Few images are more identifiable with Italy than the country's great churches, amazing works of architecture that often took centuries to build. The name Duomo (derived from the Latin for "house," domus, and the root of the English "dome") is used to refer to the principal church of a town or city. Generally speaking, the bigger the city, the more splendid its duomo. Still, impressive churches inhabit some unlikely places—in the Umbrian hill towns of Assisi and Orvieto, for example
In Venice the Byzantine-influenced Basilica di San Marco is a testament to the city's East-meets-West character. Milan's Duomo is the largest, most imposing Gothic cathedral in Italy. The spectacular dome of Florence's Duomo is a work of engineering genius. The Basilica di San Pietro in Rome has all the grandeur you'd expect from the seat of the Catholic Church. And Italy's classical past is on display at Siracusa's Duomo, which incorporates the columns of a 6th-century BC Greek temple.
Driving the Back Roads
If you associate Italian roads with unruly motorists and endless traffic snarls, you're only partly right. Along the rural back roads, things are more relaxed. You might stop on a lark to take a picture of a crumbling farmhouse, have a coffee in a time-frozen hill town, or enjoy an epic lunch at a rustic agriturismo inaccessible to public transportation. Driving, in short, is the best way to see Italy.
Among the countless beautiful drives, these are three of the most memorable: the legendary mountain ascent on SS48, the Grande Strada delle Dolomiti, takes you through the heart of the Dolomites, the famous Passo di Sella, and into the Val Gardena, passing unforgettable, craggy-peaked views. Every time the A1 autostrada tunnels through the mountains, the smaller SS1, Via Aurelia, stays out on the jagged coastline of the Italian Riviera, passing terraced vineyards, cliff-hanging villages, and shimmering seas. SS222, the Strada Chiantigiana, between Florence and Siena meanders through classic Tuscan landscapes. Be aware that Italian roads are often poorly marked. It helps to know a little geography, as many signs indicate the town the road leads to, but not what the road number is.
Hiking the Hills
Even if you don't fancy yourself a disciple of Reinhold Messner (the favorite son of the Dolomites and the first man to reach the peak of Everest without oxygen), you'll find great summer hiking aplenty all over Italy. The Vie Ferrate (Iron Paths) are reinforced trails through the mountains of Trentino-Alto Adige, once forged by the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies; they're a great way to get off the beaten path in the Dolomites.
The Cinque Terre —five cliff-clinging villages along the Italian Riviera —are spectacular, and they're all connected by hiking trails with memorable views of the towns, the rocks, and the Ligurian Sea. In Umbria you can hike the Paths of St. Francis outside Assisi. An easy half-hour walk takes you from the town of Cannara to Pian d'Arca, site of St. Francis's sermon to the birds; with a bit more effort you can make the walk from Assisi to the Eremo delle Carceri, and from here to the summit of Monte Subasio, which has views for miles in every direction.
Tasting the Wine
When it comes to wine making, the Italian Renaissance is happening right now: from tip to toe, vintners are challenging themselves to produce wines of ever-higher quality. You can taste the fruits of their labor at wine bars and restaurants throughout the country, and in many areas you can visit the vineyards as well.
For touring guidance in the northeastern region of the Veneto, see Traveling the Wine Roads. For the lowdown on Italy's "King of Wines," see On the Trail of Barolo. And for a full primer on the wines of Tuscany, see Grape Escapes.
Picking up Some Italian Style
"Made in Italy" is synonymous with style, quality, and craftsmanship, whether it refers to high fashion or Maserati automobiles.
Every region has its specialties: Venice is known for glassware, lace, and velvet; Milan and Como for silk; and the Dolomites and the mountains of Calabria and Sicily for hand-carved wooden objects. Bologna and Parma are the places for hams and cheeses; Modena for balsamic vinegar; Florence for straw goods, gold jewelry, leather, and paper products (including beautiful handmade notebooks); Assisi for embroidery; and Deruta, Gubbio, Vietri, and many towns in Puglia and Sicily for ceramics.
In Milan, Italy's fashion capital, the streets of the Quadrilatero district are where to go for serious shopping—or just for taking in the chic scene. Rome's Piazza di Spagna is another mecca for high-fashion shopping, and a few steps away is the Via del Corso, with more than a mile of stores of all varieties. To be overwhelmed by the aromas of Emilia-Romagna's legendary food, head to Tamburini in Bologna, where you can get vacuum-packed delicacies to take home with you.
Il Dolce Far Niente
"The sweetness of doing nothing" has long been an art form in Italy. This is a country in which life's pleasures are warmly celebrated, not guiltily indulged.
Of course, doing "nothing" doesn't really mean nothing. It means doing things differently: lingering over a glass of wine for the better part of an evening as you watch the sun slowly set; savoring a slow and flirtatious evening passeggiata along the main street of a little town; and making a commitment—however temporary—to thinking that there's nowhere that you have to be next, and no other time than the magical present.
In the quiet, stunningly positioned hilltop village Ravello above the Amalfi Coast, it's easy to achieve such a state of mind. The same holds true for Bellagio, on Lake Como, where you can meander through stately gardens, dance on the wharf, or just watch the boats float by in the shadow of the Alps.
And there's still nothing more romantic than a gondola ride along Venice's canals, your escorted trip to nowhere, watched over by Gothic palaces with delicately arched eyebrows.
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