The Mediterranean is a glittering constellation of destinations that cover every conceivable vacation need. By Andrew Eames
The Mediterranean is the focus for many travelers who choose Europe for a vacation, and for very good reason. The summer weather is sea-swimmingly warm, the coast is rich with historic cities, the beaches are generous and offshore islands come in all shapes and sizes. A simple rollcall of key names will conjure up typical Mediterranean scenes: the South of France’s movie-star lifestyle and lavender-covered hills; Spain’s flamenco dancing and seafood paella; Venice’s canals and palazzos; Malta’s knights and fortresses; Turkey’s bathhouses and stone churches; Greece’s simple, whitewashed houses against a deep-blue sea.
This is all ‘Mediterranean’, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all destination. “There’s something for every type of traveler,” says Susan Chou, of Insight Vacations. “The Mediterranean is a large geographic area covering Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Turkey and North Africa. There’s an abundance of history, culture, amazing cuisine, scenic landscapes and welcoming people. The western Med is generally more sophisticated, whilst the eastern Med can be more rustic and affordable (think Greece and Turkey vs South of France).” For typical Insight Vacations customers, says Susan, cultural immersion in all this variety is the key reason for coming, but customers may want to spend extra time afterwards just chilling out on a beach, too.
Such diversity in the destination encourages diverse ways of exploring, too. One way is to set out on a cruise, to tick off as many of the big destinations as possible. Another is to focus on just one country at a time, visiting historic sites and staying in rustic hotels and immersing oneself in a world of wine, olives and long, lingering sunsets. You could camp, or bike, or hike, or even catch local ferries. The choice is huge.
Around the shoreline
Situated on the western edge of the Med, Barcelona is notable both because of its economic might as the capital of the Spanish province of Catalonia and because of its proximity to local beaches and islands. It has long been one of Europe’s most popular city breaks, made doubly attractive by its ancient Gothic Quarter and its lavish and eccentric modernist architecture, particularly the work of Antoni Gaudi on his unfinished cathedral, the Sagrada Familia. The city’s port is also a key starting point for many Mediterranean cruises, making it a key site for many cruise lines.
North of Barcelona, into France, there are hundreds of miles of prime beaches (popular for camping holidays) until you reach the Cote D’Azur, famous for its fashionistas, and the elegant resorts of Nice and Cannes, which regularly hit the headlines for their film festivals and carnival celebrations. Nice’s Promenade des Anglais is lined with grand old dowager hotels, and neighboring Antibes is where today’s jet set take their holidays. Beyond Monte Carlo — a state in its own right, with multimillionaires, superyachts and casinos jam-packed into a short craggy section of coast — the shore wiggles on into Italy. Most famous of all the destinations here is Venice — a city that would look like an oil painting if everyone stood still, laced as it is with canals and gondoliers and ancient palazzos turned into lavish waterside hotels. Key things to see are Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of great paintings, but frankly you could do a lot worse than just buy a day ticket for the water buses, and browse around Venice’s narrow watery lanes, feeling like a movie star.
The next big vacation destination after Italy is Croatia, and anyone who ventures into Split and Dubrovnik will see many echoes of Venice, particularly in the style of the local architecture. Split still has a Roman emperor’s palace at its heart, functioning very much as a part of the city, and the equally ancient walled city of Dubrovnik (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) has two recent claims to fame: for being largely rebuilt after the Balkan War of the early 1990s and then for playing such a major part in Game of Thrones. Today, it gets incredibly busy on midsummer days, with a lot of visitors connecting with island-bound boats.
The next destination, Greece, is primarily famous for its islands (also briefly outlined below), although Athens, with its Acropolis and key museums is a location where history is brought to life. The city is also renowned for its food scene, where visitors can while away hours at tavernas, gorging on seafood and meze platters.
Beyond Greece lies Turkey, whose Aegean and Lycian shores around towns like Marmaris and Bodrum and Fethiye are sublime and rugged, with remote bays colonized by upscale hotels and resorts. These two countries are great for small-boat trips or even waterborne holidays, with Turkey offering ‘blue cruises’ on glorious, traditional, wood-built motor-sailing boats along pristine shores. Both Turkey and Greece are winning destinations for American travelers, says Insight Vacations’ Susan Chou: “incredible hospitality, beautiful scenes, long history, amazing food, warm people and your dollar goes far”.
Greece has some of the most famous islands in the Mediterranean — with Mykonos and Santorini top sellers for US visitors. But each is a very different experience, with some being party islands and others having more focus on history and culture. The biggest, such as Corfu and Crete, manage to do a bit of everything. Smaller ones, such as Milos and Samos, are very authentic, popular holiday destinations with Greeks themselves.
The island state of Malta is currently trending as a popular destination for US visitors, thanks in no small part to all the movies that have used its fortresses, fishing harbors and the walled old city of Mdina as a location. Remember the film Gladiator? That started the trend, and most recently, Brad and Angelina were here to make their prophetic story of marital breakdown, By the Sea.
The most densely visited of the Spanish islands are the Balearics, which lie offshore from Barcelona. Of these, Majorca is the best known, with a landscape that combines a rugged, forest-covered sierra with a pastoral flatland blanketed with orange groves. Its sister island Ibiza is the party island of the Mediterranean, in contrast to the third island, Minorca, a quiet place of rental villas and perfect beaches many of which can be reached only on foot.
They call them the Cinque Terre; five Ligurian villages that are terraced into Croatia’s craggy coastline, inaccessible by road, but threaded through by railway and footpath. This tumble of pastel-painted villages between Genoa and La Spezia is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its dramatic location.
Further east, most people know the Greek Islands, but the 1,000-plus Croatian islands are gradually becoming better known too. One or two — particularly the old Venetian harbor at Hvar — are summer destinations for superyachts, and others are still places of quiet fishing villages and vineyards. Many travel operators offer
boat-based itineraries that graze their way through these islands, but there’s also a ferry service between Split and Dubrovnik, stopping off at Mljet, Korcula and Hvar en route. And finally, for a forgotten piece of the Med that’s just being rediscovered, head to the southernmost peninsular of the Greek Peloponnese, the Mani. This tough, rugged land is home to ancient fortified towers that, today, are great places to stay.