Steve Smith: Recommended Travel Guide for Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes

Steve Smith: Recommended Travel Guide for Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes
Steve Smith: Recommended Travel Guide for Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes

One of my favorite places to run Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes is France, one of the most geographically varied countries in the world, with everything from towering alpine peaks like Mont Blanc, sybaritic beaches of the Riviera, and wide swaths of rolling hills covered with vineyards in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Steve Smith,  coauthor with Rick Steves of the Rick Steves France guide, is arguably one of the most knowledgeable experts on the country, one of the reasons I recommend his books to the students in my Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes.

Smith is an avid Francophile, having visited Europe early on with his family. His father was an English professor and went to France to teach in the Fulbright program. Smith so enjoyed his time in Europe that he eventually went to work for Rick Steves, who at the time was just launching his tours to Europe.

Smith has now worked 24 years with Rick Steves, finding all the best hotels, restaurants, and sights in the amazingly diverse country.

“We’re covering fewer destinations in the country, but in more detail,” he said of the current approach to the guides. “We’re very diligent about checking destinations. We want the guides to bring things to people–restaurant and hotels, and local guides.”

My parents, Nicholas and Marie O’Connell, did several trips to Europe with Smith and enjoyed the trips immensely. My father, who reads widely, engaged in long and spirited conversations with Smith about Europe’s history and culture. Smith’s familiarity with this is evident throughout his guides, which include valuable, up-to-date service info on hotels, restaurants, and sights as well as informed discussions of  the culture of the place.

“We can always work harder to improve and describe the place and what people can take away from it,” he said.

Smith has what many travelers would consider an ideal job, traveling to Europe regularly with his wife and family, leading tours, and researching guidebooks. He now owns a home in France where he can relax between tours and work on updating the guidebooks. “I can write upstairs in the house,” he said, “looking out over the Burgundy canal.” No wonder the guidebooks are inspiring.

The Quest Narrative: A Great Way to Tell a Story

A quest narrative is one of the oldest and surest ways of telling a story. The Odyssey is essentially a quest narrative, with Odyssey’s journey back to his wife and son serving as the basis for the quest. Since then there have been thousands of quest narratives written, including King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable, detective stories, Moby Dick, and many others.

The form of a quest narrative is simple. Basically, the author describes his or her desire to do something, see something, experience something, discover something. In describing the object of the quest, whether a grail, or castle or insight or pot of gold, it’s helpful to “sell” the quest, emphasizing why it’s important either to the writer or the reader. Since the writer is the reader’s surrogate, describing why you want to go to Mexico City is often enough, especially if you can make it seem an especially appealing destination. Some quests are so compelling they don’t need to be sold: the quest to find the Green River Killer or a cure for cancer but remember to be very specific.

The description of the goal for the quest encourages a sense of seeking, questioning and curiosity, propelling readers forward into the narrative. It gives a structure and suspense to a piece that might otherwise be flat and static.

This is a very adaptable form, appropriate to all kinds of subjects, whether personal essays, travel pieces, investigative journalism, memoir and even literary criticism. You can write a quest narrative about seeking to find the perfect peach, or the perfect glass of Pinot Noir wine, or about coming to terms with your parents. The quest narrative can be used effectively in many different contexts.

The form fits very well with the emphasis on curiosity as the basis of fine nonfiction writing. The description of the quest immediately poses a quest in the reader’s mind: will the author or narrator achieve the quest?

Quest narratives can be written in a number of points of view. First person is probably most common in nonfiction, but third person can also be used, as in the description of a scientist searching for a cure for the common cold.

Writing a Quest Narrative

  1. Describe the object of the quest and why it’s important. You don’t have to start the story with this statement, but it should come near the beginning, explaining why you’ve arrived in New Guinea, for example, and what you’re looking for there.
  2. Set out on the quest. What do you bring? How do you prepare?
  3. Dramatis personae – Who will accompany you on the quest? Who is the person (s) who will help you complete it? Attempt to thwart it?
  4. Describe the journey and the difficulties of achieving it, remembering to use scenes to highlight the conflict and drama, showing rather than simply telling, and making the story come to life.
  5. Describe whether you complete the quest or not.

Secrets of Writing in First Person Point of View

First person point of view remains one of the trickiest strategies for any writer, as well as one of the most effective and popular ways of telling a story. This class will provide key insights into writing in first person: thinking of yourself as a character in a story; changing your point of view in the course of the story; reaching a meaningful conclusion that will interest readers. We will discuss first person point of view in memoir, travel pieces, humor, and other genres.
Here is the second of a series of tips on how to write in first person:

EMPHASIZE THE UNIVERSAL – Though you can sometimes get away with prattling on about personal fetishes and pet peeves, you’re most likely to connect with the reader when you write about the parts of yourself that are similar to those of the reader. You want to become a kind of everyman character. You want to make your experiences representative. Phillip Lopate’s wonderful essay, “Against Joie de Vivre,” contradicts this strategy, following the tradition of the contrarian essay, but this is a much more difficult path to follow. Generally, emphasize the intersection between your point of view and that of your readers. In the next few days, I’ll include addition secrets of successful first person writing, ones I discuss in my Seattle Writing Classes, Travel Writing Classes, and online writing class. Thanks for reading!

Strangers on a Train

The Writer’s Workshop Blog highlights my adventures teaching writing classes, writing stories, articles and books, leading travel, food and wine writing classes to France and Italy, traveling the globe, promoting my books including the novel, The Storms of Denali, and other aspects of the wild and crazy world of writing and publishing. Writing and publishing are changing enormously and I hope this blog will help keep you up to date on some of the changes.

The following story is from Mary Beadles, a student in my 2013 Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Montalcino, Italy. I’ll be publishing a number of stories from students in my travel writing class on this blog. They provide a vivid picture of the wonderful places, people and experiences encountered on the trip.

Strangers on a Train

In principal, I have no problem traveling by myself. There’s a lot you can miss if you are constantly surrounded by people. Initial impressions are often interrupted or altered by input from others. And so much local culture and color can be missed during a conversation with a friend, not to mention the loss of freedom to see and do exactly as I choose. And yet, travelling from Florence through the hills of Tuscany alone proved to be plenty challenging, even with a sense of adventure and Fodor’s Italian for Travelers to guide me.

There is no easy way to reach Montalcino from Florence, but the destination is well worth the effort (or so I’d been promised). I was traveling to the ancient hilltop town for a writing seminar on travel, food and wine. The journey would begin with a one-hour train ride to Sienna followed by another hour winding through the hillside on a bus. I’d never traveled alone by train and the bus ride would be a totally new experience. I hated asking for directions and I knew only a smattering of Italian but I had studied the guide book carefully and memorized the bus connection in Sienna. I was confident I could navigate the Italian transportation system with few problems. But there is nothing more deceptive (or dangerous) than the confidence of a fool.

I stepped into Firenze Santa Maria Novella, the main train station in Florence, and was met by a crush of mostly-young travelers carrying massive backpacks with ease. I focused on the task ahead. Buy a ticket to Sienna. To the left was a row of windows below a large sign with a word I recognized. “Biglietti”– Tickets. This was exactly where I needed to be! I smiled with smug satisfaction and followed the line of people until I reached the end which was somewhere along the back wall. It was just now noon—plenty of time. The trains left frequently and, as long as I was on the train before 2P.M. I would have no problem catching the bus from Sienna to Montalcino.

At 1P.M., the line had moved at least ten feet. Now there were only about fifty people ahead of me. I began to worry just a little. If I missed the 1:59 train, I wouldn’t be able to leave Sienna until after five. It would be evening before I reached Montalcino. Time for a new plan. I turned to a friendly-looking young man behind me. “Excuse me. Do you speak English?” I asked.
He smiled, “Yes, I do.”

“Is this the only place I can buy a ticket?”

The boy shook his head. “You can use a machine. Would you like me to help you?”

Problem solved. Soon I had a ticket in hand and was boarding my train. The first row of seats provided space for my bags and a seat for me. Perfect! It was a relief to know that any worries about making this leg of my trip alone were groundless. I settled back as the train pulled away from the station.

It was two or three stops before we cleared Florence. Some passengers had gotten off and others had boarded. At the last stop, a young woman dragging a large suitcase took the seat across from mine. We exchanged smiles before she pulled out a magazine and I turned to watch through the window as the city view gave way to a rural vista.

The train swayed in a gentle rhythm as it rolled down the track. The door at the far end of the car opened and a wild-haired man resembling a caricature of Albert Einstein entered. He was dressed in a shabby dark blue uniform with shiny brass buttons and I watched as he moved from passenger to passenger. The conductor, I realized as he came closer. When it was my turn, I handed him my ticket and waited for its return. Why was he taking so long? Finally, he handed it back, all the while speaking rapid-fire Italian. I shrugged and shook my head — the universal sign for “I have no idea what you’re talking about!” I turned to my fellow passengers. Across the aisle, a young woman looked on in apparent sympathy while the man in front of her watched the proceedings with a smirk that seemed aimed at the conductor rather than me. I assumed they didn’t speak English and would be of no help.

The conductor took back the ticket and pointed to it. “Forty Euro,” he said. I stared back. He held his hand out. “Forty Euro,” he repeated more loudly. Yes, I understood he wanted me to give him forty Euros for some reason. I shook my head. Was I being held up? Was this some kind of train scam I hadn’t heard about? The conductor turned and walked to the end of the car and I allowed myself to hope that was the end of it. But a minute later he was back. “Come with me,” he said.

“What?” Where could he possibly take me on a train? There was nowhere to go but off.

“Come with me.” His impatience with this American seemed to be growing. I stuffed my book and my iPod into my purse and stood to follow him.

“Should I take my suitcase?” I called after him as he strode down the aisle. The passengers seemed enthralled with the drama, particularly the smirker across the aisle. Through his eyes, I began to see the humor in the situation and I found myself playing to my audience. “Are you throwing me off the train?” I called after him, raising my voice and throwing my hands in the air. “Should I bring my bag?” Of course he couldn’t understand anything I was saying, but I hoped he understood that he could not intimidate me. I was also somewhat comforted by the fact there were witnesses.

He stopped in front of a poster on the back wall of the car and put his finger on a paragraph written in English. “Passengers must validate tickets before boarding. Failure to do so may result in a fine up to €40.” Having grown up in a family of lawyers, all I could see were the words “may” and “up to” and more than anything I wanted to argue my case.

“Forty Euro.” The man knew about five words in English and I knew five different words in Italian. There would be no appeal. I handed over forty Euros and took the walk of shame back to my seat. The passengers went back to their books and their music. As my adrenaline dissipated, I just felt like crying. But the young woman across the aisle who had been watching me with obvious sympathy during the entire affair, leaned over and said, “Aso’le!” gesturing toward the receding back of the conductor. I wasn’t sure what she was saying, and then it hit me.

“Asshole?” I asked.

She nodded. “Si. Aso’le!”

And with that one, crude, mispronounced American insult we bonded and I understood that, although I was traveling solo, I wasn’t alone. There were always as-yet-unknown comrades to help along the way. Those like the man with the smirk who reminded me to let humor dispel fear. And the sympathetic kindness of a young woman willing to join me in solidarity against the mini-tyrants we encounter along the way. And even the “aso’les” in this world that bring us all together. When we arrived in Sienna, I gathered my things and took my luggage outside to find the bus that would complete the final leg of my trip to Montalcino. But, along with my luggage, I carried a newly-discovered rule of the road. I might be by myself at the start of my journey, but as soon as I board a train, a bus, a plane, or even a taxi, I’m no longer alone. My traveling companions may be strangers, but for a brief moment in time, we’re all in it together.

BBC Italia: The Pleasures of Barolo, Chianti and Brunello

Travel Writing in MontalcinoThe Writer’s Workshop Blog highlights my adventures teaching writing classes, writing stories, articles and books, leading travel, food and wine writing classes to France and Italy, traveling the globe, promoting my books including the novel, The Storms of Denali, and other aspects of the wild and crazy world of writing and publishing. Writing and publishing are changing enormously and I hope this blog will help keep you up to date on some of the changes.

The following story is from Alison Holmes, a student in my 2013 Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Montalcino, Italy. I’ll be publishing a number of stories from students my travel writing class on this blog. They provide a vivid picture of the wonderful places, people and experiences encountered on the trip.

BBC Italia: A Newbie Somm Tastes (many) Barolo, Brunello and Chiantis

By Alison Holmes

The end of the tunnel was near. I thought about the upcoming, fresh mountain air, the sensation of wind in my hair through the open window and the taste of Piedmontese wine over lunch just a few hours away. My mind happily wandered as I navigated out of the tunnel and on into Italy, right into the arms of the local carrabineri.

Two grim policemen stood in the rain, blocking my route with a round sign on a stick, the kind used by lollypop ladies. Armed with about three words of Italian, I rolled down the window and raised my eyebrows to indicate surprise. They approached and asked for my license and then for an international version. With my hands, I indicated I only had the one, gleaning from their tone of voice and facial expressions it was the law that I had both versions in Italy. True or not, my misdemeanor resulted in a lengthy reprimand from one. Certo, certo nodded the other, lips turned downwards. I paid the fine, sizeable and in cash, took the receipt and wondered whether driving was the best mode of transport in Italy.

For already, the roughly seven-mile drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel from Chamonix, France to Courmayeur, Italy through the alps proved to be a torment for the not so hearty, namely my travelling companion Jan. She hails from flat-land Australia and had not anticipated, she claimed, that the drive from France to our first stop in the Piedmont would be plagued with steep inclines, tunnels and descents worthy of a ride in a Disney park.

With a recent sommelier’s diploma under my belt, much of my time is spent learning more about wine. Everyone, I always say, can learn something new with every bottle uncorked. And so off to northern Italy I go, to size up the lure of these wines on their own turf. For here, in Northern Italy, the rivalry for ‘King of Wine’ reputation is very real indeed.

This ten-day journey covered a drive through some of the most picture perfect countryside: to the Piedmont, to Barolo, and then to Tuscany, to Fiesole outside Florence and on to Montalcino. Nebbiolo, Chianti and Sangiovese territories, in grape order.

It was raining heavily as we stopped for lunch in destination uno, Bra, the Piedmontese town about fifty kilometers south of Turin. Famous as the birthplace of the slow food movement and a stone’s throw from Barolo, we enjoyed a casual lunch with a delicious glass of a light-bodied Barbera d’Asti, known for flavors and aromas of fresh fruit, at the Slow Food branded (snail logo) l’Osteria del Boccondivino.

Trying to forget the day’s negative start, we chatted about the region’s varietals and their merits over lunch. Behind us a table of local gents with time on their hands enjoyed bottle after bottle of various nebbiolos, each selected from what looked like an old fashioned library shelf, this one replete with bottles of wine. I began to relax and look out the window, letting Italy work its magic.

Satiated, we headed off to Barolo and check into a well-appointed three-room agriturismo where the owner, Germano Angelo, sells his wines including Barbera (a grape) and Barbaresco and Barolo (from nebbiolo grapes). Wandering through town, I am hypnotized by Barolo’s complete dedication to its only craft, winemaking. No one does anything else here it would seem, and with reason. Tasting many of the offerings in the wine shops with open doors and open bottles, fond memories of my other loves, Burgundy, Napa and the Languedoc, start to fade. Could this be the one?

That night we enjoyed a modest bottle of Barolo D’Alba (26 Euros) over dinner at the Osteria la Cantinella with some sumptuous tagiatelle ragu. I asked how the pasta was made. “Daily by my mama,” said the girl waiting tables. “She puts forty egg yolks to every kilo of flour.” At that rate, I calculated, there would have to be more chickens than vines in Barolo. Weighing the delights of small towns versus cities, I head to my room where the pigeons in the rafters had also turned in.
The following morning the church bells rang in the day and we were off, to Fiesole where Chianti reigns supreme. Chianti is a blend made from four grape varieties. Sangiovese (the most prevalent grape in Italy) canaiolo, and two grapes used mainly for white wines, trebbiano and malvasia.

Chianti, depending upon where the grape is grown and the vintage, ranges from light and fruity all the way to a full bodied, dry, tannic and acidic wine. With our dinner that night we selected a Castello di Monsanto Il Poggio, Chianti Classico Riserva (30 Euros). This we enjoyed followed by a cool glass of limoncello outside on the panoramic terrace of the Trattoria Le Cave di Maiano just outside Fiesole in the hills, the surroundings enchanting even in the drizzling rain. Florence down below does not tempt me even remotely. I could stay forever, except for the fact that I now knew I favored Barolo over Chianti.

Yet more varietals beckon and we leave for Montalcino, about three hours south to sample some sangiovese masterpieces. Montalcino, a Tuscan hilltop town, boasts some of the most beautiful views imaginable and ample diversions for wine novices alike. Restaurants, cafes, shops, markets etc make this town a very special destination. And for the wine lover, there are about 250 producers of Brunello di Montalcino wines to work your way through. Made of 100% sangiovese grapes, a Brunello must be aged for four years (five for a riserva), two of those in oak and then four months in bottles. The result is an unforgettable, elegant wine, which sings on your tongue: berries, vanilla and spice. The wine merchant located in the town’s 14th century fortress was happy to offer tastings.

The trunk of the car groaned with the weight of the bottles collected en route as we set off for home, stopping at the Prada outlet outside Florence. For what somm doesn’t need a handbag to carry her Brunello?