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

Daily Dose of Europe: Pamplona — Feeling the Breath of the Bull on Your Pants

This summer, every big European festival is cancelled — including Pamplona’s famous Running of the Bulls, which was slated to begin today. Instead, I’m reliving my memories of the time I had a front-row view of the action.

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I just published a collection of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. My new book is called “For the Love of Europe” — and this story is just one of its 100 travel tales.

Like a cowboy at a rodeo, I sit atop my spot on the fence. A loudspeaker declares — first in Spanish, then in English — “Do not touch the wounded. That is the responsibility of health personnel.” A line of green-fluorescent-vested police sweeps down the street, clearing away drunks and anyone not fit to run. Then the cleaning crew and their street-scrubbing truck make one last pass, gathering any garbage and clearing broken glass. The street — just an hour ago filled with throngs of all-night revelers — is now pristine, sanitized for a televised spectacle.

Perched on the top timber of the inner of two fences (in the prime area reserved for press), I wait for the 8:00 rocket. I’m thinking this is early…but for the mob scene craning their necks for the view behind me, it’s late. They’ve been up all night.

Cameras are everywhere — on remote-controlled robotic arms, vice-gripped to windowsills, hovering overhead on cranes, and in the hands of nearly every spectator that makes up the wall of bodies pressed against the thick timber fence behind me.

The street fills with runners. While you can wear anything, nearly everyone is wearing the traditional white pants, white shirt, and red bandana. The scene evokes some kind of cultish clan and a ritual sacrifice. This is the Festival of San Fermín. Fermín was beheaded by the Romans 2,000 years ago, martyred for his faith. The red bandanas evoke his bloody end.

It’s three minutes to eight, and the energy surges. The street is so full that if everyone suddenly ran, you’d think they’d simply trip over each other and all stack up, waiting to be minced by angry bulls. The energy continues to build. There are frat-boy runners — courage stoked by booze and by the girls they’re determined to impress. And there are serious mozos — famous locally for their runs, who’ve made this scene annually for as long as people can remember. They’ve surveyed the photos and stats (printed in yesterday’s paper) of the six bulls about to be turned loose. They know the quirks of the bulls and have chosen their favorite stretch of the half-mile run. While others are hung over, these mozos got a good, solid night’s sleep, and are now stretching and prepping mentally.

For serious runners, this is like surfing…you hope to catch a good wave and ride it. A good run lasts only 15 or 20 seconds. You know you’re really running with the bull when you feel its breath on your pants.

Mozos respect the bull. It represents power, life, and the great wild. Hemingway, who first came to the festival in 1923, understood. He wrote that he enjoyed watching two wild animals run together — one on two legs, the other on four.

It’s 8:00 and the sound of the rocket indicates that the bulls are running. The entire scramble takes about two and a half minutes. The adrenaline surges in the crowded street. Everyone wants to run — but not too early. Suddenly, it’s as if I’m standing before hundreds of red-and-white human pogo sticks. The sea of people spontaneously begins jumping up and down — trying to see the rampaging bulls to time their flight.

We’ve chosen to be near the end of the run — 200 yards from the arena, where, later today, these bulls will meet their matador. One advantage of a spot near the end is that the bulls should be more spread out, so we can see six go by individually rather than as a herd. But today, they stay together and make the fastest run of the nine-day festival: 2 minutes and 11 seconds.

The bulls rush through, creating pandemonium — a freak wave of humanity pummels the barrier. Panicky boys — no longer macho men — press against my stretch of fence. It’s a red-and-white cauldron of desperation: big eyes, scrambling bodies, the ground quaking, someone oozing under the bottom rail.

Then, suddenly, the bulls are gone. People pick themselves up, and it’s over. Boarded-up shops reopen, and the timber fences are taken down and stacked. As is the ritual, participants drop into a bar immediately after the running, have breakfast, and together watch the rerun of the entire spectacle on TV — all 131 seconds of it.

While only 15 runners have been killed by bulls over the last century, each year, dozens of people are gored, trampled, or otherwise injured during the event. A mozo who falls knows to stay down — it’s better to be trampled by six bulls than to be gored by one.

A bull becomes most dangerous when separated from the herd. For this reason, a few steer — castrated bulls that are calmer and slower — are released with the bulls. (There’s no greater embarrassment in this machismo culture than to think you’ve run with a bull, only to realize later that you actually ran with a steer.)

After the last bulls run, the rollicking festival concludes at midnight on July 14. Pamplona’s townspeople congregate in front of City Hall, light candles, and sing their sad song, “Pobre de Mí”: “Poor me, the Fiesta de San Fermín has ended.” They tuck away their red bandanas…until next year on July 6.

(This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore tomorrow, July 7th. Or you can pre-order For the Love of Europe online.  You can also find clips related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Pamplona.)

Daily Dose of Europe: The Essence of Good Travel — Connecting with People

Happy Fourth of July! Like most Americans, I’m having a subdued, socially distanced celebration at home. For patriotic Americans like me, this is a poignant Fourth as our country faces unprecedented challenges. I’m hopeful that the second half of 2020 will see America making real progress in the fight against both the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice. I love the USA. And it’s clear that, together, we have a lot of work to do.

On this holiday weekend, I’m also mindful of the EU’s understandable decision to hold off on allowing American travelers to enter Europe for now. I have spent a third of my adult life in Europe, but it’s increasingly clear that I won’t set foot there in 2020. In fact, just this week my tour company cancelled all of our remaining 2020 departures. We are hopeful for a return in 2021.

When I think about what I miss most about Europe in 2020, one thing rises to the top: the people. Wherever I go, I love making connections with Europeans. So many of my friends — whether guides, hoteliers, or restauranteurs — earn their living from tourism. And 2020 is a very tough year for them. I look forward to the day when we will be back stoking their business as they stoke our travel experiences. This post — an excerpt from my new travel memoir, For the Love of Europe, which arrives in bookstores next Tuesday — shares a few examples.

On the Irish island of Inishmore, I stayed at a farmhouse B&B. At breakfast, I told the farmer of my plans to visit the island’s main sight, Dun Aengus. It’s an Iron Age fortress that hangs spectacularly on the edge of a cliff above the ocean. He nodded, saying, “The fort is so popular with visitors that we plan to build another 2,000-year-old fort next year.”

He excused himself to do some farm chores and I asked to join him. Soon, we were working in tandem, putting out the hay. Pointing out that there were no gates on the stone fences that divided his land, he showed me how, when the sheep needed to pass, he’d simply unstack the rocks and then stack them back up. It worked for his father and it works for him. I asked about the weather and he said, “We wouldn’t be putting out the hay if the weather wasn’t going to be good.”

The essence of good travel is connecting with people. If I’m leading a tour or writing a guidebook, the mark of a job well done is how well I connect people with people. If I’m making a TV show and it doesn’t have a local voice, the show will be flat. When I’m enjoying a European vacation, my journal is more interesting when it includes stories of people I met. And yes, in reading through my new book, the essays I like the best are the ones enriched by connections with people.

Developing a knack for sparking such experiences is our challenge as good travelers. I like to take it a step further — to be a keen observer, able to connect experiential dots that may seem random by putting them into cultural and historic context…and then to learn from them. As a travel writer, that’s my challenge. And that’s my mission, whether it’s explaining the rationale behind the Dutch tolerance of marijuana, or celebrating the refreshing transparency of Berlin’s glass dome over its parliament.

While memories of palaces toured and castles climbed fade into a jumble, it’s the people, experiences, and cultural connections that stay vivid for decades…

In a pub in the Czech town of Olomouc, egged on by a local friend, I ordered the country’s infamous stinky cheese, listed on the menu as the “Guttery Breath of the Knight of Lostice.” It was served with a lid, mints, and the offer of a toothbrush. (The fun-loving menu noted they only have one toothbrush, so please leave it.)

At a bar in Brussels, I met Belgians who complained about their Lowland neighbors: “The Dutch have the worst beer, Heineken — but sell it all over the world. We Belgians make far better beer, and it is barely exported. Those Dutch are clever business people — they can sell anything.”

In Italy, people from Siena hold a medieval grudge against the people of Florence, who defeated them centuries ago. Walking with my friend in Siena, I barely missed a dog mess. In a disgusted voice, he playfully showed his Sienese pride saying, “Those Florentines are everywhere these days.”

One time in Austria, I lingered in a tiny village church. It was as quiet as a tomb. Suddenly the dozen or so visitors around me burst into a rich, Slavic hymn filling the sanctuary with life. They were a folk group from Slovakia whose director whispered to me, “We can’t be in a church without singing.”

Each of these moments is a connection, offering new insights into these places and the people who call them home. Gathering moments like these into my new book, I realized the most memorable travel moments aren’t accidents. You create them consciously by being a free-spirited extrovert. Start conversations and then let serendipity lead you astray. (Who knows? You may find yourself drinking homemade limoncello with a Franciscan friar in his abbey overlooking the Italian Riviera.) Let surprises waylay your careful plans.

While some people count the countries they’ve visited, marking them off on a checklist, that number means nothing to me. Count instead the friends you’ve made while far from home. Packing that attitude, you’ll realize the world is a welcoming place…a place filled with joy, love, and wonderful people.

(This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore on Tuesday, July 7th. Or you can pre-order For the Love of Europe online.)

Daily Dose of Europe: Siena’s Palio — 90 Seconds of Sheer Medieval Madness

For the first time in 30 years, I’m home for the Fourth of July — and there are no big parades or fireworks. That’s disappointing. But I remind myself that Siena’s world-famous horse race, the Palio — a tradition that goes back centuries — is also cancelled. And that is absolutely tragic.

The Palio is a very big deal in Siena. My Sienese friend Roberto describes it this way: “For the Sienese life story: You’re born…there’s the Palio…and then you die.”

The Palio di Siena takes place twice every summer — except this year — on July 2 and August 16. While Siena is quiet today, I have very fond memories of the time I watched the Palio in person when it was anything but quiet.

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I’m about to publish a collection of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. My new book is called “For the Love of Europe” — and this story is just one of its 100 travel tales.

Siena is divided into 17 neighborhoods, or contrade, of which 10 are selected by a drawing to vie for the coveted Palio banner — and all-important bragging rights. Each competing contrada’s horse is chosen randomly by lottery. The neighborhood then adopts it, showering it with love, washing and grooming it, and keeping it in a five-star stable. The contrade — each with its own parish church, fountain, and square — are staunch rivals. Each contrada is represented by a mascot (porcupine, unicorn, she-wolf, and so on) and a distinctive flag. Its colors are worn and flown all year long, but omnipresent as the race nears.

While the race itself lasts just 90 seconds, it’s preceded by days of festivities. As the big day approaches, processions break out across the city, including one in which the famed and treasured Palio banner — featuring the Virgin Mary, to whom the race is dedicated — is held high as it’s paraded to the cathedral. Locals belt out passionate good-luck choruses. With the waving flags and pounding drums, it all harkens back to medieval times, when these rituals boosted morale before battle.

The day before the race, I joined a crowd in the main square, Il Campo, to see the jockeys — mostly hired hands from out of town — get to know their horses in a practice run called the “charge of the carabinieri.” At midnight, the streets were filled with eating, drinking, singing, and camaraderie, as neighborhoods gathered to pump themselves up.

On race day, bets are placed on which contrada will win…and lose. Despite the shady behind-the-scenes dealing, the horses are taken into their contrada’s church to be blessed. “Go and return victorious,” says the priest. It’s considered a sign of luck if a horse leaves droppings in the church.

Meanwhile, Il Campo has been converted into a racetrack. Clay is brought in and packed down to create the surface while mattresses pad the walls of surrounding buildings. The most treacherous spots are the sharp corners, where many a rider has bitten the dust.

The entire city of Siena packs into Il Campo. Bleacher and balcony seats are expensive, but it’s free to join the masses in the square. The well-connected get to watch from the comfort of an apartment window. Roberto’s friend, Franco, shares his apartment overlooking the racecourse…and we enjoy the best seats in town. From this vantage point, we watch as the square fills, with pageantry unfolding, flags waving, and excitement building.

Finally, it’s time. A cart pulled by oxen carries the Palio banner into the arena. The crowd goes wild. As the starting places are announced, 10 snorting horses and their nervous riders line up to await the start. Silence takes over. And then…

They’re off! Once the rope drops, there’s one basic rule: There are no rules. The jockeys ride bareback while spectators go berserk. Life stops for these frantic three laps. Up in the apartment, Roberto and Franco hold their breath…

And then, it’s over. The winner: Lupa, the she-wolf district! We zip out into the street to join the ecstatic mobs coursing toward the cathedral. The happy “Lupa-Lupa-Lupa!” horde thunders through town, weeping with joy. At the cathedral, the crowd packs in, and the winning contrada receives the beloved banner. They are champions…until the next race.

Seeing euphoria overcome members of the winning contrada — it’s Lupa’s first win in 27 years — reminds me that it’s impossible for a tourist to really understand what this ritual race means to the people of Siena.

Carrying their coveted Palio banner high and hoisting their jockey to their shoulders, the Lupa contingent tumbles out of the cathedral and back into the streets, where the celebration continues into the wee hours — 500 years of proud tradition, still going strong.

(This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore on Tuesday, July 7th. Or you can pre-order For the Love of Europe online. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Palio.)

Hooray! Today Europe Re-Opens to Travelers (…Except for Americans)

As of today, the European Union has controlled the coronavirus well enough to open its doors to travelers from a list of countries that have been patient and disciplined in responsibly quelling the outbreak. Nearly all European countries, plus Canada, Japan, Australia, and even China, have qualified. Sadly, a few countries lacking in discipline, national leadership, and an embrace of science are not welcome — including Brazil, Russia, and the USA.

The permitted nations employed strict lockdowns, compulsory use of masks, and a careful and gradual reopening dictated by testing and contact tracing. In the United States, many individuals, mayors, and governors did their best to do the same. But nationally, we’ve had a patchwork response with virtually no federal leadership and a too-fast reopening driven more by impatience and economic concerns than by public health. And now, as Europe has things under control, in much of the US new cases are surging.

On the same day the EU announced their reopening plans, my tour company cancelled all remaining 2020 departures. We had been hoping that autumn might bring a return of Americans to Europe…but now it’s clear that we’re not yet ready for that privilege.

We’re still dreaming of Europe in 2021. But to make that happen, Americans need to come together and act more conscientiously and collectively to get our outbreak under control. The EU will reconsider which nations are welcome for non-essential visits every two weeks by measuring cases per 100,000 of population. Currently the EU reports 16 cases per 100,000, while rates in the US are 107 per 100,000 (nearly 7 times as high).

Happy travels, Canadians, Australians, Japanese, and Europeans! (And as for Americans…until we take this virus more seriously, we’ll have to settle for “visiting” Europe by streaming episodes of my TV show.)

For more details and commentary, my co-author Cameron Hewitt recently shared his perspective on how the coronavirus has impacted travel for Americans in Europe.

Daily Dose of Europe: Michelangelo’s David

When you look into the eyes of Michelangelo’s David, you’re looking into the eyes of Renaissance man.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

This six-ton, 17-foot-tall symbol of divine victory over evil represents a new century and a whole new Renaissance outlook. It’s the age of Columbus and Classicism, Galileo and Gutenberg, Luther and Leonardo — of Florence and the Renaissance.

In 1501, Michelangelo Buonarroti, a 26-year-old Florentine, was commissioned to carve a large-scale work for Florence’s cathedral. He was given a block of marble that other sculptors had rejected as too tall, shallow, and flawed to be of any value. But Michelangelo picked up his hammer and chisel, knocked a knot off what became David’s heart, and started to work.

He depicted a story from the Bible, where a brave young shepherd boy challenges a mighty giant named Goliath. David turns down the armor of the day. Instead, he throws his sling over his left shoulder, gathers five smooth stones in his powerful right hand, and steps onto the field of battle to face Goliath.

Michelangelo captures David as he’s sizing up his enemy. He stands relaxed but alert, leaning on one leg in the classical contrapposto pose. In his left hand, he fondles the handle of the sling, ready to fling a stone at the giant. His gaze is steady — searching with intense concentration, but also with extreme confidence. Michelangelo has caught the precise moment when David is saying to himself, “I can take this guy.”

David is a symbol of Renaissance optimism. He’s no brute. He’s a civilized, thinking individual who can grapple with and overcome problems. He needs no armor, only his God-given physical strength and wits. Look at his right hand, with the raised veins and strong, relaxed fingers — many complained that it was too big and overdeveloped. But this is the hand of a man with the strength of God on his side. No mere boy could slay the giant. But David, powered by God, could…and did.

Though the statue was intended to stand atop the cathedral, it long stood in an even more prominent spot — guarding the entrance of Town Hall. Renaissance Florentines identified with David. Like him, they considered themselves God-blessed underdogs fighting their city-state rivals. In a deeper sense, they were civilized Renaissance people slaying the ugly giant of medieval superstition, pessimism, and oppression. They were on the cusp of our modern age.

Today, David is displayed safely indoors at the Accademia, under a glorious dome at the end of a church-like nave lined with other statues by Michelangelo. You can approach as a camera-toting tourist or as a pilgrim finding inspiration in this “cathedral of humanism.” David stands as the ultimate symbol of the Renaissance — of optimism, humanism, and all that’s good in the human race.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store.  To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Accademia.