Find hidden treasures in Europe’s small museums

  • By Rick Steves
  • Friday, July 20, 2012 5:36pm
  • Life

For many travelers, a visit to one of the great treasure-chest museums — Paris’ Louvre, London’s British Museum, Rome’s Vatican — is the highlight of a European trip.

But sometimes a march through endless galleries dense with other tourists can be a mood killer, as you battle the throngs to scratch yet another biggie off your to-do list.

I’m not saying that you should skip the Mona Lisa; but Europe’s great museums can be hard work, and I am rarely good for more than two or three hours at a time.

Europe is filled with many fine little museums that amply reward those who venture beyond the monumental sights.

Take, for example, Paris’ Marmottan and Orangerie museums. Fans of Monet and Impressionism gravitate toward the Orsay Museum, with its impressive collection and inevitable crowds. But savvy sightseers know they can get their Monet fix — with less competition — elsewhere.

Monet himself designed the setting for his great Water Lily paintings at Paris’ Orangerie, where French royalty once grew orange trees for its palaces.

Perched on the edge of Paris and fronted by a lovely park, the Marmottan owns one of the best collections anywhere of works by Monet, including the painting that gave Impressionism its name “Impression: Sunrise.”

Europe’s cultural wonders often hide out in fascinating buildings that were never meant to be museums. For instance, one of Michelangelo’s Pietas lives in Milan’s Sforza Castle, itself a Renaissance palace where Leonardo da Vinci was the in-house genius to the mighty Sforza dukes.

The exquisite and famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are among the medieval treasures in Paris’ gemlike Cluny Museum, once the mansion of an important church leader.

London’s Wallace Collection features fine 17th-century Dutch Masters and 18th-century French Rococo pieces inside a sumptuously furnished townhouse. From the rough and intimate Dutch lifescapes of Jan Steen to the pink-cheeked Rococo fantasies of Francois Boucher, a wander through this little-visited mansion makes you nostalgic for the days of the empire (and it’s free).

My favorite small-scale museum is Rome’s Borghese Gallery, featuring world-class sculptures by the Baroque virtuoso Bernini and dazzling paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian and Rubens, all displayed within a 17th-century building that gets my vote for the best interior of any palace in Europe.

The wealthy Cardinal Scipione Borghese richly decorated every inch of the place in the over-the-top Baroque style, then filled it with classical, Renaissance and Baroque masterworks.

But the Borghese is more than just a wonderful museum. The beautiful villa is set in the lushly green Borghese Gardens, Rome’s version of Central Park. The sprawling open space is perfect for relaxing, unwinding and letting the kids run wild.

Even the trip to the museum is fun, especially if you ride the little “elettrico” bus, which winds silently through the narrow lanes of Rome’s medieval core up to the park.

As I’ve discovered over a lifetime of visits, it pays to sightsee smartly and selectively. Europe’s many wonderful little museums may be less visited than the biggies, but they are no less rewarding.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

&Copy; 2012 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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