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Italy 2008: holiday planning guide

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Travelling to Italy by train, waking to find that vineyards and olive groves have replaced wheatfields and willows, is far more thrilling than taking the plane. It's also eco-friendly.

Faster trains have reduced the journey time from London to Venice or Florence to 19 hours, with time for a few drinks in Paris. Fares have fallen, too: a return sleeper to Venice can cost as little as £111 on off-peak services.

That font of all railway wisdom, Mark Smith, recommends catching the 2.04pm Eurostar from St Pancras to connect with the sleeper from Paris to Venice, arriving at 9.30am the following morning. For details, see his website,

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Puccini's operas are being widely performed this year to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth. The best place to see Tosca, Turandot and Madame Butterfly is at the open-air theatre in Puccini's home town, Torre del Lago, in northern Tuscany.

The season runs from July 11 to September 5; for information and tickets, see La Bohème is playing in Milan at La Scala in July.

The Italians' love of music has spawned festivals throughout the country, many taking place in July and August, including opera in Verona and at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, ancient music in Urbino, jazz in Perugia and Pescara, and operetta in Trieste and Macerata.

Another big anniversary is the 500th of the birth of the father of neo-classical architecture, Andrea Palladio. There are celebratory events all over the Veneto, where he designed many villas, churches and public buildings.

Among the highlights are summer concerts in Palladian villas and, from September 20, an exhibition at the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto in Vicenza. It will display many of Palladio's original drawings as well as works by 16th-century painters and sculptors. For more information, see

Venice's newest five-star hotel, a stone's throw from the Cipriani on Giudecca, is now fully open. The Palladio Hotel and Spa (0039 041 520 7022, ) occupies a 16th-century convent designed by Palladio and abandoned for a century until this restoration. Non-residents can book spa treatments and use the Turkish hammam.

For archaeology enthusiasts, two stellar excavations are opening to the public. In spring, tourists will be able to visit several patrician Roman villas with fine mosaic floors beneath Palazzo Valentini, across from the Forum. The adjacent museum is using virtual-reality technology to recreate life in a rich Roman household based on the finds made here.

In Rimini, the excavated site of a doctor's surgery - dating from 150AD - opened to visitors last month. The remarkable collection of surgical instruments found is on display in the town's museum.

Interest in the far south of Italy continues to grow. Tour operators are now contracting some newly restored high-quality agritourism and hotel properties. The province of Basilicata makes its appearance in many itineraries for the first time.

Tourists are still a novelty away from the coast, so it will appeal mostly to Italophiles with a smattering of the language, but all visitors can expect a genuinely warm welcome, real home cooking and beautiful sandy beaches reminiscent of Corfu.

Elsewhere in the south, you can escape into the pine woods of the mountainous Pollino National Park, or the rock-hewn rooms of the beautifully renovated Hotel Sant'Angelo in trogloditic Matera, a World Heritage Site.

Eating well is an Italian preoccupation and it is almost impossible to eat badly in the south; much of the fresh food served is made from ingredients that are grown organically and dressed in simple sauces.

Many agritourism concerns in Puglia and Calabria with on-site restaurants run regular cookery lessons so that guests can master regional specialities. These should be mentioned in brochures, but ask specialist tour operators as lessons are quite a new development.

Many of Italy's most interesting wines don't make it to Britain: in fact, they hardly leave the area where they are grown. More small producers are now welcoming visitors into their cellars, and on the last weekend in May more than 1,000 wine estates will open their doors to the public for Cantine Aperte, a celebration of local wine and food. For a list of participants - and links to regional wine producers' websites listing cellars that can be visited at other times - see

Any wine lover visiting Florence should drop into Volpe e l'Uva (in Piazza dei Rossi on the way to the Pitti Palace). This is both a bar and wine merchant, which has a big choice of wines from small, lesser-known vineyards - many sold by the glass - and an equally impressive selection of cheeses, smoked meats and artisan breads.

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