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Italy a must-see travel destination

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Notwithstanding all of the other great countries there are to visit in Europe, the popularity of Italy keeps growing exponentially.

For many, it is not a country to be visited just once. Like a fine wine, the first taste motivates travellers to experience more.

Over a year, I likely get more enquiries about Italy than any other country.

Which is the best month to travel there? Is it difficult to drive in Italy? Are the sites overrated? Do you recommend northern or southern Italy most?

Having taken several trips to various regions of this fascinating country, it is easy to repeat a phrase I have relied on when these questions are posed to me. I tell them to see it all and to stay as long as they can.

I will try to provide a balanced view of the Italian travel experience, with the hope some of the information helps readers who may be looking to finalize their travel plans.

First, let me relate to the major tourist urban centres of Rome, Venice and Florence. I could add Naples to the list, but it may be the only city in the country I don't speak highly about.

Others have had positive experiences there, but I have always found it a rough-and-tumble city whose seemingly never-ending garbage strikes have left me with a profound negative impression.

But visiting the nearby ruins at Pompeii is a must-see for visitors who have read about its decadent history and final hours at the hands of nature.

As for the other three cities, each in its own way is laden with art and history and well worth spending extra days discovering.

Rome, of course, is the gem. One could spend weeks exploring the historical and religious sites of the city, let alone capturing the amazing shopping and dining experiences peppered throughout the region.

While the city tours are worth taking, Rome is also an excellent walking city. Over a couple of days you may end up exhausted, but revelling in what you discovered by going from site to site on foot.

The Rome underground, Metro, is also worth experiencing and will transport you to the more distant locations much faster than ground transportation.

Keep the footsteps moving as you traverse the hundreds of bridges over the canals of Venice. The gondola rides are expensive but provide a view of how the early residents lived.

The canal was the traffic corridor for Venetians of the past, and much of the most impressive architecture from 12th century Byzantine through Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque periods is highlighted along the canal.

You will be offered all manners of free boat transportation to Murano, the centre of the Venetian glassmaking that is known around the world. These free rides will take you to only one factory. There, the owners will work hard to prevent you from leaving, quilting you to stay because of the complimentary ride they sponsored.

Pay your own way and negotiate your best price on the glass-art piece you want on your terms and at the lowest competitive price.

In Florence, it is easy to find the San Lorenzo leather market, where hundreds of sellers extol the virtues of their craftsmanship. The quality is high and, comparatively speaking, the bargains are real. Few people will visit and not purchase at least one leather jacket or coat.

Always remember, the first price is not the bottom price. They do, however, have a fixed range that each of the booths seem to agree upon, which becomes evident as you get into the negotiation process from merchant to merchant.

Don't worry about language barriers here. They know how to speak English well and can also read your psychological desire to buy in any language.

The centre of Florence was designated a World Heritage Site in 1982. Many describe Florence as one of the most beautiful cities, artistically and architecturally, in the world.

Even if you've never had a full appreciation of art or sculpture, after seeing Michelangelo's David in Florence and his Sistine Chapel in Rome, you will travel the world and see both crafts in a new dawn of appreciation.

Florence is the capital of Tuscany, whose beauty and peacefulness has been captured in dozens of movies.

While I try to avoid driving in the major cities of Italy, I have rented an automobile each time I have visited the regions of Italy. The roads are excellent. I found getting around no more difficult than in Canada.

With the help of a good GPS, getting lost is pretty much a thing of the past. And self transportation allows you to travel as you please while enjoying the scenery and lifestyle of the area.

While Tuscany certainly has captured much of the world's attention because of the publicity provided by the film industry, nearby Umbria is well worth considering as a second option.

Travelling south of Rome is like going into an entirely different country.

Here, it is less about the history and architecture and more about the spectacular views and quieter lifestyle afforded by places such as Sorrento, Positano and Capri.

Those who don't like hairpin turns and narrow roads may want to turn in their auto rentals and take public transportation.

I could go on and on well beyond the space limitations of this column. In writing it, it has become self-evident that it may be impossible to present a surface view of a country like Italy that is fully satisfying.

Therefore, it is for you to take the next step. Talk to any travel agent who has been there. And hopefully this column will help provide you with the incentive to visit Italy.

Ron Pradinuk is president of Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre and can be heard Sundays at noon on CJOB. Previous columns and tips can be found at www.journeystravelgear.com or read Ron's travel blog at www.thartravelguy.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 E2

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