Welcome to the treasures of Mediterranean Europe. From the shaded boulevards of Barcelona, Spain, to the souks of Istanbul, Turkey, a Mediterranean cruise is a once-in-a-lifetime tour of past ruins and present culture, exquisite cuisine, stunning azure waters and some of history’s most sought after and fought after coastal territories.
Highlights of Mediterranean travel include many Greek and Roman ruins—testaments to the once-expansive empires that dominated the region. The Parthenon in Greece, completed in 438 BC, will stun you with its symmetry, sculpture and columns. Ephesus in Turkey will transport you back in time. Walk among the stones of Italy’s ancient Roman forum—a short distance from the famous Coliseum—and marvel at how these ancient cultures shaped our modern societies and governments. Italy also offers picturesque landscapes, ancient vineyards, and centuries of art and architecture.
Few landscapes in the world compare to the stunning Balkan Peninsula. Explore the walled city of Kotor, Montenegro, and its exceptional churches. Discover the picturesque villages of Albania. A little farther north, you’re not likely to forget the sight of Dubrovnik, Croatia, a medieval walled city with burnt-orange rooftops juxtaposed against blue water and white cliffs.
Fresh is the word each day as you dine on superb Mediterranean cuisine, including fresh fruit, seafood, vegetables and olives, olives, olives! Wash all these treats down with a glass of one of the region’s excellent wines.
The nature lover will not be disappointed either. The Mediterranean waters are home to swordfish, tuna, dolphins and even some sharks. Loggerhead turtles and endangered monk seals live along the coast of Albania, Turkey and Greece. Birdlife is also plentiful. Portugal, Spain and Morocco are home to storks, flamingos, pelicans, spoonbills and egrets, while golden eagles, the rare white pelican and giant black vultures can be found in Greece, Albania and Montenegro.
Cruising is one of the best ways to explore the Mediterranean—a region chock full of isolated beaches, archeological landmarks and small fishing harbors. The calm waters allow some trips to be done under sail. You’ll be delivered to the doorstep of all the “must-see” places. You can venture off on an excursion—like a city tour, glass-bottom boat ride or snorkeling adventure—or relax under the sun in a comfy deck chair sipping a glass of port wine.
Covering almost one million square miles, the Mediterranean Sea touches nearly 20 countries on three continents and encompasses countless languages, cultures and culinary delights. Its Greek name means “the sea in the middle of the earth” because it was the middle of the known world to the civilizations that clustered along its coastline thousands of years ago—civilizations that have shaped our modern lives in innumerable ways. In the ruins of Greece’s Acropolis and Rome’s forum are found the roots of modern democracy, philosophy and religion, legal institutions, poetry and drama and scientific speculation.
Literally the stuff of legends—the island of Chios was noted in the Odyssey, Mycenae in the Iliad—Greek and Roman ruins retain much of their magic today. Notable archeological sites include the Acropolis at Athens, built in the 5th century BC, which includes the Parthenon and several other ancient temples and shrines. The Roman forum, once the site of law courts and public meetings, still contains several intact arches and temples ranging from about 500 BC to 400 AD. The nearby Coliseum—the famous site of gladiatorial battles—was completed in 82 AD. Excavations of the 11th century Greek site of Ephesus in Turkey have uncovered temples, public buildings, sculptures, and a portrait of Alexander the Great.
In more recent times, the Mediterranean Sea has had great political and economic importance as a maritime outlet for former USSR countries. It also provides Europe and the United States easy access to the oil-producing regions of the Middle East via the Suez Canal and overland pipelines.
At the far eastern side of the Mediterranean lies Turkey, a physical and cultural bridge between Europe and Asia. Its 2,500-year-old capital city of Istanbul is a melting pot of cultures and religions—exemplified in one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, the Hagia Sophia. Once a church, later a mosque and now a museum, this architectural marvel draws thousands of visitors a year with its minarets, mosaics and Byzantine architecture.
The centrally located Balkan Peninsula has for centuries been a strategic jumping off point for various nations and empires seeking conquest abroad. Its stunningly beautiful landscape made the area all the more desirable. Walled cities like Montenegro’s Kotor speak to the constant threat of invasion. Neighboring Albania was conquered and invaded repeatedly from the 2nd century BC until gaining independence at long last in 1912. Montenegro shares a similarly turbulent history, having officially become an independent nation only as recently as 2006.
Thousands of islands are found in the Mediterranean’s turquoise waters. Many are small and uninhabited, but some of the larger ones are microcosms of cultural and historical significance. Elba is the famous site of Napoleon’s exile and, later, escape. Sicily, located off the southern tip of Italy, is the largest island in the Mediterranean. The many Greek Isles are world renowned tourist destinations for their scenery, scuba diving, cuisine, night life and laid-back feel.
At the far western side of the Mediterranean Sea, the Strait of Gibraltar connects the region to the Atlantic Ocean. It is 36 miles long and narrows to just eight miles wide in places, with Spain to its north and Morocco to its south. Historically, the strait has had great economic and political importance, and today it continues to be a vital shipping route to southern Europe, northern Africa and western Asia.
Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER