What's new in Italy in 2014

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Even when it's hot, crowded, or on strike, Italy is lots of fun. More than any other Western European country, though, travelers to Italy need up-to-date information to travel smart, saving both time and money. Here are a few updates to help you make the most of Italy in 2014:

Florence is notorious for long lines at sights. Thankfully, ticketing and line-skipping options for the city's blockbuster sights continue to improve. The Firenze Card, which admits you to 60-some museums for 72 euros ($99 USD), is now good for these cathedral (Duomo) sights: Baptistery, Campanile bell tower, dome climb and Duomo Museum. If you want to see any single cathedral sight without a Firenze Card, you'll need to buy the new 10-euro ($14 USD) combo-ticket. It's still free to enter the cathedral and have a look at Brunelleschi's sublime dome from the inside.

At Florence's Uffizi Gallery, known for Renaissance art, there's an exciting change. A new gallery is devoted to Michelangelo, with his famous Doni Tondo painting of the Holy Family as its centerpiece. It's the only easel painting that's definitely known to be by the master's hand.

The private NTV/Italo high-speed train service is up and running, serving Florence along with Venice, Naples, Milan and Rome. Because rail passes are not accepted, pass holders should choose Trenitalia's equally fast Eurostar Italia or Le Frecce services instead.

Volterra has my vote for the best less-touristed hill town in Tuscany. Its new Alabaster Museum, featuring workmanship in the prized local stone from Etruscan times to the present, has opened within the 15th-century Pinacoteca painting gallery.

In Rome, there's good news for those traveling on a budget or who enjoy eating in bars (or both). A pleasant practice traditionally found in northern Italian cities has migrated south: the aperitivo service. Bars set up an enticing buffet of small dishes and anyone buying a drink (at an inflated price) gets to eat "for free." Drinks generally cost 8 to 10 euros, and the spread is out from 6 until 9 p.m. Some places limit you to one plate; others allow refills. Another dining trend in Rome is that small restaurants with a full slate of reservations for 8:30 or 9 p.m. often will accommodate walk-in diners earlier -- if they're willing to eat a quick meal.

Venice is working hard to cope with its mobs of visitors. As ever-growing waves of tourists wash over the city every year, residents are struggling to ward off the trash (and trashiness) left in their wake. Picnicking remains illegal anywhere on St. Mark's Square, and offenders can be fined. The city is taking a good-cop/bad-cop approach: On St. Mark's Square, "decorum monitors" admonish snackers and sunbathers, while around town friendly posted guidelines cheerily encourage people to pick up their trash, refrain from pigeon-feeding and save the beachwear for the Lido.

Structural renovation work on the iconic bell tower that looms over St Mark's Square is finally finished; a titanium girdle wrapped around the underground foundations now shores up a crack that appeared in 1939. The city's top art gallery, the Accademia, is still undergoing a seemingly never-ending renovation, with major rooms still closed. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has also done some rearranging, largely to accommodate the recently bequeathed Schulhof Collection, which brings the museum's holdings up to the late 20th century with works by Rothko, Calder, de Kooning, Warhol, and many others. Peggy would have loved it.

In Ravenna, a new museum is dedicated to poet Dante Alighieri, who spent three years here before succumbing to an infernal (or at least malaria-ridden) mosquito. While it's a buzz for Italians, it's skippable for those who aren't fans of the author and his work.

Milan is preparing to host the 2015 World's Fair. To welcome the expected 20 million visitors, the Rho-Pero district is revamping its layout with new parks, museums and American-inspired skyscrapers.

Life is pretty much back to normal in the Cinque Terre, where flooding devastated the area just a few years ago. But the beautiful coastal trail system remains at the mercy of nature, with washouts or bad weather closing popular stretches. The popular Via dell'Amore (Path of Love), which was hit by a landslide in 2013, will reopen sometime in 2014. In Vernazza, a new "beach" was formed with debris from the floods. It's great for wading and sunning, but wear shoes, as bits of rubble are mixed in with the pebbles.

Italy has long been my favorite country in Europe and some of its thrills will never change with the calendar. Sit silently on a hilltop rooftop and get chummy with the Tuscan view. Write a poem over a glass of local wine in a sun-splashed, wave-dashed Riviera village. Lifelong travel memories are like low-hanging fruit in Italy -- yours to harvest and preserve for years to come.

(Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)

(c)2014 RICK STEVES DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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