While their economies may be undergoing turbulence in 2012, 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.
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 Orsay Museum -- the mecca of Impressionism -- a $28 million, multiyear remodel wrapped up in October, when the top-floor Impressionist and Post-Impressionist rooms reopened in a larger space. The Louvre's pre-Classical Greek section reopens in late 2012, and the museum's exciting new Islamic art wing debuts this summer. But Paris' Picasso Museum remains closed for renovation, probably until summer 2013.
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 Utah Beach Landing Museum (near Sainte Marie du Mont, http://www.utah-beach.com) is now open. Built in the sand dunes around the remains of a German bunker, with floors both above and below sea level, the museum's finale is a large, glassed-in room overlooking Utah Beach.
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 Matisse Museum is expected to close for renovation sometime in 2012 and the Russian Cathedral is closed indefinitely. In Arles, the Arlaten Folk Museum is closed until 2013, and the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh (which, while interesting, contains no original Van Gogh paintings) is moving and should reopen in its new location in the spring of 2012. Near Arles, in Les Baux, the Cathedrale d'Images is set to reopen in March with a new sound-and-light show.
Next door in Spain, several museums in Toledo have reopened after years of renovation. The new Spanish Army Museum, installed within the Alcazar fortress, displays endless rooms of military collections of armor, uniforms, cannons, guns, paintings, and models. The Santa Cruz Museum, finally completely open, displays a world-class collection of El Greco paintings, along with an eclectic mix of medieval and Renaissance art. The reopened and renamed El Greco Museum (no longer called El Greco's House) offers its small collection of paintings -- including the "View and Plan of Toledo," El Greco's panoramic map of the city.
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 Picasso Museum by reserving an entrance time and buying your ticket online with no additional booking fee at http://www.museupicasso.bcn.cat.
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 in 2012 and beyond.
(Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.)