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For the Love of Europe
My Favorite Places, People, and Stories
By Rick Steves
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Join Rick as he's swept away by a fado singer in Lisbon, learns the dangers of falling in love with a gondolier in Venice, and savors a cheese course in the Loire Valley. Contemplate the mysteries of centuries-old stone circles in England, dangle from a cliff in the Swiss Alps, and hear a French farmer's defense of foie gras.
With a brand-new, original introduction from Rick reflecting on his decades of travel, For the Love of Europe features 100 of the best stories published throughout his career. Covering his adventures through England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and more, these are stories only Rick Steves could tell.
Winner of the 2022 Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award: Best Travel Book, Silver
On the road at an early age
Falling in Love with Europe
Falling in Love with Europe
Since I was a teenager, I’ve been living three or four months a year out of my backpack in Europe. An entire generation has grown up and had kids since I slept on my first train, saw my first Michelangelo, and climbed my first ruined castle.
Today, seeing young backpackers enjoying the same European thrills I did 45 years ago is one of the simple joys of my travels. Sure, things have changed a lot. But the essence of good travel—the delights of being on the road in Europe—remains wonderfully the same: exciting, eye-opening, and forever new.
Before I started writing guidebooks, I traveled purely for fun. But I still wrote. In fact, I wrote like a fiend, jamming postcards with captured memories . . . filling thick “empty books” with densely written pages. As I ran out of pages and the travel experiences kept flowing, I had to write smaller and smaller so the entire trip would fit in one volume. Like a child might leap to net a butterfly, I needed to capture each little joy.
Journaling enthusiastically, I was a travel writer in training.
A young traveler recently sent me the journal of her first European adventure. While it was penned half a lifetime after my first journal, the thrills, laughs, and eurekas she shared were much the same.
My early journals illustrated how there was plenty to write about.
While I first wrote journals for fun, now I write guidebooks for work. But with this book, I go back to my early days of writing simply out of a love for Europe. I want to share with you the places, people, and experiences I’ve enjoyed over all these years—to inspire you to connect more intimately with other people and other cultures.
Hotel rooms make a fine office for writing guidebookss.
I’m still—and always—in love with Europe.
I’ve done a lot of hitting and a lot of missing in Europe over the years—that’s my job. With this book, I bring home just the hits: an all-day walk on an alpine ridge, a sword-fern fantasy in a ruined castle, a friendly swing with a bell-ringer in a church spire. Together, we’ll savor the quiet thrill that comes with discovering lonesome stone circles. We’ll shake our shoulders dancing at a Turkish tea party. And we’ll sweat with a sauna full of Finns.
I stopped collecting physical souvenirs decades ago. This book is the treasure chest of souvenirs gathered since—memories of a lifetime spent enjoying my favorite continent. I share them in hopes that the experiences that carbonated my travels will inspire a few extra bubbles in yours, too. And I share them . . . for the love of Europe.
Toledo, the spiritual, artistic, and historic capital of Spain
Portugal and Spain
Fado: The Lisbon Blues
Seaside Traditions in Portugal’s Nazaré
Esperanza in Évora
Portugal’s Sunny Salema
Arcos de la Frontera: Pickles, Nuns, and Donkeys in the Bell Tower
Strolling Córdoba’s Back Streets
Hair-Trigger Flamenco in Andalucía
Madrid: Two Bulls is Plenty
Pamplona: Feeling the Breath of the Bull on Your Pants
The Camino de Santiago: A Medieval Pilgrimage in Modern Times
Iberia—the peninsula that hosts Spain and Portugal—is cut off from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees Mountains. In fact, I remember a time when you had to change trains at the Spanish-French border, because the Iberian rail gauge was different than the European standard. In the 20th century, that geographical isolation was amped up by fascist dictators (Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal) who stayed in power for decades, preaching a nationalism that preferred a closed door to the rest of the world. The result was a sluggish economy and a sense of isolation.
Today, while Iberia is racing toward the future as if to make up for lost time, those historical differences have resulted in a time warp for travelers. With their glory days long gone and their once-mighty empires a distant memory, both the Spanish and the Portuguese are understandably nostalgic.
The Iberian flair for tradition is evident in Portugal’s black-clad fisherwomen’s blues and the salty cuisine fostered by so many of those lost fishermen. In Spain, you’ll see it vividly in fiery flamenco, rooted in Roma culture and Islam. Machismo is still on parade in the bullring. A deep-seated Catholicism prods pilgrims to trek to Santiago and cloistered nuns to put sugar and egg whites to tasty use.
Not far across the Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco provides a tantalizing peek at how modern times also co-exist with tradition in Africa and Islam.
Fado: The Lisbon Blues
It’s after dark in Lisbon’s ramshackle Alfama neighborhood. Old-timers gather in restaurants, which serve little more than grilled sardines, to hear and sing Portugal’s mournful fado: traditional ballads of lament.
I grab the last chair in a tiny place, next to two bearded men hunched over their mandolins, lost in their music. A bald singer croons, looking like an old turtle without a shell. There’s not a complete set of teeth in the house. A spry grandma does a little jive, balancing a wine bottle on her head. The kitchen staff peers from a steaming hole in the wall, backlit by their flaming grill. The waiter sets a plate of fish and a pitcher of cheap cask wine on my table and—like a Portuguese Ed Sullivan—proudly introduces the next singer, a woman who’s been singing here for more than 50 years.
She’s the star: blood-red lipstick, big hair, a mourning shawl over her black dress. Towering above me, flanked by those mandolins, she’s a fusion of moods—old and young, both sad and sexy. Her revealing neckline promises there’s life after death. I can smell her breath as she drowns out the sizzle of sardines with her plush voice.
Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood spills down to the sea.
Fado is sung from the heart.
The man next to me whispers in my ear a rough English translation of the words she sings. It’s a quintessential fado theme of lost sailors and sad widows: “O waves of the salty sea, where do you get your salt? From the tears shed by the women in black on the sad shores of Portugal.” Suddenly it’s surround-sound as the diners burst into song, joining the chorus.
Fado is the folk music of Lisbon’s rustic neighborhoods: so accessible to anyone willing to be out late and stroll the back streets. Since the mid-1800s, it’s been the Lisbon blues—mournfully beautiful and haunting ballads about long-gone sailors, broken hearts, and bittersweet romance. Fado means “fate”—how fate deals with Portugal’s adventurers . . . and the families they leave behind. The lyrics reflect the pining for a loved one across the water, hopes for a future reunion, remembrances of a rosy past, or dreams of a better future. It’s the yearning for what might have been if fate had not intervened. While generally sad, fado can be jaunty . . . in a nostalgic way.
The songs are often in a minor key. The singer (fadista) is accompanied by stringed instruments, including a 12-string guitarra portuguesa with a round body like a mandolin (or, as the man whispering in my ear said, “like a woman”). Fado singers typically crescendo into the first word of the verse, like a moan emerging from deep inside. Though the songs are often sorrowful, the singers rarely overact—they plant themselves firmly and sing stoically in the face of fate.
Fado embraces life—sadness and all.
While fado has become one of Lisbon’s favorite late-night tourist traps, I can still find funky bars—without the high prices and big-bus tour groups—that feel very local. Two districts, the Alfama and the Bairro Alto, have small, informal fado restaurants for late dinners or even later evenings of drinks and music. Handwritten “fado tonight” (fado esta noite) signs in Portuguese are good news, but even a restaurant filled with tourists can serve up fine fado with its sardines.
After thanking the man who’d translated the songs for me, I leave the bar late that night feeling oddly uplifted. An evening seasoned with the tears of black-clad widows reminds me that life, even salty with sadness, is worth embracing.
Seaside Traditions in Portugal’s Nazaré
Settling into a grungy fishermen’s bar in the beach town of Nazaré, I order a plate of barnacles. Yes, barnacles—called percebes here. My waiter is happy to demonstrate how to eat them: dig your thumb between the shell and the leathery skin to rip the skin off. The meat stays attached to the shell. Bite that off victoriously and wash it down with local beer. Fresh barnacles are expensive, as they cling to rocks in the turbulent waves along the coast and are difficult and dangerous to harvest. Savoring my plate of barnacles at sundown, I gaze out at the surf attacking that stark bluff. Because I know that’s where they were gathered just hours ago, investing in a plate of barnacles feels like money well-spent. I’m enjoying the endearing charms of unassuming Nazaré being itself.
Perched on a far corner of Europe, Nazaré is one of my favorite beach towns anywhere. It greets me with the energetic applause of the surf, widows with rooms to rent, and fishermen mending nets. This fishing-town-turned-tourist-retreat, set between cork groves and eucalyptus trees and the open sea, is a place to relax in the sun. I join a world of ladies in petticoats and men who still stow cigarettes and fishhooks in their stocking caps.
Nazaré hugs its wide beach on the Atlantic.
Barnacles: Rip, bite, enjoy with beer.
Though many locals seem older than most of its buildings, the town feels like a Portuguese Coney Island—humming with young people who flock here for the beach. Off-season, it’s almost tourist-free—the perfect time to take in the wild surf and get a feel for a traditional way of life.
The town’s layout is simple: a grid of skinny streets with sun-bleached apartment blocks stretching away from an expansive beach. The beach—in many places as wide as a soccer field—sweeps from the new harbor in the south to stark cliffs in the north.
It seems that most of Nazaré’s 15,000 inhabitants are in the tourist trade. But somehow traditions survive and it’s not hard to find pockets of vivid and authentic culture. I stroll through the market and wander the back streets where people happily trade ocean views for a little shade. Laundry flaps in the wind, kids ride plastic trikes, and fish sizzle over tiny curbside hibachis.
Nazaré is famous for its traditionally clad women who—at least according to local lore—wear skirts with seven petticoats. Is that one for each day, or for the seven colors of the rainbow, or . . . ? Make up your own legend. While the story you’ll hear may be an invention for the tourists, it contains an element of truth. In the old days, women would wait on the beach for their fishermen to sail home. To keep warm in the face of a cold sea wind, they’d wear several petticoats so they could fold layers over their heads, backs, and legs as needed. Even today, older and more traditional women wear skirts made bulky by several—but maybe not seven—petticoats. The ensemble—with boldly clashing colors—is completed with house slippers, a hand-embroidered apron, woolen cape, head scarf, and flamboyant jewelry, including chunky gold earrings (often passed down from mother to daughter).
People-watching here is like going to a living art gallery. The beach, tasty seafood, and a funicular ride are the bright lights of my lazy memories. The funicular—which leads from the beach up to the Sitio neighborhood atop the cliffs—was built in 1889, the same year as the Eiffel Tower (and was designed by a disciple of Eiffel).
Women in Nazaré traditionally layer petticoats for warmth.
Folk dancers perform on the seaside boardwalk.
Sitio, with its own church, museum, and main square, feels like a separate village. Marking a rocky viewpoint high above Nazaré, a stone memorial honors the explorer Vasco da Gama, who stopped here before leaving Europe for India. Next to that, a little chapel marks the spot where a much-venerated statue of the Black Madonna was hidden in the rocks throughout four centuries of Muslim Moorish rule before it was rediscovered during the 12th-century Christian Reconquista. (When it comes to enjoying legends like these, gullibility is a skill that serves me well.)
Back down along the beach, a local folk-music group plays and dances. This troupe—with petticoats twirling to the beat of a percussion section of bongo gourds and extra-large pinecones grating against each other—has been kicking up sand since 1934.
When these dancers were younger, the vast beach was littered with colorful fishing boats that were hauled in by oxen or teams of fishermen. But ever since a new harbor was built south of town, the working boats have been moored out of sight. Today, only a few historic vessels remain, ornamenting the sand. On the boardwalk—an artful and traditional mosaic pavement of black and white stones—squadrons of sun-dried and salted fish are stretched out on nets left under the midday sun. Locals claim they’re delicious . . . but I’d rather eat barnacles.
Esperanza in Évora
Alentejo is a vast and arid land—the bleak interior of Portugal, where cork seems to be the dominant industry. The rolling hills are covered with stubby cork trees. With their bark peeled away, they remind me of St. Bartolomeo, the martyr who was skinned alive. Like him, these trees suffer in silence.
The people of Alentejo are uniformly short. They seem to look at tourists with suspicion and are the butt of jokes in this corner of Europe. Libanio, my guide, circles the words “arid” and “suspicious” in my guidebook and does his best to turn my chapter into a promo for his dusty and downtrodden region. He says, “Must you say ‘arid’? Actually, in April, it is a lush countryside.” Then he adds, “But I won’t argue with ‘suspicious.’”
Libanio says it is a mark of a people’s character to laugh at themselves. He then tells me of an Alentejo man who nearly succeeded in teaching his burro to live without eating. He was so excited . . . until his burro died.
Évora’s main square
Libanio asks me, “How can you tell a worker is done for the day in Alentejo?” I say, “I don’t know.” He says, “When he takes his hands out of his pockets.” My guide continues more philosophically: “In your land, time is money. Here in Alentejo, time is time. We take things slow and enjoy ourselves.”
While this corner of Portugal is humble, there’s a distinct pride here. Every country has its Appalachia. I’m impressed when a region that others are inclined to insult has strong local pride, though I often wonder if it’s genuine pride, or just making the best of the cards they’re dealt.
For Alentejanos, quality and authenticity require the respect of tradition. The finest restaurants simply do not embellish a standard rustic dish. And they love their sweets so much that they seem to know the history of each tart.
Many pastries are called “convent sweets.” Portugal, with its vast empire, once had access to more sugar than any other European country. Even so, sugar was so expensive that only the aristocracy could afford to enjoy it routinely. Historically, many daughters of aristocrats who were unable to marry into suitably noble families ended up in high-class convents. Life there was comfortable, yet carefully controlled. Instead of sex, they could covet cakes and indulge in sweets. Over time, the convents became famous as keepers of wondrous secret recipes for exquisite pastries generally made from sugar and egg yolks (which were leftovers from the whites used to starch their habits). Barrigas de Freiras (Nuns’ Tummies) and Papos de Ango (Angel’s Breasts) are two such fancies.
Nuns sell sweets.
Évora, the workaday capital of the region, is a fine place to taste the delights of Alentejo—both edible and historic, as well as musical and social.
Évora has barely any buildings over three stories high, but it is crowned by the granite Corinthian columns of a stately yet ruined ancient Roman temple. And just outside of town stand 92 stones three times as old as that, erected to make a Stonehenge-type celestial calendar.
I’m happy to find a romantic little restaurant that offers live fado music three nights a week. Esperanza, the woman who runs the place, explains that she likes the diners to be finished by 10 p.m. so the musicians can perform without waiters wandering around. I am impressed by her commitment to the art.
I sit in the back, enjoying the ambience. It’s been a long day, so during some applause, I sneak back out and head home. When I’m half a block away, Esperanza runs out the door and charges after me. I worry that she’s angry that I left without paying a cover charge, or that the door made too much noise, or that I had insulted the musicians. Like a guilty little boy, I nearly duck down an alley and run away. Then I decide to turn back and face the music.
She apologizes for not welcoming me and begs me to come back for a glass of port and to meet the musicians. The rest of the evening is a plush experience—complete with nuns’ tummies and angel’s breasts. Esperanza—whose name means “hope”—keeps the art of fado singing alive in Évora.
Évora’s ancient Roman temple
Portugal’s Sunny Salema
The flatbed fish truck rambles into the village tooting the “1812 Overture” on its horn. Today’s my beach day and I was ready to just sleep in. But it’s market day in Salema and the parking lot that separates the jogging shorts from the black shawls fills up, one vehicle at a time, with horn-tooting merchants. First the fish truck rolls in, then the bakery trailer steaming with fresh bread, followed by a fruit-and-vegetable truck, and finally a five-and-dime truck for clothing and odds and ends. Groggy yet happy, I quickly get dressed and join the scene—savoring one of the last true villages on the Algarve.
Any place famous as a “last undiscovered tourist frontier” probably no longer is. But the Algarve of my dreams survives—just barely. It took me three tries to find it. West of Lagos, Luz and Burgau both offered only a corpse of a fishing village, bikini-strangled and Nivea-creamed. Then, just as darkness turned couples into peaceful silhouettes, I found Salema.
It’s my kind of resort: three beachside streets, a dozen restaurants, a few hotels, time-share condos up the road, a couple of bars, English and German menus, a classic beach with a paved promenade, and endless sun.
Salema’s fishermen share their beach with travelers.
Where a small road hits the beach on Portugal’s southwestern tip, Salema is an easy 15-mile bus ride from the closest train station in Lagos. Still a fishing village—but only barely—Salema has a split personality: The whitewashed old town is for residents, and the more utilitarian other half was built for tourists.
Residents and tourists pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence at the beach. Tractors pull in and push out the fishing boats, two-year-olds toddle in the waves, topless women read German fashion mags, and old men really do mend the nets. British and German connoisseurs of lethargy laze in the sun, while locals grab the shade.
While the days of black-clad widows chasing topless Nordic women off the beach are gone, nudity is still risqué. Over the rocks and beyond the view of prying eyes, Germans grin and bare it.
Unwritten tradition allocates different chunks of undersea territory to each Salema family. While the fishermen’s hut on the beach no longer hosts a fish auction, it provides shade for the old-timers arm-wrestling octopi out of their traps. The pottery jars stacked everywhere are traps, which are tied about a yard apart in long lines and dropped offshore. Octopi, looking for a cozy place to set an ambush, climb inside, unaware they’ve made their last mistake.
The wives of fishermen serve up whatever’s caught in huge pots of Portugal’s beloved seafood stew (cataplana) in steamy hole-in-the-wall eateries, where tourists slurp it up.
Salema’s tourist-based economy sits on a foundation of sand. As locals watch their sandy beach wash away each winter, they hope and pray it will return with spring.
Restaurateurs are allowed to build a temporary, summer-only beachside restaurant if they provide a lifeguard and run a green/yellow/red warning-flag system for swimmers. The Atlântico Restaurant, which dominates Salema’s beach, takes its responsibility seriously—providing lifeguards and flags through the summer . . . and fresh seafood by candlelight all year long.
Fishing boats pulled up on Salema’s beach
Tourism chases the sun and quaint folksiness. And the folksiness survives only with the help of tourist dollars. Fishermen boost their income by renting spare bedrooms (quartos) to the ever-growing stream of tan fans from Europe’s drizzly North. Quartos line Salema’s main residential street, offering simple rooms with showers, springy beds, and glorious Atlantic views.
Salema’s sleepy beauty kidnaps my momentum. At the end of the day, after enjoying a nice plate of fish, I take a glass of white wine from Atlântico and sip it with the sunset. Nearby, a withered old woman shells almonds with a railroad spike, dogs roam the beach like they own it, and a man catches short fish with a long pole. Beyond him is Cape Sagres—500 years ago, it was the edge of the world. As far as the gang sipping port and piling olive pits in the beachside bar is concerned, it still is.
Arcos de la Frontera: Pickles, Nuns, and Donkeys in the Bell Tower
I’m in the little hill town of Arcos de la Frontera, just south of Sevilla. Today, my goal is to connect with the culture of small-town Spain.
The entertaining market is my first stop. The pickle woman encourages me to try a banderilla, named for the bangled spear that a matador sticks into the bull. As I gingerly slide an onion off the tiny skewer of pickled olives, onions, and carrots, she tells me to eat it all at once—the pickle equivalent of throwing down a shot of vodka. Explosivo! The lady in the adjacent meat stall bursts into laughter at my shock.
Like the pickle section, the meat stall—or salchichería—is an important part of any Spanish market. In Spain, ever since Roman times, December has been the month to slaughter pigs. After the slaughter, they salt and dry every possible bit of meat into various sausages, hams, and pork products. By late spring, that now-salty meat is cured, able to withstand the heat, and hanging in tempting market displays. Ham appreciation is big here. The word to know: jamón. When in Spain, I am a jamón aficionado.
Arcos, where locals “see the backs of the birds as they fly”
Arcos smothers its hilltop, tumbling down all sides like the train of a wedding dress. The labyrinthine old center is a photographer’s feast. I can feel the breeze funnel through the narrow streets as drivers pull in car mirrors to squeeze through.
Residents brag that only they see the backs of the birds as they fly. To see what they mean, I climb to the viewpoint at the main square, high in the old town. Bellying up to the railing—the town’s suicide jumping-off point—I look down and ponder the fancy cliffside hotel’s erosion concerns, orderly orange groves, flower-filled greenhouses, fine views toward Morocco . . . and the backs of the birds as they fly.
Exploring the town, I discover that a short walk from Arcos’ church of Santa María to the church of San Pedro (St. Peter) is littered with subtle but fun glimpses into the town’s past.
The church of Santa María faces the main square. After Arcos was reconquered from the Moors in the 13th century, the church was built—atop a mosque. In the pavement is a 15th-century magic circle: 12 red and 12 white stones—the white ones represent various constellations. When a child came to the church to be baptized, the parents would stop here first for a good Christian exorcism. The exorcist would stand inside the protective circle and cleanse the baby of any evil spirits. This was also a holy place back in Muslim times. While Christian residents no longer use it, Islamic Sufis still come here on pilgrimage every November.
"This longtime Europe expert impresses once again as he shares memorable anecdotes nation by nation. The publisher offers an attractive format for the insightful musings."—2022 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards: Best Travel Book, Silver
- "The country's foremost expert in European travel for Americans."—Forbes
- "Steves is an absolute master at unlocking the hidden gems of the world's greatest cities, towns, and monuments."—USA Today
- “Every country-specific travel guidebook from the Rick Steves publishing empire can be counted upon for clear organization, specificity and timeliness."—Society of American Travel Writers
- "Pick the best accommodations and restaurants from Rick Steves…and a traveler searching for good values will seldom go wrong or be blindsided."—NBC News
- "His guidebooks are approachable, silly, and even subtly provocative in their insistence that Americans show respect for the people and places they are visiting and not the other way around."—The New Yorker
- "Travel, to Steves, is not some frivolous luxury—it is an engine for improving humankind, for connecting people and removing their prejudices, for knocking distant cultures together to make unlikely sparks of joy and insight. Given that millions of people have encountered the work of Steves over the last 40 years, on TV or online or in his guidebooks, and that they have carried those lessons to untold other millions of people, it is fair to say that his life’s work has had a real effect on the collective life of our planet."—The New York Times Magazine
- "[Rick Steves] laces his guides with short and vivid histories and a scholar's appreciation for Renaissance art yet knows the best place to start an early tapas crawl in Madrid if you have kids. His clear, hand-drawn maps are Pentagon-worthy; his hints about how to go directly to the best stuff at the Uffizi, avoid the crowds at Versailles and save money everywhere are guilt-free."—TIME Magazine
- "Steves is a walking, talking European encyclopedia who yearns to inspire Americans to venture 'beyond Orlando.'"—Forbes
- “…he’s become the unofficial guide for entire generations of North American travelers, beloved for his earnest attitude and dad jeans."—Outside Magazine
- "His books offer the equivalent of a bus tour without the bus, with boiled-down itineraries and step-by-step instructions on where to go and how to get there, but adding a dash of humor and an element of choice that his travelers find empowering."—The New York Times
- "His penchant for creating meaningful experiences for travelers to Europe is as passionate as his inclination for making ethical choices his guiding light."—Forbes
"[Rick Steves'] neighborhood walks are always fun and informative. His museum guides, complete with commentary about historic sculpture and storied artworks are wonderful and add another dimension to sometimes stodgy, hard-to-comprehend museums."
- On Sale
- Jul 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Rick Steves