Where in the southern Mediterranean should we go in mid-March?
November 18, 2011 3:15 AM   Subscribe

Where in the southern Mediterranean should we go in mid-March? We're thinking of Sicily or Greece, but specific criteria inside the fold:

I and a good friend of mine are planning to travel to the southern Mediterranean in mid-March (somewhere around 13-17 March). He's first coming to visit me in the UK, and we'll be flying out and back from there. Where in the Mediterranean should we go? Our criteria are:

1. HISTORIC: We're not really beach-loungers at all, and want somewhere with really textured and interesting history. In particular, we both love classical ruins and medieval/Renaissance churches, and I love Islamic stuff. This is the most important criterion! He's American and only ever been to Britain before (nowhere else in Europe), and wants to have a proper European vacation, seeing really classic historical sites.

2. BEAUTIFUL OUTDOORS: We'd both love somewhere that had a landscape with some visual interest. Although he loves hiking, I don't know that we're planning to do anything rigorous, simply because we want to minimize the amount of clothing we bring and we don't have much time, but nice scenery would be a plus.

3. FRIENDLY: We'd love somewhere with friendly and approachable locals. We're also thinking of staying at monasteries and convents, so that may help with this.

4. CHEAP: So we're both poor and I'm a grad student. I wish this weren't an important criterion, but it is. Wherever we visit, it needs not be too expensive for food, transportation, lodging. It also needs to be accessible by a cheap airline (Ryanair or Easyjet, probably), and leaving from Stansted or Luton would be super ideal, although any London-area airport would probably be fine.

5. GOOD FOOD: We're not looking for gourmet, but it would be nice if the cheap food offered in this vacation spot were reasonable tasty and ethnic.

6. WARM!: He's living in Boston, and I'm living in the UK, so the bar is fairly low here! We're not expecting really warm weather, but somewhere with a reasonable amount of daylight and temperatures in the 60s/70sF would be very welcome!

We're thinking Sicily, although we've both toyed with the idea of Crete, Cyprus, or Islamic Spain. Does anyone have any experience with any of these, and can recommend them for a mid-March vacation (or not)? We'd love specific suggestions of what to see. And if you think we should be heading more off the beaten tourist track (Malta, Madeira, Canaries, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey...) please feel free to give us specific suggestions about those! Even though we both would love to see Paris, northern Italy, and Berlin, we've sort of ruled out those areas for climate reasons (unless anyone can convincingly argue that Berlin etc. in mid-March will be significantly more pleasant and less damp than southern England in mid-March!). Keep in mind we're only going for 4-5 days, so we'd prefer an area that is small enough to be seen reasonably well in that short space of time.

Thanks so much for any help, MeFites!
posted by UniversityNomad to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You've already thought about Islamic Spain, and I admit I'm totally winging this, but what about Malta? Don't know about cheap but it has history and it should be warm in March. And it's small. It's in the EU, if that matters.
posted by Logophiliac at 3:45 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the European Med it doesn't get much more historic than Malta. No beaches but beautiful at that time of year. History from the stone age to WW2. British plug sockets. What's not to like?

Although if you're willing to fly Easyjet then Israel, Morocco, Egypt, etc. are all inexpensive to get to and further south (and likely cheaper once you're there).
posted by caek at 4:01 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sicily! I'm not sure about the weather in March as my husband and I went in October of last year and that's the only time I've visited. I imagine it won't be too warm, but compared to most other places in Europe it will probably be very mild. As for your other criteria Sicily has it all covered.

Specific suggestions:

In Palermo, walk, walk, walk, and take in that gorgeous city. There are tons of things to see which I won't even try to list, you'll find them all by looking at any kind of sightseeing guide. Eat at Zia Pina!

Go to Agrigento. A lot of beautiful historical sites, and a charming old city. When we were there we stayed at a great B&B in someone's home, called l'Arco Ubriaco (I think it was about 50 Euro a night, and I'm sure there are many great places for around that same price, or even less). Wherever you stay they are sure to give you good recommendations on where to eat, sightsee, etc. We were told to eat at Ruga Reali but unfortunately it was closed while we were there.

My memories of Agrigento and Palermo are the best, although we also liked Catania, Taormina (touristy but lovely), and little cities that we found by chance (we were traveling by car).

If you do go, I hope you both have as good a time as we did. We talk about that trip so often and really hope to make it back there soon.
posted by seriousmoonlight at 4:08 AM on November 18, 2011

I spent a week in Cyprus in mid-March a few years ago. It was cool, windy and rained every day, although I realise that's not remotely typical. We stayed near Paphos. I can't say I was overwhelmed by the historical sites; most were quite small-scale and not anything comparable to the ruins you'll see in Greece or Italy. The landscape, particularly inland, is mostly dusty and fairly bland, dotted with half-built holiday villas. The food was reasonable and not expensive, and the locals were friendly, as they tend to be anywhere that tourism is a major part of the economy.

In contrast, I've visited the Amalfi coast in southern Italy twice in the past ten years, and will go again. You're within easy access of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which ought to give you the history fix you need. The island of Capri has ruins too, and is a great place for a long walk. And the coastal towns (Positano, Sorrento) are very pretty (if quite touristy). Plenty of good architecture and old churches and monasteries around there, too.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:15 AM on November 18, 2011

Malta is exactly what you're looking for. Cheap, historic, warm, good food, everything.
posted by ruelle at 4:45 AM on November 18, 2011

I think you'll do OK with Sicily. Agrigento has a better set of Greek temples than anywhere I know in Greece. The cathedral at Monreale has astonishing golden mosaics.

Personally I like Catania better than Palermo, but Palermo is certainly an interesting place, and well worth visiting what with the puppets and all that. Surely the only football fans in the world who wear pink, btw.

I expect a live volcano ticks the landscape box: you can go up Etna from two sides, and amazingly on the southern route there's a Roman ruin to check out.

Taormina is nice, and if you're looking for a relatively tourist-oriented but charming place on the north coast, ir would be Cefalu with La Rocca (not so much a hill, more of a - well, rock) stuck in the middle.

Food is basically Italian, but with nice local variations like involtini and of course spaghetti alla Norma: with Ragusan Caciocavallo rather than Parmesan. Restaurants and people are all very friendly, though incautious tourists can get ripped off - I think that's more of a risk than outright robbery. Off the beaten track, be prepared for the fact that some people may not even understand your Tuscan Italian, never mind English - but you'll be fine.
posted by Segundus at 5:04 AM on November 18, 2011

And Syracuse, my God, how could I forget...

Your problem will be that you can't fit all this in - it's not a small island.
posted by Segundus at 5:09 AM on November 18, 2011

Another vote for Malta -- we went in October and had such a wonderful time there. It's very cheap, the local wine is great, the local cheese is amazing, and if you stay on Gozo, you get to enjoy all of the rugged wildness but are still a short ferry ride from the Maltese mainland. We hired a Gozitan villa with a pool for a very cheap price and it was bliss.

Also, Gozo's beaches aren't bad - Ramla Bay is a great place to spend an afternoon.

if you go, make sure you book months in advance for the Hypogeum, otherwise you might not get to see the absolutely unmissable Neolithic underground temple. It's like Indiana-Jones awesome. There are also lots of above-ground Neolithic templates like Gigantija on Malta, as well as the more recent history fortresses. Valetta harbour is absolutely incredible, and i highly recommend reading Roger Crowley's Empires of the Sea before you go to understand just how incredible the seige of Malta was, and to really bring Valetta harbour alive. It's an incredible story of thousands upon thousands of Ottoman troops crashing up against a small band of determined knights and locals, and you can take a wee boat ride around the harbour in a traditional wooden boat and see up-close the place where all the battles took place.

We seriously loved Malta - the food was great and cheap, the locals were so friendly, and we just had a great time roaming around the islands.
posted by ukdanae at 5:19 AM on November 18, 2011

Sorry, i just realised that I said incredible over and over. I just really like Malta!
posted by ukdanae at 5:20 AM on November 18, 2011

Malta is fantastic, yes!

Your travel dates are perfect for the region - any later and you'll get caught up in the nightmare that is Semana Santa.
posted by elizardbits at 8:45 AM on November 18, 2011

We did a smattering of the Mediterranean a couple of years ago, and the one big surprise was how much we loved visiting Ephesus, near Kusadasi, Turkey. Beautiful, historic, great food, not too expensive. I'd say it's a winner.
posted by blurker at 9:26 AM on November 18, 2011

Classical archaeologist grad student here: I'd go to Sicilty. Succinctly, it's got all of the elements you're asking for. And you can't go wrong with Italy :)
posted by AthenaPolias at 11:06 AM on November 18, 2011

Another vote for Sicily, though it did snow when I was there in March of 06.
posted by chaiminda at 1:30 PM on November 18, 2011

PS - because of the long English presence there, Malta's lingua franca is English.

If that matters to you.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:15 PM on November 18, 2011

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