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: Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

This altarpiece was painted for a medieval hospital, which specialized in patients suffering from horrible skin diseases. Before the age of painkillers, suffering patients could gaze on this great work of art and feel that Jesus understood their distress.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

The outer panel of the altarpiece was an image of Jesus, in agony, being crucified, flanked by a pale Mary and a grieving John the Evangelist. The artist, Matthias Grünewald, created a dark, gruesome, troubling Crucifixion that could not be more bleak. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The patients lying in this hospital needed some hope that their suffering had a purpose. A tiny seam running down the middle of the painting reminded everyone that there was a better world lying beyond. And on feast days, the priest opened the Crucifixion up at the seam, to reveal the panels on the inside of the polyptych.

Wow! We’re not in medieval Kansas anymore. The darkness parts, and Grünewald shows a more expansive, more colorful, and cheerier world. These inner panels put Christ’s seemingly tragic death in the wider context of his blessed birth and radiant resurrection.

In the Annunciation panel (left), a brilliantly dressed angel flutters in to tell a humble Mary she will give birth to a Savior. In the central scene, Mary beams as she looks down on her baby boy, while a celestial band of angels serenades them. Jesus has come down into the world — the real world — as seen by the castle in the background. His joyous mission is to defeat death, just as God the Father is doing in the shower of light.
Though Jesus came to be crucified, he overcame death. And that’s what we see in the Resurrection panel on the right. Jesus rockets out of the tomb, as this once-mortal man is now transformed into God.

Grünewald’s depiction of this popular Bible scene is unique in art history. Grünewald was a mysterious loner who had no master, no students, and left behind few paintings. But with his genius, he reinvented the Resurrection. Christ — the self-proclaimed “Light of the World” — is radiant. His once-plain burial shroud is now the colors of the rainbow (painted, legend says, by Grünewald’s assistant, Roy G. Biv). Jesus has undergone the “resurrection of the flesh,” and now look at his skin: His perfect white epidermis would have offered hope to all the patients who meditated on the scene. They had hope that the suffering they now endured was all part of God’s grand plan, and a loving God would reward them in the hereafter. Grünewald’s happy finale is a psychedelic explosion of Resurrection joy.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, 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.

Daily Dose of Europe: Ghosts in Berlin

In Berlin, it’s clear that history is not contained in a book — it envelops the entire city. Today’s Berlin is vibrant with youthful energy, and it’s changing fast. But for anyone fascinated by 20th-century tumult, the city is hog heaven.

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I recently 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 is just one of its 100 travel tales.

I have a powerful image stuck in my mind of Hitler and his architect and right-hand man, Albert Speer, poring over plans for postwar Berlin…a metropolis super-sized in a way that makes Paris look quaint. Of course, by 1945, Berlin was in ruins, Hitler’s charred corpse could be identified only by his dental records, and Speer was in jail writing his memoirs, “Inside the Third Reich” (which provided me with my most vivid impressions of the Nazi era).

Over my last few visits to the city, I can see the irony that in some ways, Speer’s vision of a dynamic new Berlin dominating Europe could be coming true. For example, the massive Hauptbahnhof — the only train station in Europe with major lines merging at right angles — has a scale and grandeur that Hitler might have appreciated. Toss in 80 stores and local subway lines, and it’s a city in itself.

But freedom, not Hitler, won. And the other strong feeling I get in Berlin is that it’s a victory celebration for capitalism and its defeat of communism. Like ancient Romans keeping a few vanquished barbarians in cages for locals to spit at, capitalism and the West flaunt victory in Berlin. Slices of the Berlin Wall hang like scalps at the gate to the Sony Center, the audacious office park at Potsdamer Platz.

A sleek Radisson hotel now stands on the place where the old leading hotel of East Berlin once stood. I remember staying there during the Cold War, when a West German five-Mark coin changed on the black market would get me and my friends drinks all night. Now five euros barely buys me a beer, and the lobby of the Radisson hosts an exotic fish tank the size of a grain silo with an elevator right in the middle, zipping scenically up eight floors. Next door, the DDR Museum is filled mostly with East German tourists rummaging through the nostalgia on display from their parents’ dreary lives under communism.

Across the street, statues of Marx and Lenin (nicknamed “the Pensioners” by locals) look wistfully at the huge TV tower East Berlin built under communism. It had a fancy bar on top, but the best thing East Berliners could say about it back then was, “It’s so tall that if it falls, we’ll have an elevator to freedom.”

The victory party rages on at Checkpoint Charlie. With every visit, I remember my spooky first time there in 1971, when tour buses returning to the West were emptied at the border so mirrors could be rolled under the bus to see if anyone was trying to escape with us.

Now, a generation later, Checkpoint Charlie is a capitalist sideshow. Lowlife characters sell fake bits of the wall, WWII-vintage gas masks, and DDR medals. Two actors dressed as American soldiers stand between big American flags and among sandbags at the rebuilt checkpoint, making their living posing for tourists. Across the street at “Snack Point Charlie,” someone sipping a Coke says to me, “When serious becomes kitsch, you know it’s over.”

Standing at the historic Brandenburg Gate, I face Berlin’s fashionable new heart: Pariser Platz. Within about 100 yards of this square — once a vacant lot along the Berlin Wall, and now a festive gathering place that seems designed to celebrate freedom — is a poignant collection of sights.

There are many memorials, including one to the six million murdered Jews of Europe and another to the first victims of Hitler: 96 men, the German equivalent of congressmen, who spoke out in the name of democracy against his rule in the early 1930s. They were sent to concentration camps where they were eventually killed. Nearby is the American Embassy, famous for taking security concerns to new heights. Across from a very busy Starbucks is one of the “ghost” subway stations that went unused through the Cold War and now feels like a 1930s time warp. Above that is the hotel balcony where Michael Jackson famously dangled his baby (according to local guides, it’s the sight of greatest interest for most American tourists). And the glass dome capping the bombed-out Reichstag is where, on the rooftop on May Day 1945, Russian troops quelled a furious Nazi last stand. The nearby hills were created entirely with the rubble of a city bombed nearly flat about 70 years ago. Considering all this, the clash of history and today’s vibrant city is almost overwhelming.

Tucked away nearby is the Kennedys Museum, filled with JFK lore, including the handwritten note with the phonetics for his famous Berlin speech. Reading it, I can hear his voice: “eesh been ein Bear-lee-ner” (“I am a Berliner”).

The amazing story of Berlin swirls through my head: Speer’s vision, Hitler’s burning body, the last stand on the rooftop…the communists, the heroic American airlift, when the Communists attempted to starve a free Berlin into submission…Kennedy’s speech, followed 24 years later by Reagan’s demand to “tear down this wall”…the euphoria-turned-challenge of Germany’s reunification, and the gleaming city visitors marvel at today.

I wave down a cab and hop in. I use the opportunity to get a local’s perspective and ask the driver if he is a Berliner. When he turns to me, I realize he’s Turkish, which makes me feel a little foolish. Then, making me feel foolish for feeling foolish, he says, “I’ve lived here 31 years. If Kennedy, after one day, could say ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ then I guess I can say I am a Berliner, too.”

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 clips related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Berlin.

For the Love of America, VOTE — And Vote for Joe Biden!

While I freely share my political opinions on this page, I’ve tried to stick to issues and have not explicitly supported one candidate…until now. Today, I’m voicing my support for Joe Biden.

My politics are pretty clear. I have a European-style appreciation for good governance, and I see government as a way for a citizenry to work together for the collective good. Americans are often told there are two choices: big, bad government or good, small government. But Europe has taught me that there’s a third option: big, good government.

I love capitalism (and I’m pretty good at it). And I believe capitalism needs a chaperone, in the form of thoughtful regulation that protects the rights of individuals from the priorities of corporations.

I believe education and health care are as important as our military when it comes to budget priorities to make us safe and strong.
I also understand that, as a country, even in good times, we will always have people on the left and on the right when it comes to debating the role of government. And I believe that the only way to govern effectively is to respect those differences and find workable compromises.

I miss a Republican Party that I can respect. (I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980.) While I’m a liberal, I love sparring with (and learning from) a principled conservative. For me, the greatness and strength of our country and our democracy is possible only with real, independent journalism and strong governmental institutions led by caring, committed, non-partisan public servants. But our president has identified those very pillars of American life — what he calls “fake news” and the “deep state” — as his worst enemies.

As a traveler and a student of history, I’ve seen how strong societies can fray. And I fear for our democracy. It’s more fragile than we realize. And it is at risk.

That’s why, this year, I believe our choice is more fundamental than partisanship. Four years ago, Donald Trump pledged to “Make America Great Again.” When I survey our national life today, it’s clear to me that we’ve lost so much more than we’ve gained in that time.

If we truly want to make America great again, we need to elect Joe Biden to the White House on November 3. Please join me.

Daily Dose of Europe: Rembrandt’s Night Watch

The Night Watch is Rembrandt’s largest and most famous — though not necessarily his greatest — painting.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

Created in 1642, when he was 36, The Night Watch came from his most important commission: a group portrait of a company of Amsterdam’s Civic Guards to hang in their meeting hall.

It’s an action shot. With flags waving and drums beating, the guardsmen spill onto the street from under an arch. It’s “all for one and one for all” as they rush to Amsterdam’s rescue. The soldiers grab lances and load their muskets. In the center, the commander (in black, with a red sash) strides forward energetically with a hand gesture that seems to say, “What are we waiting for? Let’s move out!” His lieutenant focuses on his every order.
Why is The Night Watch so famous? Well, it’s enormous, covering 170 square feet. The guards are almost life-size, so it seems like they’re marching right out of the frame and into our living room.

In its day, The Night Watch was completely different from other group portraits. Until then, subjects were seated in an orderly group-shot pose with each face well-lit and flashbulb-perfect. The groups commissioning the work were paying good money to have their mugs preserved for posterity, and it was ego before artistic freedom.

By contrast, Rembrandt got the Civic Guards off their duffs and showed them doing their job — protecting the city. He added less-than-heroic elements that gave it a heightened realism, like the dwarf and the mysterious glowing girl holding a chicken (the guards’ symbol). Rembrandt’s trademark use of a bright spotlight to highlight the main characters made it all the more dramatic. By adding movement and depth to an otherwise static scene, he took posers and turned them into warriors, and turned a simple portrait into high art.

OK, some Night Watch scuttlebutt: First off, the name “Night Watch” is a misnomer. It’s actually a daytime scene, but Rembrandt finished his paintings with a preserving varnish. Eventually, as the varnish darkened and layers of dirt built up, the sun set on this painting. During World War II, the painting was rolled up and hidden for safekeeping. Over the years, this stirring painting has both inspired people and deranged them. In 1911, a madman sliced it with a knife, in 1975, another lunatic cut the captain’s legs, and in 1990, it was sprayed with acid.

The Night Watch was a smashing success in its day. Rembrandt had captured the exuberant spirit of Holland in the 1600s, when its merchant ships ruled the waves, and Amsterdam was the center of the first global economy. These guardsmen on the move epitomized the proud, independent, and upwardly mobile Dutch. On an epic scale, Rembrandt created the definitive “portrait” of that single generation of people that re-invented the world — the era we call the “Dutch Golden Age.”

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, 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 clips related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Night Watch.

Daily Dose of Europe: Ghiberti’s Bronze Doors

Some say that the cultural explosion called “the Renaissance” began precisely in the year 1401, with two bronze panels. They look simple, but they were the catalyst of an artistic revolution.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

Florence held a city-wide competition to find the best artist to create a set of bronze doors for the beloved Baptistery. That octagonal building in front of Florence’s main church was dear to the hearts of Florentines. It was the city’s oldest structure, nearly 1,000 years old, where venerable citizens from Dante to Machiavelli to the Medici were baptized.

All the great Florentine artists entered the contest. There was the promising young sculptor Donatello, the goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti, and the all-around Renaissance man, Filippo Brunelleschi. They were asked to submit their take on the Bible story of the Sacrifice of Isaac. This was the crucial moment when Abraham, obeying God’s orders, was about to kill his only son as a sacrifice.
The two finalists were Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. It was a tough call. Before reading on, look at each entry panel as if a critic. Decide which one you’d favor.

Brunelleschi (right), put the boy Isaac at center stage, creating a balanced composition. Ghiberti (left) focused on Abraham. Abraham’s face is intense. He pulls the knife back, ready to strike. But just then, the angel swoops in — coming straight out of the panel, right at you, like a 3-D movie — to save the boy in the nick of time. Now that’s drama.

The winner was — drum roll, please — Ghiberti.

That simple contest started a historic chain of events. Ghiberti made the Baptistery doors, which proved so successful that he was asked to make another set for another entrance. These were the famous Gates of Paradise that revolutionized the way Renaissance people saw the world around them.
Ghiberti added a whole new dimension to art — depth. In his Jacob and Esau panel, Ghiberti set the scene under a series of arches. The arches appear to recede into the distance, as do the floor tiles and banisters, creating a 3-D background for a realistic scene. The figures in the foreground stand and move like real people, telling the Bible story with human details. Ghiberti made the viewer part of this casual crowd of holy people. Amazingly, his spacious, three-dimensional scene is made from bronze only a few inches deep.

Ghiberti’s work in perspective would inspire the next generation of painters, who learned to create three-dimensional scenes on a two-dimensional surface.

Meanwhile, Brunelleschi — after losing the Baptistery gig — went to Rome. He studied the Pantheon, and returned to build the awe-inspiring dome crowning the cathedral (or Duomo) of Florence. And Donatello went to work for Ghiberti, learning the skills that would soon revolutionize sculpture. All three of these artists inspired Michelangelo, who built on their work and spread the Florentine Renaissance all across Europe.

And it all began with two bronze panels.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, 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 clips related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Ghiberti.