Part II: Cruising the Mediterranean’s Top Ports

Sacramento Region, CA (MPG)  |  By David Dickstein
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Antoni Gaudi’s magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia, is Barcelona's most iconic landmark. --Photo by David Dickstein

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Tapas are a quick, easy and usually economical way to get your fill in Barcelona. --Photo by David Dickstein

Warm climate. Cultures dating back thousands of years. Exotic destinations known for their food and wine. Luxurious floating resorts that take you there.

What’s not to like about Mediterranean cruising?

Romantic Rome, alluring Athens and navigable Naples were featured in part one (http://bit.ly/2iX6DVn) of our Top 10 list of favorite Mediterranean ports. Now let’s go on a journalistic jaunt to the fourth- through sixth-ranked exceptional destinations that delighted during back-to-back 10-day Mediterranean cruises aboard the resplendent Celebrity Reflection and bar-raising Carnival Vista.

#4: Barcelona

Spain’s second-largest metropolis is the whole package, offering everything you want from a cruise port without need of a shore excursion or private guide. The city of Gaudi, Picasso and Miro doesn’t take an expert to find spectacular sights, superb shopping, a breathtaking beach and fabulous food and drink. People watching also is bar none; Barcelona is blessed with model citizens – meaning so many of its people look like models!

For cruisers, exploring is really as simple as going into town by cab, telling the driver to plop you pretty much anywhere, then walking in any direction. Chances are you’ll fall in love with this luxurious and electrifying port – and its beautiful people – whether you stroll La Rambla, the three-lined pedestrian thoroughfare popular with tourists and locals alike, or the cobblestone-paved old town known as Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), where Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro once dwelled. No visit is complete without paying homage to Antoni Gaudi’s distinctive style of Catalan Modernism. His work graces the city’s architecturally rich landscape, including at his magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia. Giant cranes have been a mainstay of the inimitable Roman Catholic church for decades – the project was less than a quarter complete when Gaudi died in 1926 at the age of 73. But an international labor of love vows to complete the city’s most iconic symbol in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death. There will be plenty of toasts with glasses of cava then, but why wait as just a few steps from wherever you are is likely a fantastic tapas bar or café pouring the local sparkling wine that pairs perfectly with the array of small plates ready to be devoured.

#5: Florence

The port of Livorno on the Etruscan Coast of Tuscany serves as the gateway to Florence and Pisa for more than 15 major cruise lines. Shore excursion desks keep busy fulfilling passengers’ wishes to discover the area’s famous religious sites.

Most large ships offer a “Florence & Pisa on Your Own” tour, and at $90 for an adult ticket, $80 for children, Carnival’s excursion might actually be underpriced. The reason is you’re being lied to when they say “on your own,” and that’s great! A local escort narrates the 1 1/2-hour coach ride to Florence, then provides directions, maps, tips and other guidance before saying “ciao for now” in Santa Croce Square. The roughly three hours of independent exploring are well spent checking out the Duomo with its cathedral, bell tower and Baptistry, the cherished Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno River, the countless leather shops, and the best pasta and gelato within walking distance according to Yelp or Trip Advisor. You’re really on your own if you want to see Michelangelo’s “David” statue at Accademia Gallery, but replicas of the marble masterpiece can be found elsewhere in the old city. From Florence it’s a 1 1/2-hour drive to Pisa for a visit to Miracle Square and its famously leaning 645-year-old tower. Don’t be shy about taking a photo of you trying to right the foundation-challenged bell tower. You’re a tourist!

#6: Santorini

Whoever said “getting there is half the fun” never went to the Taj Mahal or Greece’s most picturesque, dramatic and tourism-dependent island. India isn’t on the Mediterranean, so we’ll leave the ghastly drive from New Delhi to Agra for another story. As for Santorini, there’s no getting around a tender ride and a 400-meter climb up the cliffs of a caldera to reach Fira, a pretty town in itself, but not as picturesque as Oia a half-hour cab or bus ride northwest. Almost every shore excursion begins in Fira. Your easiest of three options to reach the plateau is a 5-Euro cable car ride with likely long lines (especially coming down). Masochists might prefer a bumpy donkey 5-Euro ride (plus tip) that several people told me is a minor hell or a zig-zagging 488-step footpath that’s free, but also complementary are the aromatic and messy souvenirs left by the aforementioned beasts. Every cruiser who hoofed it by their own power or a donkey’s told me later that they were too tired and sweaty to enjoy the first glimpse of the destination’s famous whitewashed houses and blue domes sparkling under the sunlight. Take the cable car.

Your payoff is a place where a bad selfie background doesn’t exist. Good luck not being photobombed, though; so much beauty attracts so many people. The chalk-white buildings, crawling bougainvillea and dramatic coastline, coupled with interesting museums, churches and boutiques, lure nearly 800,000 cruisers a year, and the locals aren’t too happy about that. A newly imposed cap on ship-arriving visitors has put a small dent on the number of itineraries that include Santorini, particularly during the high season of July through mid-September. But that’s a small inconvenience compared to the benefits to visitors and residents alike.

The spectacular ports of Marseilles, Kusadasi, Rhodes and Mykonos will help us round out the Top 10 next time.

If You Go

Carnival Cruises, www.carnival.com, 800-764-7419;

Celebrity Cruises, www.celebritycruises.com, 800-647-2251;

Visit Barcelona, www.barcelonaturisme.com/wv3/en;

Visit Florence, www.visitflorence.com;

Visit Santorini, www.visitgreece.gr/en/greek_islands/cyclades/santorini

Antoni Gaudi’s magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia, is BarcelonaTapas are a quick, easy and usually economical way to get your fill in Barcelona. 
--Photo by David DicksteinThe Leaning Tower of Pisa is the main attraction in the cityThe climb up to Fira can be arduous for oneThe "money shot" of any visit Santorini has Oia