So Many Regions, So Little Time . . .Diane Hague
Although a very small country (only slightly larger than the state of Arizona), Italy has incredible diversity. Diversity of scenery, of language, of economy, of experiences, of food (there really is no such thing as “Italian” food). Most Americans can easily distinguish between the North and the South of Italy; and there is certainly great diversity between those two areas mostly driven by economics. But within the North and South, there are divided up 20 very distinct Regions. You see, prior to 1946 when Italy became a united Republic (some would question just how UNITED it truly is), each Region basically existed as an independent nation state.
I tell you this only so you can begin to understand why it is important to have some idea of what kind of experience you wish to have before you start planning your trip; which of course begins with deciding where you want to go. I’ll address in a subsequent installment how you can begin narrowing down your choices and building a trip. Today I want to give you a feel for what is truly unique about the fiercely proud Regions of Italy. I will highlight the most popular of them to give you a taste (and hopefully leave you wanting more).
I will begin with the most obvious – Tuscany. Many Americans and Europeans consider Tuscany to be the heart of Italy. And it is true that geographically, Tuscany IS in the heart of the map of Italy. I would say that Tuscany and its neighboring Region Umbria form the true heart of Italy; geographically and culturally. When you think of the Italy of modern movies, of art, of wine, of history, of la dolce vita (the sweet life) this is the Italy you are thinking of. Within Tuscany and Umbria, you have the great city of Florence as well as Siena, Pisa, Perugia and Arezzo. And then there are the dreamy medieval hill towns of Cortona, San Gimignano, Orvieto and Assisi. Even within Tuscany itself, there is a distinct difference between the northern and southern parts of the Region. Northern Tuscany is where Florence and Siena sit; it is the birthplace of the Renaissance; big, beautiful cities filled with historic and artistic treasures. Here you will find the Chianti region; the famous ceramics of Deruta; and Italian designer outlets. Southern Tuscany is primarily comprised of the Maremma, a vast area extending all the way to the western coast and across the border into the neighboring Region Lazio. This is the traditional Tuscany; for the most part untouched and unspoiled by tourism and commercialism. You won’t find any big cities in the Maremma, but you will find dozens of picturesque hilltop villages; some of the most beautiful, wild, pristine coastline you have ever seen; a huge, national park teeming with game like wild boar as well as natural therapeutic hot springs; and some of the best wine and food you have ever had the good fortune to consume. If you are an art and history buff with a somewhat sophisticated pallet and sense of style and have a passion for shopping, then Northern Tuscany is probably for you. If you are a little more adventurous, want to experience life as a true Tuscan lives it including fascinating seasonal festivals devoted to chestnuts or grape harvests, enjoy the outdoors and simple, unpretentious living and a little ancient history on the side, then the Maremma is for you.
Let’s travel a little further south now to what some may consider the soul of Italy; the Regions of Lazio and Campania. I say the soul of Italy because Lazio is where Rome sits (the spiritual and political capital of the Catholic religion) and Campania is home to the romantic Amalfi coast (places like Sorrento and the Isle of Capri). Faith and romance and breathtaking scenery – all food for the soul. Rome will surprise you – it certainly did me. Not being of the Catholic faith and always hearing that Rome was a big, noisy, dirty city full of rude people, I had no trouble traveling to Italy the first time and skipping it. When we returned on our next trip with daughter and son-in-law in tow, I thought, well they need to experience this. And so we went; and have been hooked ever since. It is the most amazing city I have ever been in – including Copenhagen, New York, Paris, Chicago, you name it. The most astounding blend of modern life and ancient history you will ever experience; modern jazz street artists performing in a piazza that once hosted Roman chariot races; Ferraris and Vespa’s whizzing right by the ancient Roman Coliseum at supersonic speeds. The art and history contained within the walls of the Vatican Museum and St. Peters alone are mind-blowing; everything from Ancient Rome to Michelangelo to Salvador Dali. And the Roman people; so proud and full of life and passion. A little story: While we were in Rome, there was a transportation strike (not unusual). Our husbands left to play golf early in the morning and had arranged for their transportation earlier; which left my daughter and myself to figure out how we were going to get to the other side of Rome from our hotel in time for our massages. When all else failed (I have to give him his props), I consulted Rick Steve’s Rome Guidebook and found the number and information for a personal driver he has used when in Rome to research his guidebook and film his shows. I called and soon Ezzio arrived in his black Mercedes, perfectly tailored suit and charming smile; driving us to the spa, pointing out sites of interest along the way and ensuring that we got there safely and on time. When we asked him if he could take us all on a tour of Rome later that day, he could not but instead recommended fellow tour guide Felice. Felice turned out to be the true highlight of our Roman adventure; he was bright, funny, a walking encyclopedia of Roman history and culture. Poking fun at the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of modern (and ancient) Romans yet full of pride at being a Roman. We learned more from Felice in four hours than all of our other trips to Rome and all of our years of World History class combined! Grazie Felice!
Ahhhh – the Amalfi Coast – a hair raising drive on narrow roads perched high above an azure sea, from Sorrento you will come to the towns of Amalfi, Positano, Ravello (just saying the names makes you feel sexy) and gazing out across the water, you can make out the faintest outline of the Isle of Capri. I mean really – you can’t make this stuff up! This little stretch of heaven can be seen in films like “Under the Tuscan Sun”, “Only You”, “The Italian Job”. If a vacation spells decadence and luxury for you and your lady, then this is your place. There’s a little history and a little art here and there, but mostly it’s about “see and be seen”; lounge by the pool or take the boat to Capri and stroll in the footsteps of Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Onassis. In Positano, sip limoncello on the beach (ala Diane Lane from “Under the Tuscan Sun”) or pamper yourself at Le Sirenuse.
Now, let’s head back up north to the Regions of Lombardy and the Veneto; the intellectual and financial center of Italy. Lombardy is where the concept of Italian unification took seed and today is the banking capital of the country; and Venice is the historic political and financial capital. If your lady is a fashionista, loves to shop and you both would like to combine visiting sleepy little lake towns with the hustle and bustle of a big modern city, then Milan would be your perfect base of operation. Milan is the “capital” of Lombardy and the financial as well as fashion capital of all of Italy. It is a very cosmopolitan city with not very many historic places, but it does have one of the grandest Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe and the “Last Supper” by Michelangelo; it is also home to the most famous opera house in the world, La Scala. Because Milan has always been central to the silk and textile industries many fashion houses have made their home here; there is a section of Milan called the Quadrangle of Fashion where you will find Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Zegna, Fendi, Gucci, Prada, Versace, Valentino to name a few. Here’s a tip: The best time of year for “bargains” is the Summer (except for August when many shops are closed for vacation) and Winter. The beginning of the Summer Sale is the first Saturday in July until August and the Winter Sale begins the first Saturday in January until mid-February. I share this only to allow you to score some major points.
This is one vacation that would not require a car as you can easily travel by train to many other neighboring locations. The adjoining Veneto region is home to Venice, probably one of the most
romantic cities on the planet; it is just a train ride (and a world) away from Milan. Lombardy is also home to the majestic Lakes area of Italy; with Lake Como being perhaps everyone’s favorite (not to mention home to George Clooney – if that tells you anything). Varenna is a wonderful self contained little village on the Lake and an easy train ride from Milan. Once in Varenna you can travel around the different towns (including Bellagio, the jewel of the Lake) and the city of Como itself by boat.
I hope I have given you just enough information to get you thinking about what KIND of Italy experience you would like to have. Of course, you are only limited by time and your budget. If all of this is becoming a little overwhelming to consider, let us take the time to build the trip of your dreams. I have shared my experiences with many clients and I have lived their adventures through them and that will do until the next time i get to go and there will be a next time. Ciao