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No shorts in Notre Dame, free museums in Nice

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By Rick Steves
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- Fantastique France continues to make its heritage and culture easier for travelers to appreciate. Being up-to-date on changes for 2009 will help your visit go smoothly.

The Eiffel Tower is planning to offer online reservations, allowing visitors to book an entry time and avoid a long wait.

The Eiffel Tower is planning to offer online reservations, allowing visitors to book an entry time and avoid a long wait.

Due to a smoking ban, you'll enjoy fresh air in bars, cafes and restaurants throughout France. The smokers have scurried outdoors to sidewalk tables; many of those seats now come with space heaters in winter.

If you're traveling in France by railpass, it's increasingly important to book trips on the TGV bullet trains in advance, as there's a strict limit on the number of seats allowed for railpass holders. And with high gas prices -- and the recognition among Europeans that rail travel is about as green as you can go -- trains are more crowded than ever.

In Paris, the transit system has introduced a chip-card called the Passe Navigo Decouverte, but for most tourists, the "carnets" (packs of 10 individual tickets) are still the better deal. The new Passe costs about $27, runs strictly from Monday through Sunday, and requires a photo, which means it's not shareable. In contrast, a 10-ticket pack costs about $14, is shareable, and has no expiration date.

Paris' Notre-Dame Cathedral has a new modest-dress rule. The "no shorts" code is not strictly enforced, but inside you're expected to be quiet and respectful. A new online reservation system for the Eiffel Tower may debut in 2009, allowing Tour-Eiffel-ists to book a half-hour time slot and avoid the notorious lines.

At the Army Museum nearby, the section on 19th-century French military history ("Revolution to Napoleon III") should reopen in the spring. The museum also has a new Charles de Gaulle wing, offering a 25-minute film, plus a high-tech display of photos tracing the life of France's towering 20th-century figure.

Paris' market streets delight many visitors. While rue Cler (near the Eiffel Tower) has become quite touristy, rue des Martyrs (at the foot of Montmartre) is edgier and a great way to connect with workaday Paris. If you'd like to "do the Time Warp again" while ducking airborne "French" toast, you can enjoy the cult movie "Rocky Horror Picture Show" with a Parisian crowd Friday and Saturday nights in the Latin Quarter (www.rocky.fr). Travel Snapshots: Paris

The Palace of Versailles is undergoing extensive renovation so expect some closures. Repair projects may close its Opera House through June; the Petit Trianon may be closed or only partially open. Busy sightseers can save both time and money by visiting Versailles with the Paris Museum Pass. The pass covers most major sights in and around Paris, pays for itself in about three entries, and allows you to walk right by the long ticket-buying lines at places like the Louvre, the Orsay Museum, the Sainte-Chapelle chapel, and Versailles (www.parismuseumpass.com). However, everyone needs to wait through any bag-check security line.

The charming city of Reims, rebuilt after World War I when Art Deco was the prevailing style, is now served by a speedy TGV train, making it an easy day trip from Paris. Reims is known for its champagne tours (Mumm, Taittinger and Martel), giant cathedral (with Chagall stained glass), and fascinating Museum of the Surrender (General Eisenhower's final World War II headquarters with stirring artifacts and the document of surrender that was signed by German generals right there).

This year is the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy; prepare for big crowds -- especially from June 1 to 10. Also in Normandy, a museum has opened at Dead Man's Corner, a critical crossroads between Omaha and Utah beaches that saw five torrid days of fighting in 1944. This museum, south of Ste. Mere-Eglise, is a hit with enthusiasts as every display case shows incredible attention to detail. It also has a remarkable selection of D-Day paraphernalia for sale -- both original items and replicas.

In Chinon (in the Loire Valley) the massive renovation project has nearly been completed at the medieval castle where Joan of Arc implored French King Charles VII to "act like a man and fight the English." The castle is now connected to the old town by a snazzy glass elevator. Farther west, at Mont St. Michel, the first stage is under way of an ambitious project to make it a true island once again.

On the French Riviera, Nice has dropped the entry fee for all city museums. Basically every sight in town -- except the Chagall Museum and the Russian Cathedral -- is free to enter. That's nice. Antibes, just a short hop away by train, has finally reopened its prized Picasso Museum after extensive renovation.

No matter what changes, visiting France is always a pleasure, which is why it remains the No. 1 tourist destination in Europe.

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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