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Italy has the right to call itself the cultural capital of Europe with its long history in the arts, its robust wines and great food. From Milan through Rome, Florence and then down to Naples, the country oozes charm and sophistication from every street corner. It gave the world one of the greatest empires, influenced architecture for over 2,000 years and pulled Europe out of a cultural quagmire with the Renaissance.
It has connotations of organised crime, licentious males and a classic divide between the affluent North and the poorer South. The 20th Century saw the most turbulent period in Italy's modern history with more than 50 Prime Ministers since the end of World War II. But Italy is shaking off its negative image, cleaning up its political and judicial systems to become a front runner in the European Union. Tourists are flocking to the country from all over the world and below are a few reasons why.
As with all major tourist destinations, Italy is particularly easy to access via plane, train and automobile. However, there are three easy ways into the country that offer fascinating and sometimes spectacular views of the country.
If you are arriving from France, the best way to travel is to take the train from Avignon to Rome. You can also catch up with the train in Nice and major stations along the Côte d'Azur. The view from the train is breathtaking with the beautifully manicured French littoral, glistening Mediterranean and small villages perched along the way. This gradually gives way to the Italian countryside with its vineyards and olive groves. The great thing about the train is that when dusk falls, you can grab a couple of hours' rest and be fresh for a day's visit in Rome.
If you are arriving from Switzerland by car, you will, if lucky, be witness to one of Mother Nature's most spectacular occurences. When arriving by car you will pass through the Mont Blanc tunnel (shut off all your ventilation as the tunnel is long and continually clogged with exhaust fumes). The micro-climate on the Swiss side is alpine, verdant and prone to clouds and drizzle. When you pass through the tunnel and head to Aosta, the climate is positively Mediterranean with clear skies, burning sun and an ever-so-gentle breeze.
If you are in Greece, in particular the Ionian islands of Corfu, Kefalonia and Zakinthos, you can jump on a boat to Brindisi. The trip is usually very gentle and gives the perfect opportunity for a little relaxation before hitting the south east coast of Italy. When taking the boat, bring along your own food as the cuisine on board can be a little ropey to say the least.
How it All Began
The Legend of Romulus and Remus
Before there was Rome, there was just a muddy field next to the river Tiber, in a little-known area of Italy called Etruria. The king of Etruria had a daughter, and this daughter became one of the chaste priestesses to the goddess Vesta. However, one day along came Mars - a warlike god with a healthy sexual appetite - who took a fancy to the chaste priestess and seduced her.
Anyhow, nine months later, the priestess couldn't fool her father any longer that she was just getting fat from too much feasting and wine. The penalty for breaking her vow of chastity was to be buried alive in a chamber and left to die. Her offspring were taken from her, whereupon it was discovered that twin sons had been born to her - this had little effect on the king who decreed that they should be exposed on the hillside to die.
The twins were wriggling around and making baby noises on the hillside, when they happened to catch the attention of a she-wolf. The she-wolf, being a beautiful and kindly creature, and not the spawn of Hades as depicted over 2000 years later in medieval literature, suckled the now hungry infants and kept them warm. It came to pass that a shepherd was walking by and he saw the she-wolf looking after the twins and resolved to take them home with him for his wife to bring up. The shepherd's wife took the infants in and named them Romulus and Remus. For the next 20 years, they lived happy, fulfilling lives that are really too dull for history to record in legend, so the story hops forward to when Romulus and Remus were strong, fit, idealistic young men.
Somehow Romulus and Remus discovered that they were heirs to the throne of Etruria, and their grandpa had been deposed by another relative who was, quite frankly, a bit of a tyrant. Romulus and Remus decided to right this wrong and ousted the tyrant and placed their grandpa back on the throne (obviously, they hadn't heard what he did to their mother). Romulus and Remus were dissatisfied, though, and wanted their own city to be rulers of, so they went back to where the shepherd found them being suckled by the she-wolf and declared it their domain.
The site was a collection of seven hills next to the river Tiber. Of course, there was an argument over what they were going to call the city, and very childishly, they divided the land up and built a wall between them. The upshot was that Romulus killed Remus and from then on the city bore the name Rome, after the victor.
We all like to be prepared for a foreign country and guide books are great as far as they go and the little phrase books are indispensable. Here are a few tips that you won't find in many guides...
If you are going to speak Italian learn what you should be saying to different age groups - old people get very offended with informality.
Italians love talking about star signs, food, and family.
Italians take great pride in ignoring any rules or laws of the road - pedestrians are fair game.
If you try to speak Italian it is much appreciated and the response may well be in English.
Mainly tourists eat pizza.
Don't drive into the cities. Italian drivers are lunatics and you may be forced to pay for protection/extra insurance on your car.
If you're going to visit the Uffizi (and if you're in Florence, you should), be aware that there's a queue of two or three hours to get in. But if you phone ahead on 055-234 7941, you can pre-book your tickets. Then, when you arrive, you can by-pass the queues and walk straight in.
July and August are the hottest months of the year with temperatures reaching 25°C. The lowest temperatures are in January and most rain falls in October. This makes September with its slightly lower temperature, but low risk of rain, an ideal time to visit. Watch out for the smog in the hottest months, though, and asthmatics should take extra inhalants with them because of the diesel fumes.