By Joseph Francis
Sun-drenched and postcard-perfect, the Mediterranean region runs all the way from the Rock of Gibraltar to the Middle Eastern sands of the Levant and the dusty desert deltas of North Africa. In Europe, it ranges from the whitewashed hill villages of Andalusia to the impossibly romantic towns of the Amalfi Coast, through the hip and happening strips of the Greek party islands to the rustic beachside tavernas of Cyprus. It’s hence hardly surprising that it remains one of the most coveted destinations on the globe, offering everything from relaxation to exploration, beach hunting to culinary encounters, rich culture and unforgettable views.
Here is a Europe tour guide that puts focus in on this sun-splashed section of the continent’s south, with a look at all the must-see places that pepper its shores and adorn its cliffs and hills, going from the shimmering waters of the Adriatic to the artsy streets of Spanish Barcelona.
The French Riviera
Hailed by many as the veritable jewel of the Mediterranean as a whole, the French Riviera runs its way along the southern coast of Alpes-Maritimes to the bustling second-city of Marseille in the west. Along its length, travelers can seek out the sparkling, eucalyptus-scented beaches of Porquerolles, the ancient Roman treasures and café-peppered promenades of Nice, the jet-setter retreats of Saint Tropez and Saint Maxime, and the famous film-mad town of Cannes. A little inland and the beautiful village of Gassin also becomes available, while crossing into Monaco means bobbing millionaire yachts, casino life and sports cars. No wonder more than 14 million people visit every year!
Decorated with the curious creations of one Antoni Gaudi, this truly bucket-list city hails in as the 20th most-visited in the world for a reason! Check out the UNESCO-tagged rises of the Sagrada Familia that shoulders above its central streets, or the colourful artistry of Park Guell on Carmel Hill. Meanwhile, the Eixample District offers world-class shopping streets and the throbbing Las Ramblas strip hides countless bars and cafes between its shady plane trees. There are beaches too, at Barceloneta; lined with rows of tapas bars and seafood joints, cocktail drinkeries and memorials to the explorer Columbus alike.
A place apart from the other Greek islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas, Crete has nurtured its own unique character over the centuries. Its cuisine is earthy and rich, complete with some of the world’s tastiest olive oils, bitter highland greens and rustic spanakopita pies. Its people are at once hardy and uber-welcoming. Its towns – like Chania and Rethymno – come imbued with Venetian architecture and a curious Italian charm. And then there’s the backcountry, which rises to a rugged peak with the mythic White Mountains, comes cut through by the chiselled Samaria Gorge and boasts the beautiful coastal spots of Falasarna and Elafonisi to boot.
Bay of Kotor
Carving its way into the rugged mountainous coast of Montenegro, the Bay of Kotor rarely fails to draw a gasp. At its easternmost point, it gives way to the photogenic medieval city of Kotor itself; ringed by crumbling Middle Age walls and adorned with oodles of sun-splashed, marble-clad piazzas. Then comes moneyed Tivat, with its shimmering lines of millionaire yachts and all-new seaside developments. All the while, the rugged peak of Lovcen rises high above, crowning a fjord of mysterious Orthodox churches, UNESCO-attested medieval towns like Risan, and some of the Adriatic’s most enticing coves.
The southernmost province of mainland Spain is an enthralling fusion of the Moorish and the Christian. Influenced by the influx of Muslim invaders and migrants from North Africa over the course of two millennia, the cities here belie a beautiful arabesque edge. In Granada, for example, the great Alhambra crowns the hill in the shadow of the snow-tipped Sierra Nevada (where there’s even skiing by winter!). Then there’s the rugged Rock, where Gibraltar tour guides show off the only monkey colony in Europe, and Marbella with its thumping clubs and sleepless parties. Inland and the rolling Grazalema peaks take over, along with whitewashed towns like Ronda and Gaucin – true Spanish beauties both.
The Amalfi Coast
Running its way along the southern edge of the Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi Coast has long been the stomping ground of honeymooners and those in search of the real La Dolce Vita. The region starts with the clifftop town of Sorrento, with its dramatic views over the Bay of Naples, Pompeii and soaring Vesuvius, and continues on, over craggy walls of Campanian rock and sheer-cut coastal mountains, to the towns of Amalfi and Salerno. Here, travelers will discover ice-cream coloured homes and elegant renaissance mansions cascading down to meet the Med, along with prime pizzerias and enotecas touting Apulian whites and reds.
This jewel in the Med has to be one of the most historically-rich islands in the world. Settled and resettled since at least the 8th millennium BC, it has been shaped by Greek colonists, Roman imperialists, Norman invaders, Arabs and Byzantines over the years, imbuing its towns and villages with a curious mix of Doric colonnades (check out the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento), formidable medieval castles (see the glorious Il Castello di Mussomeli), and Renaissance elegance alike. Meanwhile, Catania tour guides point travelers to the heights of bubbling, brooding Etna, and everyone from divers to beach bums enjoy the pebbly coves of the long coast. In many ways, this one’s quintessentially Mediterranean!
Languishing out in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Paphos is part party town, part historical wonder. Cyprus tour guides here show off the totemic UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Tombs of the Kings, which date back to the 4th century BC and showcase architectural influences from as far afield as Pharaonic Egypt. Others will head straight for the heady clubs and hedonistic international joints that pepper Paphos’ appropriately-named Bar Street, while the coastline to the north and south of town offers up oodles of hidden coves and secluded beaches, like the Blue Flag sands of Cape Drepanon and the legendary likes of the Baths of Aphrodite around the peninsulas to the north.
Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.
Image Details and Licenses: https://flic.kr/p/5CHWUA (michalis fotinakis, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/sdcDUA (haschelsax, CC BY-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/AywxnP (Theophilos Papadopoulos, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/5groK2 (Stuart Pinfold, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/fLgjfo (ospanacar, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/5HXVRn (Malcolm, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/sivNvc (Russell Kenny, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/rXgWQM (Chris Parker, CC BY-ND 2.0)