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History and Mystery in Glastonbury

Two hours west of London, Glastonbury is a mecca for seekers. It gurgles with a thought-provoking mix of history and mystery. For the views, hike up the 500-foot-tall Glastonbury Tor (a grassy, conical clay hill capped with an old church tower), and you’ll notice the remains of the labyrinth that made climbing the hill a challenge some 5,000 years ago.

In AD 37, Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ wealthy tin-merchant uncle, supposedly brought a vessel containing the blood of Christ to Glastonbury, and with it, Christianity to England. (Joseph’s visit is plausible because back then, merchants from the Levant came here to trade with the local miners.)

While that story is supported by fourth-century writings and accepted by the Church, the King Arthur and Holy Grail legends it inspired are not. Those medieval tales were cooked up when England needed a morale-boosting folk hero to inspire its people during a war with France. They pointed to the ancient Celtic sanctuary at Glastonbury as proof of the greatness of the fifth-century warlord, Arthur. In 1911, his supposed remains, along with those of Queen Guinevere, were dug up here, and Glastonbury was woven into the Arthurian legends. The Camelot couple was reburied in the abbey choir and their gravesite is a kind of shrine today. Many believe the Grail trail ends at the bottom of the Chalice Well, a natural spring at the base of the tor.

England’s first Christian sanctuary was built right next to the Chalice Well. Eventually, a great abbey rose on the site. Mix the scant ruins of England’s oldest church with the mystique of King Arthur and Holy Grail, add the hard work of a busy monastery, and, by the 12th century, Glastonbury was the leading Christian pilgrimage site in all of Britain.

At its peak, Glastonbury Abbey was England’s most powerful and wealthy, part of a network of monasteries that by the year 1500 owned a quarter of all English land, and had four times the income of the king.

In the 16th century, Henry VIII, on a rampage against the power of the monasteries, destroyed Glastonbury Abbey. For emphasis, he hanged and quartered the abbot, sending his body on four national tours—at the same time. Two centuries later, Glastonbury rebounded. In an 18th-century tourism campaign, thousands signed affidavits stating that water from the Chalice Well healed them, putting Glastonbury on the tourist map.

Today, Glastonbury is a center for searchers. It’s too out-there for the mainstream church, but just right for those looking for a place to recharge their crystals. Since the society that built that labyrinth worshipped a mother goddess, the hill is seen by many today as a symbol of the Sacred Feminine.

For those fascinated with mysterious Britain, a world of sights awaits within a short drive of Glastonbury. You can see countless forgotten tombs, man-made hills, and figures carved into hillsides whose stories will never be fully understood.

Perhaps the most evocative are the stone circles, souvenirs of England’s misty, distant past. The most famous, Stonehenge, and a much larger, less-visited stone circle at Avebury are both about an hour’s drive from Glastonbury. Most believe stone circles functioned as celestial calendars, helping early societies know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to party. Some believe that Stonehenge is built at the precise point where six “ley lines” intersect. Ley lines are theoretical lines of magnetic or spiritual power that crisscross the globe. They are believed to have been very important to prehistoric peoples, and more recently embraced by the New Age movement.

The geology contributes to the mystery of this land. Southern England’s shoreline is lined by famed white chalk cliffs. And that same white chalk is just below a thin layer of topsoil all across the region. Eons ago, all it took was a shovel and a little hard work to peel away the soil and transform rolling hillsides into works of art—or messages.

Travelers to this day are entertained by giant white figures popping out of these grassy green slopes. Many are creations of 18th- and 19th-century Romantics acting out against the coldness of the Industrial Age, but a few of these figures have, as far as history is concerned, always been there. One figure in Dorset, an hour from Glastonbury, is particularly eye-catching: The Cerne Abbas Giant, armed with a big club and an erection, is hard to ignore. For centuries, people fighting infertility would sleep on Cerne Abbas. As my English friend explained, “Maidens can still be seen leaping over his willy.”

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Glastonbury Tor attracts hikers and seekers. (photo credit: Rick Steves, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at Tämä sähköpostiosoite on suojattu spamboteilta. Tarvitset JavaScript-tuen nähdäksesi sen. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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Padua: Students, Saints, and ‘Scarpette’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Giotto’s glorious Scrovegni Chapel. (photo credit: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at Tämä sähköpostiosoite on suojattu spamboteilta. Tarvitset JavaScript-tuen nähdäksesi sen. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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The Dordogne’s Well-Fed Geese

Elbows on a rustic windowsill at a farm in the Dordogne region, I lose track of time watching Denis grab one goose at a time from an endless line. In a kind of peaceful, mesmerizing trance, he fills each one with corn. Like his father and his father’s father before him, Denis force-feeds geese for a living. He spends five hours a day, every day, all year long sitting in a barn on a rolling stool with a machine that looks like a giant vacuum cleaner, surrounded by geese.

Denis rhythmically grabs a goose by the neck, pulls him under his leg and stretches him up, slides the tube down to the belly, and fills it with corn. He pulls the trigger to squirt the corn, slowly slides the tube up the throat and out, holds the beak shut for a few seconds, lets that goose go, and grabs the next.

When I tell friends I’ve witnessed geese being force-fed—the traditional way their livers are fattened to make foie gras, the prized delicacy in the Dordogne—many of them express disgust. Many people refuse to buy French foie gras for what they consider inhumane treatment of the geese. That’s why I’m on Denis’ farm: to learn more about la gavage (as the force-feeding process is called) with a firsthand visit.

Elevage du Bouyssou, a big homey goose farm a short drive from Sarlat, is run by Denis and Nathalie Mazet. Their geese are filled with corn three times a day for the last months of their lives. They have expandable livers and no gag reflex, so the corn stays in there, gradually settling as it’s digested and making room for the next visit from Denis and his corn gun.

While Denis squirts corn, Nathalie meets tourists—mostly French families—who show up each evening at 6 p.m. to see how their beloved foie gras is made. The groups stroll the idyllic farm as Nathalie explains how they raise a thousand geese a year. She emphasizes that the all-important key to top-quality foie gras is happy geese raised on quality food in an unstressed environment. They need quality corn and the same feeder. To his geese, Denis is no threat.

I join the group as we scatter seed for the baby geese. We stroll into the grassy back lot where the older geese run free. Backlit by the low early-evening sun, they glow in rich colors.

The Mazets sell every part of the goose except the head and feet. The down feathers net less than a euro per goose—the serious money is in the livers. A normal goose liver weighs a quarter-pound, but after the force-feeding process is finished, a goose liver weighs about two pounds. With a thousand geese, they produce a ton of foie gras annually. “Barely enough to support one family,” Nathalie says.

These mature geese actually have a special shape, like they’re waddling around with a full diaper under their feathers. This fattened goose silhouette has become a sales icon in shops throughout the Dordogne. Just the sight of it is enough to make English travelers salivate. They come here in droves for the foie gras.

Why the Dordogne? This region in southwest France is on the birds’ migratory path southward. Ages ago, locals caught geese on their migration, with livers voluntarily enlarged in anticipation of the long journey. As the French are inclined to do, they ate the innards, found them extra tasty, and decided to produce their own. Those first French foie gras farmers didn’t know it, but they weren’t the first to keep geese and enlarge their livers for human consumption. Le gavage goes back to ancient Egyptian times.

When I tell Nathalie that some of my American readers will say I’ve been duped, she reminds me that their geese are calm, in no pain, and designed to take in food in this manner, while American farm animals are typically kept in little cages and fed chemicals and hormones to get fat. Most battery chickens in the US live less than two months and are plumped with hormones. Nathalie’s free-range geese live six months.

Dordogne geese live their lives at least as comfy as the other farm animals that many people (so upset with the foie gras process) have no problem eating. They are slaughtered as humanely as any non-human can expect in this food-chain existence.

After a few days in the Dordogne, where markets are filled with zealous farmers passing out little goose-liver sandwiches and where every meal seems to start with foie gras, I always leave with a strong need for a foie gras detox—and a strong desire to return soon.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Nathalie explains that happy geese produce top-quality foie gras. (photo credit: Rick Steves, Rick Steves' Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at Tämä sähköpostiosoite on suojattu spamboteilta. Tarvitset JavaScript-tuen nähdäksesi sen. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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Pamplona: Feeling the Breath of the Bull

Like a cowboy at a rodeo, I sit atop my spot on the fence. A loudspeaker declares—first in Spanish, then in English—“Do not touch the wounded. That is the responsibility of health personnel.” A line of fluorescent-green-vested police sweeps down the street, clearing away drunks and anyone not fit to run. Then the cleaning crew and their street-scrubbing truck make one last pass, gathering garbage and clearing broken glass. The street—just an hour ago filled with throngs of all-night revelers—is now pristine, sanitized for a televised spectacle. It’s the annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

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. Cameras are everywhere—on remote-controlled robotic arms, vice-gripped to windowsills, hovering overhead on cranes, and in the hands of nearly every spectator who makes up the wall of bodies pressed against the thick timber fence behind me.

The street fills with soon-to-be runners. While you can wear anything you like, 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 part of the Festival of San Fermín, named for a saint who 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 started running, 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. I can pick out frat-boy runners—courage stoked by booze and by the girls they’re determined to impress. And it's also clear who the serious mozos are—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.

Finally, 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. It looks 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 in order 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.

And when the bulls do rush through, pandemonium ensues—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, in a moment, 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 16 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.

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 the next July 6.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

The Running of the Bulls—and the people—in Pamplona’s Festival of San Fermín. (photo credit: Rick Steves, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at Tämä sähköpostiosoite on suojattu spamboteilta. Tarvitset JavaScript-tuen nähdäksesi sen. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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The High Life and Humble Devotion on Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor

South of Bosnia and Herzegovina is yet another nation that emerged newly independent from the ashes of Yugoslavia: Montenegro. During my travels through this region, my punch-drunk passport has been stamped, stamped, and stamped again. While the unification of Europe has made most border crossings feel archaic, here the breakup of Yugoslavia has kept them in vogue. Every time the country splintered, another border was drawn. The poorer the country, it seems, the more ornate the border formalities. By European standards, Montenegro is about as poor as it gets. It doesn’t even have its own currency. With just 600,000 people, the nation seems to have decided, “Heck, let’s just use euros.”

For me, Montenegro, whose name means “Black Mountain,” has always evoked the fratricidal chaos of a bygone age. I think of a time when fathers in the Balkans taught their sons that “your neighbor’s neighbor is your friend” in anticipation of future sectarian struggles. Back then, for generation after generation, So-and-so-ovich was pounding on So-and-so-ovich, so a secure mountain stronghold like this was worth all of that misery.

A recent visit showed me that this image is now dated. The country is on an upward trajectory. Many expect to see Montenegro emerge as a sunny new hotspot on the Adriatic coastline. International investors (mostly from Russia and Saudi Arabia) are pouring money into what they hope will become their very own Riviera.

Unfortunately, when rich people paste a glitzy facade onto the crumbling infrastructure of a poor country that isn’t ready for it, you get a lot of pizzazz with no substance. I stayed at a supposedly “designer” hotel that was a comedy of horrible design. I felt like I was their first guest ever.

A huge thunderstorm hit with enough fury to keep the automatic glass doors opening and closing on their own. Nothing drained—a torrent cascaded down the stairs and through the front door. The rain also brought a backed-up sewage smell that drove me out of my room.

Eventually the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and I went out to explore. My first stop was the Bay of Kotor, where the Adriatic cuts into steep mountains like a Norwegian fjord. At the humble waterfront town of Perast, young guys in swim trunks edged their boats near the dock, jockeying to motor tourists out to the island in the middle of the bay. According to legend, fishermen saw the Virgin Mary in the reef and began a ritual of dropping a stone on the spot each time they sailed by. Eventually the island we see today was created, and upon that island the people built a fine little church.

I hired a guy with a dinghy to ferry me out to the island, where I was met by a young woman who gave me a tour of the church. In the sacristy hung a piece of embroidery—a 20-year-long labor of love made by a local parishioner 200 years ago. It was exquisite, lovingly made with the finest materials available: silk and the woman’s own hair. I could trace her laborious progress through the line of cherubs that ornamented the border. As the years went by, the hair of the angels (like the hair of the devout artist) turned from dark brown to white. Humble and anonymous as she was, she had faith that her work was worthwhile—and two centuries later, it’s appreciated by a steady parade of travelers from distant lands.

I’ve been at my work for more than three decades now and my hair is also getting a little gray. I have a faith that it—my work, if not my hair—will be appreciated after I’m gone. That’s perhaps less humble than the woman was, but her work reminds me that we can live on through our deeds. Her devotion to her creation (as well as to her creator) is an inspiration to do both good and lasting work. While traveling, I’m often struck by how people give meaning to their lives by contributing what they can.

I didn’t take a photograph of the embroidery that day. For some reason, I didn’t even take notes. At the time, I didn’t realize I was experiencing the highlight of my trip. The impression of the woman’s tenderly created embroidery needed time to breathe—like a good red wine. That was a lesson for me. I was already moving on to the next stop. When the power of the impression did open up in my mind, it was rich and full-bodied—but I was long gone.

If travel is going to have the impact on you that it should, you have to climb into those little dinghies to discover those experiences. The best encounters won’t come to you. And you have to let them breathe.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Visiting the island church by boat (photo credit: Rick Steves, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at Tämä sähköpostiosoite on suojattu spamboteilta. Tarvitset JavaScript-tuen nähdäksesi sen. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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Tuscany: ‘Here Begins Prosciutto’

I checked into the farmhouse inn on the Gori family estate. This is Tuscany in the rough: a working farm, not a resort—no TV, no swimming pool, lots of real culture. My host, Signora Gori, is both old-money elegant and farmhouse tough. After I settle in, she takes me on a welcome stroll.

Our first stop is a sty dominated by a giant pig. “We call him ‘Pastanetto’—the little pastry,” Signora Gori says. As the pigs stir up the hay dust, sun beams shine through, making the air twinkle. While the scene through my camera’s viewfinder is pristine and tranquil, the soundtrack is not. After a horrendous chorus of squeals, she says, “That is our little Beirut.”

Hiking to the rustic slaughterhouse, we enter a room dominated by a stainless-steel table piled with red sides of pork. “Here begins prosciutto,” Signora Gori says. Burly men in aprons squeeze the blood out of hunks of meat the size of dance partners. Then they cake the ham hocks in salt to begin the curing process, which takes months. While the salt helps cure the meat, a coating of pepper seals it.

In another room are towering racks of aging ham hocks. A man in a white coat tests each ham by sticking it with a bone needle and giving it a sniff. It smells heavenly.

Back outside, Signora Gori takes me into the next barn, where fluffy white lambs jump to attention, kicking up a sweet-smelling golden dust from beds of hay. Backlit by stray sunbeams, it’s a dreamy, almost biblical scene. Picking up a baby lamb and giving it an Eskimo kiss, she explains, “We use unpasteurized milk in making the pecorino cheese. This is allowed, but with strict health safeguards. I must really know my sheep.”

This close-to-the-land-and-animals food production is part of Italy’s Slow Food movement. Believing there’s more to life than increasing profits and speeding up production, people like the Gori family have committed to making and serving food in the time-honored way. It may be more labor-intensive and more expensive, but it’s tastier. Because Italian foodies are happy to pay higher prices for higher quality, it’s also good business.

Tuscany is alluring. Enticed by books like Under the Tuscan Sun, a persistent parade of visitors are hell-bent on sampling the Tuscan good life—and its prosciutto. The nearby town of Greve is happy to oblige. It’s a facade of Tuscan clichés, with enough parking and toilets to handle all the tour buses, as well as a vast prosciutto emporium, with boastful newspaper clippings on its door and samples kept under glass. My stroll on the Gori farm reminds me how, especially here, it’s critical to venture off the tourist track.

Walking down another lane, we observe the family’s team of vintners. Signora Gori’s brother empties a bucketful of purple grapes from a dump truck into a grinder, which munches through the bunches, spitting stems one way and juice with mangled grapes the other. Following pipes of this juice into a cellar, Signor Gori explains that winemaking is labor-intensive, “but right now, the grapes are doing most of the work.”

As the new grapes ferment, we taste the finished product. A key word from my Tuscan travels is corposo—full-bodied. Lifting the elegant glass to my lips, I sip the wine while enjoying the pride in the eyes of those who made it. Satisfied, I say, “Corposo.”

“Si, bello,” they reply.

That night at dinner, we’re joined by the rest of the Gori family. The two sons dress and act like princes home on break from some Italian Oxford. We sit down to a classic Tuscan table, focused on simplicity, a sense of harmony, and the natural passage of time necessary for a good meal—each of us with a glass of good red wine. Dipping my bread in extra-virgin olive oil and savoring each slice of prosciutto, it’s clear: Great wine goes best with simple food. I nod to my hosts, appreciating that I’m experiencing the true art of Tuscan cuisine.

Full and content, we sip port and enjoy a game of backgammon on a board that has provided after-dinner fun for 200 years in this very room. Surrounded by musty portraits that put faces on this family’s long lineage, alongside a few guns used in Italy’s 19th-century fight for independence, I realize this evening—so special for me—is just another night on the farm for the Gori family.

Corposo. That’s how I like my wine…and my Tuscan travels.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Tuscan prosciutto, produced on a small family farm. (photo credit: Addie Mannan Photography, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at Tämä sähköpostiosoite on suojattu spamboteilta. Tarvitset JavaScript-tuen nähdäksesi sen. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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England’s Lake District: Land of Great Hikes and Poets

In England’s Lake District, nature rules and humanity keeps a wide-eyed but low profile. At just about 30 miles long and 30 miles wide, the region is a lush, green playground for hikers and poets alike. William Wordsworth’s poems still shiver in its trees and ripple on its ponds. There’s a walking-stick charm about the way nature and culture mix here. Walking along a windblown ridge or climbing over a rock fence to look into the eyes of a ragamuffin sheep, even tenderfeet get a chance to feel outdoorsy.

I’ve come here to enjoy some natural thrills and renew my poetic license. I focus on the northern lake of Derwentwater, with the nearby town of Keswick as my home base. It was an important mining center through the Middle Ages, but slate, copper, and lead gave way to Romantic poets and tree-hugging tourists in the 19th century. Keswick’s fine Victorian buildings recall those Romantic days when city slickers first learned about “communing with nature.” And its thriving market, which fills the pedestrianized town center and feels more tuned into the needs of residents than tourists, gives the visitor a chance to feel the pulse of the local community.

A bald and bold hill called Catbells towers over Derwentwater. Often over the years, from a boat on the lake, I’ve looked enviously at hikers: tiny stick figures working their way up the ridge to that enticing 1,500-foot summit. Locals call these distant figures silhouetted against the sky at the summit “crag rats.” With a free afternoon for a hike, I’m excited to finally become a crag rat myself. But the blustery weather conspires to keep me in. My B&B host loans me a better coat and eggs me on, saying, “The wind will blow the cobwebs out.”

I venture up the ridge, leaning into the wind, passing the comedic baaing of sheep. Finally—savoring that “king of the mountain” feeling—I stand all alone on the top of Catbells and stoke someone else’s crag-rat envy.

The blustery weather reminds me of what I’ve learned about Britain: Don’t wait for it to get better. Dress in layers and expect rain mixed with “bright spells.” Drizzly days can be followed by long and delightful evenings. You can usually find convivial and atmospheric shelter at strategically placed pubs. And these days there are two kinds of pubs: drinking pubs and eating pubs. Among those whose focus is eating, gastropubs can earn a reputation for some of the best meals in a town or even a region.

And, oh, the joy of a pub after a good hike. When my face is weather-stung and my legs ache happily with accomplishment, a pub’s ambience sparkles even brighter and a good pint of beer is even more refreshing. Keswick’s Dog and Gun pub, where “well-behaved dogs are welcome,” is predictably full of hiking-partner pups. You can always pal up to an English pooch—I find they’re happy to introduce you to their masters.

In northern England, summer evenings come with a couple hours of light after dinner. Good maps locate historic roadside attractions worth a quick drive from bases like Keswick, and while these places can be noisy by day (and frustrating for drivers looking for a place to park), they are tranquil and all yours after dinner. For me, a twilight visit to these places is a wonderful way to cap a nice pub meal.

For example, after my pub grub in Keswick, I drive three miles east to the Castlerigg Stone Circle. Drenched in beauty, it stands like a mini Stonehenge. The majority of England’s stone circles are here in the northern region of Cumbria. Castlerigg is one of the best and oldest in Britain. The circle, 90 feet across and 5,000 years old, has 38 stones mysteriously laid out on an axis between the two tallest peaks on the horizon. They most likely served as a celestial calendar for ritual celebrations.

I wander through this stone circle and imagine it in megalithic times—alive with people as ancient as King Tut, filling the clearing in spring to celebrate fertility, in late summer to commemorate the harvest, and in winter to mark the solstice and the coming renewal of light. My sunset visit comes with solitude and maximum goose pimples.

Lingering in the Lake District, I can share my appreciation of nature with the crag rats, the poets, and the druids. While Cumbria’s charms are subtle, its rewards are great. Hiking along a ridge in the footsteps of Wordsworth or pondering my own private Stonehenge, I feel recharged, inspired…and ready to write a poem.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Succumb to nature in England’s Lake District. (photo credit: Rick Steves, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at Tämä sähköpostiosoite on suojattu spamboteilta. Tarvitset JavaScript-tuen nähdäksesi sen. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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