2016 was not the best year, not for me, not for many people that I know. Everyone has some horror story of how the universe has crushed their soul, I’ve got my story too. But seeing as how I think it’s better to deal with darkness by shining light, I’ve been reflecting on the positive things that have happened this year. The funny things, the amazing experiences, the total absurdity of my work. I have a pretty funny life, so I thought I’d bring you my 2016 travel highlights.
On the Best of Italy tour, we stay two nights at an agriturismo, or an Italian farmhouse. On my September tour, we had a lovely newlywed couple from Canada. They were yoga instructors. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a couple so in love and so dripping in happiness. They hosted a yoga class for us at sunset, on the grass with a sweeping view of a Umbria. That’s one of my most beautiful moments from the year, watching almost my whole group peacefully meditate with a gorgeous setting, like in a movie.
Our hosts at Poggio della Volara decided to surprise us on our last night there and throw a wedding party. Gaiva and Marco, the owners, turned the dining room into a wedding hall. She was so excited to throw a party that she was dancing and jumping around, like a kid on Christmas Eve. The countryside can be a little quiet for a city girl!
They prepared a wreath for the bride’s head from olive branches and a fake tie for the groom from a remnant of ribbon. Gaiva asked the elderly little porchetta guy to stick around after delivering our dinner, dressing him up as a priest to perform a fake ceremony. I attended the couple and translated the “priest’s” ceremony. He had absolutely no idea what to say so we both improvised. Needless to say, there was a lot of giggling involved. Part of the group didn’t catch that he wasn’t actually a priest, which made it more funny.
It was all so hysterical, we ate, drank wine and danced to the music provided by a local musician. The wedding couple sat at a special table draped in gauze and surrounded by candles. By the end of the night, everyone was trying to marry each other, even Marco and my bus driver! The happy couple beamed and headed upstairs early as we danced the night away in the Umbrian countryside.
I had 5 days off in June. I was trying to coordinate with some friends for those days off, but it just wasn’t working. I was frustrated. I knew that if I stayed in Italy, I’d just stew about my plans not working or lay in a hotel room watching movies all day. Probably both at the same time.
I wanted to go somewhere new but had no idea where, so I looked at Skyscanner for the cheapest flights. Athens came up. I’d never been. It was exotic. It was far from Italy. But I was hesitant. I don’t have a problem going by myself, in fact I’m sure you’ve heard me sing the praises of solo travel, but it was a little rash. After some cajoling from my tour group, they convinced me to just do it. (Thank you to Jen, Bob and the whole crazy VFR crew!)
I bought my ticket at midnight and flew the next day at 11. Did you know that the Greeks don’t use normal letters like we do, but rather the Greek alphabet? Sure you do, you know that intellectually, but it’s not until you get off a plane and can’t read anything that you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. Or Rome, for that matter. Oh geez, what was I thinking?
As a tour guide, it’s my job to know everything, or at least be able to find out. It was really wild to be in a place that I knew virtually nothing about, hadn’t prepared to go to, couldn’t speak or read the language even a bit. It made me feel like a…what do you call it? Oh, a tourist! That’s it. What a cool feeling!
I stayed in a terrible neighborhood, ate fattening food, went to the beach and drank too much. I’m sure I was ripped off at some point. It was great! Really! I rarely get to be clueless and I loved making mistakes and learning as I went.
I also stumbled onto the best local guide I’ve met in a long time. This lady was hustling, trying to assemble tour members at the gates to the Acropolis and not being very successful. She was not well dressed or groomed. She had a garish button that announced that she was a tour guide. She carried a big umbrella and looked like she could barely walk. But there was something about her. I can’t really describe it, but I knew I needed to hear what she had to say.
Eventually I got tired of waiting for her to assemble a group, and I made a deal with the other two who were waiting for her that we’d pay her full fee, just to end the unbearable wait. Time is money, and so on.
She stopped often, unable to walk and needing rest. She said she’d do a 90 minute tour, but it was much longer in the end, not because of her pace but because we were riveted and asked her to keep going. She was wise, she was informed, she knew how to spin a web. Her stories were so good, so well explained, I still have the feeling that I walked the Acropolis with Socrates himself. It went both ways, as it always does. Our little group was so interested, she lit up like a candle and was enjoying herself too. It’s like that in guiding, I’m at my best when I know the group is appreciating and understanding what I’m doing.
One of my favorite moments of the past year, and I’ll never forget this, was sitting under a crooked tree in the shade, just in front of the Parthenon. Our guide talked about the mining of the stone for the Parthenon, how each piece was chosen with a tuning fork. In effect, the building was meant to be like a musical instrument, bringing harmonious vibrations to the populace. She talked about ancient philosophy and customs of the Greeks that continue to this day. She talked about the Greek sense of happiness. It was powerful. We were all in tears.
My solo trip to Greece was so good. Greece was not a scary place as the media has been portraying it. It was lovely and very foreign. It reminded me what it’s like to be a clueless tourist, reminded me of the power of spontaneity and adventure, and reminded me of the power of outstanding guiding. That woman, and Greece in general, gave me something to aspire to in my work.
I spend more time than normal people in art galleries. The paintings have become like friends, I visit them and enjoy their presence every time. They speak to me, in their way, and I speak to them.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino is one of my favorites, we are girlfriends that get together occasionally and gossip about boys. She obviously has something pretty juicy to tell me, and I whisper my secrets to her. So luxurious and decadent, feminine and soft. She normally lives at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where she hangs on the wall amongst a million treasures. I once visited her in Venice, we hung out with Manet’s Olympia and compared our figures. We like her and all, but, you know, she’s French.
Like some of my Italian friends, I’d never visited her at her home. It happens, I’m not offended, I’m not in town long and it’s so much easier to meet in the museum in the town center. But I finally had a chance to meet her at her home this September. She was on loan to the Ducal Palace in Urbino. She hadn’t been home for a very long time, so it was a delight to see her in her environment.
She used to belong to the ruling family of Urbino, but eventually made her way to Florence through marriages. She has been at the Uffizi for a very long time, but she will never really be a Tuscan. Just look at her!
Seeing Venus in the room where she was originally hung was a beautiful experience. Urbino is quiet and far from the tourist track, so I was alone with her for the first time. Paintings seem to long for the space that they were made for, and being in the right room in her home helped me see the her from a new perspective. I feel like we are better girlfriends than ever.
On a tour in May, more than half of my group went on a Vespa tour through the Chianti. I wanted to go, but the tour was full. They came back glowing in happiness and adventure…or maybe it was wine. I was desperate to try it then.
In September I had some folks go again so I decided to tag along. I own a little red Vespa and although I don’t ride it as often as I should, it’s one of my favorite possessions. It wasn’t a cheap excursion, but I’d never taken a Vespa out in Italy. What the heck, it’s only money.
The instructor/guide had us all take a few practice spins around the street. I had the most experience, so he decided to give me the most powerful bike. Oh boy, I’m now very spoiled. My Vespa is pretty tame, I’m a little bit of a speed demon and giving me a bike with power is dangerous.
Following his little vintage Fiat 500, we raced through downtown, up to Fiesole and back through town to Piazzale Michaelangelo. We weaved in and out of traffic, much to my Italian heart’s delight. It was terrifying and truly dangerous. I loved it so much.
After the tour, I returned the bike and actually had to skip through town like a 6 year-old, I just had too much delight in me, I felt like my heart would burst. I need a faster Vespa!
Yes, a highlight of my year was a sandwich. Hear me out. It was a really good sandwich!
On the eastern shores of the magical island of Sicily, there is an ancient city called Siracusa. It was a city that rivaled Athens at the height of the Greek empire, and was home the the famous scientist Archimedes.
That’s a pretty big heritage to live up to for a modern Italian town. Perhaps they cannot rival their predecessors in architecture or engineering, but I can promise you that they can beat them with cuisine.
Sicilian food is incredible. No hyperbole there, it is delicious, fresh, creative and features ingredients grown on the island like oranges, almonds, lemons, fish and sheep cheese. If you want the best experience in Sicily tasting cheese, you go to Caseficio Borderi in Ortygia, Siracusa.
Andrea and his family, including his spark-plug daughter Nazarena, joke and flirt while whipping up the best, most outrageous sandwiches you’ve ever seen. While you wait in the long line, Andrea entertains the crowd, kisses the ladies and turns out generous platters of samples. Lunch time at Andrea’s is always like a party.
Every sandwich is a new creation, always featuring heaps of the fresh cheeses made by the family. There’s no menu and no ordering, really, you get what they are making with what’s in the market. It’s almost sinful to eat a sandwich with a whole pound of smoked ricotta, but considering that Sicilians have the longest lifespan in Europe, I figure it’s health food.
After the sandwich is wrapped they hand me a big jug of wine and a stack of plastic cups to split up with whoever comes with me. One sandwich is enough to feed an army and costs about $5, making it the best food bargain that I know of in Europe.
Last time I was there, Nazarena dragged me into the kitchen for a group picture. It was like being welcomed back to a big Sicilian family party. I laughed so much that I had to wait a bit before eating the sandwich! Being around people who truly love and enjoy their work is always a thrill. It’s all about having fun!
I’ve worked on the Rick Steves books on and off for 16 years. I’ve seen them develop from a small publication of “Back Doors” to become the top selling guidebooks in the United States. The books have evolved into information-packed “Bibles” for travelers, but they’ve also created an amazing amount of community and fellowship. Readers recognize each other while walking through museums. They may chat or only pass a knowing smile, but there is a connection, like a secret club of travelers or an extended family.
From the writing and researching side, I love meeting the hotel owners and local guides listed in the books. Some of them have known me for years and welcome me back like a daughter or sister. Some of them know of me, the “girl from Rick Steves” and some of them don’t, but the welcome is always warm. Sure, a business is grateful to be in the book for business reasons, but there is something more. It’s fellowship. It’s a mission. It’s the agreement that we all want to work for quality experiences for the readers, and to attract people to our way of seeing the world. After all, doing business is one thing, but doing it with wonderful customers and doing it to achieve a mission of better understanding in the world is much better.
This year I was given a couple of weeks with a cute little car in the Umbrian countryside, which I wrote about here. I love when they ask me to drive. That’s how I got my earliest gig on the books years ago, I was the only one who could drive a stick and was crazy enough to enjoy driving in Italy.
My assignment was Orvieto, Civita, Assisi, Cortona and (gasp!) southern Tuscany including the wine country. Tough life, I know. The things I do for you people.
Orvieto is a spiritual home for me in Italy, along with Rome, Venice and Sicily. These are the places I feel connected to. I spent time there long ago as a student and it always feels like home.
It’s a small town, so doing the research was like visiting friends. I met some lovely new people along the way and saw more of the town than I had before. The book work is great for getting me into every hotel, restaurant and sight and meeting everyone in a town.
Nearby, I visited with my professor from college, a brilliant architect that lives in Civita di Bagnoregio. I hadn’t seen him for years, but I was there for the book anyway so decided to drop by. I spent time in that magical place when I studied in Italy in college. Going back was like being transformed into my 20 year-old self, seeing the house that had changed the trajectory of my life.
I ate wonderful meals with restaurant owners that adore Rick and treated me like family. I had soulful conversations with hotel owners. I philosophized with an archaeologist and drank glasses of Brunello with a tour guide at a winery after exchanging a few war stories. I almost drove into a river in the Tuscan forest, but we are focusing on happy thoughts, no?
Working on the books has absolutely been the source of the most adventures in my life. It’s hard, hard, exhausting work, but can be the most spontaneous, fun and surprising kind of work. The days that don’t go as planned have been some of the most hilarious…in retrospect at least. Trust me, I’ve got stories. Lots of them.
This year was no different. I recall my days with a smile I can’t conceal. My heart skips a beat when I see my picture at the back of the book. Hard, satisfying work (in Italy) with and for great people. Doesn’t get any better.
We had so much fun. It was weird and wonderful to be in Italy but NOT work. I wasn’t sure what to do with that or how to go about having an actual vacation of my own. I shifted into tour guide mode way too many times, I’m sure.
I didn’t know what Nico would like or if things would go well. He’s a little spicy, I didn’t know if Italy and its unpredictable, tempestuous nature would suit him. But, oh, how it did. Nico was more engaged and alive than I’ve seen him. He was right at home everywhere he went. That was sort of by design, that’s true. We were treated like royalty by friends, colleagues and pretty much everyone I know in Italy.
The lasting effects are obvious. Nico is having his best year in school yet. He’s got a tough teacher, but he’s engaged and well behaved in a way he wasn’t in the past. The trip to Italy and Slovenia gave him a sense of maturity, a sense of the world, and a purpose–to grow up to work with mommy on tours!
Has 2016 Really Been THAT Bad? Yes and No.
After flipping through my iPhone photo stream, I could continue this article for pages with fun stories and beautiful pictures. I’ve had an incredible year. It’s been tough, no doubt.There are things that have veered off-course which make the world feel scary and horrible. I will not miss this year and will happily escort it to the edge of time, enthusiastically kicking it into the dustbin.
But! But! There were also the moments that make me smile. For me, personally, one of my biggest highlights of 2016 is you. The way this blog has grown, the response I’ve received from my readers and the support you’ve given to my voice, to my art, is such a gift.
2016 wasn’t great, but we made it through. There were simple pleasures. There was fun. Really. Look through your photos. Maybe it wasn’t that bad after all. Even so, let’s hope for an excellent (and better) 2017!