My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

Is It Safe to Fly During the Coronavirus? One Traveler’s Risk Assessment

UPDATE as of November 23: In the nearly two months since I wrote this post, the situation has changed dramatically. While it’s still “relatively safe” to fly — assuming you wear a high-quality mask the entire time you’re in the airport and on the plane — it’s far from foolproof. And especially with the massive spike in COVID-19 cases nationwide, and the airport crowds around holiday travel, I would never set foot on an airplane under current circumstances. This decision involves two major considerations: Whether you’ll get sick from being on the plane (which is primarily what’s addressed in this post); and whether you may already be infected, but not yet symptomatic, and will be carrying a deadly disease to a new place — worsening a pandemic that is already stretching our heath care system to its limits.  For the trip described here, my wife and I traveled in the late summer, when cases were much lower, and we were careful to self-isolate for an extended period between landing and seeing our relatives. I would never make this trip today. Someone who flies cross-country, and immediately enters the home of a vulnerable loved one, is taking both of their lives in their hands. Please: Unless it’s an emergency, stay home. Safe and effective vaccines are right around the corner. Skip in-person Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers, for just this one year, and have one hell of an Easter or Fourth of July reunion (depending on when your family is fully vaccinated.) The end is in sight. We’re almost there. Let’s stay safe and look out for each other!

I recently got on a plane for the first time in eight months. Leading up to the trip, I thought long and hard about whether air travel was advisable with a deadly pandemic still raging. We live in an age of high-stakes judgment calls, and this one felt especially tricky. Is it safe to fly during the coronavirus?

I am not a medical professional, nor am I qualified to give hard advice about what’s “safe.” What I can offer is one traveler’s decision-making process about whether to get on that plane. You may think I’m crazy for flying. Or you may think I’m crazy for overthinking this decision. You’re both right…for you. Here’s what was right for me. If you have a different (science-based) perspective…let me know in the Comments.

My wife and I were debating whether to make a cross-country trip to check in on close relatives we haven’t seen in many months. The first question was, simply: Is flying safe? So we did some homework.

At this point, it appears rare for travelers to become infected during a plane flight. There have been a few documented cases, but these were very early in the pandemic (February and March), before airlines and travelers began taking precautions. (Meanwhile, there are also reports of coughing, infected people who apparently caused no spread at all.) In fact, airlines claim that flight crews have lower rates of COVID-19 infection than the general population. You can parse that data in various ways, but I take it as an encouraging sign about the strict guidelines that now govern commercial flights. To be clear: This doesn’t mean that on-board transmission has not happened. But if it’s happening regularly, I’d imagine experts would have identified that pattern over the last six months.

Why is on-board infection seemingly so rare? The transmission of COVID-19 is primarily through respiratory droplets that can linger (and, quite possibly, recirculate) in the air. You may have heard about cases where one infected person in a café or on a bus has spread the virus to many others. But airplane air is filtered at a high rate, using HEPA filters to screen out 99.97% of airborne particulates, and fully replenishing the entire plane’s air supply every two to four minutes.

Considering the high air filtration standards, the biggest risk in commercial air travel seems to be the people in your immediate vicinity. You can’t socially distance on an airplane, and those early airplane outbreaks were traced to a small section of the plane. But wearing a good mask greatly reduces your risk, as do thoroughly washing your hands as often as you can, using sanitizer between hand-washings, and refraining from touching your face. Some models suggest that booking with a carrier that keeps middle seats open reduces your potential exposure to an infected seatmate.

This information gave us peace of mind about the risk of flying to us. But what about the risk we might introduce to others? The fact is, air travel spreads COVID — not necessarily by infecting people while they’re on the plane, but by transporting infected people to new areas. Through social distancing, wearing masks when appropriate, and self-isolating, my wife and I were fairly confident of reducing our exposure to others both at home and at our destination. (In fact, we self-isolated for a lengthy period on either end just to make sure.) If our daily lives required a higher degree of interaction, or had the purpose of our trip been a gathering — such as a family reunion or a wedding — we would not have taken that flight.

With a clear understanding of the risks, our next question was: Were we willing to take those risks? I find it helpful to consider these decisions in terms of “risk budgeting.” This begins with the idea that risk isn’t a binary condition. It’s a spectrum. We all take risks every day — some big, some small. The goal is to have a finite sense of how much risk you’re willing to take, overall, and then “spend” that risk thoughtfully. For example, several weeks ago, I went in for a long-overdue dental appointment. I knew I was exposing myself (and others) to more than my usual risk — so I was especially careful before and after that visit to reduce my contact with others. It’s human nature for one risky activity to embolden you to engage in another, then another. Risk budgeting helps keep you honest and responsible.

Obviously, different people have different risk budgets. Before making any of these decisions, each person ought to make an honest and realistic assessment of their own risk. I’m a generally healthy person in my mid-40s, with no major pre-existing conditions. I’m reasonably fit, but I’m hardly a decathlete. Statistically, if I contracted COVID-19, I would likely have a mild to moderate case. My odds of ending up in an ICU (or worse) are small, but they’re not zero. And any COVID case comes with a strong possibility of long-term damage. Knowing all of this makes me more cautious than careless. If I were 10 or 15 years older, and/or if I had underlying conditions that put me at higher risk, I’d have a much smaller risk budget to spend — and I would not have taken this flight, period. If I were 10 or 15 years younger, and an ultramarathon swimmer, I might have a little more risk budget to spend — but I’d do so mindful of the risk I’d pose to others.

Another consideration is to weigh the risks you’re taking against the benefits. For example, a few months into the pandemic, my wife and I desperately wanted to see my parents (who live a short and safe car ride away). We’d been very careful, and so had they, but there was still a possibility of exposing each other — and their age put them in a higher-risk group than us. I consulted with a family friend who’s also a trauma surgeon, and she suggested that the relatively small risk might be outweighed by the very large positive impact the visit would have on all of our mental health during such a troubled time. Because we were all being so careful, we chose to “expand our social bubble” to include each other…and have been glad we did.

And so, with all of this in mind, my wife and decided to get on that plane. We took several precautions to further reduce our risk (and read up on lots of advice, including from the CDC). We booked a direct flight (limiting our time in airports and exposure to fellow passengers) and took advantage of a deal that guaranteed us our own row to ourselves (expanding our ability to social distance on board). We chose a carrier — Alaska Airlines — with a particularly strict face-covering policy, which requires all passengers to wear masks at all times, no exceptions.

On the day of travel, we brought plenty of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, which we used liberally. And we wore masks from the moment we entered the airport at one end until the moment we exited the airport at the other end. And for good measure, since I was sitting on the aisle, I also wore a face shield on board. Sure, I looked a bit strange, and I was the only person I saw who was taking these “belt and suspenders” measures. But I didn’t feel silly. I felt safe. (Well, safer.) Vanity has no place in a pandemic.

Deciding how to get to the airport proved to be another exercise in risk budgeting — in this case, measured against actual budget. The free and easy option would be to ask a friend for a ride. But we realized that would mean being in a car with someone we’ve been careful to socially distance from — potentially exposing us or him. So that left two options: Uber or parking at the airport. While the Uber rides both ways would have been a bit cheaper, we chose to splurge on parking at the airport — to conserve our risk budget, to avoid potentially exposing yet another person to our germs (and vice-versa), and to buy a little more peace of mind.

We were definitely nervous leading up to the flight. But the reality was less scary than we expected. The airport was virtually empty. So was the airplane — fewer than half of the seats were occupied. Everyone wore masks, and on the rare occasion that a mask slipped under someone’s nose, the situation was quickly, politely, and firmly remedied.

The day after we arrived, we put on our masks and went for a walk in the neighborhood, where we saw scores of unmasked people eating and drinking in bars and restaurants. Knowing what I know now, personally, I’d rather spend a few careful hours on an airplane than eat inside at a restaurant. It’s that old “fear/risk” assessment — often the things that frighten us are less risky than we might think, and vice-versa. Understanding the science helps make those decisions clearer.

I want to stress that I’m not going to make a habit of flying for the time being. I will personally not fly to see family at Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s likely that I won’t see the inside of another airplane until 2021; I intend to strictly limit my long-distance travel until this pandemic is more under control (and, ideally, a safe and effective vaccine has been distributed). And I would not recommend flying to just anybody — someone in a higher risk category should think long and hard about engaging in any activity with a potential for exposure. But if I were in a pinch and felt I needed to fly, I have more confidence now than I did before this trip.

What about you? Have you taken any flights since the outbreak began — and how did it go? Also, how are you making these kinds of stressful decisions during the pandemic? Does the “risk budgeting” approach work for you — or is there another helpful way of thinking about it?

There may be no easy answers these days — but we travelers can learn from each other.

Provençal Markets for Aficionados: 7 Markets in 7 Days

We didn’t have a year in Provence. But we had a week. And that was enough for seven entirely different, but equally enjoyable, Provençal markets. Mountains of plump produce, glistening olives, and fragrant spices. Neatly stacked piles of salamis and gigantic wheels of mountain cheese. Colorful fabrics — tea towels, tablecloths, bolts of vivid patterns — flapping like flags in the warm breeze. Fishmongers, butchers, cheesemakers. All under a generous canopy of plane trees, warmed by the autumn sun. The marché provençal is, simply, one of the great experiences of European travel.

In September of 2019 — not long before the world changed — my wife and I took some time off in Provence. We set ourselves a goal: Visit a different market for each day of the week. Some were new to us; others were oldies-but-goodies. But all of them were memorable. If you’re desperate for a little vicarious travel, settle in for a lazy weeklong tour of seven different markets — with tips mixed in for your next trip to France.

Le Marché Provençal: A Crash Course

Traditionally, the people of Provence — as throughout France — do their shopping at market day (jour du marché), a sprawling, once- or twice-weekly celebration of local produce and other products that take over the entire town center. From anyplace in Provence, there’s a market (or several) within a 30-minute drive, any day of the week. My wife and I scheduled our itinerary specifically to hit a few markets in particular, but serendipity works like a charm, too.

The best market is the classic marché provençal — a combination farmers, craft, and clothing market — which begins around 8:30 in the morning, peaking around 11:00. By 12:30, they begin to run out of goods; at 13:00, the producers are packing up. (Stands selling non-perishable items may stay open longer.) That’s when shoppers settle into cafés for the obligatory après-marché debrief and chill session. It’s all so…civilized. Pro tip: Prebook a table at a café or restaurant of your choice, for a memorable après-marché meal — ideally out on a sun-dappled square, with a view of the goods being crated up and carted away. Those who wing it have to scramble for whatever they can get.

Browsers wander from stand to stand, propelled by a lazy curiosity, just seeing what’s available. Meanwhile, other shoppers hone in with laser precision on just the items and producers they’re after. Bring plenty of cash and a shopping bag…or buy a big straw market basket, the perfect souvenir to take home and never use again. (We have two dusty ones in our basement, and, inexplicably, very nearly bought a third.)

Full disclosure: I am not much of a shopper. Local taste treats and picnic supplies constitute the vast majority of what I buy. But even if you don’t spend a dime, Provençal markets are a glorious, and quintessentially French, travel experience.

Saturday: Uzès

On our first day in Provence, we were staying in the mellow small town of St-Rémy — famous for its ties to Van Gogh. We’d chosen St-Rémy partly for its proximity to one of our favorite market towns, Uzès.

Getting a later start than we should have (blame the jet lag), we arrived in Uzès around 11:00. Parking along the ring road and following the trail of shoppers into the town center, we realized that things were already on the verge of winding down.

Reaching the main square — a cozy plaza under artfully gnarled plane trees — we surveyed the bewildering array of vendors. Cheesemongers whittled delicate little curls from giant wheels of cheese, offering them for a taste. Butchers and fishmongers held court over refrigerated cases showing off their wares. The luscious pyramids of olives and fragrant mounds of tapenade were irresistible.

Dappled sunshine, breaking through the leafy canopy, illuminated jars of golden honey. Each one was a slightly different shade of yellow, and you got the sense that the seller knew the bees personally…perhaps by name. Tables groaned under the weight of bowls, platters, and spoons carved from local olive wood. Bulging bags of spices were each artfully identified in cursive script on a miniature chalkboard.

At each produce stand, locals filled little plastic tubs with carefully selected items: Carrots so perfect they belonged in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Green-and-purple artichokes. Heads of yellow and green lettuce — shaped like a colorful starburst — that could have been crafted in an artisan workshop. Heirloom tomatoes — red, orange, purple, and green — that must’ve come from that same workshop. Monster shallots, unblemished heads of garlic, muscat grapes with explosive sweetness encased in tough skins.

Everything in sun-drenched Provence just tastes better. Tomatoes really taste like tomatoes. Strawberries really taste like strawberries. Apricots really taste like apricots. Raspberries and figs are explosive. The sundried tomato tapenade we bought in Uzès redefined our sense of what tomato can taste like. For Americans raised on fruits and veggies trucked thousands of miles to the local supermarket — often in the dead of winter — tasting Provençal produce, fresh from the harvest, is a revelation. A local person once told me she observed a visitor weeping upon biting into a strawberry…and truly tasting one for the very first time.

We were getting peckish. The stand with the slowly turning rotisserie chickens tempted us, but we weren’t ready for such a big meal. We saw a line forming at a stand with little deep-fried chickpea fritters. At a Provençal market, if you see a line…get it in it. After waiting for our turn among the well-organized scrum, we purchased a steaming paper cone filled with these delicious little savory bites. It was just the thing to take the edge off our mid-morning hunger.

While tasty, those fritters had sidetracked us from our main goal: sniffing out what we’d heard was the local specialty, fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes. This is a puffy, cake-like bread gently infused with the essence of orange blossom, and sprinkled with coarse sea salt from the Camargue. Our guidebook told us that this sold out quickly, and we were late as it was, so we scoured the market, eyes peeled. Finally we spotted a baker’s table, two aisles over. But by the time we got there, we watched in horror as the very last piece of fougasse was bagged up and sold before our eyes. We pointed to the one giant chunk that was set aside, and the baker shook her head apologetically — this piece, she conveyed with a shrug, was being saved for a fellow vendor.

Dejected — but buoyed by a shopping bag bulging with tapenade, cheese, and red peppers — we headed back to the car. On the way, we passed a bakery selling the fougasse we’d missed out on. And it was, indeed, heavenly.

This turned out to be a teachable moment about Provençal markets: When we thought we’d missed out on that fougasse, we reassured each other that we’d find it somewhere else. Surely, in a full week in Provence, fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes would cross our path repeatedly. But we never saw a single piece after we left Uzès. “Local” specialties in Provence are truly local. Don’t wait.

Sunday: Coustellet and l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Heading from St-Rémy up to our next stop, in the Côtes du Rhône, our route took us past two very different markets. Doing our homework, we decided to double up for a day of market contrasts: Tiny and local, then big and famous.

First up, we stopped by the humble and proudly local market in the dusty crossroads village of Coustellet, just a 15-minute drive south of l’Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue. The least visually appealing market we explored, this was clearly the choice for purists — not tourists. Filling the town parking lot were many of the usual market stalls: fabrics, kitchenware, nonperishable goods, and so on.

But it was the produce that caught our eye. On this autumn Sunday, the tables were piled high with ruby-red heirloom tomatoes, gigantic leeks, huge gnarled peppers as red as a fire engine, fragrant and perfectly shaped basil plants pulled from the pages of a botany textbook, mounds of skinny multicolored beans, and three different kinds of eggplants — purple, white, and Thai.

While the stands in Uzès had felt dressed up, here in Coustellet, the farmers simply backed up a van and dumped their harvest onto a rickety table. One exception were the adorably composed baskets of tiny fall squash (coloquintes), painted a variegated rainbow of yellow, orange, and green.

This being early in our trip, we could not resist buying one of those gigantic bouquets of sunflowers to decorate our hotel room. After spending the rest of the day in a hot car, by that afternoon the flowers had already begun to wilt, their pockmarked faces — heavy with seeds — slumping over in a melancholy pose. In a few hours, they had gone from an explosively colorful celebration of Provençal life to a haunting reminder of mortality…Van Gogh on his last leg. (When we asked our B&B host that evening if she had a vase we could borrow, she gently chided us, “Why do tourists always think buying sunflowers is such a great idea?”)

Before leaving the Coustellet market, we stocked up on picnic supplies. At one stand, we taste-tested various salamis and other cured meats. We settled on a delectable smoked pork loin — tender as prosciutto, flavorful as brisket — that would become the main feature of several picnics. We also picked up a couple of tiny wheels of soft, young, local goat cheese, one encrusted with chopped shallots and the other with peppercorns.

From Coustellet, we drove a few minutes up the road to the granddaddy of all Provençal markets: l’Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue, a workaday town surrounded by gently gurgling canals. Finding parking here on market day — especially in the late morning — is a challenge. But, after striking out at the lots near the town center, we eventually found a space to wedge our car alongside the road about a 10-minute walk from town.

l’Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue’s market is impressively comprehensive and justifiably famous — basically the polar opposite of Coustellet. It’s also exhausting. The canalfront embankments were hopelessly clogged, and the main lanes leading through the twisty old town to the main square — lined with market stalls and tables laden with wares and produce — were not much better. We found ourselves taking shortcuts between the main market streets by spelunking down narrow back lanes, forging our own path through deserted alleys. While l’Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue’s market is one of those things “you have to do once”…on this, our third time, we finally recognized that once is enough.

However, l’Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue had one of our favorite culinary discoveries of any market in Provence: Delicate macarons sold by a husband-and-wife couple. He’s French, she’s Japanese, and their delectable little merengue sandwich cookies were the perfect embodiment of their marriage — with a mix of pungent Provençal fruits and berries, combined with mellow and exotic Asian flavors. They were the best macarons we had in Provence; I regret only that I never got the name of their stand. But I guess that’s la vie du marché. There are few European experiences more living-in-the-moment than following your nose through a Provençal market.

Needing lunch and discovering that all of the town’s restaurants were chockablock full, we made our way to a pizza truck we had seen earlier. Ordering our pepperoni pie, we also asked for a bottle of water. The pizza chef was a bit offended: “I do not sell water! I make only pizza!” While I appreciate the French propensity to do just one thing, and do it the best, this refusal to carry beverages seemed bold for a guy who turns out what is, by any reasonable assessment, a pretty subpar pizza. We found drinks at a different stand and ate our pizza in a sweet little canalside park…a peaceful eddy just steps away from the market crowds.

The next day — Monday — is a relatively sleepy day for Provençal markets, and we’d doubled up the day before. So, rather than drive into Cavaillon for their market, we decided to linger in the Côtes du Rhône region, doing a fun little driving loop, enjoying grand views, and dropping in for some wine tastings. But the next day…

Tuesday: Vaison-la-Romaine (Côtes du Rhône)

Before moving on from the Côtes du Rhône, we headed into the region’s main town — Vaison-la-Romaine — for its big weekly market. We were not disappointed.

Vaison is a simple, user-friendly town that’s more practical than cute. But that’s exactly its charm: It feels like a place where real people live, and have lived for a very long time. The market here has been going strong for 600 years…which would seem impressive, if not for the 2,000-year-old Roman ruins that sprawl through the center of town.

Vaison was one of the more local-feeling markets we encountered: We heard far more French spoken than English — the opposite of our experience in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, or even Uzès. It has a few touristy stands, yes, but more of the market’s footprint is devoted to practical goods: clothing, kitchenware, textiles, plants, and so on. We tend to be more browsers than buyers, but in Vaison, we picked up some placemats to match our patio umbrella.

We also stopped by a stand (which we’d already seen at another market) selling every kind of pocketknife imaginable. We chose one, and the vendor demonstrated its sharpness by slicing little curls off a piece of paper. I bought it as a birthday present for my dad, a pocketknife connoisseur. It came with a certificate of authenticity and a leather sheath, and before we left, the vendor pulled us in close with some advice: Don’t keep it in the sheath for more than a few days at a time, or it might discolor the handle. In Provence, even knives are treated with the respect of delicate produce.

In addition to the market stalls, Vaison has some excellent little hole-in-the-wall shops. Our guidebooks directed us to Peyrerol Gilles, an artisanal chocolaterie with a tempting array of truffles and macarons. And the tiny but tempting fromagerie Lou Canesteou had display cases crammed with cheesy delights. I only wished I knew a bit more about French cheeses to be a more informed shopper. (The next day, I got my wish…read on.)

After the market, having learned our lesson, we’d made a reservation at a restaurant that had come highly recommended by our Provence guidebook co-author, Steve Smith. Bistro du’O, in the quiet upper town just across the old Roman bridge from the market action, turned out to be one of the best meals of our trip: exquisitely crafted modern French cuisine served by a well-trained staff that’s clearly gunning for a Michelin star.

Wednesday: Aix-en-Provence

Our next stop was Provence’s stunning Luberon region, with endless picturesque hill towns and bucolic scenery. However, it turned out that Wednesday was a sleepy market day in our neck of the Luberon. So we side-tripped about an hour to the elegant city of Aix-en-Provence.

While the Aix markets are bigger on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the daily produce market on Place Richelme enlivened the old center with just the right marché ambience — all the usual suspects selling gloriously colorful fruits, veggies, and berries.

Coming on a quieter day also gave us a better chance to explore Aix. In fact, we met up for a stroll with Mathilde, a guide from Taste of Provence, which does market tours and cooking classes in Aix. It turns out Aix is an ideal city for browsing, whether or not there’s a full-blown market going on.

We began at the produce market on Place Richelme, generously shaded by towering plane trees and ringed by stay-a-while cafés. Surveying the various fruit and veggie stands, Mathilde quizzed us: “How do you tell the difference between a farmer and a produce reseller?” Seeing our shrugs, she gave us a crash course: If the producer specializes in a narrow range of items — say, only berries, or just tomatoes and peppers, or just apples and apricots — that’s a good sign. If they sell bananas, pineapples, mangoes, or other tropical fruit — which don’t grow here — they’re probably a reseller. (Produce with stickers is also a sure sign of a reseller.)

Buying from a reseller isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Mathilde stressed, and the produce can still be quality. But knowing the difference can help you choose produce more carefully. “A farmer picks their produce only when it’s perfectly ripe, to sell today at the market,” Mathilde explained. “When picking for a reseller, they tend to pick it a bit before it’s ripe, to give it more time to be transported.” Connoisseurs shopping for today seek out farmers first; if they don’t find what they need, they turn to the resellers. This also means showing up early: The farmers come to the market first thing, then head out to their fields, while resellers stick around later.

Another tip: For top quality, watch for a stand selling only one item: Plums. Tomatoes. Jams. Goat cheese. Strawberries. The expression “jack of all trades, master of none” probably did not originate in Provence…but it might as well have.

From here, Mathilde took us on a meandering stroll through town, as if following breadcrumbs between perfect little Provençal shops. First up: cheese. We stepped into Fromagerie Savelli, air heavy with the pungent aroma of a hundred types of cheese. We surveyed the remarkable variety, from tiny mini-bouchon (“mini-plugs”) of goat cheese, to giant wheels of mountain cheese. We wouldn’t know where to begin…but Mathilde did, buying a representative sampling of three cheeses for us to taste: goat, sheep, and cow’s milk.

Cutting into a wheel of cheese and watching the inside ooze out, Mathilde pointed out casually that, of course, French cheeses are not pasteurized. The decadent creaminess comes with a subtle tingle on the tongue. Mathilde explained, “Pasteurization kills bacteria, both good and bad. When cheese is pasteurized, it no longer ripens or matures. We choose flavor over safety.” I think back on the last couple of times I’ve gotten food poisoning in Europe — in both cases, after having American-style fast food. But I’ve never had a sore stomach from French cheese. Mathilde and I reach quick agreement that the risk is minimal…and well worth taking.

Biting into a tiny wheel of local goat cheese with a sprig of rosemary mounted on top, Mathilde explains, “What grows together, goes together. Both the chèvre and the rosemary are from La Garrigue, the arid rugged countryside around Provence. So they taste perfect together.”

The cow’s milk she presents us with — Trappe d’Échourgnac, soaked in walnut liqueur until it forms an explosively flavorful brown rind, which encases a luxuriously mild cheese with tiny bubbles — comes from far away, in the Dordogne. “This is not local, but I wanted you to try a cow’s milk cheese. And you may have noticed that we don’t have many cows in Provence.” Mathilde explained that, within France, cow’s milk cheese predominates in cooler, wetter areas, where grass grows green. Warmer climates — like Provence — produce more goat and sheep’s cheese, often rubbed in olive oil.

As we nibbled, Mathilde explained that the role of a fromagerie is not simply to sell cheese, but to age it properly. They buy raw cheeses, then mature them to perfection. In fact, it’s the mastery of aging that is the expertise of a great fromager. A key term when shopping for French cheese is mois d’affinage — “months aged.”

Mathilde began chattering in French with the shop clerk, both of them gesturing toward their feet. Excitedly, she translated for us: “They have offered for us to visit the aging cellar. This is a great honor!” We followed the clerk behind the counter, then through a maze of narrow hallways to a steep staircase. Arriving in the cellar, we were surrounded by priceless mold. Big wheels of cheese sat upon wooden shelves, and small wheels of cheese were neatly stacked on wooden trays. Some of the cheeses were fuzzy, as if flocked with cotton. All of them awaited that perfect moment of ripeness.

Our feet crunched on the gravel floor. Mathilde explained how that floor is designed to allow in just the right amount of humidity to help ripen the cheese — and the temperature had to remain a steady 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit).

As if leaving a secret hideout, we twisted our way back out to the shop entrance, and carried along our way.

Mathilde next took us past a high-end, venerable pâtisserie called Weibel. Increasingly, pâtisseries (dessert shops) are being combined with boulangeries (bakeries) to create a one-stop shop. But purists believe that it’s supremely difficult — or impossible — for one shop to properly execute both boulangerie and pâtisserie. And, in fact, even within the goodies of a pâtisserie, things can be hit-or-miss. Mathilde explained, “A pâtisserie does some combination of four things: cakes, chocolates, candies, and ice cream. It is very rare for one pâtisserie to do all four things well. But this one does.”

We sampled the local specialty, calisson d’Aix — a delectable candy made of almond paste and candied fruit, topped with a delicate layer of icing (“representing purity,” she explained). Locals say it tastes like a communion wafer, but sweeter. In all of Aix, there are only seven authorized calisson makers, who are — no joking — blessed by the local bishop each year.

For another treat, Mathilde took us even deeper into the city streets, winding us through movie-set squares and sandstone townhouses until we reached a nondescript back street. Here we found Macarons de Caroline, a hole-in-the-wall shop where sweet Caroline makes fresh macarons with seasonal flavors. Apricot and fresh verbena. Strawberry and basil. Lavender and lemon confit. Strawberry and essence of rose.

Enough sweets. Finally, it was time for a true artisanal boulangerie. The people of Provence — and especially Aix — are aficionados in everything. And for the crème de la crème of bread snobs, Le Farinoman Fou is tops. “The Mad Flour Man” (as its name means) doesn’t crank out your standard-issue baguette rustique; this bakery experiments with a wide variety of grains, including “old grains” that aren’t commonly used in modern cooking. Because their offerings change by the day, they post a weekly schedule in their window for connoisseurs. We sampled a luscious olive loaf with beefy multigrains. I can still taste it.

Bidding Mathilde adieu and driving back over the Luberon Mountains to our home base — leaving Aix and the shimmering Mediterranean in our rearview mirror — we appreciated having an urbane break from our week of French village life. But tomorrow…it’s back to small-town Provence.

Thursday: Roussillon

We were staying near the little pastel hamlet of Roussillon, perched on its orange hilltop overlooking the lush Luberon. We were nearly marché-d out, so Roussillon’s pint-sized market was an ideal antidote. It was like other markets we’d browsed, but in miniature: Just a few stalls filling a parking lot and some nearby lanes, covering the essential bases. One new feature we appreciated was the gingerbread man, carving off wedges of tasty gingerbread flavored either with lemon or with lavender.

We finished our browse in a matter of minutes, then went for an easy hike along the ochre cliffs just below town. We enjoyed the hike so much, we decided to drive 40 minutes to an area that came highly recommended by our Provence guidebook co-author, Steve Smith: Le Colorado Provençal, a compact, user-friendly hiking area as ruggedly beautiful as its American namesake (if much, much smaller). After a parking-lot picnic assembled from the spoils of several days’ worth of markets, we set off on an easy and rewarding hike through a landscape so vivid it almost hurt our eyes: soaring orange and white cliffs, green trees, azure sky, and big, puffy clouds. It’s no wonder that so many artists have found inspiration in Provence.

Friday: Lourmarin

After our palate-cleansing stops in Aix and Roussillon, we were ready to end strong with a classic marché provençal. And our final market town turned out to be one of our favorites: lovely Lourmarin, tucked among the foothills of the Luberon Mountains, separating the inland and coastal parts of Provence.

The roads approaching Lourmarin were lined with parked cars under plane trees. We carried on close to the town’s outskirts and pulled off into the big grassy park-turned-parking lot just below the town château. From here, it was just steps from one of many traffic-free roads that radiate out from the town center — each one lined with market stalls.

Stationed at the edge of the market was a little stand where you could pet adorable baby pigs and goats. At first I thought this was a vegetarian guilt trip — “How could you eat something so cuuuute?” — but it turned out to be an organization that rescues sick animals and nurses them back to health. They sell lozenges (at a big mark-up — one box for €7) for those who want to support their work. After getting to know a baby goat, I suddenly felt a tickle in my throat…

Continuing deeper into Lourmarin, we found the town to be a delightful sprawl of market stands — including several vendors who were by now familiar to us from a variety of other jours du marché. Lourmarin’s market felt like a “greatest hits” collection: Technicolor produce, big bundles of lavender lashed like wheat stalks, fragrant soaps stacked in neat piles, olives overflowing rustic wooden buckets, straw baskets in every shape and size, stacks of sausages and wheels of cheese, display racks draped in vivid fabrics, and on, and on, and on, and on.

Of the markets we’d visited, Lourmarin felt like the best balance between local and touristy…the Goldilocks of the marché provençal. It all felt very easygoing and user-friendly — big enough not to be overwhelmed by crowds, but small enough to encourage exploration. The town center is a snail-shaped curl of interlocking streets, making our market meanderings even more rewarding. It’s one of those towns that feel designed to get lost in, only to find yourself a few steps later when you pop out into a familiar square or next to those adorable piglets.

In addition to all of the tourist-pleasing beauty, we saw old-fashioned hucksters fast-talking as they demonstrated the newest miracle product or gadget. At one stand, a salesman demonstrated how his magic solution could instantly remove scratches from your car. At another, we were treated to an “it slices! it dices!” kitchen tool demo. We picked up a couple of handy silicon caps for opened bottles of wine, keeping them sealed and drip-free for the next day…and wished we’d discovered this little invention five days ago.

Lourmarin reminded us of the sensory delights of Provençal markets. At one stand, a lavender vendor poured a few fragrant seeds into my palm to demonstrate how pungent they were. At another, we sampled explosively flavorful jams. At another, we felt a crispy macaron break into little sheets of merengue on our tongue — like an ice floe entering warm waters — then slowly dissolve like a sweet bath bomb.

We took advantage of this last-chance shopping — on our way out of Provence — to stock up on a few items still on our list: another bar of that incredible-smelling bath soap; a little container of tiny-but-mighty strawberries to snack on in the car; a few lavender sachets for a cheap souvenir that also freshens up your luggage; and a jar of raspberry jam that really tasted like raspberries. (We hoped it would be as good as the homemade jam at our B&B…and, amazingly, it was.)

After a couple of hours of wandering Lourmarin’s stage-set streets, we found ourselves daydreaming about renting an apartment here for our next visit to Provence. You can’t really say you’ve been to Provence until you’ve contemplated coming back…for a vacation, if not for the rest of your life. Peter Mayle had the right idea.

Pulling out of Lourmarin and heading for Marseille’s airport — and our flight home — it was striking how quickly we re-entered the world of traffic-clogged superhighways, smoggy air, and hypermarchés (France’s answer to big-box stores, and the antithesis of a marché provençal). Already our idyllic memories of Provence were fading into a happy haze — as if it had all just been a very pleasant dream. But it was real, and I have the lavender sachets to prove it. We’ll be back in Provence someday. And even if we wind up going to seven entirely different Provençal markets the next time, I know that the experience will be vivid and rewarding all the same.

What am I missing? In the Comments, suggest your favorite Provençal markets, things to buy at them, and tips for navigating them.

For my week exploring Provençal markets, we had two key resources: In our Rick Steves’ Provence & the Riviera guidebook, co-author Steve Smith offers listings of the most appealing markets in the region, and ample practical tips for exploring them. We supplemented that with Marjorie R. Williams’ Markets of Provence, a vividly written, deeply insightful, and highly informative guide that explains local markets day-by-day. And we learned several tips about how to shop a Provençal market from Mathilde at Taste of Provence, which offers guided market tours and cooking classes in lovely Aix-en-Provence.

One of my favorite French markets isn’t in Provence — it’s in Sarlat, in the Dordogne region. Wherever you go in France, tune into market-day opportunities. You won’t regret it.

What Do You Miss About Traveling in Europe?

With my 2020 travel plans grounded, it’s now been about 10 months since I set foot in Europe. And I’m itching for a fix. I find the things I miss most aren’t the glitzy cities and the famous sights. For those of us fortunate enough to travel frequently, what we really miss is our traveling lifestyle — those everyday joys of being fully in the moment. We crave the freedom of leaving the office headaches and the household chores behind, and having a span of unstructured time to play, explore, learn, and discover. For travelers, there’s something about life on the road that’s simply magic. Here are a few of those quirky little things that I’m missing fiercely right now.

I miss that “Hey, I’m in Europe!” moment that appears out of the jet-lag haze on the afternoon of arrival. It’s that moment when you feel the cobbles underfoot, hear the swirl of other languages, and realize that foregoing sleep for 20-plus hours — half of which was spent jammed into an economy airline seat — has a huge payoff.

I miss the exhilaration of near-miss connections. Hopping on the train seconds before the doors hiss shut. Driving onto the ferry moments before it pulls out into a dreamy Norwegian fjord. Slipping in the door of a museum just before they lock it behind you.

I miss beautiful doorways, pretty as a picture.

I miss communicating with Italians. I miss telling them that I don’t speak Italian, only to have them brush aside my protests and launch into an impassioned monologue…which I can, somehow, actually understand.

I miss that moment, about a week or two into your trip, where everything starts to fit into your bag perfectly. You’ve got the system down, able to pack up at a moment’s notice and hop a train to the next adventure.

I miss stunning sunsets from the top of a castle, earned by way of a sturdy hike.

I miss the many smells of a busy big-city metro station. Yes, all of them. (But some more than others.)

I miss meeting Europeans who have dedicated their lives to doing one thing and doing it right: Nicola the gelato master.  Tina, who knows the Slovenian Alps like she was born for it (and she was). Gianluca the zero-kilometer Tuscan farmer. And Naomi, who geeks out about Scottish candies.

I miss when a local friend gives me a hot tip for a truly untouristy discovery — the kind of place where you can eat real local dishes, with real locals, for pennies on the euro. That hidden milk bar in Kraków. That back-streets bakery in Mykonos. That amazing fish house in Tangier.

I miss colorful boats serenely bobbing in tidy pastel harbors.

I miss road trips: Figuring out the controls and sound system on a new rental car…and inevitably stalling a few times that first day as I fumble with the stick shift. Scrutinizing maps the night before a long journey to make sure I have the best route chosen, and any worthwhile detours plotted out. And then…hitting the open road, with limitless potential for exploration.

I miss learning some historical tidbit that instantly brings great meaning to what, until that moment, had been just another boring church, castle, or museum. I love how it makes my brain tingle.

I miss bustling market halls.

I miss lifts that zip you up to the top of a mountain in moments…depositing you at the doorstep of a glorious day of hiking above the clouds and the crowds.

I miss hearing an insistently catchy pop song by a band I’ve never heard of — over and over and over again, incessantly, everywhere I go. And then, coming home and realizing nobody stateside has ever heard about it. Until a few months later, when suddenly, it becomes ubiquitous here, too.

I miss Icelandic waterfalls. The blast of cold air, the mist speckling my glasses, the pure, unbridled magnificence of nature.

I miss savoring an entirely new flavor. In Greece, discovering mastica — the sweet natural resin that tastes a bit like licorice, but not quite. In Portugal’s Alentejo, discovering that the unlikely combination of clams and pork is surprisingly delicious. In Moscow, going to a Georgian restaurant for a tarkhun (tarragon soda) and doughy dumplings dipped in a sweet, tart, explosively flavorful plum sauce.

I miss adorable stray cats sunning themselves on a scenic perch.

I miss those cultural epiphanies that unlock not just a new custom, but an entirely fresh way of perceiving the world. Italians scoff at cappuccino in the afternoon…because they believe that consuming too much milk late in the day hinders digestion. Seemingly “unfriendly” French clerks become kind and welcoming when you simply say, “Bonjour, Monsieur” or “Bonjour, Madame.” And all across Europe, after a few weeks, I actually begin to believe that “slow” service is good and polite service — it’s how a restaurant encourages the diner to take their time and savor the experience.

I miss funny signs in Britain.

I miss those little serendipities that make a trip. Stumbling upon a harvest festival in a wine-growing village…and, if you’re lucky, stomping some grapes. Checking into your B&B and learning that the next town over is hosting a Highland Games tomorrow. That time I was in Eger, Hungary, and a hot-air balloon decided to land right in the middle of the main square.

And I miss that perfect trifecta of running out of deodorant, toothpaste, and shampoo on my last morning of a long trip.

What about you? What are you missing about Europe?

So, Can I Go to Europe? — How the Coronavirus Is Changing European Travel for Americans

Updated on July 1, 2020

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the theme of my 2020 as been “cancelled trips.” And it seems that won’t be changing soon: As of July 1, the European Union is open to international travelers from certain approved countries…but the United States isn’t on the list. While Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Koreans, Moroccans, and many others can start planning a European trip — and good for them! — Americans like me will have to wait.

Nobody can predict exactly what the coming months will bring. The one thing we can count on is uncertainty. That said, I’ve been closely following the coronavirus news from across the Atlantic, and I’ve kept in touch with friends all over Europe. And as I look into my crystal ball, here are some informed hunches about what might — might — happen next. My goal is not to give definitive answers, but to provide a midyear snapshot of European travel in the age of coronavirus. (I updated this post on July 1, just as the EU’s reopening policy went into effect.)

Tourism in Europe Is Restarting…

Before July 1, tourism in Europe had already restarted, but it was mostly domestic: British urbanites on holiday in the Lake District, Slovenes hiking in their lush mountains, and Norwegians basking in the late-night sunshine on their dreamy fjords.

The next step is that, gradually, we’ll see the rise of intra-European tourism. Even though the EU has called for the reopening of internal borders, travel within Europe is still not “back to normal.” As the countries within Europe open up to each other, we can expect plenty to change over time, especially in response to isolated outbreaks. Quarantine requirements may be in place, and testing negative for COVID-19 and downloading contact tracing apps may become a bigger part of the picture, as well.

Travel within Europe has already come a long way. Reading accounts of crossing European borders from just over a month ago feels like time-traveling back to the Middle Ages, when Europe was a patchwork of feisty, independent city-states, each with its own borders, arbitrary regulations, and paranoid diplomacy. The first step has been for countries to waive quarantine requirements for trusted other countries — creating “air bridges” and “corridor trains” between two places with existing ties and low infection rates, while avoiding riskier stops in between. For example, a “corona corridor” connects the Czech Republic and Croatia, so Czechs can more easily enjoy their favorite summer beach destination, and Croatians can recoup some much-needed income during their peak travel time. Britain and Portugal have discussed similar options.

Of course, the news on all of this is changing rapidly; Google the details for a country you’re interested in, or check out the “Re-Open EU” site, operated by the European Union.

One silver lining of the pandemic is that formerly tourist-clogged cities are reveling in the lack of crowds. There’s far less demand for major sights — and, for the first time in perhaps decades, that demand is mostly local. Europeans — especially in notoriously “overtouristed” cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Venice — are breathing easier and reclaiming their own spaces. And yet, they’re also aware of the importance of tourism in the local economy. My sense is that they’re looking forward to welcoming back visitors, but in the meantime, they’re making the most of having the place to themselves.

…But Americans Will Wait Our Turn

When hearing about European travel restarting, keep in mind this very important caveat: For now, it’s just for Europeans and residents of those approved countries (including Canadians) — Americans should not expect to easily enter Europe anytime soon.

Why? Because, by any reasonable assessment, the United States has done a rotten job of containing COVID-19. While certain cities and states have risen to the occasion, our haphazard and inept national response, reluctance (or inability) to increase testing and contact tracing, and mystifying tendency to confuse “personal freedom” with “public health protection” have put us embarrassingly far behind the European curve:

(And, just to clarify, this difference is not because of “more testing.”)

Through the lockdown of March and April, I was in steady contact with friends and colleagues all over Europe. What struck me the most was the rigidity of their quarantine. Most of them literally didn’t leave their homes — never even went outside — except for occasional runs for groceries or medicine, maybe once every two weeks. In much of Europe, the wearing of masks was embraced much earlier — and more enthusiastically — than in the US. (It’s becoming ever clearer that wearing masks is an easy and impactful weapon in the virus-fighting arsenal. Even many former mask critics now agree on this.) And by May, it became apparent that the US reopening strategy would prioritize economic recovery over human life.

Among European countries, Sweden famously took a more hands-off (read: “American”) approach, and stands alone among European countries in its high infection rates and lower-than-hoped-for immunity rates. (For this reason, Sweden also joins the US in being pointedly excluded from re-opening agreements with neighboring countries.)

As lockdown eases on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s becoming unmistakably clear that the European approach was more effective at containing the pandemic, while the American approach has left us highly vulnerable to further outbreaks. Talk of a “second wave” in the US is optimistic; we’re still riding the crest of the first wave.

For these reasons, Americans should be prepared to be treated as “second-class citizens” by the rest of the developed world, who might ask us to wait a little longer before we’re welcome for a visit. Frankly, we’ve earned that status. The EU has announced plans to re-evaluate their list of approved countries every two weeks. But the USA has a long way to go to reach the EU standard.

How European Travel Will Be Affected

That said, the time will comeeventuallyfor Americans to head back to Europe. If we can get a handle on our uncontrolled virus spread, that may happen sooner; otherwise, it could take a while.

The first wave of Americans visiting Europe will, most likely, be hale-and-hearty independent travelers — either people who’ve already recovered from the virus, or those who are simply willing to assume the risk. I would guess that, initially, any American going to Europe will both be tested and be required to quarantine for 14 days. Two weeks takes a big bite out of a person’s vacation, so I imagine the first Americans on the Continent will be on long-term trips. (And Americans should also be prepared for quarantine and other requirements when returning to the US.)

And what will travelers find on the ground in Europe? They’ll find conditions that are similar to the policies dictating the US reopening. As European museums have begun to open, new guidelines are taking shape: Expect strict limits on how many visitors can enter at any one time, with staggered entrance windows. Temperature checks will be common. Also, expect social distancing and the wearing of masks to be enforced in museums and other indoor areas. Europeans aren’t the slightest bit interested in your “personal freedom,” and won’t be shy about barring entry for non-mask-wearers. Bring a supply of masks, carry one with you at all times, and expect to use it. (If that’s a deal-breaker, stay home.) As far as social distancing, while “six feet” is the standard requirement in much of the US, parts of Europe are currently waging a heated debate about whether one meter (just over three feet) is far enough.

For a sense of what things might look like, CNN recently reported on the reopening of Paris — offering a glimpse at the many ripples the coronavirus has sent through one city.

American travelers will also want to bring plenty of hand sanitizer and disposable wipes (or a bottle of disinfectant spray and paper towels). Disinfecting your hotel room will become, for cautious travelers, part of the standard checking-in ritual — not to mention wiping down your seat on a plane or train, and anywhere else that you’re settling in.

When traveling within Europe, don’t expect effortless Schengen-era “open borders.” With the pandemic, many long-gone border posts were hastily re-erected. Many of these have been tentatively re-opened, but they could slam shut at the slightest hint of an outbreak. Travelers in the age of coronavirus will need to remain more flexible than ever, and keep a close eye on local news for late-breaking changes.

Organized tourism — including bus tours — will need to wait its turn. An independent traveler is better able to control their own environment: choosing to settle in for a longer period in a space that they can personally disinfect; buying groceries and cooking for themselves or picnicking to avoid potential virus exposure in restaurants; renting their own car to move around in a safe “bubble”; and so on. A cautious independent traveler could enjoy some — if not all — aspects of Europe with some confidence.

But bus tours require a large group of travelers being together: together on the bus; together for at least some meals; all staying in the same hotel and having breakfast in the same breakfast room; and even doing much of their organized sightseeing as a group. While a few impatient tour companies may try to rush back into the market, Rick Steves’ Europe Tours is determined to wait until we’re confident that the infrastructure for tourism is reliably back up and running. We expect lots of false starts and disappointing cancellations before things are humming along smoothly…and we’d rather wait for those kinks to get out of the system before we take chances with the travel dreams of our tour members. In fact, the same day the EU announced their travel ban, we cancelled all of our remaining 2020 tours. We’re hopeful to resume our tour program in 2021.

Of course, the game-changing variable in all of this is a vaccine. Experts are divided on how quickly a safe and effective vaccine may be developed, or whether it’s even possible. If and when a vaccine becomes widely available, I expect an immediate and huge rebound in all kinds of tourism to Europe. In other frightening times (for example, post-9/11), the pent-up desire for travel never went away — and, in fact, it seemed to build the longer people stayed home. While some travelers face financial difficulties that may prevent them from going back to Europe right away, those who have the means will make up for lost time.

The Future of Travel

I’ve heard it said that travel will “never be the same” after the coronavirus. That’s true: In the wake of COVID-19, the world, and travel, will emerge as something different. But that’s OK. We will adjust. And we may find that the new reality has advantages over the old one.

In the weeks after 9/11, hunkered-down Americans wondered if we’d ever travel in Europe the same way again. (I remember that panicked morning in Rick Steves’ Europe Travel Center — standing by to answer phones that never rang — and wondering whether planes would even fly again.)

Sure enough, things were different. Airport security on both sides of the Atlantic became more stringent forever. The world rallied around Americans, who enjoyed a particularly warm welcome wherever they went. And for several years, many travelers were in a heightened state of anxiety, imagining a terrorist bomb hidden on every plane or bus. And yet, we persevered. As we adapted to “our new reality,” we went on to forge travel memories as beautiful as anything that came before 9/11. We may still grumble about taking off our shoes in the TSA line. But we’ve gotten used to it…it hasn’t “ruined” travel.

Humans are remarkably resilient creatures. We adapt to whatever we encounter. Sometimes change is sudden and dramatic (such as 9/11 or COVID-19). And sometimes it’s so gradual we barely notice until it’s already happened (such as the rise of “overtourism” that peaked just before the coronavirus arrived). But good travelers always figure out how to make the most of current circumstances.

Going forward, small behaviors will be different, maybe forever: Travelers will carry little bottles of hand sanitizers, masks, and instant-read thermometers tucked into their day packs. Prebooking tickets for the great sights will be more important than ever — not so much because of crowds, but because of limits on how many people can go inside at one time. And we may never quite go back to greeting new friends with vigorous handshakes or European cheek kisses.

And there will also be more sweeping, philosophical changes. My hunch is that, having survived an acute global crisis, we may begin paying more attention to a slow-motion one: Traveling in a way that’s environmentally responsible and sustainable will become more important than ever.

I also suspect that the age of “overtourism” — and of superficial, Instagram-driven, bucket-list travel — has come to an end. Our civilization briefly arrived at a point where, for a few hundred dollars, we could step onto a plane and step out anywhere on earth. Travel was easy — effortless, even — which was a boon for those of us who love to experience our world. But maybe it was too easy. And perhaps we took it for granted.

When people venture out once again, I suspect, it won’t be to collect staged-and-artificial impressions of Europe, but to connect with it more deeply. I hope that one silver lining of the pandemic is that it inspires us to pursue a more thoughtful, more mindful type of travel: Visit fewer places. Linger longer. Pause to savor a sunset or the sound of church bells. Notice and appreciate the little joys of life in another country, instead of just ticking off items on a to-do list. Skip the museum to people-watch at the market. Really get to know Europeans on a personal level. Marvel at the wonders of Europe, and fully appreciate the privilege of being able to experience them in person again.

But in the meantime, look out for yourselves and your loved ones. Socially distance and wear a mask. Wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Elect trustworthy leaders, then trust them; failing that, listen to scientists and experts, and follow their advice. Do what it takes to earn the right to head back to Europe and be reunited with dear friends and favorite places.

I, for one, can’t wait.

Unwanted Statues? A Modest Proposal, from Hungary

Across the United States, statues of Confederate figures are finally being removed from public spaces. Considering that these statues embody a shameful heritage of racism — and the majority of Americans want them gone — taking them down would seem pretty open-and-shut, not to mention long overdue. (And I, for one, would be happy to relocate all of them to the bottom of a river.) But opponents claim to be worried about one issue in particular: “Those statues represent our history. If we remove them, we run the risk of forgetting an important chapter of our past.”

Assuming that this concern is genuine, I have some great news: Hungary came up with a solution for this problem decades ago.

When European communism fell in the autumn of 1989, the people of Central and Eastern Europe turned their attention to the unwanted statues that had loomed over their lives for generations. Marx, Engels, and Lenin preached the gospel of the proletariat by the bus stop, stoic stone soldiers kept the peace over busy intersections, noble and anonymous workers stood proudly at the gates of factories, and cheery red stars and hammers-and-sickles adorned buildings all over. Each one of those symbols was a dagger in the heart of freedom-loving citizens.

The Eastern Europeans did not wait long to remove those statues; most were torn down within weeks, or even days, and tossed onto the trash heap of history. And I can promise you: More than 30 years later, nobody is in danger of “forgetting” the dark days of communism.

In Budapest, however, they took a slightly different approach. Some entrepreneur gathered some the city’s rejected statuary to display in a big field on the outskirts of town. And today Memento Park still welcomes visitors.

I’ve been to Memento Park several times since 1999. (I even wrote up a self-guided tour of the statues in our Rick Steves Budapest guidebook.) And each visit is a surreal experience.

The valiant Red Army soldier charges boldly toward…nowhere in particular. Vladimir Lenin and Béla Kun energetically preach their socialist ideology to each other. And the happy children of the Young Pioneers remain so very proud to embody the false optimism of a worldview that has long since expired.

While it’s possible that a few nostalgic old-timers come here to get misty-eyed about the “good old days” of communism, it’s clear to me that the vast majority of visitors are here to ogle these monstrosities, to learn about the era they represent…and to take a “victory lap” around the now-pitiful remains of a failed empire. For those seeking historical context, archival photographs show the statues in situ. Because, obviously, you don’t need to keep a symbol of oppression in a prominent place just to ensure that it’s remembered.

In Sofia, the field behind the Museum of Socialist Art hosts a similar gathering of statuary. Here, too, the towering monuments offer a taste of what it would have been like to live in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. But the nice thing is that, whenever you’re ready, you can leave the museum and never think about it again.

I still vote for entirely removing symbols of hatred and oppression. But perhaps sequestering a few in a museum would be a suitable compromise. And I must admit, some small part of me is glad that a representative sampling of communist statuary still exists, tucked away from public view. With proper context, Memento Park is a fascinating place to learn about a bygone era. But the best part is that the many people who associate these figures with trauma never have to see them…unless they want to come and thumb their nose at a vanquished foe.