Rick Steves' Europe en-us http://www.fekraweb.com/rss/tms_articles rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) webmaster@ricksteves.com (Webmaster @ Rick Steves) 2020-07-05 02:00:27 UTC 2020-07-05 02:00:27 UTC 15 Rick is now offering his weekly travel column, "Rick Steves' Europe," to media outlets for free! copyright (c) 1996-2020 Rick Steves' Europe Builder::XmlMarkup + Rick Steves Syndication (RSS) 2429 Visiting Europe’s Great Libraries http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/europe-great-libraries rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-06-25 For travelers with an interest in the evolution of Western culture, a stop at one of Europe's grand libraries is an unforgettable experience. Many of them offer the chance to connect with books and documents that changed the course of history — while basking in impressive, ornate interiors that reflect the tremendous importance of books in earlier centuries.

One of the oldest libraries in Europe is the Bodleian Library at England's Oxford University. Opened in 1602, it incorporates the older Duke Humfrey's Library from the 15th century. In those days, libraries were placed above classrooms for maximum sunlight and minimum moisture. Books were considered so precious that many were actually chained to a desk. Today this historic library is a world of creaky old shelves of books dating to the Middle Ages, stacked neatly under a beautifully painted wooden ceiling. The space is so atmospheric, it served as Hogwarts' library in the Harry Potter films. (Duke Humfrey's Library is viewable only on a popular guided tour — book in advance.)

The Weston Library, a more modern wing of the Bodleian, welcomes visitors to enjoy a gallery showcasing a changing selection of its most precious items, including a Shakespeare First Folio (18 plays from 1623), an original score of Handel's Messiah (written in 1741), and several original versions of the 1215 Magna Carta — the first legal document to set limits on a ruler's power and the basis of many modern constitutions.

Many of Europe's oldest universities have equally fascinating libraries, such as the architecturally glorious Wren Library at Cambridge's Trinity College, the grand Baroque King João's Library at Coimbra Univeristy in central Portugal, and the library at Dublin's Trinity College, which holds the magnificent Book of Kells.

Though it lacks the Bodleian's Old World mystique, the Treasures gallery of the British Library in London is packed with even more intriguing artifacts. The sheer size of the massive collection is impressive enough, with nearly 300 miles of shelving holding over 12 million books. Out front in the courtyard, a statue of Isaac Newton, shown measuring the immensity of the universe, symbolizes the library's purpose: to gather all knowledge and promote humanity's endless search for truth. But the Treasures room is the reason to visit, with its original ancient maps, illuminated Gospels on parchment, the Gutenberg Bible, precious musical manuscripts, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and handwritten Beatles lyrics. The only known manuscript of the epic saga Beowulf (AD 1000) is here, as is Geoffrey Chaucer's bawdy Canterbury Tales (c. 1410). Display cases feature trailblazing documents by early scientists such as Galileo and Isaac Newton. Pages from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook show his powerful curiosity and his famous backwards handwriting. Depending on what's on display during your visit, you may see letters by Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, Darwin, Freud, or Gandhi.

In the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, and into the Middle Ages, it was primarily monks who preserved and painstakingly copied ancient manuscripts, and who kept the flame of literacy alive in Europe. And today, many of Europe's finest old libraries are still housed in monasteries.

The library at Strahov Monastery in Prague is filled with books from the 10th through 17th centuries, shelved under elaborately frescoed ceilings that celebrate philosophy, theology, and the quest for knowledge. As the Age of Enlightenment took hold, the Church struggled to maintain its social and political power. Books that contained challenging ideas — by thinkers like Nicolaus Copernicus, Jan Hus, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau — were placed in a gilded, locked case. Only the abbot had the key, and you needed his blessing to open it. Pondering these treasured volumes from our Information Age perspective, I'm reminded of the importance of free access to information.

Not far to the south is the massive Melk Abbey, gleaming on its hilltop over the Wachau Valley, just up the Danube from Vienna. My favorite part of a visit here is its elegant library — another remainder from when monasteries served as crucial storehouses of knowledge. Many of the collection's oldest books were written and transcribed in this space, before the 11th-century Benedictine abbey was devastated by fire. It was rebuilt in the 18th century in sumptuous Baroque splendor, with inlaid bookshelves, matching bindings, and a frescoed ceiling. The extravagant investment that went into the elaborate decor makes clear the monks' reverence for knowledge. Highlights include two precious globes (one terrestrial, one celestial — with the night sky inside out) that date from 1688 and were painstakingly researched and crafted. Students and researchers still use the many manuscripts housed in the library's temperature-controlled rooms.

A little farther down the Danube, in Vienna, is another postcard-perfect Baroque library: the Austrian National Library's State Hall. Here glorious paintings celebrate high culture and the library's patron, Emperor Charles VI. This former imperial library, with a statue of Charles VI in the center, makes it clear that knowledge of the world was for the elite — and with that knowledge, the elite had power. More than 200,000 old books line the walls, but patrons go elsewhere to read them; the hall is just for show these days. Glass cases lining the nave-like main aisle display literary treasures (all well described in English).

Throughout Europe, wonderful old libraries are inspiring reminders of humanity's relatively recent, but ardent quest to compile written knowledge in order to share it with future generations.

Prague's Strahov Monastery library was a center of learning throughout the Middle Ages. (photo: Rick Steves)

Oxford University's Bodleian Library is one of Europe's very oldest. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2417 Budget Tips for Enjoying London http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/cheap-things-to-do-in-london rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-03-26 London is one of the Europe's most expensive cities. But visitors who take advantage of its fine public transit, many free museums, reasonably priced plays, and fun food markets and pubs, find the city much more affordable. Here are some of my tips for saving money in London.

Transit Passes: London's black cabs are iconic, but for the cost of one ride, you can buy an Oyster card transit pass, covering a week's worth of rides on buses and the London Underground (a.k.a. the Tube).

Budget Sleeps: London is one of the few places I'd consider staying in a chain hotel. Target an appealing neighborhood and browse reviews at a hotel-booking website such as Booking.com. Check auction-type sites such as Priceline and Hotwire, which match travelers with empty hotel rooms, often at prices well below normal rates. Or book through Airbnb or a similar site instead: I'd rather rent a palatial room or apartment a 20-minute Tube ride from downtown than pay the same for a grubby budget hotel in the middle of the city.

Free Museums: My favorite museum in London — the British Museum — is free, as are these impressive sights: the British Library, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Wallace Collection, Imperial War Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, National Army Museum, Sir John Soane's Museum, and the Museum of London. About half of these museums request a fairly small donation, but whether you contribute is up to you.

Free Churches: Most churches let worshippers (and tourists) in free, although they may ask for a donation. The big, famous churches — Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's — charge high admission fees, but offer free evensong services nearly daily (though you can't stick around afterward to sightsee). Westminster Abbey also offers free organ recitals most Sundays.

Other Freebies: London has plenty of free performances, such as lunch concerts at St. Martin-in-the-Fields and summertime movies at the Scoop amphitheater near City Hall. There's no charge to enjoy the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, rants at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park (on Sunday afternoon), opulent displays at Harrods department store, the people-watching scene at Covent Garden, and the colorful streets of the East End. It's free to view the legal action at the Old Bailey and the legislature at work in the Houses of Parliament. And Greenwich is an inexpensive outing: Many of its sights are free, and the journey by rail is cheap.

Good-Value Tours: The London Walks tours with professional guides are one of the best deals going (about $15). Note that the guides for the "free" walking tours are unpaid by their companies, and they expect tips — I'd pay up front for an expertly guided tour instead. You can also find reasonably priced tours by bus, boat, and bike.

Buy Tickets Online: Tickets for many of London's most popular and expensive sights, such as the London Eye Ferris wheel, St. Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and the Tower of London, can be purchased online in advance, which will not only save you from standing in ticket-buying lines, but also will usually save you a few pounds per ticket.

Totally Pants (Brit-speak for Not Worth It): Skip the London Dungeon. It's gimmicky, overpriced, and a terrible value…despite what the long line at the door might suggest. And the cost of the ride to the top of The Shard, western Europe's tallest skyscraper, is unfortunately even more breathtaking than its view.

Theater: Compared with Broadway's prices, London's theater can be a bargain. Seek out the freestanding TKTS booth at Leicester Square to get discounts from 25 to 50 percent on good seats (and full-price tickets to the hottest shows with no service charges). Buying directly at the theater box office can score you a great deal on same-day tickets. A cheap (under $10) "groundling" ticket for a play at Shakespeare's Globe is the best theater deal in town. Tickets to the Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park, on the north side of town, start at about $30.

Pubs, Street Markets, and Picnics: Pub grub is the most atmospheric budget eating option — reasonably priced hearty classics such as meat pies and fish-and-chips served under ancient timbers. London thrives with street markets, many featuring the latest and trendiest food stalls — the perfect antidote to the city's high restaurant prices. For picnics, you'll find an array of carryout options, from Pret à Manger and Eat — selling fresh salads and sandwiches — to Marks & Spencer department stores (most have a good deli) and their offshoot M&S Simply Food.

If you do your homework and take advantage of London's many freebies and bargains, you'll leave with happy memories of your trip instead of a regretfully empty wallet.

Borough Market, one of London's numerous food halls and markets, can be a thrifty dining spot. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Enjoy many of London's outstanding museums, including the Museum of Natural History, for the price of a voluntary contribution. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2416 Avignon: A Medieval Town with a Youthful Attitude http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/avignon-france rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-03-19 Clinging to a bend in the Rhône River in the south of France, Avignon looks and feels like the backdrop of a medieval fairy tale. While it's largely famous for its 14th-century heyday as a papal capital and its even older 12th-century bridge, Avignon has plenty to offer beyond history. Today this walled Provençal town is a youthful place full of atmospheric cafés, fun shops, and numerous hide-and-seek squares ideal for postcard-writing and people-watching.

An easy side trip from nearby must-sees like Arles and Les Baux, Avignon's charms can be sampled in half a day. Climb to its hilltop park for the town's best view, tour the immense palace that was once home to popes, stroll the traffic-free shopping district, lose yourself in the back streets, or just find a shady square to call home.

The city's history dates back to well before when the Romans came to town, but it was the Catholic Church that put Avignon on the map. In 1309, a French pope was elected (Pope Clément V). The new pope, fearing Italy was too dangerous, moved the papacy to Avignon, where he could enjoy a secure rule under a supportive French king. Along with clearing out vast spaces for public squares and building a three-acre papal palace, the Church erected more than three miles of protective wall (and 39 towers), mansions for cardinals, and residences for its bureaucracy. Avignon was Europe's largest construction zone, and its population grew from 6,000 to 25,000. (Today 13,000 people live within its walls.)

The?massive Palace of the Popes?was the most fortified palace of the time — and with 10-foot-thick walls, it was a symbol of power. Today it's the largest surviving Gothic palace in Europe. In all, seven popes ruled from here, making Avignon the center of Christianity for nearly 100 years.

The palace itself is pretty empty today. Along with lots of big, barren rooms, visitors can see a few original wall paintings, an elegant Gothic chapel, and some beautiful floor tiles. Its climbable tower offers grand views.

Nearby, the?Petit Palais Museum, located in what was a cardinal's palace, displays the Church's collection of medieval Italian painting and sculpture. Visiting this museum before going to the Palace of the Popes helps your mind furnish and populate that otherwise empty building and captures art and life during the Avignon papacy. You'll also see bits of statues and tombs — remnants of exquisite Church art destroyed during the French Revolution.

After a visit to the Palace of the Popes, hike up above it to the Parc de Rochers des Doms for a panoramic view of Avignon, the Rhône River Valley, and the?St. Bénezet Bridge — the one made famous by the nursery rhyme "Sur le Pont d'Avignon," known to all French school kids. As one of only three bridges crossing the mighty Rhône in the Middle Ages, this strategically important span carried pilgrims, merchants, and armies into and out of town.

Over the years, floods damaged the bridge several times (and each time it was rebuilt). But in 1668, a particularly disastrous flood destroyed most of the bridge. This time, the townsfolk decided not to rebuild, and for more than a century, Avignon had no bridge across the Rhône. Today, you can pay a small fee to walk along a section of the ramparts and onto what remains of the bridge. It's fun to be in the breezy middle of the river with a sweeping city view.

For a close-up look at Avignon life, meander the town's back streets — home to pastry shops, earthy cafés and galleries, and cobbled lanes lined with trees and streams. I love parsing the street signs here, revealing vivid names like "Street of the Animal Furriers," "Hosiery Street," and "Street of the Golden Scissors," all of which recall the neighborhood's medieval roots.

Along the way, step inside the modern market hall, Les Halles, for a sensory celebration of organic breads, olives, and festival-of-mold cheeses. Six mornings a week, the hall is bursting with fresh produce, meats, and fish. With plenty of cheap cafés, bars, and tempting cheese shops, this is the local hotspot for lunch — and I can't resist a big plate of mixed seafood with a glass of white wine.

Theater buffs may want to visit in July, when Avignon booms with its massive three-week?theater festival, featuring about 2,000 performances (hotels book up far in advance). Every venue is in action, creating a Mardi Gras–like atmosphere: The entire city is a stage, with mimes, fire-breathers, singers, and musicians filling the streets.

While there's so much to see in fascinating Provence, a detour to Avignon is time well spent. Clean, lively, and popular with travelers, this city is an intriguing blend of medieval history, youthful energy, and urban sophistication.

Built in the 12th century, the St. Bénezet Bridge lasted until 1668 when a devastating flood took out most of the half-mile-long span. Tourists can pay to walk out on the bridge for a sweeping view of Avignon. (photo:?Paul Orcutt)

When a French pope was elected in 1309, the Catholic Church actually bought Avignon and built the imposing Palace of the Popes. Seven popes ruled from here for nearly a century. During this time, Avignon grew from a sleepy village into a thriving city. (photo:?Rick Steves)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2368 Italy Connoisseurs Choose Leisurely Lucca http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/lucca-italy rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-03-05 On a sunny summer evening in Lucca, Italy, I witnessed the simple joy of an old man bicycling with his granddaughter atop the town's wide, fortified wall. Then, on rented bikes, a group of chatty tourists frolicked by. Their enthusiasm was contagious. Squinting at the energy in their smiles, surrounded by dazzling sunshine, it struck me that the sun in Italy seems to have a special glint. It's as if it's telling visitors, "Embrace life!"

Well-preserved Lucca has no single monumental sight, unless you count its welcoming, human-scaled overall feel. Its mighty wall, which long protected this proud city from its enemies, now serves to corral Lucca's Old World charm. Even its mostly traffic-free old town feels more local than touristy (aside from a few cruise excursions from nearby Livorno that pass through each day). Neighboring Pisa has the famous tilted tower you can climb, but lesser-known Lucca is a favorite stop for many Italy connoisseurs. Just a 30-minute bus ride from Pisa and an hour's ride from Florence, it's easy to do Pisa and Lucca in a one-day trip from Florence.

Lucca began as a Roman settlement, and the grid layout of the streets — and the shadow of an amphitheater — still survive from Roman times. As was typical for Roman towns, Lucca's two main roads quartered the fortified town, crossing at what was the forum (main market and religious/political center) — today's Piazza San Michele. The amphitheater sat just outside the original Roman walls.

The city is a bit of a paradox — while it has Europe's mightiest Renaissance wall, it hasn't seen a battle since 1430. My friend Gabriele explained to me the difference between a Renaissance wall and a medieval wall. Medieval walls were thin, because with weapons like arrows and stones, there was no need for thick fortification. But in Renaissance times, the development of powerful cannons introduced the need for thicker, more substantial walls.

These days, locals like Gabriele treat their ramparts like a circular park. And, with plenty of rental bikes available, visitors can enjoy a lazy pedal around its two-and-a-half-mile circuit. It's a wonderfully smooth 20–30-minute pedal, depending on how fast you go and how crowded the wall-top park is. The best people-watching — and slowest pedaling — is during passeggiata time, just before dinner, when it seems that all of Lucca is doing slow laps around the wall.

In its heyday, Lucca packed 70 churches and over 100 towers within its walls. Each tower was the home and private fortress of a wealthy merchant family. Tower interiors were single rooms stacked atop each other: shop, living room, and then the kitchen, all connected by exterior wooden staircases. Rooftops usually served as vegetable gardens, with trees providing shade. Later, the wealthy city folk moved into the countryside, trading away life in their city palazzos to establish farm estates complete with fancy villas.

Strolling Lucca's main drag, Via Fillungo, lets you connect the town's two busiest squares: Piazza dell'Anfiteatro and Piazza San Michele. Between the two, you can get a taste of Lucca's rich past, including several elegant, century-old storefronts.

At delightful Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, you might feel the architectural ghost of the town's Roman amphitheater. With the fall of Rome, the theater (which seated 10,000) was gradually cannibalized for its stones and inhabited by people living in a mishmash of huts. The huts were cleared away at the end of the 19th century to better show off the town's illustrious past and make one purely secular square for the town market (every other square is dominated by a church). While the arena's long gone, its oval shape is a reminder of the city's classical heritage.

Piazza San Michele also has ancient roots. It's hosted a market since Roman times, when it was the forum. Today it's dominated by the Church of San Michele. Towering above its fancy Romanesque facade, the archangel Michael stands ready to flap his wings — which, thanks to a crude mechanical contraption, he actually did on special occasions.

Nearby, the Church of San Giovanni hosts nightly concerts celebrating the music of hometown composer Giacomo Puccini — one of Italy's greatest opera composers (La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, Tosca). Puccini's delightful arias seem to capture the spirit of this wonderful corner of Italy.

Just because you can see Lucca in an easy day trip doesn't mean you should. If you have time to simply relax on your vacation, this is a great place for it. Slow down, grab a gelato, and bask in Lucca's genuine charm.

Inside Torre Guinigi, one of Lucca's surviving medieval towers, 227 steps lead up to a small garden of fragrant trees. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

A visit to Lucca is incomplete without a leisurely evening "passeggiata" along the city walls. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2367 Falling in Love with the Matterhorn http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/zermatt-switzerland rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-02-27 On my two previous trips to Switzerland's tiny-but-touristy Zermatt, I failed to catch a glimpse of the glorious Matterhorn mountain that draws so many to the burg at its base for a peek at the peak.

My third try was the charm, and now I have a confession: I'm in love with the Matterhorn. Now I get why this mountain town of 5,800 people is so popular.

There's just something about the Matterhorn, the most recognizable mountain on the planet. Just seeing the Matterhorn is one of the great experiences in Switzerland. And hiking with that iconic summit as a background is even better.

Zermatt, which sits at 5,000 feet in the shadow of the 14,690-foot Matterhorn, is nestled at the dead-end of a long valley in Switzerland's remote southwest. While it's barely two hours from Bern and Interlaken by train, or about three from Zürich or Lausanne, it's not quite on the way to anywhere. Especially considering its inconvenient location, many travelers find it overrated. If you make the trek and find only cloudy weather, you may end up with a T-shirt that reads, "I went all the way to Zermatt and didn't even see the Matterhorn."

But in sunny weather, riding the high-mountain lifts, poking through lost-in-time farm hamlets, and ambling along on scenic hikes — all with that famous pointy mountain in view — make the trip worthwhile. And the town itself does have pockets of traditional charm, with streets lined with chalet after chalet and overflowing flower boxes.

Stepping out of the train station, astute visitors notice that there are no gas-engine vehicles — only electric buses and taxis that slalom between the pedestrians like four-wheeled Vespas. (Drivers must park down in the valley and ride the train into town.) Strolling up the town's main street, Bahnhofstrasse, is a joy: Even bikes are forbidden on the main drag; the street is reserved for people and, in summer, a twice-daily parade of goats. Sure, the town hosts plenty of fabulously wealthy visitors, but locals like to say that the "traffic-free" nature of the town is a great equalizer. Zermatt strives to be a high-class mountain resort, but for active guests.

Once upon a time, Zermatt was a humble village of farmers, but with the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, the advent of "mountaineering" as a leisure activity, and the arrival of trains in 1891, Zermatt found itself on the Grand Tour of Europe. Over time, its residents learned it was easier to milk the tourists than the goats, and mountain tourism became the focus. Aside from the stone quarries that you might notice on the way into town, tourism is Zermatt's only industry.

This little town is capable of entertaining about two million guests each year, hosting more than a hundred modern chalet-style hotels and a well-organized and groomed infrastructure for summer and winter sports. From town, countless lifts head to all sorts of hikes, ski slopes, and incredible views. But really it all comes back to the star of the show: the Matterhorn.

High summer into early fall is the best time to come to Zermatt (I finally saw the Matterhorn during an August trip). Visiting in spring is generally a bad idea — most trails, lifts, and restaurants are closed — but on the plus side, there are no crowds. Early fall also works, as most lifts and trails remain open until the snow returns. (In winter, skiers take over the town, and prices jump even higher than in summer.) Zermatt has earned its reputation for untrustworthy weather — the valley can get completely socked in at any time of year. While two good-weather days are enough to experience the highlights, add at least one buffer day to your itinerary as insurance against rain.

The Zermatt region has three high-mountain summit stations linked by lifts and hikes: Matterhorn Glacier Paradise (closest to the Matterhorn), Gornergrat (with a historic cogwheel train that goes to 10,000 feet), and Rothorn (farthest up the valley from the Matterhorn). While prices are steep, the community has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their mountain lifts in recent years. They're absolutely state-of-the-art, and experiencing them is unforgettable.

Gornergrat is my pick if you can fit in only one high-mountain excursion, simply because it's a best-of-all-worlds experience: sweeping views from the top station, and my favorite hike in the region, between the Rotenboden and Riffelberg train stops. Whichever excursions you opt for, pay close attention to the weather — the lifts aren't cheap, and none of them is worth the cost if the Matterhorn is shrouded by clouds.

That said, don't wait for perfectly clear skies to head into the hills — even in bright, sunny weather, the Matterhorn loves playing peek-a-boo behind the clouds. If it's at least sunny-ish, get up the mountainside. Like me, you may find love at first sight of the Matterhorn.

A clear view of the spectacular Matterhorn isn't guaranteed, especially if your Zermatt visit is a quick one. (photo: Gretchen Strauch)

Hiking trails above Zermatt take you through evocative alpine farm hamlets. (photo: Gretchen Strauch)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2366 Feel the Spirit at Europe’s Pilgrimage Sites http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/feel-the-spirit-some-favorite-religious-sights-in-europe rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-02-20 Traveling as a pilgrim is a powerful way to experience your trip with a strong sense of purpose — to go beyond tourism and connect more deeply with a place, a culture, or a faith. Travelers considering pilgrimages in Europe have the opportunity to follow centuries-old routes or trace new paths in a search for perspective on their own culture — or the culture of others.

The Camino de Santiago — the "Way of St. James" — is Europe's ultimate pilgrimage route. Since the Middle Ages, humble pilgrims have trod hundreds of miles across the north of Spain to pay homage to the remains of St. James in his namesake city, Santiago de Compostela. Today, more and more pilgrims are traveling this ancient pathway — each for his or her own reason. It's a substantial commitment: Most take a month to walk the 450 miles from the French border. But I've witnessed the pure joy in Santiago de Compostela's main square as well-worn pilgrims are overcome with jubilation as they reach their goal.

For eight centuries Assisi, Italy, has been one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in all of Christendom. With every visit I'm struck by how the spirit of St. Francis still pervades his hometown — even nonreligious travelers become pilgrims of a sort. Around the year 1200, this simple friar countered the decadence of the Church and society in general with a powerful message of nonmaterialism and a "slow down and smell God's roses" lifestyle. A huge monastic order, the Franciscans, grew out of his teachings, which were gradually embraced by the Church. Sitting on a hill overlooking the town, hearing the same birdsong that inspired Francis, always calms my 21st-century soul.

For me, as a Lutheran, coming to "Lutherland" is a bit like a Catholic going to Rome. Three destinations in eastern Germany make a meaningful Protestant pilgrimage. In Erfurt, visitors can tour the church and monastery where young Martin Luther struggled with his theological demons. Nearby is Wartburg Castle, where Luther hid after speaking out against Church corruption and where he diligently translated the New Testament into German. And in the unassuming little town of Wittenberg, Luther posted his 95 Theses on a church door, starting a chain of events that would split Western Christian faith, cause empires to rise and fall, and inspire new schools of art and thought. The sights in this region are physical reminders of courageous accomplishments of the Reformation — and the enduring example Luther set for those who dare to speak truth to power.

Glastonbury, in southwest England near Bath, has been a religious site as far back as the Bronze Age. For thousands of years, pilgrims have climbed Glastonbury Tor, a hill seen by many as a Mother Goddess symbol. Glastonbury is also considered the birthplace of Christianity in England. According to legend, the Holy Grail lies at the bottom of Chalice Well, a natural spring at the base of the hill. England's first church was built near this spring, and eventually a great abbey was founded that, by the 12th century, became the leading Christian pilgrimage site in all of Britain. Today, Glastonbury and its mysterious hill remain a center for those on their own spiritual quest.

For me, one of the most powerful and beautiful experiences in Istanbul is the Eyüp Sultan Mosque. People from all over the Muslim world come here to recognize the burial place of Eyüp Sultan (also known as Abu Ayyub al-Ansari), the Prophet Muhammad's standard-bearer and companion, who was buried here during the siege of Constantinople in the 670s. This is where new Ottoman sultans received their sword of sovereignty as they took the throne (comparable to being crowned). It attracts a very conservative, religious crowd, humble in mood and attire, who are looking for spiritual fulfillment. It's a place to feel the pulse of the faith in Istanbul, and to recognize what an important spiritual capital this great city is.

Following tradition, many religious Jews travel to central and eastern Europe every year to pray by the graves of respected figures. They may place pebbles or candles on the tomb and leave messages on slips of paper. Increasingly, even nonreligious Jews design their own pilgrimages to meaningful sites for learning, reflection, and remembrance. Europe's venerable Jewish quarters offer rewarding glimpses into the richness and longevity of Jewish culture. As you stand before the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, for example, you can imagine the Jewish Quarter as it thrived in the 19th century. A walk through this lively zone turns up artifacts and monuments that ask travelers to ponder the huge loss of culture, knowledge, and humanity that took place between 1938 and 1945.

Regardless of your religion, Europe offers plenty of opportunities for a profound experience, including the chance to be inspired by — and learn from — a religious scene that is not your own.

A jubilant pilgrim on Spain's Camino de Santiago marks the end of her journey in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. (photo: Rick Steves)

The evocative ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, in southwest England, mark one of the holiest spots in Great Britain. (photo: Addie Mannan)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2365 What’s New in Ireland for 2020? http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/whats-new-in-ireland rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-02-13 Ireland is more than an "Emerald Isle." It's an isle filled with cultural and historic wonders…and lots of tourists, too, especially in recent years. At many of its top sights, reservations are now either required or highly recommended. 

In Dublin, it's more important than ever to buy advance tickets for the most popular sights. These include Kilmainham Gaol, a museum housed in a former prison for political prisoners (visits are by guided tour only), and the Guinness Storehouse, birthplace of Ireland's famous stout beer. If you don't book in advance, you'll waste time waiting in long ticket lines and may not even get in.

It's also smart to buy timed-entry tickets in advance for the Book of Kells, the 1,200-year-old illuminated manuscript of the four gospels, displayed at the Trinity College library. Without a reservation, visitors can try the side entry (through the Arts Building on Nassau Street), where it's often easy to book tickets — even same day, if available — from ticket machines in the lobby hallway.

One of Dublin's newest museums, 14 Henrietta Street, is also one of the city's best sightseeing stops. The former townhouse offers a fascinating look at the hardships of Dublin tenement life. Once an affluent Georgian mansion, it was subdivided and converted in the 19th century into a cramped multifamily space housing more than 100 people. On a 75-minute tour, guides share stories of former residents and describe the 150-year decline of this aristocratic townhouse into a tenement.

A new, modern visitors center has opened at Brú na Bóinne, the site of two 5,000-year-old passage tombs 45 minutes north of Dublin. Exhibits detail the latest discoveries at the site, while high-tech interactive displays transport visitors to prehistoric times. From the center, shuttles make it easy to reach the tombs — Newgrange and Knowth — which can be accessed only via guided tour. Tours are expected to fill up well in advance, but as of this March you can reserve a spot online ahead of time.

Popular stops around Ireland are coming up with creative ways to grapple with crowds. The Cliffs of Moher — the majestic sheer cliffs on Ireland's west coast — now cleverly offer online tickets for half price (€4) for visits before 11 am and after 4 pm. Smart travelers are wise to visit at these times not just because it's a little cheaper, but because lighter crowds make for a more tranquil experience at the cliffs. Tickets include parking and admission to the?visitors?center and its exhibit, which focuses on the cliffs' natural and geological history.?

South of Dublin, in County Wicklow, Avondale House — the former residence of Irish political leader Charles Parnell — has closed for a long-term renovation. A reopening date has not yet been announced. In the southern port town of Kinsale, Desmond Castle is also closed to visitors for an indefinite period of time. 

Residents of Northern Ireland are wrestling with the effects of the UK's recent split with the EU. But tourists aren't likely to experience any significant impacts: In 2020, I expect a visit to Northern Ireland to be just as easy as ever, and probably even more interesting.

Planning is needed to visit a few popular sights near the town of Portrush, on the northern coast. To walk across Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, dramatically suspended above the Antrim Coast, it's smart to buy timed-entry tickets ahead of your visit (now available online). To tour the Old Bushmills whiskey distillery, travelers should show up early, as groups are limited to 18 people and spots are only available on a first-come, first-served basis.?

In Northern Ireland's capital of Belfast, the "Glider" buses, the city's new form of hybrid-powered rapid transit, have proved popular after a little more than a year of being fully up and running. These 105-person buses, connecting east and west Belfast on one line and the city center and Titanic Quarter on another, are particularly handy for travelers who want to get from the City Hall area out to the Titanic sights, including the excellent Titanic Belfast museum.

Although the series has ended, Game of Thrones lives on in Northern Ireland, where much of the show was filmed. In the town of Banbridge, 30 minutes from Belfast, a Game of Thrones studio tour — featuring actual sets, costumes, and props from the show — is slated to open later this year at Linen Mill Studios, one of the show's main production sites. Belfast itself celebrates its connection to the show with six free-standing stained-glass windows sprinkled around town. Each window represents a main house or family in the show (one for each episode of the final season).

Ireland is famously welcoming. But for the well-prepared traveler (who visits equipped with good information and the necessary reservations), that welcome will feel even warmer. May your guidebook be well used and the wind always at your back.

If buying same-day tickets to Dublin's Book of?Kells, you'll find few crowds at the side-entrance ticket kiosks. (photo: Rick Steves)

For a more peaceful (and cheaper) experience, visit the Cliffs of Moher early or late in the day. (photo: Dominic Arizona?Bonuccelli)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2362 What’s New in Great Britain for 2020 http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/whats-new-in-great-britain-and-ireland rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-02-06 Britain, even while engulfed in Brexit politics, has been constantly investing in renovations and first-class exhibits to share its heritage — a heritage that remains, in many ways, closely linked to ours.

While many travelers are understandably curious about how Brexit is affecting tourists, from my experience it isn't, at least not yet. The only impact I've found is that the country is cheaper for visitors (with the pound weaker than it's been in a while), and that the tourism industry seems to appreciate visitors even more than usual. (And, for those who like to talk politics, the topic is a fascinating conversation starter.)

Here's a rundown on the latest for travelers going to Britain in 2020:

Timed-entry tickets and advance reservations are becoming increasingly popular throughout Europe, as popular sights grapple with growing crowds. More than ever, it's worth considering booking advance tickets — especially in peak season — for some of London's top sights: the Churchill War Rooms, Houses of Parliament, St. Paul's Cathedral, Tower of London, London Eye, any West End play you're set on seeing, and the newest addition inside Westminster Abbey, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries (which offers nice views of the nave and a small museum with objects from royal ceremonies). Beyond London, it's also good to book ahead for visits to Stonehenge, Tintagel Castle, the Lennon and McCartney homes in Liverpool, and any Edinburgh Festival performances.

Several London sights are temporarily closed for renovations this year. The Orangery at Kensington Palace is undergoing a multi-year restoration; during this time, its famous tea service will be hosted at the equally elegant Kensington Palace Pavilion. The Courtauld Gallery, which exhibits medieval to Post-Impressionist paintings, will remain closed until 2021. The Museum of the Home (formerly known as the Geffrye Museum), which covers the history of making, keeping, and being at home over the past 400 years, should reopen this summer after a thorough renovation.

The big transportation news in London is the construction of the first new underground line since 1999: the 73-mile long Elizabeth line, a.k.a. Crossrail, which promises to relieve congestion on some of London's main Tube lines, while providing a faster public-transit option to Heathrow Airport. This year travelers will see plenty of construction underway, but no new trains — the project's completion has been pushed back (again) to next year. And a promised improvement in international train travel — direct Eurostar train service from Amsterdam to London  plans to begin service on April 30. On about three departures per day, travelers won't need to connect in Brussels in the London-bound direction. Tickets are on sale now for some departures.

Elsewhere in England, several big sights are undergoing changes. At Canterbury Cathedral — the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion — a new welcome center complex, with an info desk and viewing gallery, is set to open this spring. But in 2020, visitors are still likely to see scaffolding and some missing stained glass, as the church's multiyear structural restoration isn't due to wrap up till next year.

Cornwall's dramatic Tintagel Castle, where King Arthur was supposedly born, now requires timed-entry tickets, which are best booked ahead at busy times. The castle also has a new steel footbridge that spans the chasm between the two parts of the castle (once joined by a natural land bridge that collapsed several centuries ago).

In England's idyllic Lake District, poet William Wordsworth's home — Dove Cottage — is closed for restoration for the first part of the year. It should reopen as Wordsworth Grasmere this spring, marking his 250th birthday, with updated museum exhibits.

Scotland is also busy spiffing up its sights. The Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh is currently undergoing a major renovation. A new main entrance recently opened, and construction on a bigger and better gallery space for its core collection of Scottish art is in the works.

Scotland's second city of Glasgow is working on improvements to its city center. For instance, Sauchiehall Street, a shopping street that cuts through the heart of the city, and a few surrounding streets have been revamped with wider sidewalks, more trees and seating, and improved bike lanes to make them more cycle- and pedestrian-friendly. To help cut back on traffic, parking and bus routes are being reduced on some streets.

An interesting side effect of Brexit is a renewed push in Scotland to consider a future apart from England (as Scotland was overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the European Union). It's a good idea to read up on all of this before traveling to Scotland so you'll be able to keep up with potential pub mates.

In Britain, as anywhere in your travels, if you equip yourself with good information and then use it, you'll get more out of your vacation time and money. That's especially true in 2020.

Canterbury Cathedral, a masterpiece of English Gothic architecture, is undergoing a giant renovation. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

A visit to Cornwall's Tintagel Castle, now reached via a dramatic footbridge, is best booked in advance. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2364 What’s New in Italy for 2020 http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/whats-new-in-italy rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-01-30 The biggest changed I've noticed in my most recent European travels is that tourist sites and popular cities have been more crowded than ever — and that's probably most true for Italy. With all the crowds heading for the same few attractions, popular sights and destinations are packed, and ticket lines are long. 

Fortunately, Italy is better organized than ever for the huge crowds that descend on it each year — but only for those who equip themselves with good information and use it. Those who don't may find themselves wondering if Rome is nicknamed "the Eternal City" for the long lines that they spent so much of their vacation standing in. For smart travelers headed to Italy in 2020, staying up on the latest news will translate into many precious hours saved — and lots of frustration avoided. 

As ever, my top tip for Italy is to book your sightseeing ahead of time as much as possible. Sure, this limits your spontaneity — but it's a small price to pay for the extra time it gives you to relax in a café, take an evening stroll, or countless other activities more enjoyable than standing in interminable lines. It's more important than ever to book ahead for big-time sights, most notably Rome's Vatican Museums (home of the Sistine Chapel) and Florence's Uffizi Gallery, Accademia (with Michelangelo's David), and Duomo dome climb. (This is especially true for the Uffizi and Accademia, now that the Firenze Card sightseeing pass no longer includes skip-the-line privileges at either museum.)  

Each year, more sights give you the option to book ahead. You can now skip ticket lines at Milan's Duomo by buying in advance online, as well as at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice — even for same-day tickets. The small fee some sights charge for advance bookings is always a good buy. 

Many sights require advance reservations outright (Milan's Last Supper, Rome's Borghese Gallery, Florence's Brancacci Chapel, Padua's Scrovegni Chapel), and now that list also includes Rome's Colosseum, where reservations can sell out weeks ahead. (Given the crowds, even lesser-known sights may require you to book a slot — for example, the roof of Venice's recently opened T Fondaco dei Tedeschi luxury mall, popular for its sweeping views.)  

Even with visitor-entry limits, some sights can still so packed that they can be hard to enjoy. In high season, I'm not sure it's worth braving the mob scene to go inside the Colosseum. After all, for most of us, at least half the thrill of the Colosseum is seeing it from the outside.  

Longer sightseeing hours also help relieve pressure and are smart to take advantage of. At the Vatican Museums, travelers can now reliably plan for a Friday evening visit from mid-April through October, when the museums stay open until 11 p.m. In Venice, the Doge's Palace is now open in peak season until 9 p.m., and even later on weekends. Padua's Scrovegni Chapel, where art lovers flock to experience Giotto's beautifully preserved frescoes, now lets peak-season visitors book nighttime visits (between 7 and 10 p.m.). Evening visits almost always guarantee a less-crowded experience. 

Infrastructure improvements are always good news for travelers. In Florence, the T2 tram line is now the best option for getting to and from the airport (its other terminus is the main train station): It runs frequently, is much cheaper than a taxi ride, and takes just 20 minutes. 

Always-intense Naples will be especially chaotic this year, as construction projects are underway throughout the city. Visitors arriving by cruise ship should keep in mind that Naples' tram — normally useful for connecting the cruise port to the city center — is not currently running.  

But travelers heading south from Naples to Pompeii do have some new transportation options. City Sightseeing now offers a shuttle bus from Naples' cruise port and main train station right to Pompeii in 30 minutes. Compared to this bus, the Circumvesuviana commuter train (which I've long recommended for this trip) is cheaper, about 10 minutes faster, and much more frequent — but it also tends to be dingy, hot, congested, and full of pickpockets. The more pleasant bus requires some planning, as it runs just three times a day in summer, and each Pompeii-bound bus has a set return time (about 3–4 hours after arriving). Another new option is the Campania Express tourist train, which runs several times a day in peak season along the same tracks as the Circumvesuviana, but is less packed, more secure, and air-conditioned.  

For visitors with enough time in Milan to venture beyond the Duomo neighborhood, I now recommend checking out the redeveloped Porta Nuova neighborhood just north of the center, with a sparkling forest of skyscrapers surrounding a park. An hour spent wandering this happy land of sleek-and-successful urban Italy does wonders to expand your understanding of Milan (and Italy).  

While most travelers come to Italy to enjoy its historical treasures and bask in its rich culture, a rise in tourism means an increase in disrespectful visitors, and Italy's cities are struggling to find effective ways of curbing bad behavior. Rome, for example, now fines tourists for jumping in the Trevi Fountain, and last year the city enacted a ban on sitting on the city's iconic Spanish Steps. Violators face a €250 fine (or more, if they damage anything). 

My mark of a good traveler is how they enjoy Italy. Partly that's about taking Italy on its own terms, and learning to love its "beautiful chaos." But these days, when it comes to navigating the popular and crowded sights its most popular cities, enjoying Italy also requires some planning ahead.

Milan's redeveloped Porta Nuova neighborhood shows visitors a modern side of the city, including two tree-covered skyscrapers. (photo: Rick Steves)

Sitting on the Spanish Steps — a once-popular Roman pastime, as seen in this 2011 photo — could now land you a hefty fine. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2127 Sevilla’s April Fair: Spain’s Sparkling Spring Spectacle http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/april-fair-sevilla-spain rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-01-23 Spring fairs enliven towns throughout Spain, but I've found that nobody does it bigger or better than Sevilla, the capital of Spain's Andalucía region. If you come in April, you'll find one of the most exuberant and colorful festivals in a country known for fiestas — the gigantic Feria de April (April Fair).

The fair is a vibrant and secular indulgence that comes two weeks after Holy Week, which is also an epic event — especially in Sevilla — that stirs the soul and captivates all who participate. After catching their communal breaths, cities like Sevilla use the fair to greet spring. For seven days, Sevillians gather at a huge fairground for a round-the-clock party that would leave the rest of Europe exhausted — and travelers are more than welcome to join in.

People parade around in their peacock finery, and springtime flirtations fill the air. It seems everyone knows everyone in what feels like a thousand wedding receptions being celebrated all at once. It's also a celebration of Andalusían heritage. That means fiery flamenco music, fine horses, artful bullfights, and flamboyant clothes. Everyone seems to indulge in the driest of sherries and an unquenchable obsession for thinly sliced ham.

Any time of year, Sevilla pulses with Iberian passion. But in spring, the weather is ideal. The trees are covered with white and purple blossoms, and the air is heavy with the scent of orange and jasmine. It's a short window of time when southern Spain is at its peak.

The fair is also Sevilla's peak social event of the year. Women sport outlandish, brightly colored flamenco dresses that would look clownish elsewhere, but are somehow brilliant here. A matching, folding fan completes the look — it's not merely to cool off; it's also a crucial part of flamenco dancing, and can be used to flash coded messages in the flirtation rituals. Men wear the traditional caballero outfit — a short jacket and wide-brimmed hat (though nowadays, many wear business suits and ties or formal wear).

Over a thousand tents, called casetas, pop up in a large fairground across the Guadalquivir River from downtown Sevilla. Each colorfully striped tent hosts a private party for a family, club, or association. Though it's supposed to be a private affair, casual tourists can have a fun and memorable evening by simply crashing the party — it’s not unheard of to strike up an impromptu friendship and be invited in.

Inside, the sherry spritzers flow freely. Each caseta is well stocked with a bar and buffet at the back filled with tapas — hors d'oeuvres speared with a toothpick, or atop a piece of bread — and traditional gazpacho (zesty cold tomato soup), among other regional delicacies. The most treasured is jamón — cured ham that's artfully sliced and savored with religious zeal.

Some of the larger tents are sponsored by the city and open to the public, but I find that the best action is in the streets, where party-goers from the livelier casetas spill out.

Festival mornings are sleepy and relaxed. Around noon, the promenading starts. You can enjoy the parades of horses (nearly as dressed up as the people), the locals in colorful costumes, and amusement park rides. The parading tradition has been part of the fair since it began in 1848. Back then, the festival was basically a county fair where livestock breeders showcased their animals. In keeping with the tradition, today's riders continue on to the bullring, where they meet up with other breeders.

As the sun sets, the bullfights end. The horse-and-fashion parade winds down, the streets are cleared of horses, and two-legged party animals take over. By midnight, the fino is flowing freely, and the casetas are rocking. Music is everywhere. Most casetas have their own soundtrack, whether a stereo, a live band, or just a friend who plays guitar. People take turns dancing flamenco. Bystanders clap along, play castanets, and cheer on the dancers with whoops and shouts. It's not unusual for entire families — adults, grandparents, and little kids — to stay up feasting, singing, and dancing until sunrise.

It all builds up to the weekend. As the fair reaches its close, the skies are lit up with a dazzling fireworks show, a tradition that dates back over a century. For the kids, the whole scene creates memories that will be replayed in the next generation.

Travelers love Spain. While filled with history, high art, and culture, Spain also knows how to celebrate, and Sevillians in particular do it with gusto. Festivals like April Fair help Spaniards maintain their cultural identity, with pageantry stoking local, regional, and national pride.

April Fair is a time for both men and women to show off their traditional Sevillian clothing. (photo: Rick Steves)

Sevillians of all ages party well into the night both in tents and out on the lanes of the fairground. (photo: Rick Steves)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2358 France’s Enduring Gothic Cathedrals http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/france-gothic-cathedrals rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-01-16 Despite many years of traveling to France, I still can't help but marvel at the towering Gothic churches that mark the heart of many French cities.

The Gothic style of architecture, primarily employed in churches, evolved in medieval France as a way to give interior spaces a better-lit, more upward-reaching feel than the dark, heavy Romanesque architecture that preceded it. As French urban life grew more stable, churches didn't need to be so fortress-like — and engineering innovations allowed architects to built airier, vertical churches that seemed to stretch heavenward, their walls given over to windows to allow maximum illumination. Newly pointed arches allowed churches to grow higher and more dramatic on the outside, while making space for colorful stained-glass windows on the inside. Counterweight "flying buttresses" — stone arches that reach up from the ground to push back inward on relatively weak external walls, thereby supporting the roof — go even farther in making the interior of giant stone buildings feel almost weightless.

While it will be some time before visitors can once again take in France's most famous Gothic wonder, Paris' Notre-Dame cathedral, plenty other magnificent Gothic cathedrals are sprinkled across the country like jeweled pins on a map.

I like to imagine what it was like to be a pilgrim 600 years ago, hiking for days to a particular church on a particular holy day — and feeling the awe when the soaring spire of the cathedral finally appeared on the horizon.

Nowadays you can hop on a train in Paris and, for example, arrive in just over an hour in Chartres, home of the cathedral that is arguably Europe's best example of pure Gothic. Officially known as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, it's one of more than a hundred churches dedicated to "Our Lady" ("Notre Dame") scattered around France — and, like Paris' Notre-Dame, Chartres' also experienced a harrowing fire.

While mostly made of stone, many Gothic churches feature a wooden roof and/or spire, making them susceptible to fires. Amazingly, after Chartres' cathedral burnt to the ground in 1194, it took just 30 years to rebuild — astonishing when you consider it took centuries to build cathedrals such as Paris' Notre-Dame. What visitors see now is a unity of architecture, statuary, and stained glass that captures the spirit of the 13th century "Age of Faith" like no other church.

At the time of Chartres' fire, the church owned the veil supposedly worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus, making this small town a major player on the pilgrim circuit. While the veil was feared lost in the fire, it was "found" days later unharmed in the crypt. This miracle (or marketing ploy) became the impetus to rebuild quickly. You can still view the veil, along with many statues dedicated to Mary, but for me the highlight of the church is the central window behind the altar: the "Blue Virgin" window. It shows Mary dressed in the famed "Chartres blue," a sumptuous color made by mixing cobalt oxide into the glass.

Two of my favorite Gothic cathedrals are just north of Chartres, in neighboring Normandy.

In contrast to small-town Chartres, Rouen was France's second-largest city in medieval times. Its cathedral, also dedicated to Mary, is primarily famous as a landmark of art history. Visiting today, you can see essentially what Claude Monet saw when he painted 30 different studies of this Flamboyant Gothic (mid-14th century) facade at various seasons and times of day, capturing his "impressions" as the light played across its exquisitely detailed masonry.

Rouen's cathedral was constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, though lightning strikes, wars (the cathedral was accidentally bombed in World War II), and other destructive forces meant constant rebuilding. Inside is a chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc (she was convicted of heresy in Rouen and burned at the stake there in 1431) and several stone tombs that date from when Rouen was the capital of the dukes of Normandy (including one containing the heart of English King Richard the Lionheart).

Two hours west of Rouen, Bayeux's cathedral — as big as Paris' Notre-Dame — dominates its small town. Its two towers and west facade were originally Romanesque, but the towers were later capped with tall Gothic spires, and the facade embellished with a decorative Gothic "curtain" of architectural details. Its interior is also a mix of styles, with solid round arches in the nave's ground level supporting gracefully Gothic upper stories that soar high above. Historians believe the Bayeux tapestry, the 70-yard-long embroidery telling the story of William the Conqueror's victory in the Battle of Hastings, was originally designed to, and did, encircle the nave.

The most impressive Gothic church in eastern France is in Strasbourg, where its venerable cathedral — another "Notre-Dame" — is a true jaw-dropper.

This Gothic spectacle somehow survived the French Revolution, the Franco-Prussian War, and both World Wars. The interior is worth savoring slowly, with its wide nave, exquisite gold-leaf organ, and elaborately carved stone pulpit. The marvelous stained glass, 80 percent of which is original, dates as far back as the 12th century. The church's exterior, with its cloud-piercing spire (at 466 feet, it was the world's tallest until the mid-1800s) and red sandstone (from the 13th and 14th centuries), stands out from the other great Gothic churches in France.

Gothic churches have proved themselves resilient, both physically and as still-powerful works of architectural art. Through wars, fires, and Mother Nature, France's great cathedrals have survived thanks to their ingenuity of design and the loving care of the people they serve.

The pointed arches of Gothic cathedrals allow for dramatic stained-glass windows, such as the ones in Chartres' cathedral. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

The centerpiece of a small town, Bayeux's cathedral is as large as Paris' Notre-Dame. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2354 Buoyant, Booming Belfast http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/belfast-northern-ireland rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-01-09 Belfast, Northern Ireland's capital city, is perhaps best known for the sectarian strife that took place here during the era of the "Troubles," and as the birthplace of the Titanic (and many other ships that didn't sink). While these two claims to fame aren't too uplifting, Belfast's story is hardly a downer. This unsinkable city, just two hours away from Dublin by train, makes for a fascinating day trip.

Wandering through cheery downtown modern-day Belfast, it's hard to believe that the bright and bustling pedestrian center had been a subdued, traffic-free security zone not long ago. But it's no longer dangerous here. While Belfast has the rough edges of any industrial big city, you have to look for trouble to find it. The city is bristling with cranes and busy with tourists. Aggressive sectarian murals are slowly being repainted with scenes celebrating heritage…less carnage, more culture. It feels like a new morning in Belfast.

These days, Unionists (those who feel they're primarily British; most are Protestant) and Nationalists (those who feel they're Irish first; most Catholic) still typically live in segregated zones. But they are now totally integrated in the workplace — and they all root for the Belfast Giants hockey team together.

Relations between Belfast's sectarian neighborhoods remain strained, however. To get the full story, it's important to visit the working-class neighborhoods of both sides: the Shankill Road and Sandy Row areas (Protestant) and the Falls Road district (Catholic). To me, they're best seen with a private taxi tour. The cabbies who offer tours of these neighborhoods grew up here and know their city well, offering honest (if biased) viewpoints on the Troubles, political murals, and local culture. My time with them is always the most interesting 90 minutes of any visit to Belfast.

I once had a guide who was particularly determined to make his country's struggles vivid. He introduced me to Belfast's "Felons Club," run by former IRA prisoners. Hearing heroic stories of Irish resistance while sharing a Guinness with a celebrity felon gave me an affinity for their struggles. The next day at Milltown Cemetery, I walked through the green-trimmed gravesites of his prison-mates — some of whom starved themselves to death for the cause of Irish independence.

The easiest way to get a dose of the Unionist/Protestant side is to walk Sandy Row, the namesake street of Belfast's oldest residential neighborhood. Stop at a Unionist memorabilia shop or pub and ask a local to explain the Unionist symbolism that fills colorful murals here.

Across the River Lagan, east of the center, the historic Titanic Quarter — the former shipbuilding district now filled with museums, entertainment, and posh condos — symbolizes the rise of Belfast. Next to the original slipways where the Titanic was built, the massive Titanic Belfast museum commemorates Belfast's prolific shipbuilding industry. Six stories tall, the striking museum is clad with more than 3,000 sun-reflecting aluminum panels. Inside, the tale of the famous cruise liner is told with creative displays — beginning with a short gondola ride through shipbuilding vignettes.

At the heart of town is another impressive landmark: Belfast's City Hall. This grand structure's 173-foot-tall, green copper dome dominates the city center. Its worthwhile Belfast History and Culture exhibit does an especially good job covering the city's industry, its World War II bombings, and the Troubles. City Hall faces the commercial hub of Belfast, Donegall Place. Queen Victoria would recognize the fine 19th-century brick buildings here — built in the Scottish Baronial style when the Scots dominated Belfast. But she'd be amazed by the changes since then. Belfast was bombed by the Germans in World War II, and, with the Troubles killing the economy at the end of the 20th century, for decades afterward, little was built. But with peace in 1998 — and government investing to subsidize that peace — the 21st century has been one big building boom.

On my latest trip, rainy weather led me to a Belfast gem I'd never explored before: St. George's Market. This was once the largest covered produce market in Ireland, filled with merchants selling butchered meat and fish. Today, the farmers are gone and everyone else, it seems, has moved in. Every weekend, St. George's Market becomes a colorful artisan, crafts, and flea market with a few fish and produce stalls to round things out. With a diverse array of street food and homemade goodies added to the mix, it's a fun place for lunch and people-watching.

On my evening train back to Dublin, I gazed at the peaceful, lush Irish countryside while pondering the charming resilience of Belfast's people. Ireland isn't just Blarney Stones and leprechauns, and Belfast's troubled history is a key part of the story. A visit here offers a chance to balance your Irish vacation — and witness a city's powerful rebound.

Explore the sectarian neighborhoods of Belfast with a local guide who can offer insights and commentary on the area's political murals. (photo: Jessica Shaw)

Belfast's City Hall is a polished and majestic celebration of Victorian-era pride built with industrial wealth. (photo: Rick Steves)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2349 Celebrating a Happy Christmas in England http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/christmas-in-england rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2020-01-02 For scenes straight out of a box of old-fashioned Christmas cards, head to England at Yuletide. Many classic Christmas trappings, from caroling to mince pie and wassail, have been part of English tradition for centuries.

Other holiday customs have more recent roots in 19th-century Britain. Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert, popularized the decorating of Christmas trees and the sending of Christmas cards. Around the same time, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol — still performed every December on thousands of stages across the English-speaking world.

London and Bath are especially appealing in December. Buildings and shops are dressed in their holiday best, elaborate light displays illuminate store windows on major shopping streets, and skaters glide on outdoor ice rinks. Markets and shops fill with gourmet treats, and department stores are fun to browse even when you're done shopping. Bath hosts an annual Christmas market in its old town, as do many other cities and towns; London has market stalls on Leicester Square, in Greenwich, and more — plus a giant twinkling tree on Trafalgar Square. 

Don't expect to see Santa Claus in England. British children visit Father Christmas, who's usually found in a grotto. In London, the poshest Father Christmas is at Harrods department store (the chance to sit on his knee is by invitation only). But tots can see him at spots around town, including the Museum of London, Greenwich Market, and Leicester Square. Father Christmas has also been known to visit the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, which offers kitschy carnival fun with a Ferris wheel, carousel, and other rides, as well as an ice rink.

Just as in America, the joy of the season is expressed in song. Whether as street-corner buskers or in sublime choral groups, the English sing their hearts out. Concerts are held everywhere from grand cathedrals and concert halls to village churches and city squares. In medieval times, carols were not just songs but also folk dances, performed by wandering musicians accompanied by singers. Considered a pagan holdover, carol singing was banned from church, so instead carolers would go door to door visiting the homes of the big shots, performing in hopes of getting a coin, meal, drink, or Christmas treat.

Of course, a high point of Christmastime is the feasting. By the 16th century, "mince" pies (also called "shred" pies — a reference to the shredded meat that was mixed with chopped egg and ginger) had become a Christmas specialty. Over time the recipe was fancied up with dried fruit and other sweets, and by the 17th century, the filling closely resembled today's mix of suet, spices, and dried fruit steeped in brandy. Superstition dictates that bakers stir the filling clockwise, the direction in which the sun would have circled an earth once thought to be at the center of the universe. To stir the other way could spell big trouble in the coming year.

Plum pudding is another traditional British Christmas dessert. In Victorian times on "Stir-up Sunday," at the beginning of Advent, each family member would take a turn at mixing the pudding and making a wish. Then a few tiny trinkets or silver coins were tossed in the batter. (These days, most people just pop an everyday item in their "puds," but you can still buy the old-school charms: a silver coin promises wealth in the coming year, a thimble ensures thrift, an anchor assures safety, and a tiny wishbone brings good luck.) For the next few weeks, the pudding would hang from a sack. On Christmas Day it was boiled until it was fully "plum" (swollen). Just before serving, it would be doused with brandy, topped with a sprig of mistletoe, lit on fire, and carried to the table with great fanfare.

In cold December, hot spiced wine warms the soul. The process of mulling wine with spices can be traced back to Roman times, when winemaking included the addition of salt, myrtle, juniper, honey, rose petals, and citrus rinds. It's thought that honey and spices were added to a simmering pot of wine in the Middle Ages to mask its bitter tannins. If you were an olde Englishman drinking wassail, you would say to your companions, "Waes hail!" meaning, "May you be healthy!" The proper response? "Drink hail!" or "Drink good health!"

Another highlight of the festivities is the Christmas cracker. Just as in Victorian times, kids break open these colorful paper tubes, and crack! A paper crown, a corny joke, and a teeny gift spill out with the pop. For a quieter moment on Christmas Day, many families gather around the telly to watch the Queen's annual Christmas message.

While there are plenty of special holiday happenings throughout England, there are also many closures — including transit — on December 24–26. Plan ahead, and give yourself time for quiet reflection. Happy Christmas!

In London, the courtyard at Somerset House transforms into an ice skating rink every year from mid-November to January. (photo: Lauren Mills)

Shopping in an elegant department store, like London's posh Fortnum & Mason, is a fun holiday activity. (photo credit: Carrie Shepherd)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2345 Basking in the French Riviera’s Lively, Luminous Art http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/french-riviera-art rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-12-13 With its romantic coastline, inviting beaches, and reliable sunshine, southern France's Riviera region has been a tourist destination since the 1860s. In the 1920s, aristocrats from London to Moscow flocked here to socialize, gamble, and escape the dreary weather at home. But the area also attracted a Who's Who of 20th-century artists, who were drawn by the Mediterranean's bohemian atmosphere, luminous light, and contrasting colors of sea, sand, and sky.

The legacies of the many artists who worked in the south — including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso — are memorialized today in an intriguing collection of museums. And visiting them is easy, as none of them tend to be plagued by the long lines and crowds of major museums in Europe's big cities (leaving you plenty of time for the beach). Here are some of my favorites:

Renoir Museum, Cagnes-sur-Mer

In 1907 Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose Impressionist paintings straddled the last turn of the century, built a house and workshop for himself in Cagnes-sur-Mer (halfway between Nice and Antibes). By then an old man, Renoir would spend his last 12 years in this little village happily tending his fruit trees, painting in his studio, and dabbling in sculpture. You can see his atelier, with his easel and palette still in place (as well as his wheelchair and canes), and some original paintings.

Matisse Museum, Nice

Henri Matisse, the master colorist, first came to Nice in 1917, leaving behind financial struggles and a difficult marriage in Paris. He would remain in the Riviera, on and off, until his death in 1954. Though this museum's collection is slender, you can see typical examples of a range of his favorite motifs (flowers, fruit, female nudes) as well as his love of decorative patterns and joyful color.

Chagall Museum, Nice

Marc Chagall settled in the Riviera after World War II. His best-known paintings feature a magical-realist style that conjures up his native Russia, with fiddlers on roofs and horses in flight. Chagall had a hand in designing this delightful museum, which includes his Biblical Message cycle: 17 large luminous canvases on biblical themes, painted in bright reds, blues, and greens that manage to combine aspects of his Russian-Jewish heritage with the Christian story.

Picasso Museum, Antibes

Pablo Picasso, the pioneer of Cubism, summered on the Riviera nearly every year from 1919 until he died in 1973. He had hunkered down in Paris for most of World War II, but in 1946 he returned to Antibes, on the coast, where he spent a productive part of a year working in the town's landmark Château Grimaldi. Forced to improvise his materials after the shortages of the war years, but elated by the newfound peace (and a new girlfriend), Picasso produced an amazing volume of celebratory, colorful artworks. The compact museum now housed in the Grimaldi offers a manageable look at the paintings and sketches Picasso made there.

Picasso Museum, Vallauris

After his sabbatical in Antibes, Picasso moved on to Vallauris, a typical Riviera village midway between Antibes and Cannes. The little town was home to several active art potteries, and Picasso became so enamored by the ceramics he saw that he resolved to take up clay as a medium. He ended up staying in Vallauris until 1955, and the museum there is a good place to become acquainted with his playful approach to ceramic art.

Maeght Foundation, St-Paul-de-Vence

This inviting, private museum, situated just above the inland town of St-Paul-de-Vence, offers an excellent introduction to modern Mediterranean art. Its founder, the Parisian art dealer Aimé Maeght, purchased an arid hilltop in the 1960s, planted it with 35,000 trees and shrubs, and hired the Catalan architect José Luis Sert to design a museum for his collection. Today it gathers under one roof the work of many famous modern artists (Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall). The lovely setting, with a verdant sculpture garden, is a bonus.

Chapel of the Rosary, Vence

Matisse convalesced from cancer surgery in 1941 with the help of a Dominican nun, and years later, in 1949, he repaid the favor by designing this tiny chapel in the hills above Nice. Deceptively simple, the chapel is tiled in plain white, with a few black-on-white line drawings (one depicts St. Dominic). But yellow, green, and blue stained-glass windows filter the sunlight, creating a cheery dance across the walls — expressing Matisse's irrepressible love of life. It's a space of light and calm that only a master could have created.


Thanks to these diverse museums, the Riviera has a cultural richness that's not typical of resort areas. The collections reflect the congenial joie de vivre of southern France: the playfulness, freedom, color, and beauty that inspires artists to this day.

The essential elements of the French Riviera — azure water, blue sky, and endless sunshine — appeal to vacationers and artists alike in places like Nice. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

The Chagall Museum in Nice was purpose-built during the artist's lifetime to present his biblical paintings. (photo: Rick Steves)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2340 Finding Peace in Europe’s Overlooked Sights http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/europe-overlooked-sights rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-12-12 Seeing the top sights in Europe's big cities can be intense. Here you are in Paris, at last, just to find that it's hot, it's crowded, and that your dream of having a quiet moment with the Mona Lisa is shared by around six million people every year.

The mission of my most recent trip to Europe was to find peace and tranquility in big cities that, in many ways, feel overrun with tourists. And it's surprisingly easy to do.

Many travelers stick to the most famous sights — and I don't blame them; everyone's vacation time is limited, and the sights are famous for a reason. But cities like Rome, Florence, and Vienna have a number of attractions where you can enjoy an equally thrilling artistic encounter without the overwhelming crowds.

In Rome — the "Eternal City" — you can spend what feels like an eternity waiting in line with your fellow tourists at the most crowded spots. Fortunately, Rome has plenty of extremely rewarding sights that are cool, quiet, and give an intimate peek at an amazing ancient world.

Most clamor to see the famed sites of ancient ruins, especially the Colosseum and Forum, and often neglect the treasures tucked indoors. The relatively empty National Museum of Rome, for example, houses the world's greatest collection of ancient Roman art, including busts of emperors and one of the finest Roman copies of Classical Greece's long-revered Discus Thrower statue. And just a few minutes' walk from the Roman Forum, the Capitoline Museums hold more of ancient Rome's most impressive art. Highlights include an equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a famous representation of an ancient wounded warrior (the Dying Gaul), and a bronze statue depicting legendary she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, the infants who became the founders of Rome. But even in peak season, you may well find yourself alone with the wonders of the ancient world, wondering, "Where is everyone?"

A 10-minute stroll from Rome's overcrowded Colosseum is a free-standing ruin of nearly equal vastness — the impressive Baths of Caracalla. This sight is dramatic in part because nothing was built around or on top of it — and few people visit it. Today, if you bring a fertile imagination, it's a wonderful place to picture Rome at its zenith.

The same goes for Florence, where visitors cram into the three most famous sights (the Accademia Gallery, Uffizi Gallery, and Duomo), leaving other museums and galleries — which would be big hits in a lesser city — essentially empty.

On my last trip to Florence, I visited the Hospital of the Innocents, just a few minutes away from the mobbed Accademia, where Michelangelo's David stands surrounded by adoring fans. Designed in the 15th century by Filippo Brunelleschi, and considered by many the first Renaissance building, the hospital typifies the new (at the time) aesthetic of calm balance and symmetry. With its mission to care for orphans, the hospital was also an important symbol of the increasingly humanistic outlook of Renaissance Florence. Now a museum, it houses terra-cotta medallions by Luca della Robbia and other magnificent artwork. But on my last visit it was almost empty — I shared it only with a group of school children on a field trip.

Vienna is home to an outsize proportion of world-famous artworks, especially at the big-name Kunsthistorisches Museum and Belvedere Palace. But on each visit I also like to make time for the much quieter Albertina Museum, which takes up a far-flung corner of the city center's extensive Hofburg Palace complex. This laid-back museum has a remarkable collection of minor works by major artists, including sketches, woodcuts, and watercolors. As the exhibits rotate, at one time you might see Claude Monet's water lilies and Edgar Degas' dancers, at another time there might be Edvard Munch's moody landscapes and Gustav Klimt's eerie femme fatales. On a recent trip, I enjoyed quality time alone here with some of my favorite artists.

Even in St. Petersburg, where one blockbuster sight stands above them all — the world-famous Hermitage Museum — you can find peace in the massive museum's Impressionist section, located in a building across the square from the main galleries.

With a staggering three million works of art housed in a series of mostly interconnected buildings, the Hermitage can be a zoo. But its incredible Impressionist (and Post-Impressionist) collection stands alone in the nearby General Staff Building. Most visitors head straight into the Winter Palace and wind their way through the adjoining palaces in a route that can become overwhelming. Savvy travelers buy their ticket at the Impressionist galleries (where it's almost always less crowded), see this collection first, then head for the highlights in the main complex.

Great art often hides in less-famous sights. Throughout my travels, I've noticed that huge crowds don't always gravitate to the most enjoyable locations. There are countless amazing places you can have all to yourself. If you do your homework, you'll know about attractions where peace and elegance trump crowds and chaos.

Hiding in a distant wing of Vienna's crowded Hofburg Palace, the Albertina Museum's 19th-century state rooms are usually nearly empty. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

In Rome, the dramatic Baths of Caracalla are a 10-minute walk from the mobbed-with-tourists Colosseum. (photo: Rick Steves)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2339 Embracing Europe in Winter http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/winter-travel-europe rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-12-05 Every time I travel to Europe in the off-season, I find myself enjoying a cool and comfy tranquility — and not missing the heat and crowds that so often come with peak season. But even more than that, I enjoy catching Europe by surprise — at its candid best, living everyday life. When I travel outside of the tourist season, Europe seems even more welcoming than normal.

Some of my warmest European memories have been gained while wearing a sweater in the off-season. Lingering over a café crème in a nearly tourist-free Paris, I'm joined by a tiny bird on the next wicker chair as we watch Parisians parade by. I enjoy a theater and music scene designed for locals rather than tourists. I take my time at a château in France's Loire Valley, with a big log on the fire and guards relaxed and happy to chat. I sit alone on a pebbly Italian Riviera beach and step into the wonder of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome with none of the jostle. Bundle up and get convivial with Europe in the off-season and you'll understand why, for so many, that's a favorite time to travel.

There are also some practical advantages to traveling in the off-season (considered November through March). Airfare is generally cheaper. Outside of places that get lots of business travelers, hotels and Airbnb-type rentals are also less expensive, and you can sometimes even bargain for deeper discounts.

In winter, you can usually walk right in at sights that are plagued with lines in peak season. Without having to buy advance tickets, you can often show up when you want at places like Florence's Uffizi, Paris's Orsay, and Barcelona's Picasso Museum. Sightseeing crowds are thinner, allowing you to spend some time enjoying Europe's treasures up close.

Of course, winter travel also comes with drawbacks. Because much of Europe is at Canadian latitudes, days are short, and it's generally dark by 5 p.m. The weather can be cold, windy, drizzly, and generally dreary, and you'll need to pack heavier, including a good waterproof coat and shoes.

In winter, sightseeing priorities change. You'll probably do less meandering and exploring of neighborhoods, and more beelining to and from sights. Museums provide a warm and cozy haven, while outdoor sights can be harder to enjoy — frigid weather can drain the fun out of even the Eiffel Tower and other must-sees.

Many sights operate on shorter hours in the off-season, often closing around sunset. English-language tours, common in the summer, are not as common in the off-season, when most visitors are natives. And winter sightseeing can be especially frustrating in smaller tourist towns, where many sights and restaurants close down entirely.

Off-season is a fine time to visit big cities, which bustle year-round, as well as the Mediterranean region (Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc.), which is often horribly hot and crowded in the summer, but fairly mild in winter. While Europe's wonderful outdoor evening ambience tends to hibernate during winter in the north, it survives all year in the south. And, of course, in some places, such as Switzerland, winter activities — skiing, sledding, and other snow sports — are an important part of the culture (and tourism).

The month leading up to Christmas is an especially fun time in Europe. For instance, German towns big and small light up with Christmas markets, highlighted by carolers, festive decor, artisan ornaments and other handicrafts, and seasonal treats such as hot spiced wine. Christmas markets are also popular in Switzerland, Austria, and other countries.

In London, Paris, and other cities, buildings and streets dress in their holiday best, and outdoor ice rinks pop up. In Paris, hundreds of fresh-cut fir trees line the Champs-Elysées, sparkling with a dazzling display of lights. In Britain, a fun holiday tradition is the "panto" — campy fairy-tale plays with outrageous costumes, sets, dance numbers, and audience participation.

Late winter brings more raucous revelry, when various Mardi Gras/Carnival celebrations brighten the mood throughout Europe in February. The quintessential destination is Venice, which erupts for 18 days in an extravagant festival of costumes, parties, dinners, themed parades, and masquerade balls — a final debauchery before the restrictions of Lent. The festivities end with a huge dance on St. Mark's Square, lit with fireworks.

Outside of holiday and festival times, Europe is quiet in winter. While fields and squares are filled with color and vibrancy in the summer, in winter the atmosphere feels intimate, as naked branches, lonely vistas, and solitary candles flickering in windows offer a peaceful charm with the promise of life and renewal just around the corner.

Travelers who visit Paris in winter get to experience a less congested, more European Europe. (photo: Sandra Hundacker)

Revelers in ornate, outrageous costumes and colorful masks descend upon Venice during Carnival. (photo: Simon Griffith)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2303 How to Avoid Crowds in the Cinque Terre http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/cinque-terre-crowds rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-11-28 When I first came to the Cinque Terre, then an isolated stretch of the Italian Riviera south of Genoa, it was a classic "back door": a string of five pastel-hued hamlets clinging to craggy seaside slopes and surrounded by steep, rocky vineyards. It was authentic, romantic, and without a tourist in sight. Fast forward several decades…and the once-sleepy villages are now on Instagram bucket lists and mobbed in high season by organized tours and cruise-ship excursions.

The resident population of the five towns (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manorola, and Riomaggiore) is just four thousand — but it's estimated that some 2.5 million travelers visit annually. And it's not just foreign tourists who flock here: Italians love the Cinque Terre too.

The result, especially when day-trippers hit, is that trains and station platforms are often mob scenes, the iconic coastal hiking trail becomes almost impassable, and the towns' tiny lanes are clogged to bursting. Even so, I still recommend this seductive corner of Italy. You can (and should) have a wonderful time here. Avoid the worst of the logjams by following these tips:

Consider your timing. April can be ideal, with fewer crowds and cooler temperatures. The busiest months are May, June, September, and October; July and August can be less congested (but hotter). Avoid holiday weekends — especially Easter and Italian Liberation Day (April 25). I thought reports of catastrophic crowds were exaggerated…until I was there over a three-day weekend. On one recent Easter, 95,000 visitors to little Vernazza caused shoulder-to-shoulder gridlock.

Sleep in the Cinque Terre — not nearby. The towns of Levanto and La Spezia are near the Cinque Terre and well connected by train, making them popular home bases. But it's easier to take advantage of the cool, relaxed, and quiet morning and evening hours if you're sleeping in one of the five towns.

Skip town at midday. Cruisers and day-trippers start pouring into the Cinque Terre around 10 a.m. and typically head out by 5 p.m. Those midday hours are your time to hit the beach or find a hike away from the main trails. Be a reverse commuter: Leave town during the day and come back in the late afternoon, just as the crowds are thinning out.

Hire your own boat. If the regularly scheduled boats between towns are overwhelmed, consider hiring your own boat to zip you to the next village. Captains hang out at each town's harbor, offering one-way transfers to other towns, sightseeing cruises, and more. It's cheaper than you might think (about $35–60) and very affordable if you split it among three or four travelers.

Figure out alternative, crowd-free activities. When the towns and trails are jammed, find something fun to do that's off the beaten path. For example, pick a scenic spot for a wine tasting (the Cinque Terre is known for its white wine made from bosco grapes) or sign up for a pesto-making class (the tasty basil-and-nut sauce originated here).

Hike smartly. Most travelers aim for the well-known main coastal trail, which can be a human traffic jam and very hot at midday. Making things even worse, recent landslides have closed two key segments of the trail, pushing more hikers onto the remaining pathway. If you're determined to hike it, go early (by 8 a.m.) or late (around 4 or 5 p.m.). Before setting out on an evening hike, find out when the sun will set — there's no lighting on the trails.

Escape to alternative trails and towns. If you hear that it'll be a busy cruise day, plan your activities elsewhere. If you'd like to hit the beach but Monterosso's is a parking lot of bodies, hop the train a few minutes to nearby Levanto, rent a bike, and pedal on a level path to the delightful (and far less-crowded) beaches at Bonassola or Framura.

You don't have to join the tourist conga line on the coastal trail either. The entire Cinque Terre is crisscrossed with hiking trails where you'll scarcely encounter another person. The offices of the Cinque Terre national park (there's one in each town) are a great resource for learning about your options.

Don't let the vertical terrain intimidate you. On a recent trip, I smartly took advantage of the shuttle buses that connect the towns to higher trailheads: I rode up, soaking up the scenery, then hiked down. Those upper trailheads are often where you'll find remnants of much older Cinque Terre settlements, including evocative cemeteries and age-old churches. High above the tourist crowds, I could hear the birds and feel the maritime air pushed up with the breeze — and I was alone. The tranquility was heaven.


I've come back to the Cinque Terre nearly every year for decades. And even though the region is now well discovered, I love that the magic still survives — if you know where to find it.

The picture-perfect setting of the Cinque Terre villages (in this case, Riomaggiore) draws millions of tourists annually. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Tour groups can crowd Cinque Terre train platforms in peak season. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2299 Tranquil Tomar: A Break from Portugal’s Tourist Tumult http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/tomar-portugal rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-11-14 With a rich culture, friendly people, affordable prices, and a salty setting on the edge of Europe, Portugal understandably makes a rewarding destination for travelers. Bustling Lisbon and the sunny Algarve coast are well known to tourists (for good reason), but quieter places also offer tantalizing tastes of Portuguese flavor.

About 90 miles northeast of Lisbon, just east of the pilgrimage site of Fátima, is lushly green Tomar — a quaint town of about 20,000 residents, set under a historic fortress. It's a place with lots of local ambience, yet remarkably untouristed — and well worth a stop.

While there was a settlement here in Roman times, Tomar's importance started in the 12th century with the construction of a hill-topping castle, the Convento de Cristo. Gualdim Pais, a Grand Master of the Knights Templar religious order, put Tomar on the map by building the castle with Middle Eastern architectural techniques picked up during Crusades to the Holy Land.

To get the lay of the land, I strolled Tomar's riverside. The tiny Nabão River, running north-south through the middle of town, is all Tomar's — it starts nearby and flows just a few miles before emptying into the Tagus River outside of town. Mid-river, a peaceful island with a pleasant park and a rebuilt medieval waterwheel shows off what must have been impressive technology in its day. At the old bridge, Ponte Velha, I headed right through the old town to the main square, Praça da República. The town's easy-to-navigate grid is a reminder that Tomar was a garrison town built to defend the castle.

Praça da República is a tempting spot to slow down and nurse a drink at a café, enjoying the relaxed tempo of local life. Children on bikes test their training wheels, pigeons strut as if they own the place, old-timers shake their heads at today's fashions, and tuk-tuk drivers hustle business (negotiating short town tours on motorized rickshaws). The neighborhood offers plenty of inviting spots to grab a bite or a drink, such as the classic Café Paraíso, a time-warp eatery retaining the humble vibe of mid-century days.

Since Tomar is inland, pork and beef are staples on any menu here. All over town I noticed loaves of bread stacked into a very tall "crown," decorated with flowers. Women carry these on their heads in a festival every four years, incorporating pagan and harvest rituals into the Catholic celebration during the Festa dos Tabuleiros (Festival of the Trays) in late June or early July. Thanks to this tradition, expect fantastic bread with any meal here. Sip a glass of local Tejo wine or try a Portuguese craft beer as you take in the warmth and history right beside you.

Towering above Tomar is its castle, with an Oz-like oratory built 800 years ago. This circular chapel is where knights would go to be blessed before battle as they defended Portugal against the Moors, protected pilgrims heading for the Holy Land, or championed Portugal in the Age of Discovery. The Knights Templar was a rich organization — both as a popular Christian charity and as originator of Europe's first great banking system. Pilgrims from western Europe would deposit their money with the Templars before leaving home, were given a "check" (safer than cash to travel with), and could make withdrawals along their pilgrimage as they ventured east. You could call the Templars the first multinational corporation. When pilgrims died on their journey, which was all too common, the Templars kept their estate. (When banking, always read the fine print!)

The Convento de Cristo's interior gives a glimpse of the mystical wonder of the Knights Templar. The original castle and oratory were built when such impressive architecture was new in Europe. The oratory was designed so horses (important in the Templars' success on the battlefield) could be ridden in and blessed. Later, under Portuguese King Manuel I, a big conventional church was added. The oratory's wall was cut open to connect the church and the oratory with a grand, triumphal arch. The church's nave is decorated in the incredibly intricate Manueline style — motifs that pay tribute to the sea trade that made Portugal rich. Ornamental shields and coats of arms are decorated with castles, crosses, lions, flags, and crowns. There are even designs that duplicate ropes used on ships during Portugal's Age of Discovery.

Visiting this oratory, I was excited to realize I've been coming to Portugal all my life and I'd never been here before. That's good news — you can never exhaust Europe of its wonders.

The church inside Tomar's Convento de Cristo, designed at the height of Portugal's sea power, is covered with elaborate motifs. (photo: Rick Steves)

Tomar's Pra?a da República is a classic Portuguese square where you can relax at a café and enjoy the Old World scene. (photo: Robert Wright)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2293 Lesser-Known Bones: Europe’s Offbeat Crypts and Cemeteries http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/europe-crypts-cemeteries rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-11-07 Over the years, I've popped into a lot of burial grounds — some peaceful and scenic, some eerie and evocative — all revealing compelling stories of the past. Some high-profile places — such as the catacombs in Rome or Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris — get a lot of press; these are some of my favorite lesser-known places to commune with Europeans long gone.

Cemetery of the Fountains (Naples)

The series of caves known as the Cemetery of the Fountains (Cimitero delle Fontanelle) are stacked with human bones and dotted with chapels. A thousand years ago, this was just a quarry cut into the hills north of Naples. But in the 16th century, churches with crowded burial grounds began moving the bones of their long dead here to make room for the newly dead. Later, these caves housed the bones of plague victims and paupers. In the 19th century, many churches again emptied their cemeteries and added even more skulls to this vast ossuary. Then devout locals started to "adopt" the remains. They named the skulls, put them in little houses, brought them flowers, and asked them to intervene with God for favors. If you visit this free sight in Naples' gritty Sanità District, consider bringing some flowers too.

Merry Cemetery (Maramure?, Romania)

In 1935, a local woodcarver in northern Romania — inspired by a long-forgotten tradition — began filling a local cemetery with a forest of vivid memorials. Now known as the "Merry Cemetery," each grave comes with a whimsical poem and a painting of the departed doing something he or she loved. Despite the cemetery's name, many of the graves' poems are downright morose. Tales of young lives cut short by tragic accidents, warriors mowed down in the prime of life, and people who simply never found happiness are reminders that life can be anything but cheerful. Even if you can't read the poems, the images speak volumes: weaver…loved bikes…television repairman…soldier…hit by a car…struck by lightning…nagging mother-in-law. It's all painted a cheery blue to match the heavens where the souls are headed. It's a poignant celebration of each individual's life, a chronicle of village history, and an irreverent raspberry in the face of death.

Brú na Bóinne (Boyne Valley, Ireland)

Just 30 miles north of Dublin are two enigmatic burial mounds at the archaeological site of Brú na Bóinne. These 5,000-year-old passage tombs — Newgrange and Knowth (rhymes with "south") — are massive grass-covered burial mounds built atop separate hills, each with a chamber inside reached by a narrow stone passage. The tombs are both precisely aligned to the sun's movements so that a beam of light creeps down the passageway and lights up the chambers — Newgrange at the winter solstice, and Knowth at the equinox. Perhaps the ancients believed that this was the moment when the souls of the dead were transported to the afterlife, via that ray of light. At both sites, huge curbstones — carved with spirals, crosshatches, bull's-eyes, and chevrons — add to the mystery. Thought-provoking, and mind-bogglingly old, these tombs can give you chills.

Aître Saint-Maclou (Rouen, France)

When the Black Death took the lives of 75 percent of this community in northern France in 1348, dealing with the corpses was overwhelming. The half-timbered courtyard of Aître Saint-Maclou was an ossuary where the bodies were "processed" — dumped into the grave and drenched in liquid lime to help speed decomposition. Later, the bones were stacked in alcoves above the arcades that line this courtyard. The exposed wood timbers were later carved with ghoulish images of gravediggers' tools, skulls, crossbones, and characters doing the "dance of death." In this danse macabre, Death, the great equalizer, grabs people of all social classes. A cat skeleton displayed here in a glass case was found in the wall; local historians believe it was a black cat buried alive to ward off evil.

Capuchin Crypt (Palermo, Sicily)

One of my oddest experiences in Sicily is finding myself surrounded by thousands of mummified bodies in the crypt of Palermo's Capuchin monastery. When Capuchin monks passed away, it was common for their brothers to put the bones on show to remind people about their mortality. But the monks of Palermo didn't just display bones, they preserved entire bodies. Later, the monks realized they could charge wealthy parishioners for the privilege of being mummified, which became a fashionable way to be memorialized among some Sicilians. By 1887, the practice had become forbidden except in special cases, and about 4,000 bodies had been collected in their crypt. Today, the public is welcome to wander this collection of fully clothed and remarkably preserved bodies.

All over Europe, you'll find fascinating cemeteries and crypts to visit. When you do, you'll see that even long after death, the bones and memorials still have something to say.

The Capuchin Crypt in Palermo, Sicily, displays mummified bodies — complete with clothing--intended to remind the living that life is temporary. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Romania's colorful Merry Cemetery celebrates its dead with poetry and stylized portraits. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2292 Florence for Foodies http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/florence-cuisine-foodies rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-10-31 Sampling Italian cuisine is sightseeing for your palate. The tour plan: Start with fresh ingredients and talented cooks, take in a city's personality, and seek out a happy dining crowd. Experiencing Italy's cafés, cuisine, and wines is a joy, and as the capital of Tuscany, Florence offers a particularly satisfying spread.

Tuscan cuisine is hearty and simple farmer's food: grilled meats, high-quality seasonal vegetables, fresh herbs, prized olive oil, and rustic bread. Tuscan riboleta combines these ingredients into a savory bean-and-bread soup. If a dish's name ends with "alla toscana" or "alla fiorentina," that means it's cooked in the Tuscan or Florentine style — usually a preparation highlighting local products.

Restaurant competition in Florence is fierce, so it's easy to find delicious Tuscan specialties at fair prices — even in the most touristy zones. But for the most authentic ambience and better-quality meals, I like to hike across the Arno River to the quiet Oltrarno neighborhood. This is where I find the tastiest bistecca alla Fiorentina — thick T-bone steak, generally grilled very rare and lightly seasoned. The best (and most expensive) is from the white Chianina breed of cattle you'll see grazing throughout Tuscany.

But dining out is only one option for foodies. The heart of the food scene in Florence is the trendy Industrial Age, steel-and-glass Mercato Centrale (Central Market). Along with all the must-see museums, this market is one of the great sights in Florence. The ground floor is a thriving edible wonderland of vendors selling meat, fish, produce, and other staples to a mostly local clientele. And the upstairs is a bustling food court open late into the evening.

I come here to gather fresh mozzarella cheese, olives, fruit, and crunchy bread for a casual picnic. But these days, picnickers like me need to be discreet — Florence now bans eating on public sidewalks and doorsteps in its historic center (and violators risk a hefty fine).

At the market's tripe stand, it's easy to see that locals eat just about every bit of the cow…and some bits unique to the bull, too. Tourists may find it hard to stomach, but Florentines' favorite quick lunch is a panino (sandwich) of trippa or lampredotto — the lining from the second and fourth stomach of a cow, respectively — slow-boiled to tender perfection.

Offal sandwiches originated as an affordable source of protein for working-class Florentines. While on lunch breaks from chipping trapped statues out of blocks of marble, Michelangelo would swing by a Florentine market and dig into a bun stuffed with stewed organs. The city's longstanding love affair with this sandwich nearly faded away a few years back, but the recent worldwide trend for "nose-to-tail" eating has kicked off a renaissance of food carts selling this local favorite.

Most carts also offer bollito (stewed beef) and the always delicious — and easier to stomach — porchetta (roast pork with herbs). No matter what you order, watch closely as the food-cart owner pulls the lid off of a gently simmering pot, forks out some tender meat, and — if you're lucky — dips the bun in the broth before topping it with spicy and tangy sauces. But if you have the guts…give trippa a try. It's offal.

Cooking classes are an ideal way to learn a thing or two about this region's prodigious culinary tradition. Classes in Florence range from multiday or multiweek courses for more serious chefs, to two- or three-hour crash courses for tourists. These are some of my favorite activities in Tuscany, combining a unique Italian experience (learning to cook, say, pasta from scratch) with a satisfying meal, all in just a few hours.

In my experience, the best casual cooking classes are taught in a real kitchen environment (rather than a stuffy classroom or "show" kitchen) and have a spirit of fun and collaboration. Smaller groups allow more personal interaction and hands-on activity. After a couple of hours cooking, everyone sits down to a hard-earned (if not always flawlessly executed) meal. They'll usually send you on your way with the recipes you prepared that day.

I cap nearly every Italian meal with a gelato-fueled stroll. Italy's most flavorful ice cream-perhaps the world's best — is in Florence. I stay away from places with heaping mounds of brightly (artificially) colored gelato and instead look for covered metal tins with muted-hued gelato that's more likely to be homemade. Seasonal flavors are also a good sign. I find the key to gelato appreciation is sampling liberally and choosing flavors that complement each other, like caffè (coffee) and cioccolato (chocolate).

Florence offers a wide array of foodie activities and Tuscan delicacies beyond the usual Italian pizza and pasta fare — be brave and dive in. Consider these edible experiences part of your sightseeing duty. Buon appetito!

Florence's Mercato Centrale bursts with colorful meats, olives, produce, and cheeses — perfect for cobbling together a fresh Florentine picnic. (photo: Ben Cameron)

Florence offers plenty of engaging cooking classes. (photo: Rick Steves)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2256 Savoring Normandy’s Hospitality http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/normandy-france-food rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-10-24 Picture this: Half-timbered towns with tall cathedral spires, thatched-roof cottages dotted among green rolling hills, fat happy cows, and drifts of gnarled apple trees. This is the beguiling Normandy coast of France.

Strategically positioned across from England, Normandy is the closest coastline to Paris. That prime location may attract urban beachgoers, but it also explains why this welcoming corner of France has seen more than its share of war.

In the ninth century, Viking Norsemen swooped in from the north and gave the region its name. A couple of hundred years later, William the Conqueror invaded England from Normandy (his 1066 victory is commemorated in a medieval tapestry — more about that later). A few hundred years after that, France's greatest cheerleader, Joan of Arc, was burned at the stake in Rouen by the English, against whom she rallied France during the Hundred Years' War.

And in 1944, Normandy was the site of a WWII battle that changed the course of history. For many Americans, Normandy begins and ends with the D-Day museums and memorials that commemorate the heroic Allied landing of June 6, 1944.

But even if the rugged Norman coast still harbors wartime bunkers and military cemeteries, it's also home to pristine beaches, enchanting fishing villages, and pleasant seaside resorts. It's such a popular getaway that Parisians call it the "21st arrondissement" — and with its delicious cuisine and idyllic nature, it's no wonder. Brits consider it close enough for a weekend outing (BBC radio comes through loud and clear here).

Little Bayeux, six miles inland, makes an ideal home base for visiting the area's sights. Even without its proximity to the D-Day beaches, it's worth a visit for its enjoyable town center, awe-inspiring cathedral (William the Conqueror was present for its consecration in 1077), and the remarkable 230-foot Bayeux Tapestry, which painstakingly details William's conquest of England, scene by scene.

For the ultimate Norman experience, though, I prefer to stay at a rural farmhouse B&B. Ancient stone houses, often owned by the same family for decades or longer, offer simple rooms outfitted with vintage furniture and linens crisp from drying on a backyard line. Breakfast eggs often come from the hens in the yard. It's the ideal way to sample everyday life firsthand.

Getting into the countryside is also the key to experiencing the local cuisine. Normandy, after all, is the earthy land of the four Cs: Calvados, Camembert, cider, and crème (cream sauces). When you see "à la Normande" on a menu here, expect your food to be bathed in cream and butter.

There's no local wine in Normandy, but this region of apple orchards is proud of its powerful Calvados apple brandy and hard apple ciders. Along green lanes lined with hedgerows, Route du Cidre signs (with a bright red apple) lead tourists to producers of handcrafted cider and brandy. At mom-and-pop places, proprietors invite you into the kitchen for a taste and a chance to buy a bottle. Bigger outfits happily open up their musty cellars and pressing sheds, offering tastings and tours.

At restaurants here, you might be offered a trou Normand, a shot of Calvados served in the middle of a big meal (it's sometimes poured over apple sorbet), with the idea that it will reinvigorate your appetite to get you through the next course. You'll also find bottles of the aperitif Pommeau, a blend of apple juice and Calvados, as well as poiré, a tasty pear cider.

Those ciders and brandies are perfect for washing down the region's premier cheeses and cream sauces. What makes these dairy products so special? It's the terroir — the lush green pastureland brushed by the mild maritime climate. And it's the brown-and-white Normande cow, which produces a daily output of five gallons of milk that's super high in butterfat. (This stoic breed was nearly wiped out during the 1944 Allied invasion, but has since rebounded.)

The rich milk of the Normande cow is essential to the region's iconic Camembert cheese, packaged in its little wooden box. Runny and moist, the funky raw-milk Camembert available in Normandy is nothing like the rubbery pucks sold at home. Look for cheeses labeled "Camembert de Normandie AOP" to get the real thing. The French even control the designation of Normandy's thick, unpasteurized cream (AOC crème fraîche de Normandie).

Here's a tip: If you're going to splurge on a nice dinner in France, do it in a small Norman town, where fine dining can be a terrific value. After spending a day visiting the D-Day beaches, I look forward to the edible and drinkable hospitality that's so abundant in Normandy. Even when the food's gone and the bottle's empty, the party goes on.

Normandy's little lanes, cute stone houses, and lush greenery are irresistible. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Part of Normandy's apple crop is transformed into hard cider that you can sample throughout the region. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2244 St. Andrews: Hit the Links, Books, and Beach http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/st-andrews-scotland rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-10-17 Tiny St. Andrews has a huge reputation, known around the world as the birthplace and royal seat of golf. The chance to play on the world's oldest course — or at least take in the iconic view of its 18th hole — keeps the town perennially popular among golfing pilgrims. But any visitor to Scotland should consider at least a short stop in this scenic, intriguingly historic university town.

Located about a one-and-a-half-hour drive north of Edinburgh, and dramatically crowning the cliffs at the tip of a peninsula jutting into the North Sea, St. Andrews has been a tourist destination for centuries — in part because of its important role in Scottish history.

During the religious turbulence between the Great Schism and the Reformation, St. Andrews was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, and its cathedral was its showpiece church. The relics of its namesake saint first put the town on the medieval map, drawing pilgrims from around Europe…until it was ransacked by Protestants, and its stones repurposed for newer buildings in town. Just a few blocks away from the cathedral ruins is St. Andrews Castle, which had also been largely destroyed during the Reformation. What little is left makes a fun visit for its dungeons and tunnels.

In addition to its ruined cathedral and castle, St. Andrews still retains its original medieval, compact street plan, with just four main streets that all lead to the cathedral, connected mostly by narrow, twisting lanes called "wynds." (The street sign for one of them, Butts Wynd, often goes missing for some reason.)

But golf is the main draw of the town; for any serious golfer, a visit to St. Andrews means the chance to play a round where the sport was supposedly invented: the Old Course. Since the grassy beachfront strip just outside St. Andrews couldn't support crops, it was used for playing the game — and centuries later it still is. The first record of golf being played here was in 1553 (but nobody knows exactly when and where people first hit a ball with a stick for fun).

While golf's origins might be a little ambiguous, there's no doubt that the town turned it into the sport we know today. Why do golf courses have 18 holes? Because that's how many fit at the Old Course. Except for when it's hosting the British Open, the Old Course is open to the public. But playing a round here is pricey and requires major planning: Reserve at least a year in advance, or try your luck in the daily lottery. The St. Andrews Links include six other courses that are much easier (and cheaper) to play.

Nongolfers (like me) can still brag that they've golfed at St. Andrews by playing a round at the Old Course's fun putting course — nicknamed "The Himalayas" for its dramatically hilly terrain. While the building housing the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, still golf's rulemaking body, is off-limits to nonmembers, anyone can take in the history of the sport at the nearby British Golf Museum, with a compact exhibit that reverently explains the game's origins and changes over time.

Just below the Old Course is a broad, two-mile-long beach called the West Sands, offering great views of the town — and the chance to reenact the opening scene of Chariots of Fire, filmed on this stretch of sand.

The town is also the home of Scotland's most important university: Founded in 1413, the University of St. Andrews is the third-oldest in the English-speaking world — only Oxford and Cambridge have been around longer. The quad of St. Salvator's College, known to students as Sally's Quad, is the university's heart. As most university classrooms, offices, and libraries are spread out across town, during the school term, shops and pubs brim with student energy.

The university's most famous recent graduate is Prince William (class of '05). Soon after he enrolled here, the number of female applicants to study art history — his major — skyrocketed. When he married Kate Middleton, a fellow St. Andrews alum, 10 years later, nearly the entire student body was there to celebrate on Sally's Quad.

St. Andrews is well-connected by train and bus to Edinburgh, making it an easy day trip from Scotland's capital. The town also makes a handy home base for a variety of fun side trips to some less-touristed spots nearby: interesting museums in the city of Dundee; Glamis Castle, the childhood home of the late Queen Mother; and a string of relaxing fishing villages along a stretch of nearby coast called the East Neuk.

No matter what brings you to St. Andrews, you'll be welcomed with a cool sea breeze, a vibrant student culture, and the rich history of this wee town.

To reserve a tee time at the scenic Old Course of the St. Andrews Links, you'll need to book a year ahead — and pay a pretty penny. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

St. Andrews Cathedral may have rotted away, but its beautiful ruins — with walls and spires pecked away by centuries of scavengers — are a delight to explore. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2239 Take the Stairs for Europe’s Most Insightful Views http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/europe-climbs rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-10-10 From church domes to bell towers, fanciful rooftops to sky-piercing monuments, Europe is full of climbable structures. While most lead to impressive views, the best also offer insights into the historical, artistic, and religious thinking of their times.

In Milan, a highlight is strolling the rooftop of the city's cathedral (duomo) and the third-largest church in Europe. After taking the stairs or elevator to the top, visitors can climb up and down the roof's multiple terraces, wandering among gargoyles, statues, and frilly spires.

Each of the church's 135 spires is similar, yet different. Climbing through the forest of these lovingly decorated spires, it's inspiring to think that every detail — each flower, saint's face, and so on — is an individual work of art carved out of pink marble centuries ago by artists who believed that few would ever see it. Their art was a gift for God to enjoy from the heavens.

Another worthwhile climb is to the top of the dome at Florence's Duomo. Though it was built when Gothic dominated Europe, the Florentines decided not to cap their cathedral with a spire, leaving it with a gaping hole while waiting for technology to catch up with the city's vision for a dome instead. In 1420, Filippo Brunelleschi won the job and built the dome that kicked off the architectural Renaissance.

Brunelleschi's dome, which inspired the US Capitol and St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, showed how art and science could be combined to make beauty. Today, it rewards those who climb the 463 steep, narrow steps with glorious views. Along the way climbers are treated to a close-up of the dome's Last Judgment ceiling painting, a grand view of the cathedral's interior, and a look at Brunelleschi's "dome-within-a-dome" construction. Because the dome climb is so popular, reservations are required.

A thoroughly different and modern — but equally spectacular — dome climb is the hike to the top of the Reichstag in Berlin. Completed in the late 19th century, the German parliament building was gutted by a mysterious fire and World War II bombs, then stood like a ghost, barely repaired, through the Cold War. But after German reunification, this historic ruin was rebuilt with a modern element: a striking glass dome.

A walkway winds all the way to the top, providing 360-degree views. Climbers see forests of skyscrapers interspersed with historic sights, such as the nearby Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Cathedral's massive copper dome.

But for Germans, mindful of their dark 20th-century history, the view that matters most is inside, looking down through a skylight to see over the shoulders of their legislators. The architecture comes with a poignant message: The people are determined to keep a wary eye on their government. And the dome is so popular that reservations are required to climb it.

Ascending the Eiffel Tower is one of Europe's great travel thrills. Built for the 1889 World's Fair, the project celebrated the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution and demonstrated that France had the wealth, knowledge, and can-do spirit to erect a structure taller than anything the world had ever seen.

Smart travelers book their tower visit months in advance. Even with a reservation, many stand in long lines to take the elevators up and down. For hardy visitors, it's cheaper and less crowded to climb the stairs. It's quite a hike — 720 steps up to the second level (the top level is only accessible via elevator), so I prefer to take the stairs down. It takes minutes, and it gives you an up-close look at Gustave Eiffel's amazing engineering.

Perhaps the most memorable climb I've done in Europe was just 28 steps — on my knees — up Rome's Scala Santa (Holy Stairs) next to the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano. In AD 326, Emperor Constantine's mother brought home what was reputed to be the marble steps of Pontius Pilate's residence in Jerusalem. Jesus is said to have climbed these steps on the day he was sentenced to death. Today the steps are covered with wooden slats to protect the marble, but they're spotted with glass-covered holes to show stains from Jesus' blood on the original stairs.

For centuries, pilgrims have ascended the Scala Santa on their knees while reciting a litany of prayers. And for decades, I watched them from a staircase on the side. But finally one year, a voice inside me said "Do it!" and I tried the climb myself. With my knees screaming, weathered faithful struggling up the staircase beside me, and a fresco of a crucified Christ high above, I climbed each step, learning about both the bone structure of my knees and the value of pain when praying.

From hiking to the top of the first Renaissance dome to climbing steps on your knees, a little exertion can mean a big payoff in your travels.

At the Reichstag in Berlin, visitors are treated to endless vistas as they spiral up the 80-foot-high glass dome. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

The top of Florence's famous dome is encircled by a tiny terrace that rewards climbers with fine views over the city. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2237 Cruise Control: How to Sail Smartly in Europe http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/making-the-most-of-your-european-cruise rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-10-03 I've spent the last several decades exploring Europe from every conceivable angle. And this includes checking out Europe the way millions of people do — from a cruise ship.

I'm not out to promote or put down cruising. For some people it's a great choice, and for others it's not. On the plus side, cruising can be economical, with transportation, a room, and meals all included in one price. It can be ideal for those who want their vacation logistics taken care of. And toggling from a floating resort to exciting days on shore — nearly each day in a different country — can be efficient if you want to sample a range of places in a short time.

Cruise ships offer plenty of onboard fun, but to me the destinations are the reason to set sail. The trick is deciding how to best experience them. Many would say cruising can insulate you from the "real Europe." You're going to the most famous places and seeing them at the same time as thousands of other tourists.

Navigating crowds is indeed one of cruising's challenges. Ships can be huge — the last Mediterranean cruise ship I sailed on had about 3,000 passengers. To avoid the hordes, get out as early as possible and come back as late as you can. Doing this, you'll enjoy fewer crowds and more unforgettable moments.

You don't have to purchase the cruise ship's sightseeing package to have an enjoyable time on shore. In most port terminals, reputable companies offer essentially the same tours as the cruise lines for a fraction of the cost. Another option: Book a private guide in advance. It's a comfort to be met at the port with a warm personal welcome. You can share the cost: Four people hiring a guide with a car costs about the same as four people taking the cruise excursion. And with a guide, you get your own private teacher, you won't get lost, and you enjoy the freedom to go at your own pace.

You can also simply be your own guide. The well-organized traveler can do a lot during an eight-hour stop. Most ports offer helpful tourist offices, and are well-served by public transit. For example, with a good guidebook and public transportation, exploring the French Riviera is a snap. Frequent trains link the cities along the coast, and Nice — the Riviera's hub — will soon have a tramline connecting the city center right to its cruise port.

In many big cities, hop-on, hop-off bus companies offer do-it-yourselfers economic and efficient transportation. Buses meet the cruise ships at the port and offer big loop tours that connect major sights, allowing you to hop off and on all day long, and dropping you back at the port.

Create your ideal vacation. You have the option to stay onboard and relax. Or take it easy on shore: Simply walk or catch a ride to the town center and enjoy a free day — shopping, browsing, sipping a drink, or soaking up some sun on the beach. Be creative. Mix it up. Your goal: Get the most out of your vacation time and money, enjoy the best experiences, and have fun.

In some ports, such as Naples, the scene can feel aggressive. Stepping through the port security gate, you may find yourself in a scrum of assertive cabbies and tour guides. If you're skipping the cruise line's organized excursions, remember that cruise ports attract hustlers and con artists planning to overcharge naive tourists. Research the regulated taxi prices or book a local tour or guide in advance.

The food on a cruise ship generally ignores the cuisine of whatever port you're visiting — so when I'm lunching on land, I choose authentic local food designed to be eaten quickly. Each country has its iconic quick-and-easy meal. In Naples — it's got to be pizza. It's tapas in Spain. In southern France, I love a good salade niçoise. In Greece, I'll look for a souvlaki pita.

One bonus to cruising is the scenic arrivals and departures. Being on the top deck as the ship approaches the day's destination gives me a quiet, bird's-eye view. The sight of an exotic and fabled Greek island like Santorini — as the moon sets and the sun rises, just kissing the lip of the breathtaking cliffs — is worth getting up for.

A cruise can be what you make of it: a prepackaged travel cliché, or a springboard for independent spirits. As with travel in general, for cruisers, lifelong memories can be yours when you know your options and then match them with your personal style of travel.

A cruise ship offers memorably fantastic views of the classic whitewashed villages of Santorini. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Smart cruisers stop at the local tourist information booth, like this one in Livorno, to get unbiased information for do-it-yourself time in port. (photo: Rick Steves)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2233 Stockholm’s Delightful, Diverse Day Trips http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/stockholm-day-trips rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-09-26 Stockholm's inviting medieval center, leafy parks, top-notch sights, and exciting urban scene make the city a highlight of any Scandinavian vacation. But don't let Stockholm's charms blind you to the variety of fine day trips at the city's doorstep. Within an hour or so of the Swedish capital, you can bask in the opulence of a royal palace, swing through the home and garden of Sweden's greatest sculptor, see ancient rune stones in the country's oldest town, hang with students in a stately university city, or island-hop through Stockholm's archipelago.

West of Stockholm, Drottningholm Palace is the queen's 17th-century summer castle and current royal residence. Though sometimes referred to as "Sweden's Versailles," that's a bit of a stretch. But it is a lovely place to stroll the sprawling gardens and envision royal life. Visitors tour two floors of lavish rooms, filled with art that makes the point that Sweden's royalty is divine and belongs with the gods.

I find the tour at Drottningholm Court Theater even better than the palace's. Built in the 1760s by a Swedish king to impress his Prussian wife (who considered Sweden dreadfully provincial), this theater has miraculously survived the ages. Still intact are the Baroque scenery and hand-operated machines for simulating wind, thunder, and clouds. The pulleys, trap doors, and contraptions that floated actors in from the sky aren't so different from devices used on stages today.

Another fine destination is Millesgården, dramatically situated on a bluff overlooking Stockholm's harbor in the suburb of Lidingö. The 20th-century sculptor Carl Milles lived and worked in this villa, and lovingly designed the sculpture garden for the public. Milles wanted his art — often Greek mythological figures such as Pegasus or Poseidon — to be displayed on pedestals "as if silhouettes against the sky." Milles also injected life into his work with water, which splashes playfully amid the sculptures.

Twenty years ago, I visited the historic town of Sigtuna (north of Stockholm) and wrote it off as a tourist trap. But I recently revisited the town — and my original assessment of it. Sigtuna's great. Established in the 970s, it's the oldest town in Sweden — and the cutest. Visitors enjoy a lakeside setting and an open-air folk museum of a town, with ruined churches and a cobbled lane of 18th-century buildings.

Sigtuna is also dotted with a dozen rune stones. These memorial stones are carved with messages in an Iron Age language. Most have a cross, indicating that they are from the early Christian era (11th century). I even have a favorite stone here. Its inscription translates as, "Anund had this stone erected in memory of himself in his lifetime" — showing that his rune carver had some personality and perhaps that Anund had no friends.

A bit north of Sigtuna, but still just an hour from Stockholm, is Uppsala, the fourth-largest city in Sweden. It's known for its historic cathedral, venerable university, and as home to Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern botany.

Uppsala's cathedral — one of Scandinavia's largest and long the seat of the Church of Sweden — boasts a soaring Gothic nave, and an even taller space at its transept where centuries of Swedish monarchs were crowned. Side chapels hold treasures that include the relics of St. Erik and the tomb of King Gustav Vasa.

The cathedral gazes right across a square at the Gustavianum museum, housing a collection of Viking artifacts, a cabinet of miniature curiosities, the first thermometer Anders Celsius made according to his own scale, and an anatomical theater — a temple-like room where human dissection was practiced before student audiences. Nearby are the Linnaeus Garden and Museum, where the botanist studied 3,000 species of plants and developed a way to classify the plant kingdom.

On a warm summer day, nothing beats a ferry trip through Stockholm's archipelago, a playground of thousands of islands stretching 80 miles from the city. Ferries serve over a hundred of the islands, often starting with Vaxholm, the gateway to the archipelago. This popular destination has a quiet and charming old town and well-preserved fortress just off its busy harborfront. The ramparts remain — manned not by soldiers but by sun worshippers enjoying Sweden's long summer days. On Vaxholm, my favorite lookout post is the Hembygdsgården Café. The coffee and pastry break is a Swedish ritual — embraced with all the vigor of a constitutional right. And here, savoring life to its fullest just seems to come naturally.

Farther from the city — both geographically and in the pace of life — is the isle of Grinda, a car-free and largely forested nature preserve that's laced with walking paths, ringed by beaches, and dotted with granite slabs smoothed by glaciers. There's no real town here, but the island does offer a few hotels, a café on the marina, and busy ice cream stand. Other fine archipelago stops include the remote isle of Svartsö (great for biking), and the sandy beaches of Sandhamn — the last stop before Finland.

From royal palaces to a sculptor's garden, lazy islands to towns big and small, the area around Stockholm has something for travelers of all stripes.

The island of Grinda holds nostalgia for many Stockholmers, who fondly recall when this was a summer camp island. (photo: Rick Steves)

Carl Milles' 'Hand of God' gives insight into the sculptor's belief that creativity is divinely inspired. (photo: Rick Steves)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2232 A Short Walk Through Ireland’s Long History http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/north-dublin-irish-history rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-09-19 A walk through the heart of north Dublin recalls Ireland's long fight for independence, and makes a fine introduction to the city's rich history. I try to make time for this stroll on each visit to reinvigorate my sense of the city as the beating heart of the still-evolving Irish nation.

I start at the O'Connell Bridge, which spans the River Liffey. The river has long divided the wealthy south side of town from the working-class north side. From this bridge, I can see modern Dublin evolving: A forest of cranes marks building sites all over town.

Leading from the bridge through the heart of north Dublin, O'Connell Street echoes with history. I like to walk along its tree-lined median strip, which gets me up close to many Irish heroes.

The first statue honors Daniel O'Connell (1775–1847), who demanded in the British Parliament that Irish Catholics have civil rights. He organized thousands of nonviolent protestors into huge "monster meetings." The pedestal has many bullet holes, which remain from the 1916 Easter Rising, a week-long rebellion against British rule that was quickly crushed.

The next statue depicts William Smith O'Brien (1803–1864), the leader of the nationalist Young Ireland Movement. Compared to predecessors like O'Connell, O'Brien was more willing than O'Connell to use force to achieve Irish self-determination. After a failed uprising in Tipperary, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death, but then exiled to Australia.

Nearby is a statue of Sir John Gray (1816–1875), a doctor and politician who wanted to repeal the union with Britain. You can also thank him for bringing safe drinking water to Dublin.

Next is James Larkin (1876–1947), the founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. The strike he called in 1913 is considered to be the first shot in the war for independence. He stands where a union gathering degenerated into a riot after Larkin was arrested for trying to make a speech — resulting in massive police brutality and several fatalities.

A bit past the Larkin statue is the General Post Office, with pillars still pockmarked with bullet holes. This was where nationalist activist Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of Irish Independence in 1916, kicking off the Easter Rising. The building became the rebel headquarters and the scene of a bloody five-day siege. Why battle over a post office? Because it housed the telegraph nerve center for the entire country. Today, an engaging exhibit brings the dramatic history of this building to life.

A few blocks away is a statue of Father Theobald Mathew (1790–1856), a leader of the temperance movement of the 1830s. Father Mathew was responsible, some historians claim, for convincing enough Irish peasants to stay sober that O'Connell was able to organize them into a political force. But the onset of the Great Potato Famine crippled his efforts and sent thousands to their graves or onto emigration ships — desperation drove Ireland back to whiskey.

Standing boldly at the top of O'Connell Street is a monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. Ringing the monument are the names of the four ancient provinces of Ireland and all 32 Irish counties (north and south, since this was erected before the Irish partition). Parnell (1846–1891) was the member of parliament who nearly won "home rule" (self-government) for Ireland in the 1880s — and who served time in jail for his nationalist activities. Despite his privileged birth, Parnell envisioned a modern, free, united Ireland as a secular democracy.

Momentum seemed to be on Parnell's side. With the British prime minister favoring a similar form of home rule, it looked as if Ireland was on its way toward independence as a Commonwealth nation. Then a sex scandal broke around Parnell and he was driven from office.

After that, Ireland became mired in the conflicts of the 20th century: an awkward independence featuring a divided island, a bloody civil war, and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland during the last half of the century. But since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, peace has finally prevailed on this troubled isle.

Uphill from Parnell, Dublin's Garden of Remembrance honors the victims of the Easter Rising. This memorial marks the spot where the rebel leaders were held before being transferred to prison for their execution. The Irish flag flies above: green for Catholics, orange for Protestants, and white for the hope that they can live together in peace.

One of modern Ireland's most stirring moments occurred here in 2011, when Queen Elizabeth II made this the first stop on her visit to the Republic — the first by a reigning British monarch in 100 years. She laid a wreath and bowed her head out of respect for the Irish rebels who had died trying to gain freedom from her kingdom. This was a hugely cathartic moment for both nations.

With Brexit now a reality, Ireland is about to embark on a new era in its relations with Britain. While my brief Dublin walk is over, there's plenty more history to be made on the Emerald Isle.

The median of Dublin's O'Connell Street is filled with history. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

This Dublin statue honors Charles Stewart Parnell, beloved for his tireless work for land reform and Irish home rule. (photo: Rick Steves)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

2229 Malta: A Citadel of Many Cultures in the Middle of the Mediterranean http://www.fekraweb.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/malta-history rick@ricksteves.com (Rick Steves) 2019-09-12 Sailing into the stony harbor of the island of Malta, surrounded by ramparts and turrets, you realize that this strategic and much fought-over rock midway between Sicily and Africa has had a long and difficult history. But its parade of foreign rulers (Phoenician, Roman, Greek, Arab, Norman, Sicilian, and British — to name a few) make it a fascinating place to explore today.

The imposing capital city of Valletta is a monument to this hard-fought past. Government buildings seem to demand obedience. Walking on the ramparts of the heavily fortified harbor, I'm reminded of Malta's importance — whoever controls Malta controls trade routes across the Mediterranean.

Of the many cultures that shaped it, perhaps the most obvious is its British heritage. Malta spent 150 years as part of the British Empire. In World War II it was a key allied naval base before it was devastated by German bombs. (Much of it has been rebuilt in recent years.) And while it gained its independence in 1964, Malta retains its British flavor with English-style pubs and food, statues of queens, driving on the left, and even red phone booths.

Aside from its British vibe, Valletta has a distinct fortress-city feel, thanks to the Knights of St. John (a.k.a. the Knights of Malta). For centuries, these religious/military knights were based on the island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1523 they were defeated by the Ottoman Turks, so they retreated to Malta, where they set up their new capital and built a huge fortress in anticipation of another Turkish attack. In 1565 Malta's stout walls — many of them incorporated into existing limestone cliffs — survived a siege of 40,000 Ottoman soldiers. Today, a good way to get a sense of this fortress city is with a tour of the harbor in a dg?ajsa — a Maltese gondola.

From 1530 to 1798, the Knights of Malta ruled the island. During this era, known as the "Knight's Period," they ornamented the city with delightful architecture, including the colorful, characteristic enclosed balconies, called gallarija. The stately Grand Masters' Palace was one of the first buildings they constructed.

Another grand structure from this period is St. John's Co-Cathedral, one of Malta's two cathedrals. While austere outside, it's fabulously Baroque inside. Inlaid marble slabs honor several hundred Knights of Malta. This military order was divided into eight language groups — and each had a chapel here at the order's high church.

Paintings tell the 17th-century story of how the Knights were originally "serving knights," whose mission was to care for pilgrims venturing to the Holy Land, and how they later evolved into a military power with a mighty navy. They also depict how Christianity would ultimately "triumph" over Islam. A cathedral highlight is The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, the largest canvas ever painted by the artist Caravaggio, who fled Rome in 1606 after killing his opponent in a duel, eventually ending up in Malta.

Within a short drive (or bus ride) from Valletta are low-key sights, from charming towns with oversized churches and laid-back locals to tiny, remote harbors hiding out along the rugged coastline. The hillsides are studded with family farms — some with terraces that have been here since ancient times. The terraces' rock walls defend against erosion. Without them, the thin layer of topsoil would be lost to the steady Mediterranean wind.

The timeless landscape is dotted with prehistoric ruins dating back 5,000 years. Megalithic sites like ?a?ar Qim are evidence that, in roughly 3000 BC, settlers from Sicily arrived in search of arable land. While the humble, mud-brick village that once surrounded its temple is long gone, stones from the temple still stand. Archaeologists believe it was dedicated to a fertility goddess and that it functioned as a celestial calendar, much like Stonehenge. Artifacts from this and other prehistoric sites are housed in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.

Near ?a?ar Qim is the fisherman's harbor of Marsaxlokk. A favorite with cruise travelers, it's home to a fleet of typical Maltese fishing boats. While Marsaxlokk has a fine main square and church, the action is along the harbor — especially during the Sunday fish market. The distinctive shape of the boats goes back eight centuries before Christ to when Malta was a Phoenician colony. These colorful boats pop in the dazzling sunlight, seeming to celebrate yet another unique heritage of the Mediterranean world.

As with any great Mediterranean destination, the cruise ship crowds may congest Malta's most famous attractions, but the rewards are great for those who understand some of the history of the place they're exploring and take the initiative to venture away from the crowds — to the lonesome stone circles, desolate castle ruins, and inviting back lanes.

According to tradition, the colors of these Maltese fishing boats represent a fisherman's home village. (photo: Gretchen Strauch)

These massive harbor walls, lined with cannons, held off 40,000 Ottoman soldiers during the 1565 siege of Malta. (photo: Rick Steves)

Rick Steves (www.fekraweb.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.