A Taste of Europe

By Rick Steves
Czech Lunch, Prague, Czech Republic
European food is sightseeing for the palate. (photo: Rick Steves)

I've been trying to analyze why I enjoy traveling so much. All I do is work all day long, every day, and yet it brings me pure joy.

Just last night, I was sitting with my camera crew on the beach of a remote Danish isle, digging into a grand picnic as the sun was sinking heavy and red into the sea. It was like an hourglass — unstoppable, dictating when we would be done filming. We set about shooting the great scene, getting the opening of the show at the same time.

A charming family who happened to be German joined us with their terrier named Jackson. The mayor of the island — a wiry former headmaster of the local school and clearly charismatic enough to be a popular small-town politician — was sitting cross-legged with us, strumming his guitar. He began teaching us a Danish shanty about a sinking ship in which all the sailors survived and made it home to their beloved. The picnic was all spread out, and shrimp and wieners were sizzling on the hibachi. It was perfect.

After popping another shrimp into Jackson's eager and hairy trap, which made us all laugh, I looked into the camera, and said (with a vaguely Australian accent), "Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're on the beach, got a good cold beer, and the shrimp's on the 'barbie.' It must be the best of...Denmark. "

We had just biked down from a thousand-year-old mystical burial site — a stone-lined mound the shape of a Viking ship. It sat upon a five-thousand-year-old burial chamber. Next to it was a village church with a list of pastors going back 500 years. The current pastor, a Janet, was the first woman on the list. All this history intensified the experience.

Sometimes I wonder why I feel charmed by all this. It comes back to my studies, when I got my history major by accident. Because I had traveled, taking history classes was simply fun. One morning in a University of Washington dormitory, I woke up, realized I had already taken seven history classes, and it hit me: "Three more classes, and I'll have my degree — and bam, I'm a historian."

Since then, I've spent a third of my life exploring Europe — enjoying my "continuing education" with a curriculum I've tailored specifically for myself. I marvel at how my travels stoke my interest in history, and how much fun my interest in history brings.

Just this summer, I've discovered that 7,000 Danes volunteered to fight with the Nazis against the Soviet Union; tried to get my head around the possibility that the Vikings' rape, pillage, and plunder image may be a bad rap; and heard stories of that famous monk in the Champagne region of France who double-fermented his wine, inventing something new and bubbly, and ran famously down the halls of his monastery shouting, "Brothers, come quickly, I'm drinking stars!" Just today, here on this Danish isle, I learned how its "duty-free" era as a smuggling capital on the border between Germany and Denmark financed the lovely collection of captains' homes I've been ogling all afternoon. 

I have much more to learn, and much sampling to do. Eating my way through Europe this summer reminds me how understanding "food patriotism" brings out fun and fascinating facets of my favorite continent. In Scotland, I learned locals are passionate about finding and describing the whisky that fits their personality. Each guy in the pub has "his" whisky. And the flavors (fruity, peppery, peaty, smoky) are much easier to actually taste than their wine-snob equivalents.

In Greece, I got a good, strong dose of how olive oil and national pride mix. Locals are outraged that some Greek olive oil is being bottled and sold as "extra virgin Italian oil" rather than Greek. They are determined to elevate the image of their olive oil so growers won't take a hit when they sell it as a Greek product.

And, this week in Denmark, I learned that pickled herring is more popular than Danish pastry. My friend, a local guide here, claims to eat herring every morning for breakfast and three times a week for lunch.

In a few days, I fly to Istanbul — where I get to refine my appreciation for baklava again. (I get it tuned up as often as possible.)

What's the point? When you travel, you find the enthusiasm of locals for their heritage and national dishes rubs off on you...and you fly home with more favorite foods and a broader perspective. Travel makes life simply more tasty, and history more poignant.