Do you know this word campanilismo?” asks my friend Giampiero, as he makes a not exactly tongue-in-cheek case for spending every vacation in his homeland. The term is derived from campanile, or bell tower, which is the tallest structure in many an Italian village and city. “Campanilismo means that as long as we Italians are within earshot of our own bell, we are home. Once we venture far enough to hear a different bell, it is a strange foreign land.” His bigger point: Tuscany is not Amalfi is not the Italian Lakes. For all of us who love this country – but who don’t like to repeat ourselves when we travel – that’s fantastic news.
When travelers ask me which Italy they should head for, I have just one ironclad recommendation: Don’t try to “do” all of Italy in one trip. The peninsula is 768 miles long, from the Alps in the north to Mt. Etna in Sicily. Unless you have a couple of leisurely months, you’ll end up in “if this is Thursday, it must be Naples” mode. That sort of vita is not dolce at all.
To capture the traditional, classic essence of Italy, Tuscany is probably the best place to start. (See how I qualify my recommendations? I can already hear my friends in Amalfi and the Lake District typing their emails of dismay to me!) Still, there’s no arguing that Tuscany embraces the Renaissance treasures of Florence…gracious hilltop villas that overlook rolling carpets of vineyards and olive groves…Chianti and homemade pasta. This is exactly how most of us dream that Italy will be. I don’t know anyplace on earth that more people love more passionately.
If Tuscany has a sort of serene gentility, I’d choose Amalfi for its spectacular coastal setting and lush sub-tropical climate. Amalfi makes me want to stretch out and soak it all in, preferably with a frosted flute of limoncello within reach. It’s romantic in the “I can’t believe how beautiful it is” sense of the word. When you’re in Capri, you feel a kind of lazy sway in your walk. In Positano, your hotel may seem to barely cling to a steep cliff overlooking the sea, but you feel nothing but calm and cared for.
Prefer something a bit more off the beaten path? Head for Apulia, the “heel” of Italy’s boot. As a region, it’s more rustic, closer to the earth. Shepherds still tend their flocks here. Conical stone houses called trulli are the iconic structures. One night, your hotel is carved into the canyon wall at Matera. Then, in one of those quick-change transitions that Giampiero is so proud of, the next night you move into the 5-star splendor of an 18th century palace in Lecce.
For cool elegance and a look at how the other half lives, head north to the Italian Lakes. From Pliny the Younger to George Clooney, this is the Italy of choice for sophisticated retreats. The lakes – Como, Maggiore and Orta – sit at the foot of the Alps and have the country’s mildest summer temperatures. Centuries worth of villas and lovely hotels line the shores. Whether you’re up in an alpine meadow or on a stately lake cruise, this version of Italy has a distinctly Old World resort vibe.
At the opposite tip of the country and the climate spectrum, Sicily floats. They say Sicily is like Italy a hundred years ago, a little more off the grid and fierce about insulating its traditions, food and lifestyle from the mainland. Mt. Etna towers in every view, a reminder that nature rules. Greek, Phoenician and Moorish blood runs in the veins, and that’s bred a vivid not-what-you-expect culture. I think that no place in Italy has ever surprised me in so many ways as Sicily.
And these are only five of the most popular areas in Italy. There is no right or wrong sequence in which to visit them. A lot of travelers link visits to the Amalfi Coast and Sicily to build strong contrasts into a single vacation (and because the two places are an easy overnight ferry ride apart). Others only want to return to Tuscany again and again and again. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that one trip or two to Italy means you’ve been there/done that. I have to admit that Giampiero is right. If you never traveled anywhere but Italy for the rest of your life, you could find a new region that would ring your bell every time.