Lesley student Amanda Fata has Rick Steves to thank for her love of travel – and she got to thank him in person.
Fata, who recently returned from a semester abroad in Granada, Spain, introduced the popular European travel guide and public television personality during his visit to campus on Wednesday afternoon, where he met with students, faculty and staff in Marran Theater ahead of his lecture as part of Lesley’s Boston Speakers Series.
“When I was growing up, my mom refused to pay for cable, and while I still complain about this decision to this day, it did encourage me to watch more educational programming like PBS, which is where I first heard about Rick Steves,” recounted Fata, a senior. “When I was 11 years old my mom got me DVD of ‘Rick Steves’ European Christmas.’ I watched it all year round from that year forward, and even convinced my AP European history class to watch it instead of ‘Rudolph’ or ‘Elf’ one December. I was obsessed with it.”
Fast forward to her semester abroad: Fata lived out her dream of a European Christmas, traveling to Germany and visiting a Christmas market where she sipped Glühwein (mulled wine), ate fresh gingerbread and watched the snow fall.
“Oftentimes the things you dream of aren’t nearly as good as they are in reality, but this was better,” she said, “and it never would have happened if I hadn’t grown up watching Rick Steves.”
Steves thanked Fata for the introduction and her praise for the Christmas special, quipping how nice it is “meeting people like Amanda who actually enjoyed it.”
He offered travel advice to the campus crowd, and fielded questions from students about his favorite destinations, tips for traveling on a budget and advice for traveling safely.
Steves’ show is America’s most popular travel series on public television, and he drew a packed house to Boston Symphony Hall later in the evening where he gave a talk and accompanying photo slideshow as part of Lesley’s Boston Speakers Series.
He recalled the genesis of his wanderlust, discussed the importance of travel to broaden perspectives and humanize fellow world citizens, shared travel foibles, advocated for packing light, gave surefire tips on how to get the most out of a vacation, and touched on a wide array of other travel-related topics, from terrorism to diarrhea.
“Europe is the wading pool for world exploration,” said Steves. “I want to inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando. I love to find someone who didn’t get a passport ’til age 40 and says, ‘Whoa, what took me so long?’”
A traveling teen blossoms into an authority on European travel
Steves reluctantly took his first trip to Europe in 1969 as a young teenager to visit piano factories with his father, a piano importer. His perspective quickly shifted as he got to try new kinds of candy and soda – and marveled with curiosity at “statuesque German women with hairy armpits.”
He was in Norway when the world witnessed Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, and as he gathered with Norwegians who were watching and celebrating this feat, he had an epiphany.
“I realized that it was not only an American triumph – it was a human triumph as well,” he recalled.
He returned to Europe with his parents again, and began traveling on his own once he was old enough, ultimately setting his business in motion. Describing himself as “an American bumpkin,” Steves insisted that travel is for everyone, not just the ultra-sophisticated – a good way for anyone to exit their comfort zone.
“When I was young, cheese was orange and the shape of bread,” he joked. “Here, people are evangelical about their cheese – a festival of mold,” he said, gesturing to a photo of a European cheese shop in his slideshow.
He recalled sampling a cheese from a shopkeeper who said, “’Smell this cheese. It smells like the feet of angels,’ and I thought, ‘It smells like the feet of baseball players to me.’”
Steves urged the audience to not only absorb food, art and architecture abroad, but to engage with people and “learn we are not the norm.”
“There are remarkable misunderstandings between people,” he said. “It’s great to get out there and humanize each other. It makes it tougher for their propaganda to demonize us, and it makes it tougher for our propaganda to demonize them.”
Making the most of your travels
When visiting a European destination, Steves suggested finding out when and where the locals take their evening stroll, and soak it in as people check in with their neighbors, flirt and gossip. And enjoy the local traditions while you’re at it.
“When I travel, I change,” he said. “I become a cultural chameleon. I can’t imagine leaving work in Seattle and wanting a cloudy glass of Ouzo, but in Greece…” he said, as he gestured to a slide of him holding the murky drink.
In addition to making personal connections and engaging in local traditions, Steves said it is critical to do research ahead of time.
Find the destinations that interest you. He said there are museums in Europe dedicated to French fries, chocolate, thimbles, marijuana, leprosy and much more.
Understand why the tourist sites are significant, such was why Rome’s Trevi Fountain was built, how a Dutch windmill works (hint: Archimedes’ screw), the significance of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and the history of the Avignon aqueduct.
“The aqueduct will cost $10 for us all to visit, but you can double your visiting joy by knowing what you’re looking at,” said Steves, referring to the aqueduct bridge that is part of a 31-mile system built in the first century AD to carry water to a Roman colony, now Nîmes, France.
“We need to see these famous sites,” he said. “We also need to know why they’re so important.”
He recounted introducing a tour group to a Whirling Dervish, with the understanding that the Sufi monk would explain what he was doing so that it would be an educational experience for the group.
“I do my best to respect and understand every culture, and understand it on its terms,” said Steves. “I try not to judge it.”
Avoid the crowds, pack light, find the “back doors,” and fear not
Steves prides himself on never traveling with more than a backpack that’s 9x22x14 inches. His advice is to travel light, save shopping for the end of the trip, and conclude your itinerary in the destination with the lowest prices.
“If I had a Sherpa, I’d set them free,” he quipped. “It’s just common sense to me. It behooves you to be mobile.”
To avoid peak crowds, he hits up popular tourist attractions right after breakfast, or during the hour before closing.
“I’m always the last person at the Acropolis,” he said.
He seeks out the “back doors” and “rough little corners of Europe,” like little hill towns in the Umbria and Cinque Terre regions of Italy that are accessible by footpaths and devoid of luxury hotels and elevators.
“It keeps away the most obnoxious slice of travelers,” he said. “For every tourist trap, there’s a beautiful place just an hour away.”
Steves said there is a heavy police and security presence in Europe today, and that the threat of terrorism is statistically low and should not deter tourism.
“More people were being killed in the ‘80s and ‘90s by terrorists; we just didn’t notice it,” he said. “Remember when people used to say, ‘Bon voyage?’ Now it’s, ‘Safe travels,’ ‘I pray for you,’ ‘Are you sure you should be going?’ Every year, 12 million Americans go to Europe and 12 million Americans come home. It’s safer to go to Europe than it is to stay home.”
“The world is filled with joy and love, and those of us who travel know that,” he said. “We’re in this together, and it’s a beautiful thing.”