Traveling: Meeting Rick Steves, our travel icon

When Kurt and I planned to spend a month in Europe in the summer of 2010, we knew we needed guidance. In some cities, we knew we would only have a day and half to experience them, so we needed a quick and dirty guide that was not afraid to be blunt about what was good and what we could skip. We found that in Rick Steves’ books, Europe Through the Back Door and the Best of Europe (all guidebooks are updated every year). Rick did not only explicitly offer his opinion on all of the major and off the beaten track attractions, food, and hotels, but he taught us how to travel. We knew what to pack, how to avoid con artists, how to save money, in addition to other tips, tricks, and other timesaving and efficient pieces of advice. Rick Steves became a travel icon for us. When we returned to Europe on a cruise, we bought his Mediterranean Cruise Ports Guidebook and his French, Italian, and German Phrasebook. Whenever we are researching a country, we look to his travel series, which includes television episodes, podcasts, radio shows, and an app, and watch what he has to say about the city or country. We follow him through the territory and familiarize ourselves with the layout. I follow him on Facebook and when he posts about current events and politics and how it relates to traveling, I analyze and reflect on his thoughts and weigh them against what I believe.

When I had the opportunity to attend the National Council for the Social Studies conference in New Orleans in November, I jumped at the chance. As I am perusing the conference website, I suddenly see who is one of the guests of honor: Rick Steves. I’m pretty sure my heart stopped. Rick Steves was going to be in New Orleans at the same conference I was going to attend. Was there a way to meet him?! Suddenly, I knew I had one goal at the conference (outside of learning new and interesting techniques and resources to utilize in my classroom, of course). I had to meet Rick Steves. He helped Kurt and I so much during our time in Europe and taught us so much about globalization and having a personal relationship with the places you travel, that I wanted to be able to spend that thirty second shared space of time with him.

Rick Steves, NCSS

Rick Steves on stage for the keynote address.

When I arrived on Friday, I immediately flipped through the program to figure out when he would speak. As it turned out, he was giving two talks on Saturday: one about diplomacy and travel in Iran and the other was the keynote address. Plus, his new book Travel as a Political Act, would be for sale and he was doing a signing. My giddiness was palpable.

Kurt was able to come on Saturday as well, because he knew he could not miss Rick either. We arrived early for the 9am Iran talk and managed to sit front and center. Rick gave a great speech on the history and culture of Iran and exclaimed how the people of Iran are very different from the politics of Iran. He was so comfortable with his lecture and at ease, and made the audience feel at ease too with humor and plenty of visuals to encapsulate his words. His room was standing room only, as we were obviously not the only people excited to hear him speak in person and hopefully meet him. When he finished speaking, he waited outside in the hallway and allowed everyone to take pictures and selfies and he signed whatever book you brought.

Rick Steves, NCSS

Rick Steves giving his Iran talk. We were front and center.

Kurt and I waited our turn and excitedly told him that his books were our travel bibles and helped make our month long trek through Europe an efficient, exciting, and productive one, not to mention our other three European trips that followed. He thanked us and we took photos with him. I think our joy was evident!

We listened to about half of his keynote address in the big auditorium, but it was lunchtime and we were starving. He spoke on the broader topic of travel as a way to immerse yourself in culture, with which Kurt and I agree completely. After lunch, we met him one more time to have him sign Travel as a Political Act, which I did not have a copy of that morning and which I have not had the chance to read yet, but is a series of essays about travel and what it can teach us. Based on previous experience with Rick Steves, I think it will be something I enjoy.

Rick Steves, NCSS

Rick Steves signing his new book, Travel as a Political Act.

Traveling: Innsbruck or Winter in June

Dom Sankt Jakob

Dom Sankt Jakob

Against Rick Steves’ advice, we decided to make our Austria stop in Innsbruck. Steves is right, there really isn’t much to do in Innsbruck. It’s a very small city that focuses on tourism. This is why we loved it. There really wasn’t the pressure to see anything. It was just a city where we could walk around and just enjoy being in Europe.

When we arrived, which was about mid-June, the temperature was in the mid forties and it was misting. We packed some wind breakers but we had nothing for this. We walked arm in arm through the streets not because we were in love so much as we needed the body heat. It was a Sunday, so we tried to find a Catholic Church. We found one that looked like a Catholic Church (Christ was on the cross) so we decided to attend mass which was just about to begin. I remember taking German in college but that’s all I remember about it. We knew we were safe with all the genuflecting, but we finally were positive we were in a Catholic church when the priest said Benedict’s name.

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Traveling: Railing Around Europe

In my last post about our Europe trip, I mention the Eurorail pass. Unlike this country, rail is king in Europe. Failing at trying not to sound like a commericial, the Eurorail is the number one way to get around Europe. It is what made our grand tour of Europe possible.

The Swiss Alps

A farm in valley of the Alps

The thing that I was most worried about our Europe trip was the trains. Getting on the right one, sitting in the right seat, hoping it was running on time were all the things running through my mind every time we arrived at the train station. Then I was worried about becoming ill due to motion sickness, using the bathroom, and getting off at the right train station.

The Swiss Alps

A View of the Swiss Alps

With the exception of motion sickness, none of my fears came true. And even the motion sickness wasn’t bad; it just felt as if I was still on the train for about an hour after we got off the train.

We did three things on our train rides. If I took I pill for motion sickness, I usually took small naps. Cristina, immune to the motion of the trains, would often journal. Most of the time we both just enjoyed the country side of Europe.

On the Eurostar from England to France, the thing I noticed most was how the church was center of the small town. The train from Zurich to Milan was probably the most beautiful of all the train trips. Weaving through the valleys of the Alps, the scenery was just beautiful especially for a southern Louisiana boy who isn’t used to seeing mountains and is still awed by them. The train along the Eastern seaboard of Italy was just gorgeous to look at with the blue Adriatic stretching out as far as the eye could see. The train ride from Pescara to Sulmona, and the one from Sulmona to Rome, gave you a glimpse of Italian country life since it was such a slow moving train.

Beautiful Switzerland

Beautiful Switzerland

For the first half of our trip, the trains and the way they were run were a thing of beauty. Then we tried to get from Verona to Innsbruck. Up until this point, we had also purchased reserved seats on all trains. Yes, the rail pass allowed us to ride any train we wanted but it didn’t mean we would have a seat on each train. Therefore, to keep up with our schedule we had to reserve train seats. Of course, we learned all about trains from Rick Steves. Luckily for us, there were few people who were traveling on this train so we were fine.

Italian Country House

Italian Country House

The best part was that because we were over the age of 26, so we had to travel first class. Yes, it cost more money, but the leg room was worth it. The few times we had to travel second class wasn’t bad, it was just a lot more crowded and louder.

The only time we truly had to panic about the train rides from Innsbruck to Prague. First of all, this was poor scheduling. It is near impossible to get from Innsbruck to Prague in that there are only two or three trains that make the trip. One comes at two in the morning. This wouldn’t have been bad if we could have booked a sleeper car in advanced but for some reason that I can’t remember we weren’t allowed to. We looked in to it but we couldn’t get it done. They had no sleeping cars when we checked at Innsbruck. In fact they couldn’t reserve us seats. We weren’t going to risk getting up at two (and lose our hotel room) on the chance they might have a sleeper. Our other option was to board a train at noon. The only problem was that it was almost 1:15 before it arrived. Luckily, our connecting train waited for us in Linz. Thank god.

That was also one of the best trips we took in my opinion. Cristina hated it because it was so slow which meant we were stuck in one room for nearly 8 hours. However, we had the room to ourselves for most of the trip. It was beautiful day and every placed we passed had people out and about doing what ever Czech people do.

This trip was also notable for the only time we were harassed. I’m still not sure why. Every stop we had to show our tickets. To the same lady. There were about eight stops. Then two rough looking police officers entered our car speaking Czech. We don’t know any Czech whatsoever. I’m bumbling and fumbling looking for our passports. Then I apologize in English for being so slow. They ask me if I’m from the UK. I replied we were Americans. They said ok and left us alone wondering what that was all about.

Some of the houses on the trip from Prague to Berlin were some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The fields were out of a certain Sting video. The trip from Berlin to Amsterdam was notable for the number of windmills you would see the closer you got to Amsterdam.

Adriatic Beaches

A View of the Eastern Italian Seaboard

I can’t wait to do it again.

Traveling: Passed the Pub That Saps Your Body (or Our Last Day in London)

Before I start this entry into our Europe Chronicles, I just want to make you aware I’m doing this mainly from memory. These events may or may not have happened and if they did could be completely out of order. Cristina took lengthy detailed notes everyday in her journal. She does plan on writing for this website, but right now she is putting more emphasis on our wedding website.

As two former geography teachers, we knew the concept. However, it wasn’t until we were in London we completely understood it. In fact, it wasn’t until I went to the bathroom at around 4:30 in the morning that I fully understood the earth’s tilt. The sun, about to rise, was giving off enough light for the day to start. Also, it was well after 9:30 that it was completely dark at night. Having not traveled much, it was a hard concept to get my head around. The sun set mostly after nine pm for most of the trip, which means we didn’t really see much of Europe at night. We were just too tired.

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Traveling: How We Got Our Money’s Worth Part II

The other day, when I wrote about Europe, I wrote about how valuable Rick Steves was to making our trip a success. There are few more resources that I feel are just as valuable.

The first one is Tripadvisor.com. I used it extensively to find out not about the tourist attractions (I used Rick Steves for that) but for hotel reviews. We had decided to stick with no frills because every-room-looks-the-same chain hotels specifically Hotel Ibis have all we need: a bed and a shower. We understand we were giving up charm and personal service, but it was worth it for having a private bath in our room each night at a generally low-cost. Well, why look up reviews if you are staying in cookie cutter hotels? Because location is everything. I tried to find out if people had issues with safety in the area, how close it was to public transit, and what it was near any places we wanted to visit.

Sulmona

"Walking" through Sulmona with Google Maps

However, reviews can only take you so far. Google Maps are, simply, amazing. When researching, I would often “walk” around the neighborhood that we were staying in. This really put Cristina at ease because I for the most part knew where I was. We only got lost once, in Paris, and that wasn’t too bad…ok it was horrible because of the luggage, but we did get to see a lot of neighborhood butcher and bakery shops we normally wouldn’t have been able to see.

Finally, the MetrO app for the iPhone made public transportation in Europe very easy. All we had to do was type in the tourist attraction we were next to plus which one we wanted to go to and it would tell us how to get there. Best part is that it works offline so that we didn’t have to use the very expensive 3G networks in Europe.

Traveling: How We Got Our Money’s Worth

Last June, Cristina and I toured Europe. Her sister and brother-in-law spent a day with us in London. They also spent a week with us in Europe visiting their family. The rest of the trip Cristina and I were alone. We planned everything. I’m not even sure why travel agents exist anymore. When we had enough money, we paid for what we wanted to do. The only thing we didn’t pay for in cash was hotel rooms. Our trip was as smooth as a month-long trip can be. And for that, we have to thank Rick Steves.

My mom bought us Europe Through the Back Door as a present. We studied it as if it was the Bible. It’s not a travel guide. It’s a how to travel guide. That gypsy that tried taking my money at the train station in Paris, we knew what she was up to. We found out fanny packs are even dumber than they look and bought money belts. We knew what to pack. With the Paris Museum Pass, we skipped the lines at the Louvre and Versailles. We avoided jet lag. We saved money by changing settings on our cell phones. We didn’t always do what he said because there were stuff we wanted to do differently. However, every time we took his advice it was always dead on.

At the Prague Castle

A view from the Prague Castle thanks to Rick Steves’ the Best of Europe

We also bought the Best of Europe 2010. Unlike most other guides we looked at, this travel guide-book was extremely opinionated to say the least. He tells you what was a waste of time and what to see. Again, we didn’t always take his advice – for example, we went to Innsbruck – but when we did our trip was better for it.

We had nearly a perfect trip; one that I hope we both will write about more often. Because we planned so well, we rarely had fights. Most of our fights came as a result of being exhausted. I don’t feel that we ever landed in any tourist traps. Again, there are other travel guides out there. Some are great; some aren’t. Rick Steves’ books fall in the first category.