Carrie Rengers

Travel writer Rick Steves surprises Wichitans on tour to Sicily

Wichitans Sonia Greteman and Chris Brunner have been on a tour through a company operated by travel writer Rick Steves previously, so they knew what to expect when they signed up for an April trip to Sicily.

The company sends a list of everyone who will be on the tour.

“The cyber stalking is incredible,” says Greteman, who owns Greteman Group, an advertising agency.

At the beginning of the trip, a fellow traveler told Greteman about the exact identity of a “Rick Romstad” on the list: Rick Steves.

He isn’t usually on the tours.

“I was like, wow, this just might have an effect on our trip,” Greteman says.

“I tried not to be a gawker,” she says. “I wanted to be cool and respect his … privacy.”

She says she wouldn’t have been surprised to see someone who is so well traveled be a bit jaded about it, but that Steves was the opposite.

“I just felt this excitement,” she says. “He’s kind of like a little boy almost.”

Greteman says Steves is “insanely curious” and takes constant notes.

“He was charming. He was fun. He’s casual. He’s a very positive guy.”

Greteman says that didn’t surprise her.

“I’ve always liked his credo,” she says of Steves’ travel philosophy.

“The best acts are free, and the best seats are the cheap ones,” she says, quoting him. “If your trip is low on magic moments, kick yourself and make something happen.”

Greteman says Steves advocates “just being intensely aware of everything around you.”

“He picks these unbelievable, charming, low-to-the-ground, casual, homey, authentic places.”

Greteman says that means wonderful places but not five-star resorts that are distanced from the culture.

Sicily – and Steves – did not disappoint.

“I have to believe it was amped up a little bit having him there,” Greteman says. However, she adds, “The Italians are so fantastic anyway.”

Early in the trip, Greteman mentioned to fellow travelers that she and Brunner would be celebrating their 32nd anniversary on the last night of the trip.

When the night came, she says, “Everybody was just dead tired. They pack so much in.”

They were at a winery on Mount Etna, a volcano that would erupt less than a week later.

They’d been to six cities in two weeks, so Greteman and Brunner were surprised when Steves remembered their anniversary.

“He made a beautiful toast,” she says. “He’s just so thoughtful.”

He serenaded the group with some Beethoven at the winery’s grand piano.

Steves told of how he’d planned to be a piano teacher, but then he went backpacking through Europe, and it changed his life.

He’s planning to write a book on Sicily, and he’s already producing a daily blog about it.

“We’re in it,” Greteman says. “It’s so funny.”

She says Steves squeezed in more sightseeing than most of the people on the trip by going out to interact with the locals and shoot videos every night after dinner and at lunchtime, too.

“I am enjoying Rick Steves almost more now than I did on the trip.”

Greteman says sometimes when you’re traveling, it’s hard to fully take in everything you’re experiencing in certain moments.

“So it’s fun to go back and kind of relive them through Rick’s eyes.”

Carrie Rengers: 316-268-6340, @CarrieRengers