The Mediterranean sun was already high in the sky, radiating its relentless heat, as my daughter and I began our ascent up the ancient steps of Dalt Vila in Ibiza. Despite the heat and the endless flight of steps, the breathtaking views of the azure sea were worth every drop of sweat. Each view seemed better than the last, a reward in itself for our laborious climb, revealing the rich tapestry of the island’s Phoenician history, step by step (by step… Countless steps). If you’re planning to explore the Mediterranean, taking in as much history and culture as possible, wear comfortable shoes.
I had been meticulously planning the details of our annual family trip and our long awaited visit to Italy, France, and Spain was worth the effort… And the wait. Words can’t possibly do this vacation justice, but if you gain anything, you should realize the Mediterranean should leap frog it’s way over other destinations to the top of your must-visit list.
Hop-on, Hop-off: Rome in a Nutshell
We began our journey exploring the bustling city of Rome aboard a Hop-On Hop-Off (HOHO) bus. In the middle of a historic heat wave, we only hopped off the bus one time, to see and explore the iconic Spanish Steps. We walked through neighborhood squares filled with small stores, quaint restaurants, and beautiful architecture. While the journey was only a couple hours, it wasn’t without its fair share of wonders.
The grandeur of the Colosseum left us awestruck. Its stories of ancient architectural marvel and the gladiatorial past resonated with us, making me wonder what else I missed out on in school history lessons. Every monument, landmark, and building brought history to life in the most vivid way possible. Even a quick drive by the Vatican filled us with a desire to delve deeper, to unravel the layers of history I was supposed to learn in a classroom (but probably skipped that day). Our Roman adventure ended with an unforgettable dinner at Ristorante Miraggio, a traditional restaurant, with flavors as vibrant as the city itself.
Time Traveling in Pompeii
Next, we explored Naples and the surrounding areas. Our day included a photo opp in front of Mount Vesuvius, which seemed surreal to me; standing near something I’ve seen thousands of times in pictures is always a thrill. We toured a local vineyard which included wine tasting and the most delicious lunch you can imagine, then stepped back in time, to the ancient city of Pompeii. Walking among the ruins was like leafing through the pages of a history book. It was fascinating to delve into the lives of those who once thrived there, a stark reminder of how life can remain unchanged even after 2,000 years. While the unforgiving summer sun was a challenge for some, for me, the experience was well worth the slight discomfort.
Palma de Mallorca: More than Just Beaches
Mallorca was a delightful contrast with its serene beaches and the charm of the Old Town. This was a day of relaxation on the beach for my family, while I opted for a guided tour and learned about Bellver Castle and the city market, and a delicious lunch. I take these types tours as often as possible when I’m in new new places because in my opinion there is no better way to see and learn about a city in a short amount of time. Mallorca truly is a potpourri of stunning beaches, markets filled with colorful crafts (almost as vibrant as the people selling them!) and delicious food.
Explore the Mediterranean in style: Cannes, Nice, Monaco, and Monte-Carlo
The French Riviera, along the Mediterranean coast of Southeastern France is well known for beautiful beaches and quaint towns. I didn’t make it to St. Tropez (it’s on my ever growing list of places I need to visit) but did visit Cannes (which left me a bit underwhelmed), Nice (which is nice) and a place you definitely need to visit if you love cute cities and arts and crafts shops, and Monaco.
Again, a guided tour took me to each of these cities and the friendly and knowledgeable guide taught us a lot about the history, famous landmarks, and culture before giving us free time to explore each location. Although I loved walking around Nice, I did find the main beach interesting I’m not sure I’d want to stretch out and relax on it… Where you expect sand to be is all rocks. People were relaxing on beach towels that couldn’t have done much to make them comfortable. We had a good laugh watching people moving rocks around in order to prop up umbrellas.
Monaco, in case you don’t know, is a city perched atop a rock. There is a LOT to see and learn about, but getting there and back to the bus was an adventure, and not the fun kind. If you’re going, be prepared for an emotional roller coaster: frustration, awe, anger. There are thousands of people visiting and the only way to get to the scenic area is by way of a few elevators and an escalator. Our guide told us there is always a lot of pushing and crowding and he was not kidding. Pack your patience and good nature. The view, park, and landmarks are worth the frustration.
As an add-on, we were brought to Monte-Carlo. The crowd control was even worse, if you can imagine, and the payout not as good. I was less than impressed although in fairness, it could be because it was the end of a long day. We did pop in the famous Casino that James Bond made famous. If you want to see more than the lobby (which is ornate and interesting for about five minutes), there is a strict age limit (no kids), dress code, and entrance fee to get into the game area.
Barcelona: The Symphony of Eccentric Architecture
Barcelona was a feast for the eyes. The architectural eccentricity of La Sagrada Familia and the authenticity of Poble Espanyol were riveting. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter, we found a corner of calm at Chilango’s Taqueria, where the delicious food and refreshing margarita were a soothing end to a day full of explorations. Overall, Barcelona reminded me of every metropolitan city in the United States. Every surface had graffiti, the area was a little dingy and dirty, and every store and brand you can name were there. When I go back to Barcelona I’ll make sure I experience it differently.
Pisa and Florence: An Ode to the Past
Pisa was a surprise win. I thought it was just a city with a tower that everyone takes a picture of themselves holding it up. The reality is Pisa is a beautiful city with an amazing history and happens to be home to the Leaning Tower — and much more. Our guide told stories of why the tower leans, how the other landmarks are significant, and about the rich history of it’s inhabitants. Pisa is, for full disclosure, not a place I personally need to visit again, but I’m glad I did.
Florence, with its charm, its architecture, and (of course) pizza, was an unforgettable experience. My daughter and I spent a fun day walking through the entire city with a tour guide who captivated us with information about the local history, told us fun stories about what it was like growing up and now living in Florence. Our guide also suggested we eat lunch at Piazzale Michelangelo, located right in the heart of the city, it was the perfect place for one of my favorite activities: people watching. Our pizza was delicious and left just enough room for gelato to fill in the cracks. A day in Florence was the perfect end to our quest to explore the Mediterranean in less than two weeks.
As I write this six weeks later, what stands out are not just the iconic sights or the culinary delights (although they were better than I could imagine), but the unexpected adventures. The hailing of water taxis in Ibiza (and hoping we were on the right one!), getting separated from our tour groups, the semi-panic of getting turned around and the joy of finding our way again, and keeping track of how many times we uttered the phrase, “Cosa può andare storto?” which translates to “what could possibly go wrong?”; these were the moments that made our trip truly memorable.
Every journey is a lesson, and this one was no different. It taught us to plan ahead, to safeguard our belongings, to have patience and, most importantly, to carry enough money (and exchange it in one go!). Because, when it comes to traveling, pack half of what you think you’ll need and take twice as much money as you think you’ll spend.