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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
"What, you went to Spain and didn't see the Velázquez room in the Prado?"
"What are you saying? You were right there in the Tate and you didn't see the Blake watercolors? Are you kidding me?"
"What do you mean? You were in the Uffizi Gallery but you missed Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus?' How much wine did you have with lunch?"
If you think you might face such questions on your return from a European jaunt — and if they matter to you — then Rick Steves is a guy you need to know.
You may, in fact, know him already from television, where he is host of the award-winning series "Travels in Europe with Rick Steves." He's also the force behind Europe Through the Back Door, a company that provides practical information for budget travelers.
In addition, Steves is the author of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door, a series entitled Rick Steves' Country Guides, and another called Rick Steves' Phrase Books. Recognizing, however, that there's more to travel (and life) than finding a nice but inexpensive room and a good, cheap meal in places where local people eat, Steves has branched out into the realm of painless culture. Along those lines, he's published Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler.
Perhaps his most popular book, however, is Rick Steves' Mona Winks: Self-Guided Tours of Europes Top Museums. Just published in a new fourth edition, it's probably the single handiest guidebook of its type.
Steves takes the view that you're not going to go to all the trouble of getting yourself to Europewithoutvisiting at least a few museums and catching the high spots of the continent's artistic treasures...at least, those that your annoying friends are sure to ask if you saw.
Steves covers all the right and necessary places: London's British Museum, British Library, National Gallery, and Tate Gallery; Paris's Louvre and Musee D'Orsay; Amsterdam's Rijksmusum and Van Gogh Museum; Venice's Academia; Florence's Uffizi and Bargello; Rome's Vatican Museum; and the Prado in Madrid.
In addition to those proper museums, he also includes chapters on such artistic sites and repositories as Westminster Abbey, Versailles, St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, and St. Peter's in Rome. And for good measure, he also includes a "Westminster Walk," an "Historic Paris Walk," a "Renaissance Walk" in Florence, and "A Walk Through Ancient Rome," plus a rather freewheeling chapter on modern art.
For each museum, you get full information on hours and days, costs of admission, rules on photography, and — always important — a comment on the cafeteria amenities.
There's even stuff about the art!
Each chapter provides a step-by-step tour, sometimes literally, through the many highlights of each museum or locale. Often the focus is on a handful of artists well represented in the collection, or a school of painting that is richly documented in the museum, and the commentary, though presented in a sassy, off-the-cuff manner, is really quite substantial. Quite a number of paintings are reproduced too, in black and white, and they serve as handy landmarks along the way.
Steves has made a tactical decision to adopt a certain attitude here. Listen: "Even at its best," he writes, "museum-going is hard work. This book attempts to tame Europe's 'required' museums, making them meaningful, fun, fast, and painless."
Does that sort of tone make your teeth hurt? Yeah, mine too. Now listen to Steves again: "This book drives art snobs nuts. Its gross generalizations, sketchy dates, oversimplifications, and shoot-from-the-hip opinions will likely tweeze art highbrows. [It] isn't an art history text; it's a quick taste of Europe's fascinating but difficult museums."
Despite that awful line about highbrows, now we can see, I think, the real Steves behind the pose. If looking at great art were truly a chore, he never would or could have written this book. Rick Steves and you and I all know that museums are not difficult and don't need to be made painless. But life is short and travel even shorter, and getting the most from a trip does present some difficulties.
So here's the bottom line. If you're planning, say, a day in Madrid, besides sleeping and eating and walking, you might have three hours for shopping in El Corte Inglés, three hours for sitting at a café table in the Plaza Mayor, and three hours for the Prado. And with only three hours, you want to be certain to see Velázquez and Goya and El Greco and Bosch. And in order to do that, with the benefit of some brief but insightful guidance on what you're looking at, you can't do better than Rick Steves' Mona Winks.
Even sensitive and experienced art lovers like you and me need a book like this.