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: Fine Living at a Parisian Market 

Let’s go for a (vicarious) walk together along Paris’ finest market street: Rue Cler 

Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the time being. But travel dreams are immune to any virus. And, while many of us are stuck at home, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis. 

grew up thinking cheese was no big deal. It was orange and the shape of the bread: slap, fwompcheese sandwich. Even though I’m still far from a gourmet eater, my time in Paris — specifically shopping at the Rue Cler street market with my restaurateur friend Marie — has substantially bumped up my appreciation of good cuisine.  

In the skinny shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Rue Cler still feels like village Paris. Lined with shops that spill out into the street, it’s also bustling with shoppers. Marie explains that Parisians shop almost daily for three good reasons: their tiny kitchens have tiny refrigerators, fresh produce makes for a good meal, and they like shopping. It’s an important social event: a chance to hear about the butcher’s vacation, see photos of the florist’s new grandchild, relax over un café, and kiss the cheeks of friends. Demonstrating back and forth on my cheeks, Marie says, “The Parisian standard is twice for acquaintances (kiss, kiss) and three times for friends you haven’t seen in a while — like you (kiss, kiss, kiss).”  

Observing Parisian shoppers, I quickly recognize the cardinal rule: Whenever popping in and out of French shops, it’s polite to greet the proprietor (“Bonjour, Madame”) and say “Merci” and “Au revoir” as you leave. This simple practice can make the difference between being treated as an ignorant tourist and being treated as a temporary local. 

The neighborhood produce shop wraps around the corner with an enticing rainbow of fruits and vegetables on display. Marie, using it as a classroom in smart grocery shopping, explains, “We Parisians demand the freshest fruits and vegetables and we shop with our noses.” As if to demonstrate how exacting she is when shopping for her restaurant, Marie flips into gear: “Smell the cheap foreign strawberries. Then smell the torpedoshaped French ones (gariguettes). Find the herbs. Is today’s delivery in? Look at the price of those melons! What’s the country of origin? It must be posted. If they’re out of season, they come from Guadeloupe. Many Parisians buy only French products and don’t compromise on flavor because they eat with the season.” 

Next door, the fishmonger sells the freshest fish, which is brought in daily from ports on the English Channel, 100 miles away. In fact, seafood in Paris is likely fresher than in many towns closer to the coast because Paris is a commerce hub and from here it’s shipped out to outlying towns. Anything wiggling? 

At the boucherieMarie shows me things I might have otherwise avoided on her menu: rognons (kidneys), foie (liver), coeur de boeuf (heart of beef). She hoists a duck to check the feet; they should be rough and calloused, an indication that they weren’t stuck in an industrial kennel but ran free on a farm. She explains, “While Americans prefer beef, pork, and chicken, we French eat just as much rabbit (lapin), quail (caille), lamb (agneau), and duck (canard). The head of a calf is a delight for its many tasty bits.” The meat is seasonal. In the winter, game swings from the ceiling. 

Farther down Rue Cler, the picnicfriendly charcuterie (or traiteur) sells mouthwatering deli food to go. Because apartment kitchens are so small, these handy gourmet delis make it easy for Parisians to supplement their dinners in style.  

At the cave à vin (wine shop), the clerk is a counselor who works with customers’ needs and budgets. He will even uncork a bottle for picnickers. While drinking wine outdoors is taboo in the US, it’s pas de problème in France. 

The smell of cheese heralds the fromagerie. It’s a festival of mold, with wedges, cylinders, balls, and miniature hockey pucks all powdered white, gray, and burnt marshmallow. Browsing with me through a world of different types of cheese, Marie explains, “Ooh la la means you’re impressed. If you like cheese, show greater excitement with more lasOoh la la la la.”  

She leads me to the goatcheese corner, holds the stinkiest glob close to her nose, takes a deep, orgasmic breath, and exhales, saying, “Yes, this smells like zee feet of angels.” 

The whitesmocked cheesemonger knows Marie well. Sensing I’m impressed by his shop, he points out the old photo on the wall from when his father ran the shop. It was labeled BOF for beurre, oeuf, fromage. For generations, this has been the place where people go for butter, eggs, and cheese. As if I’m about to become a convert to the church of stinky cheese, he takes us into the back room for a peek at les meules — the big, 170pound wheels (250 gallons of milk go into each). Explaining that the “hard” cheeses are cut from these, he warns me, “Don’t eat the skin of these big onesthey roll them on the floor. But the skin on most smaller cheeses — the Brie, the Camembert — that is part of the taste.” Marie chimes in, “It completes the package.” 

And what’s cheese without bread? The bakery is our final stop. Locals debate the merits of rival boulangeries. It’s said that a baker cannot be good at both bread and pastry. At cooking school, they major in one or the other. But here on Rue Cler, the baker bucks the trend. Marie explains that this baker makes good bread (I get a baguette for my sandwich) and delicious pastries. Voilà, dessert! 

By now, I’ve assembled the ingredients for the perfect picnic. Marie heads off to her restaurant, while I head for a park bench with a view of the Eiffel Tower, settle in, and enjoy my Rue Cler feast. A passerby smiles and wishes me a cheery “Bon appétit!” 

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Paris). 

More Coronavirus Reports from Our Guides in Europe

Our Europe-based tour guides just can’t stop guiding. Even stuck at home in coronavirus self-isolation, they continue to reach out, teach, and make the world a better place. Since last week’s roundup, as quarantine slowly became the “new normal,” more of the reports are about how our guides are settling in for the long term: Keeping distracted; making up for lost income; and getting equipped for the crisis.

Here are a few of the updates we’ve received this week from our guides around Europe. (We’re hoping to make this a weekly Friday tradition throughout the crisis.)

Several guides are setting up international video chat sessions, some are recording their tour guide spiels for each other, and others are even doing yoga classes and cooking classes online. For example, Anna Piperato (in Siena, Italy) is teaching about saints:

Medical equipment shortages are happening around the world. From her family’s country home near Prague, Jana Hronková filmed this video of her family making their own protective masks for visits to the supermarket.

Jana also notes that she’s very busy homeschooling her kids. The Czechs — with their typically sharp sense of humor — already have a joke about this: “If this homeschooling continues for several more weeks, the parents will find a vaccine sooner than the scientists!”

Last week, we heard from Stefan Bozadzhiev in Bulgaria. This week he asked his fellow guides what their governments are doing to support them through this loss of work. Stefan reports: “What’s in Bulgaria? Nothing. We are left on our own. The tourism minister actually said the travel industry is the bad guy and we have to rely on ourselves…”

Responses from other guides share examples of more helpful governments:

“In France, self-employed people can receive €1,500 a month (during confinement, nothing after) if they can prove a loss of 70% compared to same month last year. You can also ask your bank to pause any loans you have.”

“In Ireland, the banks are pausing mortgage payments for three months. Also an emergency payment of €200 per week for 6 weeks if you’ve lost employment. During that 6 weeks you have to apply for employment assistance.”

“Here in Spain, if you are self-employed, you have to pay €220 every month so you can work (called cuota de autónomos). Now if we can prove that our income has decreased because of the virus we will get a reduction in that. That is all.”

“In the UK, there are many measures, including tax and mortgage payment suspension, but most importantly 80% of workers’ wages/salaries will be paid up to £2,500 a month. For self-employed, the number is worked out.”

“Here in Italy, self-employed are eligible for €600 per person per month. But there might not be money available for all (for now). The EU has interrupted the Economic Stability Pact, allowing all EU countries to print and inject money into the system to help. The huge deal in Italy now, on top of the death toll, is that the industrial engine of the country in the North (Milan/Bergamo/Brescia) is 100% down.”

“In Greece, all employed workers that are working for companies that have suspended their operations or have been fired after March 1st; there will be an allowance of €800 for the period of March 15 until April 30th. For the self-employed, the situation is uncertain regarding allowances, but there will be a suspension of their obligations for payments for insurance and pension for a three-month period and also a suspension of the planned increases of the monthly contributions that was supposed to be in effect from March.”

And finally, artist/guide Stacy Gibboni — based in Venice — has been sharing “Red Zone Essays” about life under quarantine. (You can check out her work at Saatchi Art, or on Facebook.)

Here’s a sample:

“Italy is my home. Venetians are my people. This island stole a part of my soul decades ago. I feel a maternal need to protect her yet I do not know how. I know I am not alone in this. Education, as with most things, seems my best course of action.

“Venice, La Serenissima, has been struggling to find her balance for too many years now. Mass tourism, the cruising industry, ‘do-it-yourself’ hospitality, air pollution, rapidly declining resident numbers within an already elderly population, acqua alta/high waters, corruption, and all the environmental impacts of this lengthy list…

“Venice has a long history with the concept of quarantine. As a maritime republic, islands in the lagoon were designated for isolation to travelers coming from afar when warranted. We have half a dozen churches constructed here built to celebrate the end of various plagues. The Salute Church has always been my favorite. In fact, I can’t think of a more beautiful, curious or special place to be in quarantine.

“As the noon bells have passed my neighbor, la Signora, has finished her meal, turned off Sunday Mass, and closed her shutters for siesta. She has done this every day for as long as I have known her. My turntable has gone silent; regardless, Vivaldi always lingers in the air here. A contented rower cuts the water with his oar below, the sun shines, my pre-spring blooming garden has attracted bees and butterfly’s…it is peaceful.

“Let us use this time to reflect. To read, write, paint, play, sing and love.

“Let us use this time to BE.”

Later, Stacy wrote:

“I did it, it is done! My first outing for sustenance. Let’s face it, friends…the outta-wine cupboard was becoming a crisis within a crisis.

“Donned, as promised, in my up-cycled double denim mask and gloves. For the chronicle, my impatience with queuing up is equal to that for telephone conversations and floor washing…ugh. So my approach was to avoid the supermarket and try the traditional Venetian shops, unsure how many would actually be open. Knowing these families are still trying to recover from our dramatic high waters of last fall, I remain committed to supporting them as much as I can.

“Delighted to be greeted by Carlo, my wine guy, as if it was any other day…he paid no mind to my gigantic, hand-sewn mask and instead said habitually, ‘Due franc, cara?’ (my general weekly order of two recycled water bottles filled with regional red table wine). Then he added, ‘Perhaps it’s wiser if you take three today, my dear…’

“‘Si, Signore!’ No need to twist my arm…perhaps you know something I do not, I think to myself.  Our regional restrictions do continue to increase and expand in a constant attempt to reduce this blight’s spread.

“Next stop, the fruit and vegetable stand twenty steps away. I am happy to report the stand was both bountiful and beautiful! My preventative ensemble and general nerves kept me from snapping you a photo…so please now, close your eyes and imagine all the inviting colors of nature’s nourishment on display!

“Magenta-and-white-striped radicchio, dark green chicory varieties piled high, purple-tipped broccoli ending their season, crimson red peppers set alongside plump, fragrant, rosy-red berries. The young man even had a few precious basil plants carrying a scent of nostalgia from better spring days…

“Satisfied with all this freshness, I headed on to Rizzo Pane, a Venetian institution. The line was just one moment as the staff diligently allowed three in at a time. Gently scolding a gentleman when he bounded up looking eagerly for his honey candies: ‘Come back tomorrow, Gianni!’ called out the owner patiently, adding invisibly from behind his partition, ‘I promise to have them then, go on home now…’

“Thankful for this sweets reminder, I ask for the bag of fancy chocolates. ‘No, I’ll take that bigger bag, please!’ This shop usually smells like gourmet temptation of fresh baked bread and sugar wafting into the street. But today those comforting smells are covered by the scent of sanitization.

“Each item carefully calculated with the added comment of, ‘Signora sei nostra Veneziana — Americana, vero?’ (Ma’am you are our Venetian — American, aren’t you?) ‘Ten percent discount for you!’ Her friendly eyes smiled beyond her mask. Grateful for the recognition — must be the cowgirl boots — and thankful for the added generosity.

“I am thankful for the kindness and availability of all those individuals working tirelessly to keep Italy fed and comforted. Adding that bit of personal care reminds me to tell you that Venice is in fact a small town. My precious island community working to survive also this…I hope to see each of them again in about 10-13 days…

“From Venice with love.”

Stay healthy, everybody!

Daily Dose of Europe: Cafe Chitchat, Chocolate Cake, and the Vienna Opera

Viennese high culture may be on hold for now. But I‘m savoring my memories of a city that knows how to live very, very well 

Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the time being. But travel dreams are immune to any virus. And, while many of us are stuck at home, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

 

Munching Europe’s most famous chocolate cake — the Sacher torte — in Café Sacher, across from Europe’s finest opera house, I feel underdressed in my travel wear. Thankfully, a coffee party of older ladies, who fit right in with the smoked mirrors and chandeliers, make me feel welcome at their table. They’re buzzing with excitement about the opera they are about to see — even bursting into occasional bits of arias. 

Loni, the elegant whitehaired ringleader, answers my questions about Austria. “A true Viennese is not Austrian, but a cocktail,” she says, wiping the brown icing from her smile. “We are a mix of the old Habsburg Empire. My grandparents are Hungarian.” Gesturing to each of her friends, she adds, “And Gosha’s are Polish, Gabi’s are Romanian, and I don’t even know what hers are.” 

“It’s a melting pot,” I say. 

They respond, “Yes, like America.” 

For 600 years, Vienna was the head of the oncegrand Habsburg Empire. In 1900, Vienna’s nearly two million inhabitants made it the world’s sixthlargest city (after London, New York, Paris, Berlin, and Chicago). Then Austria started and lost World War I — and its farflung holdings. Today’s Vienna is a “head without a body,” an elegant capital ruling tiny Austria. The average Viennese mother has one child and the population has dropped to 1.8 million. 

I ask Loni about Austria’s low birthrate. 

“Dogs are the preferred child,” she says, inspiring pearlrattling peals of laughter from her friends. 

Sharing coffee and cake with Viennese aristocracy who live as if Vienna were an eastern Paris, and as if calories didn’t count, I’m seeing the soul of Vienna. Vienna may have lost its political clout, but culturally and historically, this city of Freud, Brahms, a gaggle of Strausses, Empress Maria Theresa’s many children, and a dynasty of Holy Roman Emperors remains right up there with Paris, London, and Rome. 

As far back as the 12th century, Vienna was a mecca for musicians, both secular and sacred. The Habsburg emperors of the 17th and 18th centuries were not only generous supporters of music but also fine musicians themselves (Maria Theresa played a mean double bass). Composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Mahler gravitated to this musicfriendly environment. They taught each other, jammed together, and spent a lot of time in Habsburg palaces. Beethoven was a famous figure, walking — lost in musical thought — through Vienna’s wooded parks. 

After the defeat of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 shaped 19thcentury Europe. Vienna enjoyed its violinfilled belle époque, which shaped our romantic image of the city: fine wine, cafés, waltzes, and these great chocolate cakes. The waltz was the rage and “Waltz King” Johann Strauss and his brothers kept Vienna’s 300 ballrooms spinning. This musical tradition created the prestigious Viennese institutions that tourists enjoy today: the opera, Boys’ Choir, and great Baroque halls and churches, all busy with classical concerts. 

As we split up the bill and drain the last of our coffee, the women take opera tickets out of their purses in anticipation. “Where will you be sitting?” Loni asks. 

Actually I’ll be standing,” I say. “I’ve got a Stehplatz, a standingroomonly ticket.” 

The women look at me kindly, perhaps wondering if they should have paid for my cake and coffee. 

“A Stehplatz is just €4. So I have money left over for more Sacher torte,” I tell them with a smile. What I don’t say is that, for me, three hours is a lot of opera. A Stehplatz allows me the cheap and easy option of leaving early. 

Leaving the café, we talk opera as we cross the street. The prestigious Vienna Opera isn’t backed in the pit by the famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, but by its farm team: secondstring strings. Still, Loni reminds me, “It’s one of the world’s top opera houses.” Even with 300 performances a year, expensive seats are normally sold out — mostly to welldressed Sacher torteeating locals. 

Saying goodbye to my new friends, I head for the standingroom ticket window. Cackling as old friends do, they waltz through the grand floor entrance and into another evening of high Viennese culture. 

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Vienna).

Daily Dose of Europe: Cockcrow on Hydra

Greece has many famous islands. But my favorite is off the beaten path — the terrain of donkeys, roosters, and cats: the traffic-free isle of Hydra. 

Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the time being. But travel dreams are immune to any virus. And, while many of us are stuck at home, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis. 

Hydra — just an hour by fast ferry from Athens — has one town, a quaint little harbor, isolated beaches, and some tavernas. There are no real roads, no cars, and not even any bikes. Other than zippy water taxis, donkeys are the only form of transportation. Slow and steady, these surefooted beasts of burden — laden with everything from sandbags and bathtubs to bottled water — climb the island’s stepped lanes. On Hydra, a traffic jam is three donkeys and a fisherman. 

In addition to the tired burros, this is a land of tiny cats and roosters with big egos. While it’s generally quiet, dawn has taught me the exact meaning of “cockcrow.” The end of night is marked by much more than a distant cockadoodledoo: It’s a dissonant chorus of cat fights, burro honks, and what sounds like roll call at an asylum for crazed roosters. After the animal population gets that out of its system, the island slumbers a little longer, as if hitting “snooze.” 

This afternoon, I’ve decided to head uphill, with no intention of anything more than a lazy stroll. One inviting lane after another draws me up, up, up At the top of the town, shabby homes enjoy grand views, burros amble along untethered, and island life trudges on, oblivious to tourism.  

Over the crest, I follow a paved riverbed (primed for the flash floods that fill village cisterns each winter) down to the remote harbor hamlet of Kaminia — where 20 tough little fishing boats jostle, corralled within a breakwater. Children jump fearlessly from rock to rock to the end of the jetty, ignoring an old man rhythmically casting his line. 

A rickety wovenstraw chair and a tipsy little table at Kodylenia’s Taverna are positioned just right, overlooking the harbor. The sun, as if promising a worthwhile finale to another fine day, commands, “Sit.” I do, sipping ouzo and observing a sea busy with taxi boats, the “flying dolphin” hydrofoils that connect people here with Athens, freighters — like castles of rust — lumbering slowly along the horizon, and a cruise ship anchored as if threatening to attack. 

This cloudy glass of ouzo, my aniseflavored drink of choice, and the plastic baggie of pistachios I purchased back in town are a perfect complement to the setting sun. An old man flips his worry beads, backlit by the golden glitter on the harbor. Blue and white fishing boats jive with the chop. I swear the cats — small, numerous, and oh so slinky — are watching the setting sun with me. My second glass of ouzo comes with a smudge of someone’s big fat Greek lipstick. I decide not to worry about it before taking a sip that seems to connect me with the scene even more.  

As twilight falls, my waiter brings a candle for my table. He lingers to tell me he returned here to his family’s homeland after spending 20 years in New Jersey, where he “never took a nap.” The soft Greek lounge music tumbling out of the kitchen mixes everything like an audio swizzle stick. Downing the last of my ouzo, I glance over my shoulder to the coastal lane that leads back to my hotelthankfully, it’s lamplit.  

Walking back under a ridge lined with derelict windmills, I try to envision Hydra before electricity, when it was powered only by wind and burros. At the edge of town, I pass the Sunset Bar, filled with noisy cruiseship tourists, which makes me thankful I took the uphill lane when I left my hotel. Resting on a ferry cleat the size of a stool, I scan the harbor. Big flatscreen TVs flicker on the bobbing yachts moored for the night.  

Back in Hydra town, I observe the pleasant evening routine of strolling and socializing. Dice clatter on dozens of backgammon boards at tavernas, entrepreneurial dogs seek out scraps, ballkicking children make a playground out of a back lane, and a tethered goat chews on something inedible. From the other end of town comes the happy music of a christening party. Dancing women fill the building, while their children mimic them in the street. Farther down, two elderly, blackclad women sit like tired dogs on the curb.  

Succumbing to the lure of a pastry shop, I sit down for what has become my dayending ritual: honeysoaked baklava. I tell the cook I’m American.  

“Oh,” he says, shaking his head with sadness and pity. “You work too hard.” 

I answer, “Right. But not today.” 

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Hydra).

Daily Dose of Europe: Bruges — Pickled in Gothic 

Chocolates, craft beer, church tower chimes…what’s not to like? Join me on a mellow little visit to Bruges, Belgium. 

Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the time being. But travel dreams are immune to any virus. And, while many of us are stuck at home, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis. 

With a smile, the friendly shopkeeper hands me a pharaoh’s head and two hedgehogs. Happily sucking the liquor out of a hedgehog, I walk out of the small chocolate shop with a €3 assortment of Bruges’ best pralines — chocolate treats with sweet fillings. 

Belgian chocolate is considered Europe’s finest. And in Bruges, locals boast that their chocolate is the best in Belgium. I’m always tempted by the treats in display windows throughout town. Godiva’s chocolate is thought to be the best bigfactory brand, but for quality and service, I drop by one of the many familyrun shops. (I pray for cool weather in Belgium because quality chocolate shops close down when it’s hot.)  

Free time to explore Bruges always puts me in a funloving mood. With Renoir canals, pointy gilded architecture, and stayawhile cafés, the marvelously preserved medieval town is a delight. Where else can you bike along a canal, munch mussels, drink fine monkmade beer, see a Michelangelo statue, and savor heavenly chocolate, all within 300 yards of a bell tower that rings out “Don’t worry, be happy” jingles? 

The town is Bruges (broozh) in French and English, and Brugge (BROOgah) in Flemish. Before it was French or Flemish, the name was a Viking word for “wharf” or “embankment.” Right from the start, Bruges was a trading center. By the 14th century, it had a population of 35,000 (comparable to London’s) and the most important cloth market in northern Europe. By the 16th century, silt had clogged the harbor and killed the economy. Like so many of Europe’s smalltown wonders, Bruges is well-pickled because its economy went sour. But rediscovered by modernday tourists, Bruges thrives. 

The colorful heart of the city, Market Square, is ringed by great old gabled buildings. Since 1300, it has been crowned by a leaning bell tower with a famous set of musical bells. Climbing its 366 steps rewards me with a commanding view and a chance to peek into the carillon room. I time my climb to be there on the quarter hour. That’s when the giant revolving barrel with movable tabs jerks into motion and mechanically rings the 47 bells to play the tune du jour. 

Marveling at the medieval contraption doing its musical thing, I meet the carillonist who explains how the adjustable tabs are moved one way to ring different bells and the other way to make different rhythms. For concerts, the barrel is disengaged, which then engages the manual keyboard. About to leave, I shake his handand realize it’s deformed by a massive callous making his little finger twice the normal width. Noticing my reaction, he says, “That’s from lots of practicea carillonist plays the keyboard with fists and feet rather than fingers.” Then he reminds me there’s a free concert tonight at eight.  

Scampering down the spiral steps, I realize I need to be quick to see the remaining sights and still have time for the brewery tour. Thankfully, everything’s very close. 

The Basilica of the Holy Blood is named for its relic of the blood of Christ, which, according to tradition, was brought to Bruges in 1150 after the Second Crusade. The City Hall has the oldest and most sumptuous Gothic hall in the Low Countries. The Gruuthuse Museum is a wealthy brewer’s home, filled with everything from medieval bedpans to a guillotine. The Church of Our Lady has a brick tower that rockets high above anything else in town — standing as a memorial to the power and wealth of Bruges in its heyday. The church holds a delicate Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. Bought with money made from Bruges’ lucrative cloth trade, it’s said to be the only statue by the artist to leave his native Italy during his lifetime. 

I step into the De Halve Maan brewery just in time for the last Englishlanguage tour of the day. This is a handy way to pay my respects to the favorite local beer: Brugse Zot. The happy gang at this working family brewery posts a sign reminding their drinkers: “The components of our beer are vitally necessary and contribute to a wellbalanced life pattern. Nerves, muscles, visual sentience, and a healthy skin are stimulated by these in a positive manner. For longevity and lifelong equilibrium, drink Brugse Zot in moderation!” Like any good beer tour, it finishes with a proud tasting. 

Belgians, who seem to speak better English after a beer, love to show off their beer expertise. The man at the bar gives me an earful. “Our country has more than 350 types of beer. That’s the most. And each beer must be served in the right glass. If they don’t have the correct glass, I will order a different beer. Look at our variety,” he says, handing me a menu of what’s available. “Dentergems is made with coriander and orange peel. Those who don’t usually like beer might enjoy our fruity brews: cherryflavored kriek and raspberryflavored frambozen.” 

I tell him I like the complex and creamy, monkmade Chimay. 

He says, “Me as well. Brewed by Trappist monks, the Chimay could almost make celibacy livable almost.”  

I walk off my beer buzz with a stroll through the begijnhof — a tranquil courtyard of frugal little homes. For reasons of war and testosterone, there were more women than men in the medieval Low Countries. The religious order of Beguines gave women (often single or widowed) a dignified place to live and work. While there are no longer Beguines, many begijnhofs survive — taken over by town councils for subsidized housing, or — like this one — still churchowned and housing nuns. Walking beneath the wispy trees of the charming begijnhof almost makes me want to don a habit and fold my hands. 

It’s been a full day, but I’m not quite ready for my hotel room. Stopping by a waffle stand, I get a Belgian waffle to go. Grabbing a wooden bench in the little courtyard under the bell tower, I’m just in time for the evening carillon concert. As the bells ring, I imagine the musician’s massive calloused hands hard at work. Eating the last sweet strawberry on my waffle, I ponder how, even though this Gothic town is a thousand years old, it makes me feel like a kid. 

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Bruges).