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!

BRAVING BARCELONA- TIME OUT IN THE GEM OF CATALONIA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first thing to know about Barcelona is that it is a fabulous, swaggering brew of the ancient and the modern. It’s a beautiful, breezy slice of life, exhilarating and elegant at the same time. The whole city exudes style, sophistication and sheer class.

The second thing you need to know is to beware the pickpockets that operate along the Ramblas. These are highly skilled and fast on their feet, and the unsuspecting will often pay in more ways than just one. Beware bag snatchers, especially around the area where people board the coaches that go direct to the airport. Being alert will save you a lot of grief.

Also worth bearing in mind is the the locals do not really identify as being native Spaniards. This region of Catalonia has long demanded autonomy from Spain, a process given more momentum by Franco’s brutal treatment of the former nationalist stronghold after his victory in the civil war. The bulk of the people today see themselves as Catalans first and foremost.

So, with those primers in mind, and assuming time is tight. here’s some things you should definitely check out in the Catalan capital of cool.

Sagrada Familia: It’s a church, not a cathedral. Gaudi’s still incomplete masterpiece- he once sideswiped a detractor by pointing to the sky and telling them that his client ‘was in no particular hurry’- dominates the skyline of the city. A magnificently intricate, gingerbread confection, it is topped by a quartet of quirky, spindly spires. The overall impact is quite staggering, and certainly not to be missed.

La Rambla: The broad, pedestrian sweep of the Ramblas is overflowing with flower sellers, mime artists, and open air cafes that mushroom along its entire length. The entire length is a living, vibrant slice of Catalonia life, with a constant procession of all human life striding in both directions. Take time out for some tapas, or a glass of cava. As I mentioned earlier, beware of the pickpockets.

Montjuic: Take a cable car ride over to the hilltop that overlooks the city. The original Olympic Stadium is here, and the views out down over the harbour are Olympic standard, too. The whole area is a kind of genteel green lung; a nice alternative to the teeming, tremendous pace of the city spread out below you. Highly recommended.

Barcelonetta: This is the port area, just past the Columbus Monument at the foot of the Ramblas. Completely reanimated for the 1992 Olympic Games, it now boasts a fantastic yacht marina, a string of open air cafes strung out along a breezy seaside promenade, and a gorgeous, expansive beach of light umber toned sand. The perfect place to simply kick back with a long, lazy lunch, or a zesty margarita.

Whatever you do during your time here, I dare say that one visit will not be enough. Barcelona really is magical, and quite uniquely captivating.

SAGRADA FAMILIA- GAUDI’S UNDYING MASTERPIECE

ImageAntonio Gaudi only came on board as chief architect for the magisterial Sagrada Familia in 1883, a full year after construction had already started. Yet his name is as synonymous with the building as Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, or Da Vinci and the Mona Lisa. Separating the two is unthinkable and, in retrospect, that is as it should be.

ImageIncredibly, the magnificent, honey coloured colossus that looms over the brash, swaggering Catalan gem that is Barcelona is not a cathedral at all, but a mere church. Barcelona already boasts one superb Gothic cathedral.

ImageYet Sagrada Familia radiates a kind of awe inspiring sense of wonder fully equal to the Pyramids, or even St. Peter’s in Rome. The shapes, sheer, and sweeping contours that Gaudi folded in to his dream building are truly stunning statements of intent. For my money, it is the most staggering piece of architecture anywhere in southern Europe. A gigantic, gingerbread dream factory, clawing at a pale blue Catalan sky.

ImageThe man himself became obsessed with his creation as it staggered upwards. In his last years, he lived in a hut on the construction site, before being knocked down by a tram in 1926. When chided about the constant delays and the seemingly endless structural changes, the deeply devout Gaudi simply pointed at the sky, and said that his principal client was in no particular hurry.

ImageSagrada Familia has always suffered from the fact that it is funded by private donations, rather than state generosity. Work on it came to a complete halt during the Spanish civil war. Indeed, the church was lucky to survive the bloody and sustained siege of Barcelona that devastated swathes of the city.

ImageThe victorious General Franco did little to help the conquered Catalans during his decades in power. This goes a long way to explaining why the Catalan people are so fiercely set on autonomy from Spain. Throughout the long shadow of Franco’s Fascist experiment, the great towers of Sagrada Familia acted as a rallying point of sorts for the oppressed people of Barcelona; it remained a symbol of such power that even Franco recoiled from tampering with it.

ImageWork stuttered and bumped along through the post war decades, with a variety of fresh architects trying to stay as true as possible to the Gaudi blueprint, while working in some more modern, contemporary touches of their own.

ImageThe result is stupendous; the church has become easily the most famous and visited sight in the city. Every day, it draws hordes of awe struck visitors like moths to a flame, come to gaze upon its gilded, Hansel and Gretel-style, fairy tale facade. And those crowds also draw the pick pockets, for whom the often rapt, forgetful and unsuspecting tourists really must seem like manna from Heaven.

ImageAwarded UNESCO World Heritage status, Sagrada Familia has rightly taken its place in the pantheon of incredible Spanish churches. Had it been financed by the same gold supply as the original Gothic cathedral, it would have been finished decades ago. It’s singular misfortune was to rise several centuries after the Spanish Empire- and its glut of looted Aztec and Mayan gold- had long since disappeared.

ImageProjected completion dates have come and gone with the regularity of the giant cruise ships whose passengers come to worship in droves at the altar of Gaudi’s dream building. The latest estimate for the final completion of the exterior is currently 2026.

ImageThat would coincide neatly with the centenary of the death of Gaudi himself. And whether this date is actually a practical possibility, or simply some whimsical, wishful thinking on the dreamy side of things, it really would be a fitting tribute if, somehow, it could come to pass. But in the current strained economic climate, even educated guesses are potentially bankrupt as soon as they are uttered. Only time will tell.

ImageIt hardly really matters in so many ways. Sagrada Familia always was, and still is, a labour of love. Quite literally. The people who have grown and died in its shadow took comfort and strength from it, and gazed in wonder at its clutch of spindly spires as they slowly ascended skyward. Generations to come will do the same. In the long, turbulent history of this proud, fiery Catalan culture, Sagrada Familia has become a benchmark for the pride, endurance and resilience of a truly remarkable people. Go see it if you possibly can.