EVERYBODY LOVES ITALY. Or maybe they just love visiting. Many of them say it would be impossible to live there. But the Italians do, and most of them seem to like it. Like the other large countries in Europe, it has many different regions, each with great history and fabulous food. Sometimes it seems the Italians live to eat.
Italy rates 5th overall in the Top 100 Countries index as a country to visit. It is the 5th most visited country on earth. And it is first in the world in the number of World Heritage sites. Italy was the heart of the Roman Empire and the birthplace of the Renaissance. Its remarkable cultural heritage belongs to us all.
There is plenty to see and do and it is well set up for the visitor. Petty crime and corruption are minor but persistent problems, with pickpocketing particularly prevalent in Rome. Italy is very good value for money outside of the major tourist areas. The south in particular is inexpensive.
Italy became a single nation only in 1870, at around the same time as Germany. Even the standard Italian language was only recently introduced to many parts of the country, where many people still speak dialects that are incomprehensible to the inhabitants of other regions.
Italy is simply outstanding. You cannot say you have traveled unless you have been there. More than that you need to go to many different parts of it – it is a very diverse place.
Like Britain and France, Italy is a must. Everybody should see Venice and Rome and Florence, at a minimum, before they die. Italy suffers from continuing political instability, but the Italians manage, in their own way. The national mood seems to encompass a great deal of a sort of easy-going fatalism, which can be infectious.
Rome and the Vatican
ANY DISCUSSION OF Italy starts with Rome. They call it the Eternal City, because it’s been around a while.
The ruins of ancient Rome are scattered through the modern city. Much of it can easily be covered on foot. There are all sorts of tours and hop-on-hop-off buses, and you can easily do it yourself.
The centerpiece is the Roman Forum, a group of ruins right in the middle of town near the Palatine Hill, the most important of the famous Seven Hills of Rome. The other major Roman ruin is the fabled Colosseum, still remarkably intact after 2000 years. You can go down below to where the gladiators and lions were kept before entering the arena.
In the center of town the three biggies are the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon. They are all quite close to each other, but only the Pantheon dates from the days of the Roman Empire. The other two were built in the 17th and 18th centuries. And one of the most remarkable buildings in town, the ornate and impressive Victor Emmanuel Memorial (properly known as the Altare della Patria, or Altar of the Fatherland), is less than a hundred years old, which surprises most people.
THE VATICAN CITY is the most impressive thing in Rome, and it isn’t even in Rome. It is an independent papal state contained entirely within the city of Rome, across the Tiber River from all the other stuff. It contains the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica and Square, and the marvellous Vatican Library.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you need more than that time to visit it properly. It and the Vatican are central to Western civilization, and something you have to see. Problem is, everybody knows that, and the crush of tourists can be oppressive. Pick your dates carefully, and get out of your hotel early.
Venice and the Veneto
VENICE IS UP THERE with Paris and Rome as one of the most visited cities on earth. But it is much smaller, and tourism is killing it. You can’t move in summer, when the regular tourist throngs are joined by day-trippers from the cruise liners who smother the place.
The crush of tourists most times of the year is ugly and unpleasant. In fact it’s worse than that – it’s impossible, and totally destroys the joy of visiting.
It’s easy to see why Venice is so popular. It is the perfect unspoilt medieval city, and its canals are unique. It is also sinking into its famous lagoon, and tidal flooding is a major problem.
For centuries, in the Middle Ages and through the Renaissance, Venice was an independent republic. It built a great maritime trading network across the Mediterranean and became a great naval power and one of the richest cities on earth. Napoleon put an end to all that, but the city’s history is preserved in its magnificent architecture and its many art galleries and museums.
The region around Venice is called the Veneto, with some great wines, but just about everybody goes only to Venice.
We like to go to Venice in winter, when the tourist numbers are right down. It can get quite cold, but it’s much more manageable and certainly more fun. Venice and is one of the best walking cities on earth, with its compact size, its total lack of cars, and history around every corner. A short trip across the water to the island of Murano is a must, for its restaurants and glassware.
And there are many other islands worth a visit. The best of them is Burano, a picture-perfect little place a couple of Vaporetto stops beyond Murano. It has one of our favorite restaurants, the Trattoria Gatto Nero. Book well ahead.
Tuscany and Florence and Pisa
MANY PEOPLE REGARD the region of Tuscany, north of Rome, as the most beautiful place in Italy, if not the world. The Tuscan capital Florence is famous as the birthplace of the Renaissance and the home of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and many other famous artists.
You can spend days wandering the streets. The Medici’s Uffizi Museum is the most visited in Italy, with famous paintings by Botticelli, Titian, Giotto and Caravaggio. Michelangelo’s famous statue of David is in the Galleria dell' Accademia. Florence is the ultimate Renaissance experience.
The Cathedral has the famous Dome (il Duomo) by Brunelleschi. It was the largest in the world at the time, with new techniques of design and construction. You can walk up inside it to the cupola. You need a long time to explore Florence properly – try to go there in the off-season when the crowds aren’t as bad.
Towards the Mediterranean coast from Florence, near the mouth of the Arno River, is Pisa, famous for its leaning tower. But there’s nothing much else there except too many hawkers. It’s hardly worth the effort.
Other wonderful places in Tuscany include Chianti (where the wine got its name), Montespertoli and Cortona. And the beautiful hilltop town of Montepulciano is magic.
Tuscany is the soul of Italy. But like Venice it is being destroyed by tourism and you really have to pick the right time to visit. Do not go there in summer.
The Tuscan countryside is as famous and as beautiful as the towns and cities. Get out into the country. Stay in one of the famous villas if you can. We did a five day cooking course in one of them. It remains one of the most enjoyable weeks of our life.
Northern Italy and the Italian Alps
NORTHERN ITALY, along the valley of the Po and including the Italian Alps and Riviera, is home to half of Italy’s population.
It includes the historical regions of Lombardy, centered around Milan, and Piedmont, centered around Turin. It includes Venice (covered separately above because of Venice’s importance as a destination). The locals say is the real Italy, and that the South – even Rome – is backward and uncivilized. It is certainly the country’s industrial and economic heartland.
There is a movement to sever the North from the rest of Italy, returning the country to the days before unification in the 1870s. The name ‘Padania’ has been proposed for the new state. It most likely won’t happen, but Italian politics is volatile and reliably unpredictable.
Milan and Turin are major cities, and have more in common with Northern Europe than they do with Rome and the South. Milan has the famous La Scala opera house, and both cities have plenty of piazzas and museums and churches. But do they do not hold the same attraction for the visitor as Florence or Venice or Rome. There are a bit too much like everywhere else.
An hour or so north of Milan, up in the mountains, is the famous Lake Como. Its sheer beauty makes it worth a visit, though it can be touristy and expensive. Many visitors also go to the Italian Riviera between France and Genoa, or east of Genoa to. the Cinque Terre (‘five lands’), a stunningly beautiful group of five villages on a very rugged and picturesque coastline.
Other major cities in the region include Verona and Bologna. Verona is easy to visit and worth a stop off – you pass through it on the train to or from Venice. It has a Roman amphitheatre, the Arena di Verona, which is still used for concerts today.
The city was the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and you can visit what was supposedly Juliet’s house. It is a manufactured attraction in the middle of town that has nothing whatsoever to do with what was after all a fictional couple.
The Italian Alps are not quite so famous or as beautiful as their French or Swiss or Austrian counterparts. The most impressive part of them is the Dolomites in the Alto Adige region. These jagged limestone peaks are some of the most attractive mountains on earth. They are truly spectacular. This little corner of Italy speaks German – they got it off Austria for being on the winning side in World War I.
Southern Italy and Naples
NAPLES AND SOUTHERN Italy may as well be another country. It once was. A couple of hundred years ago Naples was the biggest city in Europe after Paris, and it positively reeks of decaying history – and decaying trash.
Near Naples are the panoramic Amalfi Coast and Sorrento, and the famous sights of the Isle of Capri and the ruined cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. They are the major tourist sights, rather than Naples itself.
That’s a shame. Naples is the center of Italy’s Campania region and a worthy destination in its own right, with great architecture and museums. You have to eat at least one pizza there – that’s where one of the world’s favorite foods was born. But it can get a bit rough around the edges.
There is a lot more to southern Italy, in the toe and heel of that boot-shaped country. The toe is Calabria, which supplied more Italian immigrants to the USA than in any other region of Italy. It’s still the poorest part of the country.
Don’t think of southern Italy as Italy. Think of it as southern Italy – a different place with a different history and a different feeling. Naples is a great base to explore it all from. And don’t miss Pompeii - it really is remarkable and gives a glimpse of Roman life simply unavailable anywhere else.
Sicily and Sardinia
ITALY ALSO CONTAINS the two largest islands in the Mediterranean Sea – Sicily and Sardinia. You can get the train to Sicily. Carriages are shunted on to a special boat then off again at the other end and you never even have to leave the train. But of course you want to pop out to take in a bit of sea breeze.
There is on-again-off-again talk of a bridge across the Straits of Messina. It was all set to go ahead in 2006. It would be the longest suspension bridge in the world, with a span of just over two miles, but it was cancelled for financial reasons. No doubt it will happen one day.
Sicily has its own distinct culture. It is also home to the Mafia, but we shall not dwell on that. It’s a big place, with Greek and Arab history as well as Roman and Italian. Look at the map – it is in the center of the Mediterranean.
A good starting point is the Sicilian capital Palermo. It has the usual churches and ruins, and also a great new contemporary art gallery, the Palazzo Riso. The Kalsa area near the waterfront is great for restaurants and bars.
The ancient city of Syracuse was founded as a Greek colony 2,700 years ago. Its most famous son was the mathematician and inventor Archimedes, killed by an overzealous Roman soldier when they invaded in 212 BC. It’s all part of Sicily’s deep Greek heritage. For the best ruins visit the Valley of the Temples, on the south coast at Agrigento.
Sardinia is different again. It is a rugged and beautiful island very popular with Italians for their vacations. They can go to what is almost a foreign country without leaving Italy. Most popular is the upmarket Costa Smeralda – the Emerald Coast.
There are many beautiful beaches and great archeological sites, Roman, Greek, Carthaginian and prehistoric. The food is fabulous. And healthy – they are the longest living people on earth. Lots of seafood, including of course sardines, and lots of olive oil.