Italy consists of a 1,000km (620 miles) long peninsula extending out into the central Mediterranean, together with a number of islands to the South and West. It is dominated by mountains, with the Apennines (which run north-south through the peninsula) connecting the Alps in the North to Etna and the Peloritani mountains in Sicily in the South.
At 301,200 km2 (116,000 miles2), Italy is one of the larger countries in Europe, and one of the most diverse in terms of geography, flora and fauna. It is easiest to describe when divided into discrete regions:
Northern Italy is dominated by the extensive valley of the Po river (the longest in the country), which is one of the most productive agricultural regions in Italy (specialising in cereals) and the centre of Italy’s industrial output. A large percentage of Italy’s population lives in this area, scattered through the major cities of the region such as Milan, Turin and Genoa, and in spite of (or because of) historically large influxes of people from the rest of Italy, there is a strong secessionist movement (the Lega Nord) that wishes to create a new country based solely on Northern Italy.
Central Italy includes the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Marche and Lazio. It is dominated by the hills and mountains of the Apennines, from which a few major rivers flow. There are few natural plains of any size in this region, but those that do exist are famously fertile. They have been supplemented over the years by a process of land reclamation that has turned the coastal swamps and marshes into highly productive agricultural land, and provided space for the expansion of cities and towns.
The cities of Florence, Pisa, Siena and Rome are all located in Central Italy, and as such this region is a noted destination for travellers interested in art, archaeology and religion, and is widely considered to be the heartland of Italy.
Southern Italy includes the regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Apulia, Basilicata and Campania, and is rich in sites of great natural beauty, but poor in industrial potential. It is largely dependent on tourism and agriculture, and millions of people are drawn each year to its long sandy beaches and world-famous archaeological sites. It is a seismically active region that is regularly affected by earthquakes, and is home to the only active volcano in mainland Europe: Vesuvius.
The Islands: Sicily, Sardinia and the Aeolian Islands
Characterised for much of the 20th century as the football at the toe of Italy’s boot, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean (25,708 km2 = 9,925.9 miles2), and one of the most diverse in terms of geography, flora and fauna. Separated from Italy by a strait just 3.1km wide (1.9 miles) at its narrowest point, and only 140km (87 miles) from the African shore, Sicily dominates the sea-lanes of the Mediterranean from east to west and north to south.
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean (23,800 km2 = 9189 miles2), and is blessed with abundant mineral deposits (e.g. gold, coal, zinc and granite) and superb agricultural land. It is geographically the most isolated region in Italy, but its excellent airports and ferry connections mean that you never feel too far away from the rest of Europe.
The Aeolian Islands to the north of Sicily are volcanic in origin, and are a popular tourist destination for Italians. With their sea vistas, active volcanoes, prehistoric villages, great seafood and superb walking, they make a wonderfully varied setting for a holiday.