Places To See
Although its size conjures up the Empire that ruled through intimidation, brutality and down-turned thumbs, the Colosseum has been a little humbled. The Christian-eating lions have been reduced to stray kitty cats (who will eat anything regardless of religious affiliation), and weeds sprout among the 50,000 seats.
Vespasian began its construction in AD72 in the grounds of Nero's private Domus arena. It was inaugurated by his son Titus in AD80, and thereafter, inaugural games lasted for 100 days and nights, during which some 5000 animals were slaughtered.
With the fall of the Empire, the Colosseum was abandoned and became overgrown with exotic plants; seeds had inadvertently been transported with the wild beasts that appeared in the arena (including crocodiles, bears, tigers, elephants and hippos.) In the Middle Ages the Colosseum became a fortress, occupied by two of the city's warrior families.
Damaged several times by earthquake, it was later used as a quarry for travertine and marble for Palazzo Venezia and other buildings. Despite this, it has lost none of its stature and remains an evocative place to explore.
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Welcome to the world's greatest architectural cockup. Its creator, Bonanno Pisan, was in trouble three tiers in when the tower began to list badly to the south. Things got worse at the rate of about 1mm a year, but at least it gave Galileo a chance to throw rocks from the bell tower to test his theory of gravity. Today it's 4.1m (13.5ft) off the perpendicular.
One of the world's most famous art images, Leonardo da Vinci's wonderful mural depicting the Last Supper decorates a wall of the Cenacolo Vinciano, the refectory adjoining Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie. Painted between 1495 and 1498, the work captures the moment when Jesus uttered the words 'One of you will betray me'. It has been extensively restored.
Victim of the world's most famous volcano disaster, 2.3 million visitors annually make Pompeii's magnificent ruins seem as crowded as the ancient streets must once have been. Ever since Pliny the Younger described the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, the city has been the stuff of books, scholarly and frivolous, and a perfect subject for the big screen.
Valley of the Temples
Via dei Templi runs through the middle of the archaeological park, dividing it into two sections, with the most spectacular temples to the right. The Temple of Hercules is the oldest of the five temples contained within the park, all of which are atmospherically illuminated at night. There is also a museum in the complex which houses a collection of artefacts.
Religious, cultural and historical events pepper the Italian calendar. The pre-Easter Carnevale is closely associated with Venice; Holy Week Easter processions are especially flamboyant at Taranto, Chieti and in 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 Snake-charmer's Procession in Abruzzo (May) and the Festa di Sant'Antonio in Padua (June). Events betraying more than a hint of history include the Race of the Candles and Palio of the Crossbow in Gubbio (May), the Sardinian Cavalcade (May), the Regata of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics (which, held in June, rotates between Pisa, Venice, Amalfi and Genoa), Il Palio in Siena (July & August) and Venice's Historic Regatta (September).
When to go?
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.
Travel Visa Overview
Italy is one of 25 member countries of the Schengen Convention, under which 22 EU countries plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland have abolished permanent checks at common borders.
Legal residents of one Schengen country do not require a visa for another. Residents of 28 non-EU countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand and the USA, do not require visas for tourist visits of up to 90 days (this list varies for those wanting to travel to the UK and Ireland).
All non-EU nationals (except those from Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) entering Italy for any reason other than tourism (such as study or work) should contact an Italian consulate, as they may need a specific visa.They should also have their passport stamped on entry as, without a stamp, they could encounter problems when trying to obtain a residence permit (permesso di soggiorno). If you enter the EU via another member state, get your passport stamped there.
The standard tourist visa is valid for up to 90 days. A Schengen visa issued by one Schengen country is generally valid for travel in other Schengen countries. However, individual Schengen countries may impose additional restrictions on certain nationalities. For details, see Europa: Travelling in Europe at http://europa.eu/travel/doc/index_en.htm#visa
European plug with two circular metal pins
This is only found in the Alps.
Rabies is a fatal viral infection. Many animals can be infected (such as dogs, cats, bats and monkeys) and it's their saliva that is infectious. Any bite, scratch or even lick from a warm-blooded, furry animal should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly. Scrub with soap and running water, and then apply alcohol or iodine solution. Medical help should be sought promptly to receive a course of injections to prevent the onset of symptoms and death.
This is found in coastal regions. Spread through the bite of an infected sand fly, leishmaniasis can cause a slowly growing skin lump or ulcer. It may develop into a serious life-threatening fever usually accompanied with anaemia and weight loss. Infected dogs are also carriers of the infection. Sand fly bites should be avoided whenever possible.
Lyme disease is transmitted by deer ticks, which are only 1-2 mm long. Most cases occur in the late spring and summer. The first symptom is usually an expanding red rash that is often pale in the centre, known as a bull's eye rash. However, in many cases, no rash is observed. Flu-like symptoms are common, including fever, headache, joint pains, body aches and malaise. When the infection is treated promptly with an appropriate antibiotic, usually doxycycline or amoxicillin, the cure rate is high. Luckily, since the tick must be attached for 36 hours or more to transmit Lyme disease, most cases can be prevented by performing a thorough tick check after you've been outdoors.
Italy's climate varies from north to south and from lowland to mountain top. Temperatures at sea-level tend to be similar around the country, with altitudes creating steep changes between summer and winter. Winters are long and severe in the Alps, with snow falling as early as mid-September. Storms develop in spring and tend to last to autumn, making summer the wettest season. The northern regions experience chilly winters, hot summers and regular even rain distribution, while conditions become milder as you head south. The sirocco, the hot and humid African wind that affects regions south of Rome, produces at least a couple of stiflingly hot weeks in summer.
History and Culture
Dubbed the world's 'living art gallery', Italy has more culture than you can shake a paintbrush at. In fact it's fair to say that if something can be painted, played, eaten, sang, sculpted or written about, the Italians have had a hand in elevating its appreciation to the highest art form. The world has much to thank the Italians for.
Pre-20th Century History
While Italy's status as a single political entity is relatively recent (1861), its strategic Mediterranean position made it a target for colonisers and opportunists fairly early on in human history. The Etruscans 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 ancient Greeks, their contemporaries, set up a few colonies along the southern coast that became known as Magna Graecia and developed into independent city states. Thus the greater glory that was Rome was itself the offspring of Etruscan and Greek cultures.
The first Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC, and eventually bequeathed us the idea of a common European identity, a language that has spawned many of Europe's contemporary tongues 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. Meanwhile, relative peace at home enabled the infrastructure of civilisation - roads, aqueducts, cities - to spread. A slave-driven lifestyle and economy triumphed over the concept of people power, and the reigns of the Republic were increasingly taken in hand by the military and, ultimately, the dictatorship.
The empire grew so large, 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). The western arm of the empire was undone by plague, famine and tribal incursions from the north, and was officially declared null and void in 476 when Odovacar, a German warrior, dubbed himself ruler. The Eastern Roman Empire clung on, even prospering in fits and starts, until overrun by the Turks in 1453.
After the fall of Rome the peninsula entered the Dark Ages and suffered repeated barbarian invasions. Among the more effective of these hordes were the Lombards who successfully controlled large parts of the north before being defeated by the Franks. In 800, the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor as symbolic Christian successor to ancient Rome. The south came to be dominated by Muslims until usurped by Normans in the early 11th century. This ethnic cocktail began to settle in the 12th century, just when the next big chapter in textbook history was taking shape. Powerfully combative and competitive city states arose in the north, supporting either the Pope, who represented spiritual power in Christendom but also had considerable political power within Italy(the Papal States), or the Holy Roman Emperor, a foreign leader who claimed secular sovereignty over all Christian Europe (including Italy). 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 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. No label of unity, however, could hide the huge cultural and social differences that split the industrialised north from the poverty-stricken south.
Economic crisis and fickle politics dogged the new nation in the ensuing decades, as Italy muddled through WWI and became riddled with industrial unrest in the early 1920s. In a memorably unwise employment decision, the king asked one Benito Mussolini to take the reins of government under the auspices of his Fascist Party. Il Duce 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 during WWII and Italian capitulation in 1943, eventually culminating in a fatal dose of rough justice at the hands of partisans in April 1945.
The postwar years were coloured by extremism: the extreme violence of terrorists such as the Brigatte Rosse (Red Brigades), extreme centre-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 explosion of corruption cases in the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) and Tangentopoli (Bribesville) cases in the 1990s threw the traditional political parties into chaos and eventually led to Italy's richest man, entrepreneur Silvio Berlusconi, becoming prime minister in alliance with the former Fascist party and northern Italian secessionists in 2001. Berlusconi, plagued by fraud and other charges, spent much of his term concocting laws to suit his private and business interests. His most lasting legacy was probably the nationwide ban on smoking in all enclosed public spaces in early 2005. With his coalition looking brittle and many Italians desperately disillusioned with his cavalier approach to politics, the ever disunited left wing snatched power in a neck-and-neck election in 2006. Romano Prodi was named the new prime minister.
Though Prodi was less fond of football than Berlusconi, the Italians took out the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. However, investigations back home into the national league revealed entrenched corruption in the sport. Five Serie A teams received sanctions for their role in match-rigging and bribery. One of these teams, AC Milan, put the furore behind them and went on to win the 2007 Champions League. Meanwhile, AC Milan's owner, one Silvio Berlusconi, began regaining political ground in regional and municipal elections across the country. When the Prodi coalition collapsed in May 2008, Berlusconi was returned to power for at the subsequent elections the third time.
Nature has also played a role in Italy's history. As one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries, Italy has a long history of natural disasters. Italy's deadliest ever earthquake struck in 1908, razing the Sicilian town of Messina to the ground and claiming up to 200,000 lives. The latest earthquake struck the central region of Abruzzo on 6 April 2009, killing some 294 people and leaving up to 17,000 people homeless. The epicentre was near regional capital L'Aquila, but shock waves were felt as far away as Rome, 90 km to the southwest. Much of L'Aquila's medieval centre was destroyed.