GEOGRAPHICAL PROFILE

Area: 116,303 square miles
Population: 56,778,000
Capital: Roma (2,775,000 inhabitants)

There is a great deal of variety in the landscape in Italy, although it is characterized predominantly by two mountain chains: the Alps and the Apennines. The former extends over 600 miles from east to west. It consists of great massifs in the western sector, with peaks rising to over 14,000 feet, including Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Monte Rosa and Cervino (the Matterhorn). At the foot of the Alpine arc stretches the vast Po Valley plain, cut down the middle by the course of the river Po, the longest in Italy (390 miles), which has its source in the Pian de Re (Monviso) and flows into the Adriatic through a magnificent delta. The Alpine foothills are characterized by large lakes: Lake Maggiore and the lakes of Como, Iseo and Garda. The Apennines form the backbone of the peninsula, stretching in a wide arc concave to the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Corno Grande (Gran Sasso d'Italia) is the highest peak. A large part of central Italy is characterized by a green hilly landscape, through which the rivers Arno and Tevere (Tiber) run. The southern section of the chain pushes out to the east forming the Gargano promontory and, sloping down further south, the Salentine peninsula. It then proceeds to the west with the Calabrian and Peloritano massif stretching across the Strait of Messina into Sicilia. The principal islands are Sicilia, rising up to the great volcanic cone of Etna (10,860 feet) and Sardegna. The main archipelagos are the Tremiti Islands in the Adriatic Sea, the Tuscan Archipelago, the Pontine Islands, the Aeolian Islands and the Egadi Islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sicilia.

The Belpaese (Beautiful Country) is one of the single greatest repositories of sensorial pleasures on earth. From art to food, from stunning and varied countryside to flamboyant fashion, Italy has it all. This is the country that brought us Slow Food, devoted to the promotion of fresh products and fine traditional, cooking. What started as a local protest against fast food has become a worldwide movement.

With 44 sites, Italy has more Unesco World Heritage sites than any other country on earth. Its great città d'arte (cities of art), like Rome, Venice and Florence, have been attracting visitors for centuries, and with good reason. At times, it seems like the country rests on its artistic laurels. This is not entirely true. Milan, the country's financial hub, has created one of Europe's biggest and most modern trade fairs and is planning a major residential development, the CityLife complex, in the heart of the city. Venice is possibly the city that has, in appearance, changed least down the decades but it has recently opened a sleek new bridge over the Grand Canal and a spectacular contemporary art space at the Punta della Dogana (from the Lonely Planet).

Italy has a long recorded history that the biggest problem facing the traveller is to choose among the nation's endless cultural attractions. All main centres, most of the provincial cities and many quite small towns have museums. Of all the countries in the world, there is none more magical than Italy, a traveller's dream destination. Ancient monuments and archaeological sites are perfectly preserved; the museums are bursting with the genius of Italy's finest sons: Raffaello, Michelangelo, Tiziano, Canova; contemporary architects are still inspired by ancient buildings and squares (piazze). Italian cities are veritable living museums.

Alongside Italy's art treasures, you'll find plenty to keep you busy in the countryside. You can ski in the Alps, hike the Dolomites or dive off Sardinia's golden coast. Adrenalin junkies can catch fireworks on Sicily's volatile volcanoes. But as much as all of this, a trip to Italy is about lapping up the lifestyle. It's about idling over a coffee at a street-side cafe or lingering over a long lunch in the hot Mediterranean sun (from the Lonely Planet).

THERMAL SPAs

Italy's richness in thermal and mineral waters, combined with the mildness of the climate and the beauty of the scenery, have made it a favourite venue for "health care tourism". Since the last century hotels with extensive facilities have grown up around spas, which have established international reputations. Abano, Salsomaggiore, Chianciano, Montecatini, Fiuggi and Ischia are just a few names among the many which are known throughout the world and which attract millions of visitors every year.

Thermal waters in Italy - In this field Italy has taken up and developed a practice which has been widespread through-out the peninsula since the time of the Romans, when thermal waters and baths were already a typical feature of town life. Interest in the Italian spas is not exclusively for health care reasons. Their proximity to great centres of art makes the spa resorts excellent bases for cultural excursions. In addition the splendid parks surrounding the most famous spas, and the infrastructure which has been created for leisure activities, make them ideal holiday resorts in their own right. Italian thermal spas are not only those which exploit hot water resources (as the literal meaning of the word "thermal" might suggest) since mineral water springs are now also generally included in this category.

The major thermal spa regions - The determining factor in the presence of hot water or mineral springs is the geology of Italy, a relatively young country, which is rich in volcanic phenomena and permeated, in every sense of the word, by a dense network of groundwater channels. In north-eastern Italy many spas have developed on the slopes of the Euganei Hills in Veneto, volcanic highlands where numerous hot-water springs gush out. The main form of treatment is mud therapy, recommended for rheumatic illnesses and problems of the respiratory organs and the female genital organs. Abano Terme alone has almost two million visitors a year, half of whom come from abroad. Moving further south, there is a series of thermal resorts in Emilia-Romagna on the foothills of the Apennines. There are about fifteen localities, including in particular Tabiano, Salsomaggiore, and Castrocaro, all of which have the word 'Terme' (Spa) as part of their official names. The springs have chemical properties which are all very similar (predominantly sulphurous or containing sodium chloride, iodide or bromide). They are recommended for a wide range of afflictions: metabolism disorders, problems of the respiratory system and the vascular system and skin diseases.

Another Italian region with a high concentration of spas is Tuscany. The exploitation of this resource also has a long tradition here. A number of springs which were already in use in Roman times are still popular today, including Saturnia, Roselle, Chianciano and Chiusi. In this century the Tuscan resorts have changed from being exclusive meeting places and holiday locations. Montecatini and Chianciano have acquired ever greater importance and the statistics confirm the reputation which they have built up. Montecatini has 1,700,000 visitors a year (a quarter of them from abroad) while Chianciano counts 1,860 000 (180,000 foreign). The spa resorts in Latium are linked to the volcanic activity which has shaped the morphology of much of the region. Bagni di Tivoli, on the outskirts of the capital and Fiuggi, further east, are especially well known. Fiuggi waters are especially noted for the treatment of renal calculus and their fame has led to the development of 250 hotels.

In southern Italy the numerous spas forming an arc around the Gulf of Naples are extremely important. This is one of the most active volcanic zones in Italy with heat bursting through from a supply of magma underground. which is very close to the surface. Ischia has 2,400,000 visitors a year (about 700,000 of whom are foreigners); oral treatment, baths (including steam baths) and mud treatment are recommended in particular for rheumatism, arthritis, obesity and metabolism disorders.