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: Monet’s “Water Lilies”

Monet’s “Water Lilies” float serenely in two pond-shaped rooms in a Paris museum. Painted on eight mammoth curved panels, they immerse you in Monet’s world. It’s like taking a stroll in the gardens at Monet’s home at Giverny, enjoying his tranquil pond dotted with colorful water lilies.

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, 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 a book called “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces.” Here’s one of my favorites.

Monet shows the pond at different times of day. Panning slowly around the museum’s hall, you can watch the scene turn from predawn darkness to clear morning light to lavender late afternoon to the glorious golden sunset.

Get close to see how Monet worked. Each lily is a tangled Impressionist smudge composed of several different-colored brushstrokes: green, red, white, lavender, blue. Only when you back up do the colors resolve into a single “pink” flower on a “green” lily pad. Monet wanted the vibrant colors to keep firing your synapses.

Now step farther back to take in the whole picture. Only then do you see that the true subject is not really the famous water lilies but the changing reflections on the pond’s surface. The lilies float among sun-kissed clouds and blue sky reflected in the water. It’s the intermingling of the classical elements — earth (the lilies), air (the sky), fire (sunlight), and water — the primordial soup of life.

The canvases at the Orangerie Museum are snapshots of Monet’s garden. In 1883, middle-aged Monet, along with his wife and eight kids, settled into a farmhouse in Giverny, near Paris. He turned Giverny into a garden paradise. Monet landscaped like he painted — filling the “blank canvas” with “brushstrokes” of shrubs and colorful flowers. He planted a garden with rose trellises, built a Japanese bridge, and made an artificial pond stocked with water lilies (nymphéas in French). Then Monet picked up his brush and painted it all — the bridge, trellises, pond — creating hundreds of canvases that brighten museums around the world. His favorite subject of all was the water lilies.

In 1914, Monet, now in his seventies, began a water-lily project on a massive scale. It would involve huge canvases — up to 6 feet tall and 55 feet long — to hang in purpose-built rooms at the Orangerie. Monet worked at Giverny, in a special studio with skylights and wheeled easels to accommodate the big canvases. He worked on several canvases at once, moving (with the sun) from one to the next to capture the pond at different times of day. For 12 years, Monet labored obsessively, even while he — the greatest “visionary,” literally, of his generation — was slowly going blind.

Like Beethoven did when going deaf, Monet wrote his final symphonies on a monumental scale. Altogether, Monet painted 1,950 square feet of canvas. In the final paintings, he cropped the scene ever closer, until there’s no reference point for the viewer — no shoreline, no horizon, no sense of what’s up or down…leaving you immersed in the experience. The last canvas shows darkness descending on the pond — painted by an 80-year-old man in the twilight of his life.

Monet never lived to see the canvases in their intended space. But in 1927, the “Water Lilies” were hung as Monet had instructed, in this specially built space to enhance the immersive experience. He’d created what many have called the first modern “art installation.”

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, be sure to check out Rick Steves Classroom Europe, my free collection of 400+ teachable video clips — including a visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny.

Daily Dose of Europe: Appreciating Milano

They say that for every church in Rome, there’s a bank in Milan. Indeed, the economic success of postwar Italy can be attributed, at least in part, to this second city of bankers, publicists, and pasta power-lunchers. While overshadowed by Venice, Florence, and Rome in the minds of travelers, Milan still has plenty to offer anyone who visits. And, as tourism gradually returns to Italy after the pandemic, this dynamic city will certainly be in the lead in restoring this country’s economic vitality.

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.

The importance of Milan is nothing new. Ancient Romans called this place Mediolanum, or “the central place.” By the fourth century AD, it was the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire. After struggling through the early Middle Ages, Milan rose to prominence under the powerful Visconti and Sforza families. By the time the Renaissance hit, Leonardo had moved here and the city was called “the New Athens.”

Milan’s cathedral, the city’s centerpiece, is the third-largest church in Europe. It’s massive: 480 feet long and 280 feet wide, forested with 52 sequoia-sized pillars and populated by 2,000 statues. The place can seat 10,000 worshippers.

Climbing the tight spiral stairs designed for the laborers who built the church, I emerge onto the rooftop in a forest of stony spires. Crowds pack the rooftop for great views of the city, the square, and, on clear days, the Italian Alps. But it’s the architectural details of the church that grab my attention. Marveling at countless ornaments carved more than five centuries ago in marble — each flower, each gargoyle, each saint’s face is different — I realize the public was never intended to see this art. An expensive labor of love, it was meant for God’s eyes only.

The cathedral sits on Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s main square. It’s a classic European scene. Professionals scurry, fashionista kids loiter, and young thieves peruse.

The grand glass-domed arcade on the square marks the late-19th-century mall, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Built around 1870, during the heady days of Italian unification, it was the first building in town with electric lighting. Its art is joyful propaganda, celebrating the establishment of Italy as an independent country. Its stylish boutiques, restaurants, and cafés reflect Milan’s status as Italy’s fashion capital.

I make the scene under those glassy domes, slowly sipping a glass of the traditional Italian liqueur, Campari, first served in the late 1800s at a bar in this very gallery. Some of Europe’s hottest people-watching turns my pricey drink into a good value. While enjoying the parade, I notice some fun-loving commotion around the bull in the floor’s zodiac mosaic. For good luck, locals step on the testicles of Taurus. Two girls tell me that it’s even better if you twirl.

It’s evening, and I see people in formal wear twirling on that poor bull. They’re on their way to the nearby home of what is quite possibly the world’s most prestigious opera house: La Scala. Like other great opera houses in Europe, La Scala makes sure that impoverished music lovers can get standing-room tickets or nose-bleed seats that go on sale the day of the performance. And the La Scala Museum has an extensive collection of items that are practically objects of worship for opera devotees: original scores, busts, portraits, and death masks of great composers and musicians.

Imagine: Verdi’s top hat, Rossini’s eyeglasses, Toscanini’s baton…even Fettucini’s pesto.

The next morning is the highlight of my visit: Leonardo’s ill-fated The Last Supper, painted right onto the refectory wall of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Leonardo was hired to decorate the monks’ dining room and this was an appropriate scene. Suffering from Leo­nardo’s experimental use of oil, the masterpiece began deteriorating within six years of its completion. The church was bombed in World War II, but — miraculously, it seems — the wall holding The Last Supper remained standing.

Today, to preserve it as much as possible, the humidity in the room is carefully regulated — only 30 people are allowed in every 15 minutes, and visitors must dehumidify in a waiting chamber before entering. I jockey with the other visitors, like horses at the starting gate. We all booked our timed entry weeks ago. Knowing that when the door opens we get exactly 15 minutes to enjoy the Ultima Cena, we’re determined to maximize the experience. I’ve studied up, but waiting to enter I review my notes, like cramming for a test. I want to get the most out of every second in the presence of Leonardo’s masterpiece.

The door opens and we enter. There it is…filling the far wall in a big, vacant, whitewashed room: faded pastels, not a crisp edge, much of it looking look like an old film negative.

To give my 15 minutes an extra punch, I decide to enter the room as if I was one of the monks for whom The Last Supper was painted some 500 years ago… I imagine eating here, in my robe and sandals, pleased that the wall in my dining room, which for so long has been under some type of construction, is finally done.

It’s a big day — the unveiling. The painting is big and realistic. Jesus and the 12 apostles are sitting at a table just like the three big tables we monks share here in our dining room. It’s as if we were just blessed with more brothers. The table in the painting is even set like ours — right down to the stiffly starched and ironed white tablecloth.

The scene now gracing our refectory is a fitting one. The Last Supper was the first Eucharist — a ritual we celebrate daily as monks. The disciples sit with Jesus in the center. Jesus seems to know he’ll die — his face is sad, all-knowing, accepting. His feet are crossed one atop the other, as if ready for the nail.

While we eat in silence, I meditate on the painting. It shows the moment when the Lord says, “One of you will betray me.” The apostles huddle in small groups, wondering, “Lord, is it I?” Some are concerned. Others are confused. Only Judas — that’s him clutching his bag of silver — is not shocked.

Again and again, my eyes return to Christ. He’s calm despite the turmoil he must feel over the ultimate sacrifice he must make.

But then, my modern-day sensibility intrudes. I can’t help it. I want to tell the monk that Leonardo cleverly used lines of perspective that converge on Christ, reinforcing the idea that everything does indeed center on him. But I suspect the monk wouldn’t care, since he already understands the artist’s intent.

Suddenly, two doors burst open — abruptly ending my musings. My group and I are sternly ushered out one door and a new group of 30 enters the room through the other. On a bench in front of the church, I sit down for a moment to settle back into the 21st century.

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, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Milan.

Daily Dose of Europe: Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

This altarpiece was painted for a medieval hospital, which specialized in patients suffering from horrible skin diseases. Before the age of painkillers, suffering patients could gaze on this great work of art and feel that Jesus understood their distress.

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.

The outer panel of the altarpiece was an image of Jesus, in agony, being crucified, flanked by a pale Mary and a grieving John the Evangelist. The artist, Matthias Grünewald, created a dark, gruesome, troubling Crucifixion that could not be more bleak. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The patients lying in this hospital needed some hope that their suffering had a purpose. A tiny seam running down the middle of the painting reminded everyone that there was a better world lying beyond. And on feast days, the priest opened the Crucifixion up at the seam, to reveal the panels on the inside of the polyptych.

Wow! We’re not in medieval Kansas anymore. The darkness parts, and Grünewald shows a more expansive, more colorful, and cheerier world. These inner panels put Christ’s seemingly tragic death in the wider context of his blessed birth and radiant resurrection.

In the Annunciation panel (left), a brilliantly dressed angel flutters in to tell a humble Mary she will give birth to a Savior. In the central scene, Mary beams as she looks down on her baby boy, while a celestial band of angels serenades them. Jesus has come down into the world — the real world — as seen by the castle in the background. His joyous mission is to defeat death, just as God the Father is doing in the shower of light.
Though Jesus came to be crucified, he overcame death. And that’s what we see in the Resurrection panel on the right. Jesus rockets out of the tomb, as this once-mortal man is now transformed into God.

Grünewald’s depiction of this popular Bible scene is unique in art history. Grünewald was a mysterious loner who had no master, no students, and left behind few paintings. But with his genius, he reinvented the Resurrection. Christ — the self-proclaimed “Light of the World” — is radiant. His once-plain burial shroud is now the colors of the rainbow (painted, legend says, by Grünewald’s assistant, Roy G. Biv). Jesus has undergone the “resurrection of the flesh,” and now look at his skin: His perfect white epidermis would have offered hope to all the patients who meditated on the scene. They had hope that the suffering they now endured was all part of God’s grand plan, and a loving God would reward them in the hereafter. Grünewald’s happy finale is a psychedelic explosion of Resurrection joy.

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.

Daily Dose of Europe: Ghosts in Berlin

In Berlin, it’s clear that history is not contained in a book — it envelops the entire city. Today’s Berlin is vibrant with youthful energy, and it’s changing fast. But for anyone fascinated by 20th-century tumult, the city is hog heaven.

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I recently 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 is just one of its 100 travel tales.

I have a powerful image stuck in my mind of Hitler and his architect and right-hand man, Albert Speer, poring over plans for postwar Berlin…a metropolis super-sized in a way that makes Paris look quaint. Of course, by 1945, Berlin was in ruins, Hitler’s charred corpse could be identified only by his dental records, and Speer was in jail writing his memoirs, “Inside the Third Reich” (which provided me with my most vivid impressions of the Nazi era).

Over my last few visits to the city, I can see the irony that in some ways, Speer’s vision of a dynamic new Berlin dominating Europe could be coming true. For example, the massive Hauptbahnhof — the only train station in Europe with major lines merging at right angles — has a scale and grandeur that Hitler might have appreciated. Toss in 80 stores and local subway lines, and it’s a city in itself.

But freedom, not Hitler, won. And the other strong feeling I get in Berlin is that it’s a victory celebration for capitalism and its defeat of communism. Like ancient Romans keeping a few vanquished barbarians in cages for locals to spit at, capitalism and the West flaunt victory in Berlin. Slices of the Berlin Wall hang like scalps at the gate to the Sony Center, the audacious office park at Potsdamer Platz.

A sleek Radisson hotel now stands on the place where the old leading hotel of East Berlin once stood. I remember staying there during the Cold War, when a West German five-Mark coin changed on the black market would get me and my friends drinks all night. Now five euros barely buys me a beer, and the lobby of the Radisson hosts an exotic fish tank the size of a grain silo with an elevator right in the middle, zipping scenically up eight floors. Next door, the DDR Museum is filled mostly with East German tourists rummaging through the nostalgia on display from their parents’ dreary lives under communism.

Across the street, statues of Marx and Lenin (nicknamed “the Pensioners” by locals) look wistfully at the huge TV tower East Berlin built under communism. It had a fancy bar on top, but the best thing East Berliners could say about it back then was, “It’s so tall that if it falls, we’ll have an elevator to freedom.”

The victory party rages on at Checkpoint Charlie. With every visit, I remember my spooky first time there in 1971, when tour buses returning to the West were emptied at the border so mirrors could be rolled under the bus to see if anyone was trying to escape with us.

Now, a generation later, Checkpoint Charlie is a capitalist sideshow. Lowlife characters sell fake bits of the wall, WWII-vintage gas masks, and DDR medals. Two actors dressed as American soldiers stand between big American flags and among sandbags at the rebuilt checkpoint, making their living posing for tourists. Across the street at “Snack Point Charlie,” someone sipping a Coke says to me, “When serious becomes kitsch, you know it’s over.”

Standing at the historic Brandenburg Gate, I face Berlin’s fashionable new heart: Pariser Platz. Within about 100 yards of this square — once a vacant lot along the Berlin Wall, and now a festive gathering place that seems designed to celebrate freedom — is a poignant collection of sights.

There are many memorials, including one to the six million murdered Jews of Europe and another to the first victims of Hitler: 96 men, the German equivalent of congressmen, who spoke out in the name of democracy against his rule in the early 1930s. They were sent to concentration camps where they were eventually killed. Nearby is the American Embassy, famous for taking security concerns to new heights. Across from a very busy Starbucks is one of the “ghost” subway stations that went unused through the Cold War and now feels like a 1930s time warp. Above that is the hotel balcony where Michael Jackson famously dangled his baby (according to local guides, it’s the sight of greatest interest for most American tourists). And the glass dome capping the bombed-out Reichstag is where, on the rooftop on May Day 1945, Russian troops quelled a furious Nazi last stand. The nearby hills were created entirely with the rubble of a city bombed nearly flat about 70 years ago. Considering all this, the clash of history and today’s vibrant city is almost overwhelming.

Tucked away nearby is the Kennedys Museum, filled with JFK lore, including the handwritten note with the phonetics for his famous Berlin speech. Reading it, I can hear his voice: “eesh been ein Bear-lee-ner” (“I am a Berliner”).

The amazing story of Berlin swirls through my head: Speer’s vision, Hitler’s burning body, the last stand on the rooftop…the communists, the heroic American airlift, when the Communists attempted to starve a free Berlin into submission…Kennedy’s speech, followed 24 years later by Reagan’s demand to “tear down this wall”…the euphoria-turned-challenge of Germany’s reunification, and the gleaming city visitors marvel at today.

I wave down a cab and hop in. I use the opportunity to get a local’s perspective and ask the driver if he is a Berliner. When he turns to me, I realize he’s Turkish, which makes me feel a little foolish. Then, making me feel foolish for feeling foolish, he says, “I’ve lived here 31 years. If Kennedy, after one day, could say ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ then I guess I can say I am a Berliner, too.”

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, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find clips related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Berlin.

For the Love of America, VOTE — And Vote for Joe Biden!

While I freely share my political opinions on this page, I’ve tried to stick to issues and have not explicitly supported one candidate…until now. Today, I’m voicing my support for Joe Biden.

My politics are pretty clear. I have a European-style appreciation for good governance, and I see government as a way for a citizenry to work together for the collective good. Americans are often told there are two choices: big, bad government or good, small government. But Europe has taught me that there’s a third option: big, good government.

I love capitalism (and I’m pretty good at it). And I believe capitalism needs a chaperone, in the form of thoughtful regulation that protects the rights of individuals from the priorities of corporations.

I believe education and health care are as important as our military when it comes to budget priorities to make us safe and strong.
I also understand that, as a country, even in good times, we will always have people on the left and on the right when it comes to debating the role of government. And I believe that the only way to govern effectively is to respect those differences and find workable compromises.

I miss a Republican Party that I can respect. (I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980.) While I’m a liberal, I love sparring with (and learning from) a principled conservative. For me, the greatness and strength of our country and our democracy is possible only with real, independent journalism and strong governmental institutions led by caring, committed, non-partisan public servants. But our president has identified those very pillars of American life — what he calls “fake news” and the “deep state” — as his worst enemies.

As a traveler and a student of history, I’ve seen how strong societies can fray. And I fear for our democracy. It’s more fragile than we realize. And it is at risk.

That’s why, this year, I believe our choice is more fundamental than partisanship. Four years ago, Donald Trump pledged to “Make America Great Again.” When I survey our national life today, it’s clear to me that we’ve lost so much more than we’ve gained in that time.

If we truly want to make America great again, we need to elect Joe Biden to the White House on November 3. Please join me.