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La dolce vita – life the Italian way

Even if you lack Italian blood, you can experience Italy to its fullest on holiday.

On the map

With its remarkable geographical diversity spanning over 1,185 kilometres from top to bottom, Italy has something to offer for every taste. From the peaks of the Alps in the north, to the beautiful seas to the east, south and west, to the rolling hills and beautiful ancient vineyards that define many of the country’s interior landscapes. The pleasant Mediterranean climate ensures hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters, though the climate can vary slightly locally. If you have flexible travel dates, book a holiday for spring or autumn. Crowds are smaller in the touristy areas and you’ll avoid the heat of summer, which can be unbearable at its peak.

One country, many cultures

Italy is as culturally diverse as its landscapes and climate. In terms of culture, Italy’s northernmost residents have more in common with Austrians and Bavarians than with Southern Italians. As one famous saying goes “For every church in Rome, there’s a bank in Milan”. While this is a huge generalisation, many would agree there is a cultural divide between the North and the South. Nevertheless, each region offers its own unique trove of treasures to discover.

Buon appetito – enjoy your meal!

Much more than just pizza and pasta, arguably Italy’s most famous international exports, Italian cuisine is nutritious, delicious and full of variety. Its focus on seasonal, regional ingredients and simple preparation reflects the essence of the so-called Mediterranean diet. Tourists often wonder what the secret to Italy’s amazing food is, but actually there is no big secret at all: it’s simply traditionally grown and raised ingredients that are eaten at their peak. No wonder the Slow Food movement has its roots here!

The heights of Italy’s North

Mountains and lakes are probably not the first associations you have with Italy. But in the country’s northern territory they set an awe-inspiring backdrop for daily life. Each year in winter countless tourists come to the Alps to hit the ski slopes. Come warm weather, hikers abound along the beautiful mountain paths or relax along the shores of Lake Como, Lake Maggiore and Lake Garda in the spectacular lake district. Must-see cities in the north include the world fashion capital of Milan, Verona, the setting of Shakespeare’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliet, and, of course, the utterly romantic Venice, with its maze of canals and waterways that link a total of 117 islands. Don’t be surprised if you encounter rice here more often than pasta: the northern region of Lombardy is also home to the delicious creamy rice dish known as risotto.

Under central Italy’s sun

The epicentre of the Italian Renaissance, the city of Florence is a must-see on a visit to the central Italian region of Tuscany. The city bursts with some of the world’s greatest treasures, including the Uffizi Gallery where visitors can admire works by Botticelli, da Vinci, Tiziano and many other famous European artists, and the Accademia Gallery, well known as the residence of Michelangelo’s statue of David. It’s also worth taking a stroll across Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence, to admire the scenery and browse the shops that line it.  Just 43 km from Florence lies the immacu­lately preserved medieval city of Siena. If you happen to set foot in the city on 2 July or 16 August you’re in for a special sight: twice a year The Palio, a traditional bareback horse race from the Middle Ages, takes place on Piazza del Campo at the heart of Siena. Along its stunning coastline, Tuscany also boasts the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Landlocked Umbria may not offer direct ac­cess to the sea, but it’s full of delightful towns and villages and lovely panoramas. Drive through the windy countryside roads and go village hopping, being sure to stop at the charming villages in the Vale of Spoleto. Pink-stoned Assisi is also a popular destination, especially among pilgrims tracing the foot­steps of St. Francis who was born and buried here.

All roads lead to Rome

Aptly nicknamed “The Eternal City”, Rome, Italy’s capital, is a vibrant, colourful city in the Lazio region with strong historical roots. In contrast to places like Florence, where visitors can feel they’re surrounded only by tourists, in this city on the Tiber River, you’ll rub elbows with plenty of natural-born Romans. Must-see sights include the Colosseum where the gladiators once competed, the Pantheon, originally a temple to the Roman gods that dates back to 2 B.C., and Vatican City, the Catholic church’s headquarters and home to another of Michelangelo’s masterpieces: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The southwest coast

A visit to the Campania region, located just south of Lazio, is an encounter with an array of fascinating cities and sites. In Naples, the third largest city in Italy, explore the ancient streets and monuments. In pizza’s birthplace, make sure to treat yourself to a memorable meal. When scouting out a place to eat, remember that the most delicious, authentic pizzas are cooked in wood-fired ovens. From Naples, you can quickly reach many of the region’s other attractions. The archaeological site of Pompeii is around 25 kilometres to the southeast while the foot of Mount Vesuvius, which famously erupted to bury Pompeii in AD 79, is just 9 kilometres to the east. If you’ve hired a car, cruise the coastal road to the south and enjoy breath-taking views of the glittering Amalfi coast.

The bottom of the boot

In Italy’s southernmost territories are the regions of Apulia (Puglia in Italian), the heel of the boot, and Calabria, the toe. These lesserexplored areas are a delight to visit. Historically a farming region, Puglia offers both charming inland landscapes dotted with orchards, olive groves and traditional trulli dwellings, adorable white-washed limestone houses. Along the magnificent 840 kilometres of coastline there are jagged cliffs, wild whitesand beaches and smaller crowds. A further highlight: the baroque city of Lecce. If you had to describe Calabria in one word the choice is obvious: hilly.

Only around 10% of the area’s land lies flat, thanks mostly to the Apennine mountain range that forms the backbone of the region. Historically, the mountainous terrain protected inhabitants from attack as they could easily escape into the thickly-forested mountains. Today much of the area is protected as a national forest, sparing it from the development that overruns many parts of Italy. In the interior, Calabria’slandscapes are covered with prickly pear, a refreshing cactus-like fruit, as well as olives,peaches and pears. It’s also blessed with a wide variety of beaches, from pebbly to sandy.Towns worth visiting include Pizzo and Tropea, and if you do venture all the way to Calabria, you must try a tasty spreadable sausage called ’nduja.

Just across from Calabria to the west lies Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean. Its location has long made it a crossroads between Africa and Europe and the island boasts a rich, diverse history as well as remarkable geographical landmarks. The eastern side of the island is punctuated by Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano. The colourful city of Palermo, set directly on the sea with its eye-catching Arab-inspired domes, scattering of green gardens and bustling Vucciria market, is worth a stop if you venture to the northwest corner. Here we’ve just scraped the surface of all the sights, sounds and scents to absorb and enjoy in bella Italia. Why not discover the rest for yourself!