Heidi Van Sewell spent years in Italy before she became one of Rick Steves Europe's leading experts on the country. She spends 12 weeks a year there, researching Rick's guidebooks and leading tours. She has lead every Italy tour that Rick Steves Europe offers. When she's not exploring Italy's "Back Doors," she manages Rick's Tour Sales department.
How did you get interested in Italy?
I went to Italy for the first time when I was 15 years old on a student exchange program. I lived in a suburb of Milan. I had never been there before, and I studied at a school specific to scientific subjects. It was very challenging because I didn't really have an interest in science — let alone being able to learn it in a foreign language! But it forced me to work on my language skills a lot.
When I was studying at the University of Washington, I spent one year at a university in Siena. Every morning, I was in a three hour-intensive language course. It was a university for foreigners, and in that language course, there were many international students, so Italian was the common language. We couldn't default to English, so that helped us learn Italian.
I went back to Europe in 1999, and my boyfriend and I got married in Greece. We then backpacked around Europe for 10 weeks for our honeymoon. So I guess you could say I have had a love for Europe for many years. In September of 2000 I was an assistant guide for my first tour for Rick Steves, and was hired in the office in March of 2001 to work in the Tour Sales department.
What do you enjoy about leading the Venice tours?
It's wonderful to have an entire week to explore the canals of Venice. Most people only have two days to explore the town, so they rush around to see Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge, and the Doge's Palace. But with an entire week, you get to see all of the phases of Venice's history through its art, architecture, churches, and neighborhoods.
It's one thing to see Venetian tapestries and paintings hanging up in a sterile gallery, but it's wonderful to see these works of art in situ. When works of art are in churches or their original setting they have so much more power — you can fully experience what the work was meant to convey. An example of this is visiting the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Here you get to see all these crazy works of modern art in this woman's house. It's a wonderful depiction of the hedonistic side of Venice of the mid-20th century.
What do you enjoy about leading the Florence tours?
Since Italy is famous for its art and architecture, especially Renaissance works, and its cuisine and fine wines, it's really a privilege for me to spend a week in the birthplace of the Renaissance and particularly in a region renowned within Italy for its culinary traditions and wines. I love to help offer an experience of a lifetime with people who are excited to learn about Florence and gain a sense of the city's personality. Florence is a gem to explore because it's small enough to be able to comfortably wander on foot — poking around the colorful street markets, sampling the myriad favors of gelato artfully arranged in shops on every block, and finding works of art practically on every street corner.
What I most appreciate about the tour is that we go beyond the typical tourist sights of the Uffizi and Michelangelo's David and learn about the history and culture of this city and how religion, guilds, art, and mathematics all came together to produce one of the greatest periods in the history of art. I also love introducing people to the traditional specialties of Florentine cuisine by taking my groups to my favorite restaurants in the city, introducing them to an Italian marketplace, sharing recipes, and teaching people about the Brunellos, Chianti Classicos, and vino nobiles of Tuscany.
What is it like working in the Tour Sales department?
Our staff is encouraged to go on a new tour every year, so we really know the itineraries. Rick always likes to say, "If you don't like a place, then you probably don't know enough about it." I think that's so true. I had six days off after one of my tours one year, and my colleague recommended that I visit Denmark. I had never had a real interest in going there before, but her description of the country and the things to do there sounded so interesting I went by myself and absolutely fell in love with it!
Prospective tour members are always very impressed with the Tour Sales department's knowledge of our tour program. And, for example, if I don't know the Eastern Europe tour itinerary perfectly well, I can always hand the phone over to one of my colleagues who just returned from that tour and he/she can give the tour members exact information. I think our customers are so appreciative that we're not just reading answers out of some manual but have actually experienced traveling to the places they have questions about.