Back in the times when international travel was measured in weeks, not hours, and it was easier to journey by sea than by land, the Mediterranean was not so much a barrier between Europe and Africa, Western Christianity and the Holy Land, as a highway. It connected buyers to sellers and seekers to oracles, sometimes literally (Delphi was just inland of the Gulf of Corinth). It was a vital channel of information and retail: the ancient world’s internet, albeit a little slower than ours.
Yet there is an appeal in slowness. Hence my crackpot plan to sail by ferry across the Mediterranean from Valencia to Naples, a journey guaranteed to afford me the luxury of time. Time to consider the changing face of the Med, from trade route to holiday destination, and whether that constitutes progress. And time to ponder the fact that, while the Phoenicians apparently had no problem tootling from Ibiza to Sardinia by boat in 9800 BC, by 2013 this had become impossible: I had to go via Barcelona.
Most of my journeys would be overnighters, I learned, at least saving me the cost of a hotel as I frittered away time like a profligate millionaire chucking currency at the ocean. I wanted to experience the Mediterranean as my forefathers had and, simultaneously, to disprove the claim of that great sage Miss Piggy that “you have to be going to a pretty awful place if getting there is half the fun.”
I arrived in Valencia on a blazing day at the end of April and wandered through the grandiose squares of a great trading port to the best food market I have ever seen, covered in yellow and blue tiles (Valencia was famous for its ceramics: Edward IV once shipped his dinnerware in from there) and filled with stall after stall glowing with fruit, fish and vegetables. Legs of premium ham dangled enticingly; spices were piled in glorious profusion. If there is a heaven for the thousands of Mediterranean traders who risked their lives through the centuries transporting Sicilian grain, Sardinian salt or Cretan honey, it must surely look like this.
I arrived in Valencia on a blazing day
I downed a drink at the lovely, wood-lined Casa Montaña bar and walked to the ferry port. Boarding was laughably easy: no queues, a vestigial security check, and I was on deck to wave the mainland goodbye. I was mildly disappointed at how unscenic the beautiful city looked from here, but then working ports aren’t supposed to be glamorous: churches, palaces and food markets tend to be built inland, away from marauders. And it’s more exciting to swish out of port than to rumble down a runway.
The cabins weren’t glamorous: two single beds and a tiny bathroom, although at least it was en suite. Never mind: in high season, you can lean on the on-deck bar and scan the waves for the ghosts of pirate galleys or strain for an echo of groaning slaves rowing against the wind. This may be too fanciful. But I had time to indulge my imagination – and at least, if there were anything to hear or see, I was travelling too slowly to miss it.
We docked in Ibiza Town at 5.15 am; pretty little houses stretched up to the 16th-century cathedral spire, but the town appeared to be asleep. I’d imagined Ibiza was the place of permanent wakefulness, but even clubbers go to bed eventually – generally about now, according to Toby Clarke, a walking guide who hiked me across Ibiza’s southwest tip to a spectacular view of the rock outcrop Es Vedrà.
IIbiza as a place of permanent wakefulness
Toby was fantastic company, knowledgeable and authentically hippy: I tuned out all the stuff about Es Vedrà’s mysterious magnetic properties. We had lunch at a tiny fish shack, El Bigote (The Moustache), on a secluded beach, then I was on a fast ferry to Majorca, which turned out to be the most luxurious crossing of my journey – a pity, since I was only a passenger for two very bumpy hours.
In Majorca, I followed the bay, past the spectacular old town (the stone for its walls quarried from Ibiza) to Cap Rocat , a 16th-century former fortress that is now a luxury oceanside hotel. It was hard to contemplate the fort, or indeed the incredible Gothic splendours of Palma Cathedral, begun in 1229 but not finished until the 17th century, without wondering, again, about time. These days, we throw up a building in a matter of months, but all that speed and efficiency may have lost us some profound connection to those who precede and follow us – just as zipping everywhere by plane makes it hard to get a real sense of the journey from one place to another.
My next ferry left at 12.30pm and reached Barcelona at 7.45 pm; the restaurant was closed from 2pm to 5pm. Viva España!
Yet food is what turned the Mediterranean into a trading route to begin with: the requirement to connect places that had it with those that needed it. Barcelona is still, as a 12th-century traveller wrote, “a small city and beautiful”, but in culinary terms it’s very big; from casual pincho joints to hip speciality restaurants such as Petit Comitè and the Adrià brothers’ Tickets , it demonstrates that even when tastes change from exotic foodstuffs to produce so local that you trod on it walking in, gastronomy thrives in a port city. If it’s no longer about bringing in the ingredients, there is still the other vital element: customers.
And of course the sea was, so to speak, a two-way street. A place like Barcelona also lives by its exports. Take cava. The city is in the middle of cava country, and as well as servicing its own trillion bars, it sends its fizz abroad: a dedicated cava bar, Copa de Cava , has just opened in St Paul’s, London. If the wines are almost certainly flown here now, this is still a fine example of a flourishing trade that probably predates tourism: Greek wine pots from about 2300BC have been found across the water in what was once Troy.
My next vessel was a glamorous Italian ferry: several restaurants, a spa, even a pool. Drivers rolled on in Barcelona, fell asleep, awoke the next day in Porto Torres on Sardinia’s northern tip, and off they got. I, by contrast, had a crazed notion of crossing the island by public transport, bucketing for four hours through beautiful scenery almost untouched by human habitation, despite covetable deposits of salt and silver that had generations of would-be occupiers tussling for ownership. I looked out for nuraghi (3,000-year-old megalithic rock towers) and medieval Pisan churches, with their distinctive tiers of black and white marble.
Between the rock people and the marble masons, the Romans built a gargantuan amphitheatre in Cagliari, which still rises from the port to curve around their creation. The walk up from the Piazza Yenne bars, along ramrod-straight Buon Cammino, was breathtaking.
So was a spectacular storm. Watching foam blare white and lightning strobe the sky, I was torn between admiration for the Mediterranean’s sailors and worry that, next day, I would again be one of them. But the day dawned calm, thank Neptune, so, like a trader – or a pirate – I turned from terra firma to brave the seas on the last leg of my journey to Naples. I rejoined the 21st century with a swift flight home, and so can tell you nothing of the many interesting miles between Naples and London: you see, I didn’t touch them, nor they me.
When to go
Summer. Ferries do run in late spring and early autumn, but the decktop bars and pools are often closed, and if you travel when the waters are bumpy you will probably wish you hadn’t.
EasyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com ) flies from Gatwick to Valencia from £69.99 and from Naples to Stansted from £91.80.
AFerry (0844 576 5503; aferry.co.uk ) can book single or multiple journeys by ferry between the Spanish mainland, the Balearics, Sardinia and the Italian mainland and has a price comparison facility; prices depend on route and time of year, but as a guide these are the prices in June through AFerry (prices are per person): Valencia to Ibiza (6hr 30min; from £83); Ibiza to Majorca (2hr 30min; from £52.50); Majorca to Barcelona (7hr 15 min; £60.60); Barcelona to Porto Torres, Sardinia (12hr 15min; from £75); Cagliari to Naples (13hr 30min; from £108).
Where to stay
|Telegraph Travel’s expert guides|
|Where to stay in Majorca|
|Where to stay in Barcelona|
|Where to stay in Sardinia|
|Where to stay in Valencia|
Ferries are fun but they are not luxury accommodation, so it’s worth giving yourself time between overnighters, and staying somewhere as nice as you can afford when on land.
Walking: Toby Clarke ( walkingibiza.com ) will tailor both length and difficulty for your party, and show you parts of the island you would never see otherwise.
David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Penguin Group) is a hefty but fascinating trawl through the “sea between the lands” from prehistoric times to the crowded, overbuilt, sunstroked present.