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: Neuschwanstein

A fairy-tale castle in a stunning alpine setting, with a lush interior and all the latest conveniences…and they call the man who built it “mad”!

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine.

And today, we visit a turreted fantasy castle, tucked in the hinterlands of Bavaria’s far south.

Neuschwanstein Castle looks like it dates from the Middle Ages, but it’s barely older than the Eiffel Tower. It was the dream of “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria. As a boy, climbing the hills above his summer home, Ludwig fantasized about building a castle there “in the authentic style of the old German knights.” When he gained power at age 18, he began to turn his dreams into stone, creating a private getaway from the politics in Munich that Ludwig hated — a place to dream.

The location was unmatched — perched high on a rocky ledge, with a backdrop of snow-tipped mountains and glassy alpine lakes.

Ludwig’s “architect” was a theater set-designer specializing in medieval fables. The actual construction (1869–1886) was executed by high-tech engineers using the latest techniques. Hundreds of tons of stone were hefted up with Industrial Age steam power. The castle core was a skeleton of modern iron and brick faced with medieval-looking white limestone, trimmed with gray sandstone. The result was a mash-up of a thousand years of medieval architecture…neo-medieval: Romanesque arched windows, castle-like crenellations, and prickly Gothic towers. It captured the spirit of 19th-century Romantics nostalgic for a pre-Industrial past.

Inside, it was lavish. Ludwig’s extravagant throne room emphasized his royal status, with golden mosaics of the Christian kings Ludwig emulated. The floor, with its two-million-stone mosaic, features an encyclopedia of animals and plants. Overhead hangs a huge chandelier shaped like an emperor’s crown.

The king’s personal rooms, though incredibly ornate, are actually small and cozy. Ludwig’s canopied bed is elaborately carved with a forest of Gothic spires. Ludwig enjoyed his own chapel, water piped in from the Alps, and views of steep mountains and plunging waterfalls — fueling his Romantic soul with the wonders of nature. Ludwig even built an artificial grotto, dripping with stucco stalactites and a bubbling waterfall. The castle’s grand finale is the Singers’ Hall, a fancy ballroom. The entire castle came with state-of-the-art technology: electricity, running water, flush toilets, and even telephones.

Meanwhile, all of the rooms were decorated with paintings of valiant knights and lovely damsels, inspired by the Romantic operas of Ludwig’s idol, Richard Wagner. There are Wagner’s legendary lovers, troubadours, Holy Grails, and especially Ludwig’s favorite animal — swans. Ludwig’s swan-like castle came to be called neu-Schwan-Stein — “new swan stone.”

Ludwig lived in his castle for a mere 172 days before the fantasy of Neuschwanstein came to an abrupt end. Fed up with Ludwig’s expensive Romantic excesses, his political rivals burst into his bedroom and arrested him. Two days later, Ludwig — only 40 years old — drowned mysteriously in a Bavarian lake (murder? suicide?).

Within six weeks of his death, tourists were lining up to see the “mad” king’s “folly.” Today, Ludwig’s cost has been recouped a hundredfold, and huge crowds from all over flock to see Europe’s most popular castle.

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 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 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 “Neuschwanstein” for a closer look at Mad King Ludwig’s fairytale castle.

Daily Dose of Europe: A Little Bone Envy

I was just 19, visiting Romania for the first time. A new friend took me inside his home, to the hearth, and introduced me to what was left of his great-grandfather. It was a skull… dry, hollow, and easy to hold in one hand. He told me it was a tradition in the mountains of Transylvania for families to remember long-dead loved ones with this honored spot above the fireplace. I remember feeling a little bone envy.

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

If you know where to look, you can find human bones on display in many corners of Europe. Later, on that same trip, I was in the Paris Catacombs. Deep under the city streets, I was all alone…surrounded by literally millions of bones — tibiae, fibulae, pelvises, and skulls, all stacked along miles of tunnels. I jumped at the opportunity to pick up what, once upon a time, was a human head. As what seemed like two centuries of dust tumbled off the skull, I looked at it…Hamlet-style. Just holding it was a thrill. I tried to get comfortable with it… to get to know it, in a way. I struggled with the temptation to stick it into my day bag. Imagine taking home a head dating back to Napoleonic times. What an incredible souvenir. But I just couldn’t do it. The next year, I returned to those same catacombs, pumped up and determined this time to steal me a skull. It was a different scene. Skulls within easy reach of visitors were now wired together, and signs warned that bags would be checked at the exit.

The Paris Catacombs show off the anonymous bones of six million permanent residents. In 1786, the French government decided to relieve congestion and improve sanitary conditions by emptying the city cemeteries, which had traditionally surrounded churches. They established an official ossuary in an abandoned limestone quarry. With miles of underground tunnels, it was the perfect location. For decades, the priests of Paris led ceremonial processions of black-veiled, bone-laden carts into the quarries, where the bones were stacked into piles five feet high and up to 80 feet deep, behind neat walls of skull-studded tibiae. Each transfer was completed with the placement of a plaque indicating the church and district from which that stack of bones came and the date they arrived.

Today, you can descend a long spiral staircase into this bony underworld (ignoring the sign that announces: “Halt, this is the empire of the dead”) and follow a one-mile subterranean public walk. Along the way, plaques encourage you to reflect upon your destiny: “Happy is he who is forever faced with the hour of his death and prepares himself for the end every day.” Emerging far from where you entered with white limestone-covered toes is a dead giveaway you’ve been underground, gawking at bones.

While I eventually outgrew my desire to steal a skull, in later years, as a tour guide, I’ve discovered I’m not the only one intrigued by human bones. If bones are on your bucket list, you’ve got plenty of options. Throughout Europe, Capuchin monks offer a different bone-venture. The Capuchins made a habit of hanging their dead brothers up to dry and then opening their skeleton-filled crypts to the public. Their mission: to remind us that in a relatively short period of time, we’ll be dead, too — so give some thought to mortality and how we might be spending eternity.

In the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, the bones of 4,000 monks who died between 1528 and 1870 are lined up for the delight — or disgust — of always wide-eyed visitors. A plaque shares their monastic message: “We were what you are…you will become what we are now.”

The Capuchins of Palermo, Sicily, offer an experience skull and shoulders above the rest. Their crypt is a subterranean gallery filled with 8,000 “bodies without souls,” howling silently at their mortality. For centuries, people would thoughtfully choose their niche before they died, and even linger there, getting to know their macabre neighborhood. After death, dressed in their Sunday best, their body (sans soul) would be hung up to dry.

In Kutná Hora, in the Czech Republic, monks take bone decor to an unrivaled extreme. Their ossuary is decorated with the bones of 40,000 people, many of them plague victims. The monks who stacked these bones 400 years ago wanted viewers to remember that the earthly church is a community of both the living and the dead. Later bone-stackers were more into design than theology — creating, for instance, a chandelier made with every bone in the human body.

In Europe, seekers of the macabre can get their fill of human skeletons. And in doing so, they learn that many of these bones — even long after death — still have something to say.

This story appears in my newest book, “For the Love of Europe” — a collection of 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, or you can find it at my online Travel Store.

Stay tuned, travel buddies. Upcoming posts will be sure to carbonate your daily routine — such as a European-festivals bonanza — with running bulls, Euro-Mardi Gras, a crazy horse race, and huge tents filled with dirndls, lederhosen, and giant beers — at our next Monday Night Travel event. So, be sure to stick around, and invite your friends to join us here as well!

Learning the Joy of Giving in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains

I just received a Christmas greeting from my friend George Gorayeb, who always surprises me with the thoughtful way he teaches through his travels. George shared a delightful and inspiring story, which I wanted to pass along to you. 

These are the experiences we gather from our travels that make our lives glitter for the rest of our days. And when we share them, there is more light in our world. George’s story, so gracefully told, added a delightful dimension to the idea of gift-giving, so timely during this holiday season: 

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Hello Rick, 

In this season of gift giving, I would like to share a personal story about the humblest yet most-appreciated gift that I have ever given to anyone. 

Back in the spring of 1972, I was blessed to be serving as a Peace Corps volunteer, high school English teacher in Marrakesh, Morocco, in North Africa. One day, a half dozen of us volunteers went hiking in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. This scenic mountain range separates the city of Marrakesh from the northern edge of the Sahara Desert. For half of the year, these mountain peaks are covered in snow because of their very high elevation. 

After hiking for several hours one morning, we came upon a young Moroccan boy named Mohammed, about ten years old, tending to his flock of sheep on a mountainside. He was shocked that this group of young Americans could speak to him in Moroccan Arabic. 

After we talked for a while, this little kid insisted that we follow him and his sheep home so we could all meet his family in the nearby village. We followed him. His house was a very modest structure made of mud walls. His family was delighted to welcome us into their home. They served us Moroccan mint tea and biscuits. Then they insisted that we stay for a traditional and delicious Moroccan lunch. 

This was a very humble family who lived from the food they raised themselves in this remote mountain village. They told us that they had never met any Americans before, and they were honored to host us. We realized that they had only a few chickens, and the mother was preparing a chicken tajine for us. A tajine is a delicious stew served in a big brown ceramic platter with a big cone top. 

We all felt guilty because we knew this family lived a very spartan life. They only ate chicken on special religious holidays. But we also knew how extremely important it is to show generous hospitality towards your guests in Arab and Muslim culture. So, they insisted that they serve us the most elaborate meal that they could. And we knew that we could not refuse their extraordinary graciousness, no matter how poor they were. 

During the lunch, one of the girls in our group asked little Mohammed if his bare feet didn’t get very cold in the winter months as he walked the mountainside in just flip flops. He said yes, but he had no socks. I spontaneously realized that I had to give this kid my socks. I was embarrassed because we had crossed a stream that morning, and my shoes got wet. My socks were still damp, and the one on my right foot had a big hole where my big toe was. 

But as Mohammed watched me take my socks off and hand them to him, his contagious smile just exploded with joy. You would have thought I was handing him the keys to a brand-new convertible. 

I learned a valuable lesson that day. This — a pair of tattered old socks — was the most humble and basic gift that I have ever given anyone. But this little kid appreciated this simple gift so much, it shocked me. He could not thank me enough when he hugged me to say goodbye that day. My bare feet in my wet shoes were really cold for the rest of that day, but it still gave me a great feeling. 

Have a joyous Christmas season! 

George Gorayeb

The Edmonds Theater — An Extra-Large Bag of Small-Town Memories

Since I was a kid, The Edmonds Theater has been part of what made Main Street the main street in my hometown. In Edmonds, it’s the ferry dock, the theater, and the fountain. If I was writing the town up in a guidebook, the chapter would be short…and the town would be a “must-see.”

The theater is filled with memories, from when first Mr. Kniest and then Jacques Mayo — community leaders who ran the theater, it seemed, more to give our town character and charm rather than to make money — would lovingly introduce the featured film in person. I remember the anxious thrill in the old days of knowing that my school buddy had to have the second reel all cued up and then scout for the little “doughnut” to show in the lower corner of the image, indicating one reel is finished and the other needs to roll.

I remember thinking (as if in Animal House), “This is really great,” while helping hoist up the new, state-of-the-art, curved screen — back before the age of giant multiplex movie palaces at the mall. Those were days when, if you knew who was working, you could sneak into the “closed” balcony, which was strewn with beat-up old sofas and delightfully dark. It was big news when the cushier seats replaced what felt like WWII-vintage ones. But thankfully the new comfort didn’t blot out the Mayberry charm.

When I was just starting my business, I’d rent the theater for my all-day Saturday travel lectures. I’d set up a stepladder in the middle of the seats, balance the old projector high, and run my hard-wired “clicker” under the seats to the stage, feeling quite high-tech to be able to advance the slides from that distance. Later, as my company grew, we continued to rent out the theater for an all-day series of “travel festival” classes — filling the place each hour, and then instructing everyone to exit out the alley door so those waiting in the lobby could refill the place quickly for the next presentation. For decades, I’d joke, “The bathrooms are upstairs…they offer a sneak preview of Italy.” As promised, we’d always clear out before the evening’s first movie.

And today, the Edmonds Theater remains the place I favor for enjoying a new movie. Sure, there are fancier places out at the mall. But to buy your ticket from someone who knows your name and to see a movie in a classic old theater on a classic old Main Street with a soft drink and a big bag of popcorn — a moviegoing ritual for 40 years and counting — that’s something to treasure…and to be thankful for.

Like so many beloved businesses, COVID-19 has landed our theater on hard times. These are the small businesses — the labors of love, the moms-and-pops, the plucky entrepreneurial ventures — that give our communities character. This pandemic will take a lot of lives before it’s history. And it threatens to take a lot of the personality out of our towns, too. In that case, the life-saving ventilator is our patronage. If we value these businesses, let’s do what we can to be sure they survive.

And when our theater reopens, I’ll see you there.

This post originally appeared in the Everett Herald.

Honoring One Woman’s Love of Travel

I recently received an envelope filled with 255 euros and an inspirational letter from a Rick Steves traveler who lost his wife to breast cancer — and wanted me to have their piggy bank for future trips. This is a vivid example of the many heartwarming notes we receive from the wonderful people we get to travel with through our work, and I thought you might enjoy reading it. (To keep it anonymous, I’m using pseudonyms.)

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Hello Rick!

So, you might be thinking, “Why in the world am I holding this letter and an envelope filled with euros?”

Well…as a family, my wife Nancy, our daughter Aggie, and I enjoyed wondrous ventures on 6 Rick Steves tours between 2005 – 2010! We had a fun tradition of tucking a few euros aside with the promise that they would lead to our next tour! Over those years, we had some relatives who always laughed at our budgeting wisdom of splurging on so many trips while our daughter was still in school. They thought us crazy! They always said, “Save it for retirement, and for your daughter’s college fund.”

It all worked out just fine. You make priorities, and you see them through. We loved our Europe adventures together, and we got our daughter through 8 years of college and grad school, as well.

In late 2018, Nancy died after a battle with breast cancer. If we had waited for retirement…these priceless experiences shared and family time together would NEVER have happened! While I still have the travel lust and watch your shows religiously, without my travel partner, Nancy, and with the years going by, we don’t have plans to return to Europe. But we really like the idea of somehow seeing these leftover euros in our future trip kitty return and be enjoyed. So, we are happy to send them to you.

I am confident you will be returning to Europe in 2021, and the thought that we bought you a drink in a Paris cafe, or a Greek taverna, or a floodlit square in Rome really gives me a smile! This is just a small gift for the great memories and images with Nancy that I’ll enjoy for the rest of my days. Yes, I know I could have simply exchanged the euros through my bank… and why send the cash through the mail…but what fun is that? Thanks for the memories Rick, enjoy this little gift, and happy travels to you.

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I’m so inspired by this touching gift from Nancy’s family. And here’s how I’ll put that envelope of 255 euros to good use: When in Switzerland, one of my favorite things to do is to visit the youth hostel in Gimmelwald, my favorite alpine village, and buy all the backpackers a beer. When I return to Gimmelwald in 2021 (God willing!), I will buy beer for every one of those young travelers until those 255 euros is gone. And with each round, we’ll drink to Nancy and her family, knowing she is smiling down on us from an even more wonderful high-altitude perch.