Of all the journeys we have ever taken, those romantic vacations to Italy still linger in my mind and heart, resonating magic into my everyday life for months if not years after the fact. Italy’s long and enduring past, her extraordinary history stretching back into antiquity, her volatile geology which in turn has created her dramatic geography, all combine to make Italy a kingdom of storybook landscapes, always ready to be discovered and celebrated anew by this year’s crop of avid tourists. In case you will be among them (the avid tourists, that is) in the coming months, and because it’s rude to show up unprepared and uninformed, here’s a little background and history on one of Europe’s most popular vacation destinations.

Probably the most recognizable feature on Europe’s map, Italy’s ever-stylish boot stretches from the Alps in the north, 760 miles south to the Mediterranean. Off the west coast of Italy lies the Tyrrhenian Sea, while the east coast is kissed by the Adriatic. With a population over 58 million, and land mass of 300,000 square kilometers, Italy is the fourth largest country in western Europe and has so much to offer tourists and vacationers you will be spoiled for choice.

Visitors to Italy have long flocked to vacation along her dramatic coastlines, to explore her picturesque Tuscan hill towns, or tour her profusion of art treasures and archeological finds. But did you know that Italy also has a great deal of stunning mountain scenery? Travelers to northern Italy fall in love with the Italian lakes: Como, Maggiore, Garda and Lugano, which lie surrounded by some of the most breathtaking landscapes of Italy’s Dolomites.

The Apennine Range runs north-south through the vertical length of the boot. Offering yet more beautiful scenery for your digital camera to devour, the Apennines are home to several of the world’s best known volcanoes – Stromboli, Vesuvius, and Etna among them. Sicily is the island right off the south-western tip of the boot. Sardinia is the large island off the west coast, in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Italy’s Ancient Past

Archeologists tell us that the migration of early Indo-Europeans into the Italian Peninsular probably began over four thousand years ago. Greeks settled Italy’s southern tip in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. while the ancient Etruscan civilization dominated the peninsular from the ninth century BC until the Romans swept through from Gaul to the Mediterranean six hundred years later.

After the fall of Rome’s great empire in the fifth century AD, the Italian Peninsular became prey to foreign invasion from many quarters and as a result, evolved into a collection of fractious states and small kingdoms.

Within a few hundred years, the French, the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Emperors, had all at various times waged wars and fought battles to lay claim to Italy’s territories. With the advent of global exploration in the middle ages and the ensuing surge of international trading, wealthy city-states like Venice and Genoa rose to prominence and power. The Italian provinces were first united into one country by Napoleon, who conquered the Italian peninsular and proclaimed himself king in 1805. By 1861 Victor Emmanuel ll, formerly king of Sardinia, had taken power and Italy now included the Veneto and papal Rome.

Twentieth Century Italy

After World War 1, Benito Mussolini organized his fascist party and in 1922 became Prime Minister. Italy was now a dictatorship with imperialist designs, invading and occupying Ethiopia in 1935 and Greece in 1940. Allied with Adolf Hitler in World War 2, Mussolini’s regime was doomed and he was executed by Italian partisans in 1945. The Italian democratic Republic was founded the following year.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, Italian government and politics was a very volatile, revolving door affair, fraught with corruption scandals and patronage, and despite best efforts it remains so in many ways today. In 2003 the Italian parliament passed a law conferring immunity from prosecution on high ranking government officials while in office. As is the case in many capitalist systems, government positions are still handed out as political favors, and big corporations buy lucrative government contracts with their financial support.

Italy has little in the way of natural resources, so most raw materials needed by industry, including more than three quarters of the country’s energy consumption, are imported. Agriculture has become less dominant than in the past, but grain, livestock, dairy, fruit and olive orchards are still prominent, as of course is viticulture, the production of Italy’s most famous export, wine. In addition, tourism is a major contributor to Italy’s income.

So now you know a few things about Italy you may not have known before we began, and you can embark on your Italian vacation with the confidence that only comes of… well, knowing a thing or two. Whether you are heading for the Italian Alps, the Tuscan countryside, the restless streets of Rome or the beaches of Capri, be ready to embrace la dolce vita… the good life. The Italians have perfected it as an art form, and if you pay attention, they’ll be more than happy to show you how it’s done.

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Read More by Sue Rauch