From the Catalan capital of Barcelona to the stunning Croatian coastline, a Mediterranean cruise offers an enticing selection of art, architecture, history and cuisine, set against a backdrop of sparkling water, rolling countryside and even an active volcano or two. It’s a region that offers new delights every time – here’s a few of our favourite spots to visit on a Mediterranean cruise holiday.
A city that’s renowned for its art and architecture, thanks in large part to the efforts of its first son, Antoni Gaudí. Take a tour of his most dramatic and iconic works, including the Sagrada Familia, the Casa Milà, and Parc Güell – fifty acres of hillside park that showcases his distinctive mosaic-style art and offers dramatic views over the city. At the heart of the city is the Gothic Quarter, or Barri Gòtic, which was founded by the Romans. You could easily lose a few hours exploring its maze of quiet, narrow streets which spill suddenly onto sunlit plazas where you can sip coffee and watch the world go about its business. If the Barri Gòtic is Barcelona’s heart, then Las Ramblas must be its main artery – a 1.2-kilometre pedestrian street that pulses with life from early in the morning until late at night. An hour’s journey from Barcelona, you will find the spectacular Benedictine abbey of Montserrat perching on a mountainside 4,000 feet above the Catalan plains.
The ancient French city of Montpellier is home to one of the world’s oldest universities, founded in 1160. It’s also the ideal gateway to explore the stunning Languedoc region, whose medieval towns such as Carcassonne and Pézenas are surrounded by vineyards that are renowned for their fine red wines. The Canal du Midi is an incredible 17th-century feat of engineering that stretches for 240 kilometres between the city of Toulouse and the Mediterranean. A gentle cruise along a section of this beautiful, tree-lined waterway is an ideal way to enjoy the countryside while sampling local delicacies such as goat’s cheese, paté and fleur du sel. Further along the coastline from Montpellier, the Camargue region is Western Europe’s largest river delta. Its wetlands are home to more than 400 species of bird including flamingos, as well as the famed Camargue bulls and white horses. Be sure to sample the local produce, which includes bull meat sausages and fresh oysters.
France’s oldest (and second-largest) city has been an important trading centre since Greek and Roman times. It’s also officially the sunniest city in France, which makes its picturesque waterfront quay, overlooking the Mediterranean, an ideal spot for a romantic stroll and a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse. Just beyond the city, the coastline is dotted with the caves, cliffs and coves of the Calanques National Park – an area of great natural beauty that’s best explored by boat. The Provençal city of Avignon is just an hour’s drive away from Marseille. Once the Papal seat of the Roman Catholic church, its immense Palais des Papes still dominates the skyline, especially from the vantage point of the town’s other great landmark – the bridge officially known as the Pont Saint-Bénézet. More commonly known as the Pont d’Avignon thanks to the French children’s song of the same name, today only four of its original 22 arches remain; the Rhône River having consistently rebelled against efforts to engineer a crossing.
Monaco is the gateway to the stretch of coastline known as the Cote d’Azur. At just two square kilometres in total area, it is the world’s second smallest state – surrounded by France on three sides, with the sparkling waters and shiny superyachts of the Mediterranean forming the fourth border. The seat of the ancient royal House of Grimaldi, Monaco is the ultimate playground for the rich and famous, and of its four quarters, Monte Carlo is the best known thanks to its fabled casino and Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit. If you don’t fancy trying your luck on the tables, you may prefer to take in a concert at the equally magnificent Opéra de Monte-Carlo or join a private tour of the Royal Palace. Beyond Monaco, the French Riviera towns of Nice and Menton offer a slightly more laid back but no less scenic experience, while further inland, the scenery is dominated by fortified hill towns like Saint-Paul de Vence and the fragrant flower fields of Grasse.
Sicily’s arid mountains, rolling vineyards and picturesque orange groves dot the landscape, overlooked by Europe’s most active volcano: Mt Etna, which has erupted more than 130 times. Any visit to the volcano must include time exploring the ancient ruins and piazzas of Taormina – one of the most-visited ruins in Sicily. If you’re not up for a hike or four-wheel drive tour of the volcano, a helicopter ride is an excellent way to experience its dramatic landscape from another perspective. The deep blue waters that separate Sicily from mainland Italy are known as the Tyrrhenian Sea, and one of the best views of this stretch of water is from the ancient clifftop town of Tindari. Founded more than two millennia ago, its Roman era baths offer stunning examples of well-preserved, colourful mosaic tiles. A drive through the Sicilian countryside is a must for fans of the Godfather movies – the rustic hill villages and narrow twisting roads remain much as they were when the films’ iconic scenes were originally shot.
The region of Puglia forms the heel of Italy’s boot, and this often-overlooked region is one of unique landscapes and fairytale architecture. In Alberobello, tiny beehive-like houses known as trulli date back to the sixteenth century but today are used as shops and cafes as well as private homes. The honeycombed caves of Castellana make up Italy’s longest subterranean cave network, decorated with multi-coloured mineral deposits that shimmer in the light. The stunning white-washed town of Polignano a Mare is perched on clifftops overlooking the Adriatic Sea and still retains traces of the Greek, Roman, Arab and Norman influences that have shaped it over many centuries. While in Puglia, you must be sure to try the famous bread of Altamura, the homemade orecchiette pasta of Conversano, and olive oil produced from trees that are up to a thousand years old.
Venice, city of art, architecture and culture, where gondolas have replaced cars and life on its network of canals has an energy that’s utterly unique. A centre of wealth and trade for centuries, Venice’s catalogue of incredible buildings is headed by the grand Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica. One of the best ways to soak up the atmosphere of this heavenly city is by taking a romantic evening gondola ride. Exploring on foot will lead you down quiet, narrow streets that open suddenly onto hidden piazzas where you can enjoy a glass of prosecco or a dinner of squid ink risotto. Venice and the neighbouring islands of Murano and Burano are home to a variety of master craftsmen and women, whose workmanship is displayed in the form of stunning Carnival costumes, lacework and glass.
Travel north from Puglia across the Adriatic Sea and you’ll eventually arrive in Šibenik, which is the oldest Croatian city on the Dalmatian Coast. The narrow streets, medieval houses and churches of its well-preserved Old Town are overlooked by four historic fortresses and the fifteenth-century St James Cathedral. Its location at the mouth of the Krka River makes it an ideal base from which to visit the stunning Krka National Park – a 27,000-acre wonderland of cascading waterfalls, crystal clear pools and rich flora and fauna. Offshore from Šibenik lies a network of idyllic islands: Zlarin, which is renowned for its sea coral which is handcrafted into jewellery, and Primošten, which is famous for its beaches, vineyards and annual donkey race.
From the cable car that carries visitors to the top of Dubrovnik’s Mt Srd, it’s easy to see why the city is nicknamed ‘the Pearl of the Adriatic’. Two kilometres of stone walls encircle the terracotta-roofed Old Town, beyond which the deep blue waters of the Adriatic stretch away to the horizon. A walk around the walls, which have defended the city’s inhabitants from marauding invaders for centuries, is a great way to soak up the views if you don’t have the head for heights that’s required for the cable car ride. If you’re interested in experiencing Croatia’s cultural heritage, the nearby village of Orašac offers a chance to watch a traditional horse-driven olive oil mill in action and sample homemade cheese, smoked ham and wine. From Dubrovnik you can also take a day trip to Mostar in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina. This beautiful town suffered major damage during the 1990s, but today it’s difficult to believe that one of its most spectacular and iconic features, the Stari Most bridge, is a completely reconstructed version of the one that was destroyed. The town’s cobbled streets, bazaar and Turkish baths also remain, serving as a reminder that people of all faiths have lived here in peace for centuries.
The recorded history of the Greek capital stretches back at least 3,400 years, although human occupation is thought to have begun several thousand years earlier. Today, Athens is a global city that straddles modern Europe and the ancient world. Around every corner you’re faced with another reminder of its age – from the Temple of Zeus to the Acropolis. On the north-eastern slopes of the Acropolis, the historic neighbourhood of Pláka feels like a village within the city, with tiny streets and squares crammed with shops and tavernas festooned in brilliant bourgainvillea. There are few more memorable ways to spend a summer evening than watching an outdoor movie in the rooftop garden of the legendary Cine Paris, with breath-taking views of the Parthenon competing with the on-screen action for your attention.