In his work as a tour guide, Donald is smooth as silk. His tour members comment regularly on his calm, cool, and confident demeanor. Right away, everyone knows they are in good hands. Born and raised in Scotland, Donald has guided in just about every corner of Europe — and seems to have encyclopedic knowledge of it all. But, amidst all this variety and opportunity, Donald has decided to make Rick Steves' family of Italy tours his primary focus. And why not Italy? Donald makes his home on Lake Como, in the adorable village of Varenna.
After years of traveling and teaching all over Europe, what made you decide to settle down in a sleepy village on the shore of Lake Como?
I had been living in Berlin, which was very exciting, before I moved to Italy. The problem was, doing this job meant I was away from Berlin all summer, which is the best time to be there. So after two Prussian winters, I felt it was time to move south, and I gravitated toward the Mediterranean. I taught English in Milan for three years — not exactly Mediterranean, but it was a great place to be in the '90s, at the dawn of the Berlusconi era! When I went back to being a full-time tour guide in 1992 (I'd started in 1984) I wanted to get out of the city, but did not want to abandon all my friends in Milan. Varenna on Lake Como, an easy hour's train ride from Milan, was the perfect solution. I rented an apartment there for a year to see how I liked it, then went on to buy a house, and have been there ever since!
One of the things I really appreciate about where I live is the dramatic nature of the seasons. In Scotland we have a warmer, lighter season and a colder, darker season — and that's it. You can wear the same clothes year round! Lake Como is a place of dramatic contrasts: the warmth of a Mediterranean summer, olives and wine to rival Tuscany in the fall, a crisp, cold Alpine climate with great skiing on the door-step in the winter, and then my favorite season of all, spring, when the luxuriant gardens of the historic villas pull visitors back to the lake year after year. It's momentous. Winters can be quiet, when many businesses close down for the season, but after nine months of touring the great (and hectic) cities of Europe, quiet can be good; time to catch up with reading, movies, and friends.
What is your academic background, and how has it helped you in this work?
I graduated from Edinburgh University in European history and history of art, but I often joke that I actually majored in "gap" years! Taking years out of college to work at hotels in Swiss ski resorts may not have been great for my grades, but it was invaluable experience for me when I got in to the tour business. And then I taught English to Germans and Italians. I'm not sure if they learned much English, but I learned a lot about their way of life! I have also had the privilege of working with some of the best local guides in Europe, so from these diverse sources I have garnered a fair amount of local information, which I enjoy sharing with our tour members. In my student years, I read history to pass exams, but now it is a true pleasure to read books on the history of the places I am constantly visiting — I especially enjoy historical biographies — and so an understanding of how everything fits in to the big European picture is what I endeavor to give to my fellow travelers.
Given how many tours you lead each year, how do you remain so fresh, patient, and enthusiastic?
I think the answer to your question really lies in the nature of our tour members. The people who sign up for a Rick Steves tour are the best-prepared tour members in the travel business. The honest evaluation they get with regard to the physical challenges and requirements for each tour, together with all the pre-tour information provided by Rick's books and videos — and especially the policy of not allowing grumps on our tours (hallelujah!) — means that we consistently get people traveling with us who are genuinely interested in experiencing the countries we visit and learning about them. So it is rewarding as a guide to share great travel experiences with like-minded people, even if we have been there many times before. And doing a variety of tours in different regions definitely keeps you on your toes — there's no time to get bored by routine!
You lead tours on both of Rick's southern Italy itineraries, as well as northern Italy. How is leading tours different between these regions? And which half has the best food?
From a guiding point of view, the main difference is that on a Sicily or South Italy tour, many of the tour members are on their second or third visit to Italy. Most people touring to Venice, Florence, and Rome are probably in Italy for the first time. You could also argue that travelers to each region are really visiting two different countries — the diversity of Italy is what makes it such a great place to keep coming back to.
That is also reflected in the food of the different regions. In the south the Mediterranean diet prevails, with lots of pasta, legumes, vegetables, and fish, with everything prepared with olive oil. The northern Italian diet is richer, with more meat, cheese, butter, and cream. I would say my favorite dishes depend on the time of year: I prefer the Mediterranean diet in the summer, especially the seafood and vegetable dishes of Sicily and Puglia, whereas the richer food of areas such as Emilia-Romagna are difficult to beat on a cold winter's day. Most people would not recognize the dishes of the Lake Como area as being Italian, yet taragna (buckwheat and corn polenta with cheese), sciatt (deep-fried bitto cheese balls in buckwheat batter), missultin (dried freshwater sardines), and pizzoccheri (buckwheat pasta with potatoes, cabbage, sage, and garlic, drowned in butter and dripping with bitto cheese — hardly any calories at all!) are all just as authentically Italian in the northern part of Lombardy as pizza and spaghetti al pomodoro are in Naples.
Who is your favorite Italian to talk about on tour?
That's a difficult choice to make. There is so much to say about Michelangelo, who was so prolific and passionate in his work; the Medici, who as a dynasty definitely helped shape not only Italy but much of our western world — and of course Berlusconi with his gaffes is always good for entertainment value! However, I think my favorite Italian to talk about is Leonardo da Vinci. He often gets a bit overlooked here, as there are so few of his works in Italy, yet his curiosity to know everything about the natural world, to see things as they really were and not how the establishment wanted them to be, and his great, creative genius — he thought up the airplane, helicopter, submarine, and tank 500 years ago — these all make him not only the ultimate Renaissance man but also a guy I think people can relate to in our time. And he was a pretty good painter, as well!
Here's what Donald won't tell you...but his tour members will:
"Donald was excellent in every way. He should be a model for tour guides!"
—William in Frankfort, IL
"Donald was superb. I don't think that Rick Steves himself could have been a better tour guide!"
—Antoinette in Redmond, WA