Interview with Holger Zimmer

Like many Rick Steves tour guides, Holger Zimmer has had an interesting life that extends far beyond (and wonderfully complements) his role as a guide. With a background in theater and music, Holger works regularly as a journalist in Berlin, covering art, film, music, and culture for the German media. And, having fallen in love with travel at a young age, Holger is often guiding in his hometown of Berlin and beyond, exploring Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe.

How did the Cold War affect your growing up?

I grew up in a small town very close to the border dividing West Germany and the East (the GDR). When friends came to visit our family it was common to go and visit the border as a strange attraction. And there we would stand, on the western side, looking over the long fence, watchtowers and guard dogs. I remember standing there as a child, seeing the same fields and woods on both sides, knowing we all speak the same language, but there was the deadly Iron Curtain between us. What a sad sight and a strange feeling. I believe it was there that I started to develop a keen interest in the GDR.

How did you satisfy your curiosity?

I wanted to find out for myself what was behind that unnatural border, so I began finding ways to visit East Germany as often as I could. In my teens I'd hitchhike from my hometown to West Berlin, where I could get a permit to visit East Berlin. The old houses, the drab colors, the smell of cheap gasoline and coal — it was all so different from the West. I remember smuggling in German marks by day and smuggling out wonderful books at night. (The GDR, despite being a socialist and repressive state, was a country full of literature and book culture.) I also met many amazing, open-hearted people. When the Wall fell, I moved to East Berlin as fast as I could! I was 20 years old then, and Berlin has been my home ever since.

What was it like to live through that time of change?

When I moved there in 1990, the GDR officially still existed. It was a time of newfound freedom and even creative anarchy. The old communist guard was gone for good, the new West German rules had not been installed yet, so people, young and old, took the chance to do what they wanted: live and speak freely, make art, install music clubs in the old ruins of derelict factories – the early '90s were a tremendous time to explore Berlin after the divide. The vibrant West German subculture came together with East German underground poets and musicians, and together they discovered each other's appetite for spicing up Berlin with theater, painting, concerts, and performances.

How would you describe Berlin today?

I love it. Nowadays Berlin is the capital city of Germany again, full of government buildings: politics, media, big companies, gentrified neighborhoods, and tourist attractions. Yes, a lot has changed in Berlin, but the spirit of young people making art is still alive. Berlin remains the music, art, and theater capital of Germany — it boasts more than 150 museums alone! Come and enjoy my city, I dare you!

You work in radio quite a bit. Does this connect to your tour guiding?

Working as a radio journalist for more than 16 years, and a tour guide for nearly 10, I have found that both professions (and I view them equally as my vocation) have a lot in common. I love going out into the world, meeting wonderful people, having great conversations and insights, and then bringing these histories and encounters home. For me it's all about making other cultures and distant times come alive for my audience. Distilling these into vibrant and ear-catching stories for a radio program or a tour lecture shares the same mission and result.

Can you give an example?

I like radio so much that I try to incorporate it into my tours. Anyone who has toured with me will remember the "Rick Steves Adventure Radio" activity that we regularly host on the bus. It's structured like a call-in show with live audience participation. Everyone on the bus gets to tell their experience to an eager audience. What a hoot!

What do you like most about guiding Rick Steves tours?

Well, to be honest, in this job I can completely be my enthusiastic self! I get paid to share my passion for the cultures of Europe that I've been traveling in for years — and also to inspire in others a love of adventure by plunging into new places and experiences. Travel for me — and for Rick Steves tour members — can be enriching again and again and again, no matter how young or old we are.

What are the most important ingredients in a great tour experience?

People will sometimes ask me, "What is a great tour for you?" My answer is: The one where, next to the fine food, history, and amazing sights, one very important thing happens — the people who mostly don't know each other on the first day become friends and care for each other by the time our journey ends. What matters isn't just the group we find ourselves in, but the one we make! Travel experiences and memories we share with others live longer, and they are so much more vivid.

What is one of the biggest "wow" moments you've had while on tour?

Oh my, among the many, I'll pick this one: We are driving up into the Swiss Alps in a thick, rainy fog. The stereo on the bus is playing a wonderful poem about the Lauterbrunnen Valley — our destination — composed by Goethe. It's being sung by a Berlin choir, and the combination of their voices and our anticipation and the forests around us is giving everyone goosebumps. But there are no mountains to be seen in this weather, so it all feels incomplete. The next morning, we wake up to blazing sunshine, surrounded by snow-covered alpine peaks, and after breakfast we start our adventure by hiking through fields echoing with the sound of cowbells. I deeply love the ocean, but nothing delivers serenity like the mountains. They are always amazing.

Any last words?

Come over, be our guest, and experience this land for yourself. And before you are finished, you will already be planning your next visit. I can guarantee that.