If you like hiking, watersports, or just lazing in the sun, Carinthia's beautiful countryside -- gentle hills and steep mountains scattered with idyllic lakes -- makes it a wonderful area to explore during the warmer months; it's also an ideal stopping point if you're heading to Italy.

The high mountains ringing Carinthia (or Kärnten, in German) create the province's natural borders, and the area has been likened to a gigantic amphitheater. Mountainous Upper Carinthia lies to the west, and the Lower Carinthia Basin region slopes to the east. The province is bisected by the east-flowing Drau River, which becomes the Drava when it enters Slovenia. Villach is the biggest road and rail junction in the eastern Alps, and Klagenfurt is the capital of Carinthia.

If you're athletic, climb the gentle nocken (hills), or head for the more demanding mountains. The region boasts more than 200 warm, clean lakes, and fishing is a popular pastime here, either in the lakes or in the colder mountain streams. The "Carinthian Riviera" is the name given to the main lake area, including the Wörther See, not far from Klagenfurt. Lake Ossiacher and Lake Millstatter are also in this area. Weissensee, another big lake, is less well known than the other three, but it's really the most scenic. The best way to see the lakes is to take one of the boats that operate from April to mid-October.

If you want to enjoy the lakes, visit Carinthia from mid-May to September, although the first 2 weeks in October are ideal, too. Hordes of visitors flock here in July and August, so make reservations in advance if you plan on visiting during those months.

Although the warm lakes are Carinthia's main attraction, the province also attracts some skiers to its mountains in winter. However, Carinthia's relatively mild winters don't always make for the best ski conditions. The ski season here lasts only from December to March. As a ski center, this province is much less expensive than Tyrol or Land Salzburg. Regardless of the season you visit, if you're driving, parking is rarely a problem: Unless otherwise noted, you park for free.

Archaeological discoveries prove that Carinthia was inhabited by humans far back in unrecorded time, and the Romans didn't overlook the area, either -- their legions marched in to conquer alpine Celtic tribes in the kingdom of Noticum, establishing it as a Roman province.

For centuries, this area was home to ethnic groups from Slovenia, belonging to the kingdom of Germany and Avar-dominated Slavs from the east. Hoping to fend off invasions, the populace eventually invited Bavaria to become Carinthia's protector, and so it became part of the Holy Roman Empire.

When the Hapsburgs took Kärnten as a part of their rapidly expanding empire, it was a duchy of the Holy Roman Empire under the Bohemian aegis. To secure his control over the area, Ferdinand I of Hapsburg, soon to become emperor, married the heiress to Bohemia and made Carinthia an imperial duchy. Later, Carinthia was designated a province of Austria.

The former country of Yugoslavia claimed southern Carinthia after World War I. During this time, some territory was ceded to Yugoslavia, and more was given to Italy, but all this land was later restored. In 1920, after the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, the Slovenian minority in the south, along the Yugoslav border, voted to remain with Austria. Today, a sizable minority of Carinthia's population is Slovenian, but the majority of it is German.