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

The Church of David

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I hope you’ll enjoy this travel tale from my book For the Love of Europe, a collection of 100 of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels.

Entering Florence’s Accademia Gallery is like entering the Church of David — a temple of humanism. At the high altar stands the perfect man, Michelangelo’s colossal statue of David. Like a Renaissance Statue of Liberty, David declares, “Yes, I can.”

This 500-year-old slingshot-toting giant-slayer is the symbol of Florence. The city’s other treasures are largely ignored by the tourist hordes that roam the streets with one statue at the top of their sightseeing list. Each morning the line forms as tourists wait patiently to enter the temple. As at any pilgrimage site, the nearby streets are lined with shops selling David knickknacks.

Inside, smartly dressed ushers collect admission tickets. Dropping mine in the basket, I turn the corner and enter a large nave. Six unfinished statues called the Prisoners — brute bodies each fighting to free themselves from their rock — line the room leading to David. His feet are at a level just above the sea of tourists’ heads. Round arches and a dome hover above him like architectural halos. People only whisper. Couples hold each other tighter in his presence, their eyes fixed on the statue.

The scene is black and white under a skylight. I don’t miss the color. I wouldn’t want color. David is beyond color, even beyond gender.

David is fundamentally human. Gathered with people from all nations, I look up to him. Tight-skirted girls who’d cause a commotion in the streets go unnoticed as macho men fold their hands. Students commune with Michelangelo on their sketchpads. Sightseers pause. Tired souls see the spirit in David’s eyes.

David is the god of human triumph. Clothed only in confidence, his toes gripping the pedestal, he seems both ready and determined to step out of the Dark Ages and into an exciting future.

When you look into the eyes of Michelangelo’s David, you’re looking into the eyes of Renaissance Man. This six-ton, 17-foot-tall symbol of divine victory over evil — completed in 1504 — represents a new century and a new 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. In his left hand, he fondles the handle of the sling, ready to fling a stone at the giant. His gaze is steady…confident. Michelangelo has caught the precise moment when David realizes he can win.

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. Many complained that the right hand was too big and overdeveloped. But this represents 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.

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 — on the cusp of our modern age — slaying the ugly giant of medieval superstition, pessimism, and oppression.

Gathered before the high altar of David, tourists share the pews with Michelangelo’s unfinished stone Prisoners. Also known as the Slaves, they wade wearily through murky darkness, bending their heads under the hard truth of their mortality.

A passing tour guide says, “The Prisoners are struggling to come to life.” But I see them dying — giving up the struggle, wearily accepting an inevitable defeat.

Michelangelo intended to show the soul imprisoned in the body. While the Prisoners’ legs and heads disappear into the rock, their chests heave and their bellies shine. Talking through what I’m seeing, I say out loud, “Each belly is finished, as if it were Michelangelo’s focus…the portal of the soul.”

Without missing a beat, the woman next to me replies, “That’s the epigastric area. When you die, this stays warm longest. It’s where your soul exits your body.”

I welcome this opportunity to get a new perspective on Michelangelo’s work. She introduces herself as Carla and her friend as Anne-Marie. Both are nurses from Idaho. Carla turns from the Prisoners to David, raises her opera glasses, and continues, “And David’s antecubital space is perfectly correct.”

“Anti-what?” I say, surprised by this clinical approach to David.

“That’s the space inside the elbow. Look at those veins. They’re perfect. He’d be a great IV start. And the sternocleidomastoid muscle — the big one here,” she explains, running four slender fingers from her ear to the center of her Florence T-shirt, “it’s just right.”

Carla burrows back into the opera glasses for a slow head-to-toe pan and continues to narrate her discoveries. “You can still see the drill holes under his bangs. There’s a tiny chip under his eye…sharp lips…yeow.”

Her friend Anne-Marie muses, “They should make that pedestal revolve.”

Carla, still working her way down David, dreams aloud. “Yeah, pop in a euro; get 360 slow-moving degrees of David. He is anatomically correct, anatomically really correct. Not as moving as the Pièta, but really real.”

“He feels confident facing Goliath,” I say.

Anne-Marie lowers her camera and says, “Well, he’s standing there naked, so he must be pretty confident.”

Turning to Carla, she observes, “The ears are ugly. The pubic hair’s not quite right. And his right hand is huge. They always say to check out the fingers if you wonder about the other appendages. So what’s the deal?”

“The guidebook says that’s supposed to be the hand of God,” Carla explains. “You can’t measure the rest of David by ‘the hand of God.’”

Settling back into a more worshipful frame of mind, Anne-Marie ponders aloud, “The Bible says he was like 12 or 14.”

“This is no 14-year-old,” says Carla, still lost in her opera glasses.

I ask, “What’s David telling us?”

“He says God made people great,” says Anne-Marie.

I say, “No, maybe it’s David who’s made in God’s image, and David makes it clear that we — the rest of us — fall short.”

Zipping her opera glasses into her day bag, Carla looks into the eyes of David. “No,” she says. “I think we’re each great. We’re great. David’s great. God’s great. And Michelangelo’s giving us a sneak preview of heaven…”

The guards begin to usher people out. I whisper, “I like that.” Then, needing a few extra minutes to do my annual slow stroll around David, I say “ciao” and drift away from the nurses. I need more time to commune with this timeless symbol of a city that 500 years ago led Europe into a new age, a symbol that still challenges us to reach for all that we can be — to declare, “Yes, we can.”

The Moment Eiffel for You — Fun with Travel Pick-Up Lines 

Are you from Holland? Because AmsterDAMN. 

My staff recently showed me some memes featuring travel-themed pick-up lines. (Or, as they called them, “Rick-up lines!) I got a kick out of these pun-loving images and thought you would, too 

And, with our engaged community of creative travel-lovers, I thought we could have even more fun with this. So, let’s put our heads together to see what playful, quirkyor clever pick-up memes we can come up with collectively. 

Scroll through this fun collection tstoke your imagination and get the creative juices flowing — and then jump into the comments below or on Facebook with your own creations or suggestions for improving on our examplesI can’t wait to see the clever (or corny!Rick-up lines you come up with. (Points for extra fromage.)

 

By Naomi Williams

 

By Stefanie Bielekova

By Gabe Gunnink

By Karyn

By Gabe Gunnink

By Naomi Williams

By Gabe Gunnink

By Gabe Gunnink

By Stefanie Bielekova and Gabe Gunnink

By Stefanie Bielekova

By Stefanie Bielekova

Wieskirche: Bavaria’s Rococo Church

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a regular 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 and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:.  

The Wieskirche is Germany’s greatest Rococo-style churchand this “Church in the Meadow” looks as brilliant now as the day it floated down from heaven. It’s a divine droplet, a curly curlicue, as overripe with decoration as this sentence, and — bright and bursting with beauty — it’s also an exquisite example of the final flowering of the Baroque movement. 

The church was constructed around a crude wooden statue of Christ being whipped. No sooner was the statue made (1738) than it miraculously began to shed tears. Amazed pilgrims came from all around. They, too, wept and were miraculously healed. The statue became a celebrity, pilgrims donated lots of money, and two of Bavaria’s top Rococo architects (the Zimmermann brothers) were hired to give the statue a proper home. 

As the church’s name suggests, the Wieskirche stands literally in a meadow in the middle of the Bavarian countryside. You approach up a pathway, walking through fertile fields where cows graze peacefully and the scent of cut hay, fresh cow pies, and an alpine breeze saturates the air the way the Holy Spirit permeates the created world. 

Stepping inside the small church, you’re greeted with curvaceous decor that looks like it came out of a heavenly spray can. The walls are whitewashed, and clear windows flood the church with light. Surrounded by a riot of colorful columns, golden pulpits, an over-the-top altarpiece, and a frescoed ceiling that seems to open up to the sky, your eyes hardly know where to rest. 

The Wieskirche’s ornate style, called Rococo, is like Baroque that got shrunk in the wash — lighter, frillier, and more delicate, with whitewash and pastel colors. Where Baroque uses oval shapes, Rococo twists it even further into curvy cartouches. 

The altar is a theological sermon that’s all about Christ’s sacrifice. It starts with his birth, moves on to his arrest and torture, and finishes with a symbol of his gruesome death: a golden sacrificial lamb. 

But that’s not the end of the story. The visual sermon concludes with the massive ceiling painting. There, overseeing it all, is Jesus Christ — now resurrected — riding on a rainbow, with a smile on his face. It’s the most positive Last Judgment around. Jesus comes in like a friend, giving any sinner the feeling that there’s still time to repent, with plenty of mercy on hand. 

At the Wieskircheall of the decoration — statues, paintings, columns, gold, colorful marble, light through the windows, and the dreamy pastoral setting — come together. Having entered the church through a meadow (representing the glories of creation), you stand inside a slice of artistic paradise. Above, the ceiling painting seems to blow open the roof, allowing you a glimpse of the celestial world beyond. For the pilgrim, the Wieskirche becomes a spiritual axis connecting both heaven and earth. 

The Palace of Versailles  


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.

Three Castles: Eltz, Rheinfels, and Neuschwanstein

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.