The Piemonte (literally meaning ‘at the foot of the mountains’) and Valle d’Aosta regions, with their mountain valleys bordering the French and Swiss Alps, are the least ‘Italian’ areas of the country.
Piemonte was ruled by the House of Savoy from the eleventh century and bequeathed upon Europe one of its grand cities, Turin, as well as much of its lip-smacking cuisine. The area was also instrumental in the push for the unification of Italy; the Piemontese statesman Camillo Cavour under King Vittorio Emanule II managed to pull several regions under Savoy rule during the nineteenth century with Turin momentarily becoming the Italian capital (1861-4). When Rome took over its premier position the aristocracy and middle classes acted fast to retain Piedmonte’s influence, setting up companies likeFiat and Olivetti. These days the region is second only to Lombardy in industrial production and is one of Italy’s richest areas.
The regional capital, Aosta, with its attractive cobbled streets and superb shopping make it a good entry point into the region.
Turin is a city of wide boulevards and grand Baroque public buildings reflecting an important past as the seat of Italy’s dynasty, the House of Savoy. The city is also known for its museums like the Sabauda Gallery which house Dutch and Flemish masterpieces and the Holy Shroud (thought to be imprinted with the face of Christ from the tomb) kept in the Duomo, Turin’s Renaissance cathedral. It’s also a place of grey urban and industrial sprawl owing to its position as the birthplace of Italian industry under its new dynasty, Fiat, owned by the Agnellis. This family has its fingers in so many pies that, in the words of Henry Kissinger, it ‘is the permanent establishment’ and wields massive economic and thus political power.
The Valle d’Aosta, Italy’s smallest yet disproportionately rich region, is a largely picturesque area of valleys and feudal castles ringed by Europe’s highest mountains,Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa. Because of its proximity to France, its fortunes have always been tied to its neighbours cresating a separate identity bolstered by its language, a Franco-Provencal patois, and spurring Mussolini on to order mass immigration from other parts of the country to stamp out its otherness. Despite this, the Valdestan identity endured and is reflected in the self-governing status it enjoys today. The castles for which the area is famed are attractive enough but it’s for walking and skiing that people make the trip there.
Liguria, the thin strip of land sandwiched between Piemonte and the Gulf of Genoa, is known as the ‘Italian Riviera’, a reference to its proximity to its French counterpart and the thousands of tourists who flock to its beaches each year. Yet it’s far more than a sum of its commercialised resort towns; behind is a hinterland of hilltop villages set amid terraced mountainsides where olives and vines are cultivated which provide the more adventurous with opportunities for walking, climbing and even skiing.
Genoa has a disreputable image that belies the extent of its interest to visitors. It was once a powerful maritime republic and a formidable fighting force; later it was home to Italy’s industrial revolution. Its focus remains its old port, lying close to the old town of narrow, medieval alleys. Although not a beautiful city by any means, it’s unsavoury mixture of sailors, prostitutes and characters fascinate, and among the sleaze you’ll find a hive of artisan activity.
Lombardy & The Lakes
Lombardy, Italy’s economic powerhouse, seems to have more in common with the countries to the north than it does with its southern neighbours, owed in big part to its tumultuous history. Its border position has always laid it open to attack (it was invaded by the northern Lombards who displaced the Romans and later by the Venetians, the Hapsburgs and Napoleon), but its location as a commercial crossroads has brought the region rich opportunities. Milan, the state capital, has long been considered a more important city than Rome by many northerners and the hard-working people who’ve made it into Italy’s economic and fashion capital steadfastly agree. Indeed, there’s a real friction between Milan’s ‘workaholics’ and their southern neighbours who they derisively term ‘terroni’ (‘earth-people’).
The economic success of Lombardy has not come for free; industrial areas stain the outskirts of all the major cities and towns, choke the southern Po plain and have polluted many of its lakes and valleys. There are still attractions to be found here however; affluent towns with a distinctive character carried over from the days of city states, interesting historical cities like Pavia and stunning scenery in its Lakes region.
Milan is the design and fashion centre of Italy as well as the holder of the purse strings – there’s no hint of Roman ways here and the city is far closer in spirit and appearance to a northern European city. For this reason, people tend to pass through it fast but it’s still full of history and has a definite cultural sophistication especially in shopping, the arts and music.
The autonomous German-Italian Alpine region of Trentino-Alto Adige, drawn together politically, are very much too distinctly different areas. Alto Adige only became part of Italy in 1919, before that it was under Austrian control, a fact quickly discernible from its landscape of forests dotted with gothic, domed churches, street signs in German and sauerkraut on the menu. Trentino, to the south of Adige, has a strong Italian identity which made it a diffident member of the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian empires for around a century until it was returned to the fold after the First World War.
The awkward alliance between regions has led to political tension with series of bombings in the 1950s, 60s and 80s of railways, power stations and military installations attributed to radical secessionists. Away from these problems, Trentino-Alto Adige is home to the dark, jagged landscape of the Dolomites, one of the most beautiful ranges in the country which offer fantastic opportunities for hiking and climbing.
While Venice is undeniably the unmissable centrepiece of the region, there’s more to it than the twin sights of the Ducal Palace and the Basilica of St Mark – although they’re as fantastic as their reputation suggests. Apart from Venice the main attractions are the cities of Padua and Verona with their collections of paintings and buildings from the Roman era to the Renaissance.
Venice is something of a historical Disney world in a lot of ways – its very existence is now based on tourism and it plays no part in the workings of modern day Italy. Famed for its series of interconnecting canals linking its 117 islands, on which the former lagoon city is built on, this is one of the few places where road traffic is anathema so to get around, head for the river boats or for the ultimate tourist trip, take a romantic ride in a gondola, but at $50 plus for 50 minutes, also bring your cheque book. Venice is a magnificent and inspiringly romantic place and it is still possible to escape the interminable hordes of camera toting holidaymakers. There are buildings and artefacts cataloguing Venice’s history from its origins as a Byzantine settlement to its heyday as a maritime superpower. Not to be missed are the Basilica of St Mark, the Ducal Palace, and a whole host of churches and museums overflowing with masterpieces by Capacio and Titian.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is marked by its geographical and social diversity. The region is a heady mix of lagoons and wetlands on the Adriatic coast leading up to the pine-covered Alps in the north. Bordering the Veneto to the west, Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east, it’s had a complicated political past that still informs its ethnic and social intricacy. It’s been invaded from three directions by the Romans, Huns, Goths, Lombards, Nazis and Russian Cossacks. It was controlled by Venice in its heyday which was then supplanted by Napoleonic France, followed by the Hapsburgs. It experienced some of the fiercest fighting of World War One during which almost 200,000 Italian troops died; the prize was the inclusion of Gorizia, Tieste, Istria and Dalmatia in the Italian union. The latter two were lost to Tito’s Yugoslavia after World War Two and Slovenia gained independence in June 1991.
While the north is ethnically and linguistically alpine, the south is dominated by the old peasant culture of Fruili which is distinctive in its ways and traditions, creating a strong sense of identity apart from the rest of Italy. The local dialect, friulano, is even undergoing a bit of a revival, many road signs are in both languages. The area is relatively untouched by tourism but offers an interesting mix of urban culture with natural attractions in the shape of the Adriatic beaches, northern ski slopes and forest walking tracks.
Emilia-Romagno, sandwiched in between Lombardy and Tuscany and stretching from the Mediterranean to Adriatic coast, is the heartland of northern Italy. It’s really two provinces, Emilia and Romagna, former papal states joined together after unification and still blessed with the castles and fortresses of the ducal families who ruled there before the papacy. Its landscape is varied to say the least, with the Appennine Mountains in the south and flat plains in the north and its cultural legacy is undeniable; its cities and towns are brimming over with beautiful and enticing windows on the past. Ferrara, Modena andParma are important Renaissance towns and the Adriatic towns of Ravenna and Riminiadd Byzantine mosaics, nightlife and beaches to the attractions of this overlooked province.
Bologna was one of the most important European medieval towns and houses the continent’s oldest university (alumni include Dante, Erasmus and Copernicus. Bologna used to be best known for its food (supposedly the best in Italy) and its politics (it was the stronghold of the Italian left from the First World War onwards). Now, it’s a revitalised city, thriving on the trappings of light engineering and hi-tech industries. It’s also one of Italy’s most attractive cities after Venice, with a medieval centre of tiled roofs fanning out from its grand square the Piazza Maggiore. There’s plenty of historical attractions to keep you amused for several days, and, thanks to its university whose students make up a fifth of the population, a vibrant cultural scene of theatre, music and cafés.
Tuscany gave birth to the Renaissance and it is the revolutionary impact of this great cultural movement that has given the province its importance. Works by Tuscan masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo influenced the path of art to the present day and Tuscan architects, most notably Brunelleschi who designed the dome of Florence’s Duomo, had a lasting influence on architecture. Even the Italian language has its roots in the dialect written by Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch who were all born in the region. Quite apart from the dazzling cultural relics of its past, amply provided by the cities ofFlorence, Siena and Pisa, it’s the Tuscan countryside that draws people to the province. For many people it’s typically Italian with its hilltop towns, rows of cypress trees and vineyard-covered hills and it’s this very charm that has led to Tuscany’s unfortunate overcrowding. No visit to Tuscany is complete without a visit to its major attractions like Florence but to get away from the tourist hordes head to the Etruscan sites in the south and some of Italy’s best beaches on Monte Argentario and the island of Elba.
Florence has long been celebrated as Italy’s most spectacular city, with its skyline dominated by Brunelleschi’s amazing dome and the wonderful medieval Ponte Vecchiobridge over the River Arno. Although some people find the incessant traffic and ubiquitous scaffolding aggravating, there’s so much culture here that Florence rarely disappoints. Under the patronage of the Medici family the city’s Renaissance artists have left the city with a formidable array of cultural treasures in the Uffizi, Bargello, Museo dell’Opera, Santa Maria del Carmine, San Marco and Santissima Annunziata.
Known as the ‘green heart of Italy’, Umbria is a beautiful region of hills, woods and valleys, dotted with about a dozen classic hill towns brimming over with artistic and architectural gems. It takes its name from the Umbrii tribe, cited by Pliny as the oldest in Italy, but who remain a mystery to archaeologists. Umbria is best known as the birthplace of several saints and its religious traditions. The most famous is Saint Francis, born in Assisi, now a primary tourist attraction because of the Basilica di San Francesco and its beautiful frescos. There’s a mystical charm that hangs over much of the region and has given rise to its names like Umbra Santa and Umbra Mistica.
Roman domination was broken by successive barbarian incursions and Umbrians withdrew to fortified hill towns, setting the scene for the rivalry between states that continued until the region fell to the papacy and declined into economic and cultural stagnation. Now, finally, it’s begun to capitalise on its considerable charms; foreign ownership of property has taken off and people are visiting in larger and larger numbers.
Le Marche is a narrow strip of less-travelled land between the Appennines and the Adriatic coast. The coast is very developed with rows of generic hotels and beaches covered in sun beds while the port of Ancona and further inland is quite industrialised. That said, there are still large areas of unspoilt countryside dotted with medieval towns and villages that have attracted Italians and foreigners looking for old farmhouses to renovate away from pricey Tuscany. Of the hill towns, Urbino is the most attractive with its wonderful Renaissance palaces. This legacy is a result of a prosperous period in the Middle Ages and 15th and 16th centuries when the powerful Montefeltro ruled Urbino and it produced the greats Raphael and Bramante.
Urbino’s heyday was in the second half of the fifteenth century when it has one of the premier courts in Europe, ruled by Federico da Montefeltro, who employed some of the best architects and artists around to build and adorn his palace in the town. This is still present in this most likeable of towns, which has been saved from posterity by its relatively lively university.
Lazio is very much an extension of Rome, a city uniquely and enthrallingly ancient and modern, intensely proud of its culture and heritage yet mired in a bloated sea of bureaucracy and corruption. Since Roman times, the rich have built their villas in the Lazio countryside and its towns sprang up as fiefdoms of noble Roman families. Even today, Romans take to the road in the suffocating heat of summer and make their homes in pretty areas of the region. Although it has less obvious attractions than most of Italy’s over-indulged provinces there are still things worth doing here; a tour of Etruria in the north is an obvious starting place with tombs and museums of Cerveteri and Tarquinia. The quiet beauty of the lakes Bracciano, Vico and Bolsena north of Rome are pleasant summer retreats and hilltop towns like Angani and Altari to the southwest of Rome are worthy daytrips.
Rome is a city that inspires awe and wonder in its visitors. It’s a city that transformed itself at critical junctures during the imperial, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods of its history to bequeath its inhabitants with the rich mosaics of legend, monuments and cultural relics it offers today. That said, its not just a museum to its past; it pulsates with an energy that’s sure to leave you spellbound. Don’t miss the Vatican City and its awe-inspiring Basilica di San Pietro, one of the most opulently designed religious buildings in the world, where you can attend Sunday Catholic Mass with the Pope in St Peter’s Square.While you’re there, visit Michelangelo’s masterstroke, the high domed Sistine Chapel or climb to the top of its high dome to get an amazing view of Rome. For more ancient history, the Roman Forum, or the Colosseum – the showcase of the Roman Empire where gladiators battled to the death – both easily rating as wonders of the world and both remarkably well preserved. There are endless art galleries, museums, and on every corner you turn, you will experience stunning architecture and history that shaped the modern world. If all this culture gets to much, numerous elegant piazza are a great place to enjoy food or an ice cream.
Abruzzo and Molise
Abruzzo and Molise are unusual in Italy because they’ve been spared the incursions of mass tourism, probably because they’re sparsely populated, mountainous and have always been cut off from mainstream affairs resulting in less cultural heritage here to explore. That said, Abruzzo in particular, offers wildly beautiful landscapes, historic (and often abandoned) hill towns and some developing resorts on the Adriatic coastline. Its cultural seclusion means that legends and local customs have survived more readily and the region’s costumes, crafts and festivals are less like the touristy affairs that take place across the rest of Italy. Molise seems more southern than its position suggests due to its poverty. It’s pretty uninviting although there are some low-key Roman ruins and some dramatic scenery (although nothing to rival Abruzzo).
Campania, immediately to the south of Lazio, marks the real beginning of the Italian south and is romantically known as mezzogiorno (‘midday’). Through the centuries it’s inspired writers with its dramatic coastline, enticing islands and rich heritage although nowadays it’s sometimes hard to believe; the Bay of Naples is an industrialised area that’s well past its prime. However, history is visible at every turn with the ruins ofPompeii and Herculaneum under Mount Vesuvius, the Phlegraean Fields to the west and the Greek temples of Paestum. There are also attractive beach resorts to the south of Naples. Moreover the region is home to Italy’s most famed exports, the pizza and pasta with tomato sauce.
Naples, the capital of Campania and the whole of southern Italy, is a city of filth, crime and harassment; probably the key to its charm! It’s a city of fierce loyalties, one that encapsulates the resentment and distrust felt between the south and the north of the country. It’s staunchly Catholic and religious about its football, two defining aspects of its identity as well as the importance of music. Its medieval centre is a sensory overload of ancient churches crammed alongside its university and lots of restaurants and crowded cafes pulsating with the noise of mopeds and people socialising and – once you’ve adjusted – will bowl you over with its character.
Not many people make it further south than Campania but those who do find themselves well rewarded. Puglia, on the ‘heel’ of Italy, bears the marks of its strategic position: it’s been colonised, invaded and conquered by virtually everyone from the Greeks, to the Normans to the Spanish. These days it’s an entry point for illegal immigrants from the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. Because of its rich history there are several surprises on offer here like the Monte Sant’ Angelo’s Sanctuary and the floor mosaics of Otranto’s Cathedral yet by no means as much as you’ll find further north.
Calabria and Bailicata
Calabria, alongside Basilicata, is really quintessential mezzogiorno: culturally unendowed, underdeveloped and sparsely populated. Despite this, Calabria is worth some exploration in its own right: it has some great beaches, a forbidding mountainous interior and some fascinating medieval towns nestled on hilltops.
People think Sicily can be summed up by beaches and the mafia; these are certainly two major Sicilian elements but they don’t add up to its whole. It’s discernibly different in feel from mainland Italy; occupying a strategically vital position and as the largest island in the Mediterranean, it has a history and outlook that’s very different. Relics of its many occupiers are all over the island, the Sicilian language immediately transports you out of Italy and the food is noticeably different; spicier and with more use of fish and vegetables.
Sardinia is the Mediterranean’s second largest island and has always been considered an isolated place. Today its people and culture still have a separate identity from mainland Italy. It offers some of Italy’s cleanest beaches but its interior is of interest too. There are vestiges of various invaders in the guise of Roman ruins, Genoan fortresses and Gothic and Baroque architecture. But perhaps most interesting of all are the unique stone constructions that dot the landscape – remnants of Sardinia’s only significant native ‘nuraghic’ civilisation.
By Kate Griffiths