Despite the economic downturn, France and Spain spent millions of euros last year to upgrade their public spaces and technology for visitors.
In Paris, the top floor of the Orsay, containing its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist rooms, is slated to reopen this spring after a yearlong renovation. Until then, many of the displaced masterpieces are temporarily displayed on the museum's ground floor. At the Louvre, the pre-Classical Greek section will be closed in 2011. Construction continues on the new Islamic art wing, due to open in 2012.
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The Eiffel Tower's online reservation system, which lets you skip the ticket line, is up and running. At the tower, attendants scan your ticket (which you've printed at home) and put you on the first available elevator. Even with a reservation, however, you still have to wait in line with the masses to get from the second level to the summit.
The renovation of the east wing of the Army Museum in Paris is finally complete. The wing's exhibit, "From Louis XIV to Napoleon I," covers French military history from 1643 to 1814, with a focus on Napoleon. Highlights include a projection screen illustrating the Battle of Waterloo, the famous portrait of Napoleon by Ingres, and Le Vizir — the beloved (now stuffed) Arabian horse of the "Little Corporal."
Some high-tech changes are leaving Americans behind. As more of France adopts chip-and-PIN technology for credit cards, your U.S. credit and debit cards are unlikely to work at self-service ticket machines, gas pumps, automated tollbooths, and parking garages with automatic pay points. The best advice is to carry sufficient cash in euro bills and coins, since there's generally an option to pay cash. Drivers on the autoroute should look for tollbooths sporting green arrows, indicating they accept cash.
If you travel with a smartphone or laptop, another high-tech change is helpful: Every McDonald's in France now offers free Wi-Fi.
At Mont St. Michel in Normandy, the first phase of an ambitious project to return the island to its original form was completed in 2010. The new dam on the Couesnon River gives a fine view of the abbey from its sleek wood benches. Next up is the construction of huge parking lots, followed by a pedestrian footbridge to replace the old causeway. The entire project should be completed by 2014, when the island will have tidal water flowing all around it again.
In the Alsace town of Colmar, big plans are afoot to expand the Unterlinden Museum — one of the most visited in all of France because of its beautiful Isenheim Altarpiece, so expect construction-related changes when you visit in 2011.
Next door in Spain, that country's half-hearted restrictions on smoking in public places just got a kick in the pantalones. As of Jan. 1, smoking is banned in all closed public spaces, most notably restaurants and bars (but not hotel rooms).
In Barcelona, several sights are undergoing changes, including Antoni Gaudi's famous and unfinished cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, where workers completed the floor just prior to Pope Benedict XVI's visit last November. The pope consecrated the church, so the nave is now open for daily Mass.
In Spain's northern region of Cantabria, plans to reopen Altamira's prehistoric caves have been put on hold. The caves' art has been completely off-limits to tourists since 2002, but they can visit a replica cave nearby. Last year, authorities considered reopening the real caves, but in December they gave a group of conservation experts two years to study the proposal.
While Madrid lost its bids to host the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, the city continues building new Metro stations, pedestrianizing streets, and making other infrastructure improvements as if it had won. Its central square, Puerta del Sol, is now largely car- and bus-free. Work continues because the projects have proved popular and hopes are still alive for a Madrid Olympics in 2020 or 2024.
Near Madrid, the Valley of the Fallen memorial, which commemorates the victims of Spain's civil war (1936 to 1939), has been closed for renovation and will fully reopen sometime in 2011. The memorial's basilica was opened to the public just in time for Christmas, but can only be visited during religious services.
At Granada's Alhambra, the Hall of Kings in the Palacios Nazaries is completely closed while it's being refurbished. However, the 12 lion statues in the Alhambra's Courtyard of the Lions will probably return in 2011 after a long restoration, giving visitors back their favorite Alhambra photo-op.
There may be temporary construction clutter, but don't put off 2011 travel plans. The magic of France and Spain is eternally rewarding.
(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)
© 2011 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.