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Of all European countries,
is perhaps the hardest to classify. It is a modern, industrialized nation. It is the harbinger of style, its designers leading the way with each season's fashions. But it is also, to an equal degree, a Mediterranean country, with all that that implies. Agricultural land covers much of the country, a lot of it, especially in the south, still owned under almost feudal conditions. In towns and villages all over the country, life grinds to a halt in the middle of the day for a siesta, and is strongly family-oriented, with an emphasis on the traditions and rituals of the Catholic Church which, notwithstanding a growing scepticism among the country's youth, still dominates people's lives here to an immediately obvious degree.
Above all Italy provokes reaction. Its people are volatile, rarely indifferent to anything, and on one and the same day you might encounter the kind of disdain dished out to tourist masses worldwide, and an hour later be treated to embarrassingly generous hospitality. If there is a single national characteristic, it's to embrace life to the full: in the hundreds of local festivals taking place across the country on any given day, to celebrate a saint or the local harvest; in the importance placed on good food; in the obsession with clothes and image; and above all in the daily domestic ritual of the collective evening stroll or passeggiata - a sociable affair celebrated by young and old alike in every town and village across the country.
Italy only became a unified state in 1861 and, as a result, Italians often feel more loyalty to their region than the nation as a whole - something manifest in different cuisines, dialects, landscape and often varying standards of living. There is also, of course, the country's enormous cultural legacy: Tuscany alone has more classified historical monuments than any country in the world; there are considerable remnants of the Roman Empire all over the country, notably of course in Rome itself; and every region retains its own relics of an artistic tradition generally acknowledged to be among the world's richest.
Yet there's no reason to be intimidated by the art and architecture. If you want to lie on a beach, there are any number of places to do it: development has been kept relatively under control, and many resorts are still largely the preserve of Italian tourists. Other parts of the coast, especially in the south of the country, are almost entirely undiscovered. Beaches are for the most part sandy, and doubts about the cleanliness of the water have been confined to the northern part of the Adriatic coast and the Riviera. Mountains, too, run the country's length - from the Alps and Dolomites in the north right along the Apennines, which form the spine of the peninsula - and are an important reference-point for most Italians. Skiing and other winter sports are practised avidly, and in the five national parks, protected from the national passion for hunting, wildlife of all sorts thrives
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