40. This is the answer. 40 sweet degrees north of the searing equator. The thriving empires of old Europe happened here. The Renaissance happened here. It’s where a winter-weary traveller goes to experience a change of seasons without enduring the extremes.
A straight line along the 40th parallel bisects some of Europe’s most attractive destinations and adventures. They share a latitude, an attitude, a love of wining and dining and an ancient connection with the sea that infects culture, architecture and gastronomy alike.
Take Portugal, for example. Its rugged Atlantic coast gives way to an historic harbour at Porto, one of Europe’s oldest cities, its stone buildings queuing up along the Douro River like dominos. Within are labyrinthine wine cellars, and merchants of the city’s currency: port wine. (Across the river is Cale, which gave the country its name—Porto-Cale, Portugal.)
Follow the river inland and the landscape climbs to a dry interior and fertile valleys—the UNESCO World Heritage site of Douro Valley, where the port is produced, and on to the Terras de Basto, home of Portugal’s ‘young’ vinho verde wine; a fresh, fruity, sharp contrast to fortified port.
It’s a region of ancient roads, medieval bridges, terraced vineyards and 18th century olive trees. It’s a region to wander rather than rush, so pick a trip with plenty of walking.
Sticking on the 40th parallel, let’s move to the right. On the west of the stiletto’d boot of Italy is the great blue embayment of the Bay of Naples, described in the south by the island of Capri off the Sorrentina Peninsula, and in the north by the Neapolitan coast and isles of Ischia and Procida.
The islands share the Mediterranean vocabulary of small coves, isolated fishing villages, sticky, sweet limoncello and matching pastel villages clinging to the cliffs.
There are coastal trails to explore, flowers to smell in Roman villas, aperitivos to swill in piazzas and sea caves and limestone crags to frame every sea view.
Once the preserve of emperors and movie stars, travel to these islands has become more democratic. Today, Tiberius’s personal swimming hole—Capri’s Blue Grotto—is awash with tourists, rowing or swimming through the great cavern that once was his alone.
Procida, an island that so far has avoided the tourist traffic, is a cinematic landscape—the backdrop to Il Postino and The Talented Mr Ripley. The tessellating pastel shapes of homes and businesses tumble towards the shore from the medieval fortress of Terra Murata that dominates the island—once the refuge of Vandals and Goths, and later the Saracens, now a bold statement of fortitude and stubborn resistance to imperialism.
On the mainland, the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and Vesuvius, the volcano that laid waste to both. Around the corner, the Amalfi Coast beckons, with a walking trail called Path of the Gods, and the precipitous town of Positano which clings like an aged mural to the cliffs.
Further east is the quiet Adriatic and the Croatian coast, fringed by a breakwater of islands that form a convenient cycle tour over Roman roads and well worn tracks, interrupted only by ferry trips across the wet bits.
From the Gothic palaces and cathedrals of Hvar to the vineyards of Sucuraj and home town of Marco Polo, a vaguely motivated cyclist can island-hop 170 kilometres clear down the coast from the Byzantine city of Split to the red-tiled roofs and cobbled streets of Dubrovnik.
Travellers can go it alone, or join a giant tour party, but a finding an operator who specialises in small group travel is often the best option.
Exodus Travels run summer escapes to Portugal, Italy and Croatia, and are currently offering $250 off European adventures starting in 2019.