Lisa Friend is a dynamo of energy and knowledge. She's worked with Rick Steves for 15 years, in Europe and in Edmonds, WA. When stateside, Lisa is an ace travel consultant, giving one-on-one advice to help independent travelers prepare for their trips. When she's in Europe, Lisa is one of our most popular guides for Rick Steves' Best of Europe tours. She embodies the teaching skills and understanding that our office-based guides bring to their tours. Let's ask her a few questions…
Lisa, you've led groups on the 14-day and 21-day versions of our Best of Europe tours. People sometimes have trouble deciding on which version to take. Any advice?
When we sit around at our orientation meeting at the start of the tour, I always ask each tour member what they're looking forward to most. Inevitably, they'll say "Italy!" or "Paris!" or sometimes the "food and wine!" On our 21-day Best of Europe tours, the Netherlands and Germany are rarely mentioned on that first night, but those places always sneak up on people. I can't count how many times I've heard later on during the tour, "I didn't know how much I was going to love Bacharach!" or "Haarlem was so delightful!" Without a doubt, the village of Bacharach (in Germany's Rhine valley) is the least touristy, most undiscovered place on the 21-day tour. No one has it on their must-see list — and then no one wants to leave it! One of the loveliest things about the 14-day Best of Europe tour is the fact that we start in Paris. It's such a "WOW" city, you can't help but think, "I am really, REALLY here!" Just being in that city is like a celebration in honor of the start of your trip. By the time the tour members meet me on the first day they've already fallen in love with the French and found them to be charming and welcoming. That kind of start already puts a tour on a very happy trajectory for the next two weeks.
You work at the Rick Steves' Europe office when you're not touring. How does this help your guiding?
Working in the office as a travel consultant gives me real and daily insight as to what tour members might be thinking about — or worrying about — in regards to travel before they ever meet their guide and group in Europe. And since every customer's trip is different, I'm researching and solving problems all the time. It definitely makes me a more informed tour guide, and adds to my tool kit for those times when a tour needs to deviate from the planned itinerary.
How does a US-based guide stay current on politics and events in Europe?
Anyone can keep current on European issues in the same manner as the American news; it just takes a little more legwork. For example, I subscribe to an RSS feed that sends me European news every day. I read it just like a custom newspaper. Social media is a big help, too, because I'm always in touch with my friends abroad.
What's your favorite day on the Best of Europe in 21 Days tour?
It has to be Venice — gorgeous, independent, crumbling, proud Venice. I love to organize an optional gondola ride the first evening so we can view Venice from the proper architectural perspective and appreciate how this city's "speed of life" has always been at human speed, by foot or by rowing — not even the speed of a horse or carriage. Then we have a great walking tour in the morning and then free for the rest of the day. I tell my tour members to "get lost" — not because I won't miss them, but because I want them to get to the fringes of the island where there aren't any tourists and the entire city is a living museum of 16th- and 17th-century buildings. Also, unlike in my hometown, I feel incredibly safe in Venice, even walking back to my hotel at midnight. The most exciting thing that ever happened was seeing George Clooney go by in a boat.
Rick Steves' tours rely on teaching from local experts as well as from lead guides like yourself. How does that work?
I always know ahead of time what the local experts are going to cover, so I make sure to tailor my bus talks to give a broader overview and meaningful context to what they are about to hear onsite. This way the local guide is providing details and a perspective that has hooks to hang on, so to speak. For example, before we go to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial, I talk about the history of Germany during and after World War I. I illustrate how the ending of that war with the Treaty of Versailles, subsequent war reparations, and then the Great Depression all contributed to the rise of fascism and Adolf Hitler, and how the same dynamics can relate to events in our world today. Dachau is a place for grief and remembrance, but it's also an opportunity to learn a great deal about causes and consequences.
Who is your favorite European person to talk about when you are on a tour?
I'm going to cheat a little on this and answer the Medici family. Telling the story of how this glorious family — with wonderful nicknames like Lorenzo the Magnificent and Piero the Unfortunate — right as we're standing near their tombs in Florence, is without a doubt my favorite talk on the Best of Europe tour. It's a fun example of how tour guides can make history come alive.