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: Seaside Traditions in Portugal’s Nazaré

Perched on a far corner of Europe, a bit like these two birds, Nazaré is one of my favorite beach towns anywhere. It greets me with the energetic applause of the surf, widows with rooms to rent, and fishermen mending nets.

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

This fishing-town-turned-tourist-retreat, set between cork groves and eucalyptus trees and the open sea, is a place to relax in the sun. In Nazaré, I join a world of ladies in petticoats and men who still stow cigarettes and fishhooks in their stocking caps.

Settling into a grungy fishermen’s bar, I order a plate of barnacles. Yes, barnacles — called percebes here. My waiter is happy to demonstrate how to eat them: dig your thumb between the shell and the leathery skin to rip the skin off. The meat stays attached to the shell. Bite that off victoriously and wash it down with local beer. Fresh barnacles are expensive, as they cling to rocks in the turbulent waves along the coast and are difficult and dangerous to harvest. Savoring my plate of barnacles at sundown, I gaze out at the surf attacking that stark bluff. Because I know that’s where they were gathered just hours ago, investing in a plate of barnacles feels like money well spent. I’m enjoying the endearing charms of unassuming Nazaré being itself.

Though many locals seem older than most of its buildings, the town feels like a Portuguese Coney Island — humming with young people who flock here for the beach. Off-season, it’s almost tourist-free — the perfect time to take in the wild surf and get a feel for a traditional way of life.

The town’s layout is simple: a grid of skinny streets with sun-bleached apartment blocks stretching away from an expansive beach. The beach — in many places as wide as a soccer field — sweeps from the new harbor in the south to stark cliffs in the north.

It seems that most of Nazaré’s 15,000 inhabitants are in the tourist trade. But somehow traditions survive and it’s not hard to find pockets of vivid and authentic culture. I stroll through the market and wander the back streets where people happily trade ocean views for a little shade. Laundry flaps in the wind, kids ride plastic trikes, and fish sizzle over tiny curbside hibachis.

Nazaré is famous for its traditionally clad women who — at least according to local lore — wear skirts with seven petticoats. Is that one for each day, or for the seven colors of the rainbow, or…? Make up your own legend. While the story you’ll hear may be an invention for the tourists, it contains an element of truth. In the old days, women would wait on the beach for their fishermen to sail home. To keep warm in the face of a cold sea wind, they’d wear several petticoats so they could fold layers over their heads, backs, and legs as needed. Even today, older and more traditional women wear skirts made bulky by several — but maybe not seven — petticoats. The ensemble — with boldly clashing colors — is completed with house slippers, a hand-embroidered apron, woolen cape, head scarf, and flamboyant jewelry, including chunky gold earrings (often passed down from mother to daughter).

People-watching here is like going to a living art gallery. The beach, tasty seafood, and a funicular ride are the bright lights of my lazy memories. The funicular — which leads from the beach up to the Sitio neighborhood atop the cliffs — was built in 1889, the same year as the Eiffel Tower (and was designed by a disciple of Eiffel).

Sitio, with its own church, museum, and main square, feels like a separate village. Marking a rocky viewpoint high above Nazaré, a stone memorial honors the explorer Vasco da Gama, who stopped here before leaving Europe for India. Next to that, a little chapel marks the spot where a much-venerated statue of the Black Madonna was hidden in the rocks throughout four centuries of Muslim Moorish rule before it was rediscovered during the 12th-century Christian Reconquista. (When it comes to enjoying legends like these, gullibility is a skill that serves me well.)

Back down along the beach, a local folk-music group plays and dances. This troupe — with petticoats twirling to the beat of a percussion section of bongo gourds and extra-large pinecones grating against each other — has been kicking up sand since 1934.

When these dancers were younger, the vast beach was littered with colorful fishing boats that were hauled in by oxen or teams of fishermen. But ever since a new harbor was built south of town, the working boats have been moored out of sight. Today, only a few historic vessels remain, ornamenting the sand. On the boardwalk — an artful and traditional mosaic pavement of black and white stones — squadrons of sun-dried and salted fish are stretched out on nets left under the midday sun. Locals claim they’re delicious…but I’d rather eat barnacles.

This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Nazaré Portugal.

Daily Dose of Europe: Copenhagen’s Christiania — No Cars, Corporations, or Dead Fish

When traveling in Europe, I love the great art, the delicious food, and the beautiful scenery. But I also appreciate getting a glimpse into other societies that embrace different ways of doing things. One of my favorite examples of that is a squatters’ commune tucked amid a tidy little corner of Copenhagen: Christiania.

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

I’m strolling through the commotion of downtown Copenhagen, past chain restaurants dressed up to look old, and under towering hotels that seem to be part of a different international chain each year. Then, as if from another age, a man pedals by with his wife on a “Christiania Bike” — two wheels pushing a big utilitarian rounded bucket. You’d call them “granola” in the US. They look as out of place here in Copenhagen as an Amish couple in Manhattan.

I pause to watch the parade that follows them: ragtag soldiers-against-conformity dressed in black making their way through the bustling, modern downtown. They walk solemnly behind a WWII vintage truck blasting Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in The Wall.” I’ve never really listened to the words until now. These “soldiers” are fighting a rising tide of conformity. They want to raise their children to be free spirits, not cogs. Painted onto their banner — an old sheet — is a slogan you see in their Christiania squatter community: “Lev livet kunstnerisk! Kun døde fisk flyder med strømmen.” (“Live life artistically! Only dead fish swim with the current.”) They fly the Christiania flag: an orange background with three yellow dots for the three “i”s in “Christiania” (or, some claim, for the “o”s in “Love Love Love”).

In 1971, the original 700 Christianians established squatters’ rights in an abandoned military barracks, just a 10-minute walk from the Danish parliament building. Half a century later, this “free city” still stands — a human mishmash of idealists, hippies, potheads, non-materialists, and free-spirited children.

The population includes 900 people, 200 cats, 200 dogs, 17 horses, and 2 parrots. Over 100 of the original squatters, seniors with Willie Nelson’s fashion sense, still live here. When someone moves out, the community decides who will be invited in to replace that person. Most residents are employed: A third of the adult population works on the outside, a third works on the inside, and a third doesn’t work much at all.

Christiania sprawls just behind the spiral tower of Our Savior’s Church in the trendy district of Christianshavn. Welcoming visitors and even offering daily tours in summer, it’s become the second-most-visited sightseeing stop in Copenhagen (move over, Little Mermaid). Tourists react in very different ways to this place. Some see a haven of peace and freedom. Others see dogs, dirt, and dazed people. Some see no taboos. Others see too many tattoos.

Entering the community, I pass under the sign announcing that I am leaving the European Union. The main drag is nicknamed “Pusher Street” for the marijuana-selling stands that line it. (Residents preemptively destroyed the stalls in 2004 to reduce the risk of Christiania being disbanded by the government, but that didn’t last.) While the laws here are always in flux, I notice the small, sweet-smelling stretch of Pusher Street, dubbed the “Green Light District,” where pot is openly sold, is back. Signs, while acknowledging that this activity is still illegal, announce: “1. Have fun; 2. No photos; and 3. No running — because it makes people nervous.”

As I walk down Pusher Street, I see Nemoland, a kind of food circus. At the end of the street, a huge warehouse called Den Grønne Hal (“The Green Hall”) does triple-duty as a recycling center, a craft center for kids, and an evening concert hall. Behind it, climbable ramparts overlook an idyllic lake and a forest that’s dotted with cozy if ramshackle cottages.

From Den Grønne Hal, a lane leads to a pleasant café, and beyond that, to the Morgenstedet vegetarian restaurant — a great place for a simple, friendly meal. A former barracks near the entrance of Chris­tiania now houses Spiseloppen, a classy restaurant serving up gourmet anarchy by candlelight. Away from Pusher Street, I find myself lost in truly untouristed, residential Christiania, where the old folks sit out on the front stoop watching kids chasing ducks and flying with delight down homemade ziplines.

The free community has nine rules: no cars, no hard drugs, no guns, no explosives, and so on. While exploring this idealistic world, I realize that, except for the bottled beer being sold, there’s not a hint of any corporate entity. Everything is handmade. Nothing is packaged. That rejection of corporate values is part of what makes this community’s survival so tenuous.

Christiania has long faced government attempts to shut the place down. Back when real estate was much cheaper in Copenhagen, city officials looked the other way. But as the surrounding neighborhood gentrified, developers began eyeing the land Christiania’s hippies were squatting on. A certain intense breed of capitalist has a tough time allowing something that could be privatized and profitable stay public. The people of Christiania have learned to live with uncertainty.

Recently, I received an email from some readers who’d visited. They said: “We’re not prudes, but Christiania was creepy. It was too much for our family. Don’t take kids there or go after dark.” I agree that a free city is not always pretty. But perhaps those parents were as threatened as much by Christiania’s non-materialism as they were by its grittiness. Watching parents raise their children with Christiania values, I’ve come to believe very strongly in this social experiment. Certainly our world, so driven by aggressive corporate and materialist values, can afford to let people with alternative viewpoints have a place to be alternative. Christiania is a social flower that deserves a chance to bloom.

This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Copenhagen Contrasts.

Daily Dose of Europe: The Cinque Terre — Italy’s Riviera

When I’m hanging out on the Vernazza breakwater with a glass of sciacchetrà, the buzz I’m savoring is not from the wine — but from enjoying this world of ancient terraced vineyards, little pastel ports, rustic cuisine, and twinkling vistas. (OK, it’s also from the wine.)

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

It’s midnight and the Mediterranean is darker than the sky. From the town breakwater, I scan the horizon for the bobbing lanterns of old-school fishermen seducing anchovies into their nets. But I see none.

During 40 years of visits, I’ve nursed a drink on this breakwater and seen the number of bobbing lanterns dwindle. The lanterns are gone now, as are many of the traditions… lost to the rising tide of modernity. But the weekly street markets still roll in, with the wives of fishermen selling their catch. And, after all these years, I’m thankful for this fragile yet surviving bit of the old Riviera and the community that keeps it vital.

Resting between Genoa and Pisa, the Cinque Terre is the most dream-worthy stretch of Italy’s Riviera. Leaving the nearest big city, La Spezia, the train lumbers into a mountain. Ten minutes later, bursting into the sunlight, it arrives at the first of the five towns. Rolling from town to town, the train nips in and out of the hills, teasing you with a series of Mediterranean views. Each moment is grander than the last: azure blue tinseled in sunbeams, frothy waves hitting desolate rocks… interrupted only by the occasional topless sunbather camped out like a lone limpet.

The Cinque Terre (pronounced CHINK-weh TAY-reh) means “five lands.” This quintet of pint-sized port towns clings to this most inaccessible stretch of coastline. Each is a well-whittled pastel jumble of homes filling a gully like crusty sea creatures in a tide pool.

These rugged ports, founded by Dark Age locals hiding out from marauding pirates, were cut off from the modern world until the arrival of the train. Today, the once foreboding castles protect only glorious views and the train brings hordes of hikers. To preserve this land, the government has declared the Cinque Terre a national park, collecting a small fee from each visitor. (The fees are intended to protect the flora and fauna and maintain the trails, but I’ve seen little evidence of that.)

Beyond the towns, vineyards with their many terraces blanket the mountainside. Someone — probably after too much local wine — calculated that the roughly 3,000 miles of terrace walls have the same amount of stonework as the Great Wall of China. Wine production is down nowadays, as younger residents choose less physical work. But many locals still maintain their tiny family plots and proudly serve their grandfather’s wine.

The government, recognizing how wonderfully preserved these towns are, has long prohibited anyone from constructing any new buildings. That’s why the region has no big, modern resort hotels — something I appreciate. The lack of comfortable accommodations leaves the towns to the more rugged travelers — those content to rent a room in a private home or simple pensione — and we enjoy a land where the villagers still go about their business as if this was the very edge of the Earth.

I always eat well in the Cinque Terre. This is the home of pesto. Basil, which loves the region’s temperate climate, is mixed with cheese (half parmigiano cow cheese and half pecorino sheep cheese), garlic, olive oil, and pine nuts, then poured over pasta. And the vino delle Cinque Terre flows cheap and easy. The sweet, sherry-like sciacchetrà wine is served with a cookie. While 10 kilos of grapes yield 7 liters of wine, 10 kilos of grapes make only 2 liters of sciacchetrà, which is made from near-raisins. Sciacchetrà is much stronger than regular wine, something to keep in mind if your room is up a lot of steps.

Of the five towns, Vernazza, overseen by a ruined castle and with the closest thing to a natural harbor, is the jewel. The occasional train popping in and out of the mountain tunnels is the only reminder that the modern world is still out there somewhere. It’s a tough community long living off the sea…and, in the last generation, living off travelers who love the sea. The church bells dictate a relaxed tempo. Yellow webs of fishing nets, tables bedecked with umbrellas, kids with plastic shovels, and a flotilla of gritty little boats tethered to buoys provide splashes of color. And accompanying the scene is the mesmerizing white noise of children at play, happy diners, and the washboard rhythm of the waves.

Vernazza’s one street connects the harbor with the train station before melting into the vineyards. Like veins on a grape leaf, paths and stairways reach from the main street up into this watercolor huddle of houses that eventually dissolve into the vines high above. A rainbow of laundry flaps as if to keep the flies off the fat grandmothers who clog ancient doorways.
At the top end of town, Vernazza’s scrawny access road hits a post. No cars enter this community of 600 people. Like the breakwater holds off the waves at the bottom of town, the post holds back the modern storm at the top. But the town’s ruined castle no longer says, “Keep out.” The breakwater is a broad, inviting sidewalk edged with boulders — reaching out into the sea like a finger beckoning the distant excursion boats.

While Vernazza’s fishing fleet is down to just a couple of boats, locals are still more likely to own a boat than a car. Boats are tethered to buoys, except in winter or when the red storm flag indicates bad seas. In that case they’re pulled up onto the little harborfront square, usually reserved for restaurant tables.

The humble town gathers around its pebbled cove, where well-worn locals enjoy some shade on benches and tourists sunbathe on the rocks. From end to end, everything’s painted in one of the “Ligurian pastels,” as regulated by a commissioner of good taste in the regional government. High above, the castle — now just a tower, some broken stone walls, and a grassy park — served as the town’s lookout back in pirate days. Below the castle, an interior arcade connected houses — ideal for fleeing attacks. In front of the church, a mini piazza decorated with a river rock mosaic is a popular hangout. It’s where the town’s old ladies soak up the day’s last bit of sun and kids enjoy a rare patch of level ball field.

My evenings in Vernazza are spent sitting on a bench and people-watching, either with gelato or a glass of local white wine (I usually borrow the glass from a bar; they don’t mind). During the passeggiata (evening stroll), locals meander lazily up and down the main street doing their vasche (laps). Sometimes I join in, becoming part of the slow-motion parade. Gelato in hand, I gaze up at the people looking out the windows of the faded pastel buildings like a gallery of portraits hanging on ancient walls.

Traditions ring through the Cinque Terre as persistently as its beloved church bells — which remind residents of the days before tourism. The fishermen out at sea could hear the bells; the workers in the vineyards high on the mountain could hear them, too. In one town, the hoteliers tried to stop the bells for the tourists who couldn’t sleep. But the community nearly revolted, and the bells ring on.

This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Cinque Terre.

Daily Dose of Europe: York — Vikings, Bygone Days, and England’s Top Church

Historians run around the English city of York like kids in a candy shop. And with a knowledgeable guide bringing things to life, even non-historians find themselves exploring the past with a childlike wonder.

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

I’m in York, following Edwin, a wry and spry retired schoolteacher, into an overgrown turret in the city’s ancient wall. Edwin stays active leading town walks and giving private tours. Today, he’s taking me to his favorite places.

Fingering a red brick, Edwin explains that just as a scout counts the rings in a tree, we can count the ages of York by the layers of bricks in the city wall: Roman on the bottom, then Danish and Norman, and finally topped off with the “new” addition — from the 14th century.

Strolling into the half-timbered town center, we stop at the medieval butchers’ street called The Shambles. As if sharing a secret, Edwin nudges me under an eave and points out the rusty old hooks and says, “Six hundred years ago, bloody hunks of meat hung here, dripping and then draining into the gutter that still marks the middle of the lane. This slaughterhouse of commercial activity gave our language a new word. This was the original ‘shambles.’”

I find English guides likeably chatty and opinionated. As Edwin and I explore York, I learn several ghost stories, what architectural “monstrosity” the “insensitive” city planners are about to inflict on the townsfolk, a bit of the local politics, and the latest gossip.

York is the most interesting town between London and Edinburgh. Edwin is ready with an explanation: In the Victorian Age, most big cities embraced the Industrial Revolution, tearing down their walls and inviting the train tracks to run right through their center. But the people of York kept their walls and required the train station to be built just outside the center. While less efficient at the time, this left the city a historic treasure cradled entirely within the surviving walls. Those York Victorians not only saved their wall, but they amped up its historic charm with a remodel, giving it fanciful crenellations and arrow slits.

Edwin and I head over to the York Castle Museum, where English memorabilia from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries is cleverly displayed in a huge collection of craft shops, old stores, and bygone living rooms. Charles Dickens would feel right at home here. As towns were being modernized in the 1930s, the museum’s founder, Dr. Kirk, recognized a threat to their heritage and collected entire shops and reassembled them here. In Kirkgate, the museum’s most popular section, we wander down a century-old Lincolnshire street, popping in to see the butcher, baker, coppersmith, and barber.

The shops are actually stocked with the merchandise of the day. In the confectionery, we eavesdrop on English grannies giggling and reminiscing their way through the mouthwatering world of “spice pigs,” “togo bullets,” “hum bugs,” and “conversation lozenges.” The general store is loaded with groceries, the toy shop has old-time games, and the sports shop has everything you’d need for a game of 19th-century archery, cricket, or skittles. Anyone for ping-pong? Those Victorians loved their “whiff-whaff.”

In the period rooms, three centuries of Yorkshire living rooms and clothing fashions paint a cozy picture of life centered around the hearth. A peat fire warms a huge brass kettle while the aroma of freshly baked bread fills a room under heavy, open-beamed ceilings. After walking through the evolution of romantic valentines and unromantic billy clubs, we trace the development of early home lighting from simple waxy sticks to the age of electricity. An early electric heater has a small plaque that explains, “How to light an electric fire: Switch it on!”

Dr. Kirk’s “memorable collection of bygones” is the closest thing in Britain to a time-tunnel experience, except perhaps for our next destination, the Jorvik Viking Centre just down the street.

A thousand years ago, York was a thriving Viking settlement called Jorvik (YOR-vik). While only traces are left of most Viking settlements, Jorvik is an archaeologist’s bonanza, the best-preserved Viking city ever excavated. Sail Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” north a thousand miles and back a thousand years, and you get Jorvik. More a ride than a museum, this exhibit drapes the abundant harvest of this dig in theme park cleverness. We ride a kid-pleasing people-mover for 12 minutes through the re-created Viking street of Coppergate. It’s the year 975 and we’re in the village of Jorvik. Everything — sights, sounds, even smells — has been carefully re-created. Next, our time-traveling train rolls through the actual excavation site, past the remains that inspired the reconstructed village. Stubs of buildings, piles of charred wood, and broken pottery are the time-crushed remains of a once-bustling town. Everything is true to the original dig. Even the face of one of the mannequins was computer-modeled from a skull dug up right here.

Our next stop is the thunderous National Railway Museum, which showcases 200 illustrious years of British railroad history. Fanning out from a grand roundhouse is an array of historic cars and engines, including Queen Victoria’s lavish royal car and the very first “stage-coaches on rails.” Exhibits on dining cars, post cars, Pullman cars, and vintage train posters creatively humanize the dawn of an exciting new age.

Edwin and I walk over the river toward the towering York Minster, stopping first at the romantic ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey. A fragile arcade of pointed Gothic arches seems to hang from the branches of the trees that tower above. I remark to Edwin that it’s striking how magnificently the Minster survives while only a single wall of this abbey church still stands. Edwin explains that Henry VIII, so threatened by the power of the pope, destroyed nearly everything that was Catholic — except the great York Minster. Thankfully, Henry needed a northern capital for his Anglican Church. Edwin then explains the Dissolution of the Monasteries. “Henry wanted more than a divorce. He wanted to be free from the power of the abbots and the monasteries and the pope in Rome. It was our first Brexit — and we got it in 1534.”

Then, playfully describing three bombastic leaders at the same time, he says, “It was spearheaded by a much-married, arrogant, overweight egomaniac.” Edwin is playing with me, alluding to my president, but he is also describing the pompous, pro-Brexit prime minister, Boris Johnson, along with Henry VIII. While 500 years apart, they both wanted to “be free” from Europe (from the pope and from the EU), which also meant sending no more money to Europe (in tithes to the Roman Catholic Church back then or taxes to Brussels today). And they both wanted no more intrusions from Europe into their realm. In the 16th century under Henry and in the 21st century under Boris, for Britain, “leaving means leaving.”

With that, we step into York’s Minster, the pride of the city. It’s one of the most magnificent churches in Britain and the largest Gothic church north of the Alps. Splashed with stained glass and graced with soaring ceilings, this dazzling church brilliantly shows that the High Middle Ages may have been dank, but they were far from dark.

The Minster is famous for its 15th-century stained glass, especially its Great East Window, which is the size of a tennis court. The window’s fine details — far too tiny to see from the floor — were originally in-tended “for God’s eyes only.”

But Edwin has opera glasses. He pulls them from his satchel so I can study the window as he guides me: A sweeping story is told in more than 300 panels of painted and stained glass, climaxing with the Apocalypse. It’s a medieval disaster movie — a blockbuster back in 1408 — showing the end of world in fire and flood and pestilence…vivid scenes from the Book of Revelations. Angels trumpet disaster against blood-red skies. And there it is, the fifth panel up on the far left side…the devil giving power to the “Beast of the Apocalypse,” a seven-headed, ten-crowned lion, just as it was written in the Bible. This must have terrified worshippers. This British masterpiece was unprecedented in its epic scale, created a hundred years before Michelangelo frescoed the story of the beginning and end of time at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. One of the great art treasures of the Middle Ages, it’s the work of one man: John Thornton of Coventry (who, I think, deserves a little of Michelangelo’s fame).

The church also holds a full carillon of 35 bells, so church-bell enthusiasts can enjoy a little ding-dong ecstasy during the weekly bell concerts. Edwin has another guiding appointment. But before leaving, he introduces me to a deacon, who delights in showing off this pride of the Minster. He leads me upstairs a few flights and into the bell tower to show off the biggest bell. We come to a stony room — vacant except for a fat, lifeless rope dangling from the ceiling. With childlike enthusiasm, the suddenly animated deacon begins pulling the rope. He reaches and reaches, pulling ever higher and ever lower, and I ready my ears for a thunderous sound. Suddenly the deacon clenches the rope and becomes airborne, soaring high above me as ear-shattering clanging rings throughout the town. Eventually landing back on the medieval wooden floor, he winks at me and says, “In York, our bell is so big it rings the ringer.”

He invites me to attend the evensong service, reminding me that it’s a good way to fully experience the York Minster. Later that evening I return, arriving early to get a prime seat. It’s a spiritual Oz, with 40 boys singing psalms: a red-and-white-robed pillow of praise, raised up by the powerful pipe organ.

As the boys sing and the organ plays, I ponder the towering Gothic arches — stone stacked by locals 700 years ago, still soaring like hands folded in prayer. I whisper, “Thank God for York. Amen.”

This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for York.

Staying Connected with Our European Guides: Notes from the Guides’ Marketplace

As long as we can’t travel, our guides can’t lead our tour groups. But until things open up again, our European friends are still guiding virtually. And that’s what our new Rick Steves Guides’ Marketplace is all about.

All across Europe, our guides are harnessing their positive attitude, creativity, and passion for teaching in new ways. Even with no tours, our guides remain determined to teach and preach the joys of Europe. To help them out, we’ve created our Guides’ Marketplace, which showcases some of the innovative ways that they’re staying busy and, in some cases, trying to generate a little income. This is also a great source for getting a European perspective on what’s going on in the world today, as several of our guides are actively blogging with their spare time.

As we wait for a day when we can all get back on the bus together, here are a few highlights from the Guides’ Marketplace.

On his blog Travel with Roy, Roy Nicholls writes about some of Britain’s unusual pub names:

The British do like their pubs and generally have a ‘local’ where they can relax, drink their beer (other tipples are available) and enjoy the company. This local pub may be The Red Lion or The Royal Oak, said to be the two most common pub names in Britain, or it could be The White Hart, Queen’s Head, The Bell, The Plough, or Rose & Crown, all quite common names throughout Britain. Or it could a pub with a very strange name indeed.

After years of dedicated research, these are my favourites. They are all real pubs and I have enjoyed all of them.

The Three-Legged Mare, High Petergate, York: It is not describing a disabled horse, but a rather macabre reference to gallows with 3 uprights and crosspieces, that could hang multiple felons at one time.

The Nobody Inn, Doddiscombeleigh, Devon: On Dartmoor, in the little village of Doddiscombsleigh, there is a pub called the Nobody Inn. Apart from being a terrible pun, the story is that this pub takes its name from the unfortunate moment during a former landlord’s wake when his coffin was brought back to an empty pub.

The Drunken Duck Inn, Barngates, Cumbria: In the Lakes District, at Barngates just outside Hawkshead, is The Drunken Duck. In the 19th century the landlady discovered that her flock of ducks had got into the beer cellar, gorged themselves on spilt beer and were apparently dead on the floor. Not wanting to waste them, she started to prepare them for the oven, only to have them waken from their drunken stupor and flap away!

Check out Roy’s full blog post for more vivid names.

On her blog Margaret Traveling, Margaret Cassady reflects on what it was like guiding Rick Steves Tours back in 1991. Here’s an excerpt:

In my early years, Europe Through the Back Door was still very much a small local operation. Before Rick’s PBS series aired, raising his visibility across the country, most of our customers were from the Seattle area. In fact, the office hosted a pre-tour potluck dinner for each group so we could meet before the trip. And most tour members were able to come. …

In those days it was even more vital: young or old, we all carried Rick Steves convertible suitcases on our backs, and oh, the sweaty backpack outline that would be revealed when we shucked them off!

And we carried those bags up many flights of stairs. It was a rare luxury to stay in a hotel with an elevator. Air conditioning was unheard of, too. When I returned to guiding in 2011, after a 10-year break to raise my kids, I was astounded when my first hotel room had A/C. I thought the front desk had assigned me the wrong room, since I always ask for the worst one. (Tour members get the nicer ones.) But no! And I thought it was an anomaly — but then we got to the second hotel. And the third. And so on. Still a backpacker and “hosteler” at heart, I was floored by such luxurious upgrades. …

The trepidation of Americans: a shared bathroom. But they weren’t uncommon in our hotels back in 1991. In fact, one of my (and countless tour members’) favorite hotels was the Hotel Mittaghorn in Gimmelwald, in the Swiss Alps. Not only did it have just one shower that most of the rooms shared (I’d post a shower-time sign-up sheet on the door to avoid lineups), but it was coin-operated. The chalet’s big loft would invariably be assigned to the solo women in the group — including me — with beds lined up like the orphans’ in “Madeline.” …

In that pre-euro era, I couldn’t arrive in each country and just take my group right out to explore. First I had to read any notes my colleagues on previous tours had left for me at the hotel’s front desk. No internet then, of course — if a guide had news of an impending strike, a change in local museum hours, or a tip about a great new restaurant, we’d just leave a hand-scrawled note at the hotel for the next guide who’d check in. (No cheap, quick way to communicate with home, either. After I married, my husband tried to mail cards to me en route, but they’d invariably arrive too early or late. Eventually he resorted to pre-writing notes for me to take along, labeled with the date I should open each one, and guessing at what he’d be doing and feeling on that day. “Today I went to the Mariners game…unfortunately, they lost again.”)

And then we had to convert our money. Cash was much more widely used, and ATM’s weren’t prevalent. Europe Through the Back Door actually provided tour members with a starter sampler pack of European bills (I remember helping with office assembly lines, stacking up guilders, marks, lire, and Swiss and French francs), but it was necessary to take my groups to an exchange office soon after we arrived. We’d spend precious sightseeing time standing in line at Thomas Cook, waiting to hand over a stack of travelers’ checks in exchange for local currency.

These days I sit in comfort on our tour bus or in my hotel room, using my cell phone and laptop to make reservations and confirm appointments for my tour’s upcoming stops. But that wasn’t possible back then. Instead, I’d buy a prepaid phone card (and each country had its own system), and at our highway rest stops, I’d have to find — and figure out — a pay phone and make a breathless series of calls to my next destination. …

Laundry was a source of both stress and hilarity for us assistant guides. Believe it or not, it was our duty to wash the tour members’ laundry midway through the tour. Many hours of my first-ever visit to Rome on that 1991 tour were spent dealing with the giant Santa-esque garbage bag full of their dirty clothes. I managed to find a laundromat, and wash and dry it all, but then I spent hours wandering the unfamiliar streets, near tears, in search of my group (this was pre-cell phones, of course). The upside: my every visit to Rome since then has been an improvement. Sorry, tour members now have to wash their own clothes. Back at the hotel, I’d dump all the clean laundry in a pile on my bed (no, we didn’t go so far as to fold it), and let the tour members paw through it to reclaim their pieces. …

Thirty years ago, our tour operation was a little rougher around the edges, a little more seat-of-the-pants, a little less polished. But my tour members’ delight in their discoveries, the friendships and memories created, the lifelong travel dreams come true, were just as precious and meaningful then as now. Hundreds of tour members later, I still get immense joy and satisfaction from each European tour I lead.

Check out the full blog post for more of Margaret’s stories.

Several of our guides are also doing video blogs, with clips featuring cultural insights and up-to-date information. For example, in Oslo, Pål Bjarne Johansen has been taking virtual visitors around his home city — including its famous Holmenkollen Ski Jump and Museum:

Other guides are offering paid virtual classes for those who want a deeper dive into European history and culture. For example, Anna Piperato in Siena:

And David Tordi in Orvieto:

There’s much more to discover. At Moon in Spain, Margaret Monnier offers video reports from southern Spain and a rundown of her favorite beach tapas places in the region. At Berlin Perspectives, Torben Brown and Carlos Meissner view the German capital through the lens of history. And Slovenian guides Tina Hiti and Sašo Golub blog about their beautiful home country at Private Guide Slovenia.

If you’re missing your favorite Rick Steves guide, now’s a great time for some virtual travel. See what they’re up to in our Rick Steves Guides’ Marketplace…and reach out to say hello.