On The Renaissance Trail

ITALY IS LIKE CHATTING FOR HOURS WITH AN OLD FRIEND YOU’VE WANTED TO SEE FOR A LONG TIME. YOU HARDLY NOTICE THE TIME PASSING.

If you leave a part of yourself behind when it’s time to go, you’ll leave this country renewed from head to toe. Some region will surely establish itself among your special places. Like Tuscany, which has become indispensable to me. The Italian peninsula is separated from Europe by the Alps in the north. A raft of islands in the Mediterranean, the largest being Sicily and Sardinia, belong to Italy.

And two independent European countries, the Vatican and San Marino, are on Italian soil. Similarly, Campione d’Italia, an approximately 1.5 square kilometer area of Italy with a population of 2,500, lies entirely inside Switzerland. The country is divided into 12 regions, five of which have autonomous status. As much for its history and cultural riches as for its geographical diversity, every year Italy attracts millions of visitors for diverse types of tourism.

If you like you can ski in the north, or savor sea and sun in Sardinia or along the coasts. Or, if neither appeals to you, there are other alternatives like staying in fashion capital Milan, or experiencing a city unique unto itself like Venice. But if you are one of those who must have art and history, then its the Tuscan region for you hands down. What’s more, besides art and history you will enjoy unforgettable culinary delights as well.

History in Italy is not a notion confined to museum ticket stubs. In Italy history is all around you, everywhere you look. The country is steeped in it.  The bridge you use to cross the river, the wall against which you lean your back.

Although the earliest traces of human settlement on the peninsula date back to the Stone Age, the first important civilization was that of the Etruscans in 800 B.C. The Ostia region north of Rome and the city of Volterra in Tuscany are the best places for seeing what remains of the Etruscans, whose presence was entirely wiped out in the 4th century B.C. by the Romans, who left behind the country’s most important legacy by far. Starting from a small village in the 8th century B.C, the civilization of ancient Rome was transformed in time into a giant empire that turned the Mediterranean into its lake.

Making its capital at Rome, for close to 12 centuries it dominated all the other civilizations in the world, including the lands of Anatolia. Slowly weakening and breaking up into independent kingdoms, the Roman Empire collapsed in 476, a date regarded as the start of the Middle Ages. For centuries after that the peninsula remained divided. But eventually the Italians overcame those physical and political conditions to influence world culture again.

During the Renaissance and the Reformation, movements that spread from Italy throughout Europe, the country produced a number of important figures in the fields of art, philosophy, science and politics, among them Dante, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo and Petrarch, whose influence is still felt today. Italy achieved national unity in 1861, making the current year, 2011, the 150th anniversary and a very important year for the Italians.

The city of Turin, capital of the Kingdom of Savoy where unity was forged, should definitely be part of your Italian itinerary. But almost every city in Italy will offer you art on a silver platter. In Florence you will see the finest examples of Renaissance architecture and encounter the works of its leading painters and sculptures in the city’s churches and museums.

Rome harbors many structures from antiquity while the Vatican is a tour destination unto itself. Not only that, the home of both the piano and the violin, Italy also produced musicians like Paganini, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, and Vivaldi, and taking in an opera at Milan’s La Scala or Naples’ San Carlo is a unique experience. And while you’re in Milan, be sure to see Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of The Last Supper. Remember though, you’ll need to reserve two days in advance to do so.

In the Tuscany region, famed for its countryside, the lovely medieval city of Siena boasts a low-lying square surrounded by historic buildings. The area around the square, a scene of festivals and equestrian displays in summer, is chock full of surprises. Like Siena, the capital Rome offers numerous shopping alternatives from fashion to antiques. The Italian cities are also proud of their concept shops. In Rome, for example, there is a shop selling only fountain pens.

Another treat Italians regard as a national heritage together with pizza and pasta is Roman ice cream. People are known to come from all
over for this delectable ice cream, which is usually produced in fruit flavors.

Cefalu in Sicily is one of the places where Italy’s quintessential southern spirit is most palpable. This is also the place where Palermo director Giuseppe Tornatore shot his famous Cinema Paradiso. But Rome is the favorite destination of honeymoon couples in Italy, which boasts numerous romantic cities like Cefalu. The ancient the Colosseum reflects all the splendor of the Roman Empire. There is an entrance fee for this theater, a portion of which is still in sound condition.

The Venice Carnival goes back to the 11th century. Formerly celebrated for two months, it fell out of favor in the 18th century for economic reasons, but attracted so much interest when it was revived in 1979 that entry to the city had to be restricted.

Rome is a city that can make visitors of diverse tastes and budgets happy. You can tour the city on public transport or in luxury vehicles, as you wish.

Home to many magnificent squares, Naples also boasts historic churches adorned with scenes from the Bible. The squares, surrounded by Roman-
style columns, call to mind theater stages. At the same time they are a central part of social life in the city. So much so that people call out from their windows to a neighboring courtyard or even a nearby square.

Curves are the most apperent type of architecture you will see in Naples. It is a city of magnificent museums and churches, it is bursting with domes, arches and narrow, winding streets. With its streets running down to the shore and its coastal esplanades, Naples is also a city where life is intimately intertwined with water. According to some it is Italy’s most romantic city. The sunsets meanwhile are legendary.

Sicily is one of Italy’s most characteristic places with fabulous beaches of impressive beauty all along its coastal strip. Sicily also boasts more days of sunshine than the north of the country. There are a number of active volcanoes on the island, most notably the 3,000-meter Mt. Aetna. And the tiny islands off the coast are ideal for day tours. Sicily’s most popular cities are Palermo, Catania and Messina.

The administrative seat of Catholic Christianity is a sovereign country within Rome. One of the smallest countries in the world by both population and surface area, the Vatican nevertheless attracts more visitors than any other place. It is also the seat of Catholicism’s spiritual leader, the Pope. All day long, visitors wait in long lines to see the Vatican Museum, and St. Peter’s Church and Basilica in Italy, which is as well known for its religious treasures as for the beauty of its coasts.

Turkish Airlines has flights in both directions from Istanbul to Bologna, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Rome and Venice. A tripe sandwich is an extraordinary experience in Florence. And pizza, pannini, espresso, pasta and a wide variety of cheeses are Italian traditions.

Italy’s touristic offerings are endless: Lake Como for romantics, the Chianti region of Florence for nature lovers, and the Castelli di Roma for those keen on seeing the famous Roman suburbs.

The popular singer Zucchero is giving a series of concerts at the Verona Arena. Tickets for the concerts, on June 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 are available over the internet.You can also tour Rome and Milan on rental bikes provided by the municipality at various points around the city.

The outlets are your best bet for economical shopping in Italy. Our recommendations: Valdichiana Outlet Mall in Rome, the Outlet Mall at Incense in Florence, and McArthur Glen Designer Outlet Mall in Milan.

  MANHATTAN IN HISTORY: SICILY
The simple aspects of life can easily become extraordinary under the spell of Sicily. Strolling around the ancient ruins, sitting in front of a cathedral and watching the world go by, dipping your feet in the sea and imagining Ulysses’ turbulent voyage, and savoring the calm at dusk are indescribable pleasures on this island redolent of lavender and thyme.

The gondola races and masked festival in Venice on the first Sunday in September, and the Palio di Siena, a horse race that people flock here from all over the world to see in early September, are just a couple events not to be missed.

Two different shopping suggestions for Rome: Porta Portese flea market in the area called Trastevere (across the Tiber), Sundays only, till 2 p.m., and Campo di Fiori local street market, open every day except Sunday.

Some movies for getting to know Italy: Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore), Romeo & Juliet (Franco Zeffirelli), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola), Under the Tuscan Sun ( Audrey Wells) 8 1/2, Amarcord (Federico Fellini).

Examining the works of the Renaissance at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, home to some of the world’s most important works of art, is the sine qua non of any trip to Italy.

Possible additions to your itinerary: Capri, accessible by boats departing hourly from Naples; day trips to the islands of Ischia and Procida; and the ancient town of Pompeii, a historic must-see that also boasts camping areas.