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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 August, 2003, 21:41 GMT 22:41 UK
Italian treat awaits Putin
Costa Smerelda in Sardinia
Berlusconi's villa is on the beautiful Emerald coast
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is preparing a reception fit for a tsar when the Russian president visits Italy this week.

Vladimir Putin, who is going to Mr Berlusconi's Sardinian villa of La Certosa on Friday, will be confronted by - among other things - hundreds of exotic cacti, a wild boar reserve and an evening of Italian love songs.

The visit is part of a summer initiative described by Mr Berlusconi as "friendship diplomacy", which has also seen meetings recently with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Last year, Mr Berlusconi hosted Mr Putin's two teenage daughters at the sumptuous villa, on the island's Emerald coast.

There are unconfirmed reports that Katya and Masha, as well as Mr Putin's wife Lyudmila, will accompany him on this occasion.

Love songs

Mr Berlusconi, a keen gardener, has recently built a garden in the shape of a Roman amphitheatre made out of 400 cacti ordered from the world's best garden centres.

Moskva missile cruiser
The Moskva missile cruiser is going with the Russian president
Other features of the villa's grounds include a 500-year-old carob tree and an artificial lake widened specially for Mr Putin's visit.

The Russian leader can also expect a series of evening concerts of Neapolitan love songs and operatic favourites, which may also feature Mr Berlusconi's own compositions.

Mr Berlusconi, who began his working life as a cruise ship crooner, is expected to present singer and guitarist Mariano Apicella, with whom he has already recorded a CD.

The two men are said to be working on a new song entitled "And I always think of you".

The popular tenor Andrea Bocelli may also perform.

"I want an unforgettable evening: silver seas, soft lights hidden among the ancient olive leaves, the fragrance of the garden," Mr Berlusconi was quoted as saying by Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Mr Putin appears to have a sense of the grandeur of the occasion, and plans to arrive with three Russian warships, including a missile cruiser.

Russian newspaper reports say the two leaders will hold a press conference on one of the ships, anchored by the island of La Maddalena, near Sardinia's north-eastern coast.

He is no stranger to the idea of arranging extravagant receptions, spending more than $1bn to renovate St Petersburg in time for the arrival of foreign guests for the city's 300th anniversary last May.


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