Italy is a surprisingly young country, with unification only occurring in the late 19th century. The idea of regional identity has, therefore, been able to maintain a strong hold amongst the Italians, with some even saying that to discover the real Italy with its great natural and human diversity, one has to delve into the hidden corners of these regions and find the quaint hilltop villages, quiet vineyards, historic towns and the true Italian way of life away from the main tourist sites. For others though, Italy is best found in the great cities and icons of the regions, from the Renaissance excesses of Florence, Pisa and Lucca to the Umbrian mediaeval cities of Perugia, Gubbio and St Francis’ Assisi.
In the diverse North of the country you can see the ancient university seat of Verona and Bolzano with its century old Ice Man and stunningly beautiful Venice with its fascinating islands. While, in the South, you will find the spectacularly cosmopolitan city of Naples as well as the Roman remains of Pompeii. And of course, who can visit Italy without a trip to the eternal city, Rome, centre of the ancient and catholic world.
Founded by the Etruscans, in ancient times Rome became the centre of Europe’s greatest Empire and one of the world’s great religions. These days it still offers an astonishing array of outstanding sights from the Roman Forum and Coliseum to the great Vatican Basilica of St Peter. A traveller can be easily awestruck by the richness of the city’s churches, monuments and museums. Rome is a city in which a phenomenal concentration of history, legend and icons co-exists with the hustle and bustle of its four million inhabitants. At New Year it becomes the centre of the catholic world with the Papal blessing “Urbi et Orbi”
Alto Adige, nestled in the rugged and mountainous region which adjoins the Austrian Tyrol, is known by its native German speakers as the “Sud Tyrol”. The passes which criss-cross the Alpine region of Europe have been thoroughfares since time immemorial, as evidenced by the discovery in 1991 of a 5,000 year-old man’s body, preserved in a glacier on the present Italo-Austrian border, who can now be found in the regions capital, Bolzano. The strategic nature of the passes is evidenced by the many fortified towns and villages that were designed to protect their inhabitants.
This Italian region, often referred to as the spur and heel of Italy’s boot, is a strategically located peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean Sea. Because of its location, Apulia was a major thoroughfare between the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and has been subjected to constant colonisation and invasion, which has shaped the very nature of its people. This heritage has resulted in a rich mixture of historic architectural styles from traditional Apulian and Greco-Roman to the Baroque and Norman castles. Now a secluded off the beaten tourist track part of Italy, Apulia has appeal for the many surprises that it offers.
The toe of Italy was occupied by the Greeks. Ever since those living in this part of Italy supported Hannibal’s cause against the Romans, the region has been dominated by foreign powers: Romans, Saracens, Normans, Swabians, Aragonese and Spanish. This has given rise to a proud and independent culture reflected in the magnificence of the environment which can be seen in the historic towns such as Gerace and Stilo, and the cliff top town of ancient Tropea, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.
From this rugged and dramatic land of rural villages and mountainous landscape, many Italian emigrants brought to the Antipodes their traditional culture that has helped shaped the persona of their new countries.
The ancient history of Campania is associated with the Etruscans and the Greeks whose gigantic ruins can be seen at Paestum. The early occupation of this region by the Greeks is most evident at the ancient Greek colony of Cuma and the Greek Temples at Paestum. This was followed by a period of great prosperity under Roman leadership, this heritage can be seen in the superb excavated remains at Pompeii and Herculaneum captured in the fateful eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. With its rich well-cultivated plains, the hinterland is largely eclipsed by the Amalfi Coastline, where beautiful villages such as Positano and Amalfi cling to the dramatic rocks above the Gulf of Salerno, and the dramatic Gulf of Naples. Naples itself is a chaotic yet spectacular metropolis that sprawls noisily around its bay showing an attractive ebullience. The nearby island, Capri, gives an air of serene and historic tranquillity.
Renowned as the gastronomic heart of Italy, this historic region straddles the Apennines on the River Po’s alluvial fringes and has long formed the break between the industrious north and the Mediterranean south. Perhaps this is one of the reasons it boasts such a rich culture of food production, renowned as it is for its pastas, rich sauces, Balsamic vinegar as well as the world famous Parma ham and cheese. The region has a number of interesting mediaeval cities: Parma with its mediaeval campanile and baptistery; Modena, a thriving colony since Roman times and now boasting a superlative Romanesque cathedral; and Ferrara, perhaps one of Italy’s finest mediaeval cities with its impressive D’Este castle
Friuli, Italy’s most north-easterly region, borders Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east, and is washed by the waters of the Adriatic. While it retains both Roman and Venetian characteristics, Friuli has been strongly influenced by neighbouring Hapsburg and Slovenian cultures, this fusion leading to the individuality and character of its people. Of note in the region are: Trieste, a city of dual identities as both Italian and Slovenian with its Romanesque Basilica decorated in Venetian style mosaics; Palmanova, where a typical fortified Venetian city was constructed and Aquileia, where we see some of the remains of this Roman city, made significant when the Emperor Augustus received Herod the Great; and Gorizia, with its pastel-painted houses along arcaded streets, which following the 1947 Treaty of Paris was placed part in Italy and part in Yugoslavia (now Slovenia).
This is an area of great contrast , containing both unspoilt mountainous regions with dramatic valleys and peaks, and the busy powerhouse of the Italian economy while dotted with agricultural towns of great beauty. Bordering the three regions of Triento to the north, Veneto to the south and east, and Lombardy to the west and south, this is the largest of the Italian Lakes. In the north, dramatic rocky cliffs and pine forests hug the shoreline, whereas in the south the countryside is gently undulating. From Lake Garda you can explore Lombardy, the Lombardian heritage and treasures, and Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, or stop off in Parma to learn about the production of Parmesan cheese and sample the famous Parma ham.
Surrounding the city of Rome and lying between the Apennines and the Tyrrhenian Sea, this is an area of gentle hills, volcanic lakes, olive groves and vineyards. During the time of the Roman Empire it was the place to retreat from the bustle of the city and in mediaeval times it became the cradle of the Papal States before again becoming the location for luxurious villas such as the Papal Castel Gandolfo. Lazio also contains a number of lesser known historic towns, such as Frascati, whose cathedral surprisingly contains the tomb of a Stuart Pretender. As well as these, the region is famous for its fresh white wine, its “porchetta”, its lamb and for being the origin for both amatriciana and carbonara sauces. In World War II, the region saw severe fighting with the siege of Montecassino and the landings at Anzio.
Genoa, the region’s capital and biggest port, lies between two distinctly different coastlines, the western Riviera Ponente, and the Riviera Levante on the east. During the Middle Ages it rivalled Venice for domination of the Mediterranean and seafaring trade routes, and went on to inspire Christopher Columbus to explore the seas. Neighbouring Piedmont meanwhile – originally part of the Duchy of Savoy – came to take a dominant role in the “Risorgimento”, the unification of Italy as the Savoy King became the first Monarch of the unified Italian state. The mountains rising steeply from the coastline frame quiet coastal villages and the bustling port.
The Mediterranean’s largest island suffered, like Calabria, from its strategic position near ‘the middle of the world’. Its history recounts stories of constant invasion and colonisation and its cultural heritage has been shaped by the many different peoples who have occupied it over centuries. Its natural features range from the lofty, smouldering Mount Etna to the tiny volcanic Aeolian Islands where you can discover many examples of former civilizations: from Phoenician and Carthaginian cities to Greek temples, Roman relics, Byzantine mosaics, Saracen domes and Norman castles and churches.
Trentino is dominated by the awe-inspiring scenery of the Dolomites which shape the life of the local inhabitants who, although Italian, have been long influenced by a history linked to the Austrian Hapsburg Empire. In fact, as the most southerly city of this empire, it was the location of Trento that led to the city’s most famous gathering, when the 16th century Council of Trent initiated the Counter Reformation. The city is now dominated by its fine Romanesque cathedral and richly decorated castle while its streets are lined with handsome Renaissance mansions. The region is renowned for its dairy produce and “Speck” as well as its dry fruity wines.
Tuscany is a region Renowned for its art, history and evocative landscape, where the past and present merge in pleasant harmony. Hill-towns gaze across the countryside from on high, many circled by Etruscan walls, such as Volterra with its Museo Guarnacci, one of the best collections of Etruscan artifacts in Italy. This is also the region of Chianti wine, pecorino cheese and the sublime use of local meats and vegetables to create some of the best dishes in Italy. Handsome palaces testify to the region’s wealth while mediaeval town halls indicate a long-standing tradition of self-government. This region boasts a several of the famous great Renaissance cities; Florence of Botticelli, Michelangelo and Donatello; the former city port of Pisa; and the ancient Roman colony of Lucca.
With its high mountain wilderness of oak woods, ice-clear streams and an expanse of gentle pastoral countryside this picturesque region has been dubbed the “Green Heart of Italy”. Until recently dismissed as Tuscany’s “gentler sister”, Umbria has now emerged from the shadow of its better-known neighbour to the west. A strikingly beautiful area with a profusion of fine historic hill-towns such as the region’s capital Perugia with its 15th century cathedral and university for foreigners and Spoleto with its magnificent 14th century aqueduct with views over the huge papal fortress of Rocca Albornoz. The region also boasts the Roman Fonti del Clitunno and Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis containing the Basilica di San Francesco, notable for frescos in part by Giotto and Orvieto, and situated magnificently on a volcanic crag.
The Veneto is a region of great diversity, from the foothills of the Dolomites to the flat marshlands of the Venetian lagoon. It is a fertile land where many crops are raised on silt deposits. The Romans built their frontier posts here and many of these, such as Vicenza, Padua and Verona survive to this day. Strategically placed at the hub of the Empire’s road network, these cities prospered under Roman rule but suffered under the subsequent Germanic invasions. It was only with the rise of the Venetian Empire that the region’s fortunes revived. It was this fortune which paid for the magnificence that it still today’s city of Venice. The mediaeval cities of the Veneto were located on important trade routes and the consequent wealth gained is reflected in Renaissance palaces and fine Palladian villas. Venice with its fine palaces dotted along glistening canals is arguably the most unique. However, Padua is a fine old university city rich in art and architecture and its Cappella degli Scrovegni is famed for its Giotto frescos. Vicenza is the city of Andrea Palladio and a walk around this fascinating city is a study in the evolution of his style, complemented by the architect’s fine Renaissance bridge in the scenic town of Bassano del Grappa. The region is also famed for its fish, the local Polenta and its slightly sparkling dry white wine.
The enormous plain of the River Po runs through much of Lombardy which stretches from the foothills of the Alps where Lakes Maggiore and Como are to be found, to the important economic and cultural city of Milan, and on to the rich agricultural heartland of the region’s south, dotted with historical towns of great beauty, such as Mantua, Pavia and Cremona. Cremona is famed for its exuberant part-Romanesque Cathedral with arguably the tallest medieval bell tower in Italy, but it is possibly best known for its two musical sons, the composer, Claudio Monteverdi, and the violin-maker, Stradivarius. In 2013, the town is celebrating its famous musical past with the opening of a new “Museum of Violins”.
Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta
Piedmont and the neighbouring autonomous region of the Valle d’Aosta are, apart from the cultural and historical splendors of the city of Turin, essentially rural. To the north lie the highest peaks of the Alps while to the south, the vine-clad hills around Barolo together with the countless fields of grain and rice, used in the local dish, risotto. From the 11th to the 18th century, both the verdant Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont were part of the French-speaking principality of Savoy which spanned the Alpine divide. It was only when the capital was moved to Turin in the 16th century that the region looked more to Italy, so much so that, during the Risorgimento of the 19th century, the western part of Savoy was handed to France and Piedmont underwrote the ambitious movement to unite Italy under the king in Turin. The vestiges of this history are to be found in the medieval castles of the Valle d’Aosta and in the surprisingly elegant Baroque city Turin. Piedmont is also the headquarters for FIAT, Olivetti and Ferrero but the region has not forgotten its agricultural roots with southern Piedmont producing many great Italian wines.
Learn about the history and culture of Turin with an exploration of its architecture and palaces foremost of these being its Renaissance cathedral containing the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Venaria Reale, the grandiose palace and extensive gardens which inspired Versailles and the Palazzo Reale. view the outstanding natural and historic splendour of the Valle d’Aosta with a guided visit to the ancient town of Aosta, known as the Rome of the Alps, as well as the highly decorated medieval castle of Issogne. explore the towns and villages of Piedmont such as the well preserved and historic town of Alba with its Romanesque cathedral and the dramatic Castle of Barolo on the rolling hills of the Langhe where the famous wine is produced which you can learn more about at an interactive wine museum and tasting at a local cellar.
Elba is Italy’s third largest island but is probably best known for its most famous resident, Napoleon Bonaparte, who stayed here for 9 months after the fall of Paris in 1814. The island is blessed with a varied landscape of sandy beaches on the west coast while the east is more rugged with high cliffs and stony beaches. There are some charming ports such as Portoferraio and Porto Azzurro, and some equally charming wines to be found on the local farms in Mola.
Le Marche and San Marino
Journey into the lesser known regions of Italy with an exploration of Le Marche and the captivating, ancient village of San Leo (recently moved by referendum to Emilia-Romagna but traditionally part of Le Marche). The imposing castle provided inspiration for Dante’s Purgartorio and Machiavelli considered to be the finest piece of military architecture in Italy.
Be sure to pause for a guided tour in Europe’s oldest republic, San Marino. Reputedly founded by the 4th century monk, St Marinus, who was fleeing Diocletian’s persecutions, this independent state gives us an insight into how the small pre-Italian republics must have functioned as well as offering stunning views to the Adriatic coast.
The medieval town of Urbino, birthplace of Raphael, and location of one of Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance palace, is the highlight of the region but the rolling hills of the interior contain an abundance of charming smaller towns and undiscovered villages. Most of the countryside is a pretty mixture of woods and remote hills dropping to attractive seaside towns such as Pesaro and Fano.
Learn about the history and culture of Le Marche and experience the Renaissance splendor of the Ducal Palace in Urbino, the historical port of Pesaro and hill top town of Macerata as well as the charming villages of Le Marche. Take the time to taste the local produce and learn about the life of the Italian composer Rossini.
Abruzzo and Molise
Dominated by the Apennine mountain range, the hinterland of Abruzzo and Molise forms one of Italy’s last wildernesses. Parts of Abruzzo are covered with forests, while Molise features high plains, gentle valleys and lonely peaks. The region boasts some charming Roman towns, medieval villages and breath-taking mountain views. These regions lie far from the usual tourist track and give us an insight to a beautiful rural Italy of yesteryear.
Learn about the history and culture of Abruzzo and Molise as you experience pretty hilltop villages such as Atri, with its warren of stepped streets and alleys, together with a visit to the nearby olive oil producing town of Loreto Aprutino for a tasting, as well as to view the impressive “calanchi” or cliffs of clay. Stop at the ancient Roman town of Teramo, with its ancient theatre and historical centre, and medieval Sulmona, famed as the birthplace of the Roman poet, Ovid, and for its sugared almonds or “confetti”, which are used, in Italy, to celebrate weddings and all important family events. Visit the stunning religious sanctuaries of the Abbey of San Clemente a Casauria, (founded in 871 and re-opened after the earthquake of 2009) and the hermitage of San Venanzio in Raiano. All this makes Abruzzo the perfect place to view some awesome mountain scenery, taste the delicious local produce and enjoy a performance of local folklore.
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