Twenty reasons we’ll return to Italy, they said. Twenty: is that all? There are 20 paintings that would take me back; 20 restaurants, 20 views, 20 hill towns; 20 of much else besides.
Because no other country has Italy’s riches, its peerless combination of art, culture, food, wine, fashion, opera, people and landscape; nor its vivid blend of the old and new, the beguiling and the beautiful.
Above all Italy has extraordinary variety, not least its art – you don’t like Gothic: then how about the Romanesque or the glories of the ancient world? Not keen on Giotto: then what about Raphael, Michelangelo or Leonardo?
And landscape. What other country has Italy’s range, from the Alps in the north to Sicily’s wild uplands in the south by way of Amalfi, the Lakes and the pastoral perfection of Tuscany and Umbria?
We could go on. My list is just a start. Italophiles will have their own variations and additions – if you do, then please leave comments.
In the meantime, here’s to the time we can once again stare in wonder at the Sistine Chapel, walk medieval streets on a balmy summer evening and indulge Italy’s other wonderful and countless pleasures.
1. The Italians
You can’t love a country without, if not loving its people, at least liking them. Obviously we’re dealing in national stereotypes. We also know that Italians often see themselves primarily as Tuscans or Sicilians, say, or Venetians or Neapolitans, rather than Italians. But they’re likeable all the same: realists, cynics even; passionate and noisy, but also formal and conservative; pragmatic and self-reliant; spontaneous and gregarious, and with a sensual appreciation of the finer things in life – and no wonder in a country where the finer things in life are so widespread.
2. Glorious gardens
Gardens are everywhere in Italy, from the villas of the Veneto and Italian Lakes in the north to the olives-shaded estates of Tuscany and lemon-scented courtyards of Sicily in the south. Personal favourites include Ninfa (frcaetani.it), south of Rome; Hanbury (giardinihanbury.com) near Ventimiglia; the Villa Carlotta (villacarlotta.it) on Lake Como; La Mortella (lamortella.org) on Ischia; and the weird and wonderful Tarot Gardens (ilgiardinodeitarocchi.it) in northern Lazio. Visit grandigiardini.it for details of other major gardens open to the public.
3. Historic small towns
Cities might seem Italy’s thing – Rome, Florence and Venice, with Milan and Naples close behind – but it’s the surfeit of beautiful small towns that make up much of the country’s appeal. Tuscany and Umbria have them in abundance, but every region has its star turns: favourites include Sulmona in the Abruzzo; Enna, Erice and Noto in Sicily; Matera in Basilicata; Tropea in Calabria; Ostuni in Puglia; Ascoli Piceni in the Marche; Ravenna in Emilia-Romagna; Camogli in Liguria. The list is long…
4. The outdoors
Italy is a country to be relished indoors – all those churches and galleries – but also outdoors. Its ski resorts are world-class – think Alta Badia, Courmayeur and Cervinia. You can canoe, sail, kayak and dive on the Lakes or off Sicily, Sardinia, the Cinque Terre and Amalfi Coast. Or indulge in gentle hikes and bike rides in Tuscany and Umbria or multi-day treks and circuits on long-distance trails in the Alps and beyond. And how about paragliding in Umbria (sarnanoturismo.it), white-water rafting in Calabria (raftingfiumelao.com) or tracking wolves in the Abruzzo (wildlifeadventures.it)?
5. A beautiful language
Everything sounds better in Italian. It’s the language of love, of music, and nothing comes close if you want to get worked up about something. Even the banal comes out with a singsong beauty, so even if you barely understand a word, the background babble of Italian in any setting is one more reminder that you are in a delightful country. And unlike some nationalities one could mention – that’ll be the French – the Italians love you making an effort, however dreadful, to speak their language.
6. The lure of the Lakes
Poets and painters have celebrated the Italian Lakes for centuries, and no wonder, for they represent some of Europe’s loveliest landscapes. Luxuriant gardens and idyllic villages scatter their mild-weathered shores, with the wooded slopes and snow-capped peaks of the Alps as backdrop. Maggiore and Garda are the most visited, Como the most beautiful; Iseo and Orta the quietest.
Opera’s roots are Italian, as are most of its greatest composers – Verdi, Rossini, Puccini, Monteverdi, Bellini, Donizetti. Italy also has two of the world’s best-known opera houses – La Scala and La Fenice – but beautiful theatres are also found in Bologna, Palermo, Treviso, Prato and Ferrara. Seasonal festivals proliferate, notably the Festival dell’Arena in Verona (arena.it), the Festival Verdi in Parma (teatroregioparma.it); the Festival Puccini (puccinifestival.it) near Lucca; the Macerata Opera Festival (sferisterio.it) in the Marche; and the Rossini Opera Festival (rossinioperafestival.it) in Pesaro.
8. A world-class cuisine
Not French, not fancy, but somehow perfect – Italian food is healthy; the ingredients – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables – are fresh; the quality is first-rate; there is huge regional variety – dumplings and strudel near the Austrian border, couscous and Arab-style peppers down in Sicily – and the cooking methods are quick and simple. The principal staple – pasta – is endlessly versatile; the fast food – pizza – has no peers; and as for pudding, where would we be without ice cream?
9. A way with drinks
No one is pretending Italian wine is the world’s best, though recent years have seen the emergence of innovative new producers and some groundbreaking wines. Old names have been revitalised (Chianti, Valpolicella, Soave), taking their place alongside wines that have long been revered (Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello). Sicily is an emerging powerhouse, so too Franciacorte in Lombardy and Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast. If the wine doesn’t please, there are spirits, liqueurs and aperitifs – grappa, Cinzano, Campari, limoncello, Sambuca – and some celebrated cocktails (Negronis, Bellinis).
10. The cult of coffee
These days we can buy our lattes, espressos, macchiatos and cappuccinos almost anywhere in the world, but where do the words, and the drinks, come from – Italy, of course. Great coffee is a given in any Italian bar, and has been for decades, long before the arrival of Starbucks and other upstarts. Indulge in the associated rituals for the full Italian experience – standing at the bar, not sitting, for example; latte in a glass (al vetro) in Rome and elsewhere; and never touching a cappuccino after noon…
Plenty of countries have mountains, but only Italy has the Dolomites, Europe’s most dramatic upland region. You could make claims for the Pyrenees but they lack the distinctive spires and rock pinnacles of the Dolomites’ many and jumbled massifs. And only Italy has Mount Etna, Europe’s highest and most active volcano, and not one but two great ranges: the Alps and the long central spine of the Apennines, still the haunt of wolves and bears and landscapes that range from Tuscany’s jagged Alpi Apuane to the immense wilderness of the Abruzzo.
Like everyone, the Italians have discovered cheap leisurewear, and sartorial standards are not what they were in the land of Armani, Valentino, Prada, Versace, Schiaparelli, Pucci, Gucci, Fendi, Ferragamo and more. That said, the Italians still value the notion of la bella figura – of cutting a fine figure – and can always turn on the style. You can buy, or window shop the big names in the main streets of Milan, Florence and other major cities, but don’t overlook smaller centres such as Como for silk, Biella for cashmere and Cogne for lace.
You’d need several lifetimes to embrace Italy’s extraordinary architectural heritage. Every Italian town has a treasure: a Romanesque, Gothic or Baroque church; an abbey; a Roman or Etruscan monument; a lovely medieval piazza; a Renaissance palace. That’s before the country’s big set pieces, such as its great religious buildings – St Peter’s, St Mark’s and the cathedrals of Milan, Florence, Siena and Orvieto; or the many masterpieces of the ancient world and the sumptuous ducal palaces of Venice, Mantua and Urbino.
The world would be an infinitely poorer place without Rome or Florence, but a world without Venice? Of course it’s a city with problems, but you can easily escape its more troubling elements. Venice casts its spell year round, so visit in winter; walk to the fringes, far from St Mark’s, to San Nicolò dei Mendicoli in the west, Madonna dell’Orto in the north; explore the empty, echoing alleys at night; and spend a week here, more if you can, to uncover a sense of the living city beyond its superficial image.
15. Island escapes
Italy’s mainland is such a patchwork of fine landscapes that it’s easy to overlook its islands. Not the obvious ones like Capri, but those such as the Isole Tremiti off Puglia, still little known to outsiders; and Ponza, a beautiful bolt hole for Romans in the know; or Capraia and Elba, close to the Tuscan mainland; and the Aeolian and Egadi islands – Lipari and Marettimo in particular – off the Sicilian coast.
16. Coastal gems
Italy is not all superlatives. Its beaches, for example – save in Sardinia – are not the best. But it does have sublime stretches of coastline. Amalfi and the Cinque Terre are the most celebrated but there are quieter but almost equally beautiful alternatives, especially in the South. In Puglia, make for the Gargano and Salento, two peninsulas of cliffs, crescent sands and turquoise seas, and in Campania, south of Naples, head for the Cilento, a wild, rocky enclave scattered with lovely villages such as Acciaroli, Agropoli and Santa Maria di Castellabate.
17. Galleries galore
Italy’s has more than its share of world-class art galleries – the Uffizi in Florence, the Accademia in Venice, the Brera in Milan and the Vatican’s collections in Rome. But even apparently modest Italian towns have paintings that would have star billing elsewhere. Perugia’s Galleria Nazionale, for example, full of Umbrian masterpieces; or the Carrara in Bergamo; the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino; the Galleria Regionale in Palermo, the Pinacoteca in Siena; the Museo Civico in Vicenza and many more.
18. Art on the ground
Art galleries are one thing but in Italy, more than any other European country, exceptional art is still found in the places for which it was commissioned. The Sistine Chapel and Leonardo’s Last Supper are the most famous examples, but what about the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, where Giotto, Cimabue and Simone Martini changed the course of Western art? Or Signorelli in Orvieto cathedral, Masaccio in Florence’s Cappella Brancacci and Giotto – again – in the Cappella Scovegni in Padua?
19. The ancient world
Other countries can lay claim to the odd Roman ruin – an amphitheatre here, a Hadrian’s Wall there – and Greece has no shortage of monuments to its ancient past. But Italy combines Greek ruins – notably Sicily’s 2,000-year-old temples and theatres – with countless remains from 1,000 years of Roman history. Pompeii stands alone among the latter, followed by the greatest monuments of Rome itself, the Colosseum and Pantheon, but countless towns have memorials to a Roman past – a theatre (Aosta), an aqueduct (Spoleto), an arena (Verona).
Of course it’s a cliché, but what a cliché. Everything that goes to make the good life is here: urbane towns and cities filled with art and culture – Florence, Siena and Lucca and smaller gems such as Pienza, Sovana and Cortona; fine food; excellent wine; and a variety of exquisite landscapes, from the vineyards of Chianti and pastoral hills of the Val d’Orcia to the islands of Elba and Capraia and the mountains of the Orecchiella and Alpi Apuane.Read More