Ask an Italian where in the world they would most like to live, and the odds are that they will say “right here”. Indeed, most people – not just Italians – have raved about Italy since tourism began, and to be honest the country really does have it all: one of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in Europe; the world’s greatest hoard of art treasures (many on display in fittingly spectacular cities and buildings); a climate that is on the whole benign; and, most important of all for many, a delicious and authentic national cuisine.
Italy might be the world’s most celebrated tourist destination, but it only became a unified state in 1861, and as a result Italians often feel more loyalty to their region than to the nation as a whole – something manifest in its different cuisines, dialects, landscapes and often varying standards of living. However, if there is a single national Italian characteristic, it’s to embrace life to the full – in the hundreds of local festivals taking place across the country on any given day to celebrate a saint or the local harvest; in the importance placed on good food; in the obsession with clothes and image; and in the daily ritual of the collective evening stroll or passeggiata – a sociable affair celebrated by young and old alike in every town and village across the country
There is also the country’s enormous cultural legacy: Tuscany alone has more classified historical monuments than any country in the world; there are considerable remnants of the Roman Empire all over the country, notably in Rome itself; and every region retains its own relics of an artistic tradition generally acknowledged to be among the world’s richest. Yet if all you want to do is chill out, there’s no reason to be put off. There are any number of places to just lie on a beach, from the resorts filled with regimented rows of sunbeds and umbrellas favoured by the Italians themselves, to secluded and less developed spots. And if you’re looking for an active holiday, there’s no better place: mountains run the country’s length – from the Alps and Dolomites in the north right along the Apennines, which form the spine of the peninsula; skiing and other winter sports are practised avidly; and wildlife of all sorts thrives in the country’s national parks.
Once you’ve visited, you may never want to travel anywhere else!
Rome, Italy’s capital and the one city in the country that owes allegiance neither to the north or south, is a tremendous city quite unlike any other, and in terms of historical sights outstrips everywhere else in the country by some way. It’s the focal point of Lazio, in part a poor and sometimes desolate region whose often rugged landscapes, particularly south of Rome, contrast with the more manicured beauty of the other central regions.
The regions of Piemonte andLombardy, in the northwest, make up the country’s richest and most cosmopolitan region, and the two main centres, Turin and Milan, are its wealthiest cities. In their southern reaches, these regions are flat and scenically dull, especially Lombardy, but in the north the presence of the Alps shapes the character of each: skiing and hiking are prime activities, and the lakes and mountains of Lombardy are time-honoured tourist territory.
Liguria, the small coastal province to the south, has long been known as the “Italian Riviera” and is accordingly crowded with sun-seekers for much of the summer. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful stretch of coast, and its capital, Genoa, is a vibrant, bustling port town with a long seafaring tradition.
Much of the most dramatic mountain scenery lies within the smaller northern regions. In the far northwest, the tiny bilingual region of Valle d’Aosta is home to some of the country’s most frequented ski resorts, and is bordered by the tallest of the Alps – the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. In the northeast, Trentino-Alto Adige, another bilingual region and one in which the national boundary is especially blurred, marks the beginning of the Dolomites mountain range, where Italy’s largest national park, the Stelvio, lies amid some of the country’s most memorable landscapes.
The Dolomites stretch into the northeastern regions of the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. However, here the main focus of interest is, of course, Venice: a unique city, and every bit as beautiful as its reputation would suggest (although this means you won’t be alone in appreciating it). If the crowds are too much, there’s also the arc of historic towns outside the city – Verona, Padua and Vicenza, all centres of interest in their own right, although rather overshadowed by their illustrious neighbour.
To the south, the region of Emilia-Romagna was at the heart of Italy’s postwar industrial boom and enjoys a standard of living on a par with Piemonte and Lombardy, although it’s also a traditional stronghold of the Italian Left. Its coast is popular among Italians, and Rimini is about Italy’s brashest (and trendiest) seaside resort, renowned for its nightlife. You may do better to ignore the beaches altogether, however, and concentrate on the ancient centres of Ravenna, Ferrara, Parma and the regional capital of Bologna, one of Italy’s liveliest, most historic but least appreciated cities – and traditionally Italy’s gastronomic and academic capital.
Central Italy represents perhaps the most commonly perceived image of the country, andTuscany, with its classic rolling countryside and the art-packed towns of Florence, Pisa and Siena, to name only the three best-known, is one of its most visited regions. Neighbouring Umbria is similar in all but its tourist numbers, though it gets busier every year, as visitors flock into towns such as Perugia, Spoleto and Assisi. Further east still, Le Marche has gone the same way, with old stone cottages being turned into foreign-owned holiday homes; the highlights of the region are the ancient towns of Urbino and Ascoli Piceno. South of Le Marche, the hills begin to pucker into mountains in the twin regions of Abruzzo and Molise, one of Italy’s remotest areas, centring on one of the country’s highest peaks – the Gran Sasso d’Italia.
The south proper begins with the region of Campania. Its capital, Naples, is a unique, unforgettable city, the spiritual heart of the Italian south, and close to some of Italy’s finest ancient sites in Pompeii and Herculaneum, not to mention the country’s most spectacular stretch of coast around Amalfi. Basilicata and Calabria, which make up the instep and toe of Italy’s boot, are harder territory but still rewarding, the emphasis less on art, more on the landscape and quiet, relatively unspoilt coastlines. Puglia, the “heel” of Italy, has underrated pleasures, too, notably the landscape of its Gargano peninsula, the souk-like qualities of its capital, Bari, and the Baroque glories of Lecce in the far south. As for Sicily, the island is really a place apart, with a wide mixture of attractions ranging from some of the finest preserved Hellenistic treasures in Europe, to a couple of Italy’s most appealing beach resorts in Taormina and Cefalu, not to mention some gorgeous upland scenery. Come this far south and you’re closer to Africa than Milan, and it shows in the climate, the architecture and the cooking, with couscous featuring on many menus in the west of the island.
Sardinia, too, feels far removed from the Italian mainland, especially in its relatively undiscovered interior, although you may be content just to laze on its fine beaches, which are among Italy’s best.