The Alps with Rick Steves

our 2018 scrapbook

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My Way: Alpine Europe in 12 Days

In the summer of 2018, my husband, Spencer, and I celebrated 15 years together, and chose to celebrate with another trip to Europe - this time, in the Alps!

Across five different European countries - Austria, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and France - we explored the amazing Alpine Europe region on a ‘My Way’ tour with Rick Steves’ Europe.

Explore the Scrapbook below for info on trip planning, why we chose to travel with Rick Steves’ Europe, our full itinerary, a few of our favorite spots, and reflections about our off-the-beaten path tour of the Alps.

 

“Travel teaches the beauty of human fulfillment.”

-Rick Steves

The Travelers: A bit about us…

As a young couple, traveling in Europe has forged strength, resilience, and mutual respect into our relationship. We have more confidence - in ourselves & each other.

London 2019

London 2019

In 2015, we were sitting in our living room in our home state of Colorado. We had been together for 12 years, had the white picket fence house, a cute dog, and great paychecks - but we were bored. We had checked off all the boxes, and yet we felt like we really hadn’t seen the world. At age 30, neither of us had ever left North America.

In a moment of inspiration, Anne asked, “How about we go to Europe? My mom and I always used to watch Rick Steves’ Europe on PBS. Maybe we should start there.”

And the rest is history. In 2015, we used Rick’s guidebooks to plan a trip to London and Scotland. In 2016, we went on a Rick Steves guided tour in Italy. And in 2017, Anne traveled to Europe solo for this first time, successfully employing everything she’s learned.

Traveling in Europe with Rick Steves gave us renewed confidence, and was a catalyst to pursue new roads in our life.

When we returned from our first trip in 2015, inspired by a conversation we had in Glasgow, Scotland, Spencer quit his job, and started to pursue his dreams of a career in health and fitness.

After a rough bout with Lyme Disease in 2016, their tour of Italy helped Anne reconnect with herself, and motivated her to finish her graduate school applications.

And in 2017, Anne’s solo trip to Scotland was a part of a research conference with her new doctoral program - at Yale University.

And as we broaden our horizons, we’ve broadened our love for one another.

To celebrate our 15th anniversary in 2018, we decided to plan a 3-week trip to Europe.

Eager to get away from the big cities and explore new natural landscapes, we signed up for the My Way: Alpine Europe in 12 Days trip with Rick Steves, with a pre-trip stop in London, and a post-trip visit to Paris. This trip was the culmination of more than just 3 years of a newly found passion for travel. It was a celebration of our commitment to trying new things and taking risks, our eagerness to learn, and our commitment to a healthy relationship.

And we had so much fun! We even went to a CrossFit class in Salzburg taught entirely in German! (Read on for that story!)

Traveling together has taught us a new meaning of the word “partnership.”

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Spencer is a mechanical engineer. He also hails from Colorado originally (in fact, Spencer and Anne are high school sweethearts), and has a passion for extreme sports - especially snowboarding and riding BMX bikes! In 2017, he chose to take a break from engineering to pursue his passion for functional health and fitness, and now works full time as a CrossFit and nutrition coach.

His favorite Alpine Europe city: Chamonix, France

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Anne is a writer and PhD student at Yale University. Originally from Colorado, she has a BA in religious history, and worked as an outdoor educator before deciding to go to graduate school to become a professor. She now studies culture, religion, and nationalism in the Sociology department at Yale. She is the main author of this Scrapbook.

Her favorite Alpine Europe city: Salzburg, Austria

So, that’s us! And we hope you enjoy our scrapbook!

Why we like to travel the “Rick Steves Way”… 

Spencer and I both grew up in a very small town - only 4,000 people. And about the time we took our first European trip in 2015, we were feeling like we were giving into the age-old adage, “Small towns. Small minds.” We wanted to try new things. We didn’t want to live in fear of what we didn’t understand - especially as the world becomes more and more connected.

Traveling not only opens our eyes and minds and hearts - we emerge from each trip liking ourselves mores. As we test ourselves under various conditions, and broaden the margins of or experiences, we become more confident.

We like what we see - around the world, and within ourselves.

We will always travel the “Rick Steves Way” going forward. What do I mean by that? I’m so glad you asked!

The Italian Alps. Seis, Italy. 2019.

The Italian Alps. Seis, Italy. 2019.

Our Itinerary…

Day 1: Welcome to Salzburg, Austria

Day 2: A Full Day in Salzburg

Day 3: Dolomites Drive to Italy

Day 4: All Day in the Alpe di Suisi

Day 5: To the Zugspitze and Bavaria

Day 6: Biking, Hiking, and Castles in Bavaria

Day 7: Traveling to Switzerland

Day 8: All Day to Explore the Swiss Alps

Day 9: Another Day of Swiss Adventure

Day 10: Onwards to the French Alps

Day 11: On Top of the World on the Aiguille du Midi

Day 12: Breakfast and Goodbyes 

Getting ready for our trip…

When we first started traveling in Europe, the resources that Rick Steves’ Europe provided were lifesavers. The website, guidebooks, TV shows, phrasebooks, lectures, community forums, and more helped us feel empowered and eager to “keep on traveling!”

The My Way tour format presented a new challenge. Unlike the fully guided Heart of Italy in 9 Days tour we went on in 2016, the My Way tours, though they still plan your hotels and transportation while on trip, are designed to be more independent. They are not fully guided and do not arrange museum experiences or cultural excursions. Though there is a helpful tour manager, each day, we are generally on our own!

With this in mind, this trip took a bit more planning on the front end, and we learned so much putting skills we’ve learned from past tours and trips into practice.

Here are some of our planning tips:

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Spencer using the guidebook in Salzburg.

Spencer using the guidebook in Salzburg.

do your homework - read the guidebook!

Buy the suggested guidebook - and read it!

For the independent My Way tour, we knew that we were on our own for planning our daily activities for each stop along the way, and the guidebook provided for the tour gave us great ideas and helpful tips, especially about general knowledge about the history, culture, and language, as well as planning ahead and making reservations at the big sights. We didn’t want to waste time waiting in lines or missing out because we didn’t proactively plan our activities. Gotta put those pennies we saved for the trip to good use!

For instance, we knew we wanted to go on a Sound of Music bike tour in Salzburg, and the guidebook suggested a few companies. I did a bit more research, read some reviews, and chose what turned out to be an amazing company (Fräulein Maria´s Bicycle Tour!). We had a blast, and most definitely had more fun than if we had waited until the morning of to book - they would have been sold out!

The guidebooks are carefully researched, and updated each year. They’re there to help you have the best trip possible - so, as Rick says, be a good student! Do your homework!

and for the slow days where reading is a drag, watch rick steves’ videos!

Rick’s YouTube channel has plenty of fun videos to watch about spots all over Europe. From quick video blogs/vlogs :) to full episodes of his PBS TV show, there is so much to enjoy and be inspired by. These were some of our favorites that helped us get excited:

Rick’s video blog of the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland

A full episode of Rick Steves’ Europe in Salzburg!

Rick’s video blog from the My Way Alpine Europe trip he led.


pack light

In terms of packing, on Rick Steves’ tours in Europe, each traveler is only allowed to bring one carry-on sized suitcase. When we first started traveling the “Rick Steves way” in 2015, I found this to be so hard. I bought all the compression packing bags I could from the Rick Steves online travel store, and stuffed as much as I could inside.

Take it from me: this is no way to travel. Pack light!

The reasoning for the one bag allowance is simple: when you pack light, you can do more, more easily. No one carries your bags for you on Rick’s tours!

With each trip to Europe we take, my bag gets lighter and lighter. I used to be so worried that I needed to bring loads of options because Europeans generally dress smarter than Americans (they don’t usually wear baseball caps or sweatpants out and about, for example). But more isn’t better.

Simple is better.

For our 12 day tour, I took one carry-on bag with 2 pairs of shoes (a walking shoe, and a dressier shoe), a rain jacket, 1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of shorts, 1 skirt, 2 blouses, 1 tshirt, a scarf, and 1 dress. I also carried a backpack for my journal, guidebook, and sunscreen.

Spencer packed even lighter! One day, I’ll catch up to him!

Me, my one bag, and my backpack - ready to go! (with Spencer’s one bag behind me)…

Me, my one bag, and my backpack - ready to go! (with Spencer’s one bag behind me)…


A french bookstore in the Marais.

A french bookstore in the Marais.

practice helpful phrases

When we landed in Salzburg, Austria, I had a moment of panic. “How do we talk to the customs agents?” I asked Spencer. “I’ve never spoken German before.”

Spencer responded calmly, “I have German phrasebook on my phone.”

Though many in Europe speak English, some don’t - and all appreciate when you attempt to speak their language. It really is a matter of respect (if someone walked into your business, and demanded you speak their language, what would you do?). It’s also really fun! Buy the phrasebook (we used the Rick Steves “French, Italy, and German” one), and download the “Google Translate” app for your phone to help you navigate longer, trickier signs and situations.

We loved practicing phrases together. Walking through Salzburg on the way home from dinner, repeating “Entschuldigung” (German for “excuse me”) over and over. Falling asleep at night, one of us would randomly say, “le chèque s'il vous plaît” (French for “the check, please”). It’s such a funny memory, and helped us be more confident travelers!

Our trip began with a clever way to fight jet lag so we’d be fresh and ready for the tour…

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A 3-day pit stop in London!

We absolutely love London. Since so many affordable flights to Europe have connections there, we often choose to stop there for several days to help fight jet lag. We use it as a home base to kickstart our tours. Others may choose to do this in other countries, but as an Anglophile, and a British-American historian, the more time I can spend in London, the better!

We book a room in a comfy hotel, prioritize sleep and healthy food, and get outside to walk around to fight that jet lag. Since sleep is usually off for a few days, we would rather get that worked out before the tour begins so we can maximize our trip!

Read the posts below for more about our time in London, including the time we found the best almond croissant ever :)

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overcoming jet lag

We flew overnight from New York - JFK to London Heathrow, and landed early in the morning, UK time. Exhausted but excited, we took the Tube into the city, and dropped our bags off at our hotel. We resisted falling into bed, taking Rick’s advice seriously that the best cure for jet lag is sunshine. So, off we went to explore!

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greenwich + croissants

Our second day in London was one of my favorite London days ever. We started out with a wander through the Seven Dials neighborhood of central London - and found the best almond croissant of all time! - before heading out to Greenwich and the Royal Observatory. The weather was perfect, too.

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our london photoshoot

Our last day in London was spent doing one of the most fun, commemorative activities we planned to celebrate 15 years together: a couple’s photo session! We worked with Siobhan Watts. I would now recommend this type of experience to everyone to remember these special memories and seasons of life!

 
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london, empire & war

Growing up in the United States in the 21st century, it is fairly easy to live life without ever thinking about the effects of war and global imperial projects.

But in London, if you keep your eyes open, the evidence is all around you. Pock marks on the sides of buildings from the Blitz during WW2. A field of poppies to honor those who fell in WW1. And the diverse foods and cultural influences from many of Britain’s former colonies.

When we visited the Imperial War Museum and the British Museum on this trip, I was really overwhelmed with emotion as I came closer-than-ever before to the effects and brutality of war.

We just have so much privilege. Accepting that and learning that is critical, challenging, and illuminating, but doing so will help us be more informed, empathetic, justice-driven citizens of the world.

Before we knew it, our jet lag was cured - and it was time for the tour to begin! So, off we flew to Salzburg…

Day 1 and 2: Salzburg, Austria

We flew from London to Salzburg and met up with our tour group at our hotel. After a brief orientation, our tour had officially begun!

We spent two full days in Salzburg. Read the posts below for details.

(Don’t miss the story about Spencer wearing an apron made with “curtains” as we pedaled around town on a Sound of Music bicycle tour!)

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the tour begins!

We arrived in Salzburg, and met up with our tour group at the hotel. We met our guide, Gretchen, and did a quick meet-and-greet with the other members. After an orientation about the tour, we set off to explore the city. We used the Rick Steves walking tour of Salzburg in the guidebook to get us started…

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crossfit in austria

Spencer is a CrossFit coach - it’s his dream job! And since it is a worldwide sport, we knew we had to check out a CrossFit gym while we were on this tour. In this post, Spencer writes all about our experience at CrossFit Convalis in Salzburg (including how the class was taught entirely in German!).

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our favorite sites

Salzburg is now one of my favorite cities in Europe. So much of the history has been preserved in the old town center, including history I’ve never come face-to-face with, like the influence of Nazi Germany during WW2. We also loved touring the Fortress, attending a classical music concert, and going on a Sound of Music bike tour!

 

"Doors of Austria”

When we were in Salzburg, I became fascinated with the ornate, elaborate doors I kept seeing all over the city. I jokingly said to Spencer, “I should start an Instagram account called ‘Doors of Austria.’ I wasn’t really kidding, though! I haven’t made the account (yet), but I took enough photographs to fill a whole album, haha. They’re gorgeous! The historian in me wanted to know all the stories behind them.

 
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stumbling stones

When we arrived in Salzburg on our first day, and went on an orientation tour of town with our tour manager, Gretchen, she began pointing out these bronze “stumbling stones” that are set into the streets.

These stones are markers to honor those people who were taken and murdered during the Holocaust. And we saw them all over town - one after another after another… It was a really powerful experience.

Days 3 and 4: Castelrotto, Italy

Castelrotto (also known as ‘Kastelruth’), Italy is an amazing little town nestled up next to the breathtaking Dolomites - the Italian Alps.

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charming castelrotto

Little Castelrotto is a charming little town rich with history. This area of Italy was actually part of Austria up until the end of World War 1, and most people in town still speak German as their first language! It really feels like you’re still in Austria, even though it’s technically Italy.

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the best meal in castelrotto - the co-op!

While in Castelrotto, we went on a hunt for a quick bite to eat - and ended up finding our favorite meal in town: sandwiches at the Co-Op! Read Spencer’s story all about this little deli, and our infatuation with their fixings.

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alpe di suisi

Our first introduction to the Alps was the Italian Dolomites, also known as Alpe Di Suisi. We were blown away. Absolutely floored. We thought, having grown up in Colorado, that we knew what big mountains looked like. We were wrong. Just. Plain. Wrong.

Days 5 and 6: Füssen, Germany

After leaving Castelrotto, we traveled by bus to Germany. For those who were daring, like Spencer, we stopped at the Zugspitze – Germany's highest peak (to save a bit of money - and anxiety, Anne stayed back with some of the others). Then, we traveled on to the Bavaria region of Germany, and the small, recreational town of Füssen. It was here we visited the amazing Neuschwanstein Castle, explored more by bike, took a fast ride on a luge, and were introduced to the ümlaut (the u with the dots over it, haha).

The color of the Lech River in Füssen, Germany is absolutely incredible. This walk by the river is so peaceful; I stopped and watched a bird for a few minutes, and then realized, when was the last time I did something like this? There is so much birdsong here, and then it made complete sense to me once I found out that there is a Franciscan monastery about 50 yards away from the river bed (behind me, when I’m looking at this view). You know, cause St. Francis could talk to birds! Isn’t that cool?

The color of the Lech River in Füssen, Germany is absolutely incredible. This walk by the river is so peaceful; I stopped and watched a bird for a few minutes, and then realized, when was the last time I did something like this? There is so much birdsong here, and then it made complete sense to me once I found out that there is a Franciscan monastery about 50 yards away from the river bed (behind me, when I’m looking at this view). You know, cause St. Francis could talk to birds! Isn’t that cool?

 
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lots of fun in Füssen

For us, Füssen was all about outdoor fun. We rode bikes all around town for hours, hiked up to the bridge overlooking Neuschwanstein Castle, watched hang gliders take off at the top of the Tegelberg, and took several fast rides on a luge. Read Spencer’s recap.

Days 7, 8 and 9: the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland

After the Italian Dolomites, we thought we knew what the rest of the Alps were going to look like. Wrong again!

The mountains in the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland were absolutely massive. So big, they gave Anne a few panic attacks! Ha! Never before have we felt the majesty of nature in such full force. These are the kind of peaks that really make you come face to face with the scope of the universe, and just how small we are in it. And the little villages on the sides of these mountains are a wonder.

 
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lauterbrunnen welcomes us - with views, carl sagan, and cows

Our first day in Lauterbrunnen, we were blessed with amazing weather. We hopped up the bus as quick as we could, checked into our hotel, and scrambled back out the door to go for a hike before the sun went down. And again, our expectations about the sheer size and scope of the Alps were blown away. There isn’t anywhere on earth like this place. It’s magical. We went on a hike from Grütschalp to Mürren, had an encounter with a herd of cows, talked a lot about Carl Sagan (ha!), and had the best dinner we’ve ever had in Europe.

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chess and the world cup

I’ve said before that, even though the My Way tour is more independent, our tour group really hit it off! Even though we didn’t have to spend time together, we’d find ourselves hanging out quite a bit! The World Cup was going on while we were on tour, so we watched a lot of exciting matches together. And in Lauterbrunnen, we played a lot of chess.

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top of the Schilthorn

Early in the morning on our first full day in Lauterbrunnen, we woke up early to catch the first gondola up to the top of the Schilthorn, elevation 9,744 ft. Going so early in the morning, it was magically quiet and so awe-inspiring. Funnily enough, they also shot a James Bond movie here! Read Spencer’s post for a recap of this amazing excursion.

 

A peaceful rainstorm in Lauterbrunnen…

and the breathtaking view of the waterfall from our hotel room!

 
 
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picnic on a bench in wengen

On our last day in Lauterbrunnen, we rode the train from the valley floor up to a little town called Wengen. And we just wandered. We found a cheese shop, built a picnic, found a bench, and chatted. It was a memory we will never forget, a moment where we realized once again how much we love each other, and how much we love traveling together. Read Spencer’s post all about this sweet memory.

Days 10 and 11: Chamonix, France

Chamonix, France was our last stop, and boy - did we go out with a bang! Spencer kept commenting that this little French town felt like mountains town we’re used to in our home state of Colorado, and then we found out that Chamonix’s sister city is Aspen, Colorado! In Chamonix, Anne tried her best to remember her high school French, we had the best burger ever, challenged ourselves to go ride to the top of the Aguille du Midi (where we coincidentally ran into people we knew!! How crazy is that?), and drank lots of limoncello.

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an unlikely reunion at the top of a mountain

The Aguille du Midi is the tallest peak we’ve ever summited (by cable car, of course!), and it was pretty scary at times! But wow, what a view! And the most incredible, unlikely thing happened at the top: we ran into people from our 2016 Rick Steves tour of Italy! What are the odds!

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don’t touch the glacier!

On our second day in Chamonix, we took the train up to the Mer de Glace glacier. And once again, Carl Sagan conversations about our place in the Universe came up :)

 

The Fourth of July in Chamonix… An excerpt from Anne’s travel journal:

From where I am currently: It’s raining outside now, and our restaurant gave us homemade limoncello after we signed our bill. We walked home as it sprinkled on my shoulders, and there was lightning in the distance. I’m trying my best to speak French. Though I studied the language for close to 10 years, I remember so little. It’s coming back to me slowly. Two years ago, I spent my first 4th of July out of the country (at the Vatican) and here I am again. I like doing this because it throws my country into relief. It gives me perspective. There is a lot to change and improve, but a lot to be thankful for. I am just thankful to be alive right now, meeting new people and seeing the beautiful earth. From my limoncello-softened heart to yours, I love you.

 
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An ode to Gretchen…

Our amazing tour manager, Gretchen, played a large role in making our trip through the Alps a success.

Patient, kind, adventurous, funny, and professional, she helped open our eyes to a really special part of the world, and taught us an important lesson that we didn’t expect to learn on this trip: independent travel doesn’t have to be isolating. If we greet the day with a positive attitude, empathy, and a willingness to meet new people, the doors of Europe will fly right open, and new friends will present themselves.

Anne really appreciated a conversation she had with Gretchen on their last day in Chamonix. Sitting in the lounge of the hotel, they chatted about Rick Steves’ Europe as a company from a sociological perspective, and the life-changing experiences travelers have on these tours. Do they go home and order their lives by what they’ve learned? Or does their charismatic experience slip away? Both Anne and Gretchen agreed that there is variability in every experience, but it’s fair to say that Rick Steves travelers are a special group (the tour reunions are a great sign of that!). Anne left with a lot of good questions to ponder.

Thanks for everything, Gretchen!

So long Alps, hello Paris!

After our tour of the Alps, we flew from Geneva to Paris.

A couple of other tour members from our group did the same (although we didn’t run into each other in Paris like we did when we were in the tiny mountain villages throughout Alpine Europe, haha. It’s fair to say Paris is a bit bigger…)

Having never been there before, we were eager to put our Rick Steves skills to good use, and explore more of beautiful France. We definitely were pretty tired after our time in the Alps, and maybe next time, we’ll shorten our post-trip trip a bit, but it was really wonderful to visit Paris, nevertheless.

 

highlights from paris:

  • Watching the World Cup Semi-Final when France played while we were in Paris! It was madness and so. much. fun! People flooded the streets when France won, and were even climbing on top of cars. Watch the video below! Allez les bleus!

  • The best sandwich ever at Chez Alain in the Marais. Seriously, Food and Wine magazine wrote about this sandwich. It’s legendary.

  • Reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast after visiting Shakespeare & Co.

  • Visiting the Louvre on a Friday night when it was nearly empty - no lines to see the Mona Lisa!

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Spencer and Chef Alain at his new brick-and-mortar sandwich shop in the Marais neighborhood of Paris.

Spencer and Chef Alain at his new brick-and-mortar sandwich shop in the Marais neighborhood of Paris.

Hemingway and Shakespeare & Co.

Hemingway and Shakespeare & Co.

 

Until we meet again Europe, we love you! And Rick, we promise to keep on travelin’!