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The Warsaw Voice » Other » May 28, 2008
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Heaven for Culture Vultures
May 28, 2008 By W.¯.    
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Among the five most popular tourist destinations in Europe are three cities in Italy-Rome, Venice and Florence.

Situated on seven hills on the Tiber River, the Eternal City has drawn tourists like a magnet for centuries. The Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Capitoline Hill, the Spanish Steps and the Basilica of St. John Lateran are names familiar to every experienced traveler. For staunchly Catholic Poles, an additional reason to visit Rome is the Vatican, which until recently was regarded by many of them as practically a part of Poland because of the long pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

Venice, or the city of bridges, does not need much introduction either. Some of its most magical attractions include St. Mark's Square, the Doge's Palace, art and murals by great painters such as Tintoretto, and Torcello, which historically was the first inhabited island in the lagoon. Transportation in this city on water is provided by water trams, known as vaporetti, which are almost as famous as the gondolas of Venice.

Florence, in turn, is one big museum. Some of the best-known museums in the city include the Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzo Pitti and the Palazzo del Bargello museum of sculpture. The latter is slightly smaller than the other two, but experts consider it to be the most valuable collection of sculptures in Europe. Other must-see landmarks include the Palazzo Vecchio, the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral (The Duomo), the Medici Chapel and all the famous bridges, most notably the Ponte Vecchio.

The "Big Three" are by no means all there is to see in Italy for any self-respecting connoisseur of European culture. Art experts regard Ravenna as the premier center of Byzantine mosaic, the best of which you can see inside the San Vitale church. The other major tourist attraction in Ravenna is the Orthodox Baptistry, one of the best-preserved structures of its kind in Europe, dating back to the fifth century.

In terms of architectural and historical sites, you will find equally magnificent cathedrals in Milan, Assisi and Siena. If you are looking for some adrenaline, the latter could be the right choice for you with its Palio di Siena, the famous Tuscan festival in honor of the Virgin Mary, dating from the Middle Ages. The climax of the festival takes place on the main square, the Piazza del Campo, with a horse race around the square. It is just three laps, but it is extremely exciting. The race is held twice a year, July 2 and Aug. 16 at 7 p.m.

In Verona, a must-see is the balcony which William Shakespeare immortalized as the scene where Romeo Montague confessed his love for Juliet Capulet. If you are interested in the history of European universities, pay a visit to Bologna, the home of one of the oldest universities of the Western world, founded in the 11th century.

If you feel like taking a break from cultural landmarks, you can take in the natural beauty of Italy. Lakes Como, Garda, Lugano and Maggiore are strikingly beautiful. Featured in many movies, the lakes also frequently stand in for other locations, even in sci-fi and fantasy movies. For example, in Star Wars, the Villa Balbianelli by Lake Como was where two of the movie's characters fell in love.

The silver screen also makes use of the Dolomites, whose picturesque landscape has stood in for the Himalayas. Polish fans of winter sports have for years frequented the ski resorts of the Dolomites, such as Cortina d'Ampezzo and Madonna di Campiglio. Poles are also increasingly fond of spending vacations in Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, with its landmark Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe which rises around 3,340 meters above sea level. The Italian island of Sardinia, in turn, is regarded as an emerging market for tourism and has only recently made its way into holiday brochures.

No article about the many attractions of Italy would be complete without a mention of culinary delights. Spaghetti, known across the world, is just one of hundreds of Italian pasta varieties. Chianti and Parma ham are served in restaurants around the globe. Every region in Italy has its specialties, for example, Piedmont is famous for its truffles, Lombardy for risotto, Calabria for fish and seafood. Some Western European travel agencies offer guided tours focusing exclusively on the culinary attractions of the Apennine Peninsula.
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