I believe a regular dose of travel beauty (and dreaming) can be good medicine. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:
Around the year 1700, France was Europe’s number-one power, and the luxurious Palace of Versailles was Europe’s cultural heartbeat. For the king, money was no object and he packed it with beauty.
Visitors from around Europe flocked here hoping to get a glimpse of the almost-legendary king who built the palace — the great Louis XIV, known to all as the Sun King (ruled 1643–1715). They’d pass through a series of rooms, each more glorious than the last. There was the ornate Apollo Room, where the Sun King held court beneath a colorful ceiling painting depicting his divine alter-ego, the Greek god of the sun. They’d pass through the king’s official (though not actual) bedroom, where, each morning, the Sun King “rose” ceremonially from a canopied bed, attended by nobles who fought over who got to hold the candle while he slipped out of his royal jammies. Here in the home of the Sun King, bedtime, wake-up, and meals were all public rituals.
Finally, visitors would reach the heart of the palace: the Hall of Mirrors.
No one had ever seen anything like this magnificent ballroom. It’s nearly 250 feet long, dripping with glittering chandeliers, lined with gilded candelabras and classical statues, and topped with a painted ceiling showing Louis doing what he did best — triumphing. What everyone wrote home about were the 17 arched mirrors along the wall. Mirrors were a wildly expensive luxury at the time, and the number and size of these were astounding.
The sparkling Hall of Mirrors marks the center of this magnificent U-shaped palace. It’s where the king’s sumptuous apartments connected to the queen’s equally sumptuous wing.
From the Hall of Mirrors, you can fully appreciate the epic scale of Versailles. Visitors gaze out the windows onto the palace’s vast backyard. The gardens stretch, it seems, forever. It’s a wonderland of trimmed hedges and cone-shaped trees, hidden pleasure groves, and hundreds of spurting fountains. The extravagant gardens drove home the palace’s propaganda message: The Sun King was divine — he could even control nature, like a god. All in all, Versailles covers about 2,000 acres — twice the size of New York’s Central Park — laid out along an eight-mile axis, with the Hall of Mirrors at its heart.
The Hall of Mirrors was also the heart of European culture. Imagine a party here: The venue is lit by the flames of thousands of candles, reflected in the mirrors. Elegant partygoers are decked out in silks, wigs, rouge, lipstick, and fake moles (and that’s just the men), as they dance to the strains of a string quartet. Waiters glide by with silver trays of hors d’oeuvres, liqueurs, and newly introduced stimulants like chocolate and coffee. Louis was a gracious host who might sneak you into his private study to show off his jewels, medals, or…the Mona Lisa, which hung on his wall.
In succeeding generations, all Europe continued to revolve around Versailles. Everyone learned French, and adopted French taste in clothing, hairstyles, table manners, theater, music, art, and kissing. Even today, if you’ve ever wondered why your American passport has French writing on it, you’ll find the answer at Europe’s greatest palace — the Château de Versailles.
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
Germany can overwhelm you with too many castles in too little time. My three favorites are the remote and beautifully preserved Burg Eltz, the ruined but powerful Rheinfels, and the 19th-century fantasy of Neuschwanstein. When I can finally go back to Europe, you can bet I’ll be conquering these castles once again.
Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I share my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels in my book For the Love of Europe — and this is just one of its 100 travel tales.
Burg Eltz is my favorite castle in all of Europe. Lurking in a mysterious forest above the Mosel River, it’s furnished throughout as it was 500 years ago. Thanks to smart diplomacy and clever marriages, Burg Eltz was never destroyed. It’s been in the Eltz family for 850 years.
The first burg (castle) on the Eltz creek was built in the 12th century to protect a trade route. By about 1490, the castle looked like it does today: the homes of three big landlord families gathered around a small courtyard within one formidable fortification. Today, tours wind through two of those homes (the third is the caretaker’s residence). The elderly countess of Eltz traces her roots back 33 generations. She enjoys flowers and has had the castle’s public rooms adorned with grand floral arrangements every week for the last 40 years.
It was a comfortable castle for its day: 80 rooms made cozy by 40 fireplaces and wall-hanging tapestries. Many of its 20 toilets were automatically flushed by a rain drain. The delightful chapel is on a lower floor. Even though “no one should live above God,” this chapel’s placement was acceptable because its altar fills a bay window, which floods the delicate Gothic space with light as it protrudes out from the floor above. The three families met in the large “conference room” to work out common problems, as if sharing a condo. Colorfully painted carvings of a jester and a rose look down on the big table, reminding those who gathered that they were free to discuss anything (“fool’s freedom” — jesters could say anything to the king), but nothing discussed could leave the room (the “rose of silence”).
Rheinfels Castle, both much mightier and much more ruined, lords over its bend in the nearby Rhine River. It sits like a dead pit bull above the village of St. Goar. This most formidable of Rhine castles rumbles with ghosts from its hard-fought past. Burg Rheinfels was built in 1245 and withstood a siege of 28,000 French troops in 1692, the only Rhineland castle to withstand Louis XIV’s assault. But in 1797, the French Revolutionary army destroyed it. Once the biggest castle on the Rhine, it spent the 19th century as a quarry. So today, while still mighty, it’s only a small fraction of its original size, a hollow but evocative shell.
For centuries, the massive Rheinfels was self-sufficient and ready for a siege. During the age of sieging (which lasted until the advent of modern artillery), any proper castle was prepared to survive a six-month attack. Circling the central courtyard, you’d find a bakery, pharmacy, herb garden, brewery, well, and livestock. During peacetime, about 400 people lived here. During a siege, there could be as many as 4,000. Those 4,000 people required a lot of provisions. The count owned the surrounding farmland. In return for the lord’s protection, farmers got to keep 20 percent of their production. Later, in more liberal feudal times, the nobility let them keep 40 percent. (Today, the German government leaves workers with 60 percent after taxes…and provides a few more services.)
I hike around the castle perimeter with the mindset of an invader. Noticing the smartly placed crossbow-arrow slit, I think, “Thoop…I’m dead.” Lying there, I notice the fine stonework on the chutes high above. Uh-oh…boiling pitch…now I’m toast.
In about 1600, to protect their castle, Rheinfels troops cleverly booby-trapped the land just outside the walls by digging tunnels topped with thin slate roofs and packed with explosives. By detonating the explosives when under attack, they could kill hundreds of approaching invaders with a single blow. In 1626, a handful of Protestant Germans blew 300 Catholic Spaniards to (they assumed) hell.
I wander through a set of never-blown-up tunnels. It’s pitch-dark, muddy, and claustrophobic, with confusing dead-ends. It’s as much a crawl as a walk; the tunnel is never tall enough for me to stand higher than a deep crouch. Even with no wrong turns, it’s a 200-yard-long adventure, aided by the flashlight I was given at the castle entrance.
A modern entryway blasted through the castle wall takes me to the small, barren dungeon. I walk through a door that prisoners only dreamed of 400 years ago. (They came and went through the little square hole in the ceiling.) The holes in the walls supported timbers that thoughtfully gave as many as 15 miserable residents something to sit on to keep them out of the filthy slop that gathered on the floor. Twice a day, they were given bread and water. Some prisoners actually survived for two years in this dark hole. While the town could torture and execute, the castle had permission only to imprison criminals in this dank dungeon. According to town records, the two men who spent the most time down here died within three weeks of regaining their freedom. Perhaps after a diet of bread and water, feasting on meat and wine was just too much. (Tour guides say that after months of prison darkness, the prisoners when freed were blinded instantly by the sunshine. It’s a melodramatic story, tempting to repeat.)
Neuschwanstein is entirely different. It’s the greatest of the fairy-tale castles of King Ludwig II, whose extravagance and Romanticism earned him the title “Mad” King Ludwig…and an early death.
While it’s only about as old as the Eiffel Tower, Neuschwanstein Castle is a textbook example of 19th-century Romanticism. After the Middle Ages ended, people disparagingly named that era “Gothic,” or barbarian (“of the Goths”). Then, all of a sudden, in the 1800s, it was hip to be square, and a new Gothic style — or “Neo-Gothic” — became the rage. Throughout Europe, old castles were restored and new ones built, wallpapered with chivalry. King Ludwig II put his medieval fantasy on the hilltop not for defensive reasons, but simply because he liked the view.
The lavish, Wagner-inspired interior, covered with damsels in distress, dragons, and knights in gleaming armor, is enchanting. (A little knowledge of Richard Wagner’s Romantic operas goes a long way in bringing these stories to life.) Ludwig had great taste…for a mad king. He was a political misfit: a poetic hippie king in the realpolitik age of Bismarck. After Bavarians complained about the money Ludwig spent on castles, his sanity was questioned. Shortly after that, the 40-year-old king was found dead in a lake under suspicious circumstances, ending work on his medieval fantasy-come-true. Ludwig almost bankrupted Bavaria building Neuschwanstein. But in modern times, Germany is recouping its investment a hundredfold as huge crowds from all over the world pay to pack Europe’s most popular castle.
Germany’s history is long and many-faceted. Whether noble residences with flowers, feudal fortresses with rat-filled dungeons, or Romantic palaces fit for a king, its castles have become both amusement parks and classrooms.
Wearing my “Keep on Travelin’” t-shirt like a blankie and gripping my passport to manage the pain (just kidding), the nurse stuck me and pumped a dose of that magic juice that will, once enough of us have taken it, free us to once again embrace life physically — to travel, to hug, to sing and laugh without worrying about “social distance” and some evil virus.
As soon as I was eligible for a shot, I was on the list and booked. And in a couple of weeks, I’ll grab my passport again and get my second dose.
As I received my vaccination, I was filled with a special joy. I inhaled a thankfulness that we have modern medicine and science to beat this virus — and exhaled a prayer that people will recognize that herd immunity (our societal ticket to freedom) requires an all-for-one and one-for-all sensibility. Sure, we all have our quirky fears and hang-ups, but these vaccinations are serious: To beat COVID, we all need to be on board with this society-wide offensive. Please, get your shot and help your neighbors and loved ones to do the same.
And as a community of thoughtful travelers who care about equity and equal rights for all, let’s commit ourselves to the notion that people of all nations, rich and poor, are equally deserving of this vaccine. For one nation to be truly safe, all nations must be immune. Rich and mighty America will roll this vaccine out to all of us soon — and then we’ll help the rest of the world also climb out of the pandemic.
And sooner than we might imagine, we’ll be free once more to “keep on travelin’.”
A Happy Birth Announcement: I’m birthing a beautiful baby script! And I wanted to share a sneak peek of what will be episode two of our upcoming six-hour series on Europe’s art and architecture.
It’s a blessing to have big projects and a lovely place to work while homebound because of a nasty pandemic. I just enjoyed an intense weekend of editing our ancient Rome script and, in a little 60-second burst of enthusiasm, I shot this quick clip to share with you here.
I love my work and am thankful for talented partners in the process. I’m collaborating with my amazing co-author for the series (Gene Openshaw) and leading editors (Cameron Hewitt and Simon Griffith) to get this script tight and to time. Less is more (unless you happen to be Ken Burns), and these scripts come in at around 12,000 words and need to get down to about 7,000. (If you hit pause, you can read and envision snatches of what we’ll include.)
Drawing from our rich archive of Europe’s greatest art — compiled in the field over the last two decades — it’s going to be absolutely gorgeous. Just this week, our editor, Steve Cammarano, got the rough script and began cutting the video footage together. This is a long process, but we’re committed to debuting our six-hour art series in October of 2022.
All glory to Caesar!
P.S. – Want more European art and history? Pick up the full-color coffee-table book I wrote with Gene Openshaw, “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces” — and satisfy those art cravings with a chronological tour through Europe’s greatest paintings, sculptures, and historic buildings.
Please support local bookstores in your community, or you can find it in my online Travel Store: https://www.ricksteves.com/masterpieces
I know we can’t travel yet, but as you read this and experience this amazing painting, see if you can virtually be there with me — as much as possible…really be there. We’ve entered a simple chapel in the Spanish city of Toledo. We’re standing before El Greco’s most beloved painting, which couples heaven and earth in a way only “The Greek” could.
As our passports gather dust, our leaders bicker over conspiracy theories, and people struggle to arrange a vaccination, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art — which I’ve collected in my book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. And “Burial of Count Orgaz” is one of my favorites.
It just feels right to see a painting in the same church where the artist placed it 400 years ago. This 15-foot-tall masterpiece, painted at the height of El Greco’s powers, is the culmination of his unique style.
The year is 1323. Count Don Gonzalo Ruiz of Orgaz, the mayor of Toledo, has died. You’re at his funeral, where he’s being buried right here in the chapel that he himself had ordered built. The good count was so holy, even saints Augustine and Stephen have come down from heaven to be here. Toledo’s most distinguished citizens are also in attendance. The two saints, wearing rich robes, bend over to place Count Orgaz, dressed in his knight’s armor, into the tomb. (Count Orgaz’s actual granite tombstone was just below the painting.) Meanwhile, above, the saints in heaven wait to receive his blessed soul.
The detail work is El Greco at his best. Each nobleman’s face is a distinct portrait, capturing a different aspect of sorrow or contemplation. The saints’ robes are intricately brocaded and have portraits of saints on them. Orgaz’s body is perfectly foreshortened, sticking out toward us. The officiating priest wears a wispy, transparent white robe. Look closely. Orgaz’s armor is so shiny, you can actually see St. Stephen’s reflection on his chest.
The serene line of noble faces divides the painting into two realms: heaven above and earth below. Above the faces, the count’s soul, symbolized by a little baby, rises up through a mystical birth canal to be reborn in heaven, where he’s greeted by Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. A spiritual wind blows through as colors change and shapes stretch. With its metallic colors, wavelike clouds, embryonic cherubs, and elongated forms, heaven is as surreal as the earth is sober. But the two realms are united by the cross at right.
El Greco considered this to be one of his greatest works. It’s a virtual catalog of his trademark techniques: elongated bodies, elegant hand gestures, realistic faces, voluminous robes, and an ethereal mix of heaven and earth. He captures a moment of epiphany with bright, almost fluorescent colors that give these otherwise ordinary humans a heavenly aura.
The boy in the foreground points to the two saints as if to say, “One’s from the first century, the other’s from the fourth…it’s a miracle!” The boy is El Greco’s own son. On the handkerchief in the boy’s pocket is El Greco’s signature, written in Greek. One guy (seventh from the left) in this whole scene doesn’t seem to be completely engaged in the burial. Looking directly out at the viewer is the painter, El Greco himself.
This little moment from Europe — a sampling of how we share our love of art and history in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book I wrote with Gene Openshaw, Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it in my online Travel Store.
P.S. – Be sure to check out Rick Steves Classroom Europe — my free collection of 500+ teachable video clips. Search “El Greco” for a closer look at the Greek-born artist who painted for a Spanish king, adopted Toledo as his hometown, and conveyed religious themes in a memorable, mystical way.