Find peace in Europe’s over­looked sights

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL -

See­ing the top sights in Europe’s big cities can be in­tense. It’s hot, it’s crowded and your dream of hav­ing a quiet mo­ment with the Mona Lisa is shared by around six mil­lion peo­ple ev­ery year.

The mis­sion of my most re­cent trip to Europe was find­ing peace and tran­quil­ity in big cities that, in many ways, feel over­run with tourists. And it’s sur­pris­ingly easy to do.

Many trav­el­ers stick to the most fa­mous sights — and I don’t blame them; the sights are fa­mous for a rea­son. But cities like

Rome, Florence and Vi­enna have a num­ber of at­trac­tions where you can get a sim­i­lar ap­pre­ci­a­tion for a city’s cul­tural im­por­tance with­out the over­whelm­ing crowds.

In Rome — the “Eter­nal City” — you can spend what feels like an eter­nity wait­ing in line with your fel­low tourists at the most crowded spots. For­tu­nately, Rome has plenty of ex­tremely re­ward­ing sights that are cool, quiet and give an in­ti­mate peek at an amaz­ing an­cient world.

Most clamor to see the famed out­door sights (the Colos­seum, Fo­rum, etc.) and of­ten ne­glect the in­door at­trac­tions. The National Mu­seum of Rome and the Capi­to­line Mu­se­ums have world-class col­lec­tions. But even in peak sea­son, you’ll of­ten be alone with the won­ders of the an­cient world, won­der­ing, “Where is ev­ery­one?”

Within a 10-minute walk of Rome’s main train sta­tion, the National Mu­seum of Rome houses the world’s great­est col­lec­tion of an­cient Ro­man art, in­clud­ing busts of em­per­ors and a Ro­man copy of the Dis­cus Thrower, one of the most iconic stat­ues of Clas­si­cal Greece.

Sit­ting atop Capi­to­line Hill, just a few min­utes’ walk from the Ro­man Fo­rum, the Capi­to­line Mu­se­ums hold more of an­cient

Rome’s fa­mous art. High­lights in­clude an eques­trian statue of Em­peror Mar­cus Aure­lius, a fa­mous rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an an­cient wounded warrior — the Dy­ing Gaul, and a bronze statue de­pict­ing a leg­endary she-wolf nurs­ing the infants who be­came the founders of Rome: Ro­mu­lus and Re­mus.

A 10-minute stroll from

Rome’s over­crowded Colos­seum is a free-stand­ing ruin of nearly equal vast­ness — the im­pres­sive

Baths of Cara­calla. This sight is dra­matic in part be­cause noth­ing was built around or on top of it — and few peo­ple visit it. Today, with a fer­tile imag­i­na­tion, you can pic­ture Rome at its zenith.

The same goes for Florence, where vis­i­tors cram into the three most fa­mous sights (Ac­cademia Gallery, Uf­fizi Gallery, and Duomo), leav­ing other mu­se­ums and gal­leries — which would be big hits in a lesser city — es­sen­tially empty.

On my last trip to Florence, I vis­ited the Hos­pi­tal of the In­no­cents, just a few min­utes away from the mobbed Ac­cademia where Michelan­gelo’s David stands sur­rounded by ador­ing fans. De­signed in the 15th cen­tury by Filippo Brunellesc­hi, and con­sid­ered by many the first Re­nais­sance

build­ing, the hos­pi­tal’s ar­chi­tec­ture typ­i­fies the new (at the time) aes­thetic of calm bal­ance and sym­me­try. With its mis­sion to care for or­phans, the hos­pi­tal was also an im­por­tant sym­bol of the in­creas­ingly hu­man­is­tic out­look of Re­nais­sance Florence. Now a mu­seum, it houses ter­ra­cotta medal­lions by Luca della Rob­bia and other mag­nif­i­cent art­work. But on my last visit it was al­most empty — I shared it only with a group of school chil­dren on a field trip.

Even within a crowded sight, you can find ar­eas tourists have over­looked. In Vi­enna, the Al­bertina Mu­seum takes up a dis­tant wing of the busy Hof­burg Palace com­plex. On a re­cent trip, I en­joyed qual­ity time alone here with some of my fa­vorite artists. This laid-back mu­seum has a re­mark­able col­lec­tion of mi­nor works by ma­jor artists, in­clud­ing sketches, wood­cuts and wa­ter­col­ors. As the ex­hibits ro­tate, at one time you might see Claude Monet’s wa­ter lilies and Edgar De­gas’ dancers, at an­other time there might be Ed­vard Munch’s moody land­scapes and Gus­tav Klimt’s eerie femme fa­tales.

Even in St. Peters­burg, where one block­buster sight stands above them all — the world-fa­mous Her­mitage Mu­seum — you can find peace in the mas­sive mu­seum’s Im­pres­sion­ist sec­tion, lo­cated in a build­ing across the square from the main gal­leries.

With a stag­ger­ing three mil­lion works of art housed in a se­ries of mostly in­ter­con­nected build­ings, the Her­mitage can be a zoo.

But its in­cred­i­ble Im­pres­sion­ist (and Post-Im­pres­sion­ist) col­lec­tion stands alone in the nearby Gen­eral Staff Build­ing. Most vis­i­tors head straight into the Win­ter Palace and wind their way through the ad­join­ing palaces in a route that can be­come over­whelm­ing. Savvy trav­el­ers buy their ticket at the Im­pres­sion­ist gal­leries (where it’s al­most al­ways less crowded), see this col­lec­tion first, then head for the high­lights in the main com­plex.

Great art of­ten hides in less fa­mous sights. Through­out my travels,

I’ve no­ticed that huge crowds don’t al­ways grav­i­tate to the most en­joy­able lo­ca­tions. There are count­less amaz­ing places you can have all to your­self. If you do your homework, you’ll know about at­trac­tions where peace and el­e­gance trump crowds and chaos.

Rick Steves (www.rick steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on public tele­vi­sion and public ra­dio. Email him at [email protected] steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

Hid­ing in Vi­enna’s crowded Hof­burg Palace, the Al­bertina Mu­seum’s 19th-cen­tury state rooms are usu­ally empty.

RICK STEVES/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

In Rome, the dra­matic Baths of Cara­calla are a 10-minute walk from the bustling Colos­seum.

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