UNTIL recently Italy was several countries: there are therefore still huge differences between the regions.
Piedmont in the north, the fountain head of Italian unity, has strong French influences and its cuisine is enjoyed with the best Italian wines. Tourists can enjoy Lake Maggiore's islands and in the nearby Aosta valley the high mountains include Mont Blanc.
This northern region also offers winter sports along with Italy's Swiss border resorts such as a duty free Livigno in Lombardy where the capital is Milan, home of opera, art and the celebrated Panettone cake. To the west Liguria is an extension of the French Riviera but much less spoilt or expensive. Only the last French resort of Menton can begin to match the age old charm of Italy's rocky fishing villages with their tiny streets clustered around little churches and surrounded by lush hill side gardens.
Lerici is still dominated by the memory of the poet Shelley. The Shelley Cafe is a few yards from his last home where Britain's own Casa Magni Shelley Museum was founded before being shipped to the UK. La Spezia, where Byron witnessed Shelley's beach cremation, still retains its old quarter.
Shelley is buried in Rome, a few yards from John Keats in the beautiful English cemetery in sight of the Pyramid seen by St Paul on his way to death. Keats, who was not well enough to enjoy Italian food, used to drop his spaghetti from his window on the Spanish steps.
Today anyone desperate for an English tea can call at nearby Babington's founded by the descendants of Thomas Babington. Another rewarding corner of Rome outside Vatican City is Cardinal Hume's lovely church of San Silvestro where you can be sure of hearing mass in English.
The modern idea of Sunday mass on Saturday evening was first tried in Rome so that the locals could enjoy Sunday at the nearby seaside resorts of Ansio and Sabaudia. Also popular are excursions to Castel Gandolfo, the Papal summer residence.
Rome is a possible base for a day rail pilgrimage to Assisi although once at the home of St Frances few want to hurry away from this holy hill town with its numerous churches.
Apulia is known as "the heels of Italy" and as usual the capital, Bari, will be celebrating its "summer Christmas" this month when its annual St Nicholas Festival marks the 900th anniversary of the move of his relics from Myra to Bari in 1087.
Sicily, the "Roman granary", has often been invaded. The Greek remains include Agrigento and its temples and Syracuse which rivalled Athens. Palermo is full of Baroque and Norman architecture. The best Norman building in Italy is the cathedral at Monreale where William II of England founded the Benedictine abbey. The island's orange groves are the ultimate contrast to the winter resorts of North Italy.