Turned on by the Turn of the Century
Whether you're seeking profound contemplation of your faith, speculative contemplation of the future, or just sodden contemplation of the bottom of a fifth of single malt, there's a destination in Europe to fulfill each and every Y2K desire. Expect celebrations to live up to the cultural significance of their history-laden surroundings, with a grandeur and scale that probably won't be matched for, well, another thousand years. Here are the best and the brightest happenings in France, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Paris: The Show's the Thing
"In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles," wrote legendary French cultural theorist Guy Debord in 1967. By his criteria, Paris on the eve of the millennium should prove to be the most modern of destinations. Here, in inimitable French fashion, planned celebrations include everything from high-think spectacle to high fashion, sometimes simultaneously. On the intellectual end of the spectrum, the most anticipated event is the reopening of Paris's celebrated contemporary art museum, the Centre Georges Pompidou, following three years of renovations. Renzo Piano's still-futuristic design makes the Pompidou an ideal place for the exhibition "Time, Fast." Opening, naturally, on December 31, the show looks at time through the ages, beginning with ancient celestial methods of recording it and ending with trippy virtual-reality installations that peer into our cyberdelic future.
In an ode to its nickname, the City of Light, Paris will be illuminated from the Eiffel Tower to La Mosquée de Paris, with bridges, roofs, and church spires forming 100 points of light across the city's skyline. It's certainly a promise of spectacle if nothing else.
Some hope this light show will draw attention away from the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, proclaiming, with typical Gallic pique, that other thoroughfares are tired of being overshadowed by the grandest of Paris's boulevards. But the Champs-Élysées will not be denied. As the illuminated hands of a giant clock attached to a Ferris wheel erected on the Place de la Concorde mark the seconds until midnight, 12 "doors" laid along a red carpet stretching from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe will open in a symbolic entrée into the next century. These portals to the future are being designed by a dozen heralded creators from the worlds of architecture, visual arts, pop culture, and theater— including contemporary artists Ange Leccia and Jean-Luc Vilmouth, and Jean-Baptiste Mondino, a fashion photographer who has directed videos for Madonna.
Rome: Mass Appeal
Thirteen million visitors are expected to descend on Rome for the jubilee, or Holy Year, which begins with midnight mass at St. Peter's Basilica this Christmas Eve. Thanks in no small part to lobbying by the early Renaissance poet Petrarch, there has been a jubilee every 25 years since 1475, affording the devout a chance to atone for their sins. In order to receive indulgences, penitents must travel to one of the four basilicas in Rome: St. John Lateran, St. Paul Without-the-Walls, Santa Maria Maggiore, and, of course, St. Peter's. For sheer star power, you can't beat the ceremony at St. Peter's. Pope John Paul II himself will preside over one of the most momentous Holy Year services, the opening of the Porta Sancta, or Holy Door to heaven. Not surprisingly, the jubilee makes for some unusual travel packages. A trip offered by the nonprofit Washington, D.C.‚based National Heritage Foundation includes tickets to the Vatican's Porta Sancta ceremony, as well as a general audience with the pope "if possible" and an official "Vatican's Certificate of Pilgrimage personalized to you."
Santiago: Take the High Road
When the feast day of Santiago de Compostela falls on a Sunday, a Holy Year is declared throughout Spain— and this one happens to coincide with the jubilee. Eight roads lead to Santiago de Compostela, some starting as far afield as the French Pyrenees. The stream of travelers pouring into Santiago from all corners of the Continent caused Goethe to remark that "Europe was made on the road to Compostela."
The feast day commemorates the birth of Saint James, one of the 12 apostles, who is said to be buried in Santiago. Traditionally, the Way of Saint James has been no luxury trip: hostels along the route offer a free bed for a night; lodging is available only on a first-come, first-served basis. In honor of the jubilee, however, monuments and accommodations along the route are being refurbished and a network of inexpensive inns created.
Whichever path you take, you'll eventually end up at the Praza da Quintana, the square in Santiago where the Spanish version of the Porta Sancta, the Puerta de los Perdones (Door of Forgiveness), is opened on December 31. When you pass through the awe-inspiring door, you see the Pórtico da Gloria; be sure to tap your forehead on the sculpture of a kneeling figure, known as the Santo do Croques (Saint of Knocks): this ritual is said to bring wisdom.
Edinburgh: Hear This
For a more secular celebration of the millennium, but one that still brims with long-standing tradition, make your way to Edinburgh's Hogmanay Millennium New Year's celebration. From December 27 to January 2, some of the world's most popular bands — such as the Pretenders and UB40 — will play on two outdoor stages, with concerts conveniently broadcast on video screens lining the surrounding streets. Comedy sketches, sports events, theatrical performances, and classical music concerts round out the entertainment at 27 locations throughout Edinburgh. A week-long carnival culminates, on the final evening, in a fireworks display orchestrated by the same company that did the pyrotechnic honors for last year's World Cup finale. And if you've got the stomach to sample haggis, the Scottish national dish (a sausagelike concoction of sheep's innards), there's a free food fair highlighting the best of both traditional and contemporary Scottish cuisine. Be sure to reserve now: many of Edinburgh's choicest accommodations have been booked for "nearly a decade."
London: Greenwich Mean Time
In England, the ground zero of millennial activities remains the Millennium Dome. Relentlessly hyped since its conception, the Dome is located in Greenwich, home to the longitude-zero prime meridian, which divides the world into East and West and serves as the precise point from which the correct time is determined. Resting on a 180-acre peninsula bordered by the Thames, the Dome, with its over-the-top monumental civic architecture, puts Tony Blair on a par with Alexander the Great and Mussolini. Almost a mile in circumference and capped by a 164-foot-tall transparent roof, the Dome could contain two Wembley Stadiums, the Eiffel Tower lying on its side, or even one of Egypt's Great Pyramids if you wanted it to. (Why you would is another question.)
This epic construction does allow for the "New Millennium Experience," a much-anticipated yearlong exhibition opening on January 1. It features 14 interactive theme zones dedicated to the 21st-century versions of work, play, money, communication, spirit, and, most important, a "celebration of all things British." A central arena will be used for musical performances (including high-wire acts) that depict "the story of humanity," with a cast of 200 (a seemingly small number considering the subject). Special effects will be provided by famed rocker Peter Gabriel and impresario Mark Fisher, the visual mastermind behind concert spectaculars for the likes of Pink Floyd.
Underground trains from London will deliver visitors in 12 minutes flat to the Dome's tube stop, which, in keeping with the size-does-matter philosophy of the place, will be the largest Underground station in the city. With all the hoopla — 12 million visitors are ultimately expected — will the Greenwich Dome transcend expectations and offer a visionary look into the next millennium?Or will it end up something closer to a cosmic Epcot Center for the New Age, a science-fiction amusement park that dates as quickly as a world's fair exhibit?Oh, ask us in a thousand years . . .
seven parties for seven cities
Of course, not every European capital will look to the 21st century with Parisian panache or Roman gravitas. But that doesn't mean you should cross other Continental cities off your list. Many will usher in the new millennium with large-scale celebrations, glimpses of the future, or just clever twists on the mundane.
blue danube Bid a musical farewell to the 1900's when central Vienna is transformed into the world's largest ballroom, with tents set up in the street, as the year of Strauss comes to a waltzing finale.
clean fun In Brussels, do that load of laundry and gaze at the public art installed in the city's wasserettes.
swedish candles Follow the torchlight procession in Stockholm to brilliant fireworks and a waterside concert by a 2,000-member choir.
global village At the World's Fair in Hannover, Germany, get a jump start on the lifestyles and technologies of the coming century. Other projects that relate to the fair's theme — "Humankind-Nature-Technology" — will be connected to the expo via satellite.
das kapital Celebrate Berlin's new status as the capital of a unified Germany, or just celebrate the spirit of travel. The Germans are sponsoring the Literature Express, a train filled with literati that will journey across Europe for seven weeks. The journey begins in Portugal and ends in Germany, where the writers will publish a compendium of their works.
father time Count the seconds in Budapest, where the Kronos Foundation is erecting the Time Wheel, a giant hourglass filled with seven tons of sand. Though it takes an entire year for the sand to run from top to bottom, the hourglass is meant to "portray" time, not measure it.
cuckoo clock For the sake of accuracy, the Swiss aren't holding their millennial festivities until 2001, the year the third millennium officially begins. But that doesn't mean they're behind the curve. Geneva promises yet another giant hourglass; this one will measure the passage of time — precisely.
— Emily Berquist
Matt Diehl writes frequently for Rolling Stone, Interview, and Details.