Alexia Santamaria reveals her favourite places to get off the boat as you cruise the Mediterranean Sea.
Cruising is a great way to explore a continent like Europe, a large land mass veined with dozens of borders where culture and language change on invisible lines. With so many exciting countries to choose from, it can be almost overwhelming trying to plan a trip. A cruise is a perfect way to get a taster of some of the major cities without dealing with nine slightly varying sets of road rules, airport queues and endless unpacking and repacking. But where to go? There are so many different routes in and around Europe but here are five ports we particularly love.
Villefranche-sur-Mer is the gateway for Cannes, Monaco and - most popularly - Nice. Nice is where many passengers end up for their quick peek at the glamorous French Riviera. You can swim on the pebbled beach; stroll the shoreline by that blue blue water (it’s not called the Cote d’Azur for nothing); lose yourself in cobbled winding alleyways in the beautiful old town with its market, bistros, boutique and gorgeous historical buildings or soak up the incredible talent on display in significant and inspiring art collections by some of the world’s masters - think Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Renoir. Make sure you go hungry - you haven't visited this town properly until you try its regional specialties like socca (chickpea crepe), pissaladière (caramelised onion tart) and of course a proper salade nicoise. And definitely don’t leave without having an ice cream at Fenocchio, if you can manage to choose from all the flavours! If you’ve already been to Nice, Eze Village is another charming option from Villefranche. Perched up high this village is all your French medieval fairy tale dreams come true.
Most people who dock at Civitavecchia will be on the first transfer for a day in Rome. How can you pass up the opportunity to experience one of the most majestic and inspiring cities in Europe? But if you’ve been there done that, this seaside town will provide a lovely low key seaside Italian meander far from the hustle and bustle of the famous capital.
If Rome is on your list, prepare to be overwhelmed - it’s a busy but stunning city and the feeling of being surrounded by many of the astounding feats of architecture you’ve read about in history books and seen in movies, is almost too much to comprehend. Visit the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Circus Maximus, Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, The Vatican, St Peter's Basilica, or whatever you can fit in in your time on shore. All the main historical sites are surprisingly close so you can definitely tick off a few.
Stay away from the tourist traps when it comes to food, instead opt for side alleys where you can get real Italian cuisine. Have a coffee or a wine in pretty piazza and watch Italian life unfold around you, or look for a local noisy pizzeria or boisterous neighbourhood trattoria full of locals to really lap up the Roman dolce vita.
You’ll have to do some culling of photos after your time in Lisbon. Every turn reveals more stunning historic architecture or another magical scene of natural beauty you just ‘have to’ capture. The City of Seven Hills is named after the seven hillsides which overlook a picture perfect scene of cobbled streets, ancient structures and white topped churches, castles and of course the sea, filled with the seafood, Lisbon is so famed for.
Make sure you indulge heavily in this culinary bounty anywhere from tascas to markets to high end and Michelin star joints and if you’re up for it, spill out of your restaurant afterwards into the mad, colourful nightlife the locals do so well. A short bus or car ride will have you swimming at Lisbon’s beautiful beaches - after taking in all those incredible historical sites in the centre it’s wonderful to have some time to decompress on such a stunning coastline. Make sure you discover pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) early in your day. You’re going to want to eat as many as humanly possible while in lovely Lisbon.
It’s not difficult to see why Barcelona is one of the most popular destinations in Spain. It just screams good times - drinking, dining, dancing is what this city does best, and all with the most stunning of backdrops - mountains, beaches, skyscrapers, ancient walls, towering columns, gothic architecture; a mad mix up of the very best kind. Centuries of history sit oh-so-comfortably with modernism, Gaudi’s enormous influence adding a whimsical feel with the vibrant spectrum of colours of Guell Park and the unconventional style of the Sagrada Familia, one of the most fascinating structures in the world. Ride the cable car up to Montjuïc Hill for sweeping views, take a dip at the sun-drenched beaches, hike or mountain bike in the Collserola Hills but most importantly hang out in the squares and parks and sit in local bars and restaurants eating tapas and drinking cava and sangria so you can soak up the vibe of this 24 hour city of fun.
Livorno (Florence, Pisa)
Livorno is where you’ll dock if you’re wanting to explore Florence or Pisa. Pisa is great if ‘that tower’ is on your list but Florence is where to go if you’re looking for a real taste of romantic, historical magical Tuscany. For a fairly compact city it packs a Renaissance artistic punch if you’re keen to see works by the famous Italian Masters. And then there are all the architectural features we crave so much living in our young country - tiny streets and alleyways, medieval chapels, piazzas, sculptures and ornate palaces. No wonder it’s a Unesco World Heritage site. If shopping is your thing, you’ll be well catered for with everything from local designers to high end labels and if it’s eating you do well you’ll be overwhelmed by the culinary offerings especially local cheeses, cured meat, pastries and other deli delights. Enjoy Italian life at its best with ambling strolls through the streets after dinner, just like the locals do. No need to rush when you're in one of the most picturesque towns in the world.