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 Will Now Include Art Masterpieces

The COVID-19 crisis can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. Since the pandemic began in mid-March, I’ve been sharing a Daily Dose of Europe: travel essays recounting my favorite memories (from my upcoming travel memoir, For the Love of Europe). Starting today, I’m going to add European art masterpieces to that lineup.

One of the great joys of travel is seeing world-class art in person—and understanding it. So, over the next two weeks, we’ll be featuring 10 of Europe’s greatest works of art (with more to come in future weeks). Especially with so many parents at home looking for enriching educational experiences for their students, we hope each of these daily masterpieces can be a delightful teaching moment. Play “tour guide” and gather your travel partners. Then lavish your attention on each photograph while reading out loud the finely crafted description. Enjoy a daily dose of Europe through its greatest art as if you’re right there.

All of these essays are excerpted from my new book, Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces: Art for the Traveler, co-authored by Gene Openshaw. If you’d like to pick up a copy, I prefer if you support local businesses in your community — which are struggling right now — and buy it from your favorite bookshop. They could use the business…and you could use the book.

Today’s first installment features a work of art that also represents one of the most successful empires Europe has ever seen: the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor.

In a darkened, high-security room of a palace in Vienna lie the crown jewels of a lost empire. These are Europe’s oldest and most venerated royal objects — the sacred regalia used to crown the Holy Roman Emperor. These precious objects set the tone for nearly a thousand years of coronations.

The star of the collection is the Imperial Crown. Compared with more modern crowns, it’s a bit clunky — oddly shaped and crusted with uncut (not faceted) gems. But it’s more than 1,000 years old, and is a true Dark Age bright spot. It was probably made for Otto the Great, the first king to call himself Holy Roman Emperor (r. 962–973). Otto saw himself as the successor to the ancient Roman emperors, as well as King Charlemagne who revived the empire in the year 800. Like Charlemagne, Otto made sure he was crowned personally by the pope in St. Peter’s — thus legitimizing both his “Roman” birthright and his “holy” right to rule.

The Imperial Crown swirls with symbolism. The cross on top says this man is a divine monarch, ruling with Christ’s blessing. The Roman-style arch over the top recalls the feathered crests of legionnaires’ helmets. And the sheer opulence of the crown — made of 22-carat gold, elaborate filigree, and 144 precious stones — attests that this king rules over many lands: a true emperor.

After Otto, future rulers were crowned with this same crown. Many were just minor dukes who called themselves emperors. (Voltaire quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”) But under the dynamic Austrian Habsburg family, it truly became an empire, covering much of Europe and the New World. The Habsburgs’ 60-acre palace in Vienna (the Hofburg) was the epicenter of European culture, and their time-worn coronation rituals became Europe’s standard.

Picture the crown along with the other royal regalia in action for a coronation. First, the emperor-to-be would don the royal mantle, a 900-year-old red-and-gold silk cloak, embroidered with exotic lions, camels, and palm trees threaded from thousands of tiny white pearls. Next, the entourage entered the church, bearing the 11th-century jeweled cross, complete with a chunk of the (supposed) actual cross of Jesus. The emperor was given a royal orb (modeled on Roman orbs), an oak-leaf scepter, and a sword said to belong to Charlemagne himself (but probably not). The emperor placed his hand on a gold-covered Bible and swore his oath. Then he knelt, the jewel-studded Imperial Crown was placed on his head, and — dut dutta dah! — you had a new Holy Roman Emperor.

By the 19th century, the Habsburg Empire was fading. “Holy Roman” rulers were forced to tone down their official title, and once-powerful emperors were reduced to hosting ribbon-cutting ceremonies and white-gloved balls. In 1914, the heir-apparent, Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated. This kicked off World War I, Austria fell, and by 1918, the 1,000-year Holy Roman Empire was history. The crown ended up in a glass display case where its jewels still sparkle with the glory of a once-great empire.

This 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 at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for “Habsburgs”.

Daily Dose of Europe: Padua — Students, Saints, and Scarpette

The Italian university town of Padua has a special place in my heart, because I happened to be there just a few days after 9/11. During our current crisis, I’ve been thinking back on the very warm welcome the people of Pauda extended to me during that one.

Even if we’ve had to postpone trips to Europe, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

Nicknamed “the Brain of Veneto,” Padua is home to the prestigious university (founded in 1222) that hosted Galileo, Copernicus, Dante, and Petrarch. Pilgrims know this city for the Basilica of St. Anthony, where the faithful assemble to touch his tomb and marvel at his holy relics. It’s a great place to experience Italy: to make some new friends, get chummy with the winds of its past, and connect with the delights of its now.

I start my visit with a ramble around the old town center. It’s a colonnaded, time-travel experience through some of Italy’s most inviting squares, perfect for lingering over an aperitivo. But it’s not stodgy — this university town has 60,000 students and a youthful spirit. No wonder Galileo called his 18 years on the faculty in Padua the best of his life. I see young people — apparently without a lot of private space in their apartments — hanging out, kissing, and cuddling in public. Students are making themselves at home with their heritage, lounging literally under a medieval tomb that stands atop ornate columns.

Since the students can graduate whenever they defend their thesis, little graduation parties erupt on the streets throughout the year. Graduates are given a green laurel wreath. Then formal group photos are taken. It’s a sweet, multigenerational scene with familial love and pride busting out all over.

Then, once grandma goes home, the craziness takes over. Sober, scholarly clothing is replaced by raunchy wear as gangs of friends gather around the new grad in front of the university, and the roast begins. A giant butcher-paper poster with a caricature of the student — generally obscene — and a litany of “This Is Your Life” photos is presented to the new graduate. The happy grad reads the funny text out loud while various embarrassing pranks are pulled. The poster is then taped to the university wall for 24 hours for all to see.

During the roast, the friends sing a catchy but crude local university anthem, reminding their newly esteemed friend to keep his or her feet on the ground. Once I hear this song, I just can’t stop singing it. The melody is infectious, starting like an Olympic Games fanfare and ending with oom-pah-pahs like a German cartoon. It becomes even more endearing when a student translates the lyrics for me: “You’re a doc…tor, you’re a doc…tor, but you’re still just an asshole. You’re a doc…tor, you’re a doc…tor, but you’re still just an asshole. Oom-pah-pah, oom-oom-pah-pah.”

Eventually I stop humming this profane ditty to seek out Padua’s sacred sights: the Basilica of St. Anthony and the Scrovegni Chapel. Buried in the basilica is Friar Anthony of Padua, patron saint of travelers, amputees, donkeys, pregnant women, barren women, flight attendants, and pig farmers. Construction of this impressive Romanesque/Gothic church, with its Byzantine-style domes, started immediately after Anthony’s death in 1231. As a mark of his universal appeal and importance in the medieval Church, he was sainted within a year of his death. And for nearly 800 years, his remains and this glorious church have attracted a steady stream of pilgrims.

Going with the flow of the pilgrim groups, I enter the church. Gazing through the incense haze, I see Donatello’s glorious crucifix rising from the altar, a masterpiece appropriate for one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Christendom. Following the pilgrims into the Chapel of the Reliquaries, I stand before the basilica’s most prized relic: Anthony’s tongue. When the saint’s remains were exhumed 32 years after his death, his body had decayed to dust, but his tongue was found miraculously unspoiled, still red in color. How appropriate for the great preacher who, so full of the Spirit, couldn’t stop talking about God.

My next stop is across town at the glorious Scrovegni Chapel. It’s wallpapered with Giotto’s beautiful cycle of nearly 40 frescoes depicting the lives of Jesus and Mary. Painted by Giotto and his assistants from 1303 to 1305, it’s considered to be the first piece of “modern” (as opposed to medieval) art. This work makes it clear: Europe was breaking out of the Middle Ages and heading into the Renaissance. Giotto placed real people in real scenes, expressing real human emotions. These frescoes were radical not only for their three-dimensional effects, lively colors, and light sources, but also for their humanism.

In the early evening, after the museums and churches have closed, Padua’s squares become open-air student parties, dotted with drinks of rosy spritzes that glow with the light of the setting sun. I cap my day by joining the festivities. Reminding myself that I’m as interesting to these young Italians as they are to me, I befriend a table of college students and buy a round of drinks. Diving headlong into a vigorous political discussion, I partake in the Italian ritual of the bread and oil. I pour some fine olive oil on a dish, season it with salt and pepper, rip a long strip from our bread, dip it, and bite. A student, nodding with approval, explains that I am making the scarpette: “the little shoes.”

Soaking up the oil along with the conversation, I’m still thinking about my day, witnessing the sacred and the profane here in Padua. I realize that travelers can become human scarpette — sopping up culture — wherever we venture.

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. It’s coming out in July, and available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit  Rick Steves Classroom Europe  and search for Padua.)

Daily Dose of Europe: Berlin’s Reichstag — Teary-Eyed Germans and a Big Glass Dome

Years ago, when I got my history degree, I said to myself, “I’d better get a business degree, too, so I have something useful.” But I’ve learned over the years that if more people knew more about history, our world would be a better place.

Even if we’ve had to postpone trips to Europe, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

History is constantly speaking to us. Travelers enjoy a privileged way to hear it — and sometimes an up-close chance to witness history in the making.

Whenever I see the restored Reichstag building in Berlin, I’m reminded of my visit in 1999, when it reopened to the public. For tourists unaware of history, it was just a new dome to climb, offering another vantage point on the city. But a knowledge of its past gives it far deeper meaning. It was in this building that the German Republic was proclaimed in 1918. In 1933, this symbol of democracy nearly burned down. While the Nazis blamed a communist plot, some believe that Hitler himself planned the fire. Whatever the case, he used the fire as a convenient excuse to frame the communists and grab total power.

After 1945, this historic home of the German parliament — which saw some of the last fighting of World War II on its rooftop — stood as an abandoned and bombed-out hulk overlooking the no-man’s-land between East and West Berlin. After reunification, Germany’s government returned from Bonn to Berlin. And, in good European fashion, the Germans didn’t bulldoze their parliament building. They respected the building’s cultural roots and renovated it.

They capped it with a glorious glass dome, incorporating modern architectural design into a late-19th-century icon, and opened it up to the people. The dome rises 50 yards above the ground. Inside, a cone of 360 mirrors reflects natural light into the legislative chamber below. Lit from inside at night, it gives Berlin a kind of lantern celebrating good governance.

The Reichstag dome is a powerful architectural symbol. German citizens climb its long spiral ramp to the very top and look down, literally over the shoulders of their legislators, to see what’s on their desks. Jerked around too much by their politicians in the past century, Germans are determined to keep a closer eye on them from now on. And this dome is designed to let them do exactly that.

When the Reichstag first reopened, I climbed to the top of the dome and found myself surrounded by teary-eyed Germans. Anytime you’re surrounded by teary-eyed Germans, something exceptional is going on. It occurred to me that most of these people were old enough to remember the difficult times after World War II, when their city lay in rubble. What an exciting moment for them: the opening of this grand building was the symbolic closing of a difficult chapter in the history of a great nation. No more division. No more communism. No more fascism. They had a united government entering a new century with a new capitol building, looking into a promising future.

It was a thrill to be there. I was caught up in it. As I looked around at the other tourists, it occurred to me that most of them didn’t have a clue about what was going on. They were so preoccupied with trivialities — camera batteries, their Cokes, the air-conditioning — that they missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate this great moment with the German people. I thought, “I’m living in a dumbed-down society.” And it saddened me. I don’t want to live in a dumbed-down society.

Powerful forces find it convenient when we’re dumbed down. As a society, we become easier to manipulate…easier to make money from. I vowed right there, in my work as a travel writer, that I would expect my readers to be engaged…and made smarter by their travels.

In mainstream tourism, we’re often encouraged to be lighthearted and avoid the serious. Sure, fun in the sun, duty-free shopping, and bingo can be a big part of your vacation. I enjoy it, too. But all this can distract us from a more important reason to travel. Travel can broaden our perspective, enabling us to rise above the advertiser-driven info­tainment we call the news to see things as citizens of the world. By plugging directly into the present and getting the world’s take on things firsthand, a traveler goes beyond traditional sightseeing. (And shortly after that inspirational Berlin visit, I wrote an entirely new kind of book that develops that notion, called Travel as a Political Act.)

When we travel, we have the opportunity to see history as it’s unfolding. With knowledge of the past, we can better appreciate the significance of what’s happening today. That’s something a lot of travelers don’t take advantage of…and it’s never been more important.

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. It’s coming out in July, and available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit  Rick Steves Classroom Europe  and search for Reichstag.)

Daily Dose of Europe: Guide Reports, Week 9 — Staying Positive

For today’s Daily Dose of Europe, we’re doing our weekly check-in with our guides all over Europe. This week, Europe continued its gradual reopening. For example, as of May 18, Italians are welcome to “expand their bubbles” and visit with friends. While our European colleagues — like us — are suffering quarantine fatigue, we continue to be impressed by their optimistic attitudes. They’re finding creative and compassionate ways to make the most of their time.

In Southwest England, Paul Guest has been driving an ambulance for Britain’s National Health Service (NHS):

“We are expected to hit our peak in May for our area; it’s been busy enough already up to now. Some people are struggling with the lockdown — I guess it is difficult to have your freedom suspended — but there are those who are choosing to ignore the rules, which quite frankly is very selfish, having seen firsthand how debilitating/devastating the disease can be to someone.

“As Ambulance Crews have nothing in our arsenal will make any difference or if it does it’s negligible. I am definitely looking forward to the day when we can all be free again, and also thin again as wine and chocolate is apparently not a good diet.”

In Istanbul, Lale Sürmen Aran explains how the Turks are looking out for one another:

Ekmek (bread) is of special importance for us: It sustains life, and the protection of life is sacred. For us, bread is nimet, a blessing sent from God. If a piece of bread accidently falls to the ground, it must be picked up immediately before placing it somewhere higher. Some people even kiss it and put it to their forehead, to further demonstrate their respect for the blessing of God.

“Leftovers are never thrown away; when bread goes stale, it’s made into French toast and breadcrumbs. You often see plastic bags containing old bread hanging off fences along streets or tree branches, so that birds, stray cats, and dogs can be fed.

“We don’t want anyone go a day without this simple blessing. Our way of paying forward with bread is called askıda ekmek — ‘bread on a hook’: In local bakeries, you sometimes notice the owner giving someone a loaf of bread without any money changing hands. At other times, a customer will pay for two loaves of bread but only take one. That customer’s contribution is set aside so that someone in need can come and take a loaf without resorting to begging — allowing them to feed themselves while preserving their dignity.

“With COVID-19, unemployment is skyrocketing and bills are going unpaid. To avoid having our neighbors’ electricity and gas shut off, we are modifying this old tradition to ‘bill on the hook.’ A website operated by Istanbul’s municipal government collects a list of vetted recipients who need help paying their bills.

“Anyone can go online and contribute. So far, anonymous philanthropists have paid for more than 50,000 bills this way.”

In Rome, Virginia Agostinelli writes:

“I have been dedicating a lot of time to the classics, rereading Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. I am amazed by how modern those texts are. I feel deep admiration for Ulysses’ resilience and audacity, and I have a soft spot for Achilles (he has quite a temper but also a good heart). Generally, I spend time on the rooftop terrace of my building. I can see St Peter’s dome quite well and often there are kites in the sky.

“I hope you are well and I look forward to the day when we’ll slowly start traveling with our groups again. A presto!

In Greece, Maria Sioulas writes:

“We have finally been released from our lockdown. The whole process is going to take a few weeks and will be monitored closely — any increase in infection rate or death rate, and we will be back inside. The death toll so far stands at 160.

“The first things to open were small shops, churches for individual visits (no services yet), and hairdressers, yippee! First stop: a cut and color. The shaggy look really wasn’t good. Social distancing is enforced everywhere, as is the wearing of face masks in enclosed public areas.

“This week, larger retail stores opened, and children taking their high school exams returned to school. Cinemas, gyms, theaters, sports arenas, and facilities remain closed. It’s hoped that restaurants and bars will open in early June. This is a big issue at the moment, as most places will only be at 30 percent capacity due to the distancing rules, so the owners are not happy.

“Greece is also hoping to open up to a limited number of tourists as early as June. Beaches are in the process of ensuring that social distancing is enforced by having far fewer beds and umbrellas, and more showers. Hotels will also undergo radical changes, including having a designated quarantine hotel in all resort areas.

“The country remains positive despite the massive economic toll this is taking. We are looking forward to being able to share a meal in restaurant and raise a glass of wine in a toast to a better and brighter future. Mostly, however, we look forward to welcoming visitors back to our beautiful country.”

In Britain, Charlie Rawson reports that her lockdown has been lifted by writing poetry. She explains, “I believe it is such an important time to document, especially for future generations who will unpick the challenges we are facing, and try to understand the wider ramifications of this crisis.” Here’s one of Charlie’s poems:

The Pause Between

The first cancellation of many;

a birthday, lunch and rugby.

 

breathe in

 

Reaching far and wide

above the clouds, it is growing quieter.

 

We are distanced, and the locks have been

turned down as we exhale and fold the laundry.

 

British Summer Time is here,

swiftly following by April Fools’ Day.

 

A first birthday comes

and goes — we should have been there.

 

Inhaling the sights and sounds of Spring

we Zoom in and out of weeks

another Friday another birthday

our first Full Moon was pink!

 

Drawing our bodies closer to the earth among the oak trees

Stepping back

two meters or six feet.

 

Lowering to the roadside

evading all eye contact,

the distance is greater now.

 

The weather forecast doesn’t list ‘inside’,

I’m residing in my own peripheral vision.

 

Released — one essential hour a day.

My essential tasks have mostly moved into the spare room,

it measures 311cm by 217cm.

 

We seem to have exchanged depth for time,

and gatherings, although charged, are paper thin.

 

Breathe in and open your heart.

You have always bent over backwards for me,

and we are so grateful.

 

Lift your gaze to the sky — full of life;

filled with radiant heat, hot blowy and everywhere,

then immersed in nourishing rain,

we needed that,

 

Drenched in an exhalation,

pushing back, up and away from the fear of not knowing,

the rain tastes of freedom

as the pathways rest beneath the spattering.

 

And one day, the 5 o’clock briefing is finally cancelled.

From now on, we define the everyday distance between us;

step forwards, step outside and step towards.

We meet back at the front, where nothing is as it was.

 

Coming half way only,

with hesitation, we are starting to relearn and relax.

 

To inhale is to grow taller, gathering the air with us,

And together, we treasure the pause, between this day and the next.

And finally, in Rome, Nina Bernardo sent us this beautiful meditation on what it means to be able to explore her adopted home city…and to reconnect with all of the personal memories that come along with it:

“Last week, when we were first let out, I walked along the banks of the Tiber River listening to the birds and the flowing water. Today I headed into the center to see what Pasquino might have to say about our current state of affairs. He is Rome’s most famous talking statue, and for centuries, Romans have been attaching notes of anonymous satire to him.

“When I arrived, an older couple was reading the material so I sat on the railing and waited. The gentleman turned around with a giant smile on his face and we started chatting. Sicilian by birth but Roman by adoption, he’s been here for 52 years and understands the Roman dialect often used in the pasquinade. I told him I was Roman by adoption, too, but sometimes the nuances of the satire escaped me.

“He shared with me his favorite poem on the board, and we said our goodbyes and went off in opposite directions. As I walked away, I realized how much I had missed these spontaneous interactions under lockdown. When my tour members ask what keeps me in Italy, that is always a point I highlight: It’s so easy to be around people and make connections, however fleeting, and share a moment that can change your day.

“I continued on and made my way to the Trevi Fountain. One of Rome’s most iconic monuments, as a resident of the city I admit I take it for granted. But today I sat for a long time listening to the rush of the water and thought about the countless times I’d been there in the evening with my tour members. I remembered what it was like to share their excitement at seeing it for the first time. ‘Gobsmacked,’ I like to say.

“My first memory of the fountain is actually a photo taken long before I was born. My parents (both born and raised in Italy) came here on their honeymoon in 1968. Well before the throngs of visitors crowded the fountain and police officers patrolled the area, they actually climbed onto it to throw their coins in! This was not allowed back then either, but my uncle, a priest, took the photo — probably reassuring them there was nothing to worry about. I love that photo. They look like slick 1960s film stars. That was during a really prosperous economic time here.

“My next real memory of the fountain came in 1996, when I decided to come live in Italy. Uncle Priest (as we still affectionately refer to him) was assigned to the parish next to the fountain, and I stayed there for two weeks before settling in elsewhere. I spent every evening sitting on the steps of the Trevi marveling at how exotic everything felt to me and excited and scared about my new adventure.

“My final personal stories all involve my family. To avoid the crowds, I’ve taken predawn walks with my nieces when they have visited. Rome is always its most magical in the early hours as the light is changing and the city is slowly coming to life.

“Our last family trip together before my father passed away was in 2016. He was in a wheelchair by then, but insisted on getting close to the basin, so we gingerly assisted him down a few steps. These are all cherished memories. I’m not embarrassed to say that I shed a few tears while sitting there reminiscing. All of the people in my stories were there with me at that moment. As were all the different “me’s”.

“The city is nothing without people, chance encounters, and stories. Neptune takes center stage at Trevi, but all of our memories are part of that place. Including a teary-eyed me on a cloudy May afternoon with only the sound of the rushing water and my thoughts to keep me company.”

Daily Dose of Europe: Westminster Abbey — The National Soul of England

It’s beautiful to think of how much history Westminster Abbey has seen — both good times and bad. And through it all, Britain’s top church offers solace to its people.

Even if we’ve had to postpone trips to Europe, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

Wearing a red robe and a warm smile, Eddie works as a verger at London’s Westminster Abbey. As a church official, he keeps order in this space — which is both very touristy and very sacred.

I tell him I’m working on a Rick Steves guidebook, and he says, “I’d like a word with that Rick Steves. He implies in his guidebook that you can pop in to worship or pay respects to the Unknown Soldier in order to get a free visit to the abbey.”

Showing him my photo on the back cover, I say, “Well, I am Rick Steves.”

I’m really charmed by Eddie, who explains that it’s his responsibility to sort out believers (who get in free to pray), tourists (who must pay the entrance fee), and scammers who fold their hands reverently, hoping to avoid paying. Together, we agree on a new tactic: Rather than promote deception for the sake of free entry, I’ll encourage my readers to attend a free worship service. The musical evensong service is a glorious experience that occurs several times a week. Everyone is welcome, free of charge.

Proving it helps to have friends in holy places, Eddie takes me into a room where no tourist goes: the Jerusalem Chamber, where scholars met from 1604 to 1611 to oversee the translation of the Bible from ancient Greek and Hebrew into English, creating the King James Version.

Appreciating the danger of translating the word of God from dead ancient languages into the people’s language and the importance of these heroic efforts in the 16th and 17th centuries, I get goose bumps. When visiting Germany’s Wartburg Castle, I felt goose bumps when stepping into the room where Martin Luther translated the Bible for the German-speaking world. And I enjoyed a little goose-bump déjà vu here when Eddie let me slip into the Jerusalem Chamber.

Eddie then escorts me to the abbey and I quickly become immersed in the history that permeates it. This is where every English coronation since 1066 has taken place. At a coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury stands at the high altar. The coronation chair is placed before the altar on the round, brown pavement stone, which represents the Earth. After a church service, the new king or queen sits in the chair, is anointed with holy oil, and then receives a ceremonial sword, ring, and cup. The royal scepter is placed in the new ruler’s hands, and — dut-dutta-dah — the archbishop lowers the crown onto the royal head.

As I walk, I listen to the audio tour narrated by actor Jeremy Irons. With his soothing voice in my ear, I enjoy some private time with remarkable artifacts. The marble effigy of Queen Elizabeth I was made from her death mask in 1603 and is considered her most realistic likeness. The graves of literary greats of England are gathered, as if for a post­humous storytelling session, around the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer (Mr. Canterbury Tales). Poppies line the tomb of Britain’s Unknown Soldier, with the US Medal of Honor (presented by General John J. Pershing in 1921) hanging from a neighboring column. More recently, the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been added as an honorary member of this heavenly English host.

My favorite stained-glass window features saints in robes and halos mingling with pilots in parachutes and bomber jackets. It’s in the Royal Air Force Chapel, a tribute to WWII flyers who “earned their angel wings” in the 1940 Battle of Britain. Hitler’s air force seemed to rule the skies in the early days of the war, bombing at will and threatening to snuff Britain out. While determined Londoners hunkered down, British pilots in their Spitfires and Hurricanes took advantage of newly invented radar systems to get the jump on the more powerful Luftwaffe. These were the fighters about whom Churchill said, “Never…was so much owed by so many to so few.” The book of remembrances lists the names of each of the 1,497 pilots and crew members who died.

Grabbing a pew to ponder this grand space, I look down the long and narrow center aisle of the church. It’s lined with Gothic arches, providing a parade of praying hands and glowing with colored light from the windows. It’s clear that this is more than a museum. With saints in stained glass overhead, heroes in carved stone all around, and the bodies of England’s greatest citizens under the floor, Westminster Abbey is more than the religious heart of England — it’s the national soul as well.

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. It’s coming out in July, and available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit  Rick Steves Classroom Europe  and search for Westminster.)