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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.
Valencia is located in the middle of Europe’s most densely developed agricultural region. Originally a Greek settlement, the town was taken over by Romans in 138 BC and turned into a retirement town for old soldiers. The Moors controlled the land for 500 years, and this fertile plain, which today yields three to four crops, was considered to be heaven on earth. El Cid conquered Valencia for Spain in 1094, but it fell back into Moorish hands after his death. Incorporated into Spain in the 15th century, Valencia remains the nation’s breadbasket.
To taste the true flavor of this ancient port city, one should stroll its seaside promenade, pausing to rest beneath the huge banyan trees. The narrow, winding streets of the old town fan out from the port, leading you to sunny, palm-lined plazas. Visit the Catedral Nueva (New Cathedral), begun in the early 1800s but not completed for 116 years. Its dramatic, golden dome rises over a striking interior. For those who enjoy people-watching as much as sightseeing, the seafood restaurants along the eastern edge of the port provide the ideal setting.
Casablanca, located on the Atlantic coast, is with 4 million inhabitants Morocco’s largest city, and at the same time the largest port in Africa. Built on the site of ancient Phoenician Anfa, it remained a small fishing village for many centuries until the French arrived in 1912. Since then Casablanca has become a vast modern city, ever on the increase since Morocco’s independence from France in 1956. A successful blend of oriental-style, white cubic dwellings with modern Moroccan quarters gives the city an interesting flair. Lovely beaches and attractive hotels make for a popular year-round holiday resort. To help understand Moroccan culture a visit to the Medina, the quaint old Moorish quarter, is a must for all visitors.
Situated just across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar from Europe, Tangier has long comprised a hybrid culture that is nearly as European as it is African. Standing atop Cap Spartel, one can gaze down on the place where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. The “Hollywood” district where the foreign embassies have traditionally been located reflects the European influence. But ascending the hill above the waterfront, one enters the narrow, winding alleys of the Kasbah, the city’s oldest, most Moroccan section. Down the coast, nearby Tetouan retains a nearly untouched walled medina, with sections originally occupied by Andalusian, Berber and Jewish populations. It is small enough that visitors can explore it without risking becoming lost, making it a perfect choice as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This city of the Mediterranean coast is the second largest on the so-called Costa Tropical. But for us it is the port from which to ascend the slopes of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada to the ethereal Moorish city of Granada and the astounding complex of the Alhambra, the most beautiful display of Islamic architecture in Europe. Dramatically sited overlooking the city, the walled series of halls, courts, gardens and colonnades drip with airy carving and elaborate decorative reliefs that embody the term Arabesque. The sprawling Generalife Gardens adjoining the fortress are a memorable site unto themselves. Elsewhere in Granada, the Capilla Real is a purely Spanish Gothic building, holding the marble tombs of the Reyes Catolicos Ferdinand and Isabella behind a gilded wrought-iron screen.
Founded by Carthaginians in the third century BC, this ancient Mediterranean port city exemplifies the region’s tumultuous history. Romans, Visigoths, Castilians and Moors have all left their marks. Under King Philip II, Cartagena’s naturally deep, sheltered harbor was developed into the nation’s premier naval base, a position it still enjoys today. Ancient ramparts remain, as does a lighthouse erected in Moorish times.
Ibiza, the third largest of the Balearics, began to grow from a quiet, little-known island into a playground for the rich and an enclave for artists in the 1950s and 1960s. The island’s brilliant, whitewashed houses reflect not only the summer sun, but 300 years of Moorish rule, earning it the nickname of ‘Isla Blanca’ or White Island. The town of Ibiza, also known as Eivissa, is a delightful combination of Medieval and 19th-century architecture. Visit the picturesque upper town (Dalt Vila), far removed from the sometimes hectic pace of the rest of the island. The ancient cathedral, enclosed by 16th-century walls which are a national monument in their own right, provides a stunning view of the Mediterranean below.
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.
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.