NEW YORK -- As the millennium approaches, perhaps no country in Europe is expected to draw more crowds than Italy.

Officials predict that tourism will skyrocket during the 13-month period from Christmas 1999 through Jan. 6, 2001, designated by Pope John Paul II as the Jubilee Year. The Italian Government Travel Office, whose initials in Italian are ENIT, already is gearing up with information designed to help travel agents make sense of the various offerings available during this period.

"We reorganized our central office, offering better information for travel agencies and for the public," said Pio Trippa, senior travel commissioner for North America for ENIT. "Agencies that call our number will receive sales manuals, and they can follow up with a telephone call to our employees for more specific information. We are satisfied that we are answering 100% of requests now."

The office is gearing for a big marketing push to highlight Jubilee events, which, Trippa said, will take place throughout the country. "We have to hurry because people already are trying to plan their vacations," he said.

Programs will be a mix of events sponsored by the Catholic Church and secular entities, Trippa said. "Rome is the most important destination, of course, especially for people who want to visit St. Peter's, and Mayor Francesco Rutelli [of Rome] has said that about 100 restoration projects are under way for the year 2000."

In all the larger cities, such as Rome, Venice and Florence, visitors will have the opportunity to visit exhibitions and events tying in music, culture and art, he said.

Trippa stressed, however, that the major cities are not the only attractions. "We have noticed in the last few years that, after the second or third trip, Americans want to find new destinations, like the smaller towns," he said. "Italy is an old country, and every region, small city and town has its own church or shrine that can be focused on during the Jubilee Year."

Although the whole country is preparing special events and festivals for the Jubilee, secondary cities with religious significance, such as Assisi, Loreto and Padua, should see a significant share of the limelight, according to Trippa.

Despite the damage caused by last year's earthquakes, Assisi remains an important destination for tourists interested in churches and religious art. The St. Francis of Assisi Basilica was hard hit by a pair of earthquakes last September that destroyed portions of the bell tower and the vaulted ceiling as well as frescoes attributed to Giotto and Cimabue. Restorations and repair work are under way, however, and the town offers a variety of monasteries and other points of interest.

Loreto is known for its Santa Casa, which, according to legend, is the house Jesus' mother, Mary, lived in, a house that was transported to Italy from Judea by way of a miracle centuries ago. Other points of interest are the Piazza della Madonna and the Gothic Basilica, and the town hosts several annual religious festivals.

Padua, a stop along the pilgrimage route in the Middle Ages, still boasts a sculpture by Donatello and relics of the town's patron saint, Sant'Antonio, in the local basilica.

Art lovers can take in the colorful frescoes of Giotto, one of the most famous religious artists of the early Renaissance, in the Capella degli Scrovegni.

"It is important that travel agents get to know the smaller destinations, and we are trying to improve their acquaintance with them," Trippa said. To that end, ENIT is designing a series of seminars on the events of the Jubilee for travel agents, set to run by the end of this year or early next year.

Meanwhile, an initial calendar of events is being drawn up with, according to Trippa, "information we are getting every day about new events."

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