who, forty years ago, did the stern whacking. A cat waits outside the door, confident his breakfast will be a good one. And restaurateurs and home-makers alike – whose dining rooms are decorated with trophies of big ones that didn’t get away – line up to buy fresh trout to feed the hungry tourists, and a good fish to cook for a special friend.

Sweeping generalizations are fun…

I know it’s bad form for a travel writer (or anyone) to generalize about entire nationalities, but doing so intrigues me – like People Magazine intrigues many Americans. Finishing up our TV shoot in Vienna, I had lunch with a woman from the tourist board. She has her finger on the pulse of Vienna’s tourism industry. I quizzed her on her take of the main national groups who visit. Here’s how she sees these groups of tourists:

Americans–fast visits…never really arriving; Russians–great shoppers; Italians–big families, loud; Japanese–wild about classical music, taking millions of photos; and the French–well informed, sophisticated (for example, coming all the way here for special art exhibits). East Europeans: In the 1990s, they were infamous for coming in on a long overnight bus ride, munching sausages from home, and leaving on the same bus without spending a penny on a hotel or restaurant. Today, Poles, Russians, Hungarians, and other Eastern Europeans spend serious money and are a major part of Vienna’s tourism economy. I didn’t ask her to generalize about travel writers.

No Satisfaction in Vienna

I was in Demel’s, in the fanciest cafe in Vienna, today filming. They said we were welcome to work there until noon when “a famous person was coming by.” Everyone wondered who it would be…The Rolling Stones are in town and so are The Who. I thought I might be in for a rock ‘n roll treat. We were out by noon, when George Lucas dropped by for a Sacher Tort and a Coffee.

The Viennese–so finished with imperial excess–are still talking about the visit of George W. Bush last week. They’re not that fond of our president over here. Newspapers say he is greeted with all “the warmth of a legal deposition.” The president and Laura didn’t come by Demel’s. (Demels–once the Hapsburg Emperor’s favorite bakery–still has its marzipan statue bust of an edible Bill Clinton in its window…a souvenir of a happier visit.)

Speaking of the Rolling Stones: Mick Jagger booked the presidential suite in the Imperial Hotel–Vienna’s palace of hotels–a year in advance for a performance here. When President Bush and his entourage decided to visit, they wanted in at the Imperial. The Imperial asked the Stones if they would be willing to switch. The Stones said no way. Later, Keith Richards fell out of a coconut tree in Fiji, hurt his head, and they cancelled their Vienna concert. According to a now popular local legend (likely not true), the Bush party asked if they could have the room then. Mick–old, but still a bad boy–said they’d keep the reservation even if they weren’t coming.

The Bush party (locals say over 200 strong) ended up in the ugly Intercontinental Hotel. According to my local guide: “They booked four floors so no one would know which room the president was in. They flew in thirty big American cars. And they even brought with them all the president’s food along with a cook. Any cars of local people still parked along the route the president took from the airport to his hotel were towed away. They were so worried about bombs…even bicycles were removed. Entire sections of the old center of town had to be closed down when the first lady decided to do a little shopping. It was a very bad day for merchants.”