Ask an Italian where in the world they would most like to live, and the odds are that they will say “right here”. Indeed, most people – not just Italians – have raved about Italy since tourism began, and to be honest the country really does have it all: one of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in Europe; the world’s greatest hoard of art treasures (many on display in fittingly spectacular cities and buildings); a climate that is on the whole benign; and, most important of all for many, a delicious and authentic national cuisine. The country is not perfect – its historic cities have often been marred by development, and beyond the showpiece sights the infrastructure is visibly straining – but for its places to visit, many of the old clichés still ring true; once you’ve visited, you may never want to travel anywhere else.
Italy might be the world’s most celebrated tourist destination, but it only became a unified state in 1861, and as a result Italians often feel more loyalty to their region than to the nation as a whole – something manifest in its different cuisines, dialects, landscapes and often varying standards of living. However, if there is a single national Italian characteristic, it’s to embrace life to the full – in the hundreds of local festivals taking place across the country on any given day to celebrate a saint or the local harvest; in the importance placed on good food; in the obsession with clothes and image; and in the daily ritual of the collective evening stroll or passeggiata – a sociable affair celebrated by young and old alike in every town and village across the country.
There is also the country’s enormous cultural legacy: Tuscany alone has more classified historical monuments than any country in the world; there are considerable remnants of the Roman Empire all over the country, notably in Rome itself; and every region retains its own relics of an artistic tradition generally acknowledged to be among the world’s richest. Yet if all you want to do is chill out, there’s no reason to be put off. There are any number of places to just lie on a beach, from the resorts filled with regimented rows of sunbeds and umbrellas favoured by the Italians themselves, to secluded and less developed spots. And if you’re looking for an active holiday, there’s no better place: mountains run the country’s length – from the Alps and Dolomites in the north right along the Apennines, which form the spine of the peninsula; skiing and other winter sports are practised avidly; and wildlife of all sorts thrives in the country’s national parks.Read More
The taste of real Italian ice cream, eaten in Italy, is absolutely unbeatable. Gelato, as it’s known, is the country’s favourite dessert, and there’s no better way to end a day, as Italians do, than with a stroll through the streets sampling a gelato while enjoying the cool of the evening. Italian ice cream really is better than any other, and like most Italian food this is down to the local insistence on using whole milk and eggs, and adding only naturally derived flavours. Everywhere but the tiniest village will have at least one gelateria, and many cafés serve ice cream as well. If you want to sample the very best, look for the signs saying “artigianale”, which means that the ice cream is produced according to strictly traditional methods, or “produzione propria”, which means it’s home-made. There’s usually a veritable cornucopia of flavours (gusti) to choose from, from those regarded as the classics – like lemon (limone) and hazelnut (nocciola) – through staples including vanilla with chocolate chips (stracciatella) and strawberry (fragola), to house specialities that might include cinnamon (canella), chocolate with chilli pepper (cioccolato con peperoncino) or even pumpkin (zucca).
Calcio – football, or soccer – is Italy’s national sport, and enjoys a big following across the country. It’s usually possible to get tickets to see one of the top sides – as long as they’re not playing each other – and it’s one of the best introductions to modern Italian culture you’ll find.
Since World War II, Italian football has been dominated by Internazionale and AC Milan (of Milan) and Juventus (Turin), who have between them won the scudetto or Serie A (Italy’s premier division) 54 times. It’s a testament to the English origins of the game that AC Milan, as well as another big club, Genoa, continue to use anglicized names, and to sport the cross of St George in their insignia. Unfortunately, the other thing that has been copied from the English is hooliganism, which remains a problem in Italian football, along with a latent degree of racism, and, perhaps most notoriously, corruption – the country still hasn’t forgotten the match-fixing scandal of 2006 (“Calciopoli”), and allegations regularly resurface at the highest levels. Juventus, AC Milan and Inter remain the top three teams, although the two Rome clubs, AS Roma and to a lesser extent SS Lazio, regularly do well, although Lazio’s star has faded in recent years and their fans are perceived as among the worst examples of Italy’s right-wing lunatic fringe. In Tuscany, Fiorentina reckon themselves a big club, while in the south Napoli are beginning to relive their Eighties “glory days”, when they were led by Diego Maradona, although they still struggle to fill their giant 80,000 capacity stadium. We’ve given details of the big city clubs in the Guide, but wherever you are, grab one of Italy’s three sports papers – Gazzetta dello Sport, Corriere dello Sport and Tuttosport – to see what’s on.