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|Introduction to Italy
Europe's kinky over-the-knee boot has it all: popes, painters, polenta, paramours, poets, political puerility and potentates. Its dreamy light and sumptuous landscapes seem made for romance, and its three millennia of history, culture and cuisine seduces just about everyone.
You can visit Roman ruins, gawk at Renaissance art, stay in tiny medieval hill towns, go skiing in the Alps, explore the canals of Venice and gaze at beautiful churches. Naturally you can also indulge in the pleasures of la dolce vita: good food, good wine and improving your wardrobe.
From the Arab-Norman and Byzantine wonders of Palermo in Sicily to the majestic peaks of the Dolomites, Italy is a movable feast of endless courses. No matter how much you gorge yourself on its splendours, you always feel you haven't made it past the antipasti. Few countries offer such variety and few visitors leave without a fervent desire to return. The Italians are not joking when they call their home Il Belpaese, the Beautiful Country.
Full country name: Italian Republic
Area: 301,230 sq km
Population: 57.99 million
Capital City: Rome
Language: French, German, Serbian, Croatian, Italian
Religion: 84% Roman Catholic, 6% Jewish, Muslim and Protestant
Head of State: President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi
Head of Government: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
GDP: US$1.45 trillion
GDP per capita: US$25,100
Major Industries: tourism, engineering, textiles, chemicals, food processing, motor vehicles, clothing and footwear
Major Trading Partners: EU (especially Germany, France, UK, Spain, Netherlands), USA
Member of EU: Yes
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Visas: EU citizens require only a passport or ID card to stay or work in Italy for as long as they like. They are, however, required to register with a questura (police station) if they take up residence and obtain a permesso di soggiorno (permission to remain for a nominated period). Citizens of many other countries, including the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Switzerland and Japan, do not need a visa if entering as tourists for up to three months. Passports may not be stamped upon entry, so that three-month rule can be interpreted with a certain flexibility. If you are entering for any reason other than tourism (for instance, study) or plan to remain for an extended period, insist on having the entry stamp. Without it you could encounter problems when trying to obtain a permesso di soggiorno. Non-EU citizens who want to study at a university or language school must have a study visa. These can be obtained from your nearest Italian embassy or consulate.
Health risks: rabies (This is only found in the Alps), Leishmaniasis (This is found in coastal regions), Lyme disease
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1 (+2 in summer) (Central European Time)
Dialling Code: 39
Electricity: 230V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Religious, cultural and historical events pepper the Italian calendar. The pre-Easter Carnivale is closely associated with Venice; Holy Week Easter processions are especially flamboyant at Taranto, Chieti and Sicily; and Florence explodes a cart full of fireworks on Easter Sunday. Festivals honouring patron saints are also particularly colourful events; for example the Festas di San Nicola in Bari and San Gennaro in Naples, the Festival of Snakes in Abruzzo (May) and the Festa of Sant'Antonio in Padua (June).
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|Best time to Visit
Italy is at its best in spring (April-May) and autumn (October-November). During these seasons, the scenery is beautiful, the temperatures are pleasant and there are relatively few crowds. Try to avoid August, as this is the time that most Italians take their vacations, and many shops and businesses are closed as a result.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Those on a tight budget will find eating and sleeping in Italy expensive. Prudent backpackers might squeeze by on around EUR40.00 a day if they stay in hostels, make their own sandwiches, avoid indulging in alcohol and don't visit too many museums. If you want to stay in comfortable hotels, eat out regularly in restaurants and visit lots of museums and galleries, you should budget at least EUR100-150 a day; hiring a car will double your expenses. Be aware that Italy has more luxury hotels, expensive restaurants and shops to die for than you can shake a Gold Amex card at, so be prepared to stretch your budget if you are easily tempted.
Service charges are included in your restaurant bill, so you are not expected to tip. It is common practice, however, to leave a small amount. In bars, Italians will usually leave any small change as a tip, but this is by no means obligatory. Be aware that prices in Italian bars and cafes double (sometimes even triple) if you sit down. Tipping taxi drivers is not necessary, but your hotel porter will expect a little something.
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It's hard to say what you'll find most breathtaking about the eternal city - the arrogant opulence of the Vatican, the timelessness of the Forum, the top speed of a Fiat Bambino, the millions of cats in the Colosseum, trying to cross a major intersection, or the bill for your latte.
Sightseeing in Rome is exhilarating and exhausting. That it wasn't built in a day is quickly evident when you start exploring the temples, residences, basilicas, churches, palazzi, piazzi, parks, museums and fountains. All this and the Vatican too!
Stretching for 50km (31mi) along a promontory from Sorrento to Salerno is some of Europe's most beautiful coastline. The road hugs the tight bends and curves of the cliffy coast, overlooking intensely blue waters and passing postcard villages that cling to the cliff walls like matchbox houses.
Walled Assisi is miraculous: it has somehow managed to retain some tranquil refuges amid the tourist hubbub. Perched halfway up Mt Subasio, looking over Perugia, the visual impact of its shimmering white marble buildings is magnificent. The town's many churches include Santa Maria Maggiore, San Pietro and St Clare.
The city is dominated by the massive 14th-century Rocca Maggiore - a hill fortress that offers fabulous views over the valley and back to Perugia. St Francis was born here in 1182, and work began on his basilica two years after his death in 1228. It's a magnificent tribute to the patron saint of animals, with frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and Martini. Relics from Imperial days include the excavated forum and the pillared facade of the Temple of Minerva; Roman foundations are a common feature of many buildings.
The cultural and historical impact of Florence (or Firenze) is overwhelming. Close up, however, the city is one of Italy's most atmospheric and pleasant, retaining a strong resemblance to the small late-medieval centre that contributed so much to the cultural and political development of Europe.
For eye-watering attractions you won't need to venture far from Florence's medieval core, a Renaissance wonderland containing the graceful span of Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo's skyscraping dome, the gilded splendour of Basilica di San Lorenzo and the well-hung Uffizi gallery.
The hard-working Milanese run their busy metropolis with efficiency and aplomb. Milano is the country's economic engine room, home to Italy's stock market and business centres. This stylish city is also the world's design capital and rivals Paris as a leading fashion centre.
Milan is a sprawling metropolis, but most of its attractions are concentrated in its centre. Its hub is the Duomo, a fantastic Gothic confection topped by the Maddonina (our little Madonna), Milan's protectress. Not far away is La Scala, one of the world's great opera houses.
Naples (Napoli if you live there) is raucous, polluted, anarchic, deafening, crumbling and grubby. It's also a lot of fun. Superbly positioned on a bay, Naples has a little - and often a lot - of everything. It pulsates with noisy street markets and their colourful characters.
Naples' historic centre features a church-encrusted piazza and some seriously elaborate architecture. In addition to the usual Italian quota of castles, museums and palazzi, Naples has the priceless treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum at its doorstep.
Siena had been a bustling economic centre based on its textiles, saffron and wine in the 12th century. At this time many buildings were created in Sienese Gothic style, giving this town its distinctive style. Visitors enjoy the cafe-lined square Il Campo and the imposing St Dominic's Church.
Ramparts - just one of the many vestiges of the city's medieval prime - still crown the hills that surround gentle Siena. Its many reddish-brown buildings gave the world 'burnt sienna,' and a thriving cultural scene was dubbed the Sienese school in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Venezia, La Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic, city of canals and palaces...or tawdry sewer alive with crowds and charlatans? Venice's nature is dual: water and land, long history and doubtful future, airy delicacy and dim melancholy. When this precious place sinks, the world will be the poorer.
Take time to meander - losing yourself in the maze of canals and lanes is one of Venice's principal pleasures. The cluster of sights around the Piazza San Marco are heart-clutchingly beautiful, but the more secret pleasures of the hushed backstreets are just as entrancing.
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