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: Michelangelo’s Pietà

When he was just 24 years old, Michelangelo carved the statue that made him famous: His Pietà debuted in St. Peter’s in Rome for the Holy Year of 1500. Thousands of pilgrims filed by and were amazed by what appeared to be a miraculous event carved out of marble yet unfolding before their eyes.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. And I’m currently featuring 10 of my favorites — including this one.

The word pietà means “pity,” and is the name of any work showing Mary tenderly mourning her dead son, Jesus.

Michelangelo, with his total mastery of the real world, captures the sadness of the moment. Mary gazes down on her crucified son. Christ’s lifeless right arm droops down, letting us know how heavy his corpse is. Christ’s bunched-up shoulder and rigor-mortis legs show that Michelangelo learned well from his studies of cadavers. The vulnerability of Christ’s smooth skin is accentuated by the rough folds in Mary’s robe. As Mary supports the body with her right hand, she turns her left hand upward, asking, “How could they do this to you?”

It’s hard to believe that this supple, polished statue is carved from one of the hardest of stones — Carrara marble. Michelangelo didn’t think of sculpting as creating a figure, but as simply freeing the God-made figure already in the marble. He’d launch himself into a project like this with an inspired passion, chipping away to find what God had put inside.

As realistic as this work is, its true power lies in the subtle “unreal” features. Life-size Christ looks childlike compared with larger-than-life Mary. Unnoticed at first, this makes a subliminal impression of Mary enfolding Jesus in her maternal love. Mary — the mother of a 33-year-old man — looks like a teenager, emphasizing how Mary was the eternally youthful “handmaiden” of the Lord, always serving him, even at this moment of supreme sacrifice. Mary always accepts God’s will, even if it means giving up her son.

Mary is a solid pyramid of maternal tenderness. Yet within this, Christ’s body tilts diagonally down to the right and Mary’s hem flows with it. Subconsciously, we feel the weight of this dead Savior sliding from her lap to the ground.

To appreciate the full impact of this scene, Michelangelo hoped you’d view his Pietà from close up, looking up at Mary’s face. Sadly, on May 23, 1972, a madman with a hammer entered St. Peter’s and began hacking away at the Pietà. The damage was repaired, but it changed forever how people interact with this object of beauty. It now sits behind a shield of bulletproof glass and is viewable only from a distance.

This is Michelangelo’s only signed work. The story goes that he overheard some pilgrims praising his Pietà, but saying it was done by a second-rate sculptor from a lesser city. Michelangelo was so enraged he grabbed his chisel and chipped an inscription in the ribbon running down Mary’s chest. It said, “This was made by Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence.”

This is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Vatican.

Daily Dose of Europe: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

On my next trip to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, I can’t wait to lay my eyes on that famous “Venus on the Half-Shell” painting…one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. And I’m currently featuring 10 of my favorites — including this one.

This work was revolutionary: the first large-scale painting of a naked woman in a thousand years. It summed up the growing secular culture of Renaissance Florence.

Venus — the goddess of love and beauty — was born from the foam of a wave. Still only half awake, this fragile newborn, blown by the god of wind, floats ashore on a scallop shell, where her maid waits to dress her in a rich robe fit for a goddess.

Botticelli, painting innocent beauty, did everything possible to please the eye. His pastel colors make the world itself seem fresh and newly born. Botticelli (who was trained as a goldsmith) mixed real gold into the paints to highlight Venus’ radiant hair, the scallop shell, the Wind’s wings, and even the sun-sparkled grass.

The god of wind sets the scene in motion. Everything — Venus’ flowing hair, the waves on the
water, the swirling robes, even the jagged shoreline — ripples like the wind. Venus’ wavy hair mirrors the undulating line of her body. Mrs. Wind holds on tight, as their bodies, wings, and clothes intertwine. In the center of all that wavy motion stands the still, translucent form of Venus, looking like she’s etched in glass.

In good Renaissance style, Botticelli poses Venus with the same S-curve body and modestly placed hands as a classical statue. But whereas Botticelli’s Renaissance contemporaries insisted on ultra-realism, Botticelli’s anatomy is impossible. Venus’ neck is too long and she stands off-kilter. Venus’ maid seems to float above the ground. And how exactly does Mrs. Wind wrap that leg around her man?

With The Birth of Venus (a.k.a. Venus on the Half-Shell), Botticelli was creating a more ideal world, with a more ethereal beauty. It’s a perfectly lit world, where no one casts a shadow. The bodies curve, the faces are idealized, and their gestures exude grace.

Venus’ nakedness is not so much erotic as innocent. Botticelli thought that physical beauty was a way of appreciating God. Venus’ beauty could arouse and uplift the soul of the viewer, giving him a spiritual longing for heavenly things.

Gaze into the eyes of Venus. She’s deep in thought…but about what? Around her, flowers tumble in the slowest of slow motions, suspended like musical notes, caught at the peak of their brief life. Venus’ expression has a tinge of melancholy, as if knowing how quickly beauty fades and that innocence will not last forever.

This is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Uffizi.

Daily Dose of Europe: Guide Reports, Week 10 — Looking Ahead

In this week’s roundup of news from our European guides, we learn that Europe’s gradual reopening is brightening spirits. While it’s still unclear how soon Americans will be able to visit Europe, Europeans are enjoying the chance to venture farther and farther from their homes.

Europe is hoping to have some tourism this summer, but it will most likely be intra-European. For example, Virginie Moré — who sent us a report from her farm quarantine last month — has started an Instagram account with tips for French travelers through July 14 (when the French summer vacation season usually begins).

“I have decided to promote traveling within France to French people this summer as this is what we will be restricted to. I will take people through France by introducing different topics each day: Tuesdays, a hotel or guesthouse; Wednesdays, a restaurant; Thursdays, a winery; Fridays, a local guide; Saturdays, a village; and Sundays, a monument or museum. This is more intended for French people, but I think our RSE travelers planning future trips might like it too!” If you’re on Instagram, you can follow along here.

In Slovenia, Tina Hiti is writing a blog about how she’s keeping busy during quarantine, and offering insights into Slovenian life.

Here’s an excerpt:

“’An apple a day sends the doctor away’ in Slovenia translates to ‘a schnapps a day sends germs away.’ Even though we know apples are healthy, we all believe also in the healing powers of schnapps. This is a strong alcoholic beverage of above 40% alcohol and can be made with grapes, pears, or plums.

“Once you get sick, instead of taking pills right away, schnapps can be used: When you get a fever — try to take a hot shower and drink a glass of schnapps and sweat it out. With feminine cramps — a little shot of schnapps soothes the pain. Any toothache can be cured with schnapps — just rub it on the affected area and it will help. If you find a tick in your skin — rub schnapps on it and the little creature will immediately crawl out. You fall and get a scratch — disinfect it with schnapps. Bad hair day — rub schnapps on it. You don’t have a toothpaste — easy, just have a shot of it in the morning…and on it goes.

“No wonder schnapps is one of the things you will always find in everybody’s fridge. We use it also when we have houseguests — if a host doesn’t treat you to a shot of it, it means you are not really welcome.  And whenever we go on hikes, we always bring it along in small bottles that we like to keep close to our heart — a Slovenian kind of bypass. So beware. And just a hint: when you are offered to drink it, it is always bottoms up. It hurts only once that way.”

Various guides are making good use of new YouTube channels they’ve created to keep their guiding stills sharp while virtually introducing new audiences to their favorite sights.

For example, Stefan Bozadzhiev takes us to some hidden gems in Bulgaria:

Pål Bjarne Johansen shows off his home city of Oslo, including one of the city’s newest neighborhoods:

And Anna Piperato continues her series introducing viewers to important Italian saints:

Stefanie Bielekova, who works in our Travel Center, has been interviewing guides for her blog, Postcards from Stef. She recently posted an account of her chat with Scottish guide Colin Mairs. Colin leads Rick Steves tours in Scotland in the summer, then heads to the opposite end of the planet to do New Zealand tours in the…summer. Stefanie’s interview with Colin offers insight into living in a country that has had more success than just about any other at confronting the coronavirus crisis. Here are some excerpts:

“In New Zealand we have eased up on lockdown restrictions. Last week we moved to Level 2 – that means that most public spaces, including cafés, restaurants, and shops, are open again. The Covid-19 numbers of confirmed cases are just less than 1,500 cases and a total of 21 deaths in the whole country at the time of writing (May 18). The case numbers are low, even by the size of the population (New Zealand being a country of around 5 million people). The New Zealand government, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, took the approach of ‘go early and go hard’ against the virus and it has largely paid off.

“We use the term ‘bubble’ to refer to the immediate nucleus of people you are living with and spending the lockdown with. We are allowed to go out for walks with the people in our bubble but should stay within the neighborhood. My wife and I are a bubble of two. With the move to Level 2 last week, we can now extend our bubbles. We saw some close friends over the weekend, and gatherings are to be a maximum of 10 people. It’s really nice and a little surreal at first to actually be in the company of other people again!

“The fact that New Zealand has now returned to a relative sense of ‘normal’ is an indication that things are heading in the right direction. I hope that we will all learn something from this time. As someone who regularly reads and talks about history, it is quite an existential feeling to realize that I am living through one of the biggest world events of my lifetime — a once-in-a-century pandemic. I wonder how people will look back on this time and what future generations will think of those who panic-bought toilet paper and who disregarded the stay at home advice.”

Finally, in Italy, Susanna Perrucchini — who wrote to us not long ago about Italy’s Liberation Day — reached out with this beautiful message:

“Thinking of the months ahead, I started to wonder about the real nature of my job as a guide and if I was really sure to keep on doing what I have been doing for the last 20 years. And the answer was YES! I am not saying that I could not do something else if needed. I simply had to renew those vows to myself, because being a guide is, doubtlessly, a vocational job.

“Weeks and months will pass by, and I will adapt to a new life, to a new routine, like everyone else. Nevertheless, I know where you can find me when the first groups start to make their way to Europe: I will be right here, waiting for them.

“The big events of history, despite their heavy weight of sadness, despair, and tragedy, have always brought out the most basic of human skills: the capability to adapt, and the strength to stand up again after a bad fall. We all know, deep down, that no matter how violent the storm may be, the sun will always rise.

“Being in touch with one another, among guides, the office staff in Edmonds, and, of course, our families and friends is a fundamental way to survive (mentally) this epidemic and to deeply understand the meaning of ‘being on the same boat,’ because we really are. It makes us feel connected and definitely less alone.

“I want to end with a little reminder that may sound like one of those cheesy fortune-cookies messages: Picture in your mind an extremely funny situation that happened in your life, one of those moments when you were almost wetting your pants — we all have some of those! Think harder, come on! Ready?

Now rewind it and live it again in your head, and say to yourself OUT LOUD: ‘Those moments will come again!’ Because they will.”

Daily Dose of Europe: Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral

The crisis of this year has overshadowed one from last year: the shocking fire at France’s top church, Notre-Dame Cathedral. Like the rest of our world right now, that cathedral is damaged and on the mend…yet it survives, as ever, as a powerful symbol of France.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. And I’m currently featuring 10 of my favorites — including this one.

On an island in the center of Paris — on the spot dubbed “point zero” — stands the world’s best-known Gothic cathedral. Notre-Dame’s facade is instantly recognizable: the twin rectangular towers, the circular rose window, the three arched doorways, the rows of statues…and the impish gargoyles that line the roof.

The round rose window frames a statue of “Our Lady” (Notre Dame) to whom this church is dedicated. For centuries, Mary, the mother of Jesus, has symbolized the Christian faith’s compassionate heart. And here she stands at the heart of the facade, surrounded by the halo of the rose window. And this church stands at the heart of Paris, where the ancient Parisii tribe settled, where Romans built their pagan Temple of Jupiter, and where the Franks replaced it with a Christian church.

Imagine the faith of the people who built this massive cathedral. Countless people of high and low standing dedicated their lives to building this church, knowing it wouldn’t be finished until long after they were dead. They broke ground in the year 1163 with the hope that someday their great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren might attend the dedication Mass. Two centuries later, in 1345, they did.

Over the centuries, the cathedral continued to evolve and undergo renovation. Recently it suffered a devastating fire (2019), requiring yet another makeover, and adding another chapter to its long history.

Stepping inside, put on a medieval pilgrim’s perspective as you soak in the ambience of this centuries-old space. Follow the slender columns up 10 stories to where Gothic arches come together like praying hands. Take in the subtle, mysterious light show that God beams through the stained-glass windows.

This is Gothic. Taller and filled with light, this was a new design needing only a few load-bearing columns, topped by crisscrossing pointed arches to support the weight of the stone roof. No longer did walls have to be thick and fortress-like to provide support — instead they could be filled with windows.

Back outside Notre-Dame, you see the gangly architectural elements of Gothic: pointed arches, tall windows, lacy stone tracery, and statues.

Most distinctive of all are the flying buttresses, the 50-foot-long stone beams that stick out from the church. They were the key to the Gothic structure. With pointed arches supporting the roof, the weight of the roof pressed outward, not down (as with earlier round arches). Flying buttresses supported that weight by pushing back in. This Gothic technology, with its skeletal structure mostly protruding on the outside, was invented in Paris in the 13th century. It enabled architects to erect lofty cathedrals with roofs supported by thin columns, allowing for “walls” of glorious stained glass.

The church’s roofline is dotted with statues of grotesque winged creatures. These bizarre beasts represented tormented souls caught between heaven and earth. They also functioned as drain spouts. When it rained, they made a gargling sound, giving us their name — gargoyles. Or maybe that’s the sound of Quasimodo as he limps along the roofline, grunting and grimacing with appreciation at this, the wonder of the High Middle Ages.

This is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for “Notre Dame”.

Daily Dose of Europe: Venice’s Bronze Horses

I can’t wait to go back to Venice when this is all over. And when I do, I’ll look up at the balcony of St. Mark’s Basilica, where four bronze horses will nod their heads in greeting.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. And I’m currently featuring 10 of my favorites — including this one.

Stepping lively in pairs and with smiles on their faces, these four bronze horses exude a spirited exuberance. They long stood in the most prominent spot in the city of Venice — above the main door of St. Mark’s Basilica, overlooking St. Mark’s Square. (Replicas still stand there today.)

The horses are old — much older even than Venice. They’re likely from Greece and made in the fourth century BC. Originally they were part of a larger ensemble shown pulling a chariot, Ben-Hur style.

The realism is remarkable: the halters around their necks, the bulging veins in their faces, their chest muscles, and the creases in their necks as they rear back. With flashing eyes, flaring nostrils, erect ears, and open mouths, they’re the picture of equestrian energy.

They are clearly teammates. Each raises its hoof at the same time and same height. They cock their heads to the side, seemingly communicating with their brothers with equine ESP.

These bronze statues are rare survivors of that remarkable ancient technology known as the lost-wax method. They were not hammered into shape by metalsmiths, but cast — made by pouring molten bronze into clay molds. Each horse weighs nearly a ton. During the Dark Ages, barbarians melted most metal masterpieces down for re-use, but these survived. Originally gilded, they still have some streaks of gold leaf. Long gone are the ruby pupils that made their fiery eyes glisten in the sun.

Their expressive faces seem to say, “Oh boy, Wilbur, have we done some travelin’.” That’s because megalomaniacs through the ages have coveted these horses not only for their artistic value, but because they symbolize Apollo, the god of the sun…and symbol of power.

Legend says they were made in Greece during the time of Alexander the Great. They were then taken by Nero to Rome. Constantine brought them to his new capital in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) to adorn the chariot racecourse. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the Venetians stole them. They placed them on the balcony of St. Mark’s Basilica from where the doge would speak to his people — the horses providing a powerful backdrop. Six centuries later, Napoleon conquered Venice and took the horses. They stood atop a triumphal arch in Paris until Napoleon fell and they were returned to their “rightful” home in Venice.

In the 1970s, the horses made their shortest and final journey. With the threat of oxidation from polluted air, they were replaced by modern copies. The originals galloped for cover inside the church, where they are displayed today.

For all their travel, this fearsome foursome still seems fresh. They’re more than just art. They stand as a testament to how each civilization conquers the previous one, assimilates the best elements from it, and builds upon it. And when visitors come to Venice today and admire these horses, they’re looking at a lot of history.

This is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for “St. Mark”.