- Quick Facts
Full country name: Italian Republic
Area: 301,250 sq km (117,487 sq mi)
Population: 57.6 million
Capital City: Rome (pop 3.6 million)
Languages: standard Italian and numerous dialects, German, French, Slovene
Religions: 85% Roman Catholic, 5% Jewish and Protestant
Prime Minister: Mario Monti
GDP: US$1.18 trillion
GDP per head: US$20,800
Annual Growth: 1.5%
Major Industries: tourism, engineering, textiles, chemicals, food processing, motor vehicles, clothing & footwear
Major trading partners: EU (esp. Germany, France, UK, Spain, Netherlands), USA
Member of EU: yes
Euro zone participant: yes
- Country Facts
May: The Festival of Snakes in Abruzzo.
June: The Fiesta of Sant’Antonio in Padua.
August: Il Palio in Siena.
September: Historic Regatta in Venice.
euro (EUR), formerly lira
Banks are the most reliable places to change travelers’ cheques, and generally offer the best rates. Credit cards are widely accepted in Italy. Service charges are included in your restaurant bill, so you are not expected to tip. It is common practice, however, to leave behind a small amount.
The island of Sicily is a place of contrasts. It has Greek ruins at Syracuse and also attracts the jet set to the Panarea island. Sicily has attracted waves of invaders and hence here you will find Roman ruins, Norman churches and castles, and Arab and Byzantine domes. Its beaches are superb. Other sights include the magnificent 12th-century cathedral at Monreale and the touristy but unmissable Taormina.
Paestum houses the country’s best-preserved relics of the Magna Graecia colonies. It is an enigmatic site, with three Doric temples dominating a flower-strewn, grassy plain. It includes the temples of Ceres and Neptune, a forum, a basilica and city walls. The museum houses a collection of friezes.
Lying 40 km off the Gargano Peninsula in Apulia are the three main islands of the Tremiti group: San Domino, San Nicola and Capraia. The islands remain relatively undeveloped and unspoiled, and offer a great escape activities in the mainland. San Nicola’s Church of Santa Maria, founded in the 11th century by Benedictine monks, features a black Madonna.
Italians can trace back their ancestry to the Etruscans who were the first people to rule the peninsula, arriving somewhere between the 12th and 8th century BC. They were eventually subsumed within the mighty Roman Empire, leaving little cultural evidence, other than the odd tomb.
The first Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC, setting in motion the dogma of democracy, the introduction of Latin and one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. The Republic’s defeat of Carthage (near present-day Tunis) and Hellenic Macedonia during the three Punic Wars cleared the way for ultimate expansion into Spain, Britain, North Africa and present-day Iraq.
The empire grew so large that it was eventually divided into eastern and western sectors. Already, however, the bloodthirsty theatrics of regicide and intrigue were planting the seeds of its eventual destruction. Christianity was embraced by Constantine in 313, and the empire’s capital was moved from Rome to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul).
Italy entered a period peopled by Goths and forever ostracized as the Dark Ages.’ Successive waves of Lombards, Franks, Saracens, Germans and Normans invaded the peninsula and claimed in various degrees the lost title of empire and emperor, culminating in Frankish Charlemagne’s crowning as emperor in 800. The south was dominated by Muslim Arabs until usurped by Normans. This ethnic cocktail began to settle in the 12th century.
The rise of cities and a merchant class culminated in the Renaissance of the 15th century. Painters, architects, poets, philosophers and sculptors produced unsurpassed works of genius, despite the turmoil of intercity warfare and invasion by countries to the north. First Spain and then Austria controlled the peninsula during the ensuing centuries, followed briefly by Napoleon’s imperial flourish.
The post-Napoleon shake-up led directly to the drive for unification of the 19th century, led by Garibaldi, Cavour and Mazzini. The Kingdom of Italy was declared in 1861, although Venice was not prised away from Austria until 1866 and papal claims remained an issue until 1870, when Rome officially joined the young nation. Italy muddled through WW I and became riddled with industrial unrest in the early 1920s.
In a memorably unwise decision, the king asked Benito Mussolini to take the reins of government under the auspices of his Fascist Party. Il Fusto soon became head of state, outlawed the opposition, controlled the press and trade unions and cut franchise by two-thirds. His relationship with Hitler soured after a series of military disasters and an Allied invasion, eventually culminating in a fatal dose of rough justice at the hands of partisans in April 1945.
The postwar years have been colored by extremism: the extreme violence of terrorists such as the Brigatte Rosse, extreme right-right politics, extreme economic boom and economic crisis, extreme corruption and bribery in extremely high places – and an extremely cynical and fatigued public. Italy’s parliament has a reputation for scandal and resignation, and at times it has left Italy virtually ungoverned and utterly chaotic.
The 1998 election of Massimo D’Alema, who formed a center-left coalition that included Communists for the first time in half a century, was seen as a shot in the arm for left-wing politics. However, in April 2000 he resigned. His replacement, Giuliano Amato, lasted only a little over a year before one of Italy’s richest and most powerful men, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, got the job. Berlusconi’s leadership was shrouded by bribery charges.
Italy has more culture per sq km than perhaps any other country. Whether it’s a broken pillar rising up through the linoleum floor of a train station or a baroque church overlooking a cracked antique pediment in the Forum, history and culture surround you. Outside there are Etruscan tombs, Greek temples, cat-infested Roman ruins, Moorish architecture and statue-filled baroque fountains to gawk at. Indoors, you can swoon to Roman sculptures, Byzantine mosaics, beatific Madonnas from Giotto to Titian, gargantuan baroque tombs and trompe l’oeil ceilings.
Italy has produced world-renowned writers like Ovid, Horace, Cicero and Dante, musicians like Vivaldi, Verdi, Puccini, Bellini and Rossini, film stars and directors like Marcello Mastroianni, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Roberto Rossellini, Frederico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Though over 80% of the population professes to be Catholic, the number of people who actually practice the religion is surprisingly low: an average of only 25% attend Mass regularly. Cooking styles vary notably in Italy, from the rich and creamy dishes of the north to the hot and spicy specialties of the south. Popular dishes include Spaghetti Bolognese, Pesto, Zabaglione and Marzipan.
France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia surround Italy from west to east. The islands of Elba, Sardinia, Ischia, Capri, the Aeolians and Sicily lie offshore. Mountains feature prominently in Italy’s topography. Italy’s backbone is formed by the Apennines, extending from Genoa right down Sicily. The Po River Valley in the country’s northeast forms the largest lowland area, and is heavily populated and industrialized as a result. The country has three active volcanoes – Stromboli, Vesuvius and Etna. There were major earthquakes in 1908 and 1980. Beauty abounds in Italy but, unfortunately, so does pollution, particularly in the big cities and along the coast.
Many animal species once endemic to Italy have been unfortunately hunted out. You might spot a brown bear or a lynx if you’re lucky, and the Alpine regions are still home to wolves, marmots, chamois and deer. Italy’s climate varies from north to south and from lowland to mountaintop. Winters are long and severe in the Alps, with snow falling as early as mid-September. The northern regions experience chilly winters and hot summers.
Visitors traveling to Italy will find numerous flights and competitive fares. Train travel is a great way to enter Italy from within Europe. Buses are numerous but can’t really compete with the convenience of the train. Ferries connect the country with Greece, Turkey, Tunisia, Malta, Albania, Croatia and Spain.
Air travel within Italy is expensive, making it a less-attractive option than travel by train or bus. Buses are fast and reliable, whether they are traversing local routes linking small villages or zooming between cities. They come into their own to reach destinations not serviced by the trains. State and private railways service the country and are generally simple, cheap and efficient. Ferries service Sicily from Naples, while Sardinia can be reached from Genoa, Livorno and Naples.
- When to Go
The best time to go to Italy is spring (April-May) and autumn (October-November). At these times, the scenery is beautiful, the temperatures pleasant and there are relatively few crowds. The ski season generally lasts from December to late March. July and September are the best months for walking in the Alps.
- Explore Attractions
Not many religions actually own a country. Catholicism is an exception to the rule. The Holy See – or Vatican City is headed up by His Holiness. The tiny enclave in the heart of Rome is the administrative and spiritual capital of Roman Catholicism. It is also the world’s smallest independent state. During the working week, the population increases fivefold as residents of Rome cross the ‘border’ to do the Lord’s work.
Despite its importance to the devout scandal and intrigue have dogged the Vatican including relationship with the Nazis, corruption and rumours of Mafia murders. Yet the Vatican has remained a spectacular destination for history buffs, religious types and art-lovers alike.
Country: Independent state within Italy
Time: GMT/UTC plus one hour (plus two hours in summer)
Telephone area code: 06
Mass is said daily in the Vatican. Details about the services are available from the tourist office in the Piazza. If he’s at home, the Pope usually gives a public audience on Wednesday mornings.
The Vatican is located to the northwest of central Rome, on the west bank of the Tevere. It is only 0.44 sq km in size (about half the size of London’s Regent Park). Most people enter into the spectacular St Peter’s Square. There’s a tourist office and the Vatican’s own post office (said to be faster than the Italian postal service) to the left (south) of the square as you head towards the grand St Peter’s Basilica. Beyond the basilica are the offices and residences of the city’s religious leaders and administrators.
When to go:
It is best to go 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.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
One of Rome’s four patriarchal basilicas, Santa Maria Maggiore dates back to the 5th century. The main facade was added in the 18th century, preserving the glorious 13th-century mosaics of the earlier facade. With a baroque interior and a Romanesque bell tower, the basilica’s most notable feature is a cycle of mosaics from the 5th century that decorate the arch and nave, depicting biblical scenes.
The smallest country in the world has a rich, if narrowly focused, history. Religion, art and construction dominate the region that is now the Holy See. Politically, the area followed Rome and Italy until 1929; long before that the region to the northwest of central Rome was inextricably connected to the Catholic Church. In about 65 AD the Romans were sacrificing Christians in Nero’s Circo Vaticano, and it’s probably here that St Peter – regarded as the first Pope – met his end. About 100 years later the site was abandoned and a small monument to the martyr was erected. In 315, Emperor Constantine ordered construction of a basilica on the apostle’s tomb. St Peter’s Basilica was consecrated in 326.
The history of the Vatican is a history of power plays, schisms, crusades and inquisitions. For more than 70 years in the 14th century, Rome was popeless. Abandoned because of political instability, the thousand-year-old center of the Church, founded on the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, lost not only the prestige of being the home of the papacy, but also the considerable income of tithing Christendom, reducing Rome to extreme poverty. After the return of the papacy, Rome began to strengthen again. Although Rome is now far more self-sufficient, the Vatican is still hugely important to the economic and cultural security of the city.
A thousand years after St Peter’s Basilica was built it was – not surprisingly – in a poor state of repair. A new basilica was designed. The demolition of the old one caused great controversy at the time as it involved destroying Byzantine mosaics and frescoes by artists, including Giotto. After 150 years – and with the input of artists like Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo and Giacomo della Porta, the basilica was completed.
In the 1870s, during the occupation of Italy by Napoleon III, the papal soldiers – known as the Swiss Guard – provided the only significant resistance to the Italian forces as they reclaimed Rome. They refused to be the ones to war on the Kingdom of Italy, so the Pope was stripped of his temporal powers and evicted from his palace. During the 1920s, Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini worked to restore the independent papal state, and autonomy was announced in 1929.
The early years of independence saw the establishment and rapid expansion of the Vatican ‘society’. A radio station was opened by wireless inventor Marconi in the early 1930s, and the city now has one television station and seven radio stations spreading the Good News.
More recently, scandals and innuendo relating to the Italian Mafia’s control over the Vatican have surfaced. Given their reported control over the rest of Italy – the Mafia’s estimated worth is about 12% of Italy’s gross national product – there seems no reason to suppose that crime does not have connections with the Holy See. Rumours were fuelled when Pope John Paul I died suddenly in 1978 after only 25 days in office, having earlier vowed to break the Mafia’s hold over the people of Rome.
Most visitors to the Vatican arrive on buses as part of tour groups, by taxi, on foot or by train. The Holy See has 862 m of railway line. Get off at Rome’s St Peter’s Station.
Buses within the Vatican transport leg-weary visitors from the Piazza across to the entrance of the museums. They leave every half-hour and travel through part of the Vatican gardens.
A captivating city of canals and palaces, Venice is unique. The most surprising part is that Venice is too small and her attractions too dainty to cope with the mass tourism she receives year in, year out. The preservation of her crumbling monuments and churches is almost an industry and the debate on how to stem the Adriatic floods is never ending. The battle to clean the lagoon of toxic petrochemical waste is highlighted by media reports on building subsidence and rotting foundations. Venice will have to pull a pretty good stunt to survive.
Area: 457.5 sq km (178 sq mi)
Main language: Italian
Time: GMT/UTC +1
Telephone Area Code: 041 (the area code is an intrinsic part of the number and must be used at all times)
January: Regatta delle Befane.
February: The be-wigged, be-masked and be-robed Carnevale.
May: Festa della Sensa (Feast of the Ascension), when Venice celebrates the Sposalizio del Mar (Wedding with the Sea).
June: The Venezia Biennale arts fest is held every odd-numbered year in the pavilions of the Giardini Pubblici.
Built on 117 small islands, Venice has around 150 canals and 409 bridges. The historic center is divided into six sestieri (quarters): San Marco, Dorsoduro, San Polo, Santa Croce, Cannaregio and Castello. It covers a deceptively small area of 7.6 sq km. The city’s ‘main street’ is the Grand Canal.
The shallow waters of the Laguna Veneta are dotted by a crumbling mosaic of islands, including Murano, Burano and Torcello. Spreading inland from the Laguna Veneta is the rather humdrum industrial town of Mestre, where the day-to-day ‘life’ of the city increasingly takes place. Mestre’s southern half is occupied by Porto Marghera and its massive shipping docks.
Marco Polo airport lies east of Mestre. The train station, Stazione di Santa Lucia, is in the northwest of town, at the end of the Ponte della LibertÃ. The bus station is on the opposite (southern) side of the Grand Canal.
When to go:
The best time to go is in spring (Easter-June) and Sept-Oct. Remember that like Italy’s other great tourist hubs, Venice is at its worst in high summer (June-August). It is crowded, oppressively hot and sticky. Many prefer going late March into May, with clear spring days and comparatively fewer crowds.
Murano and Burano are the best known and most-visited of the lagoon’s islands. Sleepy Murano has been famed for its glass production since the 10th century. You can still catch the odd glassworker in action in shops and factories around the island. The Museo Vetrario is devoted to the art and history of glasswork, and there are some exquisite pieces on display.
You have to take a ferry to the distant scrub-covered flats of Torcello, in the north of the lagoon. This far-flung, marshy and truly eerie islet was where the first mainlanders sought a safe haven from the barbarian invasions, and it is where the story of Venice began. Torcello has a magical, otherworldly atmosphere, with an overgrown main square, abandoned buildings and monuments, and canal side walks leading to nowhere.
Just walking around and up and down bridges means that you’re likely to be getting a pretty good workout! If you’ve got any energy left after all that walking, try a spot of swimming off the Lido or at one of Venice’s two public swimming pools (they close in summer). You can also jog at the Giardini Pubblici or Iola di Sant’Elena in Castello.
It was during the barbarian invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries AD that the islands of the Venetian lagoon were first settled in. This is when people of the Veneto mainland sought refuge in the marshy region. The refugees built watery villages on rafts of wooden posts driven into the subsoil, laying the foundations for the floating palaces of today. The traditional date of Venice’s birth is given as 25 March 421, but there is little evidence to support this belief.
Settlement became focused on the Rivo Alto (later known as Rialto, the highest point in the lagoon), and Venice slowly evolved into a republic. Lip service was paid to the Byzantine Empire, formerly the Eastern branch of the Roman Empire, and the first of Venice’s eventual 118 doges (chief magistrates) was elected in 697. Venice’s name became inextricably linked with that of St Mark when the apostle’s earthly remains were spirited out of Alexandria by merchants in 828. The holy relics were eventually brought to rest in the purpose-built St Mark’s Basilica, which was consecrated in 1094.
The Repubblica Serenissima (Most Serene Republic) provided ships for Pope Urban II’s First Crusade of 1095, which degenerated into the rape and pillage of the Byzantine Empire and Jerusalem. This ignominious event was but a tea party compared to the Fourth Crusade of 1202, which saw the Venetians plunder and eventually rule Constantinople. Famous booty included the four gorgeous horses, bejeweled Pala d’Oro altarpiece and array of marble statuary that decorate St Mark’s Basilica. Venice now commanded a thriving and expanding commercial empire, with the banner of St Mark flying over the bulk of the eastern Mediterranean.
Venice’s rapid expansion had not gone unnoticed by its competitors, in particular the similarly maritime city of Genoa. Despite various inconclusive battles and peace treaties, the two navies pursued each other around the Mediterranean with growing fury but little definitive success until Venice’s victory in the Battle of Chioggia in 1380. Venice then turned its sights to the mainland, acquiring self-sufficiency and allies to bolster its population, which had been decimated by the Black Death in 1348. Trade continued to flourish, but the Turks’ capture of Constantinople in 1453 spelt the beginning of the end of Venice’s dominance.
In the emerging world order of nation states and global empires, Venice was now distinctly small fry. The Turks were rapidly making inroads into La Serenissima’s Mediterranean empire, taking Cyprus in 1570 and Crete in 1669. At home, corruption was on the rise, politics was going soft, and Venice had neither the will nor the manpower to equip great enough fleets, let alone armies, to match those of its competitors. Plague struck again and again, wiping out up to one-third of the population, and a host of art treasures were lost when the doge’s palace went up in flames. The scene was set for the arrival of Napoleon in 1797, and the city’s eventual shunting into Austrian hands.
The Austrians never managed to endear themselves to the Venetians, and in 1848 the city joined the long list of rebels who rose up against the established order across Europe. The movement for Italian unification spread quickly through the Veneto, and Venice was finally united with the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. The city was a hive of activity during the last decades of the 19th century.
Increased port traffic was coupled with growing industry; a railway bridge linking Venice with the mainland was built, permanently erasing the lagoon city’s island status; canals were widened and deepened; pedestrian zones were laid out in the city center; and tourism began to take off.
Most visitors flying into Venice land at Marco Polo airport, 12 km away from Venice. A few charter flights land at Treviso’s tiny San Giuseppe airport, about 35 km north of Venice. Direct trains call a halt at Venice’s Stazione di Santa Lucia from Padua, Verona, Milan, Bologna, Switzerland and France.
The legendary Orient Express runs between Venice and London via Verona, Zurich and Paris twice weekly from March to November. At the other end of the scale you can arrive in Venice by bus, and get off at Piazzale Roma. It’s marginally cheaper than train, but being stuck on a bus for 30 hours from London doesn’t sound like too much fun.
Driving into Italy, the main points of entry are the Mont Blanc tunnel from France at Chamonix, the Grand St Bernard tunnel from Switzerland and the Brenner Pass from Austria. Once in Italy, the A4 is the quickest way to reach Venice from east or west.
Few cities reward walkers so generously as Venice. Vaporetto (water bus) is the other essential method of getting around, and it can be equally rewarding: you won’t find too many public transport routes as unforgettable as vaporetto No 1’s trip along the Grand Canal. Taking a ride in a gondola expensive and some might find it even embarrassing. Water taxis (motorboats) are almost as expensive as gondolas. Regular buses run from Piazzale Roma to Mestre and other mainland destinations.
Rome is history – Etruscan tombs, Republican meeting rooms, Imperial temples, early Christian churches, medieval bell towers, Renaissance palaces and baroque basilicas. This is the city where a phenomenal concentration of history, legend and monuments co-exists with an equally phenomenal concentration of people busily going about their everyday life.
Population: 3.578 million
Time: GMT/UTC +1 (+2 in summer)
Telephone area code: 06
During Holy (Easter) Week, Catholics from around the world make pilgrimages to Rome’s various basilicas and to the Vatican to hear the Pope give his address. On Good Friday there’s a procession of the Cross from the Coliseum to Capitoline Hill. Testaccio is the place to be in summer, when one of Rome’s best-preserved areas becomes a stomping ground for the young and hip. Other summer festivals include Jazz at the Villa Celimontana and tropical music at the Foro Italico.
Rome is halfway down Italy’s western coast. Even though it is a vast city, its historic center is quite small. Most of the major sights are within a reasonable distance of the central railway station. All the major monuments are west of the train station, but make sure you use a map.
Most of the budget places to stay are clustered around Stazione Termini. This area is rife with pickpockets and gangs of thieving children. Do your best to look like you know where you’re going. It is only slightly more expensive and definitely more enjoyable to stay closer to the city center.
The airport is about 26 southwest of the city. The main bus station is just outside Termini.
When to go:
Thanks to its mild climate you can visit Rome any time of the year. But spring and autumn are without doubt the best times to visit, with generally sunny skies and mild temperatures. Late autumn, November, however, can be rainy. July and August are unpleasantly hot.
Ostia was a bustling port city of merchants, sailors and slaves from the 4th century BC until the invasions of the 5th century AD. Situated at the mouth of the Tiber River, the ruins today provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the empire’s plebs, contrasting with the more up-market ruins at Pompei. Ruins to look out for include the city’s entrance (known as the Porta Romana), the Terme di Nettuno baths, the theatre, the mosaic-filled Piazzale delle Corporazioni (merchants’ offices) and the opulent residence known as Domus Fortuna Annonaria.
Since ancient time this hilltop resort town has been a popular summer playground for the rich and famous. Ancient pleasures are evoked by Villa Adriana, Emperor Hadrian’s summer hideaway. Highlights include an island villa (where Hadrian spent his pensive moments), the Imperial palace with its piazza of gold, and the remains of the baths complex.
Renaissance glories are still intact at the Villa d’Este, most famous for its fabulous landscaped gardens and fountains. The villa was built for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, grandson of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. Its prime attractions lie in the views of the gardens and fountains.
There are pony rides on Gianicolo Hill, a short walk southeast of the Holy City. If you’re sore from footslogging from one monument to the next, reward yourself by escaping to the relaxing thermal springs mentioned near Viterbo, 90 km north of Rome.
You can swim, either at the beaches on the Lazio coast, at a hotel pool, or at one of the public swimming pools. You can rent bicycles and cycle near the Porta Pinciana in Villa Borghese. Villa Doria Pamphili, 2km (1mi) south of the Vatican, is the largest park in Rome and a lovely spot for a jog or gentle stroll.
The story of Rome’s origins (circa 753 BC) has been drilled into every school child’s head. The city was founded by the twin sons of Mars, god of war, and princess Rhea Silvia. The twins, Romulus and Remus, were abandoned on the shores of the Tiber and brought up by a she-wolf. Romulus killed his brother in a power struggle over who should govern. He then went on to establish the city of Rome.
Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings until 510 BC, when it became a republic. By the 2nd century BC the city controlled central and southern Italy, had defeated the rival empire of Carthage in three Punic wars and was poised to take over the whole Mediterranean. But as Rome became more powerful abroad, its citizens got more uppity at home – the city suffered several civil wars, with the last wrapping up on the Ides of March 44 BC, when Brutus backstabbed Julius Caesar.
The Republic ended and the emperors took over, ushering in a frenzy of civic and monumental building. Each emperor wanted to leave his mark on the city. So Nero built the Domus Aurea, Vespasian the Coliseum, Trajan his eponymous column and Hadrian Castel Sant’Angelo. The Empire reached its peak under Trajan (who ruled from 98-117 AD).
With the rise of Christianity in the 4th century, Rome lost much of its secular power but became the center of a new empire, Christendom. The Bishop of Rome was named successor to Saint Peter (or, in other words, Pope), which made him the most powerful person of Western Europe. Many of the city’s large basilicas – such as Santa Croce, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Pietro and San Sebastiano – were built around this time.
When, in 410, the Barbarian invasions began, Rome waved goodbye to the last of its salad days. Although the Vandals are often blamed for the sack of Rome, the citizens themselves did more damage, stripping many of the city’s fine buildings for their marble. The Western Roman Empire bit the dust in 476 when Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus – from this time on power moved east, and Germanic and Byzantine leaders bickered over who was the real emperor.
Things looked grim for the Eternal City until the late 8th century, when Pope Stephen II backed up the claims of Frankish king Pepin the Short that he was the chosen of God, and in return received a parcel of land around Rome. The alliance became known as the Holy Roman Empire – combining the power of church and state – and on Christmas Day 800 the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor.
From the 9th to the 12th centuries the power of the popes grew, although it was under constant attack from the city’s various aristocratic houses. The papacy splurged its wealth on several new churches dedicated to the Virgin. These included the Santa Marias of Cosmedin, Trastevere (with its spectacular mosaic), Aracoeli and Sopra Minerva. Although things hit the skids a bit in the 14th century, when the pope was exiled to Avingnon, France, due to factional fighting and the city’s population and infrastructure took a plummet, the papacy had re-established its firm grip on the reigns by the 15th century.
But Charles V’s sack of Rome in 1527, the French Revolution, Napoleon’s march across Europe and the Franco-Prussian War pulled the rug out from under papal power. In 1870 Rome became capital of the newly united Italy, leaving the pope with mere figurehead status and causing him to abandon the city for the Vatican (the pope was made sovereign of Vatican City in 1929).
The new administration was more interested in offices and housing blocks than churches, and during the 1930s the city expanded beyond the city walls. During Mussolini’s rule, in the 1920s and ’30s, Rome took on Fascist airs, puffing out its chest with wide boulevards and overblown architecture. Dreams of imperial glory led Mussolini to form an alliance with Germany during WW II, and the nightmare that ended up taking place helped set the scene for Italy’s transformation from a totaliristic regime into a republic in 1946. The postwar years saw Rome’s physical expansion and a role as the center of Italy’s film industry until the early 1960s.
The 1970s and ’80s were marked by more violent transformations, namely those of some radical student groups with a long list of complaints about Italy’s left-wing governments. The Brigate Rosse (Red Brigade) was the most notorious right-wing group, going so far as to kidnap and eventually murder former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in Rome in 1978.
The last few decades of the 20th century saw a mixture of economic success and wide-ranging corruption scandals, which touched many a politician, public official and businessperson. The public reacted with perverse moral indignation in 1994 by electing a stridently right-wing coalition headed by a billionaire media magnate, Silvio Berlusconi. Amid claims of corruption, the government fell, and after some years of typically Italian political musical chairs, Berlusconi returned from the desert to win the 2001 national elections, promising ‘few words and plenty of action’. Despite the landslide victory, his right-wing government’s activities were greeted with large-scale protests.
The Jubilee Year in 2000, during which around 16 million Catholic pilgrims visited the city, gave Rome impetus to clean up her act. Billions were spent in the previous years cleaning church and palazzo facades, improving roads and transport, and reclaiming public spaces from the car parks they’d become. At the start of the new millennium Rome had never looked more beautiful.
The two big airports are Leonardo da Vinci and Ciampino. You can get a flight from just about anywhere in the world to Rome. One of the most convenient ways to get into town is by the Leonardo Express, the 30-minute Fiumicino-Stazione Termini direct train, which runs half-hourly from the airport. Buses run from various city bus stops to the Lazio region and from Stazione Tiburtina to other destinations throughout Italy. Eurolines is the main carrier for other European destinations, leaving from opposite Tiburtina. There are regular train connections to all the major cities in Italy and Europe from Termini station.
Rome’s buses, trams, subway and suburban railways are part of an integrated system run by ATAC and Metrebus tickets cover all forms of transport. There’s also a private network of J buses. Most of the main buses terminate at the bus station outside Stazione Termini. The city’s Metro service has two lines.
Driving in Rome is the next best thing to suicide – especially on a motorbike or moped. Most of the historic center of Rome is closed to normal traffic, although you will be allowed to drive to your hotel, and parking is a nightmare. If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, you can pick up a cab from one of the city’s many taxi ranks or phone one any time of day. Be warned though: if you call a cab, the meter is turned on as soon as you call, rather than when you are picked up.
Florence is a pleasant city but can be one of Italy’s most clogged tourist traps, with thousands of tourist buses arriving daily in the peak season. Important attractions are the shop-lined Ponte Vecchio, the gem-filled Uffizi Gallery, the turreted Piazza della Signoria and the Medici Chapels.
Time: GMT/UTC plus one hour (plus two hours in summer)
Telephone area code: 055 (the area code is an intrinsic part of the number and must be used at all times)
June: Feast of St John the Baptist.
June: Calcio Storico, a lively event featuring football matches played in 16th century costume, held in Piazza della Signoria. It ends with a fireworks display over Piazzale Michelangelo.
Florence is the capital of the region of Tuscany, on Italy’s northwest coast. A good reference point for navigating your way around Florence is its central train station, Santa Maria Novella. The city has two airports – Amerigo Vespucci and Galileo Galilei. There are hundreds of hotels, hostels and private rooms, and more than 150 budget hotels. Tuscany is known for its fine culinary traditions – in particular, its olive oil, meat dishes and classic Chianti.
When to go:
The best time to visit Florence is in the low season, from April to June and in September/October, when the weather is usually good, prices are lower and there are fewer tourists.
Fiesole is nestled in the hilly valleys between the Arno and Mugnone rivers and offers spectacular views of nearby Florence. The city readily reveals its Etruscan, Roman and Renaissance past, and as a summer retreat it has attracted the likes of Boccaccio, Proust, Gertrude Stein and Frank Lloyd Wright. Fiesole has a duomo, an impressive art museum and an archaeological site featuring an Etruscan temple and the remains of a Roman theatre and baths.
The Medicis built several opulent villas throughout the countryside around Florence during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Villa della Petraia, about 3.5km north of the city, is one of the finest. It was commissioned by Cardinal Ferdinand de’ Medici in 1576, and features magnificent gardens. The Villa di Poggio a Caiano was built for Lorenzo by di Sangallo about 15km from Florence.
Prato was founded by the Ligurians but was taken over by the Etruscans and the Romans. In the 11th century it was an important wool-production center, and today it is still one of Italy’s major textile producers. The old, walled city is an intact historic island. It features palaces, the impressive municipal art gallery and a magnificent cathedral. The center also features an imperial castle, built during the 13th century.
Florence caters to addicts of caffeine and expensive shoes. If you are in the mood for a stroll, head for the Giardino di Boboli. You can also take full and half-day mountain bike tours of the countryside around Florence, or rent a bike and join the traffic in town.
Florence was founded as a colony of the Etruscan city of Fiesole in about 200 BC. By 1138 it was ruled by 12 consuls, assisted by the Council of One Hundred, a bunch of rich merchants. In 1207, due to intractable problems with faction fighting, the council was replaced by a foreign governor, the podestÃ.
In the 13th century the pro-papal Guelphs and pro-imperial Ghibellines started a century-long bout of bickering, which wound up with the Guelphs forming their own government in the 1250s. By 1292 Florence had had it with the obstreperous nobles, excluding them from government. The city became increasingly democratized, eventually becoming a commercial republic controlled by the Guelph-heavy merchant class.
The great plague of 1348 cut the city’s population by almost half. In the latter part of the 14th century the Medicis began consolidating power, eventually becoming bankers to the papacy. Cosimo Medici – patron of artists such as Donatello, Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi – became ruler of Florence. Perhaps the most famous Medici was Lorenzo, grandson of Cosimo, who took power in 1469. His court fostered a great flowering of art, music and poetry, and Lorenzo sponsored philosophers and artists such as Botticelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo.
In 1494 the Medicis went broke and lost their hold on power. The city fell under the control of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican monk who led a puritanical republic until he fell from public favour and was burned as a heretic in 1498. The Medicis returned to Florence in the 16th century, having united themselves by marriage with Emperor Charles V, and ruled for the next 200 years. In 1737 the Grand Duchy of Tuscany passed to the House of Lorraine, which was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Florence became capital of the Kingdom, and remained so until Rome took over in 1875.
Florence has two airports – Amerigo Vespucci and Galileo Galilei. The latter has regular connections to London, Paris, Munich and major Italian cities. There are also two bus stations. For international services, which go all over Europe, you need the Lazzi station – buses to Rome also go from this station. Florence is connected by train to Rome, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Verona, Bologna and Pisa.
A city bus runs every 30 minutes from the main train station to Amerigo Vespucci airport. There’s a train service between the main station and Galileo Galilei airport. Buses service the city center and Fiesole, in the hills northeast of town and tickets can be bought at tobacconists or vending machines. Traffic is restricted in the city center, so it’s best to park a little out of town and walk around – parking in the more central areas is very expensive.
Business capital to some, fashion paradise to the rest. This cityÃ¢s architectural beauty is perhaps unsurpassed in all of Italy. Set in the mid-western plains of Lombardy, this is the city that dictates style and fashion to the rest of the world. While here, immerse yourself in the rich history and culture that is an inherent part of Milan.
Pisa is a city in Tuscany, Central Italy, on the right bank of the mouth of the River Arno on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is the capital city of the Province of Pisa. Although Pisa is known worldwide for its leaning tower (the bell tower of the city’s cathedral), the city of over 88,332 residents (around 200,000 with the metropolitan area) contains more than 20 other historic churches, several palaces and various bridges across the River Arno. The city is also home of the University of Pisa, which has a history going back to the 12th century and also has the mythic Napoleonic Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa and Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies as the best Superior Graduate Schools in Italy.
The Italian Alps offer well-marked trails for the long-distance hiker. Other options include the challenging but well-marked trails in the Apuane Alps in Tuscany, and the spectacular hikes in the rugged eastern ranges of Sardinia. There are plenty of excellent ski resorts in the Italian Alps – particularly in the Dolomites, which have the most dramatic scenery.
Windsurfing and sailing are extremely popular, and at most beach resorts it’s possible to rent boats and equipment. Cycling is a great way to see the country. Popular cycling areas include the hills of Tuscany, and the Valnerina in Umbria.
Time: Summer 3 1/2 hrs behind and Winter 2 1/2 hrs behind India time.
Electricity: 220V (some 125V still found) 50 Hz