Once again, we thoroughly enjoyed a Rick Steves' tour and two of the main reasons we enjoyed our vacation so much was our guide, Tara, and our bus driver, Ronnie.
First, I must disclose that Tara has two of my dream jobs - she works in Rick Steves' Edmonds, WA office and she also guides several group tours around Germany, Austria and Switzerland every year. I can't imagine a more interesting and fun job!
From the first night our group met, it was apparent that Tara's sense of humor, motherly nature, fondness of the Bavarian region, and intimate knowledge of all three countries would combine to make our trip fun and educational.
Throughout the two weeks we traveled together Tara revealed bits and pieces of her personal and professional life with us - her 10 years living and working in Bavaria after college, meeting her future husband in Garmisch, their three-year-old daughter Poppy (named for Germany's poppies and whom she missed very much for the month she was away), and their current life living near Seattle, WA. I could go into more detail but an interview with Tara that I found on Rick Steves' web site captures the essence of her personality and her zest for life.
So what does a tour guide do? Generally, they:
post a schedule of each day's activities, starting with breakfast
provide historical information during bus rides of places you are about to visit
give orientation tours of each city/town and various modes of transportation
arrange for local guides to conduct city tours (some countries require this)
suggest free time activities and good restaurants
take care of hotel arrangements and assignment of rooms
arrange and pay for group meals
coordinate scheduling and locations with the bus driver
purchase tickets for various attractions and museums included in the tour price
are on call and work 24 hours a day
answer a gillion questions
Tara did all this and more, but it was the extra things that she did to introduce us to the local culture and customs that made her an excellent guide to share our trip with. For instance, she started off our bus ride through the Black Forest with a box of local chocolates.
Then after lunch, she gave us German schnapps...
Which we didn't like very much...
and Black Forest Cherry cake...
...which everyone LOVED!
She entertained us with special music on the bus - Mozart and other classical artists from the region, the Beatles singing She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah in German (we learned from her that they actually recorded one of their early albums in German), and my favorite, The Sound of Music soundtrack. She gave us German stamps for postcards, Lady Bug chocolate candy, and her favorite German brands of white chocolate and cookies. She arranged a picnic lunch for us in Neuschwanstein featuring local meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. And she color-coded city maps for each of us, by hand.
Like us, Tara enjoys hiking and on our free afternoons she always told the group which hike she was going to do and invited us to join her, which of course we did, figuring correctly she would only go on the best trails wherever we were. This is a picture of us hiking in Hallstatt, one of our favorite places.
Tara joined us at an Irish Pub in Salzburg to watch the World Cup game and taught us how to travel in the Swiss Alps on various forms of transportation. She was a lot of fun, very patient, and she made each and every person on the trip feel special. We were so fortunate to have her as our guide, and we expressed our appreciation at our farewell dinner.
Then there's the other indispensable part of our tour - our bus driver, Ronnie. I think he is from Belgium but I also heard he was Dutch - maybe he's both. We didn't get to know him as well as Tara but Tom and I learned what a great driver he is while sitting behind him on the front seats of the bus several days.
Ronnie skillfully navigated our big bus around winding mountain roads and through narrow village streets (some of which were construction detours from the autobahn and a bit tight), grumbled under his breath (in Dutch?) sometimes (very amusing to listen to) at the bad drivers in larger cities who tried to dart in front of him or ran red lights, but he was pretty calm about the van driver who cut us off in Vienna then shot Ronnie a finger.
Ronnie used his GPS to steer us away from autobahn traffic jams and accidents and instead took us on scenic country roads. In Neuschwanstein we were all amazed by his parking skills. Putting the bus in reverse, he squeezed it into a narrow space between two other buses, barely turning the wheel. And he waited patiently for us wherever he dropped us off no matter how long our tour or activity was. Most important of all, he delivered us safely to all our destinations. Unfortunately, we didn't get to give Ronnie a proper farewell as due to more road construction and one way streets in Vienna, our final destination, he literally had to stop on a trolley line to quickly drop us off on a street several blocks from the hotel. We had less than a minute, it seemed, to hop off the bus, unload all the suitcases and backpacks from under the bus, and wave goodbye before a trolley pulled up behind us, honking a horn. Later I heard that after dropping us off, Ronnie was heading down to Rome to pick up another driver, and that he was getting married in a few weeks - we wish him well wherever he is traveling today.