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

Just a Coincidence? An Abandoned Guidebook on Venice’s Empty Streets

Have you ever experienced a coincidence…that felt like a lot more than a coincidence?

I’ve received lots of thoughtful notes from the 100 or so Rick Steves’ Europe guides who are awaiting the return of travel. This one, from one of my favorite Venice guides, fascinated me, and I thought you might also enjoy reading — and responding — to it:

Ciao Rick,

Come stai? How are you? Buon Natale e buon inizio di 2021.

This is Elena Zampiron, from Venezia. I’d love to tell you something it happened to me because it made me reflect about the time we all are experiencing.

On the 25th of December, right after Christmas lunch with my parents, I had to head out to run a virtual tour (something that helps me cope with the pandemic here in quiet and empty Venice).

I was lost in my thoughts, walking down the empty narrow streets of Venezia while locked down again: Nobody around, pouring rain, strong waves of wind, the smell of the rain mixed with the incredible silence on Christmas Day…. me thinking that I’m not designed for “virtual tours” because I miss the “touch” of real people in front of me, their visible emotions, their eyes veiled with joy and their tears of pure happiness…. and …. all of a sudden, I notice something on the pavement, far in the distance… I get closer … and closer … and here it is… “Rick Steves’ Europe, 1997.”

Open … upside down … wet … under the rain … on Christmas Day… an old, well-used, Rick Steves guidebook.

I picked it up, placed it on the window of the second-hand bookstore it belonged to, and walked on. I did my virtual tour and got back home.

But then I began thinking. I don’t believe in coincidences… at all! I believe it was a sign, not necessarily a sign to me, but sent to us all. I immediately thought of it being a metaphor for this past year. But then I had a second thought. Perhaps it is a sign from the travel spirits or whoever we believe in — a reminder that after this pandemic, we can no longer guide tours in the same ways as we have become accustomed.

I believe it is more than coincidental that in Venice I discovered a 1997 Rick Steves guidebook, abandoned… discarded, in the rain, at Christmas, in the year of the pandemic. It is a sign about how we, as guides and as travelers, will go forward. But what does it mean exactly?

I wanted to share. These are simply my thoughts, Rick. But I felt it was important to share them with you. It’s also a way to say, please be positive and don’t give up. Times can be tough, and the tourism industry can be cruel, but you are not alone. It’s tough for us guides as we have no work. But we are strong. And we guides are here to support you along the way. Together, we shall “keep on traveling,” as you like to say, after this pandemic is conquered.

Happy beginning of a brighter 2021 from Venezia and Elena!  - Elena Zampiron
___

So: What could the old guidebook, found on a rainy Christmas Day on the now-empty streets of Venice, be telling us? Please share your thoughts, so I can get back to Elena with an interpretation of an event that may not have been “just a coincidence.” Thanks!

Elena Zampiron

P.S. I hosted Elena on my radio show two Christmases ago. Take a listen to get to know her a little better — and be sure to read this interview to learn about her guiding.

Remember the Holocaust — So it Will Never be Repeated

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As a tour guide, I have an ethic that every Rick Steves bus tour through Germany includes a pilgrimage to a concentration camp memorial. It’s our hope, as guides, that with this powerful experience, our travelers will heed the collective wish of Hitler’s victims: Forgive but Never Forget. When you travel thoughtfully — and incorporate stops at memorials to the six million Jews who were murdered by Nazi Germany — the impact changes you.

If you search for “Holocaust” in the Rick Steves Classroom Europe video library, you’ll find a dozen clips (totaling about 45 minutes) that can be shared as a teaching tool at home or in the classroom. As the last people with first-hand memories of this tragic period in history pass away, it is important to keep alive the stark lessons of what happens when a society gives power to hate and racism.

On this day, especially, history is speaking to all of us. Here’s a 90-second visit to Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. This sprawling memorial and museum chronicles the slaughter of six million Jews and celebrates the spirit of Zionism and the creation of modern Israel. (Of course, there are peace and justice issues between Israel and Palestine. But, for me, today is a day to focus — prayerfully — on the Holocaust.

Museums are People, Too!

Every few days, it occurs to me that another industry is in crisis because of the COVID pandemic: tourism, concerts, restaurants, airlines…and museums.

A friend of mine who runs a museum in the USA confided in me that he thinks a third of the shuttered museums in our country won’t re-open. Knowing the passions and dreams that make museums — especially small mom-and-pop museums — possible, this breaks my heart.

I just received this uplifting video from my friends Karin and Gerhard Strassgschwandtner. Karin and Gerhard have invested their life savings in a lifelong passion: Vienna’s Third Man (Dritte Mann) Museum, which lovingly focuses on the cult 1949 Orson Welles film — while also offering a unique and fascinating look at Vienna during and after WWII. The museum is only open to the public on Saturdays, but they give private tours to Rick Steves tour groups by reservation. (And with their guidance, it’s a highlight of these tours.)

In this video, my friends Karin and Gerhard are dancing in their empty museum…as if to declare that even if it’s closed, it is still alive. Watching this, it hit me: Museums are people, too!

I hope you enjoy the clip twice: first to lap up Karin and Gerhard’s joy, and second for glimpses of their museum. And as you do, remember the many struggling museums that are powered by passion and love…and that without our patronage, they cannot survive.

PS: I’ve got to mention: Their surname, Strassgschwandtner, comes with seven consonants in a row!

PPS: Since I recommend Karin and Gerhard’s museum in my Vienna guidebook and they give private tours to Rick Steves tour groups, we stay in touch by email. And in their latest email, they shared the following news:

“The Third Man Museum becomes now even better than before, a real Rick Steves-style museum: Created by two obsessed but friendly persons and “over the top.” Our museum was awarded with the ‘Vienna Tourism Prize 2020’. That is a big thing here. Up to now, only four great museums — the Albertina, Schoenbrunn, Jewish Museum, and Belvedere — achieved that! Now, our little homemade museum is number five in Vienna. And I am very happy to announce that we will survive this pandemic, and we will be open on Saturdays and enthusiastically welcome Rick Steves tour groups at any time. We look to see you again soon. Many friendly greetings! And to a good 2021/2022 season! – Gerhard and Karin”

Here’s a shot of all three of us at the museum in 2018. See you soon, Karin and Gerhard!

Daily Dose of Europe: Neuschwanstein

A fairy-tale castle in a stunning alpine setting, with a lush interior and all the latest conveniences…and they call the man who built it “mad”!

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine.

And today, we visit a turreted fantasy castle, tucked in the hinterlands of Bavaria’s far south.

Neuschwanstein Castle looks like it dates from the Middle Ages, but it’s barely older than the Eiffel Tower. It was the dream of “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria. As a boy, climbing the hills above his summer home, Ludwig fantasized about building a castle there “in the authentic style of the old German knights.” When he gained power at age 18, he began to turn his dreams into stone, creating a private getaway from the politics in Munich that Ludwig hated — a place to dream.

The location was unmatched — perched high on a rocky ledge, with a backdrop of snow-tipped mountains and glassy alpine lakes.

Ludwig’s “architect” was a theater set-designer specializing in medieval fables. The actual construction (1869–1886) was executed by high-tech engineers using the latest techniques. Hundreds of tons of stone were hefted up with Industrial Age steam power. The castle core was a skeleton of modern iron and brick faced with medieval-looking white limestone, trimmed with gray sandstone. The result was a mash-up of a thousand years of medieval architecture…neo-medieval: Romanesque arched windows, castle-like crenellations, and prickly Gothic towers. It captured the spirit of 19th-century Romantics nostalgic for a pre-Industrial past.

Inside, it was lavish. Ludwig’s extravagant throne room emphasized his royal status, with golden mosaics of the Christian kings Ludwig emulated. The floor, with its two-million-stone mosaic, features an encyclopedia of animals and plants. Overhead hangs a huge chandelier shaped like an emperor’s crown.

The king’s personal rooms, though incredibly ornate, are actually small and cozy. Ludwig’s canopied bed is elaborately carved with a forest of Gothic spires. Ludwig enjoyed his own chapel, water piped in from the Alps, and views of steep mountains and plunging waterfalls — fueling his Romantic soul with the wonders of nature. Ludwig even built an artificial grotto, dripping with stucco stalactites and a bubbling waterfall. The castle’s grand finale is the Singers’ Hall, a fancy ballroom. The entire castle came with state-of-the-art technology: electricity, running water, flush toilets, and even telephones.

Meanwhile, all of the rooms were decorated with paintings of valiant knights and lovely damsels, inspired by the Romantic operas of Ludwig’s idol, Richard Wagner. There are Wagner’s legendary lovers, troubadours, Holy Grails, and especially Ludwig’s favorite animal — swans. Ludwig’s swan-like castle came to be called neu-Schwan-Stein — “new swan stone.”

Ludwig lived in his castle for a mere 172 days before the fantasy of Neuschwanstein came to an abrupt end. Fed up with Ludwig’s expensive Romantic excesses, his political rivals burst into his bedroom and arrested him. Two days later, Ludwig — only 40 years old — drowned mysteriously in a Bavarian lake (murder? suicide?).

Within six weeks of his death, tourists were lining up to see the “mad” king’s “folly.” Today, Ludwig’s cost has been recouped a hundredfold, and huge crowds from all over flock to see Europe’s most popular castle.

This little moment from Europe — a sampling of how we share our love of art and history in our tours — 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 in my online Travel Store.

P.S. Be sure to check out Rick Steves Classroom Europe — my free collection of 500+ teachable video clips. Search “Neuschwanstein” for a closer look at Mad King Ludwig’s fairytale castle.

Daily Dose of Europe: A Little Bone Envy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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