Europe itself will never be great again as a world power. It is in a long-term decline resulting from soft socialism, declining birth rates, high immigration by unskilled workers many of whom are hostile toward European culture (but at least most are not illegal), onerous regulations, heavy handed rule from remote Brussels and an indifference or even animosity toward wealth-creating Silicon Valley style venture capitalism which threatens the political elites.

But you can still see the past greatness of Europe. It’s not so much in Rome, Paris, Berlin, London or Madrid. Such cities are great but they give little insight into the greatness of the culture that produced them, a culture that lasted 1,000 years and ruled the earth for several hundred.

For that, you have to get out to the villages in the rural countryside. That’s where Europe lived until the industrial revolution. That’s the Europe that produced Michelangelo, Magellan, Galileo, Mozart, Locke and their great thoughts, acts and works.

It’s easier than you think. Forget about the tour books. You’ll instead make your own tour and it won’t be X cities in Y days. Forget about seeing the sights. The most overrated sight in Europe, by the way, is the Vatican Museum – wait in a long line and stand shoulder to shoulder with a mob that insists (why?) on taking a picture of every single thing.

You’ll instead see the culture. Here’s how.

First, get a general sense of what part you want to see. You have to make choices here. You can’t even see much of a single country in one trip. But remember, the goal is to learn the country, not to see it. You can learn a great deal about French culture, for example, with a few weeks in the villages of Provence or Western France near the Pyrenees or Eastern France near Alsace.

In Spain and especially Italy, at least two distinct cultures co-exist, one in the north and one in the south. You may have to make at least two long trips to each of those countries. 

Ah yes, the length of the trip. Book a one-way ticket. You can book the return flight when it’s time to come home, and it’s way too early now to decide when that will be. I would suggest that most trips should be at least a month or two.

Arrange for lodging for your first few nights and have a good sense of where you’ll go, but don’t try to book it all in advance. Why would you? Once you book in advance, you’re a slave to your itinerary. Better to go at your own pace. Play it by ear.

Under no circumstances should you rent a car. It’s hard to drive on narrow, windy roads where you can’t read all the road signs, and it’s a huge headache parking in a big city (yes, you’ll be in a few big cities too). Take the trains (which are very good) and the buses (which are less so, but reasonably dependable), both of which typically take you to the center of whatever town you’re going to. 

Then walk. It’s the only way to get close to the people and the landscape. See the countryside and villages the way they were seen by the people who built and lived in them. I like walking in a line. Not a straight line, mind you, but a line in the sense that each day I continue my walk between two points. Europe has many such walks, and some have been famous for centuries. The 500-mile Camino de Santiago has been walked by pilgrims for over 1,000 years by several different routes. In the old days, many died in route. They pilgrimed themselves to death.

Don’t pilgrim yourself to death, romantic as it may sound. Walk a day at a time and spend the night in the nicest hotel in town, which will probably cost only about $80. That night, arrange the next night’s hotel online (I like booking.com). Take a rest day when you need it. This is supposed to be a challenge and adventure, but not an ordeal. There will be enough accidental hardship without incurring more on purpose.

Doing it this way will require you to carry all your trip belongings on your back. If you’re careful, your pack will weigh less than 25 pounds. If you’re not, you’ll be miserable.

Learn a little of the language. I’m not good at languages, except possibly American, but even I know enough Spanish to bluff. The goal, after all, is not to communicate in the foreign language but to just give the locals the impression that you’re trying.

Imagine you’re walking down the street in your American hometown and a stranger comes up and says, “Excuzez-moi, ou est la gare routier? You’d be puzzled, no?

By the way, the first word out of your mouth when entering a store or restaurant should be a greeting in the native language. “Bonjour” in France. Surely you can learn that. Then, and only then, you can inquire with a little embarrassment (if you don’t really feel embarrassed, then fake it) whether they speak English. Learn to make that inquiry in the local language too.

Almost always (but not always) the person will gladly speak English to you thereafter. But it’s important to let them know that you know you’re on their turf and asking a cultural favor, and not leave the impression that you think you and your kind have culturally conquered them and theirs.  

We won, OK? Let’s be gracious about it.

I’m reminded of my own deficiencies in this regard. My little reptilian brain thinks there are only two languages: American and foreign. “Foreign” is my primitive Spanglish.

And so when I enter a setting in Europe, no matter which country, my reptilian brain triggers “foreign” and I start speaking Spanglish. But it works. I’ll say “una cerveza por favor” to a person in France or Italy and the listener will reply in English, “Can I help you, sir?” I can only conclude that whatever I say in whatever language, the listener magically hears, “Please speak English to me.”

This may all be a way of saying, try to fit in. Nobody will think you succeed, but they’ll appreciate the effort. And then, they and their culture are yours for the taking. Or at least the borrowing.

BTW, today I started walking. It was just a few hours. Over the next five days, I’ll walk about 60 miles, including a couple of 15+ mile days. Let’s hope the weather holds. The landscape of steep hills each crowned with a picturesque village is quite charming.