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10 things you didn't know about Italy

Written by
Melania Siriu

A country of delicious delicacies and wondrous sights, Italy has a rich and varied history that has shaped it into the magnificent country it is today. Everyone knows it is the native birthplace of pizza and houses the world's oldest university, but not many people know that there is a 24 hour free wine fountain lurking. Luckily, we've found 10 things you didn't know about Italy to impress your friends with.

1. Fancy fireworks

Although China invented the first firework prototype of dried bamboo stalk somewhere around 200BC, it was actually the Italians who learned how to add colour to them much later in the 1830s. By adding metal salts to the gunpowder, they found that when the salts were exposed to a flame, each one produced a different colour. Sodium produces yellow, strontium produces red, and barium produces green. This discovery advanced the use of fireworks and enabled more elaborate and colourful displays across the world.

2. Big truffles

Italy is synonymous with exceptional food, so it only makes sense that this country should hold the world record for finding the largest white truffle. Located under in Umbria, central Italy, the mighty truffle weighed an impressive 1.89kg! A treasure worthy of auction, Sotheby’s sold the piece for $61,250 to a private Taiwanese buyer with proceeds going to charity. Next time you’re in Italy, keep an eye out!

3. Wine fountain

The fountain of dreams! In a small vineyard of Dora Sarchese in the region of Abruzzo lies a fountain that has red wine on tap 24 hours a day. Installed with the help of a local non-profit the fountain was built to promote tourism to the region and preserve the historical pilgrimage route of Cammino di San Tommaso (The Way of St. Thomas). This 196 mile route is said to be spiritual, made up of various churches and abbeys connecting the town of Ortona with St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. However, there is a caveat… those who are drunk or abuse the free fountain will be shown the water supply instead!

4. UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Although it’s small in size, Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage site out of any country – 53 to be precise. With such a historic stronghold from the Roman Empire and spectacular landscapes, it’s not too surprising. Visit ancient ruins, botanical gardens, eternal cities and towering mountains on a visit to this incredible country.

5. Protected cats

Pet lovers rejoice! Or more specifically, cat lovers. The Eternal City is not only teeming with historic artefacts, but also untouchable cats. Considered sentient beings, these feline friends are considered an asset to Rome (all 300,000!) and they are they only beings allowed to roam the ruins. Any person caught killing a cat can face a 10,000 Euro fine and up to 3 years in jail.

6. The telephone

Many assume it was Alexander Bell who was the inventor of the first telephone. However, it was an Italian scientist named Antonio Meucci who first came up with the concept of a talking telegraph in 1849. In 1871 he announced his invention with a patent caveat but by 1876 he couldn’t afford to renew it and ownership went to Alexander Bell instead. The Italian government have since recognised Meucci’s role in the development, honouring him with the title of ‘Official inventor of the telephone’.

7. A haunted island

Somewhere between Venice and Lido, in the Venetian Lagoon, sits the small and unassuming island of Poveglia. However, this pretty place has a dark history. From 1793 to 1814 it was used as a quarantine station (“lazaretto”) to house over 160,000 plague-infected people. Almost 100 years later in 1922, an asylum was built on the island but there are rumours the doctor employed to treat patients actually employed questionable methods such as botched lobotomies and torturous practices. The doctor ultimately fell to his death in 1968, at which time the hospital closed and the island was abandoned. Poveglia, understandably, is still closed to visitors today.

8. Global explorers

Christopher Colombus, or Cristoforo Colombo, was the Italian explorer who famously ‘discovered America’ on a voyage that took a wrong turn. However, his legacy as an Italian explorer is not the only one. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo went on a trip to China and stayed with the grandson of Genghis Khan; his travel stories were turned into a book which inspired other explorers such as Colombus. And the Americas were even named after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci after disputing Colombus’s claims that the Caribbean was part of Asia and was actually a whole new continent.

9. The Oscars

The prestigious Academy Awards, or more commonly known as the Oscars, have been around since 1929. In that time, Italy has been the country with the most winners for the category of ‘Best Foreign Language Film’. Nominated 31 times, achieved 14 times, and winner of the first movie to win the Best Foreign Language Film Award, La strada, Italy is streets ahead of most of its European counterparts.

10. Brutal football

A sport created in the Renaissance period and still played with much cultural pride by Italians in Florence today is calcio storico. This game closely resembles football, rugby and lacrosse, but much bloodier and brutal. During the 50 minutes, two teams of 27 men (yes, 54 altogether!) fight to get a goal in their opponents’ net and defend their own side, no matter what the physical cost. Broken bones and bloody bodies are not uncommon. Take a trip to Florence to witness this gory and magnificent spectacle!

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Classic Italy

For a country full of impossibly pretty and romantic cities, Venice, Florence and Rome perhaps win a hard fought battle as Italy’s most iconic.

This ten day luxury tour splits its nights evenly between the historic triumvirate, beginning in the Venetian Lagoon. Be introduced to Serenissima with a privately guided walking tour of St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace before an unforgettable gondola ride through Venice’s maze of canals.

On your third day, boat to three famous islands, each with its own character and history; Murano and its fine glassmaking, Burano’s brightly coloured fishermen’s houses and rural Torcello, the first island to be inhabited by the Veneti.

Next, take a train south to terracotta Florence and envelop yourself in its Renaissance masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s ‘David’, Brunelleschi’s great Duomo and the bustling Piazza della Signoria. Based in the city, head out into the surrounding Tuscan countryside to discover the beautiful Chianti region and its renowned wines, and explore rustic Medieval towns such as spectacular Siena.

Then head via Orvieto along a road that leads to Rome, Italy’s capital and largest city. First get your bearings aboard a vintage Vespa through cobbled streets, then visit the vibrant Campo de’ Fiori market to shop for ingredients with a local culinary expert before a private cooking lesson of regional specialities.

Uncover the ancient past on a walking tour from the Roman Forum along the Via Sacra up the Palatine Hill. You’ll see the magnificent Colosseum and astounding Pantheon, two of the greatest works of Roman architecture and Roman engineering, and find Rome’s other jewels such as the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. Spend your final afternoon in the Vatican City, touring the museum, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and grand St. Peter’s Basilica.

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Luxury Italian Bucket List

A timeless discovery of Italy, embark upon this exquisitely luxurious 20 day tour to see the country’s evocative highlights in the most glamorous of styles, with exclusive private tours and only the finest hotels.

Begin with a night in London before boarding the legendary Orient Express across France and through the snow-capped Alps to Venice. A ‘must do’ trip for many, this elegant journey invokes the spirit of a bygone era with incredible attention to detail, and it is just the start.

Enjoy three nights in Venice, one of the world’s most romantic cities, exploring its maze of canals and seeing St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and Rialto Bridge. Naturally they’ll be a gondola ride, but you will also get to see inside a private palace on the Grand Canal and visit quieter, authentically Venetian islands out in the lagoon such as Burano and Torcello, with lunch at a Michelin star winning restaurant surrounded by vineyards on Mazzorbo.

Travel west via a winery to the shores of Lake Como, whose sparkling waters and surrounding Rhaetian Alps make for one of Italy’s prettiest destinations. Here, take a day to relax and a private boat tour to see the fairytale villas and towns that dot the lake’s edge.

Then it’s to Milan for a night of opera at world renowned La Scala before continuing south to Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. As well as walking it’s enchanting streets between great masterpieces of art and architecture, you venture out of the city to visit Pisa and spend a day drinking in the rolling hills, terracotta towns and fine Chianti’s of Tuscany.

Onwards down the boot, via the extraordinarily well preserved ruins of Pompeii, to the Amalfi Coast, for four nights in one of the most dramatic and glamorous spots in Italy. Take a private tour to the candy coloured towns strung along the Amalfi Drive, each more charming than the last, and head out to the isle of Capri for a day trip aboard a private boat.

Your last destination is Rome, the eternal city, a fitting finale to your three weeks. Wander through millennia of history, stretching back through the Renaissance to the glorious monuments of Imperial Rome, get exclusive access to the Vatican City and experience an audience with the Pope.

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An Italian Multi-Generational Family Adventure

Explore Italy’s most beautiful cities and soak up its regional culture, history and cuisine on this luxury tour, with exclusive trips and experiences to keep the whole family captivated.

Begin with three days Rome, learning how to make authentic pizza from a true artisan, gaining early access to the Vatican and discovering iconic ancient landmarks such as the Pantheon and Colosseum.

Next, venture cross country to Venice for two nights. Here, take a ride on a gondola and see how these famous boats are made, walk St Mark’s Square and see the lesser visited, authentically Venetian islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello.

Then its to the terracotta coloured city of Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance. Take guided walking tours to see masterpieces by Giotto, Botticelli, Raphael, da Vinci and Michelangelo with a gelato ice cream making class to sweeten the deal for younger ones. During a four-night stay here, there’ll also be the chance to head out into the Tuscan countryside to see Siena and San Gimignano.

Take a train south to the Amalfi Coast, a spectacular stretch between Salerno and the city of Sorrento, where pastel shaded towns tumble down cliffs into the sea. Relax, soak up the sun and take a boat out to the island of Capri. Finally, return via the ruins of Pompeii to the outskirts of Rome for a final night at a wonderful historic villa by the sea.

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