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Back Door Travel with Rick Steves

Europe in 2005

Changes Are Good News for Visitors

Rick Steves sampling cheese in London
Rick Steves sampling cheese in Neal's Yard, London.

Europe is constantly changing—and the changes are nearly always good news for visitors. After updating my guidebooks for each country in Europe, here's the latest for 2005.

Netherlands

Amsterdam's new Hermitage Amsterdam Museum shows exquisite rotating exhibits from Russia, loaned by St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum. The big show for 2005 (March 5-September 4) is an exhibit of 18th-century Venetian art—appropriate, considering it's on loan to the city nicknamed the "Venice of the North" (www.hermitage.nl).

Amsterdam's much-loved Rijks-museum is closed for massive renovation until 2008. But thankfully the best of its collection (virtually every canvas on travelers' must-see list) is hung in the museum's Philips Wing. As you marvel at the art of the Dutch masters—concentrated and plushly displayed—you almost wish the collection would stay this way (www.rijksmuseum.com).

Belgium

Bruges' new Chocolate Museum explains why, for ancient Mayans and Aztecs, cocoa beans were used as a means of payment and chocolate was considered the drink of the gods (as if we need an explanation). After lots of information about the production of truffles, hollow figures, and chocolate bars, you end up in the demonstration room...gorging at the tasting table (www.choco-story.be).

Brussels' tiny but fascinating Media Box museum, which helped people better understand the power of the media, has closed. (Worrisome, isn't it?) The city's kitschy Atomium, a gigantic landmark shaped like an atom (built for the 1958 World's Fair), is closed for renovation through 2005.

Britain

London's new glassy, egg-shaped City Hall—just across the Thames from the Tower of London—is open to tourists, with an observation deck (nicknamed "London's Living Room"), a visitors' center, and a 30-foot by 50-foot aerial photo of the city you can walk on.

The Bath Spa, delayed now for several years in a row, is still not open for bathers. If that's enough to drive you to drink, Bath has a new Pub Crawl (nightly May-September, www.greatbathpubcrawl.com).

In Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament building is now open and welcomes visitors. Nearby, the new Queen's Gallery features impressive temporary art exhibits from the royal collection.

Hungary

Budapest's House of Terror museum, focusing on the secret police of both the Nazi and communist regimes, is increasingly popular—visit early or late to avoid crowds (now open until 19:30 on weekends). The city's new Holocaust Memorial Center honors the nearly 600,000 Hungarian victims of the Nazis. The impressive modern complex—with a beautifully restored 1920s synagogue as its centerpiece—is a museum of the Hungarian Holocaust, a monument to its victims, and a research and documentation center of Nazi atrocities.

Croatia

Croatia's new expressway connecting Zagreb to the Croatian coast is finished, dramatically decreasing the drive time from Italy or Slovenia to Dubrovnik. The downside: As long-haul buses primarily take this road, far fewer buses will be serving Croatia's popular watery wonderland, Plitvice Lakes National Park. (The old highway goes right by the park's gates, allowing for a convenient stopover for bus travelers.)

France

In Paris picnickers can rejoice: The grassy fields of Champ de Mars, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, are now open for actual use as a park any time of day, not just in the evening when the park police go home.

The Louvre is dropping its ‚,¨8.50 admission price to ‚,¨6 after 18:00 on Wednesday and Friday. The Louvre's new self-serve ticket machines (which accept euro cash and Visa cards) allow museum-goers in the know to save time by skipping the long ticket window lines.

At Les Invalides Army Museum, the WWI Wing will be closed in 2005.

Versailles now offers equestrian performances in the mornings (training sessions daily except Monday and Friday) and a fancier show with music on weekend afternoons (www.acadequestre.fr).

Paris will continue to import sand, building its two-mile long beach, the Paris Plage, every summer along the Right Bank of the Seine (mid-July-mid-August only).

Nice will be a mess through 2006 as it builds a new three-line tram system. At either the Chagall or Matisse museums you can get a free bus ticket to connect the two museums, saving you a 15-minute walk. Very nice.

Caen's excellent WWII Memorial offers a special exhibition called "D-Day Words." It presents the daily life of troops during the campaign by drawing on letters and diaries written during 1944.

Germany

Dresden's Frauenkirche—destroyed in Allied fire-bombing raids near the end of World War II and rebuilt in a dramatic worldwide collaboration—reopens in 2005, a year before the town's 800th birthday. After sorting through the rubble, restorers used as many of the church's original stones as possible, fitting the church together like a giant jigsaw puzzle (www.frauenkirche-dresden.de).

Berlin's Egyptian Museum—and its famous bust of Queen Nefertiti—will move in 2005. From its inconvenient location on the outskirts of Berlin, the Museum will reopen on the very handy Museum Island in the city center. It'll be near the impressive Pergamon Museum (with its striking altar excavated from modern-day Turkey), making the island a magnet for art-lovers and disgruntled Egyptian and Turkish patriots who want their art back.

Berlin's new Holocaust memorial, consisting of more than 2,500 gravestone-like pillars, is due to be completed in 2005. The memorial will stand behind the new U.S. Embassy, near the Brandenburg Gate.

Austria

Vienna has been invaded by Starbucks, even though locals think the coffee is overpriced.

The Baroque treasures of the Liechtenstein Palace—in exile since 1938, when the Nazis rose to power in Austria—are now back in their rightful place. The Liechtenstein family, who also own a tiny country of the same name, welcomes guests into their striking new palace-turned-museum.

In summer, Vienna's nightly food court in front of the City Hall offers fun, inexpensive food with free movies of fine classical-music concerts played on a giant screen.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is still missing Cellini's Salt Cellar, stolen by thieves.

Vienna's Karlsplatz is now a worthy stop during your Vienna visit. Three fine sights overlook the square: Karlskirche (a church, currently under renovation, that allows tourists to ride an industrial elevator to the breathtaking top of the dome for a close look at the restoration work in progress), the sorely overlooked Historical Museum of the History of Vienna, and the Secession building (with its distinctive golden-cabbage roof and sumptuous murals by Gustav Klimt).

The Mauthausen concentration camp—more powerful than Dachau (near Munich, Germany)—has a new visitors' center.

Salzburg's new Museum of Modern Art—atop M√∂nchsberg, Salzburg's little mountain—is open for 2005. While the collection is not worth climbing for, its restaurant has some of the best views in town (www.museumdermoderne.at).

Ireland

The Irish government passed a new law making all pubs in the Republic smoke-free. In good weather, smokers take their pints outside. An incredulous Irishman responded to the new law by saying, "What will they do next? Ban drinking? We'll never get to heaven if we don't die first."

As Ireland zooms past Britain in per capita income, Dublin has become nearly as expensive as London. A pint of beer in a Dublin pub will likely cost nearly $5 in 2005. Apparently, joining the EU is good for your economy.

Italy

In Florence, reservations are required to visit the Brancacci Chapel, notable for Masaccio's frescoes (‚,¨4 for chapel entry, reservations are free). Book a time slot by calling 011-055-276-8224 (English spoken); reservations are often available for the same day. Entry times are every 15 minutes, chapel visits last (logically) 15 minutes, and a maximum of 30 people are allowed inside at a time. Visits on the top of each hour include a free 40-minute video show in English.

Venice's clock tower—with the famous Moors, who clang the hour on St. Mark's Square—opens to visitors in 2005. You need to check your bag before entering St. Mark's Basilica (free storage to the left of the facade). The Biennale, a world's fair of modern art hosted by Venice every other year, takes place from May through November in 2005 (www.labiennale.org).

Rome brings much dismay to travelers thrilled by the sight of bones. The Cappuccin Crypt—famous for its wall-to-wall human bone d√©cor—is closed through 2005. The Battelli di Roma boat company now serves Rome's Tiber River, offering hop-on, hop-off transportation, tours (within Rome or to Ostia Antica), and dinner cruises.

Milan's La Scala Opera House and Museum opened in December of 2004 after lengthy renovation. Milan's flamboyant Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, will remain under scaffolding through 2005. When the restoration is complete, Milan's main square will be one of Europe's most beautiful.

Denmark

Copenhagen's free-spirited commune of Christiania has been the target of a government crackdown. After a series of police raids, residents voluntarily took down the hash vendors' stalls on Pusher Street. But the merchants remain and you can still buy and smoke marijuana within Christiania. Denmark's new right-wing government would like to "civilize" the commune by putting up posh apartments; the residents just want to be left alone.

Copenhagen's Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Scandinavia's top art gallery, will undergo extensive renovation until mid-2006. While the gallery will remain open, major collections—Danish paintings plus French and Danish sculpture—will be closed.

In 2005, Denmark celebrates Hans Christian Andersen's 200th birthday—and Copenhagen's party plans are already underway (www.hca2005.com). The town of Odense, an hour from Copenhagen by train, will also host fairy-tale festivities at the H.C. Andersen Hus, where the author was born. The museum, renovated especially for the anniversary, features a display on the era in which Andersen lived (1805—1875), a library of the author's books from around the world (his stories were translated into nearly 150 languages), and headsets and benches throughout for you to listen to a selection of fairy tales.

Norway

Oslo's new museum honoring Nobel Peace Prize winners plans to open in June 2005. Sadly, in 2004, thieves stole two famous paintings from Oslo's Munch Museum—his Madonna and Scream. The museum is closed (likely until mid-2005) while better security is put in place. Fortunately, you can still see a version of Munch's Scream in Oslo's National Gallery.

Sweden

It's rumored that Sweden, like Denmark, will liberalize alcohol sales. For decades, Swedes have not been trusted to browse the wine and booze shelves on their own; only pictures are on display and they have to order at the counter. To see this system at work before it disappears, drop by Systembolaget, Sweden's state-run liquor store chain. Branches in Stockholm are at Gamla Stan (Lilla Nygatan 18) and on Norrmalm (Vasagatan 21).

Estonia

Tallinn's new Museum of Occupation tells the history of Estonia under Nazi and Soviet occupation from 1939 to 1991. A collection of Soviet-era statues of Communist leaders is—probably intentionally—in the basement by the toilets.

Spain

Madrid's three great art museums—the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza, and Centro Reina Sof√≠a—will have brand-new modern extensions built by well-known architects for 2005.

With the new Barcelona-Madrid AVE train, the ride between those cities drops from eight hours to just five.

Salamanca's famous main square—Spain's finest—is celebrating its 250th anniversary, but no one yet knows how.

Granada's Moorish Palace, the Alhambra, is often booked up during the day. Those without reservations can usually still see the whole Alhambra, but in two parts: visit the gardens and fort during the day (cheap ‚,¨5 ticket) and the Moorish Palace at night (‚,¨10) when there's no need for reservations. (Otherwise, follow your guidebook's instructions on booking a time to visit in advance.)

Gibraltar now offers a walking tour of its city core. Due to the fear of terrorism, Gibraltar's little Changing of the Guard ceremony was stopped when the Iraq War began.

The Tarifa-Tangier boat is now a fast ferry, taking only 35 minutes to cross the Strait of Gibraltar from Europe to Africa. But since the boat always leaves a half-hour late, it takes the same time the slow boat used to.