Where to go in Italy? Everywhere if possible; certainly all the areas and localities on this site. Italy was Europe’s premier tourist destination long before she was joined by France. Her very shape recommends her. Nearly the whole country is outstandingly picturesque, the climate is delightful, the grandeur of her ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures and architecture is unmatched in the world. Her Roman remains are the bedrock of western civilization. Her medieval and Renaissance arts alone would make her a great metropolis of the spirit, even if she were not the cradle of the Christian faith.
The Italian landscape is a coloured picture-book. The Adriatic coast is an almost unbroken chain of sandy beach resorts, some over-developed and some not. The western shores are more varied, rocky and shingly. The whole length of the Apennines is wonderful country for touring by car, on foot or in the sturdy diesel-drawn cars of narrow-gauge railways. Skiing is most highly organized at Alpine resorts, but there are also busy slopes in Tuscany, the Abruzzi, Calabria and Sicily. The northern lakes, Italy’s oldest tourist destinations, still hold their magic.
The densest concentrations of medieval towns and Renaissance arts are within the Milan-Venice-Rome triangle. Place names such as Florence, Ravenna, Urbino, Perugia, Assisi, Arezzo and Siena are familiar, but scores of places rarely mentioned in guide-books have abundant treasures. (It is easy, and a mistake, to spend all your time in churches, museums and galleries, but remember that a cathedral is a cool place on a hot day.) The ecclesiastical architecture reflects every European – style a legacy of Italy’s turbulent history. The Romanesque and Saracenic of the deep south deserve as much attention as the Gothic and Renaissance of the north and centre.
Add to Italy’s attractions a population well-disposed towards strangers and tolerant of their foibles. You will rarely encounter deliberate rudeness. The modern Italian has acquired dignity and self-assurance. He is lively and pragmatic, well informed about current events (especially the scandals) in your country. Italian women retain the graceful ways and flattering submissiveness towards men which have served them well down the ages. In all, when you mingle with Italians you cannot help feeling that they have hit on a secret of successful living which has eluded the rest of us.
We cannot force them into a national stereotype. Italy, politically unifled since 1870, with a common language little changed since Dante’s time is still a collection of regions where about 400 distinct dialects are spoken, incomprehensible to outsiders, let alone foreigners. Turin and Florence were capitals of Italy before Rome. Numerous cities claim pre-eminence in age and cultural achievement. Regional pride is expressed positively in respect for traditions (observe the brilliant organization of small pageants and the explosions of gaiety that attend them) and negatively in campanilismo, ‘attachment to one’s own belfry’ or parochialism. Sometimes you wonder whether Italy’s disgrace – streams of garbage down hillsides, atmospheric and river pollution – arises from protests against laws made in Rome.
Family ties are strong in Italy, but the old faith is less tyrannical than formerly. Outlandish cults prosper; pornography on late-night television has to be seen to be believed. The sexes uninhibitedly mingle, the tempo of everyday life increases. But however frenetic the urban scene, there comes a moment when calm descends on the piazza and the citizens, husbands and wives, boys and girls, take their evening promenade, the twilight mart of ideas, reminiscences and hearts.
Landscapes are the picture-book, life is the drama. To board a bus, go shopping, order a meal is to be involved in a small adventure. Food is a big subject and you may feel you know all about it without going to Italy. The cuisine, however, is as versatile as the landscape. Outside cosmopolitan centres it is more than regional. A hill between two villages can separate two philosophies of eating and drinking. And only in Italy, on the spot, can you know the true flavour of pasta sauce, vino locale or espresso coffee.