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Italy well worth the effort in 2008

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By Rick Steves
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- Bella Italia, my favorite country in Europe, is a wonderful work in progress. Here's a look at what to expect in 2008.

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Rome's Altar of Peace, which kicked off the Pax Romana, is housed in the first new building in central Rome since before World War II.

Italy is gung-ho for restricted traffic zones in its city centers. This is great for pedestrians, but not for drivers who are finding $100 fines in their mail when they arrive home. If you drive in Rome, Florence, Milan, Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, Orvieto or Verona -- in restricted areas marked by a Zona Traffico Limitato sign -- your car's license plate will be photographed and you can be fined without ever being stopped by a cop. Pay attention to signs, get parking advice from your hotelier, and park outside restricted areas.

Rome

With a revolution brewing among the throngs of tourists stung by the Vatican Museum's stingy hours, the museum has agreed to stay open longer in 2008: Monday through Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (last ticket sold at 4:00 p.m.); as usual, it'll be closed on Sunday except for the last Sunday of the month, when it's free and open 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. (last ticket sold at 12:30 p.m.). While some Catholics would love a private audience with the pope, those passed away with John Paul II -- Pope Benedict XVI doesn't do them.

It's a good time to be a fan of ancient Rome. On Palatine Hill, the Augustus Rooms, four newly restored rooms in a house from the era of Emperor Augustus open in March 2008 (entry included in the Colosseum/Palatine Hill ticket). At Trajan's Forum, a new Museum of the Imperial Forum just opened, offering ancient artifacts and computers showing how the forum was built.

Nearby, a small part of Nero's Golden House has reopened, but it's in a sad state of ruin -- more historically significant than interesting. And travelers are rediscovering the Ara Pacis -- the first-century "Altar of Peace" built by Emperor Augustus to kick off the Pax Romana. It's wonderfully displayed in a state-of-the-art exhibit housed in a starkly modern building -- the first new construction in Rome's old center since 1938.

Florence

If you're planning a visit to the Uffizi Gallery, the more-popular-than-ever showcase of Italian Renaissance paintings, reserve a ticket and entry time at least a month ahead (to avoid the two-hour-long ticket-buying line at the gallery). The simplest option is to ask your hotelier to make the reservation (most will do this for free or for a small fee). You can try to make the Uffizi reservation yourself by phone (from the United States, dial 011-39-055-294-883), but the line is often busy, and once you get through, it seems that they almost enjoy keeping you on hold and then disconnecting you.

Venice

The Clock Tower on St. Mark's Square has finally opened, giving visitors a close-up look at the clock innards, as well as expansive views of the square and beyond from the terrace. Unfortunately, you can only see it with a reservation-only guided tour (12 euros, includes Correr Museum). You can make the reservation in person at the Correr Museum, from the States by dialing 011-39-041-520-9070, or online at www.museiciviciveneziani.it.

The glorious dome of Venice's La Salute Church will likely be covered in scaffolding in 2008. The proposed 10-year, multi-billion-dollar Moses Project, designed to protect Venice from flooding through the use of underwater barriers, was funded several years ago ... but construction has yet to begin. Meanwhile construction is under way on the Grand Canal's new, ultra-modern fourth bridge, made of glass, steel and stone. The Calatrava Bridge will connect the Santa Lucia train station with Piazzale Roma as early as this summer, if it's finished on time.

In nearby Vicenza, 2008 promises to be a great year as the town celebrates the 500th birthday of Palladio, the homegrown architectural genius (www.andreapalladio500.it).

Milan

Reservations to see Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper still book up long in advance. It's better to book by phone than online. If you call, you'll have a greater selection of days and time slots to choose from, since their user-unfriendly Website doesn't reflect cancellations (from the United States, dial 011-39-02-8942-1146, www.cenacolovinciano.org).

Milan's new Museum of Art and Science offers a hands-on look at Leonardo's work -- sketches, paintings, and models of inventions -- during the 20 years he spent in Milan. The cathedral's Duomo Museum is still under renovation and may be closed for the first part of 2008, as is the train station (expect chaos until the dust settles, and even after that).

From Milan to Rome, Italy is working hard to spiff up its sights, draw more tourists, and keep the gelato-slurping masses moving as smoothly as possible. It's hot, crowded, expensive ... and well worth the effort. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.

Copyright 2009 RICK STEVES, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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