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Buying a plane ticket, renting a hotel, visiting museums and eating out is par the for the course when it comes to the standard American vacation. Why not consider some alternatives that give you a deeper look into Italy's culture.

Specialty Travel Websites

At InfoHub Specialty Travel Guide (www.infohub.com), you can find tours in Italy (as well as other countries) centered on just about any and everything: antiques, archaeology, art history, churches, cooking, gay life, nudism, religion, wineries, and much more. If this sounds expensive to you, don't worry -- while searching the site, you can even set your own price limit. Two other good resource sites for specialty tours and travels are the Specialty Travel Index (www.specialtytravel.com) and Shaw Guides (www.shawguides.com).

Parla Italiano?

Language courses are available at several centers around the Italian peninsula. You can contact any of the following for information about programs across Italy, which vary in length, location (city versus rural), short or long term, and price: Italian Cultural Institute in New York (tel. 212/879-4242), American Institute for Foreign Study (tel. 800/727-AIFS; www.aifs.org), and Institute of International Education (tel. 800/445-0443 or 212/984-5413; www.iie.org).

Bike Tours

The Italian countryside has always been legendary for its beauty and architectural richness, and bicycle tours are a particularly memorable way to experience it.

Bike-it-yourselfers should arm themselves with a good map and make use of the resources of the Club Alpino Italiano, 7 Via E. Petrella 19, 20124 Milano (tel. 02-2057231 in Italy; www.cai.it). You can rent a bike by the week or longer at outlets in most cities.

The best tour resource is the annual Tourfinder issue of Bicycle USA. A copy costs $15 from the League of American Bicyclists, 1612 K St. NW, Suite 401, Washington, DC 20006 (tel. 202/822-1333; www.bikeleague.org). Membership is $30 per year and includes the Tourfinder and the annual almanac with information on European bicycling organizations.

Hindriks European Bicycle Tours (formerly Holland Bicycling Tours), P.O. Box 6086, Huntington Beach, CA 92615-6086 (tel. 800/852-3258; www.hindrikstours.com), leads 8- to 12-day tours throughout Europe. ExperiencePlus!, 415 Mason Ct., Suite 1, Fort Collins, CO 80524 (tel. 800/685-4565; www.xplus.com), runs bike tours across Europe; Ciclismo Classico, 30 Marathon St., Arlington, MA 02174 (tel. 800/866-7314; www.ciclismoclassico.com), is an excellent outfit specializing in tours through Italy.

Cooking Schools

Learn to make those incredible recipes you spent your vacation gaining 10 pounds on.

Cuisine International, P.O. Box 25228, Dallas, TX 75225 (tel. 214/373-1161; www.cuisineinternational.com), brings together some of the top independent cooking schools and teachers based in Italy, France, Portugal, Greece, and England. Here are some Italy-specific cooking schools worth checking out: Divina Cucina, Via Taddea 31, 50123 Florence, Italy (tel. 925/939-6346 in the U.S., or 055-292578 in Italy; www.divinacucina.com); Lorenza de' Medici's Cooking School, contact Louise Owens, 3128 Purdue, Dallas, TX 75225 (tel. 214/739-2846 in the U.S., or 0577-744832 in Italy; www.coltibuono.com); and Giuliano Bugialli, 252 Seventh Ave., #7R, New York, NY 10001 (tel. 646/638-1099; www.bugialli.com).

Walking Tours

If you don't feel the need to cover so much territory, you can appreciate even more of the countryside by walking or hiking (called "trekking" in Italian). Italy's resource for everything from countryside ambles to serious mountain trekking is the Club Alpino Italiano (see "Bike Tours," above).

Wilderness Travel, 1102 Ninth St., Berkeley, CA 94710 (tel. 800/368-2794; www.wildernesstravel.com), specializes in walking tours, treks, and inn-to-inn hiking tours of Europe. Sherpa Expeditions, 131A Heston Rd., Hounslow, Middlesex, England TW5 ORF (tel. 44-(0)20/8577-2717; www.sherpaexpeditions.com), offers both self-guided and group treks through off-the-beaten-track regions. Two long-established, somewhat upscale walking tour companies are Butterfield & Robinson, 70 Bond St., Suite 300, Toronto, ON M5B 1X3 (tel. 800/678-1147 in North America, or 416/864-1354 elsewhere; www.butterfield.com), and Country Walkers, P.O. Box 180, Waterbury, VT 05676 (tel. 800/464-9255 in North America, or 802/244-1387 elsewhere; www.countrywalkers.com). The bike tour companies ExperiencePlus! and Ciclismo Classico, listed above under "Bike Tours," also do walking tours.

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