At roughly the middle portion of the Mediterranean Sea between Europe to the north and Africa to the south, there is a large peninsula jutting out, shaped like a boot and seemingly kicking an island by its “toe.” This stretch of land, nearly surrounded by water save for its connection to the mainland, was the home of a great civilization from ancient times, and conversely is home to one of the relatively younger nations of the modern world.
“Republicca Italiana,” the republic of Italy, is a peaceful and prosperous country – third largest European GDP, 8th largest globally – that is steeped in history and tradition: birthplace of the Roman Empire, home to the heart of the Catholic Church, cradle of the Renaissance and port of origin for many famous explorers during the Age of Discovery. To Italy the world owes the Latin alphabet, the republican form of government, opera music, ballet, pizza, pasta, and many wonderful things than can be listed here. Visiting Italy also feels like visiting multiple countries in one go, which is rather accurate due to the unique characters of its constituent regions, which were very much separate states over a century and a half ago.
The present Italian Republic came from the Kingdom of Italy which was born back in 1861. From 27 BC to 480 AD it was the center of the Roman Empire. But in between those two periods, for several hundred years the Italian peninsula was divided into territory held by the Pope or individual city-state republics, or duchies that are much larger but never quite covering the whole of the boot, or “Io Stivale” as its inhabitants today would describe it.
Italy as a unified country in modern times is younger than France, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom and the US, which means Italians have less of a national identity more regional identities. But that also leads to having a rich diversity of culture and tradition that is also a powerful draw for tourism.
This diversity also extends to the lay of the land itself. Owing to the length of its landmass, Italy has a varied climate, from subtropical in areas closer to the rest of Europe, to typical Mediterranean in the south. One can go from spectacular mountains and valleys in the North to the South’s warm-summer beaches, which can also be found in the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. The country boasts having the most beautiful lake in the world – Lake Como – and shares the highest point in the European Union with France in Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc). Other peaks of interest are the Matterhorn (shared with Switzerland), the Dolomites and the volcanic Mount Vesuvius, destroyer of the Roman town of Pompeii, the ruins of which are not far from Naples.
And so we come to the major cities of Italy, many of which were once independent city-states before the modern unification. It is not surprising therefore that they possess a distinct provincial spirit from one another. Rome, the capital, is of course accounted as the first and foremost among these communities, being the center of the ancient Roman Empire, whose traces are still visible and preserved in the form of the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Forum, and the many imperial palaces of old. Milan is arguably second in individual importance to Rome economics-wise, due to its being one of the centers of the Italian Renaissance, as proven by Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” on a basilica refectory there.
Other cities of note are Venice, the world-famous City of Canals, a UNESCO Heritage Site, and oft-declared as the Most Beautiful City in the World. It is one of the most-frequently visited locations in Italy, with tourists cruising down the canals on traditional gondolas and other watercraft to visit all of its places of interest. Florence of Tuscany region is one of the major art centers of Italy, thanks to its past rule by the powerful Medici family, who were the ultimate patrons of the arts. Pisa, also of Tuscany, is immortalized worldwide by its Leaning Tower. Genoa is another Italian port city that is historical for being the birthplace of legendary explorer Christopher Columbus.
But Italy is more than just its boot-shaped mainland. There are two major islands that are essential parts of the country, Sicily and Sardinia. Both are administrative regions with autonomous status owing to their distinct cultural identity and prevalence of minority languages. As islands in the Mediterranean their climate is rather similar to the islands of Greece to the further east, though with Sardinia’s larger size it has more variety of weather conditions. Both also have near-common prehistoric and ancient historic markers, having been either settled or colonized by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans, before being passed around by other European powers or becoming independent at alternating periods afterwards.
Sicily, separated from the toe of mainland Italy’s boot by the Strait of Messina, is a cultural melting pot with influences from Arabs, Norman Vikings and Greeks. Its most prominent geographical feature is the volcano Mount Etna, which figures in Greek mythology as either the prison of the monster Typhon or the forge of the god Hephaestus. Pop culture has also made it famous worldwide as the home of the Mafia, something that the residents sometimes play up for tourists.
Sardinia is much the same (minus the Mafia association), but is prominent for its visible and audible bilingualism, with Italian and Sardinian (Sardu) having equal status much like English and French in Canada. Both regions also figure in Italian history for having been the home territories of two leaders of Italian unification: Victor Emmanuel II (King of Sardinia) and Giuseppe Garibaldi (Dictator of Sicily).
And with that, you get the picture of how a journey throughout Italy alone would feel like visiting several different countries at once (never mind the two actual countries they have in their territory: San Marino and The Vatican). The nation and the people are also hardy in common, whose political crises never quite stopped their economy becoming one of the world’s leaders. This enables them to promote their near-bottomless wealth of human history, varied culture and fine arts, which never fails to attract tourists from all over. The Boot of Europe is an experience that is everything advertised and so much more.