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Reflections on RS Heart of Italy (July 9, 2017)

The remarkable difference with this tour, indeed any Rick Steves tour, is culture.

In saying this, I do not refer to the ethnic or national culture being visited by the tour (in this case the wonderful culture of Italy), but the Rick Steves difference is due to the culture of the tour itself: The people, the guide, the way we were recruited and prepared, the whole Steves philosophy, and the itinerary.

Here is the difference: Other tours are more like theatre. That is, you view things almost as if they are on stage or a screen; you have a place on the tour and you view things and have them described to you, sometimes by experts. It is more passive, maybe even voyeuristic—a sit-and-watch or walk-and-stare experience. At worst, some tours even bear a slight whiff of arrogance, where the tourists view a culture as if it’s under glass or in a zoo display; they point to what they see, appreciatively perhaps, but they barely engage it.

But our experience with the Heart of Italy, the nine-day tour of Rome, Volterra / Lucca, Cinque Terre and Florence, was different. We participated; we touched the culture, and were coached to know Italian phrases and not to dress like a conspicuous tourist. We were asked to be curious and to learn, to walk with our own bags through narrow streets to our Mom-n-Pop B&B-style hotels, to know transportation tricks and to have long conversations with the locals who hosted our stays and served our meals.

More was required of us, to be active in visiting rather than passive, and that’s a good thing.

The Rick Steves organization is quite intentional about the culture of their tours, based on a well-thought-out philosophy of travel. This slant on visiting Europe has a natural filtering effect on customer recruitment, i.e. you have to like this kind of travel to begin with (travel-as-theatre folks are not likely to sign up). Further, the organization will diplomatically caution against negative participants with their “no grumps” rule and the many statements that gently caution about the amount of walking, the potential for waiting in line or other potential discomforts we will take in stride (like heat, for example).

So our thought was “wow, give us that!” And we knew, thereby, that like-minded people would be on the tour, people who have some energy for travel, who do not count effort as discomfort, and relate well to others. The group was small. We interacted with what we saw and with each other, making the social aspect of this tour a highlight. Indeed, this group—our group—was one of the best aspects of the tour.

This itinerary is balanced. Some days were split, half the time with the group, guided through the Vatican Museum, Coliseum, Forum, the streets of Volterra or Lucca, the train stops of Cinque Terre or the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and then the remaining time on our own. We found the so-called “strenuous” days to be not quite as daunting as that word implies. Departing our peeps in the Vatican, we prowl St. Peters on our own, go back to the room and take a nap, then taxi over to Trastevere for Calzone and milling with the crowds. Several days were like that.

I had the space of heart and time to contemplate Michelangelo’s David and to be overwhelmed at the history and significance of the Creation of Man in the Sistine Chapel; to watch the waves batter the breakwater at Vernazza, and to hear arias in the 13th century chapel in that town later that evening. Beauty and heroism were on display at Volterra's Etruscan gate, an idyllic hillside view with a tale of the townspeople's bravery in WWII.

I believe that I may have changed a bit as a result of this trip. And that is the point, is it not? You can take an arms-length view, just to say you saw it, and will likely leave Europe little changed. Though in my 60’s, I refuse to be rutted and I want travel to change me. Getting immersed even briefly in a culture—both that of Rick Steves and of Italy—will do that to a person.

Posted by
7921 posts

Wow this was an enjoyable read. You're obviously a talented writer... : ) Thanks for putting your thoughts to paper (or keyboard lol) and sharing!

Posted by
1623 posts

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, cal.

Most of the time, most people find whatever they are looking for--confirmation bias operates prospectively as well as in memory, and this is all the more true once we have more than a few years under our belts. We notice whatever conforms with the baggage we brought with us, and discount or even ignore what doesn't fit in with the mental furniture we already carry.

This is the deep sense in which the RS insistence on packing light results in a better experience. Don't carry too many preconceptions with you when you go, and you have more space in your kit to add whatever it is that you find.

When I went to central Italy having pledged to take what it had to give, I found almost the opposite of what our dominant culture tells us -- I found not a break that separated the pagan world from the christian/modern world but continuity after continuity, from the Pontifex Maximus to the basilicas to the incorporation through colonization of (not so) Other cultures. Paralleling this was not a sense of uncovering the Classical underpinnings of modern western European (WASPy) high culture, but of the contrast between Anglo and Germanic brittleness and grasping vs. the supple Mediterranean hold on life and family, the juicyness of southern Europe that secure Anglos can admire and appreciate but brings out anxiety for those who are more fragile. The binding / religare part of 'religion' ties things together for good and for ill both, and has much to teach us out here even farther west about the price we pay for idolizing individualism.

Many meditation/prayer traditions counsel practitioners to let the mental experiences come and go, without either pushing thoughts away or pulling them tightly in, going with the flow. Adapting this to travel can yield good stuff.

Posted by
362 posts

Great trip report! We're going on our first RS tour later this year, but we've already discovered the difference between seeing a country 'on display' and being part of the country we're visiting. Your report gives me great hope. Thank you!!!

Posted by
1954 posts

My thoughts and sentiments exactly about the RS philosophy. I have been on 4 tours and am less than 40 days from my 5th - 8 Days in the Heart of Ireland. Thinking about Turkey for 2018!

I did both 7 Days in Rome and 17 Days Best of Italy and was blown away in just the way you describe. Thanks for your eloquence.

Posted by
5976 posts

cal, you put into words something that is hard to describe when explaining the value of the tours to other people. It is that desire to expose you to the contemporary living culture, as much as old art, architecture, and history, that makes a difference. RS actually encourages you to interact with locals and get out of your comfort zone, rather than insulate you from the inconvenience of it. Thank you for sharing.

Posted by
266 posts

With your permission, I'd like to send this link to my friends and family question why I would spend an exorbitant amount of money on a tour when other, cheaper options are available. It's for this sentiment exactly that I will take tours with RS. Thank you so much for putting into words what is somewhat difficult to explain.

Posted by
4600 posts

Cal, you expressed beautifully what I was trying to get across in my recent Village Italy trip report. Thank you. And thanks to avirosemail, as well, for adding another layer to what you were saying.

Yes, this is why we keep coming back.

Posted by
440 posts

Thanks for this. It was a great read and rings true, being British it is hard to understand the American mentality of running through places taking photos and moving on without experiencing how cities work and engaging local people. Rick Steves is doing his best to change this and having met members of his tours on my travels they are fully immersed in what he is trying to achieve. Taking photos of the Eiffel tower and other landmarks is not experiencing a place sitting in cafes chatting to locals getting out of your comfort zone is, of course visit the great sites but also visit the everday sights around you.

Posted by
3184 posts

I'm still not sold on the tour concept, but I see that it works for many. Maybe if I didn't have the time for elaborate self-planning then an RS tour might work for me. I just don't want to be herded around.

Posted by
267 posts

Tom, I can understand your hesitancy about tours. I felt the same as you but was intrigued with the RS philosophy that I saw on his shows and read in his books. Because of that I took the plunge a few years ago after thoroughly enjoying doing all my own planning on previous trips. That first tour was Best of South Italy, and I was hooked! Although each tour has its own personality, and each tour guide is different, this way of traveling is exceptional. But because I do enjoy the planning part of it, we will be doing a My Way tour in about six weeks. To my way of thinking it could be the best of both worlds. With previous RS tours, we did plan additional time before or after, so there was some of the personal touch, and of course there was the free time to play with. But the My Way concept seems to give your trip that personal touch but still takes away some of the stress of transportation between major stops etc. At least that is the way I foresee it. I'll find out very soon.

Posted by
276 posts

Thank you for the great report. I'm happy you had a nice time.

I had booked my first RS tour but cancelled. Maybe one day I'll reconsider and book again.

Posted by
527 posts

I very much enjoyed your "trip report," Just yesterday I was trying to explain the difference between RS tours and others, and I didn't come anywhere near your eloquence. Thank you!

Posted by
112 posts

Thank you. My wife and I will be RS tour third-timers soon in Italy. Both of us concur with your observations on what what we enjoy and what we believe makes RS tours best for us.

Posted by
19 posts

Thanks for the generous and kind words, all. I'm glad you found the review helpful. It truly was a great tour, and this was a result of the tour company as much as the tour itself.

Posted by
8247 posts

What a lovely reflection of your time on this tour!

I wholeheartedly agree with you and with the others, particularly avirosemail and the concept of light packing - mentally and physically.

The Heart of Italy was my first RS tour and it is responsible for me becoming hooked! You managed to bring tears by helping me recollect the bravery of those folks in Volterra and the story Annie, the local guide, related to us.

I agree that this really describes the difference between tour companies.

Thanks so much for posting from the heart.

Posted by
97 posts

cal - Thank you for a great reflection. My husband and I, in our late 60's/early70's, just signed up for the Heart of Italy tour in April 2018. We also refuse to be rutted and look forward to the changes travel will bring. This will be our first trip to Europe and you've expressed what we have hoped will be true for this tour. The active and connected culture of RS tours as well as the opportunity to branch out on our own are what appealed to us. Thanks for confirming our hopes! - Polly