Rick Steves: For Craftsmen, Generations of Tradition in Danger

While we wait for travel to Europe to become fully open to North Americans, here’s a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe.

When you’ve traveled to Europe, you see how traditional and local businesses make way for cookie-cutter chains and synthetic compliance. In historic city centers, as rents rise, longtime residents, families and artisans are being evicted. Small hotels, unique boutiques and individual artisans just don’t have the size to compete with the big ones.

In Florence, the end of rent controls immediately spiked costs, leading to the bankruptcy of artisans and shops intended for locals – to be replaced by upscale boutiques and trendy restaurants. The same thing happened in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. As landlords kicked out long-term tenants to make more money on short-term Airbnb rentals, mom-and-pop stores lost their traditional customer base and went out of business. In Istanbul, the city wants to move the iconic gold and silver workshops of the Grand Bazaar to a location outside the city center, while the “Made in Taiwan” gift shops are able to pay rents. higher and take their place, changing the character of the market.

Craftsmen lament that the next generation, drawn by the energy of big cities and lured by the opportunities of big business, is not here to carry on traditions. The artists who make handcrafted guitars in Madrid, the family wine growers of Burgundy, the fishermen who sell shrimp in the port of Oslo… they are all in danger. What will become of these rich facets of local culture if the younger generation retires? Of course, I cannot fault the children of craftsmen for embarking on the modern mad rush; I’m not an old school piano technician like my dad. But it’s worth considering what the future will look like when economic scale and efficiency trump artisanal values.

It’s a real joy when I come across real artisans who are committed to doing things the traditional way, by hand – and communities who understand the importance of keeping them in business. I urge travelers to seek out and support craft experiences before it’s too late.

In Rothenburg, Germany, I visited Peter Leyrer, an engraver who proudly showed me his prints. He made his prints using the copper plate technique, just like Albrecht Dürer 500 years ago. Peter prints the etchings in black and white, paints them in watercolors and sells them in his shop. Peter is aging and will be retiring soon. He told me that without someone to replace him, his 3,000 copper plates would probably end up in a museum. One of his prints hangs in my office.

In the Tuscan town of Montepulciano, my friend Cesare is a proud coppersmith with a mind as strong as the oak root on which his grandfather’s anvil rests. For Cesare, every day is a spectacle, as constant streams of travelers pass by to see him at work, fashioning special adornments for the city’s cathedral and hammering out fine kitchen utensils.

In the nearby town of Orvieto, Federico Badia is a young shoemaker with a passion for preserving the art of traditional shoemaking. After completing his apprenticeship in a leather shop in Rome, he created his own workshop, where he patiently made fine leather shoes for an admiring clientele. Federico says “Made in Italy” doesn’t apply to mass-produced factory shoes – it’s a label that rightfully belongs only to beautiful, handcrafted products by artisans like himself.

Back in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Dikran is a goldsmith who uses hand tools to create unique and finely crafted pieces. For a decade he worked as an unpaid apprentice, studying under a master until he became one himself. In the old days, a volunteer apprentice had to work hard to convince a master to accept it. Today, it is difficult to bring young people into a field where training takes years and incomes are limited.

While guiding a group of tourists in eastern Turkey, I once met a craftsman famous for his wood carving. We gathered around his table to watch him work, appreciating the pride he took in his art. Suddenly he stopped, raised his chisel high in the sky and said, “A man and his chisel, the biggest factory on Earth!”

I don’t have the answers on how to maintain Europe’s centuries-old traditions, but I am inspired every time I meet the artisans who lovingly carry precious and threatened crafts into the future. And it always feels right to buy a piece of their work.

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

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.

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