Italy is considered the birthplace of Western Civilization, and yet it is a relative newcomer as a unified country, which occurred only in 1871. Previously a collection of autonomous states that were ruled by leaders ranging from the papacy to Napoleon Bonaparte, the Spanish, and Austrians, today in each region, you can still sense distinctive influences on the architecture, food and other manifestations of cultural heritage.
Emilia Romagna is a region in Northern Italy, and one of the wealthiest areas in Europe--due not only to its GDP but its rich heritage as a center of thought, culture and gastronomy. Romanesque and Renaissance architecture abound, including walled cities like Ferrara and impressive castles like Torrechiara. Parma and Modena are home to some of the world's best-loved foods like Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma,and balsamic vinegar so sweet it's used as an ice cream topping. Small villages like Brisighella and Dozza are rated as some of the 100 most beautiful small towns in Italy-- identified as such with orange flags by the Touring Club Italiano, founded in 1894. The Po Delta's value as a highly precious natural ecosystem was recognized by UNESCO in 1999 for being a unique cultural landscape and example of intelligent human construction within nature.
Tuscany is perhaps Italy's best-known region, regarded as the home of the Italian Renaissance. In fact, the real cultural catalysts lived a Millennia earlier--the Etruscans, a sophisticated civilization that flourished here from 800 - 4th century B.C. Its said that it was the Etruscans who taught the Romans the alphabet. Successful traders, the Etruscans left a rich legacy of artistic traditions that include metal-working and sculpture, many of which live on today in Tuscany's hill towns of Pitigliano, Sovano, San Gimignano and Volterra.