Visitors to Italy will find less anarchy in 2011 — at times the experience is positively Germanic. Take Rome, for example, where the relatively new online reservation system for the Vatican Museum is running smoothly, and some lucky visitors can even enjoy its vast collection at night. The museum is now open most Friday evenings April through October from 7 to 11 p.m. (by reservation only, http://mv.vatican.va). Anytime you go, you can see the museum's Etruscan Rooms, which are finally open after a long renovation.
Across town at the Colosseum, the ancient arena is being cleaned from top to bottom and given permanent lighting. In future years, this ambitious project may open up new areas, which were previously closed to visitors.
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A renovation project is transforming Tiburtina, Rome's second-largest train station, once known mainly as a bus hub. A sleek, modern station is currently being built for high-speed rail. At least one Eurostar Italia bullet train stops here already, and a new company — Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV) — is expected to start running its Italo high-speed trains from Tiburtina sometime in 2011.
This year, it's getting even easier to buy Ferragamo shoes (and anything else) on Rome's fashionable Via Condotti. Traditionally, shops in Rome were closed for a long lunch break. But in the city center, many are now staying open throughout the day — generally 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
In Florence, the streets around the Duomo have recently been pedestrianized. The Uffizi Gallery, famous for its fabulous Renaissance art, is undergoing a renovation, scheduled for completion this summer. Until then, its Tribune Room (with Venus de' Medici) will be closed. When it reopens, you'll view the precious marble statue of Venus through glass panels.
Florence's Galileo Science Museum will open after significant renovation later this spring (likely late May or early June). The Medici-Riccardi Palace no longer requires (or even accepts) reservations for its exquisite Gozzoli's Chapel of the Magi.
In Pisa, the Leaning Tower is now open late on summer evenings, making it possible to tour the landmark and survey the Field of Miracles from above after dark. The system for making reservations and sorting out the huge crowds that come to see and climb the tipsy tower is working well (www.opapisa.it).
Travelers to Milan will find the city busy with construction projects as it beefs up both its infrastructure and cultural offerings in anticipation of hosting the 2015 World's Fair. The Duomo Museum will remain closed until 2015 as it undergoes an extensive renovation. Meanwhile, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana will host an important special exhibit from now through 2015, displaying 22 pages from Leonardo's notebook, the Codex Atlanticus. Each page is in its own glass case and well described by the useful audioguide.
Venice has a new museum: The Punta della Dogana, housed in the former Customs House at the end of the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro neighborhood. It features cutting-edge 21st-century art in spacious rooms. This isn't Picasso and Matisse, or even Pollock and Warhol — those guys are ancient history. But if you're into the likes of Jeff Koons, Cy Twombly, Rachel Whiteread, and a host of newer artists, the museum is as impressively contemporary as Venice is Old World. The displays change completely about every year, drawn from the museum's large collection. In fact, the art is spread over two locations — the triangular Customs House and Palazzo Grassi.
The Dogana traghetto, or ferry gondola, is back, shuttling passengers across the mouth of the Grand Canal, between Harry's Bar (near St. Mark's Square) and the new Punta della Dogana art museum.
Venice's new People Mover monorail, a shuttle train fixed to a circular cable, opened in 2010 and carries passengers from the parking lot at Tronchetto to Piazzale Roma. It departs every few minutes, makes the half-mile trip in three minutes, is completely automated (no crew on board), and drops you a block from the Calatrava Bridge on Piazzale Roma, where the town center is an enchanting walk away.
I can no longer accurately describe the Tuscan hill town of Volterra as out-of-the-way and not trampled by tourist crowds. Thanks to the "Twilight" sequel "New Moon," hordes of fans are following in the footsteps and fang-marks of Edward and Bella in this city (even though most of the Italian scenes in the movie were actually shot farther south in Montepulciano).
Wherever you go in Italy during 2011, you'll find Europe's richest culture. Its traditions live within a country that is vibrant and fully modern — and even getting a little less chaotic.
(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at email@example.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)
© 2011 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.