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TEXT BY LOU BAYARD PHOTOS: TERRENCE MIELE PICTURE IT: VENICE ON A LAMBENT OCTOBER AFTERNOON. YOU'RE SITTING OUTSIDE THE CHIESA DEI FRARI, WAITING FOR THE GREAT GOTHIC FRANCISCAN CHURCH TO OPEN ITS VAULTED DOORS. THE DAY IS RIFE WITH GONDOLAS AND MUSIC, DOMED IN BY A BLUE SKY AS LIMPID AS A TINTORETTO PAINTING. AND ALL AROUND ARE AMERICAN TOURISTS SAVORING THIS QUINTESSENTIAL VENETIAN EXPERI­ ENCE BY ... STARING INTO BOOKS. STARING INTO THE SAME BOOK, ACTUALLY. RICK STEVES' ITALY. AND THE SCARY PART? IT REALLY IS RICK STEVES' ITALY. I speak from experience. Over the course of a two­ week Italian vacation, my companion and I came to realize there was no major shrine we could visit with­ out seeing the same horde of American tourists clutching the same distinctive blue spine. (Some of the books were stuffed into brown paper bags like liquor bottles.) And why should I have expected anything different? I, too, had the blue-spined book. I, too, was shelling out extra money for first-class train tickets because Rick said it was worth it, forsaking the climb up the Duomo in Florence becau�e Rick claimed that Giotto's Tower had fewer steps .. We are legion, we Rick disciples ... and more than a little frightening. We are part of a traveling community-the Steves Scholars-a bovine force massing itself before the same relics at the same mysteriously coordinated times. True, Rick isn't travel's only organizing intelligence. Lonely Planet read­ ers keep bumping into each other in the same Guatemalan cloud forest. But being a Rick cultist exacts a peculiar cost. Cases in point:" Vicki and Gary, a Seattle couple that we met on the train from Milan to Venice. Gary was slogging through Irvine Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy because Rick said it had nice background on Rome and Florence. Their itinerary: a MACH 1 tour of every major site on the Rick Circuit. Milan, Venice, Florence,. Rome, Sorrento, Naples, Cinque Terre, Lake Como ... in 10 days. We re-encountered this same couple nine days later, over lunch at Monterosso. Their faces bore the glow of post-coital rapture. "We did itl" Vicki cried. "What?" "Rome in a day." The Rick Steves Special: Vatican in 3 hours, taxi to the Pantheon, hike through the Forum and the Colosseum, dinner on Campo di Fiori, skip through the Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps ... and you're done! Best of all? You don't even need to stay in Rome! Vicki and Gary had used a Rick-blessed farmhouse in nearby Orvieto as their home base and were back in the arms of Morpheus by nine in the evening. As we watched them dash away in little clouds of clay dust, we found ourselves wondering how anyone could "do Rome" in a day, could untap Italy's secrets over a 10- day stage sprint. Yet that's precisely the sense that Rick Steves gives people. Pick your quadrant. Punch in your coordi­ nates. Parachute in and out before Frommer's is even done with the preamble. Sure, Rick makes noises about how great it is to wander the streets and mix with the locals. But at bottom, his guides are about maximum efficiency-logging the greatest number of essential sights in the least amount of time. . "Your time is valuable," Rick intones in his introduction. "This guidebook saves lots of time. " If my companion and I had planned our entire Italian adventure to save time, we would never have gone to the magnificent walled city of Lucca (doesn't even make Rick's index). We would never have dined at that hidden restaurant off Piazza Navona where the proprietress padded around in slippers, smoked with the customers, and prepared a meal I will never forget. (Rick's food tastes run to pizza.) In short, we would never have made time for Italy. Don't get me wrong. Rick Steves' books (and his TV shows and his sem­ inars and his entire travel empire) have value-they're breezy and unpretentious; they help you sort through your options, they're opinionated in a rather refreshing way. It's just that the Rick personality cult encourages Americans' worst travel tendency: the ruthless, task-oriented approach that leaves you with a completed itinerary and a hugely incomplete sense of where you've actually been. It's a strategy that misses the whole point of the journey. A true Rick-head believes you can't regret missing a place if you don't know it exists. A true Rick-head believes that vacation is a natur­ al extension of work, a form of digestion, with the sites of antiquity as comestibles. Or as the divinely content Vicki told me, disgorging her Rick-penned tour of the Vatican Museum as though it were a stool sample: "I WON'T BE NEEDING THAT ANYMORE! "

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