The man behind the $20 million travel guide empire is better organized than Patton and has conquered Europe more times than Napoleon.
Sitting on a pew in the upper chapel of the Basilica of the Holy Blood, head bowed, Rick Steves opens his bible and reads aloud. Nearby, two elderly men sit silently venerating the holy relic of the blood of Christ, which was brought back to the Belgian trading center of Bruges in 1150, following the Second Crusade.
"Wow!" Steves says, reading from his own guidebook and growing so animated at one point that he is admonished to quiet down. "Good stuff!" The holy relic is kept in a tube made of glass and gold, and Steves has come to make sure it's open to the public on Fridays from 2 to 6 p.m. "Before I experience anything, I always read what I have to say about it," he explains.
He's not the only one. Last year, Rick Steves' Italy was the best-selling inter-national guidebook in bookstores across the United States. His affable erudition makes readers feel that Steves is dispensing tips over the garden fence. His Europe Through the Back Door—now in its 21st edition—is the lifeblood of a $20 million-a-year publishing and tour-packaging empire that Steves has built in his hometown of Edmonds, Wash., outside of Seattle.
Steves doesn't dominate the guidebook industry because he has chosen to limit himself to western Europe, but his success is considered a phenomenon in a mature field like travel publishing. "It's curious to me that there's only one well-known individual of my generation in this business," he says, referring to himself. "In the last generation there were Fodor, Fielding, Frommer, and Birnbaum—four famous guys. Now, publishers hire these anonymous craftspeople to write their books, and editors take out all the personal references, so you don't even know if it's a man or a woman writing."
Writing in a conversational style that is full of personal asides and controversial opinions—Steves enjoys smoking marijuana and discussing American foreign policy, and says so in his books—he always seems to assume his readers are as energetic, enthusiastic, and liberal minded as he is. "These days people can cover a lot more ground than they realize," Steves says. "If you're going to see the castle where Luther translated the Bible, if you want to see the new Reichstag building in Berlin, if you want to go to the museum in Vienna where you can actually conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with a computer wand, you'll be less frantic trying to cover those things if you have an agenda."
And the agenda he has in mind is his own. Steves's Back Door guidebooks have an insistent rhythm that his readers feel as a thrum in their day packs, prodding them ever onward.
The arc of Rick Steves's journey through the great destinations of Europe has followed an ironic trajectory, his days a high-speed slog through Europe's flea markets and fleabags followed by an ascetic regimen of writing. "I'm painfully aware that I've got three days in Bruges," he says, "and thousands of people are going to use what I learn in those three days. I wish it weren't true, but that's the reality. So, how on the ball I am will be hugely amplified."
He is rushing to a trailer that is parked on the city square in Bruges, intent upon confirming that his readers can buy french fries there until midnight. (They can. He doesn't.) He doesn't drink when he's in Dingle, or canoodle with the noodles in Naples. In-stead, he interviews diners and relies on a network of hungry confederates for dining tips. Steves himself usually drags a picnic of bread, cheese, and raw vegetables back to his hotel room, where he writes about his day until he falls asleep. "It's terrible," he says. "I don't have the option of just hanging out and getting drunk one night. I've got to go back and type this stuff up. I love it, but it's not good travel by any means."
He has sacrificed the sense of pleasure that travel once stirred in him to the daily devotionals of his packing-light priesthood, ministering to a flock whose congregants refer to themselves as "Rickniks." The disposable income of these gold-card pilgrims has created what Steves calls "a PBS demographic" that is eagerly sought after by the travel industry.
Steves says that Arthur Frommer advised him when he was just starting out in the 1980s to go with a bigger publisher so his books would do better.
"My publisher was interested in using my name on a line of books, whether I wrote them or not," Steves says. "But there's something consistent about my writing that is personal and hard to duplicate without my being involved in it. The joy that extra money would give me is nothing compared to the frustration of having people use material with my name on it that I didn't write and be disappointed in it. In my mind, that would be a catastrophe."
Compared to some other guidebooks "so dry that if you read them out loud your lips would chap," as Steves puts it, his books do exhibit a flair for descriptive writing. He has characterized the Dutch town of Haarlem as "a cultural wading pool that slopes gradually into the more challenging waters of central Europe." He paints Italy as "the place you're most likely to fall in love and the place you're most likely to be robbed. Of course, hearts and wallets can be stolen anywhere."
When he speaks, Steves enunciates his words so precisely that he sounds as if he's using voice-recognition software. "I speak almost robotically for three months of every year," he says. "When I come home, my friends say, 'You can relax now. We speak English, too.' "
As viewers of Rick Steves' Europe, his top-rated PBS travel series, can attest, Steves has been molesting the Romance languages for years. But even when he appears to be speaking in the vernacular of no known language, he gets the last word. His phrase books have begun to outsell even Berlitz. "I wanted people to be able to tell the taxi driver, 'If you don't slow down, I will vomit,' " Steves says. "Berlitz speaks the language very well, but he never went to a hotel where you have to ask, 'At what time is the water hot?' "
Steves went to Europe for the first time when he was 14, and while he was there with his parents, touring piano factories—his father imported pianos and sold them in Edmonds—he filled out postcards every day detailing everything he had done, what he had learned, and how much money he'd spent. He majored in European history and business at the University of Washington, although he had planned to continue in the family business and be a piano teacher. "I would have been very happy teaching piano," he says. "I had it all figured out."
But when he attended a travel lecture at the university to prepare for a trip of his own, it seemed to Steves that he knew more than the instructor. So he started teaching his own travel classes at night, and in 1980 self-published his first Back Door guidebook. Self-publishing can be the road to financial ruin, but for Steves it was an opportunity to share his odd integrity with an audience that grew by word of mouth.
As a field marshal, Steves may be better organized than Patton, and he has conquered Europe more times than Napoleon in the 23 years since his first book appeared. Steves is a demon planner, creating a detailed itinerary for each day of his trip before he leaves home. Each morning, he draws up a list of places he intends to visit in the perfectly ordered progression of a walking tour—then covers it at a gallop.
Or in the case of his trip to Amsterdam last autumn, careering madly across canals and clattering down cobbled streets on a battered bicycle. Flying up a street toward Westerkerk, the ancient cathedral where Rembrandt is supposedly buried under one of the pews, Steves points to the Vlaamse Frites kiosk, which is covered on one side by a painting that subtly improves upon a fresco in the Sistine Chapel. "There's God giving Adam his bag of fries," Steves cries out, swerving just in time to avoid a three-Volvo pileup.
"I don't apologize for traveling fast, but there are different ways to do it," he says. One of his least favorite ways to travel is notching, or racing from one tourist trap to another so you can tell the folks back home how many places you saw. "People ask me how many countries I've been to, and I have no idea," Steves says, dismissing the "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" approach, even though, as a matter of fact, this is Thursday and it is Belgium.
"A notcher is going to say, 'I've been in 62 countries.' Somebody like me is going to say, 'I ate barnacles once in Portugal.' "
He did, too, although that wasn't the worst thing he ever tried. (For Most Unappetizing Traditional Delicacy, he says, it's hard to beat Bulgarian goat's head. Which, as it turns out, doesn't taste a bit like chicken.) Steves spends about a hundred days each year in Europe checking to see if the toilets flush in the little bed-and-breakfasts he recommends to his readers. "I wonder if his wife and children ever see him," says Johan Creytens, owner of the Hotel Heritage in Bruges, who tagged along on one of Steves's recent blitzes through the city's restaurants until he begged for mercy.
During the summer months, Steves often brings along his wife, Anne, and their two children, Andy and Jackie, subjecting them to the tortures of the peak travel season because that is when most of his readers go to Europe. He occasionally wonders whether it is the best use of his time to go tracking down all-you-can-eat Belgian spareribs joints such as The Hobbit—"It's quite a cheap thing if you don't get sick from it," he says—when he could be home running his multi-million-dollar empire.
"I'm delegating more of the ongoing research than ever before," Steves says, "but I'm still not comfortable being out of the loop. What I do is write travel books, and what I am is the guinea pig for a lot of American travelers." He reels off a list of European capitals that he has undoubtedly visited dozens of times. "All these places, they're already getting moldy to me. And southern France feels a little distant. I need to get alive and carbonated about Provence!"
He is no less fizzy about traveling to Europe now than he was in 1969, when he waltzed dizzyingly across its cultural cantons and was whisked gently through its confederations of cuisine just as men were taking their first steps on the moon. The world that the astronauts saw looking back from space had no borders, Steves noted, but on the ground it was the differences between countries that made people from one want to visit—and occasionally annex—another.
"Europe is on its way to becoming a big medieval theme park," he says. "By our nature, tourists want to see the cultural clichés. You go to Scotland and you want to see people playing bagpipes. But the reality is, people don't play bagpipes after lunch; they do it for the tourists. Still, as much as I'm concerned about the clichés forcing us to see things on a stage, I'm also impressed that the variety and diversity of Europe survives."
That diversity percolates like an espresso machine along the rue Cler in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, a neighborhood that Steves has championed as being so typically French that it "makes me feel like I must have been a poodle in a previous life." But sit in any sidewalk café along that charming boulevard in the Eiffel Tower's shadow and it is possible to rue Rick Steves for what has become of the street some Parisians now refer to simply as the "rue Rick Steves."
Someone once sent him a picture that he keeps on his office wall back in Edmonds. In it is a group of travelers—all of them Americans—exploring a desolate peninsula in one of the remotest corners of Ireland. When they met, they were strangers who had in common only the Rick Steves guidebook they are holding up in the picture.
"There's a type of traveler who says, 'Man, everywhere I went I saw people with your book,' " Steves says. "They paid money for this information, along with 20,000 other people, and now they're going where I say to go and they want it all to themselves. I can't help those people."
He looks up again at the picture. "These people don't complain," he says. "They're not sophisticated globe-trotters; they're just Americans who are excited to explore another country. They all went to a pub after this picture was taken and had a pint of Guinness together." They'd raised their glasses, and their books, and drunk from them both.
Traveling Like Rick
Even though Rick Steves's favorite travel destination is actually India, he has focused on Europe in his books, maintaining a tilt to the western part of the continent so lopsided that he largely ignores Greece. But whether you're heading for Tokyo, Sydney, or Montevideo, Steves's brass-tacks tips for seeing a city—any city—are indispensable and can be condensed into the following top-five list:
Pack light — "The importance of packing light cannot be overemphasized," Steves writes in Europe Through the Back Door, his annual travel bible, "but, for your own good, I'll try." He recommends limiting yourself to a carry-on bag 9" x 22" x 14" that holds 20 pounds.
Avoid jet lag — Along with the customary advice to drink plenty of liquids on the plane, Steves urges getting three hours of sleep. When the pilot announces the local time as you're landing, reset your mind along with your watch. "Don't prolong jet lag by reminding yourself what time it is back home," he says. "Be in Europe."
Head straight to the local tourist office — It can provide excellent orientation and maps at no charge. If there's time, take a bus or walking tour on the first day to pick out the spots you want to visit and get some sense of distance.
Go early, stay late — Popular tourist attractions from Paris to Punjab have long lines, except first thing in the morning and in the final 45 minutes before they close. Swoop in just before closing time and have the place to yourself.
Melt into the scenery — It's a particularly good time not to be too obviously American, but you never want to dress like the Ugly American. Avoid shorts, gym shoes, and jerseys of your favorite home sports team unless you see the locals wearing them.
Rick Steves's City Picks
Rick Steves loves Vienna ("rich with Hapsburg reminders") and he is crazy about Istanbul ("I find Turkey even tastier, friendlier, cheaper, and richer in culture and history than Greece"). But his favorite European cities are:
Florence — "Florence stokes the humanist in me. It bolsters my confidence and gives me energy."
London — "London is more than its museums and landmarks. It's a living, breathing, thriving organism . . . a coral reef of humanity."
Paris — "Paris—the City of Light—has been a beacon of culture for centuries. As a world capital for art, fashion, food, literature, and ideas, it stands as a symbol of all the fine things that human civilization can offer."
Rome — "As you peel through its fascinating and jumbled layers, you'll find its buildings, cats, laundry, traffic, and 2.6 million people endlessly entertaining. And then, of course, there are its magnificent sights."
Venice — "Porters sing happily while wheeling their carts. Cooing pigeons, jostling lanes, inky forgotten canals, ritual cafés, piazza schoolyards—there are pastel views in every direction. All of Venice is a bridge of sighs."
Photography by Catherine Karnow
This article was first published in September 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.