Most college-aged girls getting ready to study abroad indulge themselves in fantasies of a whirlwind romance with a local, leading to a “happily ever after” in a foreign land. Well, my time abroad did, indeed, yield a whirlwind romance, however it was not with a local and did not require me to stay thousands of miles from my home (much to my mother’s delight). No, this was a romance of a different kind. My European love is actually an American: Rick Steves. Many of you may know of this travel expert from his famous European guide books, or maybe from his PBS television series Rick Steves’ Europe. Before I started traveling, I thought travel books were a waste of money and that I could easily discover a city by simply chatting with the locals. While some of this may be true, it is not always that easy to simply “chat with the locals,” due to many different factors. What I like about Rick Steves’ books is the fact that he takes travelers off the beaten path. He knows the importance of visiting historical sites, yet is able to retain an authenticity to your travels.
Though I studied in France, we used Rick Steves’ travel books in Italy, Spain, and France, at the very least. My favorite part of his books is, by far, the walking tours. Traveling throughout Europe is expensive, and he is cognizant of this. Steves gives step by step directions on totally free walking tours throughout most of the cities in his books, allowing you to see all that there is to see without breaking the bank. One of the most memorable is the “Night Walk” in Rome. Though probably intended as a romantic night stroll, I participated in this guided tour with a group of about 6 travel companions. And let me tell you, the magic was not lost. The tour takes you through Rome at night, glowing under the streetlights. Notable stops include the Piazza Navona, Campo dei Fiori, Trevi Fountain, and a dramatic finish on the Spanish Steps. What I find most fascinating about Steves’ tours is the way in which he gives directions. Rather than instructing with street names, he gives direction by landmarks. For instance, instead of telling you to follow a specific road for 40 meters, he will tell you to follow the road you are on until you see the man on the corner selling roses. Then, turn right. And sure enough, after walking a few paces, you will see the man on the corner selling roses and know that you have reached your destination. It is clear that he is well traveled in these areas and it instills a sense of trust in all those who use his books.
On our last day as students in Aix-en-Provence, France, my friends and I decided to take a look at the Rick Steves book detailing the south of France. Sure enough, we found a walking tour of our beloved city and decided to spoil ourselves with the sights and sounds one last time before returning home to the good ole U S of A. Imagine our shock and awe when we discovered that Rick Steves (affectionately dubbed Rick James by this point, due to his all-around awesome-ness) recounted our daily walk to class. If that didn’t put the past 6 months into perspective, nothing could.
While I do appreciate the value of discovering things on your own (mostly by accident) and utilizing the expertise of locals to create a well-balanced vacation, a little help from time to time can’t hurt. To anyone looking for a nudge in the right direction, I highly recommend one of Rick Steves’ travel guides. So here’s to you, Rick! Thanks for the tips! And if you ever need an apprentice that loves language, culture, and travel, I’m your girl.
What are your favorite travel books? Have you ever had a great guided experience abroad? Tell us about it!