Just in time for you to change your summer travel plans, the Smithsonian and Rick Steves just launched their special summer edition magazine, Smithsonian Presents “TRAVELS with Rick Steves”. (In case you forgot, a magazine is a bundle of glossy paper printed with pretty colored pictures and some words, then bound with staples and placed within arm’s reach of the toilet in case you lose your iPad and need something to read.)
Just like Rick Steves the person, Rick Steves the magazine is dedicated to traveling in Europe. The 104-page Eurofest breaks down into 24 articles that describe Europe’s “Top 20 Destinations” which mixes up the obvious (Florence, Prague, Rome, Paris, and Venice) with the obscure (Denmark’s Aero Island, Bosnia’s Mostar, and the tiny Austrian village of Hallstatt). As an unapologetic advertorial, the magazines flips between a few scant full-page ads for Smithsonian Journeys and Rick Steves Tours. For a mere five bucks, you can buy a still-warm copy from the 100,000-strong print run at a newsstand near you.
Now honestly, I know nothing about Rick Steves other than he’s quite famous for helping regular Americans take tours of Europe. Also, many travelers who I respect swear by his travel guides, and once upon a time, a bunch of his fans mistook me for his assistant at a book signing. After reading his entire magazine cover to cover, I made the amazing discovery that the masthead lists only one writer. Yes, Rick Steves wrote the entire magazine all by himself, so… respect. The guy works hard and is way gutsy… gutsy enough to publish a print travel magazine in 2010.Love him or hate him, Rick Steves is a brand that’s infected America in much the same way as Target, Wranglers, and hip hop music sung by Caucasians. He’s everywhere and we all end up liking him, just like a lot of Americans enjoyed the movie “Chocolat” and a lot of Americans dream of carrying a baguette under one arm in France or clinking beer steins in Germany or sipping ouzo shots in Greece. This magazine is for them. For us pickier travel snobs, the gorgeous photo spreads and classy Smithsonian layout gives Rick the royal treatment and makes us all want to book a trip to Europe with our new best friend Rick.
Nevertheless, for someone whose entire identity involves leading America by the hand through Europe’s backdoor, it’s hard not to ignore Rick’s hearty embrace of cliché. His magazine’s titles highlight “Storybook” England, “Sound of Music” Austria, and “Heidi’s Switzerland” before trailing off into a slew of earth-shattering travel tips such as “David is a must-see visit in Florence”.
Now, if I wrote travel copy like that, my editors would shove it through a shredder. Twice. All you would have is a bunch of little squares of paper-like confetti thrown at a quaint Italian wedding that I just happened to run into as I was strolling down a cobblestone street under a buttery Tuscan sunset.
I much preferred Rick’s more honest and authentic articles like the “Best Little Street in Paris”–a candid Polaroid narrative about Rue Cler in the 7th Arrondissement–and his heartfelt discovery of Danish island life. I was also happy to see some of the Rick Steve love shine down on Blackpool–a northern British seaside resort that very few Americans ever visit.
If Rick Steves and Smithsonian want to feed our dreams of Europe, then mission accomplished. I want to go to all the places listed and now that I’ve read this sunny version of their Top 20 list, I’m so there. My only conjecture is that the “quaint folksiness” Rick so adamantly warns travelers against might also be the very product that he’s selling.