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By David Ryan.
Italy is an excellent holiday destination for all sorts of people. Culture vultures will lap up the plethora of exceptional architecture and art that can be found in its many ancient and famous cities – Rome, Venice and Florence being the three most popular with visitors. History buffs will have much to feast on too with large sections of towns and cities across the country lying as monuments to the great Roman Empire, not to mention the Etruscan, Umbrian and Oscan cultures that preceded it and the Renaissance that followed later. And then there is the Italian cuisine: found in all corners of the globe, but never quite the same as when sampled in a small, rustic restaurant overlooking the rolling Tuscan hills.
With more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country on the planet (with 49, China are in second place with 45), there really is a wealth of natural, cultural and historical wonder. While many people visit Italy for weekend city breaks, or to stay in a cottage out in the vibrant countryside, an increasing number are visiting the country to undertake walking holidays. And the country lends itself extremely well to such adventures, with large expanses of beautiful rural tracts between fascinating and enchanting towns, villages and cities, as well as a long and varied coastline, meaning even when travelling on foot visitors can enjoy many of the contrasts on offer.
For instance, if visiting Tuscany on a walking holiday, you will have access to seven of Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the historical centres of Florence, San Gimignano and Siena, but also the fascinating and beguiling Medici Villas and Gardens. But between these fine eye-openers, you will find the well-documented rustic beauty of the Tuscan hills, and also a rugged coastline that includes the “Gulf of Poets” near Portovenere where Byron and Shelley used to hang out. The beautiful Cinque Terre stretch of coastline is charming to the extreme (and is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site), where dwellings are built in precarious-looking positions up the side of extremely steep terrain, and the seafood there is to die for.
When trying to find a holiday with a difference in Italy, you should also consider venturing away from the mainland to indulge in a spot of island hopping around the Aeolian Islands. Basing yourself initially on Italy’s (and the Mediterranean’s) largest island, Sicily, you can easily access the seven volcanic islets including Lipari – the largest of the seven – and Stromboli, known as the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean” due to its almost constant volcanic eruptions. Hiking to the summit of an active volcano is not an everyday experience, but it is one which will live long in the memory, and it’ll certainly get the pulse racing! As will be holding the mighty Mount Etna – Europe’s largest active volcano.
If you like the idea of Italian islands but don’t want to get your feet melted off by molten rock (that won’t happen, by the way, but some people want to avoid even the most remote possibility), then how about the Med’s second largest island, Sardinia? As well as some fantastic beaches, many of which are deserted for the vast majority of the year, there are hundreds of amazing coastal paths, forest tracks and byways through the lush interior along which you can stretch your legs while enjoying some of the best views Italy has to offer. The Fiummendosa valley is as relaxing a walking environment as you are likely to find, with sheep and goats grazing by the winding rivers, the aromas of herbs and flowers enhancing the pure air as you stroll merrily without a care in the world.
Another area ripe for exploration in Italy is the Dolomites, a mountain range in the north east of the country that possesses views to rival the Alps, but with just a fraction of the number of tourists. There are numerous trails and footpaths that cater to all levels of adventurer, from complete hiking novice right up to seasoned mountaineer. Others might favour the Venetian hills or the Ligurian Riviera, but whatever your tastes or desires, Italy has a walking holiday that is perfect for you.