Jesse Blackwood leads Rick Steves' Best of Europe tours with an irresistible mix of intellect, passion, and wide-eyed wonder. Whether he's walking through a neighborhood with tour members, careening around Italy in a Vespa, surfing with his brothers, or reading Latin while picnicking in a park, Jesse is all about getting the most meaning out of any given moment. Let's see what makes him tick.
When was your first travel adventure to Europe?
I first traveled to Europe after finishing my undergraduate in philosophy and classics. In university I had read and learned so much about the foundations and history of our society that I was curious to see the places where it had all begun. I had the feeling that I had these pieces of a puzzle — languages, food, culture, novels, and my own American sense of the world — and I wanted to see where it came from.
I worked for a year and saved up enough for a flight into Paris and a summer of backpacking through France and Italy. I slept in train stations, ate baguettes, and relied heavily on the generosity of those I met along the way. I was reintroduced to the great novelists and painters of the 19th and 20th centuries at dinner parties in friends' apartments in Paris. In the south of France I'll never forget listening to a grandfather (my 90-year-old host) reciting countless lines of Victor Hugo and tending his beautiful garden at the top of the hill. There too I discovered the delight of hiking to abandoned castle ruins, bringing a picnic of the simplest and loveliest treats from the surrounding countryside, and enjoying the smells and sights of each place.
So…all play and no work?
Oh, I worked at studying, too — which added a new dimension to the traveling. I spent a large part of that first summer in Rome with my brother studying Latin with Reginald Foster, one of the Pope's Latinists. He was a terrific teacher and really loved everything: Latin, the food, Rome, the whole picture. He used to take us on excursions outside the city. I remember visiting the ruins to Horace's villa, picking figs that were still growing there, and sitting in the shade on the old stones working through the text. I had a lot of moments like that on my first trip where what had been a dead language or a ruin suddenly came to life: basking in the sun at the temple to Hercules in the valley of the temples in Agrigento, or swimming under the enormous Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard in the south of France. There's a lot that's magical about traveling, but it always has to be more than a picture or the dates or who built what. When we let ourselves be transformed by the places we visit, there's a powerful incentive to keep going back.
How did you end up guiding tours?
Going back to that summer in Rome, my oldest brother, Stephen, was there at the same time. We had lots of adventures, including renting a Vespa together (we survived). Not long after that, Stephen began working as a tour guide for Rick Steves and loved it. So a few years ago when he suggested I apply for a job with Rick, it didn't take much convincing. We share the same love of facilitating the transformative and sometimes life-changing experiences that travel can give to our tour members.
What is it about the Best of Europe tour that turns on so many tour guides?
The three-week Best of Europe trip is jam-packed and full of incredible sights. For example, in just the middle week we cross the Alps twice, glide through the canals of Venice, see Michelangelo's David and the incredible painting of the Renaissance, walk down the Via Sacra where emperors paraded victorious through Rome, visit the Colosseum and the Pantheon, swim in the Ligurian sea...the list really just goes on and on. For most tour members this really is the trip of a lifetime. The transitions from moment to moment are really beautiful. And as a guide, it's wonderful to share in this experience with tour members who are seeing it for the first time and developing great friendships along the way.
What is life like when you are not on the road?
When I'm not guiding I try to spend a lot of time with my family. I love cooking for friends and surfing with my brothers. I come from a family of eight boys and two girls. Maybe that's why I enjoy being with groups and creating an experience that everyone enjoys. I'm lucky that there's a great sense of adventure, poetry, and beauty in my family — a lot of that comes from my parents — and I guess that's part of what brings me to this career.
But the majority of my time off is spent writing. I've finished a draft of my first book and I'll soon begin another. I love fiction, children's stories, short stories, and poetry.
Here's what Jesse won't tell you…but his tour members will:
"After three Rick Steves tours I would say that Jesse Blackwood was the best tour guide I have had so far. He was knowledgeable and had a lovely ability to engage the past with the present. I especially enjoyed his story telling, his poetry, and his sweet spirit. He is a very gifted guide. He made everyone feel cared for and valued."
— Susan in Portland, OR