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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.
Mahon is the capital of Menorca, second largest of the Balearic Islands. It stands out from the others because of the abundance of prehistoric structures, and because its culture was influenced by British occupation in the 18th century. The people who built the prehistoric constructions are believed to have been responsible for similar works in Sardinia, and for Stonehenge in England. Believed to have been founded by the Carthaginian General Mago, Mahon was held by the Moors from the 8th to the 13th century and in turn occupied by the English, the French and the Spanish. Mahon was finally ceded to Spain by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.
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.
One of the Mediterranean’s best ports and largest harbors welcomes you to the home of the French Mediterranean Fleet. Located in the Var prefecture of the Provence, Toulon has a long history that is revealed in various districts of the city. The Old Town is along the harbor, with narrow streets and small squares, most boasting a nicely decorated fountain. The Upper Town is mostly 19th century grandeur. You can take a cable car to Mont Faron, bypassing the road that is a notorious stretch for bicycle racers. The waterfront neighborhood of Le Mourillon is a family-friendly beach area for Toulonais. There are wonderful museums of history, art from various periods and naval history to explore as well.
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.
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.
Despite its small size, the island of Elba has been known since the beginning of recorded history. Called Ilva by the Ligurians and Aethalia by the Greeks, Elba passed to the Etruscans and later the Romans. It was ruled by Pisa in the Middle Ages, was a haven for Barbary pirates in the 16th century and then privately owned by the powerful Medici family. The island’s most famous resident was Napoleon Bonaparte, whose first exile from France and short reign over Elba lasted from May 1814 to February 1815. During that time, Napoleon was able to improve the island by altering street plans, building new roads, modernizing agriculture and developing the iron mines.
Iron ore is still mined above the Rio Marina and then shipped from Portoferraio (Port of Iron). With a population of just over 11,000, the town is the largest of the eight on the island and is considered its capital. Geologists and gem stone collectors find Elba a treasure trove with over 150 minerals and semiprecious stones found here due to the seismic turmoil that created the island. The rich soil also produces an astonishing range of foliage and flowers aided by sun that shines almost every day of the year. Despite summer tourism, the island is largely agricultural and the ambience is quiet and relaxed, allowing the visitor to enjoy Elba’s natural charm, peaceful abundance and timeless beauty.
Originally built by Emperor Trajan who had a villa here, Civitavecchia has flourished as a major port for Rome since the 13th century. Today it is an important ferry terminal and for many travelers the gateway to the Eternal City, Rome. The Renaissance fortifications that surround the harbor area were begun by Bramante and completed by Michelangelo in 1535.
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