Hi from Rick: Felice Anno Nuovo!
That's "Happy New Year" here in Rome, where Anne and I are kicking off 2004. Thanks to the importance of Epiphany here, Christmas lingers well into the New Year. The city still drips with Christmas decor. Arcades of delicate white lights turn medieval lanes into enchanting arcades. "Presepio" signs at churches invite visitors to see grandiose manger scenes — intricately carved and painted, some dating from the 18th century. St. Peter's Square hosts the grand-daddy of manger scenes — the size of a house. (It's still tiny under Michelangelo's towering dome.)
Mussolini's grand Via Imperial is a six lane highway that skirts the ancient Forum as it connects the city center with the Colosseum. Building on Europe's passion for people-friendly streets, the Via Imperial is traffic free on Sundays. Beneath Trajan's towering column, jacketed dogs tug at their owner's leashes, while across the street antique carriages glide bundled-up bambinos past the old prison where St. Peter awaited his fate. Women artfully balanced on stiletto-heeled shoes strut to be seen, wrapped in furs that defy political correctness. Nearby, Asian vagabonds sell "your name in Chinese only 1 euro", guys in Siberian fur hats roast chestnuts, and tourists lick icy gelato and watch their breath come out in clouds. Even the photo-hawking gladiators in red plumed helmets and plastic swords are enjoying the people's passeggiata, celebrating Italy's rich heritage and the joys of travel.
The year 2004 promises to bring some exciting changes to Europe. Ten new nations are due to join the European Union, and Rome is celebrating by giving visitors from those countries free passes to all the city's museums and galleries. Starting this week, every restaurant in Europe must either ban smoking or provide (if it's big enough) a smoke-free zone. Café owners and customers alike wonder if these new regulations will be taken seriously.
This month we're taking the fun of travel seriously, with January Travel News articles on kicking back in Spain and Venice, our step-by-step 2004 Guide to European Railpasses, and my "Thrifty Fifty" tips to stretch your travel dollar throughout euro-land.
Whether you're planning to see Europe on a free-spirited Rick Steves tour in 2004 (where our guaranteed prices also stretch your dollar) — or wander on your own — we're here to help turn your travel dreams into affordable reality.