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

Venice’s St. Mark’s — A Treasure Chest of Wonders

It’s clear that as we, as a society, get vaccinated, we’ll soon be free to travel again in Europe — and it’s more exciting than ever to envision the great sights and slices of culture that await. For me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:   

Stand in the center of St. Mark’s Square — the center of Venice — and take in the scene: the historic buildings, the cafés with their dueling orchestras, the sheer expanse of the square, and all the people — Italians on holiday, Indians in colorful saris, and Nebraskans in shorts and baseball caps. Overseeing it all is a church that’s unlike any other in the world — the Basilica of St. Mark. 

St. Mark’s is a treasure chest of wonders acquired during Venice’s glory days. The facade shows off the cosmopolitan nature of this sea-trading city that assimilated so many different cultures. There are Roman-style arches over the doors, Greek-style columns alongside, Byzantine mosaics, French Gothic pinnacles on the roofline, and — topping the church — the onion-shaped domes of the Islamic world. The gangly structure has been compared to “a warty bug taking a meditative walk” (Mark Twain) or “a love-cluster of tiara-topped ladybugs copulating” (unknown). 

One of the facade mosaics depicts the scene when the body of St. Mark — the author of one of the four gospels in the Bible — was interred on this spot. In 1063, this church was built over Mark’s bones. As Venice expanded, the church was encrusted with precious objects — columns, statues, and mosaics — looted from their vast empire. Their prize booty was four bronze horses, placed in the center of the facade. It’s little wonder that the architectural style of St. Mark’s has been called “Early Ransack.” 

When you step inside St. Mark’s Basilica, the entire atmosphere takes on a golden glow as your eyes slowly adjust to the dark. The church is decorated, top to bottom, with radiant mosaics. It’s as intricate as it is massive. (Imagine paving a football field with contact lenses.) They tell the entire story of Christ and the saints in pictures made from thousands of tiny cubes of glass (with gold baked inside) and colored stone. The reflecting gold mosaics help light this thick-walled, small-windowed, lantern-lit church, creating a luminosity that symbolizes the divine light of heaven. 

As you explore deeper, you’ll discover the church is filled with precious and centuries-old objects: jewel-encrusted chalices, silver reliquaries, and monstrous monstrances (for displaying the Communion wafer). An urn holds the (supposed) holy DNA of St. Mark. The priceless 1,000-year-old Golden Altarpiece is a towering wall of handcrafted enamels set in a gold frame and studded with 15 hefty rubies, 300 emeralds, and 1,500 pearls. Exotic objects like these date from an era when Venice was almost as oriental as it was European. 

The church’s symbolic message culminates at the very heart of the church. There, up in the central dome, Christ reigns in the starry heavens, riding on a rainbow. This isn’t the agonized, crucified Jesus featured in most churches, but a vibrant, radiant being gazing solemnly down, raising his hand in a blessing, as the Pantocrator, or Ruler of All. His grace radiates through a ring of saints to the altar below. As the central spot in the church, the Pantocrator dome is the symbolic center of the Venetian universe itself, with Christ blessing it all. God’s in his heaven, the faithful are on earth, Venice is central, and all’s right with the world. 

Standing under the dome of St. Mark’s, it becomes clear: Among Europe’s churches, there are bigger, more historic, and even holier churches. But none are more majestic than St. Mark’s Basilica. 

Artisan Europe: Worth Seeking Out

Even though I’m holding off on visiting Europe for now, I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good for the soul. I hope you’ll enjoy this travel tale from my book For the Love of Europe, a collection of 100 of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. 


When you’ve traveled in Europe as long as I have, you experience changes big and small. And more and more, I notice traditional, local businesses making way for cookie-cutter chains and synthetic conformity. In historic city centers, as rents go up, longtime residents, families, and craftspeople are pushed out. Small hotels, one-of-a-kind shops, and individual craftspeople simply don’t have the scale to compete with the big guys. And that, coupled with the impact of COVID sending mom-and-pop shops out of business, makes me want to celebrate my memories of these venerable craftspeople. 

In Florence, the end of rent control made costs spike immediately, driving artisans and shops catering to locals out of business — to be replaced by upscale boutiques and trendy eateries. The same thing happened in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. As landlords evicted long-term renters to make more money off short-term Airbnb rentals, mom-and-pop shops lost their traditional clientele and went out of business. In Istanbul, the city wants to move the iconic gold-and-silver workshops from the Grand Bazaar to a place outside the city center, while “Made in Taiwan” gift shops are able to pay higher rents and take their place, changing the character of the market. 

Craftsmen lament that the next generation, drawn to the energy of big cities and lured by the opportunities of big corporations, won’t be there to carry on the traditions. The artists who craft handmade guitars in Madrid, the family winemakers of Burgundy, the fishermen who sell shrimp on the Oslo harborfront…these have all been fixtures in my lifetime of European travel. What will become of these rich facets of local culture if the younger generation opts out? Of course, I can’t blame the children of artisans for jumping into the modern rat race; I’m not an old-school piano technician like my father. But it’s worth considering how the future will look when economic scale and efficiency trump artisan values.  

It’s a real joy when I stumble upon true artisans who are committed to doing things the traditional way, by hand — and communities that understand the importance of keeping them in business. I urge travelers to seek out and support artisan experiences while traveling — before it’s too late. 

In Rothenburg, Germany, I visited with Peter Leyrer, a printmaker who proudly showed me his etchings. He makes his prints using the copper-plate technique, just as Albrecht Dürer did 500 years ago. Peter prints the black-and-white etchings, paints them with watercolors, and sells them in his shop. Peter is getting older and will soon retire. He told me that with no one to take over for him, his 3,000 copper plates will likely end up in a museum. One of his etchings hangs in my office. 

In the Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano, my friend Cesare is a proud coppersmith with a spirit as strong as the oak-tree root upon which his grandfather’s anvil sits. For Cesare, every day is show-and-tell, as steady streams of travelers drop by to see him at work, fashioning special ornaments for the town cathedral and pounding out fine cookware. 

In nearby Orvieto, Federico Badia is a young cobbler who’s passionate about preserving the art of traditional shoemaking. After apprenticing at a leather shop in Rome, he set up his own studio, where he patiently crafts fine leather shoes for an appreciative clientele. Federico says that “Made in Italy” doesn’t apply to mass-produced factory shoes — it’s a label that rightly belongs only to the fine products hand-crafted by artisans like him. 

Back in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Dikran is a silversmith who uses hand tools to create finely designed, one-of-a-kind pieces. For a decade, he worked as an unpaid apprentice, studying under a master until he himself became one. In the past, a volunteer apprentice had to work hard to persuade a master to accept him. Today, it’s a struggle to get young people to enter a field in which training takes years and incomes are limited.  

Guiding a tour group through eastern Turkey, I once dropped in on a craftsman who was famous for his wood carving. We gathered around his table to watch him work, appreciating the pride he took in his art. Suddenly, he stopped, held his chisel high into the sky, and declared, “A man and his chisel — the greatest factory on Earth!” 

As we emerge from this COVID crisis, the big mystery for me is how many artisans, mom-and-pop shops and eateries, and creative little business ventures will still be standing. After all, these are what make our travels (and our hometowns) so easy to love. 

I don’t have the answers on how to sustain Europe’s age-old traditions, but I’m inspired whenever I meet the artisans who lovingly carry treasured and endangered crafts into the future. And it always feels right to buy a piece of their work. 

The Perfectly Posed Artemision Bronze

Even though I’m holding off on visiting Europe for now, I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good for the soul. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:

One of the jewels of the ancient world is the Artemision Bronze, a perfectly posed statue of a god at war.

The god steps forward, raises his arm, sights along his other arm at the distant target, and prepares to hurl his weapon. (Or is he about to serve a tennis ball? Or pound a nail? Or maybe he’s riding a surfboard?)

If the statue is meant to be Zeus (as some think), he’d be throwing a thunderbolt — if Poseidon, a trident. When the statue was discovered — in a sunken ship off the coast of Greece (Cape Artemision) in 1928 — no weapon was found, so no one knows for sure who it represents. (For simplicity, I’ll call him Poseidon, and hope jealous Zeus doesn’t strike me down with a thunderbolt.)

Poseidon stands 6 feet 10 inches tall, and has a physique like — well, like a Greek god. He’s trim, graceful, and muscular.

His hair is curly and tied at the back. His now-hollow eyes were once white, made with inset bone. He plants his left foot and pushes off with the right. Even though every limb moves in a different direction, the overall effect is one of balance.

The statue’s dimensions are a study in Greek geometry. His head is exactly one Greek foot in length. He stands 6 Greek feet tall, or exactly one Greek fathom. The entire figure has an “X” shape that would fit into a perfect circle — his navel at the center, and his fingertips touching the rim.

The unknown artist has frozen Poseidon’s movements in time, so we can examine the wonder of the physical body. He’s natural yet ideal, twisting yet balanced, moving while at rest. With his geometrical perfection and godlike air, this figure sums up all that is best about the art of the ancient world.

Sculpted around 460 BC, this statue is an example of the so-called Severe style, describing the style of Greek art between 500 and 450 BC. Historically, this is when Greece battled the Persians. During this time of horrific war, the Greeks made art that was serious and unadorned, and expressed naked, muscular strength. Severe-style statues celebrate the nobility of the human form and the heroism of the individuals who carried them through these tough times.

Shortly after this statue was created, the Greeks emerged victorious from their wars, shook off tyrants at home, and took control of their own destiny through democracy. This Poseidon shows Greece poised at the dawn of that new era of prosperity and enlightenment, his gaze fixed on the coming future. That future would be known as the Golden Age…an age that would inspire Western civilizations to come.

Vigeland’s “Monolith of Life”

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:  

In a park in Oslo — where children play, couples embrace, and old people reflect — you’ll find nearly 200 statues of people engaged in those same primal human activities. It’s a lifetime of work by Norway’s greatest sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. 

In 1921, Gustav Vigeland struck a deal with the city. In return for a great studio and state support, he’d spend his creative life beautifying Oslo with this sculpture garden. From 1924 until his death in 1943 he worked on-site, designing 192 bronze and granite statue groupings — 600 figures in all, each unique. 

Vigeland’s sturdy humans capture universal themes of the cycle of life — birth, childhood, romance, struggle, childrearing, growing old, and death. His statues laugh, cry, jump for joy, and hug each other in sorrow. The bittersweet range of human experience was sculpted by a man who’d seen it all himself: love, failed marriages, children, broken homes, war, death — a man who did not age gracefully.  

For generations, the people of Oslo have made Vigeland’s timeless people a part of their own lives. The park is treated with respect: no police, no fences — and no graffiti. Vigeland created an in situ experience that is at once majestic, hands-on, entertaining, and deeply moving.  

Vigeland was inspired by Rodin’s naked, restless, intertwined statues. Like Rodin, Vigeland explored the yin-yang relationship of men and women. Also like Rodin, Vigeland did not personally carve most of his statues. Rather, he made models that were executed by a workshop of assistants.  

Strolling the park, you’ll cross a 300-foot-long bridge lined with statues, including the famous Angry Boy. He stomps his feet, clenches his fists, and screams — just like two-year-olds have since the beginning of time. (It’s said Vigeland gave a boy chocolate and then took it away to get this reaction.) Next comes a huge fountain, where water — the source of life — cascades around the statues. Vigeland consciously placed his figures amid the park’s landscaping to show how mankind is intimately bound up with nature.  

The most striking thing about these statues is they’re all so darn naked. This isn’t the soft-focus beauty of nubile nymphs, but the stark reality of penises, scrotums, vulvas, breasts, and butts. These people are naked Homo sapiens. 

In the center of the park, high on a hill, is the Monolith, a 46-foot granite pillar surrounded by 36 free-standing statues. Here, Vigeland explores a lifetime of human relationships. A mother bends over to care for her kids. Two lovers nestle nose to nose. A father counsels his son. An old man cradles his emaciated wife. 

Vigeland’s final great work was the Monolith itself. It was carved from a single 180-ton block of granite, and took three sculptors 14 years to carve. The pillar teems with life, a tangle of bodies. More than 120 figures — men, women, old, young — scramble over and around each other as they spiral up toward the top. What are they trying to reach? Success? Happiness? Mere survival? God? Vigeland never said. But whatever it is that drives the human race to aspire to better things, it’s clear that we’re all tied up in it together. 

The Church of David

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I hope you’ll enjoy this travel tale from my book For the Love of Europe, a collection of 100 of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels.

Entering Florence’s Accademia Gallery is like entering the Church of David — a temple of humanism. At the high altar stands the perfect man, Michelangelo’s colossal statue of David. Like a Renaissance Statue of Liberty, David declares, “Yes, I can.”

This 500-year-old slingshot-toting giant-slayer is the symbol of Florence. The city’s other treasures are largely ignored by the tourist hordes that roam the streets with one statue at the top of their sightseeing list. Each morning the line forms as tourists wait patiently to enter the temple. As at any pilgrimage site, the nearby streets are lined with shops selling David knickknacks.

Inside, smartly dressed ushers collect admission tickets. Dropping mine in the basket, I turn the corner and enter a large nave. Six unfinished statues called the Prisoners — brute bodies each fighting to free themselves from their rock — line the room leading to David. His feet are at a level just above the sea of tourists’ heads. Round arches and a dome hover above him like architectural halos. People only whisper. Couples hold each other tighter in his presence, their eyes fixed on the statue.

The scene is black and white under a skylight. I don’t miss the color. I wouldn’t want color. David is beyond color, even beyond gender.

David is fundamentally human. Gathered with people from all nations, I look up to him. Tight-skirted girls who’d cause a commotion in the streets go unnoticed as macho men fold their hands. Students commune with Michelangelo on their sketchpads. Sightseers pause. Tired souls see the spirit in David’s eyes.

David is the god of human triumph. Clothed only in confidence, his toes gripping the pedestal, he seems both ready and determined to step out of the Dark Ages and into an exciting future.

When you look into the eyes of Michelangelo’s David, you’re looking into the eyes of Renaissance Man. This six-ton, 17-foot-tall symbol of divine victory over evil — completed in 1504 — represents a new century and a new outlook. It’s the age of Columbus and classicism, Galileo and Gutenberg, Luther and Leonardo — of Florence and the Renaissance.

In 1501, Michelangelo Buonarroti, a 26-year-old Florentine, was commissioned to carve a large-scale work for Florence’s cathedral. He was given a block of marble that other sculptors had rejected as too tall, shallow, and flawed to be of any value. But Michelangelo picked up his hammer and chisel, knocked a knot off what became David’s heart, and started to work.

He depicted a story from the Bible, where a brave young shepherd boy challenges a mighty giant named Goliath. David turns down the armor of the day. Instead, he throws his sling over his left shoulder, gathers five smooth stones in his powerful right hand, and steps onto the field of battle to face Goliath.

Michelangelo captures David as he’s sizing up his enemy. He stands relaxed but alert. In his left hand, he fondles the handle of the sling, ready to fling a stone at the giant. His gaze is steady…confident. Michelangelo has caught the precise moment when David realizes he can win.

David is a symbol of Renaissance optimism. He’s no brute. He’s a civilized, thinking individual who can grapple with and overcome problems. He needs no armor, only his God-given physical strength and wits. Many complained that the right hand was too big and overdeveloped. But this represents the hand of a man with the strength of God on his side. No mere boy could slay the giant. But David, powered by God, could…and did.

Renaissance Florentines identified with David. Like him, they considered themselves God-blessed underdogs fighting their city-state rivals. In a deeper sense, they were civilized Renaissance people — on the cusp of our modern age — slaying the ugly giant of medieval superstition, pessimism, and oppression.

Gathered before the high altar of David, tourists share the pews with Michelangelo’s unfinished stone Prisoners. Also known as the Slaves, they wade wearily through murky darkness, bending their heads under the hard truth of their mortality.

A passing tour guide says, “The Prisoners are struggling to come to life.” But I see them dying — giving up the struggle, wearily accepting an inevitable defeat.

Michelangelo intended to show the soul imprisoned in the body. While the Prisoners’ legs and heads disappear into the rock, their chests heave and their bellies shine. Talking through what I’m seeing, I say out loud, “Each belly is finished, as if it were Michelangelo’s focus…the portal of the soul.”

Without missing a beat, the woman next to me replies, “That’s the epigastric area. When you die, this stays warm longest. It’s where your soul exits your body.”

I welcome this opportunity to get a new perspective on Michelangelo’s work. She introduces herself as Carla and her friend as Anne-Marie. Both are nurses from Idaho. Carla turns from the Prisoners to David, raises her opera glasses, and continues, “And David’s antecubital space is perfectly correct.”

“Anti-what?” I say, surprised by this clinical approach to David.

“That’s the space inside the elbow. Look at those veins. They’re perfect. He’d be a great IV start. And the sternocleidomastoid muscle — the big one here,” she explains, running four slender fingers from her ear to the center of her Florence T-shirt, “it’s just right.”

Carla burrows back into the opera glasses for a slow head-to-toe pan and continues to narrate her discoveries. “You can still see the drill holes under his bangs. There’s a tiny chip under his eye…sharp lips…yeow.”

Her friend Anne-Marie muses, “They should make that pedestal revolve.”

Carla, still working her way down David, dreams aloud. “Yeah, pop in a euro; get 360 slow-moving degrees of David. He is anatomically correct, anatomically really correct. Not as moving as the Pièta, but really real.”

“He feels confident facing Goliath,” I say.

Anne-Marie lowers her camera and says, “Well, he’s standing there naked, so he must be pretty confident.”

Turning to Carla, she observes, “The ears are ugly. The pubic hair’s not quite right. And his right hand is huge. They always say to check out the fingers if you wonder about the other appendages. So what’s the deal?”

“The guidebook says that’s supposed to be the hand of God,” Carla explains. “You can’t measure the rest of David by ‘the hand of God.’”

Settling back into a more worshipful frame of mind, Anne-Marie ponders aloud, “The Bible says he was like 12 or 14.”

“This is no 14-year-old,” says Carla, still lost in her opera glasses.

I ask, “What’s David telling us?”

“He says God made people great,” says Anne-Marie.

I say, “No, maybe it’s David who’s made in God’s image, and David makes it clear that we — the rest of us — fall short.”

Zipping her opera glasses into her day bag, Carla looks into the eyes of David. “No,” she says. “I think we’re each great. We’re great. David’s great. God’s great. And Michelangelo’s giving us a sneak preview of heaven…”

The guards begin to usher people out. I whisper, “I like that.” Then, needing a few extra minutes to do my annual slow stroll around David, I say “ciao” and drift away from the nurses. I need more time to commune with this timeless symbol of a city that 500 years ago led Europe into a new age, a symbol that still challenges us to reach for all that we can be — to declare, “Yes, we can.”