The Eastern Med is awash with great ports for cruise ships to call at. Pamela Wade picks some of the best.
For many of us, the name Montenegro is forever associated with spaghetti Westerns, but there's not much that's Bad or Ugly about this small country on the eastern coast of the Adriatic. The Good? Has to be the stunning little port of Kotor, tucked into its fiord-like bay. It is a World Heritage site dating back to medieval times, its city walls enclosing both an eventful past and a lively present. Surrounding peaks reflected in a radiant blue sea, buildings of weathered creamy stone, terracotta tiles, polished marble cobblestones; then add the churches, cafes and especially the cats, and it's an Instagrammer's delight.
Cruise ships, like trains, approach cities through the back door, and the seafront is an uninspiring introduction to Slovenia's major port of Koper. In the centre of this medieval city, however, life continues as it has for centuries among gently crumbling buildings. The architecture is solid proof that the town was ruled for centuries by the Venetians, just across the tip of the Adriatic. From the top of the cathedral's bell tower — well worth the entrance of 2, especially for the exercise value of 204 steps — the view across the clustered tile roofs is superb.
Just because it's so dinky, don't think you can knock Malta's capital off in a couple of hours. This is concentrated history with a 21st-century spin. From the silent underground city of the dead, dating back to 3000 BC, to the ultra-modern Parliament Building designed by Renzo Piano, this World Heritage site is a symphony in golden limestone. Don't be fooled by the plain exterior of St John's Co-Cathedral: inside, it's a riot of decoration (including two paintings by Caravaggio) honouring the warrior knights of the order.
Bring a neck brace. This city, south of Venice, is famous for its literally over-the-top ceiling mosaics in gold, emerald and sapphire. Another World Heritage site, it was long ago the centre of the civilised world for 300 busy years, a magnet for artists and craftsmen eager to decorate its many churches and basilicas. Dante was a fan: his tomb is here.
To the west of the Greek mainland in the Ionian Sea, this island is a popular summer resort - so expect plenty of cafes, restaurants, bars and nightlife, including a lively local music scene. But it's the scenery that brings holidaymakers: dazzling beaches of silky sand, and sea that's both brilliant blue and crystal clear. Or take a boat ride and visit the spectacular Blue Caves, to marvel at what sunlight on water can do to the sea-scoured caverns in the island's white cliffs.
Giving its name to a stretch of coast renowned for its beauty, this small and exquisitely beautiful town south of Naples is the centrepiece. In Italian terms relatively modern, thanks to an earthquake in the 14th century, it still has enough venerable churches and heritage buildings to satisfy any historian, while its position, colourfully climbing the steep rocky peaks surrounding a scoop of brilliant sea, above a sandy beach and small harbour, will delight the photographer. If the bougainvillea is in bloom, however, you'll need to tone down the saturation: no-one will believe this place is real.
It's possible here to accept one glass of raqi too many and end up taking home a silk rug but most visitors spend little time in the Turkish port of Kusadasi. Its main function is as the access point to the impossibly historic inland town of Ephesus. Cleopatra and Mark Antony have strolled its treacherously shiny marble pavers; St Paul and St John too. Mary as well — her house is nearby. There are tumbled columns, a processional way, the tall reconstructed facade of a library, tiered amphitheatre . . . all liberally sprinkled with cats and, in spring, poppies.
This island is self-consciously beautiful. Bare brown rocks set off the dazzlingly brilliant blues and whites of the buildings that cluster along cliff-tops and tumble down to the sea. Everyone has seen the photos of the domed roofs of Oia at sunset, impossibly picturesque - and impossibly crowded, too. Get away from the hordes and explore the rest of the island: unspoiled Pyrgos, the lighthouse at Akrotiri, a vineyard to sample sinfully sweet Vin Santo. Work it off by trotting down the 588 steps to Fila's pretty Old Port — don't worry, you can ride a mule back up again.
The history on this island is colossal: power and influence gained and lost, layers and layers of civilisations, wave after wave of invasions. Tourists are the most recent raiders, swarming along the narrow streets of the city's walled Old Town, posing by the fountain in the square and evading the forceful restaurant touts. But stroll the grassy moat, past pyramids of cannonballs, walk down the medieval Street of the Knights, visit the Acropolis at Lindos, have a peaceful drink at a rooftop bar, and the age of this place will wash over you.
Thank Onassis for this island. Without his taking a shine to it and inviting his famous friends, it would still be a barren rocky island with a small fishing port. Now it's a jewel, pretty and colourful, the town's narrow lanes full of tempting shops, bars and cafes. It's traditional to get lost in this maze, deliberately designed to break the wind and confuse pirates.