Language: Italian

Climate: The climate varies considerably from the north to the south of Italy.

In the north of the country — the area between the Alps and the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines — the climate is harsh, with very cold winters and very hot, particularly humid summers. In central Italy the climate is milder, with a smaller difference in temperature between summer and winter and a shorter and less intense cold season than in the north; summers are longer, but the sultriness of the northern cities is mitigated by the sea.

In southern Italy and the islands, winters are never particularly harsh, and spring and autumn temperatures are similar to those reached in the summer in other areas of Italy.

Time Zone: CST — Central European Time

International phone code: 39

Currency: Euro

Capital: Rome

Transportation: Intercontinental airlines mainly arrive in Rome and Milan, with Rome being the main international gateway into the country. Trains arrive from Austria, France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland but since December 2011 there is no longer any direct connection with eastern Europe. Trains in Italy are generally good value, frequent but of mixed reliability. There are different train types: high-speed trains, intercity, regional trains and international trains. Italy has a well-developed system of motorways in the north; the south is less well served in terms of quality and frequency.

Gay Italy:

In the western world, Italy gives Greece a run for its money in laying claim to the earliest depictions of same-sex relationships. Cave paintings from the Val Camonica region depict sex between men dating back more than 8,000 years. Sex between men was fairly common in ancient Rome, often falling along class lines between master and slave, or teacher and pupil.

Then along came the Vatican. The seat of the Catholic Church has held great sway over the nation for generation upon generation, and the social climate has been very conservative.

But in recent decades, gay activists have made great steps forward — most notably in 2000 when Gay World Pride attracted more than 500,000 marchers, who filled the streets of the Eternal City. While same-sex marriage is still not recognized, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1989.

In a more liberal-minded, and increasingly secular, Italian culture, it's not uncommon to see openly gay couples walking down the streets of Rome, Milan, Florence, and university cities like Pisa. But be careful in smaller towns, where more conservative attitudes (not to mention machismo) may prevail.