Rick Steves' Europe
Wed., Nov. 12, 8 p.m. at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Regularly priced tickets are $25-$45. strazcenter.org.
"For 30 years, I’ve been spending four months a year in Europe and then coming home and giving my talks, and I share with people the most practical, important skills for enjoying the most travel fun for every mile, minute and dollar for their upcoming vacation," said the amiable travel guru Rick Steves during a recent and very brief conversation with CL. The PBS show host of Rick Steves' Europe has transported us vicariously to museums, cafes and historic landmarks throughout the continent over the past few decades and will share his nuggets of wisdom tonight at the Straz Center.
The devout Lutheran and NORML spokesperson (yes, this soft-spoken Washington native is a proponent for the legalization of recreational marijuana) says he is fresh from another trip and is eager to share stories with Tampa travelers.
Don't confuse the easygoing, pot-advocating Steves as a slacker. The travel expert has built a dynasty of guidebooks and television shows. He is hard-working and meticulous in his research, and has no patience for unnecessary tangents and idle chitchat. During our talk he had very specific and salient talking points and only allowed 10 minutes for the interview. His conversational manner hints at a man who understands both business and pleasure — but at the properly prescribed moments.
"When I come to Tampa, I’m going to have two hours of very practical information," Steves said. "It will help people save a lot of money but most importantly it will help carbonate the experience. I'll help people learn how to use time smartly, what you want to see, importance of hurtling the language barrier, packing light and being mobile."
Steves' talk will be ideal for people traveling Europe for the first time and want to learn how to blend into their surroundings. "A big part of it is how you’re able to understand the culture and art that’s all around you," Steves said. "I like to travel like a cultural chameleon, where I’m drinking tea in tea countries and white wine in white wine countries — dark beer in Belgium and light beer in the Czech Republic."
Steves added that while it's always helpful to have friends or relatives at your travel destination, it's not necessary nor is it always realistically possible — but, that being said, it's not difficult, either, to make viable connections abroad.
"I’m assuming that people don’t have friends and relatives they’re dropping in to see," Steves said. "If you have those, that’s great — look them up. The cool thing though there’s ways you can make friends. You can hire local guides or take local walking tours. You can take food tours. And when you stay in a B&B, you’re sitting down to breakfast with others — there’s lots of ways you can connect with people."
Steves also emphasizes the importance of striking out on your own while traveling: "When you’re on your own, it can be great. Sometimes the loneliest people are the ones with the wrong travel companion. It’s important to understand that you’re not in a three-legged race. You’re not tied together. You should have an explicit understanding that you can split up to do your own thing and get together again. In so many ways, it’s important to equip yourself with good information and expect that information to work, to be a good tour guide for your family or whomever you’re traveling with."
What does Steves think of Eastern Europe and some of the lesser-known locales? "In a lot of ways, it's the new frontier. I’ve just been to Poland and Turkey — very rewarding and exciting. But when you go to the south and you go to the east, you find a little more action and better prices."
Steves' fascination with Europe stems back to his tween years, traveling with his dad, who imported pianos. One experience cemented his appreciation of other cultures and made him realize the connections humans share that transcend borders:
"I remember sitting on the carpet when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I was in Norway with my cousins. I was listening to the whole report in Norwegian — 'Et lite skritt for mennesket, et stort sprang for menneskeheten' — it occurred to me that this wasn’t just an American triumph; it was a human accomplishment. … One of those moments that shook up my ethnocentricity."
Steves is not just about sipping wine in swanky cafes (though that is one of the perks of the job). He's also traveled with the purpose of shaping his world view. "There’s traveling safely, efficiently on a budget, and then there’s Travel As a Political Act," he said. "That’s another one of my books that gets you out of your comfort zone, where you’re hanging out with people who find other truths to be self-evident and God-given; it’s very challenging and very stimulating."
Steves also says he gets the bulk of his work done on his own — "I scout it all and I write the scripts; that’s just my joy." He adds that he scouts out destinations around a year before heading back to film his shows.
Steves acknowledges that the high cost of living, rising air fares and steep exchange rate makes it prohibitive to travel to Europe but snuffs at those being real reasons not to go. "People have to realize that there’s very little correlation between how much money you’re spending and how much fun you’re having," he said. "It’s important to know what to do to enjoy each place. That’s kinda where I fall in."
Does Steves ever wish to keep a place to himself? "Never. That would be ridiculous. That would be absurd! I work too hard to find these great places. That would be like finding the cure to cancer and not sharing it with anyone."