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For me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces . Here’s one of my favorites:
Nowhere else does the splendor of Moorish civilization shine so beautifully than at the Alhambra — this last and greatest Moorish palace in Europe.
For seven centuries (711–1492), much of Spain was Muslim, ruled by the Islamic Moors from North Africa. While the rest of Europe was slumbering through the Dark Ages, Spain blossomed under Moorish rule. The culmination was the Alhambra — a sprawling complex of palaces and gardens atop a hill in Granada. And the highlight is the exquisite Palacios Nazaríes, where the sultans and their families lived, worked, and held court.
You enter through the fragrant Court of the Myrtles, into a world of ornately decorated rooms, stucco “stalactites,” filigreed windows, and bubbling fountains. Water — so rare and precious in the Islamic world — was the purest symbol of life. The Alhambra is decorated with water, water everywhere: standing still, cascading, masking secret conversations, and drip-dropping playfully.
As you explore the labyrinth of rooms, you can easily imagine sultans smoking hookahs, lounging on pillows and Persian carpets, with heavy curtains on the windows and incense burning from the lamps. Walls and ceilings are covered with intricate patterns carved in wood and stucco. (If the Alhambra’s interweaving patterns look Escheresque, you’ve got it backward: The artist M. C. Escher was inspired by the Alhambra.) Because Muslim artists avoided making images of living creatures, they ornamented with calligraphy — by carving swoopy letters in Arabic, quoting poetry and verses from the Quran. One phrase — “only Allah is victorious” — is repeated 9,000 times.
The Generalife gardens — with manicured hedges, reflecting pools, playful fountains, and a breezy summer palace — is where sultans took a break from palace life. Its architect, in a way, was the Quran, which says that heaven is like a lush oasis, and that “those who believe and do good, will enter gardens through which rivers flow” (Quran 22.23).
The Alhambra’s much-photographed Courtyard of the Lions is named for its fountain of 12 marble lions. Four channels carry water outward — figuratively to the corners of the earth and literally to the sultan’s private apartments. As a poem carved onto the Alhambra wall says, the fountain gushes “crystal-clear water” like “the full moon pouring light from an unclouded sky.”
The palace’s largest room is the ornate throne room — the Grand Hall of the Ambassadors. Here the sultan, seated on his throne beneath a domed ceiling of stars, received visitors. The ceiling, made from 8,017 inlaid pieces of wood (like a giant jigsaw puzzle), suggests the complexity of Allah’s infinite universe.
The throne room represents the passing of the torch in Spanish history. It was here in the year 1492 that the last Moorish king surrendered to the Christians. And it was here that the new monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, said “Sí, señor” to Christopher Columbus, launching his voyage to the New World that would make Spain rich. But the glory of the Alhambra lived on, adding an elegance and grace to Spanish art for centuries to come.
Today, the Alhambra stands as a thought-provoking reminder of a graceful Moorish world that might have flowered throughout all of Europe — but didn’t.
Daily Dose of Europe: El Greco’s “Burial of Count Orgaz”
As our passports gather dust, our leaders bicker over conspiracy theories, and people struggle to arrange a vaccination, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art — which I’ve collected in my book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces . And “Burial of Count Orgaz” is one of my favorites.
It just feels right to see a painting in the same church where the artist placed it 400 years ago. This 15-foot-tall masterpiece, painted at the height of El Greco’s powers, is the culmination of his unique style.
The year is 1323. Count Don Gonzalo Ruiz of Orgaz, the mayor of Toledo, has died. You’re at his funeral, where he’s being buried right here in the chapel that he himself had ordered built. The good count was so holy, even saints Augustine and Stephen have come down from heaven to be here. Toledo’s most distinguished citizens are also in attendance. The two saints, wearing rich robes, bend over to place Count Orgaz, dressed in his knight’s armor, into the tomb. (Count Orgaz’s actual granite tombstone was just below the painting.) Meanwhile, above, the saints in heaven wait to receive his blessed soul.
The detail work is El Greco at his best. Each nobleman’s face is a distinct portrait, capturing a different aspect of sorrow or contemplation. The saints’ robes are intricately brocaded and have portraits of saints on them. Orgaz’s body is perfectly foreshortened, sticking out toward us. The officiating priest wears a wispy, transparent white robe. Look closely. Orgaz’s armor is so shiny, you can actually see St. Stephen’s reflection on his chest.
The serene line of noble faces divides the painting into two realms: heaven above and earth below. Above the faces, the count’s soul, symbolized by a little baby, rises up through a mystical birth canal to be reborn in heaven, where he’s greeted by Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. A spiritual wind blows through as colors change and shapes stretch. With its metallic colors, wavelike clouds, embryonic cherubs, and elongated forms, heaven is as surreal as the earth is sober. But the two realms are united by the cross at right.
El Greco considered this to be one of his greatest works. It’s a virtual catalog of his trademark techniques: elongated bodies, elegant hand gestures, realistic faces, voluminous robes, and an ethereal mix of heaven and earth. He captures a moment of epiphany with bright, almost fluorescent colors that give these otherwise ordinary humans a heavenly aura.
The boy in the foreground points to the two saints as if to say, “One’s from the first century, the other’s from the fourth…it’s a miracle!” The boy is El Greco’s own son. On the handkerchief in the boy’s pocket is El Greco’s signature, written in Greek. One guy (seventh from the l eft) in this whole scene doesn’t seem to be completely engaged in the burial. Looking directly out at the viewer is the painter, El Greco himself.
This little moment from Europe — a sampling of how we share our love of art and history in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book I wrote with Gene Openshaw, Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces . Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it in my online Travel Store .
P.S. – Be sure to check out Rick Steves Classroom Europe — my free collection of 500+ teachable video clips. Search “El Greco” for a closer look at the Greek-born artist who painted for a Spanish king, adopted Toledo as his hometown, and conveyed religious themes in a memorable, mystical way.
Daily Dose of Europe: Gaudí’s Sagrada Família
Antoni Gaudí’s most awe-inspiring work is this unfinished, super-sized basilica. With its cake-in-the-rain facade and otherworldly spires, the basilica has become the icon of Barcelona.
As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.
Construction on the Sagrada Família began over a century ago (1883) and is still ongoing. The only section finished by Gaudí himself is the Nativity Facade. The four 330-foot towers soar upward, morph into round honeycomb spires, and taper to a point, tipped with colorful ceramic “stars.”
Gaudí’s Nativity Facade gives a glimpse at how grand this structure will be. The four spires are just a fraction of this mega-church. When finished, the church will have four similar towers on each side, plus five taller towers dedicated to the Evangelists and Mary. And in the very center will stand the 560-foot Jesus tower — the tallest in the world — topped with an electric cross shining like a spiritual lighthouse. The grand Nativity Facade (where tourists enter today) will become a mere side entrance. The huge church will accommodate 8,000 worshippers surrounded by a forest of sequoia-sized columns. With light filtering in, dappling the nave with stained-glass color, a thousand choristers will sing.
The Nativity Facade exemplifies Gaudí’s unmistakable style. It’s incredibly ornate, made from stone that ripples like frosting, blurring the architectural lines. The sculpted surface is crawling with life: people, animals, birds, trees, and weird bugs. Two massive columns flanking the entrance playfully rest on the backs of two cute little turtles. Gaudí’s religious vision was infused with a love of nature. “Nothing is invented,” he said, “it’s written in nature.” The church grows organically from the ground, blossoming to heaven.
As a deeply religious man, Gaudí’s architectural starting point was Gothic: spires, “flamboyant” ornamentation, pointed arches, and Christian themes.
The Nativity Facade, dedicated to Christ’s birth, features statues of Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus — the “Holy Family” (or Sagrada Família) for whom the church is named.
Gaudí mixed in his trademark “Modernist” (or Art Nouveau) elements: color, curves, and a clip-art collage of fanciful symbols celebrating Barcelona’s glorious history. He pioneered many of the latest high-tech construction techniques, including parabolic arches, like those spanning the facade’s midsection. He molded concrete to ripple like waves and enlivened it with glass and tile. His vision: a church that would be both practical and beautiful.
Gaudí labored over Sagrada Família for 43 years. As with Gothic cathedrals of old, he knew it would require many generations to complete. The Nativity Facade was Gaudí’s template to guide future architects. But he also encouraged his successors to follow their own muses. After Gaudí’s death, construction continued in fits and starts, halted by war and stagnation.
Today, the project enjoys renewed life. The site — funded in part by admissions from daily hordes of visitors — bristles with cranking cranes, prickly rebar, scaffolding, and engineers from around the world, trained in the latest technology. More than a century after Gaudí began, they’re still at it. It’s a testament to the generations of architects, sculptors, stonecutters, fundraisers, and donors who became captivated by Gaudí’s astonishing vision, and are determined to incarnate it in stone.
The hoped-for date of completion? The centenary of Gaudí’s death: 2026. I’ll be there.
This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store . To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe ; just search for Gaudi.
Daily Dose of Europe: Velázquez’s Las Meninas
Diego Velázquez spent 30 years painting formal portraits of the Spanish king. Then, deciding to switch things up, he painted his most famous and greatest painting. Instead of showing the king, Las Meninas captures the behind-the-scenes action as the king’s portrait is being painted.
Velázquez stands at his easel, flicks his Dalí moustache, raises his brush, and looks directly out toward the people he’s painting — the king and queen. They’d be standing right where the viewer stands. In fact, you can even see the royal couple reflected in the mirror on the back wall. We’re seeing what the king and queen would have seen: their little blonde-haired daughter Margarita and her “maids,” or meninas , who’ve gathered to watch the sitting.
Velázquez (1599–1660) was a master of candid snapshots. Trained in the unflinching realism of his hometown of Seville, he’d made his name painting wrinkled old men and grimy workers in blue-collar bars.
Here, he catches the maids in an unguarded moment. Margarita is eyeing her parents, while a maid kneels to offer her a drink and another curtsies. To the right is one of the court dwarves, and a little boy playfully pokes the family dog. Just at that moment, in the background, a man pauses at a doorway to look in on the scene. The moment is frozen, but you can easily imagine what these people were doing 30 seconds before or 30 seconds later.
This seemingly simple painting was revolutionary in many ways. Velázquez enjoyed capturing light, and capturing the moment, just as the Impressionists would two centuries later. Also, if you look close, you’ll see that the girls’ seemingly detailed dresses are nothing but a few messy splotches of paint — the proto-Impressionist use of paints that Velázquez helped pioneer.
Velázquez creates a kind of 3-D dollhouse world and induces you to step inside. The figures are almost life-size, and the frame extends the viewer’s reality. The eye unconsciously follows the receding lines of the wall on the right to the far wall, and the painting’s vanishing point — the lighted doorway. The painting’s world stretches from there all the way back to the imaginary space where the king and queen (and the viewer) would be standing. And you are part of the scene, seemingly able to walk around, behind, and among the characters. Considered by many to be the greatest painting ever, this is art come to life.
This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at our online Travel Store . To enhance your art experience, you can find clips related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe ; just search for Prado.
Daily Dose of Europe: Pamplona — Feeling the Breath of the Bull on Your Pants
This summer, every big European festival is cancelled — including Pamplona’s famous Running of the Bulls, which was slated to begin today. Instead, I’m reliving my memories of the time I had a front-row view of the action.
Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I just published a collection of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. My new book is called “For the Love of Europe” — and this story is just one of its 100 travel tales.
Perched on the top timber of the inner of two fences (in the prime area reserved for press), I wait for the 8:00 rocket. I’m thinking this is early…but for the mob scene craning their necks for the view behind me, it’s late. They’ve been up all night.
Cameras are everywhere — on remote-controlled robotic arms, vice-gripped to windowsills, hovering overhead on cranes, and in the hands of nearly every spectator that makes up the wall of bodies pressed against the thick timber fence behind me.
The street fills with runners. While you can wear anything, nearly everyone is wearing the traditional white pants, white shirt, and red bandana. The scene evokes some kind of cultish clan and a ritual sacrifice. This is the Festival of San Fermín. Fermín was beheaded by the Romans 2,000 years ago, martyred for his faith. The red bandanas evoke his bloody end.
It’s three minutes to eight, and the energy surges. The street is so full that if everyone suddenly ran, you’d think they’d simply trip over each other and all stack up, waiting to be minced by angry bulls. The energy continues to build. There are frat-boy runners — courage stoked by booze and by the girls they’re determined to impress. And there are serious mozos — famous locally for their runs, who’ve made this scene annually for as long as people can remember. They’ve surveyed the photos and stats (printed in yesterday’s paper) of the six bulls about to be turned loose. They know the quirks of the bulls and have chosen their favorite stretch of the half-mile run. While others are hung over, these mozos got a good, solid night’s sleep, and are now stretching and prepping mentally.
For serious runners, this is like surfing…you hope to catch a good wave and ride it. A good run lasts only 15 or 20 seconds. You know you’re really running with the bull when you feel its breath on your pants.
Mozos respect the bull. It represents power, life, and the great wild. Hemingway, who first came to the festival in 1923, understood. He wrote that he enjoyed watching two wild animals run together — one on two legs, the other on four.
It’s 8:00 and the sound of the rocket indicates that the bulls are running. The entire scramble takes about two and a half minutes. The adrenaline surges in the crowded street. Everyone wants to run — but not too early. Suddenly, it’s as if I’m standing before hundreds of red-and-white human pogo sticks. The sea of people spontaneously begins jumping up and down — trying to see the rampaging bulls to time their flight.
We’ve chosen to be near the end of the run — 200 yards from the arena, where, later today, these bulls will meet their matador. One advantage of a spot near the end is that the bulls should be more spread out, so we can see six go by individually rather than as a herd. But today, they stay together and make the fastest run of the nine-day festival: 2 minutes and 11 seconds.
The bulls rush through, creating pandemonium — a freak wave of humanity pummels the barrier. Panicky boys — no longer macho men — press against my stretch of fence. It’s a red-and-white cauldron of desperation: big eyes, scrambling bodies, the ground quaking, someone oozing under the bottom rail.
Then, suddenly, the bulls are gone. People pick themselves up, and it’s over. Boarded-up shops reopen, and the timber fences are taken down and stacked. As is the ritual, participants drop into a bar immediately after the running, have breakfast, and together watch the rerun of the entire spectacle on TV — all 131 seconds of it.
While only 15 runners have been killed by bulls over the last century, each year, dozens of people are gored, trampled, or otherwise injured during the event. A mozo who falls knows to stay down — it’s better to be trampled by six bulls than to be gored by one.
A bull becomes most dangerous when separated from the herd. For this reason, a few steer — castrated bulls that are calmer and slower — are released with the bulls. (There’s no greater embarrassment in this machismo culture than to think you’ve run with a bull, only to realize later that you actually ran with a steer.)
After the last bulls run, the rollicking festival concludes at midnight on July 14. Pamplona’s townspeople congregate in front of City Hall, light candles, and sing their sad song, “Pobre de Mí”: “Poor me, the Fiesta de San Fermín has ended.” They tuck away their red bandanas…until next year on July 6.
(This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore tomorrow, July 7th. Or you can pre-order For the Love of Europe online . You can also find clips related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe ; just search for Pamplona.)
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