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: Dangling from a Swiss Cliff

Simply going back to Europe right now would be a thrill. But for an added thrill, I might head to the Swiss Alps for a via ferrata course.

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

Dangling from a sheer cliff a thousand feet above the valley floor, I pause and look down at my boots, each numbly clinging to a rebar step — which, like giant staples, are tacked across the rock face. Between my legs, like little specks on the valley floor, I see tiny cows doing their part for the Swiss cheese industry. To my left, my mountain guide patiently waits, keeping a wary eye on me. To my right, my Swiss friend Simon laughs, saying, “Hand me your camera.”

I know I need a photo to capture this amazing scene. But I don’t want to have anything to do with grabbing my camera or posing. I am terrified.
I’m back in my favorite corner of Switzerland: the Berner Oberland. When I arrived, it occurred to me that I’d already ridden the lifts and hiked all the trails in the area. But there was one experience that I had yet to do: traverse the cliffside cableway called the via ferrata. This morning, Simon and I pulled on mountaineering harnesses and clipped our carabiners onto the first stretch of a nearly two-mile-long cable, setting off with a local guide on the “iron way” from Mürren to Gimmelwald.

The route does not follow the top of the cliff that separates the high country from Lauterbrunnen Valley. It takes us along the very side of the cliff, like a tiny window-washer on a geological skyscraper. The “trail” ahead of us is a series of steel rebar spikes jutting out from the side of the cliff. As I make my way, I alternate my two carabiners from segment to segment along the sturdy steel cable. For me, physically, this is the max. I am almost numb with fear. After one particularly harrowing crossing — gingerly taking one rebar step after another — I say to the guide, “Okay, now it gets easier?”

“No,” he says. “Now comes Die Hammer Ecke! ” Translated into English, this means “The Hammer Corner.” This name does not calm my fears.
For a couple hundred yards, we creep across a perfectly vertical cliff face — feet gingerly gripping rebar steps, hands tight on the cable. Miniature cows and a rushing river are far below me, the cliff face rockets directly above me, and a follow-the-cable horizontal path bends out of sight in either direction.

As I inch along the cliff, my mind flashes back to my many adventures with Simon over the years. Living high on the peaks of Europe, the Swiss are experts at living with nature — and Simon is always eager to share with me the Alps in all their moods. On recent visits, a new theme has emerged: the clear impact of climate change on their world. To people like Simon, who live so close to nature, the physical changes resulting from strange and changing weather is an increasingly troubling reality.

On one of my visits, we rode the early-morning lift to Männlichen, high on the ridge above Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, and stepped off and into a visual symphony: Before us towered the mighty Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Simon, who’d worked at Männlichen’s mountaintop restaurant as a kid and still bikes here a couple of nights a week, spoke of the subtle changes he’d noticed here. Walking by a glacial pond, he recalled how, during his childhood, there would be hundreds of frogs singing. Now there are none.

At one time, a ski lift required just a few towers. Now, a swath is cut right up the mountain as each lift is plumbed with snowmaking gear. Big water pipes stick out of the concrete foundations, seeming to trumpet a new age. You won’t have ski resorts in the future without artificial snow. Today, the Swiss ski industry is in crisis: A third of the lifts are losing money, a third are in trouble, and only a third are good business. Simon gave me a trick postcard. Wiggling it made the glacier come and go. The valley in 1900…filled with ice. The same valley today…dry, with a shrunken glacier hanging like a thirsty dog’s tongue over the top of the valley high in the distance.

On another hike, as we gazed up at the North Face of the Eiger, Simon told me of speed climbers leaving Interlaken on the early train to the base, scaling this Everest of rock faces, and getting back to Interlaken in time for a late-afternoon business meeting. But as the permafrost thaws, there are more falling rocks, and mountain guides are abandoning once-standard ascents that are no longer safe.

With Simon, I’ve experienced calm, cool mornings giving way to freak afternoon hailstorms. One time, nervous locals scrambled like squirrels as the sky got dark and then…bam! Typhoon in the Alps. Flower gardens were hammered into pulp. The road became a river of flowing hail balls, leaves, and petals. Fifteen minutes later, the storm was over, leaving behind casualties: Fabric on chairs was ripped, an entire wall of old windows was left jagged, birds were stripped of their feathers and knocked silly. Car rooftops were blanketed in dents, and windshields were alligatored. With a black humor many Europeans have about climate change, Simon joked, “It’s no problem — we Swiss are the most insured people in the world.”

Back up on the via ferrata, I reach the end of my terrifying journey. Taking that last step, I triumphantly unclip my carabiner for the last time and hug our guide like a full-body high-five. Vivid experiences like this one are a hallmark of travel in the Swiss Alps. I only hope that future generations can enjoy this glorious landscape, 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. It’s available today in our online Travel Store and in bookstores across the US. Pick up a copy and enjoy 400 pages of happy travels. You can also find clips related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Switzerland.

Daily Dose of Europe: Florence — City of Art

On a recent visit to Florence, I remember thinking, “I’ve seen more great art in a few hours than many people see in a lifetime.” If I could drop into any city in Europe right now for a day of museum-hopping…it might just be Florence.

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.

Geographically small but culturally rich, Florence is home to some of the finest art and architecture in the world. In that single day, I looked Michelangelo’s David in the eyes, fell under the seductive sway of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and climbed the first great dome of the Renaissance, which gracefully dominates the city’s skyline today as it did 500 years ago.

After Rome fell in AD 476, Europe wallowed in centuries of relative darkness, with little learning, commerce, or travel. Then, around 1400, there was a Renaissance: a rebirth of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Starting in Florence, it swept across Europe. Wealthy merchant and banking families — like the Medici, who ruled Florence for generations — showed their civic pride by commissioning great art.

With the Renaissance, artists rediscovered the beauty of nature and the human body, expressing the optimism of this new age. The ultimate representation of this: Michelangelo’s David. Poised confidently in the Accademia Gallery, David represents humankind stepping out of medieval darkness — the birth of our modern, humanist outlook. Standing boldly, David sizes up the giant, as if to say, “I can take him.” The statue was an apt symbol, inspiring Florentines to tackle their Goliaths.

Until 1873, David stood not in the Accademia, but outside Palazzo Vecchio, the former Medici palace and now Florence’s City Hall. A replica David marks the spot where the original once stood. With goony eyes and a pigeon-dropping wig, this David seems dumbfounded, as tourists picnic at his feet and policemen clip-clop by on horseback.

Next door to the palace were the Medicis’ offices, or uffizi. Now the Uffizi Gallery holds the finest collection of Italian paintings anywhere, sweeping through art history from the 12th through 17th centuries, with works by Botticelli, Raphael, Giotto, Titian, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. In the long, arcaded courtyard, a permanent line of tourists (who ignored my guidebook’s advice to book reservations online in advance) waits to buy tickets.

For me, a highlight of the Uffizi is Venus de’ Medici. Revered as the epitome of beauty, Venus is a Roman copy of a 2,000-year-old Greek statue that went missing. In the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy children of Europe’s aristocrats made the pilgrimage to the Uffizi to complete their classical education. They stood before the cold beauty of this goddess of love and swooned in ecstasy.

Classical statues like this clearly inspired Sandro Botticelli, my favorite Florentine painter. His greatest paintings, including the Birth of Venus, hang in this gallery. According to myth, Venus was born from the foam of a wave. This fragile Venus, a newborn beauty with flyaway hair, floats ashore on a clam shell while flowers tumble in slow motion. For me, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus represents the purest expression of Renaissance beauty.

In Florence, art treasures are everywhere you turn. The small, uncrowded Bargello Museum features the best collection of Florentine sculpture anywhere, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, and Ghiberti. And hiding out at the underrated Duomo Museum, you’ll see one of Michelangelo’s Pietàs (which he designed as the centerpiece for his own tomb) and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise panels. Revolutionary in their realism and three-dimensionality, these panels were created in response to a citywide competition in 1401 to build new doors for the Baptistery, an event that kicked off the Renaissance.

Across the street from the Duomo Museum towers Florence’s famous cathedral. Boasting the first great dome built in Europe in more than a thousand years, the Duomo marked the start of the architectural Renaissance (later inspiring domes ranging from the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica to the US Capitol). Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the immense dome is taller than a football field on end.

As if inspired by the centuries-old, greatest art of our civilization, Florence’s artistic and artisan community lives on today. To find it, I simply walk across the fabled bridge, Ponte Vecchio, and explore the Oltrarno neighborhood, home to small shops with handmade furniture, jewelry, leather items, shoes, and pottery. Craftsmen bind books and make marbled paper. Antique pieces are refurbished by people who’ve become curators of the dying techniques of gilding, engraving, etching, enameling, mosaics, and repoussé metalwork.

After a day filled with so much great art, I retreat to a stately former monastery and unwind in a Renaissance-era cell. It’s my favorite Florentine hotel, Loggiato dei Serviti, and that cell is my bedroom.

Directly across from my window is the Accademia, filled with tourists clamoring to meet David. The peaceful courtyard in between is gravelly with broken columns and stones that students are carving like creative woodpeckers. I hear the happy chipping and chirping of their chisels gaining confidence, cutting through the stone. Five centuries later, it’s comforting to know that the spirit of the Renaissance remains alive and well in Florence.

(This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. It’s available now in our online Travel Store  and in bookstores across the US. Pick up a copy and enjoy 400 pages of happy travels. You can also find clips related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Florence.)

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.)