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Chris: Hello everybody. Welcome to Rick Steves Over Brunch. I’m Chris Mitchell and I’m here with my co-host…
Stephanie: Stephanie Craig…
Chris: From History fangirl. And this episode is a little bit different, largely because we’ve got the one and only Rick Steves on. Rick, welcome.
Rick: Hey, nice to be with you guys.
Chris: Yeah. If our listeners I’m sure listened to the last episode, which we had so much fun with, but, we really wanted to use this opportunity to show how much we care about our listeners and I know Rick really cares about the viewers and listeners and so we’re going to make sure we share some of the questions that have been shared with us and we’ll ask a few of our own questions.
And the first sort of question I wanted to ask is going to be somewhat broad, but it’s really just to ask, I know around 25 you sort of describe yourself as this sort of hippie, who was gallivanting around guiding tours. How did you go from there to the show or where did this travel show come from?
Rick: Yeah, well, I’ve always loved traveling and I’ve always loved teaching travel. I’ve only had two jobs in my life, teaching piano and teaching travel and those are like my two great loves, so I kind of like to teach what I really like.
And I was giving talks everywhere and I had a little bit of a following here in the Northwest and these TV producers got together with… There’s a whole commotion of want to be TV producers that were approaching me in the late 1980s. And I think it was 1990, this group got together and they had a track record, they had launched a couple of good shows and they said we could make a TV show about what you talked about in your travel lectures and we could film it in Europe.
And I thought, well, if you guys think that would work? They seemed like good quality people and I liked what they did. So that started the show.
The show started slow and it was public television and we just offered it to the network for free and people pick it up who like it and it built and after a couple of years we had very good carriage and we got into a rhythm where every two years we produce a new series or a new season. And I’ve been making a season every two years, like clockwork since 1990 and I just am really thankful that we can never run out of great things to talk about in Europe.
So, it’s just an extension of my teaching and that’s one thing I’ve done as a businessman in travel is just teach, teach my heart out whether it’s a lecture, whether it’s a guidebook, whether it’s a TV show. If it has important practical travel information, if I can amplify it through that medium, let’s do it.
Chris: Yeah, obviously it’s worked fairly well for you. And in all seriousness, did you ever imagine when you were filming your first episode in 1990 or what have you, that this many years later you would still be at with such a fervor and have created so much content?
Rick: No, never, never dreamed about that. I mean, the first time we did that series, it was 13 shows, I was just thinking, oh, here’s a little opportunity, I can put everything I’ve got to say about my favorite places and my favorite travel tips into this one series. So it was the best 13 stops in Europe, it mirrors the best of Europe in three weeks tour that we do to this day.
That was the minibus tours I was leading around Europe in the old days. I just talked to my son today, he’s leading the same tour, he just left the Amsterdam and he’s coming into the Rhine River. And I said, isn’t it exciting to go from out the bus window as a tour guide from windmills to castles?
And he said, yes, it was so great just leaving the Netherlands, you see the last windmill, coming into Germany you see the first castle. It’s that kind of excitement of travel teaching. So yeah, I didn’t envision it, but it struck a chord and I really enjoy it’s a good market and it all works well.
Chris: Yeah, wonderful. We had one of our listeners who also happens to be a friend of Steph and I, his name is Ariel Vieira and he wanted to make sure that I asked you how did you get so comfortable in front of a camera? He described your aura of chillness and said sort of like you’re kind of born to be in front of the camera. Is that something that comes naturally to you or did you just work on that?
Rick: Oh, I’m glad that Ariel thinks I look comfortable in front of a camera. I’m comfortable talking about what I know and love. Just last week I was standing in front of 2,000 people in the Boston Symphony Hall where the Boston Pops perform. And I was wearing the closest thing I’ve got to a Tuxedo, standing there in front of the orchestra, talking to 2,000 people. And I was comfortable because I was talking about European culture through travel.
If I was talking about anything else, I would’ve been scared to death. But you know, when you find your niche and you’re talking about what you know and you’re doing it because you’d love to share that, that’s something where you can be pretty natural. But, that’s the fun creative challenge for me is standing in front of the camera and getting it across and have fun doing it and be comfortable, so your viewers are comfortable too.
Chris: Right. And I think that comfort tends to extend pretty well to the people who are watching it, they seem to get a lot out of the episodes. Is it sort of safe to assume that you’re doing all this, it’s really about empowering others?
Rick: Well, first of all, if I wasn’t having fun with my crew, it would come across and I love the dynamic I have with my crew now and I’ve been with the same crew for 20 years. And if I didn’t believe in what I was saying and if I didn’t know from firsthand experience what I was saying, it wouldn’t come across that comfortable.
So all of that gives me that ability to just really be focused and passionate and believable and comfortable in front of camera. And I forgot what the question was? [laughs]
Chris: Oh, I was just talking about, really at first I was just talking about being comfortable in front of the camera and then I was sort of extending it to, is the main purpose of the show really about empowering other people to take the same journeys that you have and to really find that joy in travel?
Rick: Absolutely. That’s what the show is all about. My mission is to inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando, OK. [laughter]
You guys are travelers and you know how comfortable it is to get out there and explore the world. But half of our country thinks it’s dicey to go over there. I mean, it’s amazing that people would think it’s dicey to go to Spain or to Ireland or to France or to Poland.
It’s so comfortable over there, and many times when I’m with my crew, we’re just having this amazing moment, whether we’re in Sicily or whether we’re in Normandy or whether we’re in Finland and we just kind of pause and we go, this is so great to be able to share how our world is filled with joy and love and beautiful people.
And it’s such a shame that so many Americans don’t say Bon Voyage anymore, they say, “have a safe trip.” It is so great to be over there and we just want to bring home that positive feeling. It’s just to me really, really important that America gets comfortable with the other 96% of humanity. And we contribute to that in our little way by dealing with what I consider the wading pool of world exploration, Europe.
Europe is my beat and that’s where you go first after you’ve realized there’s more to life than going back to Disney World.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. I think as someone who’s read your recent book, “Travel as a Political Act,” I think some of that what you were talking about there really resonates in the novel.
Rick: You heard my talk in Toronto Chris, I was probably dealing with the same kind of passion there.
Chris: Exactly. And that’s actually… Thank you for serving that up to me, because that’s a beautiful lead into what I was going to ask you next. I was going to ask, this passion that you have, like I honestly I’ve watched you for a long time, when I saw you in person, I was really overcome by how passionate you are.
And as somebody who has traveled a lot, I mean I’ll be honest with you, when I first started traveling, I had relatives who said, ah, you know, Chris, by the time you’re 30, watch, you’ll be a homebody. And that’s never happened. Then I saw someone like you and I thought, oh my gosh, I can do this for my life. Where does that passion come from?
Rick: I think it comes from learning that it’s fun, maybe. I mean, somebody who never goes over there, who doesn’t know what they’re missing, somebody who’s never had escargot, somebody who has never been in a Turkish Hammam, somebody who’s never gotten naked with a bunch of Finnish people in sauna… [laughter]
You know… And you do it, you go to a town and you dump that bucket of water over your head, that cold water, and you just go all over the universe and come back in a split second, they’ve never had that experience. And you realize you can live life from your couch and watch it on TV or you can get over there and do it yourself and it’s just a choice you make.
To me, you know, of course it takes people who are doing OK financially and so on to travel. But that spirit of adventure can be anybody’s and through our television show, we can embrace that. I’m really thankful for public television because it lets me push a kind of experiential travel that’s not a commercial kind of travel. I don’t need to be a shill for the industry, because we’re not pushing anything in the industry and my work becomes so much more fun because I’m not working for CNN.
Chris: Yeah, great point there. I was going to ask you, with so much to choose from in Europe, how is it that you moving forward or choosing your next destinations?
Rick: Well first of all, we did everything in standard definition and then I thought we’ve covered Europe. And then all of a sudden we realize, oh, the move from standard def to high def is as dramatic as the move from black and white to color.
I knew that in five years nobody’s going to want to watch four by three standard def, we want widescreen high def. So that gave me the excuse and I had a huddle with my crew and said this is a lot of work, but we’re going to go back to Europe now and redo it from scratch. And eventually we’re going to replace every one of our standard-def shows and we’re down to one or two standard-def shows left and the rest is all high def.
That let me re-calibrate how… It’s like when you look at up at the scale on your Google maps, you know, how wide do you want the shot to be? We did it pretty wide originally. I want to do it more zoomed in now. So instead of one show on Barcelona, I’ll do two shows on Barcelona.
Instead of two shows on Ireland, I’ll do four shows on Ireland. So now we’ve just about covered Europe in this new high def more focused version. We’ve got 110 shows or something. So imagine cutting Europe into 110 half hour slices — 55 hours of TV covering Europe. I’m pretty happy with the way that is.
There’s still plenty of material to do, especially if we go further east. But I’m really, really thankful for what we’ve got now in our body of work. And then every year I get to decide what do I want to do? I mean, on deck, we’re going to do three shows on the Alps this summer. We’re going to do Egypt in two shows. We’re going to do Saint Petersburg, we’re going to do Iceland.
I’ve got a few corners of France that we haven’t done adequately in our high def way. We just didn’t Sicily in two shows, that was a wonderful experience. We just did Romania and Bulgaria. I was so excited about doing that. It’s just for me, I’m so thankful that I can never exhaust Europe or what it has to offer.
We’re just putting together a new Poland tour in my company here at Rick Steves Europe and it’s Poland in 10 or 12 days. And I’m thinking I want to go on that tour and then I’ll probably come home with enough material for two scripts on Poland and that’s one place I really think deserves a closer look that we’ve yet to do.
Chris: Steph, did you have any questions about any of those destinations? I know we’re both happy that our listeners to get a bit of a preview there, but I wasn’t sure if you wanted to chime in?
Stephanie: Yeah, so I live in Bulgaria and I cover the Balkans, mostly and former USSR, and so I have a serious soft spot in my heart for Eastern Europe. And it’s not that you shy away from it, you definitely don’t. But we haven’t seen episodes about Albania and North Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Ukraine.
Is it harder logistically to cover Eastern Europe or are you just worried that Americans won’t have the attention span for those destinations?
Rick: You know, Steph, I think I’m just worried that we don’t have the attention span for those destinations. It’d be easy to cover those destinations. Part of it is, I don’t know those destinations.
I know Bulgaria quite well, so I just was all over doing a Bulgaria show. I knew what I wanted to do in Romania, that worked out really well. I don’t know anything about Albania. I’d love to go there.
One thing I do need to factor in is from my business point of view, it’s really expensive to make these shows. And if I do a show that’s a tangent, a show that has nothing to do with any guidebooks or any tours that I produce, then there’s no direct, or there’s no really plus on my end of it, so I’m just spending a lot of time and money promoting a destination that I can’t capitalize on.
I do that, but I can’t do that only because then it just wouldn’t work for me as a business.
So I do have to factor in what is that the actual travelers’ interest in going to Georgia or Ukraine. I’ve got some friends on my staff who’ve just gotten back from Ukraine. It sounds great and I’d love to go there, but we don’t have any guidebooks and we don’t have any tours that go there. So we wouldn’t have any way to factor it into our business.
So I have to consider that much as I would love to go to a lot of places, it has to work out from a business point of view and also I have to have some unique sort of connection.
Nearly all the shows we do, I’ve got friends in that area, I’ve got a passion for teaching this or that about that area and when we go with the crew it’s pretty assured that we’ll be able to put together a great half-hour show.
Stephanie: Well, if you ever decide you want to start exploring Serbia, I’ll just get on a bus and I’ll meet you in Belgrade and I’ll show you. Serbia is the best place in Europe that nobody goes.
Rick: I would love to do that. That sounds… I mean I know there are great places out there that we just have not even looked at. I mean all across northern Greece and Thessaloniki, that would be great. Albania would be fascinating. We ventured into Montenegro from Dubrovnik and that was so cool and broke my heart that we couldn’t fit a lot of what we shot into the show.
And we did a wonderful adventure through Bosnia Herzegovina getting to Mostar. So I’ve just got a lot of work ahead of me and I’m always thankful that there’s more stuff ahead.
Chris: It’s funny how that works. It’s sort of like the more places you go, the more places you want to see.
Rick: I love the way we’re on the same wavelength because you come up with these beautiful insights in your Rick Steves Over Brunch shows that I go, yeah, were you with me sleeping on the train that time in 1985? You just have the same sentiment, the same sensibilities, the same lessons from experience.
But I learned a long time ago that the last thing I want to do is say — oh, I’ve been there and done that. And the beautiful thing about Europe, when I leave every year and I spend 120 days a year in Europe, I’ve done that for the last 30 years. Every year I come back with a longer list of things I want to see and do than when I left home.
Chris: It’s a beautiful thing about travel. It seems like a good time to transition to another question that we had from one of our listeners, Jessica Johnson. And she’s asking, with over-tourism becoming a problem in bucket-list style, places like Venice and Barcelona, is it more responsible to visit lesser-known places? Like is that something that we should be considering as travelers?
Rick: Well as travelers, I don’t know what’s responsible from a travel teacher point of view. It’s not my problem that everybody’s going to the Sistine Chapel and everybody wants to go up the Eiffel Tower. And I still think we should go up the Eiffel Tower and I still think we should see the Pantheon and I still think you should hang out with the Beefeaters in London at the Tower of London.
But there are ways to do it where you don’t have to deal with all those crowds. And as I write in my books and I say in my lectures, I think there’s two IQs of European travelers — those who wait in lines and those who don’t wait in lines.
There are lots of lines, there’s going to be worse lines in the future, but a good traveler can get around those lines. And we’ve got a new sort of ethic in our guidebook writing, where if it is desirable or recommended that you make a reservation in advance.
We don’t even tell people how you can get a ticket at the door anymore. We don’t want to enable them to screw up. We just say, the only way to do this is to get a reservation in advance. Here’s how you get your reservation.
Because let’s say technically you can go to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona without a timed entry and advanced reservation. You go all the way to Barcelona, you will have always wanted to see Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Church and you’ll get to the ticket booth and you’ll see a little handwritten note taped to the locked window that says we’ve sold all the tickets for today. Come back tomorrow.
That’s what you get when you don’t bite the bullet and make a reservation in advance. So just get used to that. I’m not inclined to do that, but I realized that’s the way to do it.
So last year I saw Sagrada Familia, I saw Gaudi’s home. I went to a lot of places that I couldn’t have gone to had I not made reservations in advance. And that’s really straightforward and also straightforward is you can go to famous places in a lot of cases at the end of the day and walk right in.
And another thing is there are places of almost equal importance and equally rewarding that just don’t have the notoriety or the bucket list popularity or the Instagram sort of craziness about them that are just as good. You can wait in line for two hours to get into the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or you can go to the Museo Del Duomo, which is really, really great.
Or you can go to the Bargello or you can go to the Pitti Palace. I was just in the Pitti Palace, it’s amazing and there’s no people there and everybody’s going to the Uffizi. The Uffizi’s great, but you’ve got lots of alternatives that are never going to be crowded.
Chris: It’s something that Steph and I talk a lot about on the show is that places are tending to get more crowded and we’re not really sure, the debate for us is, Instagram we feel like is really getting people out there to travel more and to see different things, but we’re unsure, are these the type of travelers that are there to take in the sites and get the content or get a picture and go.
Do you have any insight on sort of the way travel’s changed maybe as a result of Instagram or any trends in travel that you see maybe nowadays that you didn’t see? For better or for worse?
Rick: Oh yeah. To me selfie stick travelers is, I was going to say disgusting. I shouldn’t be that judgmental, I’m just an old guy that likes to travel and have experiences without taking a picture of every meal I have and sharing it with my friends.
And I was just in places, many places around Europe that it’s a phenomenon, everybody goes to this spot on that dock to take this picture and send it home. In the Cinque Terre, there’s one place, it was news to me. I said, what’s the big crowd doing down there, at the end of this spit? Oh, they’re Instagram people. They’re all taking a picture from that spot.
Do they know anything about what they’re seeing, did they take a hike? Did they get out of their comfort zone? No, they just came here to take this photograph and share it with their friends. So who am I to judge that? But I have never taken a photograph of by a selfie stick and I never will. [laughter] I’d say, not with that selfie stick. God gave me a beautiful selfie stick, it’s called my left arm.
Chris: I love that. Steph, did you have any follow up questions on that?
Stephanie: No. I think that the only thing I will say as someone who both has a problem with Instagram travel and also writes Instagram guides, I do try to give context, especially because you find a historic building might have a really dark past, but it might be really pretty. And at least if you give them the information in the guide, they might not take the picture that they would take without the information. But it’s just hard I think to balance all of it.
Rick: Well, for me, it’s just you look at all these people stampeding to get a picture of Mona Lisa, I mean get out of the way, if they’re coming through the door because they’re just [inaudible][21:42] camera raised and they’re going to battering ram themselves right to the front place of that painting and get a picture of it.
Do they know anything about the Renaissance? It’s a new kind of mindset and it’s just, to me, it’s a dumbing down of travel. And I love to take photographs, I love to share what I’ve experienced, but I also love to have a meaningful experience in my travels.
We do have this problem where everybody is going to the same Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris. Why? Because it’s number one on TripAdvisor. It’s just mindless to me. I’m not on a crusade against that, but when somebody asks me, what do you think about this or that? That’s what I think about it.
Chris: I think that’s fair. And as I said, it’s something Steph and I talk about a fair bit about our responsibility to what kind of information we’re putting out there. I think we’re both pretty careful about trying to get a real story and a feel for a place. And that’s something that I see in your guide books, especially.
My parents came back from Italy and they said sort of what I talked about with this show, that they kind of felt like instead of being a normal guidebook, it was very much sort of like sitting down with a friend and hearing their recommendations that maybe everyone wouldn’t know.
Do you want to comment on that? I mean, how intentional is that or is that just a result of how careful you’re trying to find spots that aren’t number one on TripAdvisor?
Rick: Well, when I started writing guidebooks, I originally wrote guidebooks that didn’t have addresses and hours and phone numbers and stuff. Then I realized that’s what people need. So I started listing hotels and restaurants and that was when there was not enough information.
Now there’s too much information. And my responsibility is not just to generate more information as it used to be, but it is to curate what’s out there and so on and help people sort through all of the superlatives. Everything is not to die for, but if you, if you look on a lot of social media, it just seems like, yeah, this is incredible, this is fantastic.
We have the shortest vacations in the rich world and we need to sort through all those superlatives. I think that there’s a lot of great value in crowdsourced information, but I think that the value of curated information and restaurant listings and site listings and so on, done by somebody who really knows a city, instead of somebody who’s on a first time visit and says, this is the very best place for your hot chocolate. I think that there’s more value in that than ever.
So I’m still committed to the value of a guidebook. When I travel to a place where I have not traveled, I’m the first one to buy a guidebook and appreciate it from a good travel writer. And now will that information be available in the future online? It’ll probably evolve in that direction.
I don’t really care how you get the information, as long as the quality of the information you get is good. Not is that comment generated by a bed and breakfast that gives you a free breakfast if you write a comment, but is it good information? And that’s something that consumers of information need to be mindful of.
Chris: Yeah, I think that’s fair. One thing I was going to just follow up quickly with is that you mentioned some of the different forms of content that you’re creating and taking in. Is there one particular form that you create that you really think, that’s my calling? Whether it be podcasts or TV or writing, or can you even really separate those because they’re all coming from the same place?
Rick: You know Chris, I don’t even care about what format exemplified. I just want it to be good quality, I want it to help travelers and I want it to be amplified. So my mantra is content is king. I produce the content, how it’s going to be used, that’s up to my staff and my publisher and the market.
But I can produce a good quality content out of old fashioned in-person research and a love of Europe and what I hope is an expert’s assessment of Europe, with the help of a good context and background in the history and the culture and design that information so it works for people. One advantage I have is that for 25 years I was a tour guide, so I know how much people can continue to enjoy… I know how many Madonnas and children a mortal tourist can enjoy in one day. [laughter]
Stephanie: Not every tour guide does.
Rick: I know, yes. So I’m tuned into that. I know what confuses people, I know what turns them on and I can incorporate that into my TV show and my guidebooks. And with our TV shows for me, it’s just the most wonderful opportunity to bring my love of Europe into people’s living rooms and there’s a lot of people whose spouses just will not get over there and travel, but they can sit on the sofa and enjoy it vicariously through the shows.
Chris: Exactly. And also the shows happen to be really entertaining. And part of that is how much fun you seem to be having, which we’ve talked about a number of times.
One of our listeners, Deon Matt, was wondering, what was your favorite and least favorite action shot you’ve ever filmed? So I’m not sure if you can remember it, was there one particular action shot where you thought this is hilarious or great and one where you thought, I should have avoided this?
Rick: Oh yeah. Well I think one of my favorite shots was I was in the shadow of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey, right on the border of Georgia, I think it is. And I was in a village, which is what I call a “Hay, Dung and Duck village.”
The whole economy was hay, dung and duck. And I made friends with all these kids. And when you’re in eastern Turkey you always got a whole classroom of students around you or kids around you. I wanted to do the on camera open to the show and I want to do it on an oxcart with all these kids with me.
So we found an oxcart and a willing farmer. I got all the kids under the big, kind of rickety old wooden carriage or cart. And we set the camera up and then we come around the corner with the oxen and I’m looking straight at the camera and I go — hi, I’m Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe this time we’re in the shadow of Mount Ararat, we’ve got lots of friends and we’re enjoying the best of Eastern Turkey.
Something like that, that’s probably pretty close to what I said, I forget. But coming around the corner, all those kids were, as I explained to them, you’ve got to just…. What did I tell him to do? Just ignore the camera and just be on the thing with me.
It worked perfect and I had one shot at it and it was one of my favorite on cameras. And to maneuver the oxcart around and do it again and keep all those kids together would’ve been really tough to duplicate it. So I was under a lot of pressure because this is a perfect opportunity to get a great open for the show, but I only get one shot at it.
Other times, I’ve always enjoyed doing an on-camera coming off of a chairlift, coming down a mountain, but you go up and you come down, the camera’s waiting for you. And then I get two shots at it. I can start it from a little bit too far away and get one in the can.
And then I get a chance for another on camera before I jump off the car at the very end of the line. When you get a chance to do those kinds of on cameras as you’re in action, it’s thrilling and it’s really good if it works, but there’s a lot of pressure because a lot of things can go wrong and I got to nail it.
And even if I nail it, there might be other problems that mean it’s not usable. But we have a lot of fun with those challenges and a lot of times they make it into the show.
Chris: Great, it looks that way. I mean I think that’s something Steph and I always talk about is how much fun it appears you’re all having. It probably comes has a lot to do with the tight-knit group.
Rick: Chris, one other, it just occurred to me when you call them action shots, sometimes there’s an action that you don’t realize. Like a lot of times, we’re filming something and we’re not supposed to have… Somebody doesn’t want us to have our tripod out or we’re not supposed to be filming there.
And a lot of times I’m giving an on camera, which is really important and I can see out of the corner of my eye, the guard is coming over to ask us if we have permission, and I realize there’s just one take here then we’ve got to shut our camera down. In the corner of my eye, I see this guy doing his thing, coming over and I’d say, just let’s get this thing in the can roll the camera.
I’m all excited for something that hopefully nobody else realizes I’m excited about.
Stephanie: So I have a follow up to that. So in the Bulgaria episode, the one that came out most recently, you go inside Buzludzha, the big communist UFO here. And now it’s completely blocked off and you can’t even get in illegally. But did you have permission to film there or did you go rogue?
Rick: No, we didn’t have any permission to film. A lot of times in Europe [inaudible][30:22] for something that is closed, and for legal purposes, they say “it’s closed,” but they make it easy to get in there. But they’ve just said it’s closed because they don’t want to have anybody hurt themselves and to be able to say, you let me come in here.
The people who own the land or whatever can say the sign said it’s closed and you went in and you trespassed. So that’s how I interpret some of those. And I was worried about hurting myself or messing up my wardrobe and I got to always be… You know, I don’t just get on a camel for fun because if I fall, the whole shoots over. So I have to really be careful with myself.
I was sitting with the camera gear and I desperately wanted to go into this. For your listeners, this is a giant convention center that looks like a UFO, a huge, massive concrete communist kind of bulkiness sitting on top of a mountain with a long, long road that goes up to it, that used to be one big propaganda thing for the Communist Party in Bulgaria. I really wanted to go in there, but I had to sit and watch the gear because somebody had to watch the gear. And I didn’t want to hurt myself because I’m the host.
My crew climbed through this hole and then climbed through all the asbestos up into this, it looks like a basketball arena filled with dripping and decaying communist propaganda and there’s Lenin and Marx and Dimitri [“Georgiev”][31:37] the Bulgarian character.
And they came out and they said, Rick, you got to come in here. And I… [inaudible][31:45] So we [inaudible] and I climbed through the little hole and went up there and it was such a thrill to be in the middle of this decaying pile of communist propaganda in this old building with the sun streaming through holes in the roof.
And we filmed there and we just thought this is magical for TV, and then we all pretty much realized if we came back a year from now, it’ll be closed and nobody’d be able to do that. So we grabbed that and it was a beautiful part of the Bulgaria show. And as you know, Steph, that was sort of a unique opportunity that we were able to be there at the right time in the right place.
Stephanie: Well, I think just so listeners are aware, I think I told a story on the Bulgaria episode that we did. But I did not go in because I straight would have broken my leg because when we went to go and you could actually go inside, you had to shimmy down a pile of garbage to get in. So my fiance went in, took some pictures for me that are like the pictures inside that are in my guide to visiting, but I did not take them.
And then Chris and I went when he was in Bulgaria a couple of years ago, he and I took a road trip out to Buzludzha and by then it was already blocked off and you couldn’t get in. But we did see an amazing sunset there and it’s one of my favorite places. And I think when I realized you went there, I was like, he’s cooler than I thought, because it’s one of the coolest places in Europe and it’s not something that everyone knows about.
Rick: And we’ve got to remind your audience that we have this new program called classroom.ricksteves.com and you can find it on our homepage at Ricksteves.com but it’s my teacher’s archives of clips from the show. And we’ve taken our hundred shows, we’ve broken out the 400 most self-contained little freestanding four-minute modules.
You could type in “Bulgaria Communist.” And I forget the name of the place in Bulgarian? What’s the name of it again?
Rick: Buzludzha, you could type in that if you knew the name. But you could just type in Bulgaria and you’d have six clips from the Bulgaria show and you could see the bit we’re talking about and you could just click and watch it. But once you’re at classroom.ricksteves.com, it’s a three-second exercise to get to any clip from any show.
So if you type “force-feed,” you’d get force-fed geese. If you typed in [inaudible][34:00] you’d get hunting with truffles in Tuscany. If you type in “fjord music,” you would get Edvard Grieg. So, there’s just this opportunity now for anybody to access anything in our shows, assuming it’s a little module and it’s a fun way for people who like the show to get back to those little details.
Chris: That’s great. I’m sure a lot of people will appreciate that and as a former teacher, I can certainly appreciate that. Although I still fancy myself a teacher, like you. One thing that one of our listeners wanted to ask, Thomas Hughes, he wanted to ask, we’re thinking about the future and the future generations and all of that, knowing the impact of air travel on climate change, do you think limiting international travel for pleasure would be a good idea or something to consider?
Rick: No, I don’t think that at all because travel is really important for the world to be interconnected. We need to have an empathy for the other 96% of humanity, otherwise our leaders in any country can run us astray. I think when we travel, we make it more difficult for the forces in that country to demonize us through their propaganda and it makes it tougher for our country to dehumanize them with our propaganda.
Having said that, when we travel and when we fly, we contribute to global warming and climate change and we as responsible travelers should travel in a way that is carbon neutral. And you do that by mitigating the carbon you contribute to the atmosphere through different clever ways.
And at ricksteves.com we have a new program we’re just starting this month and it’s our climate-smart initiative. We figured that we take 30,000 people on our trips every year and we know from experts and scientists in this field that if you smartly invest $30 per flight in climate-smart agriculture and forestry projects in the developing world, you create a plus there that mitigates the negative you create by flying to Europe and back and that’s a lot of carbon. And you can fly with the ethics of knowing you’re flying carbon neutral.
So we take 30,000 people on our tours, multiply that by $30. That’s $900,000. We rounded it up to 1 million. Every year we contribute one million dollars in my country with what’s like a self-imposed carbon tax, so that we’re not heroes on this, we’re just mitigating the climate we contribute when we fly to Europe and back with our customers.
That should be a cost that I bear as a businessman in travel. And I’m taking that as a cost of good sold, $30 per person and we’re putting it into a portfolio where we find six or seven organizations that we support that do this work and we empower them with a donation of a hundred or $200,000 each, adding up to a million dollars.
So I think that this can be an inspiration for other travelers and other travel companies to travel in a climate-smart way by mitigating the carbon that they contribute. But this is a very important ethical issue and we have accounting in the United States that lets us ignore that and it lets companies profit when they shouldn’t.
And we don’t have the political caliber or the environmental balls to do anything about this. We have to do it as ethical citizens and ethical business people on our own, until we get a government that can create climate change seriously.
Chris: I certainly appreciate that and I appreciate the lengthy answer there going through that. One thing that I was continually struck by in your work obviously it’s no surprise that Steph and I are fans of your writing and your work. But what I’m really touched by is the continual emphasis on helping out, giving back to the community, standing up for things you believe in, whether that’s normal?
Or the recent legislation, I can’t remember if that’s the 501 or what the legislation was? But you were battling to help with legalizing decriminalizing cannabis. I wanted to just really have you speak about that. There’s a lot of people who have your platform who certainly aren’t as focused as you are as directing it outwards to other issues. Why is that something that’s so important to you? And you’re welcome to talk about those issues as well.
Rick: That’s my whole travel as a political act kind of teaching. I’ve got a TV show that we produced in Los Angeles, which is my lecture called “Travel as a Political Act.” People can watch that anytime at my website at Ricksteves.com. In the TV section just look for, travel as a political act.
But, the whole idea is we need to be global citizens, I think it’s just ethical. As a businessman, I think that I like to make a difference. Now I can do it because I’m a privately held corporation. If we were a publicly held corporation, you can’t have those kinds of ethics because you’ve got to profit maximize in the short term. So you have a tougher time speaking out on things like I’m able to do, I don’t have to answer to a board of directors or shareholders or anything like that, because I own my company.
So I can get away with saying the war against marijuana is… The laws against marijuana are causing more harm than the drug they’re supposed to be protecting us from, just like the prohibition against alcohol. And I can take my notoriety and my energy and I can… I was just in Washington DC last week, lobbying for ending the prohibition against marijuana.
Not because I’m pro-marijuana or it’s not pro drugs at all. It’s a drug, it needs to be regulated, but it doesn’t need to be a criminal activity. It doesn’t need to be a huge business that empowers gangs and organized crime through a black market. It can be highly regulated and highly taxed. Plus it’s a civil liberty for mature adults to be able to enjoy marijuana if they want to responsibly in their own home.
But there’s a lot of reasons, I just think it’s good citizenship to speak out against this prohibition and I do that because I can get away with it and I can just blame my European friends. I just say when I go to Europe, I’ve got this stick where I go, my European friends tell me a society has to make a choice, tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons.
Then they always remind me, we Americans lock up eight times as many people as they do per capita. Either we are an inherently more criminal people or there’s something screwy about our laws. Right there, that’s a little bit of a souvenir I bring home. It’s a sensibility about drug policy.
When you travel you can bring home a sensibility about climate change. The Dutch are famously frugal. Why are they spending billions of dollars bolstering their dikes and building storm surge barriers? They’re not going to waste money, they know that climate change is not something you debate anymore, climate change is something you address. It is here.
I was just in Guatemala and Ethiopia, I mean the hunger season used to start in May, now it starts in March. That’s because of climate change. This is the value of travel.
So you don’t have to travel in a way that connects you with the rest of the world. But I like to travel in a way that is meaningful and it broadens my perspective and it gives me an empathy for people south of the border. And for me that just carbonates my whole existence to be part of the plan instead of a fearful American that just wants to build a wall.
So these are natural things that you get out of your travels. I firmly believe that if you had to have a passport before you could vote, our nation would be a stronger nation and in a better position than we’re in right now. But of course that’s not going to happen. But it is valuable to travel from a political point of view. I could retire now if I wanted to, but I’m having so much fun because I’m inspiring or working to inspire Americans to travel in a way that gets them out of their comfort zone and helps them come home with a broader perspective.
Chris: Yeah, I certainly appreciate that. I heard that in the talk. I heard that. And I think that sort of permeates all of your work, so I appreciate that. And speaking of appreciation, both Steph and I really, really appreciate your time in being on the show today.
We have a little bit of a quick hitting lightning round for you. So we’ve got sort of 15 quick questions and three of them are from our listeners. So you up for that?
Rick: Let’s do it quick, yeah.
Chris: OK, quicker, quick. So if you could only ever go back to one European country again, what would it be?
Chris: Europe’s most underrated city?
Rick: Oh and Istanbul.
Chris: Oh, I totally agree, both of them. Most important piece of travel gear?
Rick: Good shoes and a guidebook.
Chris: Of course. One of our listeners, Anne Janka, wants to know about if you have a favorite spa or wellness retreat in Europe?
Rick: I’ve got certain places I go when I need to convalesce and it’s just a place that is very, very peaceful for me where I can just recharge in the north of Italy, it’s Lake Como, Varenna. In Germany it would be on the Mosel River, a little place called Beilstein. Yeah, those two places are where I convalesce.
Chris: Nice. Which city in Europe just is not for you? Or is there any city that fits that bill?
Chris: Gotcha. I love it. Favorite travel cell phone app, if you have one?
Rick: My favorite travel cell phone app. Hmm, that’s a good question.
Chris: You can skip if you have to, no problem.
Rick: Yeah, I’m just trying to think what is my favorite cell phone app.
Chris: If you want to let us know after we can put it in the show notes as well, no problem.
Rick: Yeah, I’ll skip that one.
Chris: No problem. Favorite European festival?
Rick: I went to a busker festival in Bern and it was street musicians gathering together and I love street musicians, I love buskers and it was the best buskers I’ve ever encountered. And there were like 20 of them performing at the same time, all through that town. Every summer they have a busker festival in the capital of Switzerland, Bern.
Chris: Love it. Favorite travel memoir that’s not by you?
Rick: Hm. I like Jan Morris. Jan Morris, she’s from Wales and just beautiful, beautiful insightful writing. She’s got a great appreciation of European history and she’s a Europhile.
Chris: Fantastic. Thomas Hughes, one of our listeners asks, I haven’t been to Germany. What is your favorite German city?
Rick: My favorite German city used to be Munich, but now it is clearly Berlin. Berlin is where it’s at in so many ways.
Chris: Love it. One place you couldn’t include in the show because you couldn’t get permission to film, if that’s ever happened?
Rick: The Vatican is very, very strict about letting you film in the Vatican. What happens is crews use lousy footage to show it when they could use good footage. And I wish I could get permission to do a great show on The Vatican.
Chris: Yeah, you certainly have the crew.
Rick: I’m a Lutheran, so that might be a…
Chris: A factor. Favorite food to have for brunch in Europe? Or your ideal brunch?
Rick: Oh Geez. You know a pain au chocolate with a nice café-au-lait, sitting at a outdoor cafe with wicker chairs and a little bird just sitting on the next chair as we both enjoy watching the people walk by.
Chris: Oh, it’s going to be hard to ever top that answer, for me. Favorite artwork that you’ve ever filmed or witnessed?
Rick: Oh, I’ve been alone with the greatest art in Europe. It’s one of the joys of my work, to be all alone with Leonardo’s Last Supper, to be all alone with Michelangelo’s David, to be all alone standing in front of the great Botticellis in the Uffizi Gallery.
When we get done filming, we all look at each other and go, I feel like a cigarette. But, one of the big thrills was to be all alone with Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan. And we brought our electric lights along, knowing they’d never let us plug in the lights and illuminate that amazing and fragile piece of art.
We asked the cleaning lady if we could plug our lights in and she said, no problem. And we just go, let’s do it. And we were able to illuminate The Last Supper and the colors just popped. Our footage of Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan is the best footage of The Last Supper I think you’ll see on any TV doc.
Chris: I’m all smiles behind this microphone. Favorite European museum?
Rick: You know, the Frari Church in Venice is amazing because you have a whole series of wonderful paintings by great Venetian artists, each one of them in situ, in the place where they were designed to be. So that’s the best church with great art in it.
But the great galleries, the great painting galleries of Europe, just like I can’t get enough of them. Every time I go to the Uffizi, every time I go to the Prado, every time I go to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, you just kind of go — life is beautiful and I’m so blessed to be able to stand right here and enjoy that and to take the time to appreciate it.
Stephanie: And Chris, that’s time.
Chris: Then, that’s time. Well, thank you very much for having you on. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.
Stephanie: Thank you so much.
Rick: That lightning round was exhilarating. That was fun. You guys, thanks for enjoying my show and just sharing it with your fans and your audience. I’m just… It has been a delight to be with you guys and I’ll be enjoying Rick Steves over brunch for the rest of my life.
Chris: That is the ultimate compliment for both of us.
Rick: I didn’t… I didn’t say it via your podcast. I said I’d be enjoying [inaudible][laughter]
Stephanie: He gets to have brunch with himself.
Rick: Thanks for what you’re doing.
Chris: Oh, and you.
Stephanie: Well, that concludes our interview with Rick, which is the second of two episodes that he was kind enough to do. I have so much to think about from listening to his answers.