WE'RE JUST ASKING
Rick Steves, Through the Front Door
Guidebook czar Rick Steves never met a European country he didn't like. No mere itinerary planner, Steves sees travel as a political act, using his "Europe Through the Back Door" empire -- guidebook series, PBS travelogues, blog, newsletter, radio show -- to spread his gospel of global awareness. He was in Washington last week to speak before Congress on behalf of Bread for the World, a nonprofit organization working to end world hunger and homelessness. K.C. Summers caught up with him in the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria, where he talked about his mission to change the world, one traveler at a time.
Q. I love that you're wearing a backpack.
A. This is my briefcase. I'm visiting all the congresspeople with my little non-petroleum-product backpack. Actually, I'm on the road from Rome. I haven't even been home yet.
We joke in the section about the Rick Steves phenomenon, where people read your guidebooks and go to all the cool "back door" places, only to find a bunch of tourists all toting the same Rick Steves guidebooks. Do you ever feel like you're ruining all the good places?
Yeah, I'm aware of this problem. You know the Cinque Terre, in Italy? Everybody wants to go there. It's got a lot of tourists, but everybody is having a great time. But if you want the offbeat Cinque Terre, you've got to put in a few more miles. I tell people, if you hike up here and go to this town, you won't find any tourists. I'm sort of like the whaler who screams, "Quick, harpoon it before it's extinct." I need to stay one step ahead.
Do you take freebies when you review a place?
No, but I'll sleep in a hotel without paying for it, because I've known them for years and I send them a third of their business. . . . The irony is that if somebody puts me up in their hotel for free, they're more likely to fall out of the book next year, because I know there's a disco downstairs at 2 o'clock in the morning. See, I'm the hired hand of my readers. I've got a responsibility here. . . .
I'm an odd duck -- I'm not impressed by a fancy hotel. I'm honestly not corruptible that way, because I don't need to be on the take. I've never paid to go different than economy, just because I want to fly economy. People say you must go first class or business class. No, just give me good noise-reduction headphones and a laptop battery, and I'm happy as a clam in Seat 30C.
So what's your favorite country in Europe?
Italy, because it's the closest thing to India in the way it rearranges your cultural furniture. I mean, in Italy, slow service is good service. A lot of Americans get really mad -- "I couldn't get the bill, what's going on, they don't respect us." No! They're respecting you, because they want you to stay all night. And if Americans could just realize there are different standards, you know?
Italians want to pay more for the pecorino cheese because they want to buy it from somebody who knew the sheep. That's pretty cool.
Why all Europe, all the time? Why not "South America Through the Back Door"?