World ? Europe ? Italy

Italy: Regions in Brief

Italy is about the size of the U.S. state of Arizona, but the peninsula's shape gives you the impression of a much larger area; the ever-changing seacoast contributes to this feeling, as do the large islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Bordered on the northwest by France, on the north by Switzerland and Austria, and on the east by Slovenia (formerly part of Yugoslavia), Italy is a land largely surrounded by the sea.

Two areas within Italy's boundaries aren't under the control of the Italian government: the State of Vatican City and the Republic of San Marino. Vatican City's 44 hectares (109 acres) were established in 1929 by a concordat between Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini, acting as head of the Italian government; the agreement also gave Roman Catholicism special status in Italy. The pope is the sovereign of the State of Vatican City, which has its own legal system and post office. (The Republic of San Marino, with a capital of the same name, strides atop the slopes of Mt. Titano, 23km/14 miles from Rimini. It's small and completely surrounded by Italy, so it still exists only by the grace of Italy.)

Here's a brief rundown of the cities and regions covered in this guide:

Rome & Latium

The region of Latium is dominated by Rome, capital of the ancient empire and the modern nation of Italy, and Vatican City, the independent papal state. Much of the civilized world was once ruled from here, from the days when Romulus and Remus are said to have founded Rome in 753 B.C. For generations, Rome was referred to as caput mundi (capital of the world). Its fortunes have fallen, of course, but it remains a timeless city, ranking with Paris and London as one of the top European destinations. There's no place with more artistic monuments -- not even Venice or Florence. How much time should you budget for the capital? Italian writer Silvio Negro said, "A lifetime is not enough."

Florence, Tuscany & Umbria

Tuscany is one of the most culturally and politically influential provinces -- the development of Italy without Tuscany is simply unthinkable. Tuscany, with its sun-warmed vineyards and towering cypresses, inspired the artists of the Renaissance. Nowhere in the world is the impact of the Renaissance still felt more fully than in its birthplace, Florence, the repository of artistic works left by Leonardo and Michelangelo. Since the 19th century, travelers have been flocking to Florence to see the Donatello bronzes, the Botticelli smiles, and all the other preeminent treasures. Alas, it's now an invasion, so you run the risk of being trampled underfoot as you explore the historic heart of the city. To escape, head for the nearby Tuscan hill towns, former stamping ground of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The main cities to visit are Lucca, Pisa, and especially Siena, Florence's great historical rival with an inner core that appears to be caught in a time warp. As a final treat, visit San Gimignano, northwest of Siena, celebrated for its medieval "skyscrapers."

Pastoral, hilly, and fertile, Umbria is similar to Tuscany, but with fewer tourists. Its once-fortified network of hill towns is among the most charming in Italy. Crafted from millions of tons of gray-brown rocks, each town is a testament to the masonry and architectural skills of generations of craftsmen. Cities particularly worth a visit are Perugia, Gubbio, Assisi, Spoleto (site of the world-renowned annual arts festival), and Orvieto, a mysterious citadel once used as a stronghold by the Etruscans. Called the land of shadows, Umbria is often covered in a bluish haze that evokes an ethereal painted look. Many local artists have tried to capture the province's glow, with its sun-dappled hills, terraced vineyards, and miles of olive trees. If you're short on time, visit Assisi to check out Giotto's frescoes at the Basilica di San Francesco (they've been repaired after the 1997 earthquakes), and Perugia, the largest and richest of the province's cities.

Bologna & Emilia-Romagna

Italians seem to agree on only one thing: The food in Emilia-Romagna is the best in Italy. The region's capital, Bologna, boasts a stunning Renaissance core with plenty of churches and arcades, a fine university with roots in the Middle Ages, and a populace with a reputation for leftist leanings. The region has one of the highest standards of living. When not dining in Bologna, you can take time to explore its artistic heritage. Other art cities abound -- none more noble than Byzantine Ravenna, still living off its past glory as the one-time capital of the declining Roman Empire.

If you can visit only one more city in the region, make it Parma, to see the city center with its Duomo and baptistery and to view its National Gallery. This is the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and prosciutto. Also noteworthy is the hometown of opera star Luciano Pavarotti, Modena, known for its cuisine, its cathedral, and its Este Gallery. The Adriatic resort of Rimini and the medieval stronghold of San Marino are at the periphery of Emilia-Romagna.

Venice, The Veneto & The Dolomites

Northeastern Italy is one of Europe's treasure-troves, encompassing Venice (arguably the world's most beautiful city), the surrounding Veneto region, and the mighty Dolomites (including the South Tyrol, which Italy annexed from Austria after World War I). The Veneto, dotted with rich museums and some of the best architecture in Italy, sprawls across the verdant hills and flat plains between the Adriatic, the Dolomites, Verona, and the edges of Lake Garda. For many generations, the fortunes of the Veneto revolved around Venice, with its sumptuous palaces, romantic waterways, Palazzo Ducale, and Basilica di San Marco. Aging, decaying, and sinking into the sea, Venice is so alluring we almost want to say, visit it even if you have to skip Rome and Florence. Also recommended are three fabled art cities in the "Venetian Arc": Verona, of Romeo and Juliet fame; Vicenza, to see the villas of Andrea Palladio where 16th-century aristocrats lived; and Padua, with its Giotto frescoes.

The region of Trentino-Alto Adige is far richer in culture, artistic treasures, and activities than the Valle d'Aosta, and its ski resort, Cortina d'Ampezzo, is far more fashionable than Courmayeur in the northwestern corridor. Its most interesting base (especially if you want to see the Austrian version of Italy) is Trent (Trento), the capital of Trentino. In the northeastern corner of Italy, the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is, in its own way, one of the most cosmopolitan and culturally sophisticated in Italy. Its capital is the port of Trieste. The area is filled with art from the Roman, Byzantine, and Romanesque-Gothic eras, and many of the public buildings (especially in Trieste) might remind you of Vienna.

Milan, Lombardy & The Lake District

Flat, fertile, prosperous, and politically conservative, Lombardy is dominated by Milan just as Latium is dominated by Rome. Lombardy is one of the world's leading commercial and cultural centers, and it has been ever since Milan developed into Italy's gateway to northern German-speaking Europe in the early Middle Ages. Although some people belittle Milan as an industrial city with a snobbish contempt for the poorer regions to the south, its fans compare it to New York. Milan's cathedral is Europe's third largest, its La Scala opera house is world-renowned, and its museums and churches are a treasure-trove, with one containing Leonardo's Last Supper. However, Milan still doesn't have the sights and tourist interest of Rome, Florence, and Venice. Visit Milan if you have the time, though you'll find more charm in the neighboring art cities of Bergamo, Brescia, Pavia, Cremona, and Mantua. Also competing for your time will be the gorgeous lakes of Como, Garda, and Maggiore, which lie near Lombardy's eastern edge.

Piedmont & Valle d'Aosta

At Italy's extreme northwestern edge, sharing a set of Alpine peaks with France (which in some ways it resembles), Piedmont was the district from which Italy's dreams of unification spread in 1861. Long under the domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Piedmont enjoys a cuisine laced with Alpine cheeses and dairy products. It's proud of its largest city, Turin, called the "Detroit of Italy" because it's the home of the Fiat empire, vermouth, Asti Spumante, and the Borsalino hat. Even though Turin is a great cosmopolitan center, it doesn't have the antique charm of Genoa or the sophistication, world-class dining, and chic shopping of Milan. Turin's most controversial sight is the Sacra Sindone (Holy Shroud), which many Catholics believe is the cloth in which Christ's body was wrapped when lowered from the cross.

Italy's window on Switzerland and France, the Valle d'Aosta (the smallest region) often serves as an introduction to the country, especially for those journeying from France through the Mont Blanc tunnel. The introduction is misleading, however, because Valle d'Aosta stands apart from the rest of Italy, a semiautonomous region of towering peaks and valleys in the northwestern corridor. It's more closely linked to France (especially the region of Savoy) than to Italy, and its residents speak an ancient French-derived dialect. The most important city in this region is the old Roman city of Aosta, which, except for some ruins, is rather dull. More intriguing are two of Italy's major ski resorts, Courmayeur and Breuil-Cervinia, which are topped only by Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Dolomites. Many of the region's villages are crafted from gray rocks culled from the mountains that rise on all sides. The best time to visit is in summer or the deep of winter. Late spring and fall get rather sleepy in this part of the world.

Genoa & The Italian Riviera

Comprising most of the Italian Riviera, the region of Liguria incorporates the steeply sloping capital city of Genoa, charming medieval ports (Portofino, Ventimiglia, and San Remo), a huge naval base (La Spezia), and five traditional coastal communities (Cinque Terre). There's also a series of beach resorts (Rapallo and Santa Margherita Ligure) that resemble the French Riviera. Although overbuilt and overrun, the Italian Riviera is still a land of great beauty. It's actually two Rivieras: the Riviera di Ponente to the west, running from the French border to Genoa, and the Riviera di Levante to the east. Faced with a choice, we always gravitate toward the more glamorous and cosmopolitan Riviera di Levante. Italy's largest port, Genoa, also merits a visit for its rich culture and history.

Naples, The Amalfi Coast & Capri

More than any other region, Campania reverberates with the memories of the ancient Romans, who favored its strong sunlight, fertile soil, and bubbling sulfurous springs. It encompasses both the anarchy of Naples and the elegant beauty of Capri and the Amalfi Coast. The region also contains many sites specifically identified in ancient mythology (lakes defined as the entrance to the Kingdom of the Dead, for example) and some of the world's most renowned ancient ruins (including Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum). Campania is overrun, overcrowded, and over-everything, but it still lures visitors. Allow at least a day for Naples, which has amazing museums and the world's worst traffic outside Cairo. Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum are for the ruin collectors, while those seeking fun in the sun head for Capri or Portofino. The leading resorts along the Amalfi Drive (even though they're not exactly undiscovered) are Ravello (not on the sea) and Positano (on the sea). Amalfi and Sorrento also have beautiful seaside settings. However, their more affordable hotels tend to make them that much more crowded.

Apulia

Sun-drenched and poor, Apulia (depending on the dialect, Le Puglie or Puglia) forms the heel of the Italian boot. It's the most frequently visited province of Italy's far south; part of its allure lies in its string of coastal resorts. The trulli houses of Alberobello are known for their unique cylindrical shapes and conical flagstone-sheathed roofs. Among the region's largest cities are Bari (the capital), Foggia, and Brindisi (gateway to Greece, with which the town shares many characteristics). Each of these is a modern disaster, filled with tawdry buildings, heavy traffic, and rising crime rates (tourists are often the victims). Most visitors pass through Bari (though it's a favorite with backpackers), and the only reason to spend a night in Brindisi is to catch the ferry to Greece the next morning.

Sicily

The largest Mediterranean island, Sicily, is a land of beauty, mystery, and world-class monuments. It's a bizarre mix of bloodlines and architecture from medieval Normandy, Aragonese Spain, Moorish North Africa, ancient Greece, Phoenicia, and Rome. Since the advent of modern times, part of the island's primitiveness has faded, as thousands of cars clog the narrow lanes of its biggest city, Palermo. Poverty remains widespread, yet the age-old stranglehold of the Mafia seems less certain because of the increasingly vocal protests of an outraged Italian public. On the eastern edge of the island is Mt. Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe. Many of Sicily's larger cities (Trapani, Catania, and Messina) are relatively unattractive, but areas of ravishing beauty and eerie historical interest include Syracuse, Taormina, Agrigento, and Selinunte. Sicily's ancient ruins are rivaled only by those of Rome itself. The Valley of the Temples is worth the trip here.

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