I do and I don’t like Rick Steves. Reading his book Postcards from Europe-travel tales from America’s favorite guidebook writer reaffirmed my reasons for this. I’m a fan of his on Facebook and one week there was a special going, $5 USD plus free shipping for his collection of travel tales. Of course I ordered a copy, and once it arrived, quickly became engrossed in reading.
In addition to being an excellent orator, Steves is also a good writer. As I was turning the pages, I could hear his voice in my head reading the words, so familiar from the countless shows of his I’ve watched on PBS over the years. The book covers 2,000 miles of travel in Western Europe interspersed with memories from earlier trips, including ones with his family as a young teenager and his slightly disastrous first attempts as a tour guide.
The book begins in Amsterdam, where I was bemused to learn about the existence of “pot delivery services.”
“In Holland we have pot delivery services,” he explains “like you have pizza delivery in America. Older people take out or have it delivered.”
The section of the book I enjoyed the most concerned the time Steves spends in Germany, a country I never really had any interest in visiting, but have become more receptive to since it’s somewhere that D really wants to visit (mainly for the beer and cuisine). He begins his German adventures sailing down the famous Rhine with landscapes comparable to the American Grand Canyon in Arizona. My problems and critiques of Steves surface when he arrives in Rothenburg, a well-preserved medieval town. He’s dismayed to discover how much the city is becoming like a theme park due to the throngs of tourists that visit. He writes,
“I’m angry at mobs of tour groups invading my medieval playground. I’m mad at merchants selling their town’s charms. And I’m mad that by promoting this town in my guidebooks, I’ve contributed to the prostitution of Rothenburg.”
There are numerous comments similar to this throughout the book and I was affronted by them for Steves himself is a tourist. No, not an obnoxious or ignorant one, but a tourist all the same. He is regarded as the Messiah in the travel world and so what he writes about, people will seek out. His business, his livelihood, comes solely from the mobs of tour groups that have invaded “his playground all over Europe.”
However, I found his writing on his visit to Dachau, the concentration camp just outside of Munich, to be extremely enlightening. He is scolded and taken aback by the rage shown by a local, being told by her that tourists such as he come to Dachau “not to learn but to hate.”
“But I sense a desperation on her part to simply unload her story on one of the hordes of tourists who tramp daily through her town to ogle at an icon of the Holocaust.”
Like all places associated with infamous historical events, I’ve read that the residents of the medieval town of Dachau want more than anything for it not to be remembered solely for its connection to the Holocaust, but also for its rich and storied history long before. I can understand from the perspective of the German lady on the bus why this would be so, people from the outside treating the town and its performers (the local German people) like a circus when they were tragically caught in the middle.
Steves goes on to Italy, Switzerland, and France, in each city he visits having deep and insightful conversations and experiences with his European connections.
For a pleasant, enjoyable travel read Postcards from Europe is it. Be sure to see if there is a copy at your local library. If you’re about to go to Europe, reading this collection of travel narratives will definitely get you in the mood.