Tourism is big business in Italy, a country which offers such a feast for the visitor that it is difficult to know where to start. With more than 3,000 years of history, art and culture – and a cuisine that is popular around the world – Italy oozes la dolce vita.
The capital, Rome, within which lies the separate city-state of the Vatican City, boasts Roman ruins, Etruscan tombs, renaissance palaces and early-Christian churches. Other highlights are Florence with the Uffizi gallery and renaissance gems; the canals, palaces, piazzas and galleries of Venice; the ruins of Pompei; medieval Siena; sophisticated Milan, rustic Sicily; Pisa‘s leaning tower and the stunning Amalfi Coast.
But Italy is not all glamour, history and cappuccino – organised crime, corruption, high unemployment, severe air pollution, political instability and the poverty of the south are all high on the fix-it list. With a population of more than 57m, Italy also has high numbers of illegal immigrants. A charter member of Nato and the European Union, Italy supports the increasing unification of western Europe.
In general, Italy has a typical Mediterranean climate with mild rainy winters and hot dry summers. The climate is subject to local variations. The northern area, especially into the Alps, has more severe winters whereas the central areas are more temperate. Southern Italy has a hot and dry climate. Rome averages 20-30C (68-86F) in July and 5-11C (41-52F) in January
Italian cucina is quite provincial due to the differing microclimates, terrains and traditions of the various regions. The northern plains are known for beef, veal, creams and cheeses, the mountainous south for goat and sheeps milk and cheese, lamb, chicken and pork. Thus the dishes of the north are rich and creamy, while the poorer south has a more robust, spicy cuisine. Staples also vary across the country; alternatives to pasta are rice, beans, cous cous and polenta. Olives, olive oil, anchovies, capers, parmesan cheese, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, garlic and basil flavour dishes. Tomatoes, courgettes, pumpkin, spinach and aubergine are typical vegetables. Pizza is sold everywhere, often by the slice on street corners. Seafood is excellent along the coast. Icecream at its very best can be sampled in the many gelateria.