Italy: a petite and whimsically shaped country of a mere 116,000 square miles yet still comprised of 20 diverse regions. It's not hard to decide to choose Italy as your destination, but I'm about to make it a million times harder to choose just where to go. For the bulk of 2014, I'll be regularly sharing the possibilities of each region in depth. To start though: a brief overview so you can catch a glimpse of which regions you'll look forward to most. You could easily lose a month to any one of these amazing places; depending on what appeals to you, may wish for more! I won't waste time on basics you can easily find, but suggest when to go, what experiences await, plus include a sampling of the cultural and historical influences unique to each, especially in the context of food. Because yay, food!
Map courtesy of Wiki Commons
Lovers of wine and culture will inevitably drool over Piemonte. You can enjoy all the culture and elegance of a big city in Turin, then continue to the venerable vineyards around Asti and Alba. Sip on a Barolo before heading to the incredible fall truffle events, or retreat into the countryside for a picnic in summer.
Cuneo, Piemonte, Italy
Photo courtesy Claudio71 on Flickr
Skiers and hikers rejoice! The Aosta region is an Alpine paradise, with wildflower-draped valleys in summer and world-class skiing in winter. Framed by stunning Alpine peaks, this is also where you can traverse Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) via cable car and spend a day in France too if you wish. In the mood for a castle? Check out the 13th century Castello di Fenis, close to the city of Aosta.
Gran Paradiso National Park/Valle d'Aosta
Photo courtesy stijn on Flickr
Liguria is the home of fresh and tasty Pesto, and perhaps most infamously: the stunning Cinque Terre. While it is certainly the spot to go if you're in love with colorful villages tumbling down to a cliff-lined sea, you can also visit Genova's world-class aquarium or live the high-roller fantasy in San Remo.
Rapallo at dusk.
Photo courtesy Eric on Flickr
Headed up by the cosmopolitan city of Milan, this region is also home to the stunning Lake District, which includes Como (maybe you'll spot George Clooney!) and Maggiore. Experience the Certosa of Pavia just south of Milan, or pay a visit to Cremona, "Citta dei Violini". Its far northern reaches brush the Alps and it shares a border with Lake Garda. Much of the food is hearty and rib-sticking, and is of course home to the popular dish of Osso Buco.
Photo courtesy Hozinja on Flickr
Also referred to as Sud-Tirol, you'll find a distinct German influence in this region, with German even the common language in some towns. Skiing is a huge draw here as well, with the town of Bolzano making for an excellent base. In Trentino, the mighty Dolomites rise in the north, creating a stunning backdrop punctuated by decidedly unexpected architectural styles.
Photo courtesy Michael Gebicki on Flickr
Dominated by the inimitable city of Venice, the Veneto region also lays claim to the posh resort town of Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy's Aspen. It is also home to the romantic cities of Padua and Verona (but not Mantua!) and the wealthy city of Vicenza, renowned for its goldsmiths. Villas by the legendary architect Palladio and his students are strewn through the countryside as well. Ponte dei SospiriDawn overlooking a canal crossed by the famous Bridge of Sighs: Ponte dei Sospiri in Venice
A tiny region often mistaken as the home of Venice, Friuli sits in the very north-east corner of Italy. Popping over to Slovenia, Austria, or Croatia is an easy way to add some of Europe's most beautiful destinations to your itinerary. This is also where some terrific white wines and festive Prosecco are made.
Photo courtesy Tomislav Mavrovic on Flickr
This is the stomach of Italy, where some of its most iconic culinary exports originated and are still made. Once you've had local Prosciutto, Parmigiano, or Balsamico di Modena, nothing else will ever compare. Start with the cerebral yet gourmet city of Bologna, head to Ravenna for mosaics and a seaside break, or investigate the erstwhile castles scattered in the west and north of the region.
Photo courtesy Scott Haddow on Flickr
Easily the most famous region by far (remember Under the Tuscan Sun?), Tuscany is one of the larger of the twenty. Of course you can't ignore a place that holds icons like Florence, Pisa, and the Chianti region in its portfolio. You can also visit Carrara, where Michelangelo and many others sourced the marble that became breathtaking works of art. If you enjoy a very Italian beach visit, Tuscany boasts that too. Driving among the rolling hills, it's impossible not to understand why this is the darling of travelers and expats the world over.
Photo courtesy Maarten Van Hoof on Flickr
Sitting squarely in the shadow of its popular, successful sibling, Umbria is no slouch either. It is famous for its evocative towns perched atop hills, plus enjoys hosting the famous town of Assisi. Umbria is more rugged than Tuscany, verging to mountains in the east, but still offering something for water lovers in its lovely Lake Trasimeno or the Marmore Falls. This is also the place to go for lovers of truffles, jazz festivals, and chocolate - to name a few reasons.
Photo courtesy Diego Fornero on Flickr
Another region that only recently has enamored the international traveling community, Le Marche is small but boasts a great deal of landscape variety and will satisfy most any interest. Medieval mountain towns like Urbino seem untouched by time, and there are dramatic cliff-backed beaches near Ancona. The Sibillini mountains edge into the southern end, and the independent state of San Marino is perched on top.
Photo courtesy Anguskirk on Flickr
Ah, Rome's home! It's easy to hit up Rome and nothing else while in what was once the center of an empire. Since Rome hogs all the attention, you can enjoy the tiny island of Ponza as a shared secret with those in-the-know, then explore former summer playgrounds of popes and emperors on your way to Abruzzo, Campagna, or Umbria. Campo NunsNuns crossing the Campo dei Fiori in Rome early in the morning.
Little visited, Abruzzo is a great add-on when visiting Lazio, Umbria, Le Marche, or Molise. Highlighted by the stunning Appenine mountains, the region is dramatically rugged. Visit the ancient yet surprisingly youthful town of L'Aquila, or beach it up in Pescara. Those who yearn for dramatic outdoor adventures will gravitate to the Gran Sasso or Majella parks.
Photo courtesy Alessandro Tortora on Flickr
Possibly the least visited by foreign tourists and often lumped together with Abruzzo, Molise is the second smallest region in Italy. It's about as off-the-beaten-path as you can get before arriving in Basilicata or Calabria, perhaps even more so. Still, for those who like to go against the grain, you'll find a coastline peppered with the unusual fishing platforms called Trabucchi and rolling countryside. Pleasantly free of big cities, you can still get your "town" fix in Termoli or Campobasso.
Photo courtesy M1979 on Flickr
From the chaos of Naples to the well-heeled fame of the Amalfi Coast, Campania is a study in constrasts. There is plenty to experience, not the least of which is Pompeii. For a little more rare experience, check out Ercolano or veer inland for the opulent Caserta, which can go head-to-head with Versailles in drama and excess. Skip over Capri and check out the less mobbed Ischia or Procida for laid back island life. Mattina da PraianoMorning breaks the clouds on the Amalfi Coast from a balcony over Praiano.
Often called Apulia, this is one of the most diverse and pleasantly surprising regions. It hosts the UNESCO World Heritage site of Alberbello, gorgeous beaches, dusty olive groves, and in spring, fields of poppies waist-deep. Little known is just how much amazing wine is produced here, at a fraction of the price of wines from more famouns vineyards. Puglia stretches all the way to the dramatic Gargano Peninsula and down to the very bottom of the heel where Greece or Dubrovnik is just a ferry ride away. The NetsFishing nets waiting in the sun in Gallipoli, Italy.
Remote, mountainous, and filled with ancient history, Basilicata is currently best known for the utterly unique town of Matera. This is where you'll find ancient Sassi, cave homes that were only vacated in the last century. The massive Appenine mountain range, which runs almost the length of Italy, finishes in Basilicata. Potenza is the capital, a lovely starting point for an unusual and dramatic locale. Il Passato RimaneView over Matera
Plagued by poverty and the N'Drageta organized crime, Calabria is the source of many Italians who emigrated to the Americas in the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite these struggles, Calabria is still beautiful. Here you'll find green mountains, broad plains, and even cacti. Best known for the tiny yet stunning resort town of Tropea, there is plenty to keep you enthralled in a journey through the boot's toe - perhaps as you make your way to Sicily.
Photo courtesy Zurgo on Flickr
Sicily: a place of many myths and legends, both modern and ancient. From the bustling, senses-overwhelming city of Palermo to ancient temple sights, seaside towns, and hilltop enclaves deep in the interior, Sicily offers an incredible menu of experiences. While there, you have your choice of the volcanic island Vulcano or eruptive Etna, just near glamorous Taormina. For something different, pay a visit the salt flats of Trapani on the way to the hardy islands of Pantelleria or Favignana. Sicily truly offers incredible variety that can be enjoyed year-round.
Photo courtesy Koen Verlinden on Flickr
Often referred to as Sardinia, it is only slightly smaller than Sicily yet much less known as a choice destination outside of Europe. Most famous for it's Costa Smeralda, playground of the super rich, you can find the most beautiful beaches in Europe strewn all around the island. Check out prehistoric Nuraghe, venture into the mysterious interior, or visit the Spanish-influenced town of Alghero.
Photo courtesy butforthesky.com on Flickr
It's evident I've cut my work out for myself: I'll be starting with Piemonte, so follow along on your virtual tour of Italy. Please leave any requests or suggestions in the comments. Ci vediamo!