Prepare for Spontaneity
By Rick Steves
Traveler 'A' takes off to Europe as a free spirit, without much planning, no real itinerary...and returns home with a backpack full of complaints about how expensive and stressful it all was. Traveler 'B' prepares for weeks as though her trip were some kind of final exam, mapping out a detailed day-to-day plan...and returns home with rich stories of spontaneous European adventures. It's the classic paradox of good travel: structure rewards a traveler with freedom, and "winging it" becomes a ball-and-chain of too many decisions, too little information...and precious little time to relax.
I speak from experience. Between my guidebook research and TV filming commitments, I must have one of the most tightly-wound itineraries of any traveler today. Because of it, I always know where I need to be and what I need to be doing two hours from now. Ball-and-chain? No way. Good planning gives me the luxury of two hours of absolutely relaxed, focused-on-the-moment spontaneity, setting me up for a wealth of travel surprises. Not only am I prepared, I feel prepared. That makes me relaxed. It puts me in a frame of mind to look for fun: debating good whisky with proud Scotsmen, comparing frayed walking sticks with pilgrims in Santiago, and discussing cool cars with young bucks in Munich. It's one reason I love writing guidebooks: to find these vivid experiences and bring them home to my readers in hopes that they can be inspired to connect with Europe just as vividly...backed-up with the travel skills that make it all possible.
After so many trips to Europe, I am still wowed by the blockbuster sights — but I've found that the experiences I truly savor are at the smaller, more obscure places. On a recent trip to Wales, I watched a frisky sheepdog enjoy total control over his flock as they ran along a green hillside. In this little dog-and-sheep show (given the too-clever name of "Ewe-phoria"), the sheepdog followed the whistled commands of his Welsh master. Later, in the Highlands, I asked a kilted friend whether he considers himself British or Scottish. He andwered, "Scottish first, Scottish second!" He then introduced me to the strange joy of wearing a fine kilt atop a windy peak. In York, a man in a suit took me up to the town's massive cathedral to ring its ten-ton tower bell. To my surprise, when he pulled the rope, the bell actually rung him — sending him swaying and giggling, high above the medieval floor.
|Taste the culture: I could have ordered a Coke on the run...or learned what's so special about what the locals drink.|
At the top of Edinburgh's Royal Mile, there's a touristy whisky-tasting experience that even includes a ride in a big whisky cask. I think of it as Malt Disney. At the bottom of that same street, there's a man who bottles whisky (the Scottish drop the "e", the Irish keep it) for local connoisseurs. As I step into his shop, he points to a rack of famous-name whisky bottles. He tells me the distillery owners who produce these — with their names on the bottles — dearly love their whisky. But they don't drink it from those bottles. ("It's all been purified, colorized and standardized for the mass market.") Walking me across the room to a shelf of aged wooden casks, the big, tough Scotsman explains, "They drink it in the rough, out of casks like these. It's like getting your milk straight from the farmer."
He draws a wee dram for me, and I taste it. Whoa! Then he becomes suddenly gentle as, together, we pour a little spring water on it. Squinting into the glass, he coaches me along: "Look at the impurities gathering in a happy little pool there on top...the water is like a spring rain on a garden...it brings out the character...the personality." Sipping this whisky with an expert, I see how Scotland's national drink can become, as they're fond of saying, "a very good friend."
Like in Scotland, in Santiago de Compostela — located in Spain's rainy northwest corner — old stones are mossy from constant drizzle. This, along with the local folk dancing (a kind of River Dance meets flamenco, complete with bagpipes and tambourines), reminds me of the local Gallego kinship with the Irish Celts due north of here. Here in Santiago, a famous pilgrimage destination, a magical feeling pervades — it's a timeless, spiritual, celebration of life. I stand where the scallop shell chiseled into the cathedral's doorstep marks the end of the 500-mile pilgrimage from France.
|Share the joy: I could have spent the morning looking for a laundromat...or meeting far-trekking pilgrims at their moment of triumph.|
Triumphant trekkers of all ages and languages — walking sticks frayed on the ends, pant legs happily fringed, faces sunburned — pause to savor the sweet moment as they finally reach their goal. This is a personal inspiration for me, because the first guidebook ever written guided the ancestors of these spiritual pilgrims along this same well-worn path nearly a thousand years ago. Santiago was — and is today — a home to travelers from all over Europe, a place where cultures happily collide, borders melt away, and people embrace life.
Venturing north to Munich, the locals like to discuss more earthly pursuits. While standing in line to buy train tickets, I strike up a conversation with a young man in front of me. I'm heading for the romance of Venice. He's catching a train to Frankfurt for a flight to...the US. It's a 19-year-old German's dream come true: Florian is flying to California for snowboarding, mountain biking...and American cars.
With visions of Porsches and BMWs dancing in my head, I counter, "But I thought Germans had it good behind the wheel."
"Yeah, I drive a BMW. But it is like a computer. No soul. My friend in Munich just bought a Chevy Caprice Classic with a big 5.6-liter V-8. He will pay very bad taxes for such an engine, and even more because it pollutes so much. But it is worth it."
You can learn something about a country by how it taxes its cars. The practical Dutch are taxed by the weight of their cars. Money-minded Americans are taxed according to what their cars cost. The German government goes right for the thrill-seeking jugular vein, carefully calibrating vehicle taxes by horsepower.
Which way is best? Who cares? Discovering a culture's unexpected everyday differences — and temporarily diving (or driving) into that world — is one of travel's great attractions. Tickets and reservations in hand, Florian and I go off to pursue our separate travel dreams...each of us feeling a little better connected to our world, and thrilled to be on the move.
Even after 25 years of tromping through Europe's back streets, I always come home with a satchel full of new memories — surprising and playful — that happened along the way.
No matter where you travel, you should carefully prepare...for spontaneity. A relaxed, confident attitude helps you sprinkle your trip with spice, allowing you to savor the "being there" pleasures found when you venture away from home.