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Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is said to have been founded by the Phoenicians, and was once the rival of the powerful states of Venice and Genoa for control of the Mediterranean trade. Today, it is Spain’s second largest city and has long rivaled, even surpassed Madrid in industry and commerce. The medieval atmosphere of the Gothic Quarter and the elegant boulevards combine to make the city one of Europe’s most beautiful. Barcelona’s active cultural life and heritage brought forth such greats as the architect Antonio Gaudi, the painter Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso, who spent his formative years here. Other famous native Catalan artists include cellist Pau Casals, surrealist Salvador Dali, and opera singers Montserrat Caballe and Josep Carreras. Barcelona accomplished a long-cherished goal with the opportunity to host the Olympics in 1992. This big event prompted a massive building program and created a focal point of the world’s attention.
The port town of Sete hugs the tiny Mont St. Clair, and is caught between the Mediterranean and the Bassin de Thau, a salt lake directly behind it. It is crisscrossed by numerous canals which link the lake to the sea, and connected by 12 bridges. Along the quay, renovated buildings provide a multitude of architectural details from the 18th and 19th centuries. The life of the town is found in its squares: Place Leon Blum, with its fountain and Wednesday morning flower market; Place Aristide, with its old fashioned bandstand; and Place de la Republique, with its huge retaining walls and vaulted loggias. Sete retains its historic purpose as a fishing boat haven for North African trade; the old harbor dates from the time of Louis XIV.
Although today it is cut off from the sea, Fréjus was the second-largest naval port in the Roman empire in the 1st Century B.C. The town’s name descends from Forum Julii, the retirement center for the 8th Legion. The Roman ruins in the area are what draws most visitors today, and the massive pillars of the aqueducts, sections of walls and the crumbling remains of the tree-shaded theater and amphitheater are picturesquely situated and satisfying. In the town center, a central square faces the medieval stone cathedral and its adjacent cloisters, with impressive doors, handsomely carved woodwork and elaborate ceilings. Outside town, the 1889 Palladian Villa Aurelienne sits amid 60 acres of Mediterranean gardens. Fréjus suffered a terrible flood in 1959 when runoff from unprecedented rains swept down the mountains and broached the dam at Malpasset. The ruined site is a reminder of man’s fragility in the face of Nature’s power. On another hilltop, the small, octagonal Chapel of Notre Dame de Jerusalem is richly decorated with stained glass windows and colorful frescoes designed by the artist Jean Cocteau and completed after his death.
Corsica, the “scented isle,” was the birthplace of Napoleon, and as late as the last century bands of brigands controlled his mountainous and rugged homeland. The beaches of Ajaccio, ranging from narrow crescents to broad, golden expanses help to account for the city’s rise as a popular resort. Such scenic attractions as the Calanches of Piana, those red granite mountains with their spectacular slopes and formations add an additional element of interest.
The Sardinian coastline is serrated by deep-cut coves of sparkling sea, surrounded by rocky prominences and edged in lovely strands of beach. The Aga Khan fell in love with the place, and dubbed it the Costa Smeralda, creating a magnet for the global glitterati. At Golfo Aranci, shining arcs of silvery sand are linked into a larger curve, encircled by a muscular peninsula that looms protectively between the town and the sea. It looks expensive, and it is.
Livorno is the gateway to the region of Tuscany, which as Goethe once observed, looks like Italy should. Fortunately for today’s visitor not much has changed in the two centuries since the German poet was himself a tourist in Toscana. The remarkable wealth of beauty here mellowed to a golden patina by history and tempered by the hand of man, awaits. Everywhere there is history, from the Etruscan stronghold of Fiesole, to the Roman colony of Volterra to the Renaissance splendor of Florence, Pisa, Sienna and San Gimignano. If the landscape evokes a sense of the familiar it is because the great masters have used it as a backdrop for their great works. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were archtypal Tuscans and Renaissance men who headed an extensive list of geniuses who lived, worked and created within a single period of time.
Set on the Gulf of Tigullio between Rapallo and Portofino, the resort/fishing town of Santa Margherita centers around the lovely harbor, where boating and sunbathing are the orders of the day. The town has some good shopping options, lovely cafes and interesting sights like its 16th-century castle and the 17th-century Basilica di Santa Margherita.
The Principality of Monaco is the epitome of Riviera chic. This tiny enclave of 370 acres surrounds a sheltered harbor that draws yachts from around the world to enjoy the beautiful scenery, mild weather and elegant casino. Glamorous Monte Carlo is one of Monaco’s four quarters, which also include La Condamine, the business district; Monaco-ville, the capital; and Fontvieille, an area built on reclaimed land. Ruled by Prince Albert II, Monaco has a population of over 32,000, of which about 16 percent are citizens, or Monégasques.