Western culture as we know it today traces its roots back to the boot-shaped country of Italy. A legacy that has left its mark on over 40 UNESCO world heritage sites, making it the most endowed in the world. Italy, or more precisely Tuscany, is regarded to be the breeding ground of the renaissance movement, with natural beauty and heritage culture still very much a main drawcard for the country's tourism.
Much of the history, such as the controversial Shroud of Turin or Pompeii's infamy has become common knowledge in the modern era. The Etruscan civilisation preceded the Roman Empire of history book greatness, with traceable history starting eight centuries BC. Thousands of years on, the beautiful country has developed into a traveller-favourite, attracting both backpacking vagabonds and well-heeled gadlings seeking to reawaken their inspirations.
Interesting Facts about Italy:
- University of Bologna is the first and oldest continually operating higher learning institution in the world, established in 1088.
- Italians didn't 'invent' pasta - the Chinese have been eating similar noodle dishes for millennia. Italian law specifies dry pasta to be made from durum wheat, an ingredient that was introduced by the Arabs during their 7th century conquest of Sicily.
- When the mythical twin founders of Rome - Romulus & Remus - were born, they were left to die by their great-uncle, but were saved and suckled by a she-wolf before a shepherd's family took them in.
- Up to €3,000 worth of coins is thrown into Rome's Trevi fountain each day, which is then collected to go towards the Caritas charity.
- In 2007, Hong Kong business tycoon Stanley Ho shelled out US$ 330,000 for a white truffle charity auction. Unearthed in Tuscany, the single 3.3lb specimen outweighed the Croatian Guinness record holder by over a pound.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do … or did, for the last few millennia. The town centre is unsurprisingly a World Heritage gem, with a historical piazza (square), impressive palazzo (palace), ornate fountain fed by the city's famed aqueduct network, or magnificent cathedral at every turn.
Roman structures represent stepping stones in the history of the Western civilisation, each with a great story to tell. Travellers can walk in the footsteps of gladiators at the Colosseum or stand at the former political centre of the civilised universe at the Roman Forum.
Visitors who run out of time to take it all in - shopping for high fashion at Via Condotti, enjoying the nightlife at Trastevere, hitting the beach at Ostia, finding peace in one of Rome's 900 some churches - should throw a coin into the baroque Trevi Fountain prior to leaving, ensuring their return to the 'Eternal City'.
Inland Milan & Coastal Sites
Not all tourist roads lead to Rome, however, with Italy boasting an array of attractions throughout the country. If Rome represents the centre of ancient Italy, then Milan is the country's cosmopolitan core of today (or, according to an Italian saying, Rome is the voluptuous, obviously beautiful woman vs. Milan, the demure girl with inner beauty to be discovered).
Trendy boutiques and luxury stores provide retail therapy, while sites such as the gothic Duomo cathedral stir inspiration from deeper within. Not far from the town centre is Lake Como, a sprawling idyllic lake with several quaint towns dotting its banks.
Two of the largest islands in the Mediterranean sea - Sardinia and Sicily - help stretch out the Italian coastline to cover 7,600 kilometres, more than double that of neighbouring metropolitan France.
The recognisably jagged terrain of the Amalfi Coast, dotted with scenic towns, is also a popular oceanside destination.
The poster child of la dolce vita is the central region of Italy. Known as the land that inspired the renaissance movement, Tuscany was home to some of the biggest names in arts and sciences (think Michelangelo and da Vinci).
Approximately one tenth of all the World's Cultural Heritage treasures are in Tuscany, including Val d'Orcia, a countryside region so aesthetic that it set the benchmark of how artists portrayed landscapes from then on.
The 'Art Capital' of Florence boasts more architectural masterpieces, with medieval walls, gothic squares, and museums - such as the world renowned Uffizi Gallery - housing the artistic expressions of mankind's best.
A monument whose structure is sometimes used interchangeably to symbolise Italy, is the wonky Leaning Tower of Pisa, one of the most visited and photographed sites in Tuscany.
Italian cuisine is the best loved food in the world. However, unlike having a slice of pizza in front of the television, a traditional Italian meal is more of a get-together with food as bait.
It's not surprising that some of the most coveted ingredients originate from here, such as white truffles from Alba or prosciutto ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Parma.
Other dishes loved the world over include risotto, lasagna, and dessert-favourites tiramisu and panna cotta. You can always find a gelateria around during summertime for a quick brain-freeze, an osteria to try some regional cuisine, a pizzeria for a few slices of the wood-fired favourite, or a spaghetteria for a range of pasta dishes.
In the main cities, classy ristorante's serve up fancy food and an experience of a lifetime. To complement any meal, Italy's twenty wine regions produce a variety of vintage (emphasis on red), with Toscana Chianti and Piedmontese Barolo two of the most well known.
Villa Holidays in Italy
The beauty of Italy is eternally immortalised in renaissance art, with its aura of amore also commonly acknowledged in modern culture joost-a like Dean Martin's croon. Booking a private residence is a great way to avoid the crowds, providing the perfect base camp for you and your loved ones to search out an inspiriting holiday in a country that has inspired so many greats before.
Travel & Transport
Rome's Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport (aka Fiumicino Airport), is the busiest and most well connected in the country. Airports at all the main cities also offer domestic and several international connections - Milan's Malpensa Airport, Pisa's Galileo Galilei Airport, and the Marco Polo Airport in Venice. Yacht charters are also a popular - and picturesque - way to travel between coastal cities. Most main cities are notorious for their traffic, but fortunately, most of them are easily walkable with convenient public transportation.
Italy Top 5 Travel Tips [Bucket List]
1. Espresso of Emotions
Contrary to what big coffee chains will have you think, the only Italian authenticity in wired drinks like 'frappuccino' is the fact that espresso machines were invented in Italy. With a culture of coffee drinking and cultivating, try a locally-produced Illy or Lavazza cup in a streetside caffé. Note that sitting down to people watch on the cobblestone streets costs more than a simple takeaway.
2. Stairway to Heaven
The Pantheon, where prayers to ancient Roman gods were once heard, boasts the largest un-reinforced dome in the world. Held up under its own weight with a simple hole at its apex, nip inside if it's raining to see celestial waters pour through the oculus (and to enjoy sculptures and paintings). It's still used as a functioning church, so keep your voices down.
3. Bella Napoli
Its name is lent to both three-quarter trousers and a mozzarella-and-tomato salad, but the island of Capri off Naples has been delighting ancient royalty and big-names in entertainment since the 17th century. Find out the best time to visit Blue Grotto - a sea cave illuminated with mesmerising blue depending on the time of day.
4. Romantic Roulette
The romance of rowing through Venetian canals in intimate gondolas has inspired renaissance painters and flashy casino designers alike. With a limited 450 or so gondoliers navigating the waterways in Venice, bliss doesn't come cheap, but splash out and take the hit - as the MasterCard ads keep reminding us, experiences such as this are priceless.
5. Ars Gratia Artis
Art is the reward of art, and it's on display for all to share at the Vatican Museum. In the Catholic state enclaved within Rome, Latin isn't the only dead-but-not part of the religious culture. While you're there, the exquisite St.Peter's Basilica is a must, as well as a stop at the ATM machine, the only one of its kind in the world featuring instructions in Latin.
- When In Rome
In the immortal words (or thereabouts) of Shakespeare, a fountain by any other name is still a fountain.
- Italian Stallion
Palio di Siena is more than just a horse race, is an institution and the highlight of the year in Tuscany.
- Bricks and Mortar
Buildings in Italy provide a tangible expression of otherwise abstract themes of history, art movements, and religion.
- La dolce Toscana
Indulging in the sweet life for a memory of a lifetime.