Barely the size of Arizona, Italy is blessed with some of the most stunning scenic beauty imaginable. For Heritage Month, let’s revel in Italy’s remarkably diverse landscapes and seascapes— all so rich in culture, history and the spirit of La Dolce Vita!
Surrounded by Europe’s highest peaks and tucked between France and Switzerland is Italy’s smallest region—the Valle d’Aosta—meaning the valley of the city of Aosta with its picturesque alpine villages. It was named in honor of Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, after his victory over the Gallic tribe there in 25 B.C,
No single region can boast quite the same gourmet cachet as Piedmonte, land of truffles and Barolo, home of the Slow Food movement, and source of the smoothest, most delectable hazelnuts—and the less rarified Nutella! Named for its geography, Piedmonte is derived from Latin, meaning “at the foot of the mountains” (the Alps), and it boasts the elegant city of Torino (Turin) and charming towns like Alba and Asti.
Lombardia is the largest and most populous region, with Milan—the Fashion Capital of the World, also known for its iconic Gothic duomo—and Italy’s fabled Lake District. Its name is also derived from Latin, Longobardus (“a Lombard”) meaning “long beard” and referring to the Germanic tribe which invaded Italy during the 5th Century.
Trentino/Alto Adige/Südtirol borders Austria and offers a distinctly Tyrolian feel (about 30% speak German). It’s a sporting paradise with mountains, deep valleys, forests and crystal-clear lakes. Trento is its capital, founded as Tridentum by the the Romans in homage to Neptune (with his trademark trident). Alto Adige refers the land along the upper Adige river, and Südtirol to the lands south of the Brenner pass.
Nestled between the Adriatic and the Dolomites is Friuli-Venezia Giulia, still a well-kept secret. Its capital is Trieste, sometimes referred to as “Little Vienna” because of its majestic Mitteleuropean architecture, elegant coffee houses and decadent fin de siècle vibe. In Roman times it was called Forum Iulii, i.e., Forum of Julius Caesar. Venezia Giulia refers to the Venetian land near the Julian Alps with its ancient city of Aquileia and its marvelous Early Christian mosaic-adorned basilica.
Liguria is the home of the port city of Genova. once a powerful maritime republic rivaling those of Venice and Pisa. It is also home to the colorful towns of the Cinque Terre and Italy’s Riviera which attracted French Impressionists like Monet in the late 19th Century. It takes its name from a pre-Roman tribe— the Liguiri—that inhabited vast stretches of land in northwestern Italy and southern France.
Veneto is home to the most improbable and incomparable of cities, Venice, plus Palladian villas and the Prosecco Hills. Its name is generally thought to refer to Land of the Veneti, an Italic people that inhabited the region before the arrival of the Romans. As to Venice itself, some believe it refers to the Greek goddess of beauty and pleasure, Venus, who also emerged from the sea.
Emilia-Romagna is a cultural, economic and gastronomic center and home of the world’s first university: the University of Bologna. It also boasts the Romanesque and Renaissance cities of Parma, Modena and Ferrara, and the former Western Roman Empire capital city of Ravenna with its dazzling Early Christian mosaics. Reflecting the legacy of Ancient Rome, Emilia derived from the Via Aemilia— the Roman road connecting Piacenza to Rimini; and Romagna from Romània, the name used by Lombard invaders for Ravenna, the remaining outpost of the Roman Empire.
From the Etruscans to the Romans to the Renaissance, Toscana is possibly the world’s greatest repository of art, from extraordinary paintings and sculpture to frescoes and architectural masterpieces. Beyond its unparalleled trove of art, and more than any other region, Tuscany has come to represent the essence of La Dolce Vita with is idyllic countryside, the rolling hills of Chianti and the Val D’Orcia, and towns like Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca, Cortona, Montepulciano … and the list goes on. Its name refers to the ancient tribe of Etruscans that settled there around 1000 B.C.
Known as Italy’s “green heart,” the landlocked region of Umbria was home to Saint Francis of Assisi—and more saints than any other! Also called “the land of the shadows” (umbra means shadow in Latin), Umbria has a serene, majestic and mystical feel. It is home of the splendid hilltowns of Spoleto, Orvieto, Spello, Gubbio and Perugia. Umbria takes its name from the ancient Umbri who lived contemporaneously with the Etruscans.
Located between the Apennines and the Adriatic, Le Marche offers great natural beauty from mountains to beaches to the Grotte di Frasassi, an other-worldly cave system. Its most famous city is the Renaissance jewel Urbino, once ruled by the Duke of Montefelto (you might recognize his profile), and the birthplace of Raphael and Bramante. Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne once possessed its lands which he divided into fiefdoms, entrusting each to a noble Marquis. “Le Marche” refers to the Germanic word “marks” which means “borders”.
Home of The Eternal City, which in Roman times was referred to as Caput Mundi— meaning “head of the world”—is Lazio, where Italy’s illustrious past and present so harmoniously coexist. The Italian word Lazio is derived from the Latin Latium which had been home of the Latini people and the name of the language they spoke and passed on to the Ancient Rome. In modern etymology Lazio is also related to “latus,” meaning “wide,” expressing the notion of “flat land” which is apropos of the surrounding landscape.
Birthplace of the poets Gabriele D’Annunzio, Vittoria Colonna and Ovid, Abruzzo enchants with the striking scenery of the highest peaks of the Apennines, picturesque towns like Sulmona and Caramanico Terme, and its diverse Trabocchi dotted coastline. The name Abruzzo appears to be derivative of the Latin word Aprutium, from Praetutium, the name of the ancient italic tribe the Praetutti, and their principal city, ancient Teramo.
South of Abruzzo is Molise, Italy’s second smallest region, established just sixty years ago in 1963. Arriving in Molise is no easy feat: there is neither airport nor highway, only a motorway section along the coast. But like Abruzzo, it offers a perfect trifecta between mountains, sea and lakes and is worth the effort. (A few years ago “#IlMoliseNonEsiste” become a nationwide phenomenon, a hashtag comparing Molise to the fictional Narnia.) Its name is thought to have originated with Count Rodolfo di Moulins, a Norman knight who ruled over this land during the 11th Century.
The region of Campania is glamorous, colorful and romantic and has been a magnet for travelers for millennia. It was here, specifically from the island of Capri in the Gulf of Naples, that Odysseus heard the alluring sirens sing to him. The Romans referred to this region as Campania felix, Latin for “fertile countryside” or “happy countryside,” and made what we now call the Amalfi Coast and the islands of Capri and Ischia their playground. From the ancient sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum to the buzzing gritty city of Naples with its intoxicating street food and street art, Campania is a feast.
Puglia, the heel of the Boot, is known for its ancient olive groves and vineyards, stunning beaches (with the longest coastline of any mainland region), dazzling whitewashed hill towns and its hobbit-like Trulli . . . not to mention the Baroque city of Lecca and the mysterious octagonal Castel del Monte. Originally it was named Apulia, a contraction of A Pluvium, meaning “lack of rain” and referring to the region’s extremely dry climate.
The instep of the Boot—Basilicata—is home to Matera, inhabited since Paleolithic times and now chic a destination city of prehistoric cave-dwellings and Rupestrian churches. Other attractions of the region include Metaponto, on the Ionian coast, with the archeological remains of the Greco-Roman port city and one of the world’s most colossal statues of Jesus: Maratea’s Christ the Redeemer, second only to Rio’s. The region’s name has Greek origins, stemming from basilikós, referring to the Byzantine emperor who once ruled the area.
The toe of the Boot, Calabria, is enveloped between the aquamarine waters of the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas. Tropea is Calabria’s crown jewel with its dramatic rock formations, pristine beaches, and crystalline water. Calabria was once known as Magna Graecia (“Great Greece” in Latin) for the Greek settlements from nearly three thousand of years ago, while the Byzantines are credited with giving Calabria her current name, derived from the term kalos-bruo, meaning “fertile earth.”
Sardinia is an island of disarming beauty, spellbinding folk festivals, distinctive artisan traditions, and legends that have always existed and never passed away. It is home to centenarian villages, collectively representing one of the world’s five Blue Zones. Perhaps it is the shepherd lifestyle, or the Cannonau wine, but something is in the air (or glass), a sense of magic that goes straight to the heart. The origins of the island’s name of are uncertain, though we know it was named before Roman times. The Greek called the island Ichnusa or Sandàlion, meaning “sandal’s footprint.”
The intoxicating island of Sicilia has a long, rich and multicultural history. For over 3,000 years, myriad civilizations discovered, conquered, and made their mark on Sicily’s shores, from the Ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire to the Norman and Arabian and Spanish rulers that would cultivate Sicily’s fertile landscape. Its name is derived from two Bronze age tribes, the Sicani and the Siceli who inhabited it prior to the arrival of the Greeks in the 7th century. The region’s three limbed symbol, the Trinacria, also originated with the Greeks and relates to the triangular shape of the island.