The Czech Republic For Those Into History

Steeples of St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle from Charles Bridge in Prague

Steeples of St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle from Charles Bridge in Prague

Slap bang in the middle of Central Europe, if there we had to describe the Czech Republic in just one word it would have to be ‘cocktail’. No no no. This has nothing to do with its fame and notoriety among stag parties or thirsty backpackers but rather its history. You see, the Czech Republic is a cocktail made up of its Bohemian past, Moravian splendor and Slavic charm. It is a city that celebrates the historic diversity that blends all things Gothic and Baroque and that is what makes it an absolute must see nation for anyone that has even the slightest interest in what came before us.

St Vitus Cathedral

There is only one place to start your cultural exploration and that is the St Vitus Cathedral, so get book your cheap flights to Prague, pack your camera with plenty of films and then head to this magnificent structure that has been built over a 600-year span. Hidden within its thick walls you will find a mosaic of The Last Judgement and the tombs of people you have heard legends about, like Charles IV and St Wenceslas, among many more.

Veletrzni Palac

If you are caught in the tough decision over which Prague museum you absolutely must explore, you’d do well to find a better contender than this National Gallery. The collection is just a mind-boggling array of art that stretches back as far as the 1800s, including pieces from little-known artists like Van Gogh and Picasso and Klimt. What’s more, there are four floors for you to wander about with your mouth as wide as it has ever been.

Charles Bridge

If you were to stop a local on the streets (hopefully one that speaks English) and asked them what their most savored simple pleasure is in life, they will tell you it is the eight o’clock stroll across the Charles Bridge. It is just the most stunning place in the city; fresh snow at your feet, a sea of pastel-coloured buildings stretching as far as the eye can see and architecture of every kind. The reason they say eight o’clock, however, is because the circus comes to town at nine and by circus we mean tourists.

Prague Castle

When you are a kid and you imagine what a fairy-tale castle to be like, chances are it was something akin to this. It is magnificent. The ranks of tall spires and enchanted towers and palaces that could melt your heart a thousand times over. But it isn’t just something nice to look at from the outside, for within the walls lay galleries and museums and buildings of old. This place is celebrated by the locals as being one of the greatest treasures in all of Central Europe and for good reason too.

Old Town Hall

If it is old that you are after then you need to carve out time to see the Old Town Hall, which was founded in 1338. It is a patchwork of medieval buildings that have been sewn together over a series of centuries, each adding their own eclectic charm. In terms of the centerpiece, that title definitely goes to the Gothic tower that looks over it all with a salute, not least because of its Astronomical Clock.

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A Small Hill Town of Tuscany – Volterra

VOLTERRA: Volterra is another medieval charm of Tuscany and another town that attracts thousands of tourists every month. Like San Gimignano or Siena, this is one of many walled cities of Toscana.. Situated on a hill, Volterra gives beautiful views of the countryside and nearby small hills. Getting lost in the cobble-stoned alleys and being surrounded by enchanting old buildings make this city awesome. For us, it was a small and sweet trip. If you are in Florence or Siena, making a day trip to Volterra would be perfect for few hours.

Looking over the countryside from Volterra, right before entering the Old Town

Looking over the countryside from Volterra, right before entering the Old Town

TIME of TRAVEL: It was our second time in Tuscany in October of 2013. After visiting Siena, Florence, and San Gimignano, Volterra was our last town to visit in this region of Italy. When we arrived here it was almost dark and it got a bit windy because of the elevation. I think it’s always a good idea to carry a light sweater, especially around this time of the year.

Scenic drive from San Gimignano to Volterra in Tuscany, Italy

Scenic drive from San Gimignano to Volterra in Tuscany, Italy

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in “My One Hotel in Radda” for the whole time in Tuscany. It’s located in the hills of Chianti…a place which is not only famous for its wine, but also for its art, history, natural beauty, and simplicity. This was a 4 or 5 star resort. We had free grand breakfast buffet, spacious room, clean linens, and excellent customer service. But above all of those, the best part of it is the view from our balcony or from the hotel terrace. Standing on the upper terrace one early morning, I got the perfect glimpse of Tuscan hills and trees hugging the autumn clouds…it was a breathtaking feeling. I felt like I didn’t need to get out, I could have just sit in my hotel balcony all day and enjoy Tuscany right from there. It took us about hour and half from Volterra to our hotel, thru some winding and hilly roads.

EATING and SHOPPING: We were in Volterra for a very short time, only about couple hours. We had lunch in San Gimignano before coming here. But if you are hungry in Volterra, you can find plenty of bars, grills, and restaurants in the Old Town…unfortunately most of them were closed or getting ready to close by the time we were done visiting all the spots.

Volterra is very well-known for its alabaster items, ceramics, and pottery arts. There was a big souvenir alabaster shop right before we entered the Old Town, very close to the parking lot. Alabaster can be very heavy depending on the size of gifts you are buying but they all looked very gorgeous with reasonable price tags.

Some alabaster items in a souvenir shop in Volterra, Italy

Some alabaster items in a souvenir shop in Volterra, Italy

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We only got to spent couple hours in Volterra historic Old Town. We decided to take a trip to Volterra when we figured we still had enough time to kill after visiting San Gimignano.So made a short stop here before heading to our hotel in Radda in Chianti. The drive was absolutely breathtaking from San Gimignano to Volterra. But once we reached there, it was almost end of the day and it quickly started to get dark outside. We parked our car outside the Old Town and started walking towards the main sights as soon as possible. Here are some of the places we could see during our short trip in Volterra.

Old Town of Volterra, Italy

Old Town of Volterra, Italy

1) PIAZZA dei PRIORI: This is where we first stumbled while trying to figure out what we want to see and do here. Though it was late and the square looked empty, Piazza dei Priori is the main square here. Volterra Town Hall and Palazzo dei Priori were located in this square. Palazzo dei Priori was open till 5pm, so we couldn’t really explore what that really was. By the way, the tourist information center is also in this piazza, if you need to pick any maps or talk to anyone for help.

This is not a picture of Piazza dei Priori, but of a street very close to the piazza...in Volterra, Italy

This is not a picture of Piazza dei Priori, but of a street very close to the piazza…in Volterra, Italy

2) MARIA ASSUNTA CHURCH CATHEDRAL: After the piazza, we walked few minutes following the sign to go to the Duomo or Santa Maria Assunta. The first mention of Church of the St. Mary dates back to 992 AD. This is a Parish cathedral of Volterra in the heart of the town. Some of the most important sites of this church are the main altar, splendid pulpit, Bishop’s chair, and mesmerizing ceiling, which represents the heaven. The interior differs from the exterior in that only a little of the old Romanesque structure remains in it. There is a Baptistery in front of the Duomo and they both are located in Piazza San Giovanni. Inside the Duomo was very dark and Gothic looking. It was about to close, so we entered and exited after getting a quick peek inside the Duomo. Both the Duomo and the Baptistery are free to enter. The Baptistery was very small, had a marble wall and a painting…another brief look for me.

A portion of the main facade of Santa Maria Assunta in Volterra, Italy

A portion of the main facade of Santa Maria Assunta in Volterra, Italy

3) ROMAN THEATER: Roman Theater was about 10 to 15 minutes of walk from the Duomo. It was only ruins and the site was not a well-maintained area. We saw some ancient columns and grass-covered steps from the Roman times. Tourists can walk and go closer to the decayed site. We only browsed it from up above, where you can stand and enjoy some other views as well.

Ancient ruins of Roman Theater in Volterra, Italy

Ancient ruins of Roman Theater in Volterra, Italy

4) ALABASTER MUSEUM: We kind of got lucky with this museum. It was already dark to do anything else. But the Alabaster Museum was still open and we had only an hour to look around. If I can remember correctly, the museum had three floors in total with old alabaster items on display from different eras of Volterra. Volterra had its own alabaster mines at one time and all the items you see here are mostly local artifacts. It is 8 euros per adult for both Alabaster and Pinacotec Museum.

5) PINACOTECA MUSEUM: Alabaster Museum and Pinacoteca Museum are both in the same building. The building, known as Palazzo Manucci, is from the 16th The museum has a collection of paintings from the 14th century which includes religious arts and paintings on woods. You can see some medieval sculptures, some church ruins from the 12th century, and old altarpieces.

Town with a Hundred Towers – San Gimignano, Italy

SAN GIMIGNANO, ITALY: Northwest of Siena, on the hills of Val d’Elsa, stands the medieval town of San Gimignano, also defined as the town “with a hundred towers”. Like many other towns in Tuscany, the historical town of San Gimignano is a walled city surrounded by breathtaking vineyards and olive groves. Its impressive architecture symbolizes power and wealth of locals from few centuries ago. Out of the original 72 towers, 14 of them are still standing today. The artistic and cultural treasures that San Gimignano possesses today derived from the Middle Ages, when trading developed and pilgrims crossed by this town on their way to Rome.

Some of the original 72 towers of San Gimignano in Italy

Some of the original 72 towers of San Gimignano in Italy

After visiting few other towns of Tuscany, San Gimignano became my most favorite town in this region, even more than Siena. Its small and dark alleys and medieval charm along with rich cultural background make this a gem of Tuscany. Best part was that the historic city center was not overloaded with tourists and lurkers. This hill city in Tuscany makes a great day-trip venue from nearby cities, like Siena or Florence. Additionally, it is small enough to enjoy leisurely even on a tight schedule.

Medieval buildings in the Old Town of San GImignano, Italy

Medieval buildings in the Old Town of San GImignano, Italy

TIME of TRAVEL: Our second trip to Tuscany was in October of 2013. That’s when we had the chance to really explore and appreciate Tuscany. Other than San Gimignano, we were blessed to visit other towns like Siena, Florence, Volterra in Italy and drove all the way up to San Marino. Weather was fantastic with some signs of autumn. Tuscany looked at its best with little bit of vibrant falls colors here and there.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in “My One Hotel in Radda” for the whole time in Tuscany. It’s located in the hills of Chianti…a place which is not only famous for its wine, but also for its art, history, natural beauty, and simplicity. This was a 4 or 5 star resort. We had free grand breakfast buffet, spacious room, clean linens, and excellent customer service. But above all of those, the best part of it is the view from our balcony or from the hotel terrace. Standing on the upper terrace one early morning, I got the perfect glimpse of Tuscan hills and trees hugging the autumn clouds…it was a breathtaking feeling. I felt like I didn’t need to get out, I could have just sit in my hotel balcony all day and enjoy Tuscany right from there. San Gimignano was little more than an hour drive from our hotel but the drive was well worth it.

EATING and SHOPPING: After spending couple hours in the beautiful Old Town of San Gimignano, we had to sit down and enjoy some Tuscan food. And what other piazza would be better other than Piazza della Cisterna. We sat outdoor under a big umbrella of a restaurant, called Bar La Cisterna. They have panini, pizza, pasta, variety of soups and salads, gelato, and other sweet treats to choose from. We had some Tuscan bean soup and some breads with porcini mushrooms on top.

Lunch in San Gimignano, Italy - bread topped with porcini mushrooms

Lunch in San Gimignano, Italy – bread topped with porcini mushrooms

San Gimignano ceramics, potteries, and local handcrafts are particularly beautiful souvenirs for tourists. Their vibrant colors and artistic designs will attract anyone. Paintings by local artists are also very popular here…you can get typical Tuscan landscapes, vineyards, traditional houses, and many more in the galleries of Old Town. Packet food, such as different colors and shapes of pasta, olives, olive oil, spices, and cheese are well known too. But I would suggest to get authentic gourmet olive oils directly from olive presses from the countryside, out of touristic zones.

A pottery shop in San Gimignano, Italy

A pottery shop in San Gimignano, Italy

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We were in San Gimignano only for few hours before heading towards Volterra, another medieval town close by. San Gimignano’s Old Town is very small and can easily be covered on foot. But you must leave your car outside the city walls. The local Tuscans are very friendly and helpful here, so don’t hesitate to ask for help if you have any questions about anything. If you can spare some extra time, try visiting one of the original medieval towers here. Torre Grossa is the tallest one from the 13th century at about 200 feet and it allows visitors to go inside for tours. We didn’t go inside, therefore can’t say how the interior looks; but should be an impressive architecture to visit.

A beautiful Tuscan village in Italy - San Gimignano

A beautiful Tuscan village in Italy – San Gimignano

1) CHIESI de SAN FRANCESCO: This place kind up showed up when we entered and started walking towards the center. There is no church here at this moment. It’s now a gourmet shop to buy local souvenirs. Only the outside wall still stands.

Historically, this church was originally dedicated to St. John and belonged to the order of the Knights of Jerusalem. It dates back to the beginning of the 13th century, but the only part of the original building still standing today is the lower section of the façade which is marked by five bowed arches set on semi-columns. The various decorative patterns of the Romanesque façade are evidence of the influence of Pisa and Lucca.

2) PUNTO PANORAMICO: We were following a sign for “Punto Panoramico” and ended up on this spot which gives you some exceptional views of the countryside, vineyards, old houses, and distant mountains. Standing there was absolutely breathtaking and gave us the chance to get some stunning glimpses of Tuscany.

One of the most beautiful views of Tuscany from Punto Panoramico in San Gimignano, Italy

One of the most beautiful views of Tuscany from Punto Panoramico in San Gimignano, Italy

3) THE COLLEGIATA or DUOMO: San Gimignano Duomo, also known as Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, is located in Piazza del Duomo. Piazza del Duomo is the town church square surrounded by many thousand-year-old towers and another piazza that I fell in love with instantly. This piazza also house the Pinacoteca Civica, which we didn’t cover, is an art and painting gallery.

The Collegiata or Duomo in San Gimignano, Italy

The Collegiata or Duomo in San Gimignano, Italy

The Duomo is a must-see here. This is a parish church of San Gimignano from 1148. The interior consists of three naves divided by columns with capitals sculpted by local workers. Its splendid series of Biblical frescoes on Old and New Testaments are beautiful to look at. Although the church is not that big, it contains some pretty ceilings and artistic objects.

It is 4 euros to enter the Duomo and 6 euros if you add Holy Art Museum. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside the church.

4) PIAZZA della CISTERNA: Connected with Piazza del Duomo with a narrow pavement, Piazza dell Cisterna is probably the most beautiful square of San Gimignano. It is bordered with nobility houses and centuries old stone buildings with an old well in the middle. You can find plenty of gourmet eateries here, one of the best places to enjoy a meal or drink in the old part. Originally, this was a marketplace with local performances and cultural activities. Currently, this is a gathering place with plenty of gourmet eateries and shops.

Piazza della Cisterna in San Gimignano, Italy

Piazza della Cisterna in San Gimignano, Italy

5) ROCCA: Rocca is a site where an old fortress used to be if I am not mistaking. We didn’t see any sign of fortress there really other than some ruins of walls, but it is a nice spot on the hill to get a beautiful panoramic view of the countryside.

Looking over the countryside from Rocca in San Gimignano, Italy

Looking over the countryside from Rocca in San Gimignano, Italy

6) PORTA SAN GIOVANNI: This is one of the old town gates from the 13th We didn’t really see much here, except some old ruins buried on the open ground. You do get a nice view of the hillside from a corner.

Castle of Montereggioni in Tuscany, Italy

MONTERIGGIONI, ITALY: This is a very small commune in Tuscany bordering with Chianti. It’s magnificent countryside and vineyards gave us an alluring look to beauty of this region. As the history goes, the town of Monteriggioni grew up on the sites of earlier settlements of Lombard origin. In 1213 the Sienese government built a ring of walls to protect the town and the garrison-post controlling the valleys in the direction of Florence, Siena’s historic rival.

 

Hillside of Montereggioni in Italy

Hillside of Montereggioni in Italy

TIME of TRAVEL: We were in Tuscany in October 2013. The best part of visiting Tuscany during this time was that we had this beautiful place almost to ourselves. The crowd slowly starts to vanish once the summer is gone and autumn shows up. While is very pleasant during the daytime, it can get a bit chilly on the mountains or in the countryside in the late afternoons, always better to carry a light sweater for those moments. We were on our way to hotel after visiting Siena at the end of our first day in Tuscany and had just little time to spend before the daylight was gone. We drove to Monteriggioni just in time to enjoy a beautiful sunset in the hillside of Tuscany.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in “My One Hotel in Radda” for the whole time in Tuscany. It’s located in the hills of Chianti…a place which is not only famous for its wine, but also for its art, history, natural beauty, and simplicity. This was a 4 or 5 star resort. We had free grand breakfast buffet, spacious room, clean linens, and excellent customer service. But above all of those, the best part of it is the view from our balcony or from the hotel terrace. Standing on the upper terrace one early morning, I got the perfect glimpse of Tuscan hills and trees hugging the autumn clouds…it was a breathtaking feeling. I felt like I didn’t need to get out, I could have just sit in my hotel balcony all day and enjoy Tuscany right from there.

EATING and SHOPPING: There were couple restaurants inside the castle complex where people gathered for drinks and meals. But didn’t see any shops or souvenir stores there…I was rushing to capture the sunset, maybe that’s why?

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We barely spent about an hour in Monteriggioni right around sunset time. The hills and fields looked gorgeous as the sun turned bright orange and went down the horizon slowly. I roughly managed to see the castle from outside while my husband and girls stayed in the parking

CASTLE of MONTERIGGIONI: This was the only site I saw in Monteriggioni as it was already around sunset time. We didn’t do much research on this town either as far as what to see and do, since we just decided to show up here at the last minute.

Castle of Montereggioni from the 13th century in Italy

Castle of Montereggioni from the 13th century in Italy

Historically, the construction of the castle started in 1213 with the expense and labor paid for by the people of Siena. From the very starting the castle was enclosed completely by walls. The castle was traversed by countless armed clashes with its rival Florence, which on various occasions tried to destroy the walled hamlet. Monteriggioni, an unconquered and “unconquerable” fortress, fell only during the siege of 1553 under the imperial troops allied with the Florentines, who attacked and bombarded the castled until it surrendered. The rustic and simple character of the 560 meters of walls, 14 towers, and 2 gates convey an idea of the medieval world which are fascinating even today.

Walking thru Castle of Montereggioni in Italy

Walking thru Castle of Montereggioni in Italy

I am not sure if tourists are allowed to go inside any of the castle buildings or if there were anything else that we could have seen or done here, nevertheless it was a short but nice stop to take in more of Tuscan magic.

Sunset in Montereggioni, Italy

Sunset in Montereggioni, Italy

Medieval Siena in Tuscany, Italy

SIENNA, ITALY: Sienna is one of the most popular destinations in Tuscan region of Italy. It is famous for its enclosed medieval old town and charming old alleys. Sienna is one of many towns of Tuscany which is ringed with a medieval wall and has web-like narrow alleys to get lost into. It’s rich and historic atmosphere will impress anyone effortlessly.

Tuscan vineyards- on our way to Siena

Tuscan vineyards on our way to Siena

We rented a car during our visit in Tuscany. Finding a parking can be a bit of a challenge here. Once you are in the old part of Sienna, covering the old town and its cobbled-stone streets on foot is preferably the best option. I couldn’t take my eyes off of those lovely medieval buildings and some newer architectures as well…it’s amazing how they all blend in just perfectly.

Walking thru an ancient alley in Old Siena, Italy

Walking thru an ancient alley in Old Siena, Italy

TIME of TRAVEL: Our first trip to Tuscany was in February of 2012. It was a cold and bitter winter in Europe that year. We visited Florence and Pisa that time. We planned to go to San Marino but had to turn back around from the mountains because of heavy snow blizzard. That wasn’t really the best way to enjoy Tuscany…we had to go back there for the second time. This time it was in October 2013 and it was as perfect as one could expect.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in “My One Hotel in Radda” for the whole time in Tuscany. It’s located in the hills of Chianti…a place which is not only famous for its wine, but also for its art, history, natural beauty, and simplicity. This was a 4 or 5 star resort. We had free grand breakfast buffet, spacious room, clean linens, and excellent customer service. But above all of those, the best part of it is the view from our balcony or from the hotel terrace. Standing on the upper terrace one early morning, I got the perfect glimpse of Tuscan hills and trees hugging the autumn clouds…it was a breathtaking feeling. I felt like I didn’t need to get out, I could have just sit in my hotel balcony all day and enjoy Tuscany right from there.

View Chianti from our hotel terrace in Radda in Chianti, Italy

View Chianti from our hotel terrace in Radda in Chianti, Italy

EATING and SHOPPING: Our lunch in Sienna was at a place called “4 Cantoni”. We had some porcini fried as appetizer, then some Tuscan soup with bread. If you are in the mood for some desserts, try tiramisu. The restaurant had many options of pasta and gnocchi too.

This old part of Sienna is filled with quick-luncheons to sit-down restaurants and bars. Italian cookies or biscotti are famous here too. For those fancy shoppers, you can find stores with brand names and designer shops to local boutiques and small artisans. Olive oil, leather items, and potteries are just some of the things you can bring back from Sienna or whole Tuscan.

Souvenirs from Siena, Italy

Souvenirs from Siena, Italy

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: Old city of Sienna is enclosed within a city wall which is few centuries old. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes. There are lots of slopes and stairs to climb. But the fun part is walking around in between the medieval walls and buildings.

Beautiful windows in Siena, Italy

Beautiful windows in Siena, Italy

We spent about little more than half a day in Sienna and followings are some of the sites we managed to visit. But if you have more time, there are plenty of other palaces to visit from the 15th century, art museums, and historic buildings. If you have spare days in Tuscany, explore other small towns and villages like Florence, Pisa, San Gimignano, Volterra, or the scenic hillsides and vineyards of this region.

Hanging laundry from the windows in Old Siena, Italy

Hanging laundry from the windows in Old Siena, Italy

1) PIAZZA del CAMPO and PALAZZO PUBLICO (SIENNA CITY HALL): After entering the old city wall of Sienna, our first stop was Piazza del Campo. This is the main square at the center of Sienna. It’s the gathering point for locals as well as for tourists and a lively place to hang out. Countless restaurants, bars, gelato places, and shops surround the square…a great place to enjoy meals while watching the world go by.

Palazzo Publico or Sienna City Hall in Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy

Palazzo Publico or Sienna City Hall in Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy

Palazzo Publico or Sienna City Hall dominates Piazza del Campo and its tower Torre del Mangia overlooks the square. This is an 800 years old city hall and is still in working condition. We couldn’t do it with the kids, but tourists can climb some 300 steps of “Torre del Mangia” to get a 360 degree panoramic view of whole Sienna and its countryside. The ticket is 8 euros per person and only 25 people can access it at any given time for 15 minutes.

Civil Museum is also located near the city hall. It is 8 euros, another place we couldn’t visit.

2) SIENNA DUOMO: From the main square of Sienna we headed to the main highlight of Sienna…Sienna Duomo. If you have time to see only one thing in Sienna, this would be it. This is one of the most extravagant cathedrals in whole Tuscany. Its black and white interior and Italian Romanesque style architecture with grandly curved entrance never fail to please the visitors. Loved the gorgeous altar, magnificent ceiling, artsy floor tiles, medieval frescoes, and every single statue.

Magnificent exterior of Siena Duomo in Italy

Magnificent exterior of Siena Duomo in Italy

You can rent an audio-tour for a fee which elaborately talks about the history of this cathedral. We spent about little less than an hour inside the cathedral (yeh, it’s that big and filled with relics and beauties) and enjoyed every corner of it.

Opposite of the duomo is Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. It has separate door and entrance fee. Both of these are located in Piazza del Duomo.

Inside Siena Duomo in Italy

Inside Siena Duomo in Italy

3) BASILICA SAN FRANCESCO: About 7/8 minutes of walk from Piazza del Duomo is Basilica San Francesco. It was quiet and empty when we were there late in the afternoon. But the oversized paintings and gorgeous altar with black and white interior immediately caught our attentions. It was a bit similar to Sienna Duomo but a simpler version.

Basilica San Francesco in Siena, Italy

Basilica San Francesco in Siena, Italy

There is no charge to enter the basilica. It is open 7:30am-12pm and 3:30pm-7pm.

4) SANTUARIO di SANTA CATERINA: This is a small church but very gorgeous inside. We spent some time with the kids in its cozy courtyard. I think the best of this place was getting here…we passed some old residential buildings, climbed slopes, and enjoyed looking at laundries hanging from the windowsills.

 

SANTUARIO di SANTA CATERINA in Siena, Italy

SANTUARIO di SANTA CATERINA in Siena, Italy

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