The boot of Italy, which stretches 1 300km/808mi from north to south, juts out into the Mediterranean between Greece and Spain. The country’s relief rises from great swathes of plain that cover about a quarter of its total area of 301 262sq km/ 116 317sq mi. Its coastline (almost 7 500km/4 660mi long) is washed by four inner seas: the Ligurian, Tyrrhenian, Ionian and Adriatic.
The Alps, which were created as the Earth’s crust folded in the Tertiary Era, form a gigantic barrier with northern Europe and are a formidable source of hydroelectric power. Several passes and tunnels cross the Alps, which peak at Mont Blanc (4 810m/15 780ft), to link Italy with France and northern Europe. On the southern side of the Alps between the fertile Po Valley and the foothills there are several lakes of glacial origin.
The Apennines, a range of limestone hills formed by a more recent Tertiary geological movement, extend from Genoa down into Sicily, dividing the country into two zones. The peaks of this limestone chain are generally lower than those of the Alps. The Corno Grande at 2 914m/9 566ft is the highest mountain of the chain’s tallest massif, the Gran Sasso. The section between Naples and Sicily is subject to tectonic plate movements resulting in earthquakes, volcanoes and marked changes in sea level. Such activity has altered the relief of this southern part of the peninsula.
Italy’s botanical life is the most varied in Europe, ranging from firs and cypresses to palm trees and olive groves. Approximately four distinct vegetation regions make up Italy’s landscape. In the north, the small Alpine Zone consists of cypress, oak and chestnut trees in the mountain valleys followed by larches, firs, and pines between 1 000m–2 000m and wildflowers, dwarf pines, moss and lichen found above 2 000m and up to the snow line. The Appenine Zone, which forms Italy’s spine from Liguria to as far south as Calabria, is made up of dense forests of holm oak and beech trees in the upper elevations. While, at the lower reaches, pastures of heather, oleander and sunflowers give way to olive and mastic trees as well as swathes of iconic Italian cypress trees and umbrella pines. The Po River Delta, which stretches from Torino in the west to the Adriatic, contains Italy’s largest wetlands, which are slowly being restored through land reclamation projects. Heavy industrialisation and centuries of inhabitation in the Po River region, Italy’s agriculture hub, has meant the loss of some forests and native vegetation, though woods of poplar, chestnut and willow trees are common. Italy’s Mediterranean-vegetation Zone includes coastal plains along the Tyrhennian and Adriatic as well as Sicily and Sardinia. It is characterised by dense pockets of evergreen shrubs (macchia), such as myrtle and juniper, scrubland and palm trees, of which the stocky canary date palm is the most common variety. Fruit trees, including lemon, orange, olive, fig and pomegranate thrive in the Mediterranean zone, especially from Campania and southwards.
Centuries of hunting and urban development have reduced the indigenous animal population in Italy, both in number and diversity. Among the native mammals are the ibex and marmot – whose habitat is in the Alps – foxes, grey wolves and red deer. Wild boar roam the central woodlands, especially in Tuscany and Umbria. And the Appenine bear, though highly endangered, has been seen in Abruzzo. Italy is on the migratory route for hundreds of birds from northern and central Europe and there are several bird sanctuaries in the country, notably along the Tuscan coast and in the Po River valley. In the Po Delta alone at least 300 different species, including the goldfinch, nightingale, night heron, great egret, magpie and kingfisher, have been spotted. Other avifauna include kite, harrier, falcon, grouse, quail, woodcock and partridge. The Moorish gecko, green lizard and Italian tree frog are common varieties of reptiles and amphibians, found mostly in the dry southern climes. Snakes include the western whip and the poisonous asp.