What can one expect from a land where there seems to be a whole ‘secret’ language spoken by the natives based just upon hand gestures and gesticulations? Italy is one of those places where it is a treat to interact with the locals. From its illustrious, ancient history played out with equal gusto upon the stones of the Forum and the sands of the Colosseum to the idyllic beaches of the laid-back south and the luxurious shopping arcades of the north - Italy has it all for the traveller.

The boot-shaped peninsula of Italy is situated in the Mediterranean and has a population of 58 million people. Northern Italy is dotted with mountains, the most famous being the Alps, which are an excellent destination for skiing. But the mountains of Italy are not all so benign and the volcanoes of the south make for thrilling travel destinations: Mount Etna in Sicily, Mount Vesuvius, best known for its destruction of Pompeii, or Stromboli, where the night is aflame with natural firework shows. Italy also has a long coastline with beautiful beaches that are, in places, set against mountains that provide excellent hiking opportunities. The climate can be broadly classified into two categories- the north has a typical continental climate (distinct summer and winter seasons) while coastal and southern areas have a pleasant Mediterranean climate. These variations provide Italy with rich biodiversity in flora and fauna, which represent about a third of Europe’s total plant and animal species.  There are 24 national parks covering 5% of the country’s area, providing the nature lover with varied scenery of great beauty as well aas the opportunities to see some rare wild animals.

Italy is world renowned for its cuisine. Abundance and passion characterise the Italian way of eating and meals can extend into marathon journeys through courses that eat up the afternoon or evening. Meals are quite the family affair and big lunches on Sundays at mama’s house are traditional. This obsession with cooking and good quality food reflects the priorities of the locals, who sometimes seem to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle. Cooking within Italy is very regionalised and although, with broad strokes, we might paint a picture of pasta, wine, olive oil, and pizza, in truth we must think of a series of miniatures turning upon similar themes: the soft, delicate egg ravioli of the north contrasts with the tougher, durum wheat pasta of the south which produces the versatile penne and distinctive orecchiette pastas; the lighter flavours of olive oil in the south differ from the hearty, continental use of butter in the north; and the creamy tiramisu of the north simply hints at the sweet excess of Sicily.

Italy’s long history stretches from the enigmatic Eruscans to the heights of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance movement, which inspired the rest of Europe. These historical riches have left the country with art and architecture which can scarcely find rival. Italy has the largest number of UNESCO world heritage sites, with 44 dotted throughout the country, and thousands of monuments besides. Highlights include: the Sistine Chapel with its ceiling painted by Michelangelo; the architectural feats, such the Pantheon and the Colosseum, of the Romans and the haunting remains of the city of Pompeii; the historic Renaissance centre of Florence; and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But these are a brief selection from the country whose history is the history of Europe, indeed of the Western world.  

Italy can be an expensive place to travel but there are ways to bring down the costs. Travelling in low season helps, but there are some locations that will naturally be more expensive: Florence, for instance, or Venice. Still, you can find some good deals at youth hostels (€14 to €20) and small hotels or pensioni which range from €30-€50 a night. Eating out can be expensive but there are many ways to make your euro go further. Try the local pizzeria for cheap and delicious food, explore the local supermarkets, and ask the locals to point out some reasonably priced restaurants. As to transport, the train is the best option between cities as the prices are reasonable. For shorter journeys and those to more remote rural areas, buses could be better. There are a variety of different tickets you can buy to save money and these are often based upon a time limit with unlimited journeys.

Italy is a country to be embraced with an open heart and a philosophical attitude to the expanding waistline. In between the sights on your busy schedule, remember to make time for simply being in Italy. Enjoy an espresso with the locals in the afternoon, a glass of wine and a generous bounty of snacks in the evening at a wine bar, a gloriously lazy lunch in the Mediterranean sun followed by a siesta, and the passiagata after dinner which finds young and old out promenading the streets or chatting in the piazzas.

Writer: Leah O’Hearn