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Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia as well as Spain’s second largest city. Dominated by Montjuic, Vallvidrera and the Tibidabo Hills, sophisticated Barcelona is rich in ancient and modern architectural and artistic treasures. Many talented artists, sculptors and architects lived here, including Picasso, Miró, Mares and Barcelona’s best-known architect, Antonio Gaudí.
Barcelona’s beginnings as a major port can be found already in Roman times. However, the most significant period was during the Middle Ages when the city's wealth equaled that of the whole Catalunya province. Splendid buildings from the Middle Ages and a unique ambiance still make Barcelona one of the most attractive cities in Europe, drawing scores of visitors to see and enjoy the sights. In addition to its medieval setting and narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter, there are magnificent avenues through the modern part of the city, which are particularly noted for their landmark buildings of Gaudí’s design.
Spain’s third-largest city is a mixture of old and new with a magical old quarter, a futuristic City of Arts and Sciences and wide sandy beaches. With dynamic museums, a flourishing restaurant scene, lively nightlife, great shops and miles of beach, Valencia is bursting with Mediterranean exuberance. Influences now range from Moorish to modern, yet some things in Valencia, like a perfect pan of paella,remain thankfully unchanged.
If you want a taste of all Valencia has to offer - the fresh seafood, mountain herbs, field-grown grains - you've got to try the local paella. Although there are many varieties of this rice dish, the Valencian paella is usually made with only the freshest ingredients in a cast-iron pan over a wood fire. Satisfy your thirst with a taste of horchata, a popular tiger nut drink found at any of the local bars surrounding the cathedrals. Rice dishes are a sought after main course at the Malvarrosa Beach restaurants, particularly La Rosa.
Palma de Mallorca, Spain
Palma de Mallorca, a major port city on the island of Mallorca and the capital of Spain's Balearic Islands, is a delightful cross between the Arabian Nights and the Renaissance, reflecting its checkered past of African and European control. It is the largest city on Mallorca, home to about 300,000 people -- a big, bustling place, with most of the tourist action in the old part of town around the Cathedral. The architecture of this ancient Mediterranean port blends Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance styles. Palma's winding streets make way to grand churches, yacht harbors, beaches, fountains and old castles. Because there is so much history, so close together, it's a perfect port to explore on foot. The snaky, narrow streets hold many surprises -- including the occasional dead end (beware of the passages around the Cathedral … you truly cannot get from here to there!).
This sun-kissed port is also an outdoors city in-season, with much pedestrian traffic and the opportunity to eat or relax outside in a myriad of settings -- some free (parks and boulevards), and some in conjunction with visits to museums and historical sites (always look for interior courtyards, extra features of older buildings). For sun worshippers, the beaches are close by and the water is wonderfully clear.
The island of Malta is accurately described as one big open air museum, with stunning architecture, ancient watchtowers and historic villages to explore, and activities ranging from cycling and walking to some of the
finest scuba diving in the Mediterranean. The UNESCO-protected port of Valletta is compact, which makes it ideal to explore on foot, and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants that offer refreshments and a bit of shade.
Maltese food is rustic, based on seasonal produce and the fishermen's catch. Pastry is commonly used to encase vegetables, cheese, fish, meat, rice and pasta, producing tasty and filling dishes. Try the stronger taste of Lampuki pie - filleted dorado mixed with spinach, cauliflower, olives and capers in a shortcrust pastry. It has an unusual and delicious flavor. Spinach and anchovy pies have a distinctive taste and are very popular, as is timpana, an everyday concoction of pasta in meat sauce topped with a layer of pastry. Rabbit is the most popular dish in Malta, usually served stewed or fried in wine and garlic.
Palermo (Sicily), Italy
Drenched in sunshine all year round, in a natural harbor, nestled comfortably into the coastline of the Conca d'Oro ("Golden Valley" or "horn of plenty") surrounded in verdant scenery and cocooned in mountains culminating in the peak of Mount Pellegrino (the Pilgrim Mountain) lies the stupendous city of Palermo. It was once completely cultivated into citrus groves, and plantations, but with urban growth and development, many sadly have disappeared. Notwithstanding, Palermo is renowned for its marvellous lemons and oranges.
A cultural feast, Palermo is a fascinating combination of East and West, Arab and Norman that is quite unlike any other European city on the Mediterranean. A simple stroll can serve to illustrate Palermo's rich heritage. The Quattro Canti is the great square at the heart of the city. A short walk past its 17th-century palazzos and fountains brings the traveler to the Palazzo dei Normanni. Begun by Arab emirs in the 9th century, the Palazzo was finished by the island's Norman conquerors. The Palazzo's stone arches and buttresses stand in stark contrast to its Palatine Chapel. There elaborate tile work and mosaics lend mute testimonies to the Islamic and Byzantine influences that a lso shaped Palermo's culture. The city abounds in such colorful sights, from the neo-classical Teatro Massimo, one of the largest opera houses in Europe, to the catacombs beneath the Capuchin convent, where thousands of mummified bodies lie in eternal rest.
Naples / Pompeii, Italy
The city of Naples is located directly under Mount Vesuvius, at Southern Italy’s west coast, at the Gulf of Naples. With one million inhabitants (called Neapolitans), it is one of the third largest and one of the oldest cities in Italy. Naples is the gateway to the Amalfi coast, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Capri and Sorrento. You’ll find more monuments, churches and convents in Naples than you would in any other city on earth. From ancient excavations, to world famous scenery, to the old city of Naples, there is always something to do in this busy port of call.
Italy’s most famous dishes—pizza and spaghetti were born in this region. Pizzas here are made with mozzarella di bufala and available in eateries all over the city. The rich volcanic soil and temperate climate make the lands that surround Naples a favorite of the farmer. This is the winemaking region of Campania, which produces very good red, white, and rose wines. One of the most popular regional grapes, the Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, is grown on the terraced slopes of Mt. Vesuvius itself.
Florence / Pisa / Tuscany, Italy
Livorno is Italy’s second largest port after Genoa. It also serves as a gateway to the Tuscany region and the great cultural centers of Florence, Lucca, Pisa and Siena. Tuscany delights visitors with its picturesque small towns and classic landscapes. The gently rounded hills, accented by clumps of slender cypresses, have been immortalized in numerous paintings. Lush vineyards are the source of the famous dry, dark-red Chianti wines.
From this part of Italy the national language evolved with Dante and other great Tuscan writers of his period. Even more important is the impact this area had on the culture of the rest of Italy and Europe, adding immense wealth to the architectural and artistic heritage. The Italian Renaissance, with its most active center in Florence, lasted from the 1400s to the 1700s. Its greatest support came from the all-powerful Medici family who commissioned Italy’s most talented painters, sculptors and architects to create some of the most outstanding works of art. Names such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Giotto, Vasari, Botticelli, da Vinci and Donatello come to mind, all of whom worked and lived in Florence at some time in their lives.
Monte Carlo, Monaco
The independent principality of Monaco is famous as the playground of the Côte d’Azur. With nice beaches, elegant hotels and a vibrant nightlife, this tiny domain is a favorite haunt of the jet set. In the possession of the Grimaldi family for more than 700 years, a treaty with France guarantees Monaco’s independence as long as the principality is governed by the Grimaldis.
The fashionable enclave numbers only about 32,000 inhabitants and is smaller than New York’s Central Park, but it boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the world. In addition to its luxury hotels and beautiful beaches, Monaco is noted for its mild climate and magnificent scenery. Once an exclusive wintering stop for Europe’s aristocracy, today there are more than five million visitors annually. Of the principality’s four sections - La Condamine, Fontvieille, Monaco-Ville and Monte Carlo, the latter two rank highest on every visitor’s must-see list.
Marseilles (Provence), France
Marseille is a vibrant, cosmopolitan port and the most populated city in the country after Paris. The craggy, mountainous interland of the Provence provides Marseille with a spectacular backdrop. It is the country's most important seaport and the largest one in the Mediterranean. The city is divided into 16 arrondissements fanning out from the Old Port. The large industrial port area virtually rubs shoulders with the intimate, picturesque old harbor, the Vieux Port. Packed with fishing boats and pleasure crafts, this is the heart of Marseille. Two fortresses guard the entrance to the harbor.
Several vantage points offer spectacular views, including the striking Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde. This prominent landmark, overlooking the city, is crowned by a monumental gilded statue of the Virgin Mary. Marseille boasts numerous fine museums that are well worth a visit. Relaxing at one of the many outside cafés or strolling through the Old Port area allows you to enjoy the unpretentious charm of this city.