From Emperors to Gods

Born in Ajaccio, the Corsican capital, Napoleon Bonaparte was the revolutionist responsible for turning France into a republic. If you can speak French, you might struggle with the local dialect on Corsica, which owes as much to Italian, as it does Gallic influences. As the most mountainous of the Mediterranean islands, it has gained a huge reputation for attracting hill walkers,
hikers and mountaineers, as well as for its many beguiling beach locations.

Corsica is known as ‘The Isle of Beauty’ and whether residing on the bay at Calvi, in the north, or the east coast resorts of Bastia, Aleria and Porto-Vecchio, it is the mountains one way and the sea in the other direction that predominate the view. While there is a delicate infrastructure of rare birds and wild animals, many of which are unique to the island, Corsica is not so fragile that it cannot host several motor rallies every year and motorsport is almost as popular as fishing and, ironically, hunting to local people.

Inevitably, the French slant on cooking plays a major role in making Corsica a foodie haven. While there is an expected Mediterranean influence, the range of wines, cheeses and seafood are sure to set your taste buds tingling. The amount of freshly farmed produce is astonishing and local pork and lamb figures highly on the menu. Once again, the island offers a broad range of high-end, to boutique and inexpensive accommodation in all of its centres and while you can expect to pay a small premium to enjoy island life, it might surprise you to discover how inexpensive residing on Corsica can be.

Naturally, Greece beckons anybody seeking an island retreat and one of the most fruitful is that of Naxos, which is also renowned for its range of vegetables, most notable being the locally grown and utterly delicious potatoes. While many Greek islands are notoriously dry and dusty, Naxos benefits from Mount Zeus, which is 1km high enough to create cloud formations that lead to rainfall, perhaps slightly more so than on most Greek islands, hence the high production of fertile crops. The island is also the largest of the Cyclades cluster and is rare in having a plentiful supply of fresh water.

You do not visit any part of Greece, unless you want to immerse yourself in its glorious ancient history and Naxos has that in abundance. If you really want to explore, there are Neolithic remains on the island but the bulk of Greek history hinges on its mythology, so, if the Labyrinth, the Minotaur and Zeus himself are what you can remember from being taught the classics at school, go visit the mountain, the Demeter and Apollo Temples and stock up on your myths. There is plenty to go at.

Apart from the white buildings and white sandy beaches, of which one of the best is Agios Prokopius (voted in the top ten of all Greek beaches), the allure of the crystal clear sea, which opens up the potential for divers and snorkelers, as well as fish-spotting trips in glass-bottomed boats, is incredible. Naxos may only occupy 166 square miles, a lot of which is hilly, but it
offers a wealth of activities and a great range of affordable hotels and enchanting local accommodation.

Smaller and more secluded

Spelt: ‘Ghawdex’. Pronounced: ‘Aw-desh’. However, known to most visitors as Gozo, it is hard to believe that it is a small island, which is part of the Maltese archipelago, because it sounds more oriental than some Japanese islands. Yet, defined in Castilian as ‘joy’, I can state categorically that joyous was precisely how I felt upon reaching this delightful pearl in the Mediterranean and a lot happier than I might have been in mainland Spain.

It might amaze you as to how far south in the Med that Gozo is located. The largely green and fertile island is actually due south of Sicily and, were you to look due west, you might see the coast of Tunisia first. Whether you call its capital Victoria, or Rabat, as the locals do, you would feel the north African influences in its hilltop, fortified citadel and medina. Of course, the romanticism of this otherwise bustling centre on a moonlit night has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Of all the Mediterranean islands, regardless of population densities, or the quality of welcome received, the atmosphere on Gozo takes some beating. Personally, I have never felt so safe and secure, anywhere. Some of the locals still leave their keys in the front door locks, so free of crime is this dreamy haven of peaceful tranquillity and pastoral delights. Despite its harking back to a golden era, there is nothing old fashioned about its nightlife, should you wish to indulge, and the food is stunning, from the local rabbit, or octopus stews, to countless seafood specialities, all possessing an unique Gozitan twist.

Tucked away four miles below Ibiza, in the Islas Baleares, is the formidably named Formentera. Clearly Spanish in every respect, if Ibiza is the sometimes riotous holiday capital of the Pitiusic Islands group, Formentera is its significantly quieter, yet markedly more liberal little brother, where nude sunbathing on its immaculate white sands is pretty much your choice. Its geography is fairly flat, which lends its suitability to the bicycling fraternity, although the island is criss-crossed by a network of roads, which means that reaching any of its beaches is a matter of only a few minutes drive from your hotel base.

Interestingly, the only access is by fast catamaran from several Spanish harbours or by boat from Ibiza, as there is no airport. In some ways, that little omission increases the magic as Formentera is thankfully free of the hustle and bustle of most of its Iberian neighbours. This is a very small island, at just over 12 miles in length, but it is not impossible to become utterly lost in
its relative remoteness. I was astonished by how restful residing in Es Pujols, the harbour town of La Savina, or even a much smaller version of San Francisco, could be. Bear in mind that this place’s main enterprise used to be salt production, which was not only quiet and marvellously non-mechanised but demanded little more than working the coastal land and allowing nature to
perform its magic.

Located just off the Italian coast at Naples are two genuine delights, Capri, which was once the haunt of Europe’s glitterati and, while not so much in the limelight these days, still possesses a delightful faded elegance, or the slightly larger island of Ischia. The largest of the Phlegrean Islands, it is volcanic and offers a stunning coastline of around 21 miles. Amazingly, despite its small size, no less than 60,000 residents call the island home. If you have ever hankered after a volcanic mud treatment, or to bathe in naturally heated thermal springs, then Ischia really ought to go onto your Mediterranean island-hopping list.

Ischia’s claim to fame comes from its use in the making of the Hollywood blockbuster movie, The Talented Mr Ripley, while, a few years earlier, Elizabeth Taylor ‘glammed’ it up in Cleopatra, also produced on the island. When you are fed up with masseurs and curatives, the island’s spectacular scenery is worth exploring, as are the magnificent botanical gardens at Villa Ravino, or the private gardens at La Mortella, or the ancient Castello Aragonese, at Ischia Ponte, an enchanting castle, connected by stone bridge to the mainland, that contains several churches and tunnels, although you can use a thoroughly modern elevator to reach its upper levels, something that did not exist, when it was built in 474BC.

Yet, one of the most beautiful stretches of sea is undoubtedly that of the Adriatic, which branches off the Med to take in the Dalmatian coastline and the former Yugoslavia. One of its larger islands is Hvar, which is around 42 miles in length, very hilly and strikingly lovely. Renowned for its award-winning beaches, especially at Jagodna, the largest city is its capital, Hvar. However, the market town of Jelsa, in the north, or its neighbour, Stari Grad, which is the main harbour and port for the island, compete for tourist trade. However, if you desire something slightly quieter and more rural, Sucaraj is not only a delightful fishing port but also offers a good view of the mainland.

Although rather quaintly named, The Hygienic Association of Hvar was established in 1868 to provide some form of control for tourists and its efforts actually created a superb infrastructure of hotels, accommodation, restaurants and innumerable sightseeing and visitor attractions that remain as vital today. Today, apart from the tourists that swell the local population by more than twice in season, both lavender and rosemary production, primarily for the French perfume industry, fill the air with heady scents and some additional lustre to a truly wondrous island location.

Gems of the Mediterranean is what these islands are and what they offer, in so many ways, is something to be treasured and all within little more than three hours from home.

Gems of the med facts

As you will have gathered, reaching some of the islands featured involves a combination of flying to the mainland, then ferrying to the retreat. Some islands ban cars. Others have easy access and even rentals available. However, the expression ‘getting away from it all’ never held more water. The following list consists of useful contacts: www.sardegnaturismo.it, www.caladivolpe.com, www.romazzinohotel.com, www.thinksicily.com, www.corsica.co.uk, www.corsica-ferries.co.uk, www.visit-corsica.com,
www.naxos.gr, www.islandofgozo.org, www.visitgozo.com, www.formentera.es, www.capritourism.com, www.ischiaonline.it
www.tzhvar.hr, www.islandhvar.com, www.formentera.co.uk, www.sunvil.co.uk