Legend has it that the great Roman Empire was started around 735 B.C. by a very powerful man named Romulus. For over 1200 years, the Roman Empire conquered its neighbors and expanded its holdings to eventually contain all of Europe and more. Their innovations in the areas of art, mathematics and engineering still amaze today.
In the year 476, the Emperor Augustus died and the vast holdings of his empire were slowly divided up until Italy was nothing more than a group of small, independent kingdoms, nowhere near the powerful, history-changing force it once was.
The Italian Renaissance is arguably one of the most influential periods in Italian history. Due to the generosity of wealthy benefactors, like the Medici family, as well as the Catholic church, some of the world’s greatest masterpieces of art and architecture were created during this period. Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo and Petrarch all helped to drag Italy and all of Europe out of the Middle Ages, much to our future benefit and enjoyment.
Unfortunately, the semi-cohesive nature of the loosely organized Italian states was shaky, at best. Over the next several centuries, northern states prospered while southern states faced hunger. Northern states fended off invaders from France, Spain, Austria and Germany while southern states were “sold” to France. By 1814, Italians had had enough. The proud people began the slow process of reunification. In 1861, Italy was once again a whole nation and ready to face the trials of WWI and the humiliation of WWII together.
Modern day Italy now enjoys its position as one of the world’s most visited countries. Her art and architecture, as well as her feats of engineering and fashion, have cemented this position for decades, if not centuries, to come.
There are three active volcanoes in Italy, Stromboli, Etna and Vesuvius. In fact, the 1908 Olympics were scheduled to be held in Italy but the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius forced a re-scheduling in London.
The country of Italy, although just over 115,000 square miles of land, is comprised of 6 islands and 20 regions. It did not, however, become a unified country until 1861.
Vatican City, located within Italy, is actually its own independent country. In fact, they can boast that they are the only country in the world that locks its gates at night.
Italy is sometimes referred to as a boot due to its shape. In fact, there is a nursery rhyme referencing Italy’s boot kicking poor Sicily into the Mediterranean Sea.
- The University of Rome is one of the oldest universities in the world. It was formed in 1303 by the Catholic Church and, as can be expected, has a lengthy alumni list.
- Due to a high unemployment rate of up to 20% in the southern parts of Italy, more than 25 million people left Italy between 1861 and 1985. Unfortunately, only one in four returned.
- The Roman Empire once covered over 2.3 million square miles, extending from Portugal to Syria and from northern parts of England to North Africa.
- As one might be able to guess, Italy has more masterpieces per square mile than anywhere else on earth. In fact, Italy is home to 40 UNESCO World Heritage sites and an estimated 60% of the world’s art treasures.
- Sardines are actually canned herring that come from the area around Sardinia. Who knew?!
- The Italians invented pizza, but not pasta. While it is true that pasta was brought over in the 1300’s by Arab traders, the Italians raised it to an art form.
- Italy holds a Guinness World Record. Believe it or not, they have more elevators than any country in the world.
- Rome: As the capital of Italy, Rome is a popular tourist spot full of everything from ancient historical sites and medieval churches to Renaissance masterpieces and modern nightclubs;
- Milan: As one of the richest cosmopolitan cities in Europe, Milan is well-known as a fashion and cultural mecca. Architecture buffs also flock here to see her famous Duomo, the second largest Catholic cathedral in the world. Construction began in 1386 on this Late Gothic masterpiece;
- Venice: Most well-known for its romantic gondola rides through the centuries-old canals, Venice was built in a lagoon. The Piazzo San Marco is a must-see for tourists;
- Florence: The Medici family was renowned during the Renaissance for their generous sponsorship of the arts. In fact, their support led to many of the masterpieces found in and around Florence today;
- Genoa: This charming Italian seaport is located on Italy’s northwest coast and is home to the oldest medieval segment in all of Europe as well as an impressive modern aquarium. It’s most famous one-time resident is arguably Christopher Columbus;
- Bologna: Yet another beautiful Italian city to explore when visiting this charming country is Bologna. One of the more quaint features is that the streets are lined with covered arcades allowing pedestrians to enjoy the scenery in the rain;
- Perugia: Perhaps the name Perugia does not come to mind as readily as Florence or Rome, but this city has been entertaining visitors since the 9th century B.C. In fact, it is home to the University for Foreigners, which is a popular place to study the Italian language;
- Turin: Most recently Turin has been host to the 2006 Winter Olympics but this ancient city has been a social, political and cultural hub in Italy for centuries;
- Verona: This charming Italian city was captured in what is possibly Shakespeare’s most famous play, Romeo and Juliet. In addition, the city also hosts a popular, annual opera festival;
- Naples: Home to many Renaissance paintings by Caravaggio as well as the archeological remains at Pompeii, Naples is a vibrant city that brings in her fair share of visitors.
How to Get Cash
Quite often when traveling, you will need cash in addition to what you originally brought in with you. Fortunately, in a modern country like Italy, there are many places where you can get cash in the form of euros.
Debit Cards: Whereas you can use your debit card at an ATM machine, you cannot use it for purchases in Italy.
Credit Cards: Most stores, restaurants and hotels in larger cities readily accept credit cards, but smaller towns as well as “mom & pop” stores will not.
ATMs: Like the rest of Europe, ATM machines, called bancomats, are everywhere. Be advised that only four-digit pins work and often Italian banks will allow a maximum of 250 euro per day for withdrawals.
Banks: Most banks in Italy post their exchange rates outside the bank. Just like window shopping, you can go from bank to bank until you find an acceptable exchange rate for your transaction.
Currency Exchange: Exchange booths are available in major metropolitan centers; however, the exchange rate offered is typically not favorable. Like anything else, some are reputable - some are not.
Traveler’s Checks: Although once highly popular for tourists, traveler’s checks are rarely accepted any longer and often thought of as a pain to deal with.
Bill-to-Bill Exchangers: At first glance, these machines appear to be a convenient way to trade your currency for local euros. Do not be fooled. Even though you can insert U.S. dollars and receive euros in exchange, the rate is a rip-off. Walk away. Better yet, run.