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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine March/April 2007
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Back Door Travel in Europe with Rick Steves

What's New in Europe in 2007

Country-by-Country News to Plan Your Itinerary

Dubrovnic visitors courtesy of Cameron Hewitt
Visitors are back to pre-war levels in Dubrovnik, Croatia’s most popular city.
Photo courtesy of Cameron Hewitt.

Europe is constantly improving the creative ways it shares its rich and diverse heritage. The downside is that perhaps one in 10 sights you've waited all your life to see will be closed for restoration. The good news is that for everything that's covered in scaffolding, many more attractions are newly restored and looking better than ever. Factor this sightseeing news into your itinerary plans for 2007:

The Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, full of artwork by the Dutch masters, is still under renovation—likely through 2009. While most of the building is closed, Rembrandt’s Night Watch and its other most popular paintings are on display in its Philips Wing. Amsterdam’s Netherlands Maritime Museum will be closed through 2009 while they scrub the decks.

Stonehenge courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door
Stonehenge has not changed so far this millennium.
Photo courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door

Great Britain

In London, consider buying an Oyster card to get discounted rides on the city buses and the Tube. The hard, plastic transit pass costs £3 plus an initial credit payment of £10. You then reload it whenever you run out of credit. The Oyster card chops the cost of a bus ride in half (for a £2 ride, only £1 is subtracted from your card) and slashes the fare for a downtown Tube ride from a whopping £4 to a reasonable £1.50.

Three London museums have been overhauled. The British Library now dedicates a special room just to the Magna Carta, the landmark 1215 document reminding the English king that he wasn’t above the law. The Victoria & Albert Museum reopened its Islamic Room and also added a new café. And the Tate Modern rehung its entire modern art collection. While donations are appreciated, admission to each of these worldclass sights is free.

Starting in July, London restaurants and pubs that sell food will be smoke free.

Outside of London, the Gipsy Moth IV has sailed away from Greenwich for another trip around the world. When she returns to England in mid-2007, she’ll moor at the Isle of Wight. Greenwich will add a new planetarium and Space Galleries to its Royal Observatory.

Bath, named and famous for its hot-spring baths, hasn’t had a functioning mineral hot-springs bath for several decades. Now the town finally has a first-class place to soak. The new Thermae Bath Spa opened after years of delays (www.thermaebathspa.com).

Stonehenge—despite big plans for a new visitors’ center and shuttle buses to bring visitors to see the site in a more natural setting—remains remarkably unchanged.

Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre will close in spring of 2007 and reopen in 2010 with a more actor-friendly thrust stage (for the latest, see www.rsc.org.uk). Until then, the Royal Shakespeare Company will perform down the road at Stratford’s Courtyard Theatre.

Ireland

As the Irish economy continues to boom, the country is importing labor for the first time in its history. Throughout Ireland an influx of Eastern European guest workers (especially Poles)—is changing the demographic make-up of the country. And, with its new affluence, Ireland is opening up fine restaurants, fixing its museums, preserving its heritage, and funding the arts.

Dublin’s National Museum split into two branches. Its impressive history exhibit (on the 1916 Easter Uprising, War of Independence from Britain, and Civil War) moved from the branch at Kildare Street to the branch at Benburb Street, north of the River Liffey.

Would you rather visit Dingle…or An Daingean? According to a recent poll, residents of An Daingean emphatically want to change the name of their town back to Dingle. The Irish government had renamed the town in Gaelic because it’s in a Gaeltacht, a region that receives government subsidies to keep alive Irish language and culture. Townsfolk of this popular stop in southwest Ireland made it clear that they may be proudly Irish, but that they much prefer the anglicized (and better for tourism) name.

In Galway, the Galway Irish Crystal Heritage Center—long a regular stop for bus tours—is no longer open to the public. But the town has a new cultural attraction: “Trad on the Prom,” a high-energy traditional music and dance troupe started by Galway-born performers who toured with Riverdance (daily May-September, www.tradontheprom.com).

St Marks Venice courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door
The clock tower on St. Mark’s Square in Venice remains closed, frustrating visitors in spite of its fancifully decorated scaffolding.
Photo courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door

Italy

In Venice, La Fenice ("The Phoenix") Opera House has risen from the ashes of a 1996 arson fire, meticulously restored to its 18th-century glory after an 8-year makeover. To get inside, you need to attend a performance or take a guided 45-minute tour ($9, runs twice daily).

Modern art fans can once again visit Ca' Pesaro, a 17thcentury Grand Canal palazzo full of 20th-century art.

Long lines continue to plague tourists wanting to visit St. Mark’s Basilica. If you check your daybag (free) nearby at Ateneo S. Basso, a former church, you can show the bag-check receipt to the official at St. Mark’s entry and get in without a wait.

While the clock tower at St. Mark's Square was due to reopen "in 2006," it remains closed. But you can enjoy the classic aerial view of Venice from the newly reopened bell tower at San Giorgio Maggiore, the church on the island just across the water from St. Mark's.

Venice’s Biennale art show is back on in 2007 with an appropriately cool website: www.labiennale.org. Every odd-numbered year outrageous contemporary art from around the world— including music, dance, theater, film, and architecture—is on display and on stage in pavilions scattered over Venice’s Giardini Park and the Arsenale. (If you imagine a map of Venice being shaped like a fish, the Biennale is in the tail.)

Florence deals with its floods of tourists and congested museums by requiring reservations to enter several of its top attractions. The easiest way to make reservations for the Uffizi Gallery (Renaissance art) and Accademia (Michelangelo’s David) is to have your hotelier do it for you; request this service when you book your room. Or you can call the frequently busy reservation line (Tel. 011-39-055-294-883). Reservations (that you book on your own) are still required for the Brancacci Chapel (Masaccio’s frescoes) and recommended for the Chapel of the Magi within the Medici-Riccardi Palace. Good guidebooks come with the details.

The Orsanmichele Church, with its 14th-century tabernacle, is once again open to the public.

Literary fans are released from the Purgatorio of waiting for Dante’s House to reopen after a lengthy closure, but the sight still falls short of Paradiso. Dante’s House never actually was the author’s home, just a replica, and to make matters worse, an inferno recently destroyed the most important artifacts. His reopened fake house now displays a series of panels on the history of Florence with precious little that actually dates from the days of Dante.

In Milan, the scaffolding covering the cathedral’s facade is finally expected to come down in 2007. You can celebrate by dancing on the square or even on the cathedral’s roof (really). But you’ll likely find the adjacent Duomo Museum closed for restoration.

Riding high on The Da Vinci Code, interest in Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco, The Last Supper, remains at a fever pitch. Visitors should reserve online at least a month in advance at www.cenacolovinciano.org.

Of Rome’s two sightseeing passes, the new $23 Roma Pass is better. In fact, it seems too good to be true (so it probably won't last). The pass gives you three days of transportation on the Metro and buses, and your choice of two sights—such as the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Borghese Gallery, Capitol Hill Museum, National Museum of Rome, and others—where you'll get in free, without waiting in line to buy tickets. Other sights are discounted. (Note that for the Borghese Gallery, you still have to get a reservation in advance.) The Roma Pass includes a map, guide, and event news (www.romapass.it), and can be purchased at participating sights and tourist offices at the main airport and train station.

Rome’s Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis) has finally reopened. Part of Nero's Golden House—the remains of Nero's home—will reopen at the end of January after undergoing repairs for water damage.

Mussolini’s Villa Torlonia just opened to the public. The former dictator’s house features a chandeliered ballroom, bombastic bedrooms, and exotic gardens where Mussolini lived and received guests in fascist splendor (en.museivillatorlonia.it).

At Pompeii, a replica of the 18’ x 9’ Battle of Alexander mosaic has been constructed on its original site, using 1.5 million tiles. The original mosaic, dating from the second century B.C., remains in Naples’ excellent National Archaeological Museum.

Notre Dame courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door
Newly restored and cleaned facades, such as Paris’ Notre-Dame, make
sightseeing throughout Europe a joy.
Photo courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door

France

My French friends warn that their country has a new system of photo ticketing for speeding, where moveable cameras are carefully placed to trap the unsuspecting driver. They are reportedly most common in 30-50 kilometer zones and will nail tourists as well as locals for going even a few kilometers over the limit.

One convenient way to send packages home is by using the post office’s Colissimo XL postage- paid mailing box. It costs about $40 for the international version, which allows you to send home all the goodies you can stuff into an 18” x 12” x 8” box (no weight limit).

The big news in Paris is the reopening of the Impressionist art museum, L'Orangerie. A 6-year refurbishment lopped off the top floor of the museum, opening up skylights and drenching Monet's paintings of water lilies in natural light. The museum's other works—a world-class collection featuring most of the big-name Impressionists—now fill a pleasant underground gallery.

At Paris’ Army Museums (in the complex with Napoleon's Tomb), historians will appreciate the new WWI exhibit and the refurbished WWII exhibit, both in the West Wing. The East Wing, which focuses on French military history and Napoleon, will close for remodeling for much of 2007.

The Palace of Versailles has overhauled its entrance and ticketing system, and has renovated much of the Domaine de Marie-Antoinette, the queen’s hamlet buried deep in the sprawling garden. Most visitors will save money by getting either a Paris Museum Pass (covers most sights in Versailles and Paris) or, for hardcore fans, the Versailles One-Day Pass (covers more Versailles sights and includes transportation from Paris). For the latest, see www.chateauversailles.fr.

In June of 2007, speedy TGV trains will connect Paris with destinations in Alsace and northern France—Reims, Verdun, Strasbourg, and Colmar—cutting train times from Paris about in half (e.g., three hours to Colmar instead of six).

Along the French Riviera, public buses lacing together the coastal towns now cost a flat $1.70, no matter how far you go. As the train misses some of the coast, riding this scenic bus (from Nice to Menton, for example) becomes a fine and inexpensive tour.

The new tramway is still under construction in Nice, leaving the city center an ugly congested mess.

In Grasse, the International Museum of Perfume will reopen in late 2007, offering a complete explanation of the history and production of perfume in a fragrant new home.

In Antibes, the Picasso Museum, which has been closed for remodeling for two years, will hopefully reopen sometime in summer of 2007 (but don't hold your breath).

Germany

In Munich, expansion of the S-Bahn subway system could turn the main train station into a construction site, but trains and services shouldn’t be affected.

New for 2007, the kitschy Beer and Oktoberfest Museum offers a frothy take on the history of Munich's favorite party (in the old town, just inside the Isartor, www.bier-und-oktoberfestmuseum.de). Munich's new Jewish Museum and community center is slated to open in March 2007 in the revitalized Jewish quarter (across from the City History Museum). After a 4-year remodel, the futuristic BMW Museum at the carmaker's headquarters finally reopens in summer 2007 (www.bmw-museum.de). The Deutsches Museum (Germany's answer to the Smithsonian) has gotten bigger, with two new branches in different parts of town: the expanded Museum of Transportation and the Flight Museum.

The glorious Imperial Hall in Würzburg’s Residenz palace is closed for renovation until 2008.

Berlin's central train station, the Hauptbahnhof (sometimes called by its former name, the Lehrter Bahnhof), is finally open. Located just north of the Reichstag parliament building, the Hauptbahnhof is a gigantic four-story transfer station. Now virtually every long-distance Berlin-bound train comes through the Hauptbahnhof. This turns the Zoo station (and other formerly "major" stations) into little more than glorified subway stations.

Following reconstruction, the Germany History Museum on the Unter den Linden Boulevard finally reopened in the formidable, though pink, former Prussian arsenal (with a glassy I.M. Pei-designed annex in the back).

Long a symbol of the communist days, the dreary, copperwindowed Palace of the Republic on Unter den Linden has finally fallen under the wrecking ball, and is no more. Some people hope to rebuild the Hohenzollern family palace on this site, where it once stood—but nobody's sure yet how to do it (or how to pay for it). For now, some of the most expensive real estate in the center of Berlin is simply a park.

Austria

Vienna, to celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday, opened the new (but disappointing) Mozart Haus Museum, near St. Stephen's Cathedral and the newly renovated Theater an der Wien (designed in 1801 for Mozart’s operas). The city lost several fine paintings by Gustav Klimt because the government is returning priceless art, stolen by Nazis, to its rightful owners. The Burg Kino movie theater still shows the Orson Welles classic, The Third Man (set in a bombed-out Vienna shortly after the end of WWII) three times a week.

The Vienna Opera House has long offered standing-roomonly tickets for music fans on a budget. But for many, it’s more fun to drop into the Opera Cafe and watch the opera live on video (reasonable menu and drinks).

You can easily day-trip by boat from Vienna to Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital (daily trips, 75 minutes). Many discount flights land in Bratislava, making it a popular destination for budget travelers who arrive here, then take the train or boat to Vienna.

Salzburg’s Panorama exhibit is a huge 360-degree painting of what the city looked like circa 1829. Mozart’s Birthplace museum has been redesigned but is still nowhere near as informative as the Mozart Residence (Wohnhaus) across the river. Now that Mozart is 251 years old, he’ll be less the center of Austrian attention in 2007.

Czech Republic

One of Prague’s landmark attractions, the Charles Bridge, will remain open to pedestrians throughout a multi-year reconstruction project.

Scandinavia

In Copenhagen, while the Rosenborg Castle will be closed for most of 2007, its treasury and armory will remain open. The fascinating prehistory section of Denmark’s National Museum is closed for renovation throughout 2007. Because SAS airline has rescheduled many of its Europe-to-U.S. flights to minimize forced overnights, the airport has closed its Transfer Hotel with its small cocoon-like rooms.

Norway now charges hotels an extra 8 percent Value-Added Tax (VAT), which will likely be passed on to guests. In Oslo, the Munch Museum now has on display the famous Munch paintings recovered from thieves in 2006.

In Stockholm, as long as the current left-wing government has its way, Sweden’s national museums will remain free (making the Stockholm Card—a $40 1-day tourist pass that covers many of the sights—less of a value). The 7-Eleven and Pressbyran newsstands all over town host "Sidewalk Express" Internet terminals; just buy a card, pop into branches anywhere in town, and you can log on conveniently and inexpensively.

In Helsinki, Citysherpa is an innovative free service that matches volunteer Finnish guides and foreign visitors with the same interests; Helsinki residents place "personals" on their website (hs.fi/citysherpa) such as "Music lover wants to show you his favorite disc shops and flea markets," and "Longdistance runner wants to run together through beautiful parks."

Tallinn, Estonia’s capital in the Baltics, is an easy ferry ride from Helsinki. The town’s biggest cultural news is its new Kumu Art Museum, where the best of Estonia's art is at long last properly displayed. Another new sight is the Kalev Spa, the country’s largest and newest spa.

Spain

Vueling has become a hugely popular discount airline in Iberia; for example, a Madrid-Barcelona flight can cost as little as $39 if booked in advance (www.vueling.com).

The new high-speed AVE train now connects Madrid and Toledo in 30 minutes. Toledo is undergoing a major construction project: the building of a new convention center, with a huge escalator that will take visitors from the bus station nearly to the main square, Plaza Zocódover. When this addition is complete (likely in 2009), the city will become largely traffic-free (except for city residents' cars, public transit, and service vehicles).

Tarifa in southern Spain still offers the easiest day-trip ferry connections to Tangier, Morocco. Restorations in Tangier are taking place on a grand scale, thanks to King Mohammed VI, who hopes to return the city to its former glory. The beach has been painstakingly cleaned, pedestrian promenades are popping up everywhere, and gardens bloom with lush, new greenery.

Portugal

In Lisbon, the quaint Eiffel-esque tower called the Santa Justa Elevador has reopened, handily connecting the Baixa district with the Chiado neighborhood up on the hill. The very central train station, Rossio Station, is scheduled to reopen in the fall of 2007, making trips to Sintra, Nazaré, and other destinations much quicker and easier.

Pilgrims still flock to Fátima, where the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in 1917. In 2006, a giant new church opened (Igreja da Santíssima Trindade) to hold all the visitors that overwhelm this small town on and around the 13th of the month from May through October.

Switzerland

Gimmelwald, a favorite alpine village up the valley from Interlaken, has lost its only restaurant, Pension Gimmelwald, which was recently sold. The funicular between Lauterbrunnen and Grütschalp has been replaced by a cable car.

The famously scenic Glacier Express trains out of St. Moritz have been spruced up, with headphones for the recorded commentary and panoramic cars in second class as well as first. While the muchhyped panoramic trains are great, so are the cheaper, standard trains that use the same routes.

Eastern Europe

In Poland, the reconstruction around Kraków's train station is complete. Now the station shares a shiny new square with an enormous, 270-store shopping mall. A handy, sleek new bus station huddles behind the train station. Also in Kraków, part of the breathtaking Main Market Square will be off limits as medieval foundations are excavated to create a new "underground museum."

Near Kraków, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp will be renovated over the next several years. The museum, considered the oldest Holocaust exhibit in the world, has been largely unchanged since it opened more than 50 years ago. While the museum will be modernized, key elements (such as the displays of human hair, eyeglasses, and suitcases) will remain. Restorers will build retaining walls to prevent the remains of the huge Birkenau crematoria—key evidence of the magnitude of Nazi crimes—from slowly sinking into the ground.

Budapest, despite the over-hyped protests against the Hungarian government that occurred here in the fall of 2006, remains a safe and enjoyable place to travel.

In Croatia in 2006, Dubrovnik's locals breathed a sigh of relief and said, "We've finally got as many visitors as before the war." The city is capitalizing on its revitalized tourist industry, with an increasing slate of tourist events, a pair of old-fashioned pirate ships for excursions, and costumed guards who parade down the main street several times daily.

Happy Travels!

Well-informed travelers will find Europe a candy shop of delights, not a minefield of disappointments. Whether you're swooning with Romeo in Stratford, gawking at David in Florence, or marveling at the Alps from under the glass bubble of a panorama train car—you'll enjoy your trip more by knowing what's new in the old country.

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