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What's New in France and Spain
by Rick Steves
While their economies may be undergoing turbulence, positive changes in France and Spain are also in the air -- making this year a good time to touch down in these essential European destinations.
In France, Paris' progressive mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, is launching an electric-car-share program called Autolib' (www.autolib.eu), which is designed to function much like the city's successful Velib' bike-share program. Eventually 3,000 electric cars will plug in at 1,000 (mostly underground) stations -- and yes, Americans and Canadians can rent one as long as they have an International Driving Permit.
Meanwhile, public transit in Paris is becoming more automated. Staffed ticket windows in Metro stations are gradually being phased out in favor of ticket machines, so don't expect live transactions at some smaller stations. Since most U.S. credit cards won't work in these machines, be sure to carry coins or small bills of 20 euros or less.
The news is mostly good for art lovers in Paris. At the
Beginning in May, there will be a new way to make a pilgrimage to one of the country's most popular sights -- the evocative island abbey of Mont St. Michel. Visitors will park in remote lots and ride free shuttles to a pedestrian walkway connected to the island. It's part of a multiyear project to replace the island's old causeway with a sleek, modern bridge, allowing water to freely circulate around the island once more.
At the nearby D-Day beaches in Normandy, the terrific
In the Dordogne, a new Prehistory Welcome Center has joined other worthwhile Cro-Magnon sights in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. The free welcome center provides a solid introduction to the Dordogne region's important prehistoric sites, with timelines, slideshows, and exhibits that serve as an excellent primer on the origins of the human species.
In Nice, the
Next door in Spain, several museums in Toledo have reopened after years of renovation. The new
In Madrid, the Madrid Card sightseeing pass now allows you to skip the lines at sights -- which can save lots of time at the famous Prado art museum and the lavish Royal Palace. And in Barcelona, you can avoid the lines for the
Granada's top sight, the magnificent Alhambra fortress, has opened an official bookstore in a handy city-center location (between Plaza Isabel La Catolica and Plaza Nueva). The bookstore's info desk can help you print out your pre-reserved Alhambra tickets, and sells advance tickets (but not same-day tickets). With your ticket in hand, you can bypass the mob scene at the main entrance and enter the Alhambra through the Justice Gate (closer to the top attractions of that exquisite palace).
In Sevilla, the once nondescript square called Plaza de la Encarnacion (at the north end of downtown) has been boldly redeveloped: A gigantic undulating canopy of five waffle-patterned, mushroom-shaped, 100-foot tall structures (called "Metropol Parasol" by its German architect) now provides shade for the formerly sunbaked square.
Even with these changes, the essence of France and Spain endures -- a heady mix of modern and traditional that is ready to intoxicate curious travelers.
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Article: Copyright ©, Tribune Media Services Inc.
Vacations & Travel "What's New in France and Spain"