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: Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid

In our tumultuous world today, when I crave tranquility, I enjoy paintings like this one. A maid pours milk from a pitcher into a bowl. She looks down, focused intently, performing this simple task as if it’s the most important thing in the world. Vermeer has captured a quiet moment in Holland.

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.

In Vermeer’s day, maids were generally portrayed as luscious objects of desire surrounded by mouthwatering foods. Though Vermeer keeps some of that conventional symbolism — cupids in the baseboard tiles, uterine jugs, erotic milk-pouring, and a heat-of-passion foot warmer — the overall effect here is quite the opposite. Rather than a Venus, this is a blue-collar maid, a down-to-earth working girl…working. She’s broad-shouldered and thick, balanced on a sturdy base. Because of the painting’s lines of perspective, we the viewers are literally looking up at her. Vermeer’s maid embodies that most-prized of Dutch virtues: the dignity of hard work.

While the painting’s subject is ordinary, you could look for hours at the tiny details: the crunchy crust of the loaves of bread, the broken window pane, the shiny brass basket, even the rusty nail in the wall with its tiny shadow.

Vermeer frames off a little world in itself. Then he fills that space with objects for our perusal. Vermeer silences the busy world, so that every sound, every motion is noticed. It’s so quiet you can practically hear the thick milk hitting the bowl. You can feel the rough crust of the bread, the raised seams of her blouse, and the thick material of her apron.

Vermeer (1632–1675), from the picturesque town of Delft, was only 25 when he painted this, but it set the tone for his signature style: interiors of Dutch homes, where Dutch women engage in everyday activities, side-lit by a window. While Vermeer’s Baroque contemporaries painted Greek gods and idealized Madonnas, he specialized in the daily actions of regular people.

Like many Vermeer paintings, there’s an element of quiet mystery. Is the faint smile of this “Dutch Mona Lisa” happy or sad? The portrayal subtly implies a more complicated story than we’ll ever know.

Vermeer was a master of light. His luminous paintings radiate with a diffuse lighting, with minimal shadows. He makes simple objects glow. He could capture reflected light with an artistry that would make the Impressionists jealous two centuries later.
Vermeer presses the pause button on daily life and gives us the time to really see it. He invites you to slow down, probe deep into the canvas, and immerse yourself in his world. Through Vermeer, we can learn to appreciate the beauty of everyday things.
In all, only 37 Vermeer paintings survive — each is a small jewel worth lingering over.

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 Vermeer.

Daily Dose of Europe: Civita di Bagnoregio — Italy’s Dead Town

Of all the Italian hill towns, Civita di Bagnoregio was my favorite. But then it died.

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.

During 30 years of visits, I watched Civita wither. Its young people left, lured away by the dazzle of the city. Its elderly grew frail and moved into apartments in nearby Bagnoregio. Today, Civita (dubbed “La città che muore“) is being bought up by rich, big-city Italians for their country escapes. And, just like I had a lemonade stand when I was little, their kids sell bruschetta to a steady stream of gawking tourists.

As I enjoy the picture-perfect panorama of Civita from across the canyon, I get nostalgic recalling this precious chip of Italy when it was a traffic-free community with a grow-it-in-the-valley economy.

Civita teeters atop a pinnacle in a vast canyon ruled by wind and erosion. The saddle that once connected Civita to its bigger and busier sister town, Bagnoregio, eroded away, replaced by only a narrow bridge. On my early visits, a man with a donkey ferried the town’s goods up and down this umbilical cord connecting Civita with the rest of Italy. His son inherited the responsibility, doing the same thing, using a Vespa rather than a donkey.

Entering the town through a cut in the rock made by Etruscans 2,500 years ago and heading under a 12th-century Romanesque arch, I feel like I’m walking into history on the smooth, hubcap-sized cobblestones under my feet. This was once the main Etruscan road leading to the Tiber Valley and Rome, just 60 miles to the south, which feel a world away. Those searching for arcade tourism won’t find it here: There are no lists of attractions, orientation tours, or museum hours.

The charms of Civita are subtle. It’s just a lovingly crafted stone shell, a corpse of a town. Yet it’s also an artist’s dream. Each lane and footpath holds a surprise. The warm stone walls glow, and each stairway is dessert to a sketchpad or camera.

The basic grid street plan of the ancient town survives — but its centerpiece, a holy place of worship, rotated with the cultures: first an Etruscan temple, then a Roman temple, and today a church. The round tops of ancient pillars that stand like bar stools in the square once decorated the pre-Christian temple.

I step into the humble church, the heartbeat and pride of the village for centuries. This was where festivals and processions started. Sitting for a cool, quiet moment in a pew, I see faded paintings by students of famous artists, relics of the hometown-boy Saint Bonaventure, and a dried floral decoration spread across the floor.

Just around the corner from the church, on the main street, is Bruschette con Prodotti Locali, Rossana and Antonio’s cool and friendly wine cellar. I pull up a stump and let them serve me panini, bruschetta, fresh white wine, and a cake called ciambella. After eating, I ask to see the cellar with its traditional winemaking gear and provisions for rolling huge kegs up the stairs. Grabbing the stick, I tap on the kegs…thimp, thimp, thomp…to measure their fullness.

The ground below Civita is honeycombed with ancient cellars like this one (for keeping wine at the same temperature all year) and cisterns (for collecting rainwater, since there was no well in town). Many of these date from Etruscan times.

Behind the church, at Antico Frantoio Bruschetteria, an olive press — the latest in a 2,000-year line of olive presses — fills an ancient Etruscan cave. Brothers Sandro and Felice sell bruschetta to visitors. Bread is toasted on an open fire, drizzled with the finest oil, rubbed with garlic, and topped with chopped tomatoes. These edible souvenirs stay on my breath for hours and in my memory forever.

As I walk back to my car to re-enter the modern world, I stop under a lamp on the donkey path and just listen. I listen to the canyon…distant voices…animals on humble farms…fortissimo crickets…the same sounds villagers heard here when their town was still alive.

Do you have any favorite places that have changed greatly over time?

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 Civita.

Daily Dose of Europe: The Back Road to Mostar — Off the Beaten Path in Bosnia-Herzegovina

One thing I miss about Europe is driving along roads less traveled —where distances are measured in cultural encounters rather than miles. On a road trip a few years back, I crossed Slavic borders on twisty mountain roads, heading inland from the Adriatic coast — and racked up lots of learning along the way.

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.

Looking for a change of pace from Croatia’s touristic Dalmatian Coast, I’m driving from Dubrovnik east to the city of Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Almost everyone making this trip takes the scenic coastal route. But with a spirit of adventure, I take the back road instead: inland first, then looping north through the Serbian part of Herzegovina.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three main ethnic groups — Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks — are descended from the same ancestors and speak closely related languages. The key distinction is that they practice different religions: Orthodox Christianity (Serbs), Roman Catholicism (Croats), and Islam (Bosniaks). For the most part, there’s no way that a casual visitor can determine the religion or loyalties of the people just by looking at them. Studying the complex demographics of the former Yugoslavia, I gain a grudging respect for the communist-era dictator Tito — the one man who was able to hold this “union of the South Slavs” together peacefully.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is one nation, historically divided into two regions: Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords gerrymandered the country along sectarian lines, giving a degree of autonomy to the area where Orthodox Serbs predominate. This “Republika Srpska” rings the core of Bosnia on three sides. When asked for driving tips, Croats — who, because of ongoing tensions with the Serbs, avoid this territory — insist that the road I want to take through their country doesn’t even exist. From the main Croatian coastal road just south of Dubrovnik, directional signs would send me to a tiny Croatian border town — but ignore the large Serbian city of Trebinje just beyond.

And yet, Trebinje more than exists…it is bustling and prosperous. As I enter the city, police with ping-pong paddle stop signs pull me over. I learn that you must drive with your headlights on at all hours. My “dumb tourist” routine gets me off the hook. Parking the car, I head to an outdoor market to get cash at an ATM to buy some produce.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s money is called the “convertible mark.” I don’t know if they are thrilled that their money is “convertible” into other currencies — but I remember a time when it wasn’t. I stow a few Bosnian coins as souvenirs. They have the charm of Indian head pennies and buffalo nickels back in the US. Some bills have Cyrillic lettering and Serbian historical figures, while others use the English alphabet and show Muslims or Croats. Like everything else in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the currency is a careful balancing act.

Later, after a two-hour drive on deserted roads through a rugged landscape, I arrive at the humble crossroads village of Nevesinje. Towns in this region all have a “café row,” and Nevesinje is no exception. It’s lunchtime, but as I walk through town, I don’t see a soul with any food on their plate — just drinks. Apparently, locals eat economically at home, then enjoy an affordable coffee or drink at a café.

A cluttered little grocery is my solution for a quick meal. The old man behind the counter seems happy to make me a sandwich. Salami, which looks like Spam, is the only option. I take my sandwich to an adjacent café and pay the equivalent of a US quarter for a cup of strong Turkish (or “Bosnian”) coffee, with highly caffeinated mud at the bottom. Then I munch, drink, and watch the street scene. It’s like seeing a play.

Big men drive by in little beater cars. High-school kids crowd around the window of the photography shop, which has just posted their class graduation photos. The flirtatious girls and boys on this cruising drag prove you don’t need money to have style. Through a shop window, I see a young couple picking out a simple engagement ring. One moment I think that Nevesinje is very different from my hometown…but the next, it seems just the same.

Looking at the curiously overgrown ruined building across the street, I notice its bricked-up, pointed Islamic arches and realize it was once a mosque. Its backyard is a no-man’s-land of bombed-out concrete and glass, where a single, turban-topped tombstone still manages to stand. The prayer niche inside, where no one prays anymore, faces east…to another empty restaurant.

After an hour’s drive over a twisty mountain road, I leave the Republika Srpska and arrive at the city of Mostar. Pulling into town, I’m exhausted yet exhilarated with the experience I gained by taking the road much less traveled.

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 Mostar.

Daily Dose of Europe: The Queen’s English

Oscar Wilde famously said that the English “have really everything in common with America nowadays — except, of course, language.” It’s still true. A trip to Britain comes with plenty of linguistic surprises.

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’ll never forget checking into a small-town B&B as a teenager on my first solo European adventure. The landlady cheerily asked me, “And what time would you like to be knocked up in the morning?”

I looked over at her husband, who winked, “Would a fry at half-eight be suitable?” The next morning I got a rap on the door at 8 a.m. and a huge British breakfast a half-hour later.

Britain can be an adventure in accents and idioms…

Every day you’ll see babies in prams and pushchairs, sucking dummies as mothers change wet nappies. Soon the kids can trade in their nappies for smalls and spend a penny on their own. “Spend a penny” is British for a visit to the loo (bathroom). Older British kids enjoy candy floss (cotton candy), naughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe), big dippers (roller coasters), and iced lollies (popsicles). Kids are constantly in need of an Elastoplast or sticking plaster (Band-Aid), which their parents buy at the chemist’s (pharmacy).

In a stationery store, you can get sticky tape or Sellotape (adhesive tape), rubbers (erasers), and scribbling blocks (scratch pads). At garden shops, those with green fingers (a green thumb) might pick up some courgette (zucchini), swede (rutabaga), or aubergine (eggplant) seeds. If you need a torch (flashlight), visit the ironmonger’s (hardware store).

In Britain, fries are chips and potato chips are crisps. A beefburger, made with mince (hamburger meat), comes on a toasted bap (bun). For pudding (dessert), have some sponge (cake).

The British have a great way with names. You’ll find towns with names like Upper and Lower Slaughter, Once Brewed, and Itching Field. This cute coziness comes through in their language as well. You’ll visit “brilliant” (wonderful) sights that’ll give you “goose pimples” (goose bumps). Your car will have a bonnet and a boot rather than a hood and trunk. You’ll drive on motorways, and when the freeway divides, it becomes a dual carriageway. Never go anticlockwise (counterclockwise) in a roundabout. Gas is petrol, a truck is a lorry, and when you hit a tailback (traffic jam), don’t get your knickers in a twist (make a fuss) — just be patient and queue up (line up).

The British never say they have a two-week vacation, but many locals holiday for a fortnight, often in a homely (homey) rural cottage or possibly on the Continent (continental Europe). They might pack a face flannel (washcloth) and hair grips (bobby pins) in their bum bag (never a “fanny” pack — which refers to the most private part of a woman’s anatomy). If it’s rainy, they wear a mackintosh (raincoat) or an anorak (parka) with press studs (snaps).

If you get settled into a flat (apartment), you can post letters in the pillar box or give your mum a trunk (long-distance) call. If that’s too dear (expensive), she’ll say you’re tight as a fish’s bum. If she witters on (gabs and gabs), tell her you’re knackered (exhausted) and it’s been donkey’s years (ages) since you’ve slept. After washing up (doing the dishes) and hoovering (vacuuming), you can have a plate of biscuits (cookies) and, if you’re so inclined, a neat (straight) whisky. Too much of that whisky will get you sloshed, paralytic, bevvied, wellied, ratted, popped up, or even pissed as a newt.

Then there is the question of accents. In the olden days, a British person’s accent indicated his or her social standing. As Eliza Doolittle discovered in “My Fair Lady,” elocution could make or break you. Wealthier families would send their kids to fancy private schools to learn elocution. But these days, in a sort of reverse snobbery that has gripped the nation, accents are back. Politicians, newscasters, and movie stars have been favoring deep accents over the Queen’s English. It’s hard for American ears to pick out all of the variations and some accents are so thick they sound like a foreign language, but most Brits can determine what region a person is from based on his or her accent.

All across the British Isles, you’ll encounter new words, crazy humor, and colorful accents. Pubs are colloquial treasure chests. Church services, sporting events, and local comedy shows are linguistic classrooms. The streets of Liverpool, the docks of London, and children’s parks throughout the UK are playgrounds for the American ear. One of the beauties of touring Great Britain is the illusion of hearing a foreign language and actually understanding it…most of the time.

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 England.

Daily Dose of Europe: Bayeux Tapestry

This skinny, 70-yard-long strip of cloth depicts a crucial historical event that helped shape the Europe we know.

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.

Like a graphic novel, the Bayeux Tapestry tells the mesmerizing story of how William the Conqueror and Harold of England competed for the English crown. The tale culminates in one of the most pivotal battles in history: The Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The story begins in London. In the opening scene — the first of about 60 in the tapestry — the reigning King of England, Edward, is presiding on the throne in his palace. He orders his brother-in-law Duke Harold to ride off to France. At that time, Normandy (northern France) was under English rule. Harold was to announce to all the subjects that Edward had decided who his successor as king would be — a seemingly illegitimate duke called “William the Bastard,” known today as “William the Conqueror.”

The tapestry is realistic enough that even an illiterate peasant could understand what’s happening. The Latin titles reinforce the main characters and key events. Down-to-earth details keep you “reading.” The narrative is framed by a border (top and bottom) with more eye candy — some related to the story, some mere decoration.

The climax of the whole tapestry is the Battle of Hastings, which pitted the invading Normans of France, led by William, against the Anglo-Saxons of England, led by Harold. It was a fierce, 14-hour battle. Knights on horseback charge, swordsmen clash, and archers launch arrows, leaving the battlefield strewn with mangled corpses. According to historical accounts, Harold fell from his horse. He lifts his visor to shout to his men, when suddenly — shoop! — Harold gets hit with an arrow, right in the eye. Finally, an enemy horseman bends down to finish Harold off with a sword. The title above says it all: “Here King Harold is slain.”

The Battle was won by William. The Normans now ruled England. This illegitimate child, until then known as “William the Bastard,” could now call himself “William the Conqueror.” Unfortunately, that’s where the Bayeux tapestry ends, because the final scene is missing, lost to history.

But we know the rest of the story. William marched to London, claimed his throne, and (though he spoke no English) became king of England. This set in motion 400 years of conflict between England and France — not to be resolved until the 15th century. However, on the plus side, the Norman conquest of England brought that country into the European mainstream. Because of the events depicted on the Bayeux tapestry, England got a stable government, contact with the rest of Europe, and a chance to eventually grow into a great European power.

And today, historians and tourists alike can stand in the presence of this precious document, stroll slowly along, and see those momentous events from nearly a thousand years ago unfold before their eyes.

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 Bayeux.