Interview with Sarah Murdoch

"That intersection of art, history, politics, and culture — architecture can bring them all together like nothing else."

Sarah Murdoch is one of Rick's most experienced and versatile guides. Her passions include Italy, contemporary European culture and all things architectural. Sarah guides our Best of Italy, Venice-Florence-Rome, Heart of Italy, Best of Sicily, Best of Europe and Family Best of Europe tours.

Tell us about your love for architecture, and how that relates to your work as a tour guide.
As a guide, my role is to help people understand a foreign culture. Architecture is a very visual way of doing that. When I decided to study architecture in college it was because I was interested in art, history and mathematics. It seemed like a natural combination of those interests. A building can be the best sort of art — it's art you experience and interact with — and that experience can change by the minute. It feels so much more dynamic than painting or sculpture. Architecture plays a big role in societies. It can tell you about daily life in ancient civilizations or make a political statement. The intersection of art, history, politics, and culture — architecture can bring them all together like nothing else. As a guide, I love to explore those connections with my groups.

Do you have a favorite building to teach about on your tours?
Picking a favorite is hard, but it might be San Clemente church in Rome. The church has three levels: a medieval church with beautiful mosaics, below that a church from the very early stages of Christianity, and below that a Roman house and temple. It is so hard to imagine how rich and layered the city of Rome is until you see this church, and then it all comes together. The architecture tells you the history of the place and of all the generations that have used it, sort of like a history book that you walk through.

Is architecture ever a tough sell for your groups?
Well, my favorite period of architecture is something very different. I am a big fan of Italian Fascist architecture, which is a style that informs my own work. I love the clean lines and the historical references it makes to Ancient Rome. No question, this architecture was blatantly used as a political tool. That makes it controversial, but also more interesting to examine and discuss. I think perhaps nobody adores this style except for me, so it's a fun challenge to teach my groups to appreciate it!

What is it about tour guiding that you like the most?
I am so lucky to have a job where every day is a new adventure! I love to learn and am a bit of a nerd. I would have spent the rest of my life in college if I could have. With all of the museums and fascinating cities, I see Europe as the world's largest classroom, so I feel like a kid going wild in a candy shop. I learn something new every single day and am constantly reading and developing new connections and ideas about art, history and culture. Guiding is such a delight for me because I enjoy sharing all I have learned and turning people on to new ideas or subjects they might not know about. But perhaps more than the education aspect of this job, I really enjoy my tour members. We attract such fantastic clients. Over the course of the tour I like to get to know my people and the group inevitably feels like a big family at the end. Our groups are so diverse, there is always a good conversation to be had. And we have so much fun! Whether it's singing on the bus or pub-crawling through Venice or even the simple pleasure of being surrounded by so much beauty, I look forward to every day at my job. I'm also lucky to have wonderful colleagues. The other Rick Steves guides and bus drivers are like my extended family. It's hard not to be happy when you are this blessed.

What's behind your intense love for Italy?
I've had a love affair with Italy for so long, I can hardly remember how it began. My father is European so my love of travel began as a child when we came to Europe. But I didn't make it to Italy until a bit later. In high school I became fascinated by the Sistine Chapel and set a goal to get to Italy as soon as I possibly could. I finally got there my sophomore year in college. As soon as I set foot in Italy, I felt a strange connection, as if I had found my place, my home. I don't know if I believe in this sort of thing, but a tour member who moonlighted as a psychic once told me that I was Roman in a past life! The people, the food, the art and culture, it all just spoke to me. I returned the following year to study architecture in Rome, which only served to turn the embers of a love for the place into a bonfire that has continued to grow over time. It hasn't been in the cards for me to live in Italy permanently, but through my work I am lucky enough to be there four months a year.

Do you have a favorite Italy itinerary?
Honestly, I would be thrilled to lead any of our itineraries, I like a good challenge. In Italy, I am fascinated at the moment with Sicily. It is an incredible place, especially for someone who has an interest in ancient art and architecture. Being a crossroads of civilization, there is this crazy mix of Greek, Phoenician, Norman, Arab and Latin culture that is unreal. It is really Italy at its strongest and grittiest, I think of it as Italy's back door. And the food and wine are so delicious!

Are there any other places on your tour-guiding radar?
If I were to think outside of Italy, my secret dream would be to do the London tour or a France tour. London is one of my happy places. It is dynamic and modern but also rich with history. I've gone as a guest on a couple of France tours and really enjoyed the food and the countryside. France is incredibly charming and more diverse than people expect. Although those sound like very different tours, they share so much with Italy and the connections between the countries, past and present, are interesting to discover.

If you asked my tour members which "next itinerary" they would most like me to do with them, it is the Germany-Austria-Switzerland tour by far, which I find so funny. I am asked to do it all the time and I don't know why. My only guess is that, being a 6'2" blue-eyed blonde, I look a little like a German!

With travel being such a big part of your life, is there a place out there that feels like a second home to you?
Without a doubt, for me it's Rome. Arriving in Rome feels like a return home. I've always felt that way. I have this silly vision, an idea of the city, that it's like your favorite old, comfy couch that is elegant and inviting even if it is a little worn. Nothing is more comforting. But Rome really is everyone's home, isn't it? So much of our culture comes from the Ancient Romans. It all feels very familiar, even on a first visit, because our cultures are so intertwined. If I had the chance and the circumstances were right, I can't imagine a better place to live.


What Sarah won't tell you: her tour members rave about her!

"Sarah was excellent — no way to improve her performance. We especially appreciated her ability to anticipate problems and adjust accordingly with a smile and enthusiasm. Because of her guidance, a train strike and trail closings in the Cinque Terre didn't impact our enjoyment of the region at all. A rainy day in Lucca turned into an advantage with an unscheduled stop in Pisa. I felt very pampered!"
Sara in Cable, WI

"I just don't think I can say enough about Sarah, and how well she conducted herself in all aspects of our tour. A better guide I could not have had. Out of a possible ten, Sarah gets a ten plus!"
Cathy in Cottonwood, AZ

"Sarah was an excellent guide for this tour and she went above and beyond the call of duty to make the tour enjoyable for each member of the group. She was very knowledgeable and her explanations and instructions were very clear and helpful. Her enthusiasm about the culture, history, food and customs of Italy and its people was contagious."
Mahmoud in Gold River, CA