This is a guest post by Michael Shapiro.

Grey skies and an election hangover didn’t dampen the mood at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books on Thursday night as Euro-travel expert Rick Steves joined me (Michael Shapiro) to promote “A Sense of Place.” Steves, author of the Europe Through the Back Door guides, is one of eighteen travel writers profiled in A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Discuss Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration. Among the others are Bill Bryson, Frances Mayes, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris and Paul Theroux. 
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Steves, who posted a letter to his readers urging them to carefully consider their vote, came out swinging. He said it’s no accident coastal states voted Democratic because blue-staters tend to travel more and thus are more worldly, progressive and compassionate. Though he didn’t endorse a presidential candidate in his election letter, Steves received several angry responses from readers who said they’ll never use his guides again.

Which shows how charged the political atmosphere has become. Steves’ letter wasn’t a tirade. It begins:

“I’m a liberal. Big time. I’m also a capitalist — one of the best capitalists in my hometown. I employ (both happily and profitably) scores of people. While my travels have made me a citizen of our planet, I love America and I would live and work nowhere else. I am a patriot.” 

To engage the Elliott Bay audience before Rick arrived, I asked if anyone could guess what is Rick’s favorite country. Several guessed Italy, one guessed France, another Greece, but no one came up with the right answer. (Which was a good thing because I hadn’t figured out what the prize would be.) For the answer, read to the end of this report. 

Rick said he has no regrets about voicing his views and that he’s gained more exposure – including a recent NY Times Magazine feature, a USA Today opinion piece and an upcoming appearance on 60 Minutes Wednesday – than he ever has before. (Note: the 60 Minutes Wednesday piece is scheduled to air within the next month but Rick doesn’t yet have an exact date.) 

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The conversation moved on to Europe as Rick discussed the life of a guidebook writer and how it’s changed for him. He can’t move anonymously across the continent as he once did but said that hasn’t stopped him from being able to honestly evaluate hotels and restaurants. He’ll go into restaurants, talk to the diners, even sample food from their plates. I’ve seen him do this on his PBS television show, “Rick Steves’ Europe.” 

Interestingly, as he discusses in A Sense of Place, he said the European Union is helping regional movements and in some ways encouraging diversity. Celtic culture is now tolerated in Brittany and the Basque movement no longer threatens Spain because nations are now less important than the EU. 

Speaking of new discoveries in Europe, Steves recommended exploring Eastern Europe and said tourists tend to come in waves. For example after the war in the former Yugoslavia ended, Germans came to Dubrovnik, then Japanese tour groups and then Americans. But there are still plenty of European destinations that aren’t overrun with tourists, he said, urging the audience to get beyond the areas his guides cover. There are islands off the southern Italian coast that attract few tourists and thus it’s not worth his time to include them in his guides because not enough people will go there. But for intrepid travelers with ample time, these can be ideal destinations. 

After signing books, Rick and I walked back to our cars and he told me of his plans to launch a nationwide radio show early next year. He will freely give the show away, just as he gives away his television shows, to engender publicity for his guidebooks and tours. His parting words summed up his intentions for the new radio show: “I want to get in the red states!” 

Oh, if you’re still wondering about Rick’s favorite place, it’s India, because “India moves your furniture around more than any other country.” 

Michael Shapiro will be discussing A Sense of Place and the craft of travel writing this Thursday at 8:35 to 9 a.m. on KPFA (FM 94.1) in the Bay Area. If you don’t live in the Bay Area, you can listen at www.kpfa.org. I’ll be speaking at Books Inc in Burlingame this Thursday Nov. 11 then it’s on to Pasadena on Monday Nov 15. For the full list of tour events, see www.nettravel.com.

Read Michael’s review of the events in New York with Arthur Frommer right here on Written Road.
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