Foreword by Rick Steves
Preface | Coffee and C ́ejf
PART ONE: THE TEMPORARY EUROPEAN
Hey! I’m in Europe! | Kraków, Poland
The Permanent Residents of Vacationland | Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast
The Artisanal Life | Montepulciano, Italy
My Travel Origin Story | Europe, 1999
Jams Are Fun: When Travel Plans Go Sideways
I’ve Been in Your Hotel Room: A Day in the
Life of a Guidebook Writer
PART TWO: DECONSTRUCTING CLICHÉS
Velkomin til Íslands! | Reykjavík, Iceland
The Soggy, Sunny Highland Games of Taynuilt | Scottish Highlands
D’oh! A Deer! | Salzburg, Austria
Loving the French (What’s Not to Love?) | France
That Wonderful Language Barrier | Europe
Jams Are Fun: How to Drive in Sicily: Just Go Numb
Like All Things, This Tour Shall Pass: Confessions of a Tour Guide
PART THREE: FOOD IS CULTURE
Come On, Have Some Guts | Palermo, Sicily
These Pierogi Are Perfect | Kraków, Poland
Seven Markets in Seven Days | Provence, France
The Trouble with Tapas | Spain
Where the World’s Food Comes to You | London, England
Jams Are Fun: There’s a (Gastrointestinal) Bomb on the Bus!
PART FOUR: ALL ALONE; NEVER ALONE
An Introvert in the Land of Extroverts | Italy
High in the Mountains with Tina’s Dad | Slovenian Alps
What Lies Beneath | Dartmoor, England
Waiting for Luciano’s Knock | Val d’Orcia, Italy
Acorns and Corncobs: A Semester Abroad | Salamanca, Spain, 1996
Jams Are Fun: It’s Gonna Be a Noisy Night
In Romania, Everything Is (Not) Possible: Making Travel Television
PART FIVE: MEANINGFUL HEDONISM
Pistachio Gelato Never Lies | Florence, Italy
Making Hay While the Sun Shines | Above Gimmelwald, Switzerland
Up to My Earlobes in Hot Water | Budapest, Hungary
Ghosts and Skeptics | Great Britain
Jams Are Fun: A Rough Day on the North Sea
The Merry Band of Travelers: The Cult of Rick Steves
PART SIX: CHANGES AND CHALLENGES
The Sublime and the Ridiculous | Cinque Terre, Italy
One Day I Met Some Refugees | Zagreb, Croatia
Blood, Toil, Tears, Sweat, and Surrendering to Brexit | South England
Hallstatt Never Changes . . . Except When It Does | Hallstatt, Austria
Jams Are Fun: In Rome, You Can Never Get a Taxi When It Rains
After the World Changed, a New Hope for Travel; Or: Shutterbugs Miss the Lion
Favorites (and Least Favorites)
About the Author
The Artisanal Life
On my first visit to the Tuscan countryside, I secretly hoped I wouldn’t like it. Because falling head-over-heels for Tuscany is so . . . predictable. Certainly, someone who’d seen so much of Europe could hold their own against Tuscany’s charms. Certainly, I was mistaken.
Now, a decade of visits later, I’m a convert—another tiresome Tuscany zealot. When I’m in the bucolic heart of Tuscany, I have trouble getting to sleep. My head spins with the sublime experiences of today, and my pulse quickens thinking about tomorrow. I feel like I’m on some sort of globetrotting drug, freebasing the essence of peak travel.
In Tuscany, I have many “dealers.” One of them is Roberto Bechi, a tour guide who lives with his American wife and children in the countryside. From their property, you can see the stone towers of one of Italy’s most inviting small cities, Siena.
Showing me around his farm, Roberto walked out through an olive grove to a deteriorating stone wall, which he supposes dates to the Middle Ages, perhaps with Roman foundations. He described some changes he was considering—new crops over there, maybe an outbuilding here—and I could sense his anxi- ety rising.
Roberto paused and confessed that he feels tremendous generational pressure around creating a beautiful life. He owes it to his ancestors to carry on their legacy—to write a fitting new chapter in the story of Tuscany. Anytime he plants a tree or renovates a house, he asks himself whether it’s good enough, Tuscan enough. This is a place where everyone is an uncompromising artisan, and life itself is their art.
You find this perfectionism in the Renaissance greats like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Donatello. And you find it on the streets of every town in Tuscany, including my favorite hill town, Montepulciano. From the main piazza, a wide pedestrian lane snakes steeply down through town. Strolling just a few hundred yards, you can drop in on four different artists—each with a fierce passion for doing just one thing at the highest possible level.
My first stop, on the downhill slope of the square, is a wine cellar called Cantina Contucci. I’m greeted with fanfare by Adamo, an elderly gentleman who’s worked here most of his life. I ask Adamo what’s new. He answers with the polished timing of a Catskills comic: “Last year, I finally retired . . . but they still let me come to work every day.”
This town is famous for its robust red wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The grapes are grown in the surrounding hillsides, but it’s here, in a warren of cellars beneath the town center, that they become Vino Nobile. Tidy rows of gigantic wine casks age beneath Gothic vaults.
As we walk among the truck-sized barrels, Adamo’s animated chatter crescendos and echoes. My Italian is rusty, but Adamo’s exuberance is a universal language. For emphasis, from time to time he reaches out and excitedly grips my arm. Fixing me with an intense gaze, Adamo explains that a good wine has three essential qualities. He points to his eyes, his nose, and his mouth: color, bouquet, and taste.
Finally, Adamo pops a cork and pours a sample in my glass. He won’t let me leave until he’s certain that I fully appreciate his life’s work.
I step from Adamo’s dank cellars into the bright sun. Wandering a few steps downhill, I’m drawn to the clang of metal against metal, like the ringing of an out-of-tune bell. Peeking into a cluttered time-warp of a workshop, I see a coppersmith named Cesare, clad in a heavy leather apron and hunched over an anvil—an actual anvil, like in the Roadrunner cartoons.
Cesare, even older than Adamo, still crafts his copper vessels the way he was taught as a boy. He invites me in to see his finely detailed, hammered-copper pots. Like Adamo, Cesare needs no English to convey his devotion to his craft. Proud as a new papa pulling snapshots out of his wallet, Cesare shows me a photograph of the weathervane he created for Siena’s cathedral.
Flattered by my interest, Cesare declares that he will make me a gift. He pulls out a set of tools that he inherited from his father, who inherited them from his father, and so on, dating back to 1857. He lays a copper circle on his anvil and arranges his antique stencils. Dotingly, he dents the disc with floral patterns, my wife’s initials, and our wedding date. He refuses payment. Instead, he shows me a scrapbook of photos and postcards from past visitors. At his age, sharing his love for his craft, and connecting with curious people from around the world, is all that matters.
A few doors farther down the same street is a lively restaurant. The lunch rush is on, but I squeeze behind a tiny table in the corner and scan the menu, scrawled in blue pen on a heavy sheet of burnt-yellow paper.
Giulio, the owner, is a tall, balding, lanky artist with a pencil sticking out of his gray ponytail. He’s more “aging hippie” than “Italian grandpa,” but just like his neighbors, he’s fully devoted to his craft: grilling the perfect steak.
First things first: steaming plates of handmade pasta perfectly coated in rich sauce. (While considered primi—“starters”—one of these could easily be an entire meal.) Then a rustic salad, with a few top-quality ingredients tossed together in olive oil and balsamico.
Giulio makes his rounds through the crowded restaurant. The place is loose and casual, but he enacts a practiced ritual that’s mostly for show: At each table, he pulls up a chair and talks his customers into ordering a giant steak. To seal the deal, he pulls the pencil from his ponytail and scratches the price on the paper tablecloth.
When they agree, Guilio hops up and takes two giant strides up the seven steps at the back of the restaurant, where a monstrous slab of Chianina beef rests on a butcher block. First, Giulio gently saws his way through the soft flesh. Then he hacks the sinews with a cleaver. He slaps the five-pound T-bone on a sheet of paper, descends the stairs, and shows it to the customer for their final approval.
There’s no asking how you’d like it done. Giulio knows how it’s done: Back up the stairs, he places the steak on a grill and pushes it into a wood-fired oven. Five minutes on one side, five minutes on the other, then sprinkled with coarse sea salt. That’s how it’s done.
When Giulio delivers the still-bleeding steak to his customers, the response is always the same: Eyes wide at the giant slab of meat, and protests that they simply can’t eat so much—especially after that pasta! And yet, somehow, they manage.
After this feast, I waddle down the steep, twisty main drag. Near the bottom of town, and the gateway to the real world, stands Montepulciano’s best gelateria, owned by Nicola. I deem this a rare occasion when I won’t give in to the temptation.
But as I walk past the door, I hear a familiar voice shout, “Buona sera! Hello!” Nicola has spotted me—and even though we’ve met only once, a year or two earlier, he recognizes me. Sheepishly, I backtrack into Nicola’s shop, where I’m handed a half-dozen plastic spoons of free samples.
Nicola is younger than his uptown neighbors—perhaps around 30—but every bit as consumed by a love for what he does. He explains that, after apprenticing at a renowned London restaurant, he returned to Tuscany and opened a laboratorio—determined to make his mark on the culinary world.
In those early days, his first product was jam made from fruit and berries foraged on the grounds of posh villas. Nicola had only a bicycle, which he’d ride through the Tuscan countryside to assemble a network of producers: truffle hunter, vintner, olive oil presser, and so on. (While intended as a sad-sack tale of humble beginnings, this experience sounds nothing short of amazing.)
Slowly Nicola transformed his preserves business into a gelateria. And he is the very best kind of gelato snob: He makes his gelato from scratch each morning, so it’s not available until around noon. On busy days, it sells out in a few hours.
Initially, Nicola made only two flavors each day. Locals came in and asked for flavors they’d seen elsewhere. Unapologetically, he’d steer them to the ones on hand, re-training them to go for what’s fresh. On this visit, his creamy basil tastes like an herb garden. On other trips, I’ve enjoyed carrot-ginger, kiwi-spinach, custard with raspberry jam, and orange-ginger.
From collecting his plums from a local orchard, to shipping in top-quality pistachios from Sicily, hazelnuts from Piedmont, or lemons from Puglia, Nicola obsesses over quality. And the base of his gelato—the milk—is delivered fresh three times each week from a local dairy farm. Not only does this taste better; Nicola explains that, in good Italian fashion, it also digests better than processed gelato.
Whether it’s gelato, steak, copper, or wine, there’s something profoundly inspiring about someone who’s completely devoted to their life’s work. In Montepulciano, you meet people who can’t stop working just because they’ve retired. People for whom appreciation is better payment than money. People who find their niche in life and fill it proudly.
Tuscany may be the place where this is most keenly expressed, but a similar sensibility pervades much of Europe: The French boulangère who devotes her life to baking the perfect baguette rustique. The Croatian fisherman who ties his knots just so. The Portuguese artist who hand-paints delicate patterns on tiles. Back home, “artisanal” is trendy, pretentious, and priced at a premium. In Europe, it’s simply how things are done, when things are done correctly.