What’s New in France and the Low Countries for 2017
To explore the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, reserve your tickets exactly two months in advance...or join the enormous line for a late afternoon or evening visit. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)
Three of Europe's best-organized countries for sightseeing, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, are better than ever this year, with new people-friendly zones, spiffed-up sights, and comforting security improvements for 2017.
While recent terrorist events have scared away some travelers to France, I returned last year, as I do every year, for a rewarding experience, and felt perfectly safe. Regrettably, France's high profile and bold leadership in matters of pluralism have made it a target, so heightened concerns there about terrorism have led to more safeguards. Travelers can expect a greater security presence and extra checkpoints at tourist-oriented sights. At Versailles, for instance, there are now two security checks for the château — one at the gate outside the courtyard, and a second before entering the building.
As usual, Paris is evolving. After a long closure, its Picasso Museum is spiffed up and welcoming more tourists than ever. A major renovation at the Rodin Museum has wrapped up, and the museum is fully open. But the Carnavalet Museum, which covers the tumultuous history of Paris, is closed for 2017 and beyond as it receives an overhaul.
A new addition to the Paris shopping scene is the Forum des Halles, a modern mall under a vast glass-and-steel canopy. Old timers remember Les Halles as Paris' gigantic central produce market. Demolished in the 1970s, it was replaced with an underground shopping mall. Now the complex has been transformed into a modern shopping center and massive underground transportation hub capped by a huge city park.
Just outside Paris, at the grandest of the many châteaux surrounding the city, Versailles, the Queen's Wing is currently closed for extensive renovation (but the palace still certainly merits a visit). For cheap and efficient day-tripping to two other top châteaux — Vaux-le-Vicomte and Fontainebleau — visitors can now purchase a regional Mobilis ticket, which covers any travel within a day in the greater Paris region, including Métro rides to and from the train station and round-trip train fare, as well as the bus connecting the Fontainebleau station to the château (but not the shuttle from Verneuil-l'Etang train station to Vaux-le-Vicomte).
In Normandy, the D-Day Experience museum at St-Come-du-Mont now gives visitors a chance pretend they're paratroopers and take a simulated (yet still thrilling) flight on a vintage Douglas C-47. Due east, in Verdun — another area famous for its battlefields — the Verdun Memorial Museum has reopened to mark the 100th anniversary of the WWI battle. Among its exhibits is a 1916 battlefield replica, visible through a glass floor and complete with mud, shells, trenches, and military equipment.
The big news for prehistoric art lovers is the opening of the International Center for Cave Art at Lascaux, highlighted by a brand-new replica cave that faithfully reproduces the reindeer, horse, and bull paintings found in the original Dordogne cave using the same dyes, tools, and techniques that predecessors used 15,000 years ago. Reservations are highly recommended.
Meanwhile, France continues to improve its transportation infrastructure. With the last link complete in its high-speed rail line, it's just two hours from Paris to Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region (in northeast France). For much cheaper (if slower) transit to other large cities in France, as well as London, Amsterdam, and Brussels, OuiBus offers convenient and comfortable bus service with Wi-Fi and English-speaking drivers.
In Belgium, Brussels has pedestrianized part of the Boulevard Anspach and surrounding streets, creating the second largest car-free zone in Europe. While great for visitors and locals alike, it does mean that many bus routes have changed — and crosstown cabs take more time getting around the downtown core (visitors should consider using the Métro instead).
About 10 miles south of Brussels, the new Mémorial 1815 museum commemorates the Battle of Waterloo with a 3-D movie and high-tech displays, giving visitors an engaging and informative trip through the site of Napoleon's crushing defeat.
Farther north, in the Netherlands, Amsterdam is thriving. In fact, it's getting so crowded with tourists that the mayor — concerned about the flood of cheese stores, chocolate shops, and kitschy tourism changing the city into a kind of amusement park — recently decided to stop promoting the city, even recommending visitors consider Rotterdam or Delft instead.
To control crowds at the popular Anne Frank House, only people holding reservations can visit between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Tickets can be booked online exactly two months in advance — and should be; they sell out quickly.
Amsterdam's fascinating and hidden church, now Our Lord in the Attic Museum, has a new entrance building. Visitors are greeted with a shop, restaurant, and educational spaces before stepping into the 17th century Catholic church, built secretly into a hollowed-out merchant's home.
As you'll see if you go in 2017, these countries — rich in culture and history — are working hard to make their heritage both safe and enjoyable. Join in!