The Magazine


Europe on Five Dollars a Day

Nov 16, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 10 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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There are other jolts, as well. Europeans, Bramblett advises, "don't make a habit of wearing their regional traditional costume": alas, no lederhosen or kilts. Still, "most European males, especially those in southern countries," do "act like peacocks around women, parading around to win admiration." Bramblett's research has prompted him to conclude that "a single woman or a group made up of women only will get approached more often than a man or mixed group." So what's a girl to do? "Dress modestly to avoid unwanted attention," he counsels. "And wear shades."

Like Bramblett, the tourbook writer Rick Steves assumes a chatty but knowing scoutmaster's tone and seems similarly prepared to take your trip for you. With his "sixth sense of what tickles a reader's fancy," Steves has already sifted "through mountains of time-sapping alternatives" in order to "present you with only the best." With Rick Steves' Best of Europe, a trip to the continent can be as adventurous as punching the buttons on the remote control. See Dublin, for instance, the Steves way: "10:30, Trinity College walk; 11:00, Book of Kells and Old Library; 12:00, Browse Grafton Street, lunch there or picnic on St. Steven's Green; 13:30, National Museum" -- and so on, through every minute of something like a European holiday programmed by Martha Stewart.

Indeed, like Martha Stewart, Steves now presides over a thriving industry of products bearing his name. He hosts the PBS series Travels in Europe with Rick Steves. He publishes a newsletter offering "fresh-from-the-rucksack travel tips." He also produces a series of pocket-size phrase books and dictionaries that "cover every situation a traveler is likely to encounter" -- including, in the German version, the always handy Glauben Sie an Leben in Weltall? ("Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?) and Darf ich dir den massieren? ("Would you like a massage?") -- the modern equivalent, perhaps, of the much-mocked eighteenth-century phrasebook that included a translation for "My postillion has been struck by lightning." Steves assumes the air of having no airs, the persona of a regular guy who, despite his extensive knowledge of castles and strudel, still remains an American innocent abroad. When he first visited that "living, breathing organism," London, Steves humbly admits, "I felt very, very small."

But he's returned many times since and acquired some piercing insights into culture and art. ("Medieval art was OK if it embellished the house of God and told Bible stories.") He's also grasped the finer points of European convention and thus helpfully suggests that while in Venice ("worth at least a day") men should, literally, "keep their shirts on."

He's discovered, too, that in many cities pigeon guano poses a threat to unsuspecting excursionists. But when the birds do make their mark, you should "resist the initial response to wipe it off immediately -- it'll just smear into your hair. Wait until it dries and flake it off cleanly." Don't make a habit of waiting, however: "Your trip," Steves computes, "costs at least $ 10 per waking hour."

To his credit, Steves also commends two much better guidebooks, Let's Go: Europe 1998 and the Michelin Green Guide Europe. As it has been since 1961, Let's Go is still aimed primarily at the legions of backpacking students who haunt Europe's train stations and town squares during the summer months. Its tone is informal, but not condescending. Its contributors, students themselves, don't start by assuming that their readers are half-wits who wouldn't know a museum from a mausoleum.

Let's Go, indeed, has many virtues. It lists useful phone numbers: hotels, consulates, embassies. And it's impressively inclusive, giving space to both Iceland and Ireland, Slovenia as well as Spain. The entertainment tips are fairly reliable and complete: Let's Go is the best guide to use when, for example, you find yourself in Helsinki looking for a place to tango. Moreover, its hotel tips have improved much in recent years. About ten years ago, as I discovered in London, following the Let's Go hotel guide could land the traveler in a creaking firetrap where, through flimsy walls, assorted clanks and shouts and the sounds of the Pet Shop Boys could be heard long into the night. Let's Go still stresses cheapness and convenience. But its housing recommendations now show more consideration of readers with varying interests and tastes.