If you're tired of Italy...

Whether it's the Venice carnival, a hike up a volcano - or five days of unashamed feasting, choose Italy, says Jill Crawshaw

Venice's carnival

If you want to visit you can do so in style - and at a price - with archeological study specialist Andante Travels (01980 610555) from 22 February to 1 March. Though the revelry may not be as bawdy as in former days (and the carnival dates back to at least the 11th century), it still draws masked party-goers to the streets and to theatrical-musical events all over the city, building up to a climax on Shrove Tuesday evening - the ball in St Mark's Square.

Andante's plan is to combine pleasure with business - visiting art collections, Byzantine mosaics, churches and the islands, in company of guide lecturer Graham Tite who worked until recently on the historical aspects of conservation in Venice.

The tour price is pounds 975 which includes scheduled flights, water-taxi transfers, a gondola ride, excursions to the island, B&B accommodation, some restaurant meals with wine and entry to lots of events.

Summer's lease

Summer is the best time for Brits to act out their peasant fantasies in Tuscany, lodging in a terracotta collection of casoles - farmhouses, flats, townhouses and villas. Here are some ideas:

You can play lord of the manor staying in some of the medieval skyscrapers; the 12th- and 13th-century towers built by feudal landowners in the spirit of one-upmanship, and to keep a keen bird's eye view on any local competition. A 12th-century tower in the tiny village of Poggiarello near Siena, for example, can be rented via Invitation to Tuscany (0171 603 7111) as four self-contained apartments sleeping between two and five holidaymakers, or taken over completely by a group of 15. The smallest apartment costs pounds 338-pounds 365 (not including fares) and the largest, for up to five people, costs pounds 423-pounds 460.

Bruce Chatwin wrote several of his books while staying at the very grand La Torre Nel Val D'Arno, a 13th-century signal-ling tower 15 miles east of Florence. It's owned by Baroness von Rezzori, and comes complete with trompe l'oeil, four posters and a swimming pool. It costs pounds 1,720-pounds 2,250 for five people to rent for a week.

Preserving it

The more you discover about the joyful, rural, industrious Etruscans, the more you realise what killjoys their Roman supplanters must have been.

Environmental charity Earthwatch (01865 311600) is running "Etruscan Landscapes" projects in August and September which need paying volunteers to help expert researchers explore the social and ecological development of this once-influential civilisation. The dirty work is based at San Mario in Tuscany and involves digging, collecting sediment, and washing and identifying pottery and other artefacts.

Board and lodging are provided (not travel), but volunteers are expected to contribute pounds 1,250 towards the cost of the project.

A new Italian task - excavating and studying the gardens around Pompeii's Temple of Venus, led by independent researcher Frances Bernstein - is also planned for this summer. Dates and costs are still to be finalised.

Camp opera

You can buy tickets for the July and August operas at Verona from your campsite in Lake Garda if you take a self drive camping package from Canvas Holidays (01383 644000).

The Campeggio Eden campsite with its own lakeside beach is a 45-minute drive from Verona, two hours from Venice. It's within easy reach of "Gardaland" - Italy's largest amusement park and a short walk from the village of Portese.

Two-week holidays cost between pounds 239 in May, increasing to pounds 889 in peak season for a family of two adults and up to four children. The price includes ferry crossings and tent accommodation. Motorail, fly-drive and overnight stop options can also be arranged.

For family sightseeing on a budget, camping holidays can prove a winner. Eurocamp's (01565 626262) Punta Sabbioni site at Marina di Venezia could act as a base for outings to Venice (by nearby ferry), Padua, Verona, Ravenna (75 miles down the coast) and Vicenza - with compensation (sometimes called bribes) for children by way of a sandy beach, two large pools and a wind surfing school on site. All-in prices for a family of two adults, with all children under 18 going free, range from pounds 265-pounds 905.

Walking plus

Lots of escorted and independent walking tours take place this year all over the country.

An introduction to the Italian lifestyle is the aim of Ramblers Holidays (01707 331133). It offers a seven-night holiday based in the village of Vicchio, 35 miles from Florence, on which there'll be a mix of walking, sightseeing, Italian cooking and language tuition.

On three afternoons, the group will prepare dinner with the local chef, while on some walks Italian students will help participants gain a start with the language. Prices start at pounds 428 and include flights and half-board hotel accommodation.

Independent walking specialist Sherpa Expedition's (0181 577 2717) new tour takes a leisurely six- or nine-day route through an Umbrian landscape. Walkers armed with maps and notes make their way from Assisi to Todi and for those on the longer tour, continue on to Orvieto. The short tour costs pounds 695 and the longer version costs pounds 880 including flights, B&B and some evening meals.

Explore Worldwide (01252 319448) takes groups of around 16 people on its trips. On an eight-day volcano hike, you'll get a chance to climb three living volcanoes - Vulcano, Stromboli and Mount Etna - with swimming in hot springs and relaxing in between. The walking is graded as modest, accommodation is in hotels and mountain huts, some dorm-style, and travel is by boat, four-wheel drive and minibus. The price is pounds 629 for flights, accommodation, transport and some meals.

Sicilian treats

Raped by countless civilisations in turn, Sicily has some delectable treats for the keen sightseer. How to tackle them?

Sunvil Travel (0181 568 4499) offers a series of fly drives and Sicilian Farm Holidays, where you can get the local view on Sicilian life and culture, ancient and modern. Tireless historians can try to crack Sicily on a self-drive 14-night tour, visiting Catania, Syracuse, Agrigento, Selinunte, Syracuse, Erice, Palermo and Taormina en route. The cost of pounds 879 includes flights, car hire and B&B.

Italian specialist Citalia (0181 686 5533) can organise two-night breaks for those who want a quick intensive fix of sightseeing. B&B breaks based at Syracuse, once described as the largest and most beautiful city in the Greek world, cost pounds 327 and at Agrigento, home to the great Valley of the Temples, a two-night half board break costs pounds 307. Both prices include flights and accommodation, but not car hire.

Magic of Italy (0181 748 7575) offers a Sicily Pick 'n' Mix, where you choose your own itinerary and hotels. A three night B&Bstay costs from pounds 471-pounds 586, and extra nights are charged at pounds 67-pounds 77, these prices including flights and car hire.

B&B

A cheap supply of centrally- situated city hotels are far harder to find in Italy than in either France or Spain, but Room Service (0171 636 6888) claims that friendly family-run affordable establishments are its speciality, with over 200 hotels on its books for the independent traveller.

The prices it quotes are ... well ... cheapish. Double rooms start at pounds 38 per night, singles at pounds 24 for a simple but comfortable pensione on the first floor of a palazzo in central Rome. In Florence, a one-star pensione two minutes from the Duomo clocks in at pounds 39 for a double and pounds 25 for a single, but in Venice the lead-in price is a fairly horrific pounds 71 (double) and pounds 60 (single) for a two-star family-run property close to the waterbus stop for St Mark's Square. Personally, since Venice is so compact and walkable, I'd choose a backstreet joint for considerably less every time.

Other sources of inexpensive accommodation include the recently launched Bed and Breakfast Association of Rome, which aims to "match travellers' needs to what is currently available, either within sight of the Forum, or in leafier, more silent areas of the city". Telephone or fax 0039 66877348. Also try Accommodation Line (0171 409 1343).

Wine trails

Pilgrims of old obviously knew a good thing when they found one - routes to Rome followed well-defined wine trails across Chianti country through some of the finest vineyards and scenery of Tuscany and Umbria. Twentieth- century disciples can follow in their footsteps on one of Winetrails' (01306 712111) seven-night walking trips that start in Certaldo, San Gimignano, Monteviggioni and Siena, sampling all the way. The price is pounds 795 which includes accommodation in private houses and hotels, most meals and wine, but excludes flights.

Gourmet Italia

The hard up won't take this trip - but it makes great reading for foodies. With Arblaster & Clarke (01730 893344), you'll find the ultimate gourmet Italian tour to Piemonte. Highlights include truffle-hunting with a top Alba truffle hunter and his dog; visits to Parma, famous for its prosciutto ham and cheese, and Bologna, Italy's culinary capital; wine tasting galore of serious vintages; plus eight "gourmet meals". The tour costs pounds 999 for five nights in November, for flights, hotel, tastings and most meals.

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