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Italy (officially known as the Italian Republic) is a country located in Southern Europe, bordered by France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia to the north. The country consists predominantly of a large peninsula (the Italian Peninsula) with a distinctive boot shape that extends into the Mediterranean Sea. The independent countries of San Marino and the Vatican City are enclaves within Italian territory, while Campione d'Italia is an Italian exclave in Switzerland. The country also has two main islands: Sicily, located at the 'toe' of the 'boot', and Sardinia, which lies to the west of Rome.

Think of Italy and countless images spring to mind: gondolas in Venice, rustic farmhouses peeping behind poplar trees in Tuscany, elegant palazzos and romantic squares in Rome and lemon-scented hilltops overlooking the blue Mediterranean on the Amalfi coast. Italy offers all this but much more, too. There are few places in Europe where the regional differences are so striking, visible in the climate, the food and the language. And there can be few countries which can come close to rivalling Italy's artistic heritage. Italy was home to many well-known and influential European cultures, including the Etruscans, Greeks, and the Romans. For more than 3,000 years Italy experienced migrations and invasions from Germanic, Celtic, Frankish, Lombard, Byzantine Greek, Saracen and Norman peoples during the Middle Ages, followed by the Italian Renaissance period.

In Rome, ancient remains jostle for space with ornate Baroque churches, whilst in Florence, visitors can immerse themselves in the wonderfully preserved Renaissance splendour of the Piazza Signoria, the pastel coloured Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio, where gold artisans occupy shops that date back to the 14th century. Then there are da Vinci's masterpieces at the Sistine Chapel in Rome and his Last Supper painting in Milan. Venice, meanwhile, is a watery wonderland filled with majestic squares and palaces, crumbling narrow streets to lose yourself in and countless churches whose glittering spires glint in the Italian sun. The city of Verona is also in the Veneto region, and is home to a strong Roman and romantic heritage - it is believed Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, were real-life residents of the city. Milan offers another perspective on the Italian way of life. Along with Turin, the city is a bustling, commercial and dynamic city, with an emphasis more on the cutting edge rather than the traditional. Fashion lovers will be in heaven here - top Italian designer goods come with a healthy 30% discount on UK prices.

Foodies, meanwhile, will be spoilt for choice all over Italy, but especially in Bologna, the colourful capital of Emilia-Romagna, and Naples, birthplace of the pizza. Italians take their wine just as seriously as their food, so no matter where you go, expect to partake in long, lazy lunches, fuelled by wines such as Chianti and Sangiovese, and finished off with a Grappa or Sambuca.

While the north is characterised by rolling countryside and culture-filled cities, the south is all about sun-soaked beaches, riotous religious festivals, and a laid-back pace of life which still revolves around the simple joys of friends, family and good food.

Map of Italy