Italy (Italian: Italia) is a country in Southern Europe. Together with Greece, it is acknowledged as the birthplace of Western culture. Not surprisingly, it is also home to the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. High art and monuments are to be found everywhere around the country.
It is also famous worldwide for its delicious cuisine, its TRENDY FASHION industry, luxury sports cars and motorcycles, diverse regional cultures and dialects, as well as for its beautiful coast, alpine lakes and mountain ranges (the Alps and Apennines). No wonder it is often nicknamed the Bel Paese (the Beautiful Country).
Two independent mini-states are surrounded entirely by Italy: San Marino and Vatican City. While technically not part of the European Union, both of these states are also part of the Schengen Area and the European Monetary Union (EMU). Apart from different police uniforms, there is no evident transition from these states and Italy's territory, and the currency is the same. Italian is also the official language in both countries.
Italy is, for the most part, a peninsula situated on the Mediterranean Sea, bordering France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia in the north. Italy, which is boot-shaped, is surrounded by the Ligurian and the Tyrrhenian Seas to the west, the Mediterranean and Ionian Seas to the South, and the Adriatic Sea to the East.
Italian is the official language spoken by the majority of the population, but as you travel throughout the country you will find that there are several distinct Italian dialects depending on the region you're in. French is spoken in the northwest and German in the northeast. Italy has a very diverse landscape, but can be primarily described as mountainous, including the Alps and the Apennines mountain ranges that run through the vast majority of it. Two major islands are part of this country: Sardinia, which is an island off the west coast of Italy, and Sicily, at the southern tip (the "toe") of the boot.
While abroad somewhat preserving the reputation as a fiercely catholic society, the Italian religious reality is actually rather diverse. If churches are a ubiquitous sight in large cities as in tiny small towns, the actual practice and mass attendance among believers is in line with that of other European countries: older generations being more observant while younger ones more on the indifferent side. All possible Christian denominations - and a sizeable Jewish community - have made Italy their home for centuries. Moreover, in recent decades Islam and Buddhism have also become increasingly visible, partly as a consequence of mass immigration from North Africa and Asia, but also due to sporadic conversions among Italians. Agnosticism or downright atheism have also become common, according to the latest census, accounting for nearly 20% of the population.
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