You'd think that after 20 years of playing American tourist in Europe, Rick Steves might be, well, a little bored with it all.
Not so, because Mr. Steves, a travel expert, doesn't play tourist at all. He "becomes a temporary European," as he puts it, and suggests that anyone traveling in Europe this summer should do the same.
Being a temporary European means being a citizen of the world, not an "ugly American," Steves says. It means blending with a culture and not frequenting places with signs that say: "We Speak English."
Widely known for his travel books, PBS television series, and newspaper column, Steves is a master of the low-budget travel experience. The emphasis is on experience.
While calling him "the bard of back-door travel" might be too dramatic, he does wax poetic about the rewards of off-the-beaten-trail adventure. "Smart travel means getting the maximum thrills for every mile, minute, and dollar," says Steves, who was in Boston to lecture and promote his book, "Europe Through the Back Door," now in its 13th edition (John Muir Publications, Santa Fe, N.M.).
"The less you spend, the more you get," he states nonchalantly.
Say that again?
"People travel better because they are on a budget, not in spite of it," he says.
Subconsciously, the travel industry has frightened people into the arms of the organized-tour industry, Steves says, who happens to lead group tours himself.
"You hear about three American tour groups meeting at an intersection in Venice," he says with a laugh. Steves likens the tightly organized tour experience to going to a zoo, where you're an outsider looking in and taking pictures, not moving outside your comfort zone.
"All affluent travel does is give you service with a purchased smile," he says. "You go from hotel lobby to air-conditioned tour bus and never take in the culture."
Let Europeans welcome you as friends, not as part of the economy, Steves urges. By venturing off the beaten path, you'll have experiences that you just can't put a price tag on, he says.
A Swiss village hideaway
Travel's hidden treasures almost always have quirky but logical reasons for their existence, he explains with an impish smile.
Take, for example, Grimmelwald, one of his favorite finds in Switzerland. It's where "Heidi" is from - a sleepy but picturesque village in the Alps that survives on milk and hay production. The inhabitants play accordions and yodel. There's no grocery store and only one or two places to stay overnight.
Why haven't developers taken over? The government has classified Grimmelwald as an avalanche zone, and therefore unsafe for large building projects. Visit in summer and you have the Alps in your lap.
Such places may be more difficult to get to - or learn about, for that matter. But, as Steves points out, these "back doors" don't have promotional budgets, which makes them that much more special.
Getting down to basics
While Steves seems to prefer concentrating on travel's experience value, he spends a good deal of time giving people advice on the logistics of smart budget travel. He covers everything from changing currencies, finding transportation, booking a room, and traveling with kids, to universal language terms (police, photo, super!), how to not get ripped off (wear a money belt), and how to avoid the ugly-American syndrome (be genuinely interested and respectful).
"The success of a trip is measured in how many friends I make, not how many souvenirs I bring home," he concludes.
"Meet a family - that's real travel," he says. Some of his favorite experiences include going to church in Wales, spending Easter in Portugal, attending a harvest festival on the Rhine, and eating a meal with a family in Bulgaria.
As for Europe in general, "it's just getting better - flat out," Steves says, reminding that he's been traveling there for the past 20 years. Restorations of monuments and artworks are astounding, he says, mentioning the Forum in Rome and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Transportation is also coming along with the new England-to-France undersea Chunnel, a few superhighways, and trains that are ever more efficient. ("The trains in Spain are no longer a pain," he says.)
Logistics have also greatly improved - from the telephones being more uniform to easier currency exchange. Such "progress" has caused some to wonder if Europe is losing a bit of its Old World charm. Steves says no. "The charm is still there. Europeans love cultural diversity and you cannot crush culture."