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About Italy
Of all European countries, Italy 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.

Italy became a nation-state belatedly - in 1861 when the city-states of the peninsula and Sicily were united under King Victor EMMANUEL. Italy was a charter member of NATO and the European Economic Community (EEC) and joined the growing political and economic unification of Western Europe, including the introduction of the euro in 1999.

Italy has a diversified industrial economy with approximately the same total and per capita output as France and the UK. This capitalistic economy remains divided into a developed industrial north, dominated by private companies, and a less developed agricultural south, with more than 20% unemployment. Most raw materials needed by industry and more than 75% of energy requirements are imported.

For several years Italy has adopted budgets compliant with the requirements of the European Monetary Union (EMU); representatives of government, labor, and employers also agreed to an update of the 1993 "social pact," which has been widely credited with having brought Italy's inflation into conformity with EMU requirements. Growth was 1.3% in 1999 and should edge up to 2.6% in 2000, led by investment and exports.

Imagine the tinkling sound of cowbells to a meadow, a breathtaking vista: a cluster of velvet-brown cows grazing among wildflowers, with the rugged limestone peaks of the Dolomites in the background. And just as entrancing as the views, the smell of freshly cooked pasta wafting its way from a rifugio, a small hostel, perched along a steep cliff at the edge of the meadow.

That kind of total sensory experience, as much as Italy's better-known artistic and architectural wonders, explains what is so fascinating about the country. A visit to Italy is a lesson in living well. Its centuries-old traditions, from agriculture and cooking to superstitions and proverbs, are still woven into the fabric of modern society. Open-air vegetable and fruit markets, neighborhood bakeries, fresh cheese made daily, clean laundry hung on a line, a leisurely stroll or passeggiata with a gelato in hand, a discussion with a neighbor in the piazza: In many places, these traditions have been discarded as outdated or inefficient, but in Italy they are part of everyday life, even in big cities.

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