Millions of tourists assume the Spanish Steps are the heart of Rome, not just an 18th-century stairwell of spectacular grace and Baroque beauty, leading from the Piazza di Spagna to the convent at Trinita dei Monti. So imagine the consternation at the announcement that the steps would be closed, for repairs, from May 16 to Christmas _ an entire tourist season. Merchants moaned about the loss of business.
But Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli, announcing the $600,000 restoration project, insisted that the steps could no longer wait for a badly needed face lift. The work had to be done in time, he said, for the city's next big party _ its Grand Jubilee, which will take place during the year 2000. And the steps were in bad shape, not from people sitting on them but from people drawing on them, putting their cigarettes out on them, setting firecrackers off from them, even urinating on them. In recent years, the scene on the steps had become, as one Italian newspaper put it, a "bivouac, where one meets all types, some strange, some dirty, some clean, some spread out under the sun, half-nude."
For now, the steps are empty, blocked off at the bottom by a glassed-in fence that still gives visitors a chance to get a glimpse of their butterfly-shaped slopes. In fact, they look better empty, more serene and dignified _ more as they did upon their completion in 1726.
Meanwhile, it's heads up around the Eiffel Tower for the next year, while the 106-year-old symbol of Paris gets a new paint job _ its 17th since 1889. Twenty-five painters will apply 60 tons of paint.
Rule to ban some children's seats
A Federal Aviation Administration rule banning two kinds of child-safety seats aboard planes is scheduled to take effect on July 9. The agency, citing recent research, said the devices, backless booster seats and torso harnesses, were ineffective.
But the agency did not mandate that children too small for adult lap belts ride in other safety devices _ a rule sought by the National Transportation Safety Board and the flight attendants' union. Thus, the agency left the child-restraint situation as it is: Children older than 2 years ride in safety seats facing forward or use adult lap belts as their parents elect, and children younger than 2, who do not need tickets, may continue to ride in adults' laps. Parents of an unticketed child may carry aboard a rear-facing seat in the hope an empty seat will be available.
Parents are permitted to buy a ticket for an infant so it can ride in a rear-facing safety seat, which has been found by agency tests to be the best protection for a small child in the air.
Although the tests found flaws in the forward-facing safety seats for older children when used in tightly packed airplane rows, they afford better protection than ill-fitting seat belts, the agency said.
Air Canada expands discounts
Air Canada has expanded its "compassionate travel discounts" on air fares to include cases of imminent death in the immediate family (including stepparents, grandparents and in-laws), and has upped discounts on the fares from 35 percent to 50 percent. The fares are good on travel originating in the U.S. and Canada, on all Air Canada scheduled services and connecting flights on Continental Airlines.
Some tips for saving money
To get the fairest of the fares, be resourceful: If you miss the midnight deadline on an advertised air fare offer, for example, try calling a local reservations center (not the 800 number) in an earlier time zone. So suggests Consumer Reports in its June issue. Other tips: Ask your travel agent to check the computer over the weekend to get the jump on cheap fares that go on sale Monday. And if desired flights are sold out, try calling the reservations number in the late night or wee hours, when more cheap seats may be added.
Travelers can get up to half off on weekend nights in Belgian cities such as Brussels and Antwerp during July and August. Certain hotels, some of which also offer year-round weekend discounts, are listed with the Belgian Tourist Office in New York City: for information: (212) 758-8130.
I'll drink to that
Not your usual weekend on tap: that's Beer Camp, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, in Fort Mitchell, Ky. The three-day event at the Drawbridge Inn & Convention Center brings beer enthusiasts to taste hundreds of microbrewed beers, tour the American Museum of Brewing History and Arts and hear beer anthropologist Alan Eames on his search for the origins of beer. Cost is $330 per person for the weekend, double occupancy, including all activities, and all meals except Friday dinner. Fort Mitchell is 5 miles south of Cincinnati. For information: (800) 426-3841.
Pack the sunscreen _ and tire chains
California Highway Patrol officers are still warning disbelieving motorists of rain, sleet and snow on the roads ahead.
"We've had over 200 percent of the normal snow this year," said spokesman Don Elston from the South Lake Tahoe CHP office.
Cool spring temperatures have failed to melt the record snowpack, meaning that in many areas, roads are still closed by snow or may be made unexpectedly slippery by unseasonal summer storms. The most recent rainstorms have dropped the snow level to 7,000 feet in the Sierra and other mountain ranges, unheard of in late June and early July, and some sections of Yosemite National Park were closed to visitors because of snow on Memorial Day.
L.A. completing market renovation
Renovations are nearing completion on the historic open-air Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles.
The one-block market opened in 1917 at 317 S Broadway between Third and Fourth streets. It is home to dozens of restaurants, food stands and produce vendors. As part of the renovation, the outside facade has been restored, sky lights installed and vintage neon signs erected. The improvements are part of a $60-million program that began 10 years ago, and that includes the restoration of two turn-of-the-century buildings in the immediate vicinity.
The market has retained much of its original flavor; sawdust still covers the cement floors. Residents of the neighborhood, which is largely Hispanic, do their daily shopping at the market. Many stalls specialize in Mexican food, selling mole poblano, a spicy brown sauce made with chocolate and sweet coconut bars.
_ Compiled from wire reports