FIVE MUST SEE SIGHTS FOR AMERICANS IN SOUTHERN EUROPE

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

The whole thing with southern Europe is that it is one vast, cake rich, cultural glut of incredible things to see. Castles, cathedrals, museums. Turrets, campaniles and spires. They all vie- nay, sometimes demand- your undivided attention on any given day of your European vacation.

Simple truth? You can’t do them all. So don’t even try. More truth? Not all of the truly great, awe inspiring sights are of human construction.

That point made, here’s five of my favourite places in the Mediterranean. With time, tide and fair breezes, they might just become some of yours, too.

Church of Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Antonio Gaudi was a creative genius on a par with Warhol or Hans Christian Andersen, and the still incomplete Sagrada Familia church is without doubt his most stunning masterpiece. With it’s clutch of gingerbread spires clawing at a perfect Catalan sky, it has become the symbol of one of the greatest, most swaggering and stylish cities in the world.

In places, it has the appearance of a slowly melting cake, inlaid just above ground level with some of the most amazing and intricate carvings you will ever see.  There is literally no other church like it in the world. During the day, this honey coloured colossus enjoys a matchless stance by a small park, but try to catch it at night. Indirect lighting, built all around it makes Sagrada Familia truly unforgettable and awe inspiring. You don’t have to be of any religious persuasion to be awed by this stunning testament to human devotion and ingenuity,  Highly recommended.

Villefranche, Cote D'Azur

Villefranche, Cote D’Azur

Bay of Villefranche, Villefranche-Sur-Mer, France

A sensuous, semi circular sweep of high, rolling hills studded with million euro villas, Villefranche is the most stunning single coastal location anywhere in southern Europe; one so perfectly formed that it was used as the backdrop for a James Bond film in the 1980’s.  At the edge of the quay, a row of Italianate shops, bars and restaurants in shades of blue, ochre and terracotta curves seductively around the lower edge of the bay. Umbrella shaded bars and pavement cafes spill out onto the quay that overlooks an azure harbour, studded with literally dozens of idly bobbing yachts and fishing boats. It’s a place to kick back and people watch over a sumptuous, two hour lunch, You’ll see people wearing sun glasses worth the entire national debt of a third world country, and old ladies walking impossibly small dogs among the jasmine wreathed cobbled streets that lead up into the old town.

Once seen, never forgotten; Villefranche will stay with you long after you leave it behind.

Greco-Roman Theatre, Taormina, Sicily

This almost perfectly preserved, Eighth Century amphitheatre is as compelling for its location as it is for it’s ageless, elegant sweep and still flawless acoustics. Nestling in the shade of towering pine trees at the top of Taormina, it looks down and out over the sparkling blue carpet of the Mediterranean. From it’s terraces, you can clearly see the brooding, still smouldering mass of Mount Etna, grey against a cobalt blue sky.

It has an exalted, almost Olympian feel to it; row upon row of stepped, circular stone seating cascades down to a central ‘stage’ which is still used for outdoor concerts to this day.

Worth going to simply for the view alone; an outdoor concert at dusk would be a truly amazing experience as well.

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

One of the scenic exclamation marks in a city almost awash with them, Piazza Navona has been a Roman stand out for centuries.

The centre piece is formed by a series of amazing, medieval fountains by Bernini, almost awash with a riot of intricate, over the top, Romanesque statuary from the middle ages. Off to one side is the cool, ordered elegance of the circular Pantheon, with its shady interior, incredible frescoes and marvellous acoustics.

These fountains and surrounding buildings form the focal point of this famous, frantic, bustling square that hums with life at all hours of the day and night. The whole area is framed by a host of sun splashed cafes and restaurants, while mime artists and strolling musicians mingle with dog walking locals taking time out for an ice cream.

It’s a quintessential Italian slice of the good life; la dolce vita served up with age old Roman style in a swaggering, feel good setting. Deliciously over the top, and typically addictive.

Windmills of Mykonos

Windmills of Mykonos

Windmills of Chora, Mykonos, Greek Islands

No other single sight is as evocative of the history and hedonism of the Greek Islands as those five famous windmills that sit on top of the hill above the harbour of Mykonos, immortalised in the movie, Shirley Valentine. They can be seen from any part of the island, and the views of the sunsets from here draws out the crowds each and every night in the peak summer season. It’s an almost pagan ritual, as compelling as anything you’ll see at Stonehenge. The vibe at evening time has more than a little in common with Key West.

Individually, each of the five windmills has a uniform stance. Circular and whitewashed, surrounded by low stone walls and fronted by petrified, long silent sails, each is topped with it’s own thatched ‘mop top’ roof.  It is their collective poise and presence that makes them so memorable; they loom above the Aegean’s most compelling and indulgent island like a quintet of benevolent deities.

So; there you go. Five of my faves from the magnificent Med. You may agree. You may disagree. But I think we’d all agree that the real fun lies in getting out there, and finding and defining your own favourites, Happy exploring!

VISIONS OF VILLEFRANCHE, PARADISE ON THE COTE D’AZUR

ImageAnybody who has travelled in southern Europe has their own idea as to what the most beautiful place is. Some swoon over Sorrento. Others are mad about Mykonos. Some will plead the case for Portofino, while still others will swear by Santorini, Kusadasi, or Taormina.

I have no quarrel with any of those opinions. All rate highly among my personal favourites for beauty, character, and sheer, platinum chip slouch factor.

ImageSlouch factor? It’s a term I use for any place that somehow slows your normal, manic pace of mobility to an indolent saunter, simply by virtue of it’s sheer beauty and magical vibe. It’s a place that makes you feel the need to do nothing more strenuous than relax with a glass of wine or a cold beer, some lunch, with a good side order of languid people watching for dessert.

Of course, southern Europe is slouch factor central. Hedonism here is an art form, sometimes abstract like a Picasso; at other times cake rich, and full of the colour of a Rubens. Whatever. slouch factor is a state of mind; a true art form in it’s own right.

But, while all those peachy places I mentioned above induce a case of severe indolence in me, there is one that tops them all when it comes to living and loving the good life to the maximum. And- because we’re all friends here- I’m going to share it with you.

Villefranche is a small fishing village, mid way between Nice and Monte Carlo, that is used by many cruise ships to disembark passengers for the scenic highlights along the way. It has the advantage of a natural, deep harbour, and excellent road and rail connections along the coast.

ImageIt also just happens to blow spots off any of them for sheer, languid, magnificent beauty. Villefranche is, quite simply, the most perfectly styled, chocolate box pretty place in the entire Mediterranean. A view so good that it was used as one of the backdrops for the James Bond movie, Never Say Never Again.

ImageThe bay forms a perfect, natural theatre-in-the-round, cradled by a sweeping semi circle of gently rolling hills in a dozen shades of vibrant green. Villas, houses and churches peep out from among this wonderful natural crown, offering spectacular views down onto a sparkling, electric blue bay literally studded with idly bobbing yachts, as content as well fed swans.

ImageOn the waterfront, a riot of Italianate houses, bars and shops curve around the base of the bay. There are shades of yellow, white and terracotta. Window shutters in cream, green and electric blue stand open above the winding, cobbled lanes that lead back into the hills. An armada of bars, cafes and restaurants is splashed like so much brightly coloured confetti along the bustling quayside.

Waiters in starched white aprons deliver plates of food and drinks to idly loafing tourists wearing sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country. Their cars sit in leafy side lanes, shielded by a wash of jasmine and oleander. A Rolls Royce Corniche here; a Lamborghini there. The whole vibe is casually spectacular indolence, played out against a matchless natural canvas.

ImageTrains slither like exotic snails along the railway line that hugs the coast, passing over the spectacular, jasmine shrouded viaduct that winds around the bay. A small, honey coloured beach shelves gently into the azure hue of the Mediterranean. Like everything else in Villefranche, it seems almost perfectly in proportion to every other part of the mix. It’s as elegant and coquettish as an exquisite charm bracelet and, truth be told, not that much cheaper.

ImageThat said, it is nowhere near as expensive as, for instance, Monte Carlo just down the coast. A first time arrival by sea in Villefranche is easy to spot; just check the speed with which their jaw hits the top of their shoes when your ship first sails round the headland at Cap Ferrat, and that whole, wonderful bay opens up in front of you like a flower bursting into full bloom.

ImageAs evening falls, pools of light begin to shimmer on the ink black waters of the bay. Table lamps flicker skittishly under cafe awnings as they are ruffled by the ghost of a gentle breeze. The deep, seductive growl of a tenor sax floods the night air with a torrent of warm, sultry soul. Lovers walk hand in hand along the promenade, Down below, an old man tends to the sodden nets in his fishing boat, getting them ready for the next day’s catch.

ImageVillefranche is warm, welcoming, almost other worldly in a way. It has a subtle, electric vibe that will stay in your soul like a quiet storm long, long after you leave it behind. And, just like the magnetism present in any storm, you will be drawn back.

Trust me on that one….

A JAUNT AROUND JAMES BOND ISLAND

ImageThe long, brightly painted longboat thumped and skipped across the sparkling Andaman sea, throwing up ghostly wisps of spray that vanished as quickly as they came. Ahead of us, something hugely impressive was filling our field of vision.

ImageThe outcrop known as James Bond island looked like nothing so much as some jagged, long decayed molar, flung from the heavens into the ocean by a vengeful god. Stark and swathed in serried layers of dense green foliage, it loomed up in front of us like some ancient monolith.

The island itself is known to the locals as Koh Tapu, but it will always be always ‘James Bond Island’ for the estimated three thousand or so visitors who make the pilgrimage to it each day. It starred as the lair of Scaramanga, Bond’s would- be nemesis in The Man with The Golden Gun, and was used again as a backdrop for the more contemporary Tomorrow Never Dies.

Truth be told, it’s not hard to see why Koh Tapu makes for such a great locale. It is by turns part impregnable fortress and prison. The soaring limestone face has an imperious, craggy stance. Studded with small caves at different heights that look like gaping battle scars, it has an air of aggressive self confidence; the perfect lair for any cultured megalomaniac.

ImageAnd yet… as we beetled up to the brute… it revealed a softer, more layered facade just under the surface. The clumps of gaunt white limestone came splashed with shades of silver, grey and even rust red in places. What seemed like one solid facade folded back into several layers. Maybe the scales of some ancient sea dragon? In this land of half realised myth and legends, who knew the real truth?

ImageThe vast, emerald green carpet that sheathed and shielded the exterior was reflected almost to perfection in the still, silent expanse of water that lapped at the base of the island. At one point, small boats could actually sail right through the middle to emerge on the other side.

ImageOur visit to Koh Tapu was only one of the string of highlights on our cruise aboard the smart, stylish little Aegean Odyssey. The Voyages to Antiquity team created a series of excursions that unveiled a series of shimmering, magical experiences with almost each new day. And while I was stunned and awed by the jagged majesty of Koh Tapu, there was more- much more- waiting just beyond the line of the horizon…..