Rome, Florence, Venice: Revisiting three classic cities

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NEW YORK -- It may be a given, but it's one that bears repeating: Italy just might be the best all-around travel destination in the world.

Indeed, many travel agents would be hard-pressed to name a country with so many culturally and historically rich cities in such a small area.

England might have London and France, Paris, but Italy has the Big Three: Rome, Florence and Venice.

The cities were once independent worlds, each developing its own culture in the formative centuries of Western civilization, when the few hundred miles between them was a long journey traversed only by a few.

Though now overlaid with modern technology, those deep, individual histories give each a unique personality, and a visitor to Italy today can experience an enormously broad range of cultural history with minimal trekking.

Despite the increasing allure that exotic or lesser-known destinations hold for the well-traveled, it's worth revisiting the classic glories to be found in Rome, Florence and Venice, the cities most travel agents and tour operators select when introducing first-time visitors to Italy.

The glorious triangle they form is a perfect way to frame an itinerary.

Sights of the centuries

In Rome, you can see where much of civilization began. Tourists flock to see the great Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, the Roman Forum and various temples that constitute the still-grand remnants of the Roman republic.

The Pantheon, a grand temple with a huge dome and massive columns first built in 27 B.C., still stands with a timeless glow amid contemporary shops and outdoor cafes in the heavily trafficked city center.

Vatican City contains St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world, and the Sistine Chapel, which has the world's most celebrated ceiling.

Florence's ornate 15th century cathedral, the Duomo, towers over the medieval city. Florence, only a few hours' drive from Rome, was the birthplace of the Renaissance. The city is richly endowed with monuments of art and architecture from that period, including Michelangelo's statue of David, housed with other works by the artist in the Galleria Dell 'Accademia; the Duomo, an ornate, domed cathedral that overwhelms the eyes; and the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world's most popular and well-endowed art museums.

Venice, which rounds out the Big Three, is an enchanted city with no peer. Nowhere else even comes close -- though many places are compared with it -- and its physical structure, with canals instead of streets, is only the beginning of what it offers.

As a center of maritime commerce, Venice grew to be an empire in its own right from the 9th to the 15th centuries. As a cultural center the city produced great painters like Titian and Tintoretto, composers like Vivaldi and explorers like Marco Polo.

The center of activity is the grand Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark's Square, crowned with the fabulously ornate Basilica of San Marco. Shops and cafes are a rich source of diversion, gondola rides are incomparable, and Venice remains the center of the greatest glass-blowing art in the world.

Andiamo in Italia!

Scores of tour operators peddle packages to Rome, Florence and Venice -- to list them all would be impossible. The following, however, are some of the latest deals that take in all three destinations:

• Visit Italy Tours, in Los Angeles, offers an air-inclusive, seven-night Italy by Train tour of the cities, priced from $1,929 per person. Trips booked and deposited by June 15 earn 12%; otherwise, commission is 10%.
The program, which spends three days each in Rome and Florence and two in Venice, includes air fare from New York (Kennedy), Boston, Chicago (O'Hare), Miami, Los Angeles or San Francisco; accommodations; breakfast daily; sightseeing tours; some transfers; and first-class Rome-Florence-Venice train fare.
To book, call (800) 255-3537, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.visititalytours.com on the Web.

• Maupintour's 10-night, air-inclusive Treasures of Italy incorporates stops in Siena, Pisa, Portofino and Rapallo, with stays in each of the Big Three.
Priced from $4,895 with air from New York (Kennedy), the program departs May 25; July 20; Sept. 7, 14, 21, 28; and Oct. 5 and 12.
For more information, call (800) 255-4266 or visit www.maupintour.com on line.

• Collette Vacations' eight-night, land-only Reflections of Italy departs June 1, July 1 Sept. 1, Oct. 16 and Nov. 1 and 16 for a tour of Florence, Lake Como, Perugia, Rome, San Marino and Venice. Prices start at $1,269 per person, triple.
Contact Collette's travel agent hotline at (800) 832-4656 or visit www.collettetours.com on the Internet.

For more general information on Italy, call the Italian Government Tourist Board in New York at (212) 245-5028 or visit www.italiantourism.com.

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