What’s new in France and Italy for 2016

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 53 of the March 2016 issue.

FRANCE has brought us so much culture and art and, at the same time, has championed the modern concept of a vacation. To get the most out of your next visit, be mindful of these changes and developments for 2016.

• In Paris, the Eiffel Tower’s first level — after a $38 million renovation — is decked out with new shops, eateries and a multimedia presentation about the tower’s construction, paint job, place in pop culture and more. The highlight is the breathtaking, vertigo-inducing glass floor that lets you experience what it’s like to stand atop an 18-story building and look straight down. Just a few blocks away, the Rodin Museum is now fully open after a 3-year renovation.

Elsewhere in Paris, the Carnavalet Museum, which covers the history of Paris and has a great exhibit on the French Revolution, is undergoing renovations in 2016. While it will remain open, some of its rooms may be closed. The Louis Vuitton Foundation is the latest entrant to the Paris art scene. Its cool glass, sailboat-like building, set in the Bois de Boulogne park, features modern and contemporary art.

All over Paris, more museums are offering free apps that serve as audio guides for their collections. There’s also more online ticketing (which, depending on the museum, can save time in line).

There are also some fresh budget options for getting into Paris. A new EasyBus shuttle service runs from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris with dirt-cheap fares (www.easybus.com). Uber now provides airport transport and may save some money over a taxi, but because the drivers can’t use the bus-only lanes as normal taxi drivers can, expect some added drive time.

• In Normandy, Mont St-Michel is a true island once again at high tide. It’s reachable by a new super-sleek bridge rather than the old causeway that blocked the flow of water around the island.

In Bayeux, the new minivan service Bayeux Shuttle (www.bayeuxshuttle.com) offers service to and from Mont St-Michel, which is a huge help to those “sans” cars.

• While there are more than 100 castles you can visit in the Loire Valley, you might want to skip Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, which is under renovation until spring 2017. It remains open, but some wings may close temporarily, and scaffolding may cover parts of the exterior.

• To the southwest, in the Dordogne, some of the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume prehistoric cave tours can be reserved in advance by email (fontdegaume@monuments-nationaux.fr) or phone (+33 05 53 06 86 00), but space is extremely limited. Sales of advance tickets opened this year on Jan. 2 for the entire year; usually, everything is sold out by March.

For Lascaux II, a replica of another prehistoric cave, reservations are highly recommended in July and August and accepted only two to five days in advance by phone (+33 05 53 51 96 23).

• For those who want to get above it all, Chamonix’s gondola over the Alps to Italy has opened again after years of closure (at the Helbronner stop). The new gondola, called Skyway Monte Bianco, offers an amazing ride as you head into Italy; it rotates 360 degrees as you sail along.

A new museum in Chamonix, the Mountaineering Center (part of Espace Tairraz), showcases local ascents and has an interactive climbing simulator.

• In Alsace, the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar has reopened after a multiyear restoration, and its masterpiece, Matthias Grünewald’s gripping “Isenheim Altarpiece,” is back on view.

Minivan tours of Route du Vin wineries are no longer offered from Colmar, but an alternative is any of the tours from Ophorus Tours (www.ophorus.com) which leave from Strasbourg. They visit several wine villages and include wine tastings and time to wander.

• This year also marks a milestone in France’s WWI history: the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun. The Memorial de Verdun WWI museum was scheduled to complete its renovations in February and will offer the best historic exhibits on this battle anywhere.

• In 2016 it will be easier to see ancient Roman sights in Provence. In Avignon, a direct express bus now goes to Vaison-la-Romaine, a picturesque town chock-full of ancient ruins.

And at Pont du Gard, there are two new options for seeing the Roman aqueduct in the summer. There’s an after-hours program that lets visitors enjoy the sight until midnight, and in July and August, half-hour tours through the water channel at the top of the aqueduct are offered six times a day in both French and English.

• In the Riviera, Nice’s new tramline makes getting around the town center easier than ever.

Nice’s Russian Cathedral, long closed for renovation, hopes to reopen early this year.
But some changes aren’t for the best. During summer, swimmers should watch out for swarms of jellyfish, which are becoming more prevalent due to the warming sea. Ask before you dip.

And, with the dollar about 15% stronger than the euro, compared to a year ago, enjoying France will be particularly affordable in the coming year.

ITALY may be the cradle of the Renaissance, but lately it’s been feeling like a work in progress. Travelers in the last few seasons have been finding cultural treasures buried behind scaffolding or removed from view because of ambitious renovation schemes. The good news is that many of these projects are winding down.
Here is the latest for traveling smart in Italy in 2016.
First, pack a little extra patience. Expect tight security at the big sights throughout Italy. Even with reservations or sightseeing passes in hand, crowds are basically unavoidable at major destinations in peak season. Crowding at state museums is now especially bad on the first Sunday of the month, when admission is free and reservations aren’t accepted. Avoid visits on free days to top museums like Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Naples’ National Archaeological Museum.
• In Florence, visitors with advance reservations or the Firenze Card sightseeing pass can skip the ticket-buying line (but you’ll still have to get through security-check bottlenecks). At the Uffizi, there may be a queue to pick up your reservation, another 30-minute wait to enter and then a slow shuffle through security… and that’s with a reservation or a Firenze Card.
At Florence’s Duomo, the big news is the reopening of the completely revamped Duomo Museum, whose masterpieces (such as Ghi­berti’s bronze doors) once adorned the adjoining cathedral, baptistery and bell tower.
New themed tours at the Duomo (which cost about $40) include a visit to the north terrace of the cathedral (otherwise not accessible to the public), an opportunity to watch contemporary stonemasons chiseling away in the Duomo workshop and an up-close look at the baptistery’s glittering mosaics.
Florence’s Uffizi Gallery is still undergoing its massive, years-long renovation to improve security, lighting and climate controls. Most recently, the Early Renaissance rooms — the first rooms that visitors enter — have reopened. Whenever you visit, you can expect that some works will have shifted to new locations or will have been temporarily removed from view. The building may be centuries old, but the top two floors are now covered by a free Wi-Fi network.
On Florence’s Piazza S.S. Annunziata, the Brunelleschi-designed Hospital of the Innocents now houses a new museum, Museo degli Innocenti. It tells the story of the Renaissance-era institution devoted to the care and protection of children, with exhibits focusing on the infants left at the “wheel of the innocents,” a sort of lazy Susan that allowed the destitute to abandon their babies anonymously.
• Always crowded Rome will be particularly jammed this year. Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be a special Jubilee Holy Year, and the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica opened on Dec. 8, 2015, and will remain open until Nov. 20, 2016 (it’s usually opened only once every 25 years). Expect plenty of pilgrims and some extra security precautions at St. Peter’s.
With the ever-present crowds at the Vatican Museums these days, advance reservations are a must. But if you haven’t planned ahead, you can often get priority-entry tickets at the tourist office in St. Peter’s Square or in the basilica’s foyer.
One of the biggest disappointments for visitors to Rome in recent years has been finding the Trevi Fountain under renovation. Emptied of water and laddered with scaffolding, it could be viewed only by shuffling through a quick-moving queue on a narrow platform. But the renovation has been completed, Neptune is surfing through his wet kingdom again, and tourists are tossing coins into the fountain to ensure they’ll return to Rome. That may sound silly, but every year I go through this ritual. . . and it actually seems to work.
• In the Cinque Terre, the hiking trails linking Italy’s five cutest towns are finally beginning to reopen (five years after a flash rainstorm caused devastating flooding). The trail from Monterosso to Vernazza is officially open; the trail from Vernazza to Corniglia is passable but officially closed, and the trail from Corniglia to Manarola and Riomaggiore (the famed Via dell’Amore) is closed and impassable, for now, but is expected to reopen by summer 2016.
• With the emergence of huge new middle classes in China and India, millions of people suddenly have enough money to afford their dream of seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. This development, combined with the crowds any Holy Year draws, plus the general popularity of Italy, points to massive numbers descending on the country in 2016. Any and all tips and tricks to avoid crowds should be fully employed for a visit to Italy’s more famous sights in the coming year.F
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Reach him at Rick Steves’ Europe, Inc., 130 Fourth Ave. N., Edmonds, WA 98020-3114; phone 425/771-8303, www.ricksteves.com.