This part of the world has been a favorite destination since the beginning of time, and for good reason! Mild climates in the winter are a huge draw from snowbirds living in the north. The diverse landscapes, from the rugged Apennine Mountains in Italy, to the rolling hills lined with flavorful grapevines in Southern France. Or the lively town of Barcelona filled with flamboyant Gaudi architecture, appetizing Tapas Bars or the unique street performers on La Ramblas to the sparkling beaches of Nice. The Med is an enticing destination that will have you coming back to experience more.
Here is a list of the top 5
Cefalu, Sicily – A lovely beachside village with an ancient feel. Narrow cobbled streets just wide enough for a Smart Car to get through are lined with colorful fruit markets, antiques and local craft shops. Ancient rock buildings tower over you with colorful shutters and freshly washed clothes hanging from their windows. Cefalu is relatively quiet other than a festive family wedding from time to time. As you drive to the village, the first thing you will notice are the two large steeples from the Cathedral of Cefalu. Once inside you will notice the Christ Pantocrator, a golden mosaic that covers the dome. Copied from the Church at Daphni in Greece and Monreale Church not far from Cefalu. You will find it has all the styles that are required such as the forked beard, 2 hair wisps over his forehead, triangle nose, raised eyebrow and owlish eyes.
Another interesting sight in Cefalu is down by the waterfront, the ancient wash basins, where the women would meet together daily to wash clothes and converse. It’s interesting because of all the square water filled washing basins carved into the rock, with fresh water streaming from the hillside behind town to the sea. You will find many top quality restaurants and cafes to choose from. Cefalu is one of those undiscovered gems that are hard to find, but not to be missed.
Cinque Terre – along the Italian Riviera – Made famous by Rick Steve’s this once obscure destination has so much to do that you would need many days to discover the 5 villages. Sandwiched in the middle of Genoa and La Spezia the best way to get there is by train. About 10 minutes ride from La Spezia you will be dropped off in the middle of each village except Corniglia, which is a hike in only town.
The other villages are: Montoroso al Mare, Vernazza, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Each one unique in itself. Monterosso the most populated has a resort atmosphere with sandy beach, plenty of bars, and the most lively of the five. Vernazza is quaint and charming. The food there is amazing! I suggest having dinner at Gionni’s and order the swordfish. Grilled with wonderful savory seasoning, on the outside, sweet in the middle. Corniglia sits like a beacon overlooking the seas is the most quiet and has nice bed and breakfast accommodations. Riomaggiore is the first village you would arrive at from the south. Buildings formed like a V spilling down a ravine to the sea. The tiny cove at the waterfront is filled with colorful fishing boats and the tall multi-colored buildings are the perfect photo opts. . Manarola is actually the first of the five villages built and has that wonderful Italian feel that you expect to experience when traveling to Italy.
The villages are accessible by boat, rail or hiking. Hiking takes you through the hills, vineyards and transparent blue seas. It’s not uncommon to see visitors swim out to large boulders in the water to take in the sun. The Cinque Terre Sanctuary Trail takes you to the top of the coastal mountain to give you stunning views. Each village has their own vineyards to give you their own unique flavors so don’t miss trying their wines.
Barcelona – If you want action, history, great shopping, and nice beaches Barcelona is the place to go! Alive 24 hours a day you won’t run out of things to do here.
During the day visit the fantastical buildings of Gaudi and his personal home in Park Guell. Filled with abstract mosaics that are not only fascinating but joyful bursts of color. Walking trails litter the park that has nice views of Barcelona. L’Aquàrium de Barcelona located at the bottom of La Ramblas is a fun place to visit; you might even want to take to opportunity to swim with the sharks! Then a visit to the Picasso museum for art lovers, it has one of the most extensive collections in the world of his art. At night the anticipation of trying all the varieties of tapas start enticing from the time you wake up! Barcelona is known for its nightclubs, from jazz to hard rock to funk, each establishment is as diverse as the people who stop by. Starting as early as 8pm, you can dance all night long.
Carcassonne – By far the best example of a thriving medieval Castle in Europe, Carcassonne flows with historic Renaissance. From the time you cross the drawbridge to enter, it’s a place to recapture all you read about in history books growing up. Where warriors on horseback used to run through the streets they are now filled with tourists peeking through shops and looking for a café to sit and sip a good espresso. It’s also a destination where you can order up a traditional French Cassoullet or “peasant stew”. Served steaming hot and full of chunks of meat, potatoes and veggie’s I noticed its still a favorite of both the French and tourists alike. The way to really experience Carcassonne is to stay overnight when all the tour groups leave. You virtually have the city to yourselves.
The best part of visiting is just exploring the streets but there are a few museums and attractions you don’t want to miss. Although you can walk part of the ramparts near the drawbridge on your own, they have a guided tour where you can wander through the restored ramparts and ancient walls. Ending in the amphitheater that has been used for over a thousand years you are just steps from Basilica of Saint-Nazaire. Vibrant stained glass filled with stories of Carcassonne and the bible, and grotesque gargoyles’ protecting the outside of the church is a great end to the tour. Also don’t miss the Eagles of La Cite, the largest exhibit of birds of prey in the world. Trainers have been busy training them in medieval methods. Carcassonne should be on everyone’s list of places to visit. A couple quick notes: summer has one of the best music festivals in southern France, one of the best medieval festivals complete with jousting events and Halloween night is a real treat with the house of terror.
Nice – Known as the jewel of the French Riviera, Nice has so much more to experience than just beaches and good meals. The town is split up into different districts.
The Promenade is a large boardwalk lined with Palm trees that borders the beach. Throngs of people stroll the walkway enjoying the views of the Mediterranean and Art Nouveau buildings. The Negresco Hotel is the Landmark to look for, built in the Belle Epoque period or “beautiful era” it was made to look like a royal palace. Although the beach is rocky it’s filled with sunbathers working on their tans.
The Port District where the cruise ships and ferries dock, and fishermen bring in their catch. There are a lot of interesting sights to see here. You will also find some of the best restaurants of Nice here.
Place Masséna is the most modern part of Nice, here you will find the daily life of the local population. Its less touristy here although, it is the main shopping street for Nice. Fountaine du Soleil in Place Massena is Greek symbolism for the planets in earth’s galaxy. Across the square is the Jardin Albert, a wide meridian turned into a lush garden of palm trees, tropical flowers, grassy lawns and modern fountains.
Vieux Nice District is one of my favorites, considered the “Old Quarter” and considered a traditional medieval village. You can wander down tiny streets inaccessible to car traffic. The buildings are 3-4 stories high, mostly painted in yellows, reds and orange. You can find good deals shopping here with a multitude of different restaurants including Provincial French cuisine.
A short drive from Nice are two hilltop villages, a must see for anyone who visits Nice. The closest is St Paul de Vence, a fortified medieval village with spectacular views of the Med. Cobbled streets with fountains pouring out fresh water along the way. Famous artists like Mark Chagall who is buried here, have been coming to St Paul for centuries to create masterpieces as it is even today. If you are in the mood for gelato just to the left of the front gates is La Dolce Italia, try the Lemon Meringue it is delicious!
The other village is Mougins, a delightful town of fabulous restaurants, shops and art. Ivy and foliage fans out in reds and greens along the shuttered buildings add atmosphere to the ancient fortress. Pablo Picasso spent his last days here along with many other artists that could not resist Mougins charm. The small main square is lively and surrounded by top-notch eateries. If you like antiques there are some good buys here.