Daily Dose of Europe: A Little Bone Envy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story appears in my newest book, “For the Love of Europe” — a collection of 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store.

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

Highs and Lows: Our TV Shoot in Sicily Wraps Up

After two intense weeks of filming in Sicily, my wonderful TV crew is home now with lots of great footage for two new episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe.

We generally had great weather and lots of local smiles in Sicily, but every shoot has its disappointments. For example, the most beautiful mosaic scene at an ancient Roman villa — the sexy couple decorating the bedroom — was covered for restoration (this photo is from a postcard).

Famous mosaic of two people on a postcard
A postcard from Villa Romana del Casale.

Often, we filmed straight through the day. (Below, you’ll see my treasured “stolen sandwich” — the last course of my hotel breakfast, squirreled away so I can concentrate on my work instead of stopping for lunch). And on our last day, we got to Taormina’s beautifully situated Greek theater with just half an hour of sunlight left for me to film the “open” of our show. I love the low light — but leaving the show’s open to the last evening is always a bit nerve-racking, as we never know what might befuddle our plans, and when the sun’s down…the sun’s down.

small sandwich made of roll and slice of meat
My treasured “stolen sandwich.”
Rick Steves selfie in ancient Greek amphiteatre
The Greek theatre in Taormina.

After saying goodbye to my crew, it was time for me to change gears. As I flew from Catania to Paris, I was pleasantly surprised to be served dinner on the flight.


airplane meal


We were 30,000 feet above my favorite bit of the Mediterranean coastline, and it was fun to pick out my beloved five villages of the Cinque Terre.


the coast of the Italian Riviera from above and plane wing in corner


Today is just Day 16 of my 100-day trip to Europe and I still have lots of travels ahead. Next up: France guidebook research with my co-author Steve Smith. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.

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Bodies Without Souls: Filming Palermo’s Capuchin Crypt

I have to admit, I was really excited to take our TV crew into Palermo’s Capuchin Crypt.

I made sure to add the crypt to our script after I visited it last year on a Rick Steves Best of Sicily tour. I could hardly wait to get back with the camera rolling, and when we arrived, it turned out to be even better than I hoped — thanks to a friendly monk who was happy to walk with me and share his thoughts.

Rick Steves in Capuchin crypt with friar


You’ll be able to watch the whole thing this fall on Rick Steves’ Europe. In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at our script for this scene:


[52] One of Sicily’s quirkiest charms — nearby in the city of Palermo — is in a crypt below its Capuchin monastery. The Capuchins, a branch of the Franciscan order, have a passion for reminding people of their mortality. Historically, when their brothers died, their bones were saved and put on display. The Capuchins of Palermo took this tradition a step further, rather than just saving bones, they preserved the bodies in their entirety.


[53] Back in the 16th century, they found that this particular crypt preserved bodies almost miraculously. They later realized they could actually charge wealthy parishioners for the privilege of being mummified here with the monks. And this helped raise money to support their monastery.


[54] This maze of corridors contains thousands of skeletons and mummies, dressed in the clothing of their choice. Each area features a different group: monks in their brown robes, women with their favorite dresses, priests with their vestments, soldiers still in uniform, and children looking almost as if they are taking a long nap. The oldest body — Brother Silvestro — has been hanging here since 1599.


[55] One of the brothers gave me a lovely little sermon. He explained that our time on earth is short and what really matters is what comes next. These “bodies without souls,” as they call them, are a reminder that we’re all mortal. For this monk, being with all these bodies brought him great joy and peace, as it caused him to prioritize not on our earthly existence…but on eternity.


[56] Today, the public’s welcome to wander thoughtfully through these halls of haunting faces that seem determined to tell us a truth that perhaps we’ve yet to learn…


[57] I’m not quite ready for a Capuchin crypt, but I could go for a cappuccino. And I’m joined by my Capuchin friend — who, in good Franciscan style, enjoys embracing the moment as well. [soundup: Scusi — un cappuccino, per favore. That means “the little Capuchin monk.” It’s what it looks like: with a light top…and a brown robe. Cappuccino.]

Simon Griffith rolling up Rick Steves' sleeve in capuchin crypt
Even in a dank crypt, my producer Simon makes sure my sleeves are rolled up just right for the camera.
After filming wrapped up, we enjoyed the bonus of taking our monk friend out for a coffee. A cappuccino with a Capuchin…can you imagine?

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Sicily’s Cleaning Up, But Still Keeps Its Edge

view of Palermo skyline from terrace

I just spent two exciting and intense weeks in Sicily, filled with lots of great work and lots of great travel. Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing some final thoughts and pictures from the trip — and then we’ll dive right into our next stop: France.

Sicily surprised me. It’s less chaotic and dirty and more clean and efficient than it was in years past. But it still retains its colorful edge (and that’s why I love it). You never know what kind of welcome you’ll receive on the streets — like the in-your-face rude gesture a happy bum gave me — but it just feels friendly and fun rather than dark and foreboding.

man on street holding up middle fingers to camera

In Palermo, we visited a giant mural that memorializes two judges who were assassinated by the Mafia in 1992. Their murders were a big turning point for the people of Sicily and today, the Mafia has nowhere near the influence it once held over Sicilian society.

large mural on building wall of giovanni falcone and paolo borsellino


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Coming Soon: Two New Sicily Episodes — and a Sicily Guidebook

We just wrapped up a wonderful shoot in Sicily, filming two new episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe — and I couldn’t feel better.

Last year, I signed up (incognito) for a Rick Steves Best of Sicily tour. And almost one year ago today, I was right here on the slopes of Mount Etna, enjoying lunch and a wine tasting at the Benanti Viticoltori family estate with my fellow tour members. Our guide was Alfio Di Mauro, and we had so much fun, I knew I’d be back this year with my TV crew. I booked Alfio to be our crew’s guide and fixer and, together, we’ve made some amazing TV.

This island is hot in so many ways. At Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, where we offer 44 different tour itineraries covering all corners of Europe, Sicily is one of our most popular destinations — with over 50 departures a year. And in our spare time during this shoot, Alfio and I have been working on a brand-new Rick Steves Sicily guidebook, co-authored by Sarah Murdoch.

It’s gratifying to think that, a year from now, our new guidebook and two new Sicily episodes will be inspiring and equipping travelers to enjoy this challenging (but endlessly rewarding) southernmost part of Italy.

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