On a train between Naples and Florence
Rick Steves is ruining Europe. Everywhere you go, legions of nice, cheerful, PBS-watching Americans swan about museums, castles, and city streets with their noses in his guidebooks, reading their way across the continent, lifting their heads only to take a quick photo, then on to the next thing. The cult of Steves stays where he stays, eats where he eats, goes only where he tells them to go. They recognize each other in hotel breakfast rooms by their dog-eared books and handy convertible rucksacks (mine is great), chatter about where they’re supposed to go that day, that walking tour they must follow to the letter, the picturesque neighborhood or grand museum, ending up at the recommended restaurant for dinner to hang out with “the locals.” And God forbid if you stray off course.
“But Rick Steves didn’t say to go there,” a man from Oklahoma corrected me over breakfast in Vienna last year. “You should go where Rick Steves says to go.”
Like most tours, it’s a highly edited version of Europe.My new friend was on a hyperblitz tour, literally running to connect the dots between marathon races in London, Berlin, and Madrid. A day in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, etc., stopping only to see the three-triangle sights. He had already been through the Schönbrunn Palace before breakfast, was heading to the Hofburg and cathedral; if time permitted he’d get lunch at a Viennese coffee shop before hopping the afternoon train to Prague. “Maybe I’ll see you there,” he said.
For thousands of Americans, Rick Steves is the Pied Piper of independent travel. His irrepressibly cheerful guidebooks and TV shows pry open Europe’s back doorTM, freeing tourists from overpriced bus tours, and cutting through the glut of data offered by the Fodors’, Frommers’, and Lonely Planets. The truth is you’re still on a tour, only you’re the one driving the bus and making the hotel reservations. And like most tours, it’s a highly edited version of Europe. Rick Steves’ EuropeTM is an idyllic world of romantic roads, charming villages, ornate castles, bustling cityscapes, classical art, and gelato shops — free from strife, or any hint of messy modern life. The map of Spain consists of Barcelona, Madrid, and the friendly white hills of Andulusia (definitely go see them). Bavaria and the Rhine are the real Germany. Italy zigzags from Lake Como through Venice to Tuscany and Rome. And don’t you miss the Cinque Terre.
Admittedly, Rick Steves gives good advice on hotels, restaurants, and transportation as well as practical tips for getting by in each country, but there’s no night life, no jazz clubs, no football matches, no dance clubs, no bars (except pubs in Britain and beer gardens in Germany). You might as well stay home and watch it on TV.