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

A Peek at the Script for my New European Art Series

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 

Daily Dose of Europe: El Greco’s “Burial of Count Orgaz”

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 Europemy 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. 

Just a Coincidence? An Abandoned Guidebook on Venice’s Empty Streets

Have you ever experienced a coincidence…that felt like a lot more than a coincidence?

I’ve received lots of thoughtful notes from the 100 or so Rick Steves’ Europe guides who are awaiting the return of travel. This one, from one of my favorite Venice guides, fascinated me, and I thought you might also enjoy reading — and responding — to it:

Ciao Rick,

Come stai? How are you? Buon Natale e buon inizio di 2021.

This is Elena Zampiron, from Venezia. I’d love to tell you something it happened to me because it made me reflect about the time we all are experiencing.

On the 25th of December, right after Christmas lunch with my parents, I had to head out to run a virtual tour (something that helps me cope with the pandemic here in quiet and empty Venice).

I was lost in my thoughts, walking down the empty narrow streets of Venezia while locked down again: Nobody around, pouring rain, strong waves of wind, the smell of the rain mixed with the incredible silence on Christmas Day…. me thinking that I’m not designed for “virtual tours” because I miss the “touch” of real people in front of me, their visible emotions, their eyes veiled with joy and their tears of pure happiness…. and …. all of a sudden, I notice something on the pavement, far in the distance… I get closer … and closer … and here it is… “Rick Steves’ Europe, 1997.”

Open … upside down … wet … under the rain … on Christmas Day… an old, well-used, Rick Steves guidebook.

I picked it up, placed it on the window of the second-hand bookstore it belonged to, and walked on. I did my virtual tour and got back home.

But then I began thinking. I don’t believe in coincidences… at all! I believe it was a sign, not necessarily a sign to me, but sent to us all. I immediately thought of it being a metaphor for this past year. But then I had a second thought. Perhaps it is a sign from the travel spirits or whoever we believe in — a reminder that after this pandemic, we can no longer guide tours in the same ways as we have become accustomed.

I believe it is more than coincidental that in Venice I discovered a 1997 Rick Steves guidebook, abandoned… discarded, in the rain, at Christmas, in the year of the pandemic. It is a sign about how we, as guides and as travelers, will go forward. But what does it mean exactly?

I wanted to share. These are simply my thoughts, Rick. But I felt it was important to share them with you. It’s also a way to say, please be positive and don’t give up. Times can be tough, and the tourism industry can be cruel, but you are not alone. It’s tough for us guides as we have no work. But we are strong. And we guides are here to support you along the way. Together, we shall “keep on traveling,” as you like to say, after this pandemic is conquered.

Happy beginning of a brighter 2021 from Venezia and Elena!  - Elena Zampiron
___

So: What could the old guidebook, found on a rainy Christmas Day on the now-empty streets of Venice, be telling us? Please share your thoughts, so I can get back to Elena with an interpretation of an event that may not have been “just a coincidence.” Thanks!

Elena Zampiron

P.S. I hosted Elena on my radio show two Christmases ago. Take a listen to get to know her a little better — and be sure to read this interview to learn about her guiding.

Remember the Holocaust — So it Will Never be Repeated

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As a tour guide, I have an ethic that every Rick Steves bus tour through Germany includes a pilgrimage to a concentration camp memorial. It’s our hope, as guides, that with this powerful experience, our travelers will heed the collective wish of Hitler’s victims: Forgive but Never Forget. When you travel thoughtfully — and incorporate stops at memorials to the six million Jews who were murdered by Nazi Germany — the impact changes you.

If you search for “Holocaust” in the Rick Steves Classroom Europe video library, you’ll find a dozen clips (totaling about 45 minutes) that can be shared as a teaching tool at home or in the classroom. As the last people with first-hand memories of this tragic period in history pass away, it is important to keep alive the stark lessons of what happens when a society gives power to hate and racism.

On this day, especially, history is speaking to all of us. Here’s a 90-second visit to Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. This sprawling memorial and museum chronicles the slaughter of six million Jews and celebrates the spirit of Zionism and the creation of modern Israel. (Of course, there are peace and justice issues between Israel and Palestine. But, for me, today is a day to focus — prayerfully — on the Holocaust.

Museums are People, Too!

Every few days, it occurs to me that another industry is in crisis because of the COVID pandemic: tourism, concerts, restaurants, airlines…and museums.

A friend of mine who runs a museum in the USA confided in me that he thinks a third of the shuttered museums in our country won’t re-open. Knowing the passions and dreams that make museums — especially small mom-and-pop museums — possible, this breaks my heart.

I just received this uplifting video from my friends Karin and Gerhard Strassgschwandtner. Karin and Gerhard have invested their life savings in a lifelong passion: Vienna’s Third Man (Dritte Mann) Museum, which lovingly focuses on the cult 1949 Orson Welles film — while also offering a unique and fascinating look at Vienna during and after WWII. The museum is only open to the public on Saturdays, but they give private tours to Rick Steves tour groups by reservation. (And with their guidance, it’s a highlight of these tours.)

In this video, my friends Karin and Gerhard are dancing in their empty museum…as if to declare that even if it’s closed, it is still alive. Watching this, it hit me: Museums are people, too!

I hope you enjoy the clip twice: first to lap up Karin and Gerhard’s joy, and second for glimpses of their museum. And as you do, remember the many struggling museums that are powered by passion and love…and that without our patronage, they cannot survive.

PS: I’ve got to mention: Their surname, Strassgschwandtner, comes with seven consonants in a row!

PPS: Since I recommend Karin and Gerhard’s museum in my Vienna guidebook and they give private tours to Rick Steves tour groups, we stay in touch by email. And in their latest email, they shared the following news:

“The Third Man Museum becomes now even better than before, a real Rick Steves-style museum: Created by two obsessed but friendly persons and “over the top.” Our museum was awarded with the ‘Vienna Tourism Prize 2020’. That is a big thing here. Up to now, only four great museums — the Albertina, Schoenbrunn, Jewish Museum, and Belvedere — achieved that! Now, our little homemade museum is number five in Vienna. And I am very happy to announce that we will survive this pandemic, and we will be open on Saturdays and enthusiastically welcome Rick Steves tour groups at any time. We look to see you again soon. Many friendly greetings! And to a good 2021/2022 season! – Gerhard and Karin”

Here’s a shot of all three of us at the museum in 2018. See you soon, Karin and Gerhard!