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The sun shines, the food, wine and coffee are superb and there are reminders of the glorious past beside every streetside caffè and speeding vespa. Churches and houses are built around and on top of medieval ruins and streets follow original Roman and Etruscan roads. Europe’s famous boot protrudes into the middle of the Mediterranean, and, Italians still like to believe, into the centre of the world. Politically the heart of the continent may have moved north since the heyday of the Roman Empire but historically, artistically and religiously, most of the cultural roots of Western Europe are here. The olive tree- and vine-encrusted countryside rises high to the Alps in the north and to the Apennines down the spine of the peninsula and warm waters lap the long coastline and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia .

A familiar backdrop to Renaissance art and car ads alike, it is a sumptuously fertile landscape, dotted with towns and villages where wizened old men sit around on rickety benches chatting on their latest-model mobiles. Despite its postcard-pretty rural scenery, above all Italy is defined by its extraordinary cities. Rome has ruins aplenty and political and religious power but the money mostly emanates from the North: the car capital of Turin and the slick fashion catwalk of Milan. Venice has dramatic waterscapes, Florence striking art and architecture, and Bologna some of the best food. Naples is a wonderfully chaotic piece of street opera and all over the country, beautiful smaller towns and cities such as Verona, Siena and Perugia all have their own special atmospheres. As a place to museum-hop, Italy is hard to better, and there are plenty of more active attractions too, from walking and skiing to paragliding and rafting. But it’s also the perfect country in which to do very little. Its streets are tailor-made for studied strolling and you can be confident that around the next corner will be a little family-run restaurant serving exquisite local wine and silky smooth ice-cream.

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