Nicola Lamb ticks off a few grand tour destinations on her cruise of the Mediterranean.
The logic couldn’t be faulted.
Having decided to put myself through the long-haul horror of spending a day up in the air, I thought I might as well see as much as I could down below.
So that was why I decided to add a 12-day Med cruise on to a 10-day French holiday.
My only experience with cruise ship life was brief and about 20 years ago, so I’m essentially a novice. But a Med cruise was always on the bucket list.
The Holland America Line’s Adriatic Dream cruise ticked off two major interests — Croatia and Greece — plus other places that intrigued me — Valletta in Malta and Palermo in Sicily.
The cruise started in Venice and ended in Rome, while also visiting Naples for Pompeii. I had seen them all, but not for 11 years.
Day 1: Venice, Italy
Before the trip I had been a bit blase about seeing Venice again, even though I loved it the first time. But there is something essentially inspirational about St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. And just wandering the streets and small bridges — the light reflects off the warm gold and rust-hued buildings on to the canal water. The cracked, decayed beauty is visual enchantment.
There’s magic on a more mundane level — the Italians are masters of shop display. There are shops for masks, melted clocks, lace and glassware where the front windows are artworks themselves. Then there are the shops near Rialto where sweets are made to ridiculous sizes and where chocolate literally drips before your eyes. At SuSo the long lines for gelato are worth it.
I retraced steps of 11 years ago by visiting the nearby islands of Burano, Murano and Torcello. An Alilaguna public transport boat takes you around for €20 euros. Murano is known for its glassware and the trip includes a demonstration of glass craft techniques. Burano visually is a painter’s fever dream and features fine lacework.
Having been in Venice for a couple of days, I was well-versed with the flocking patterns of tourists in San Marco. Get there early enough and you could experience the square in all its glory before the hordes descended at about 9.30am.
Which was why I was very early for a transfer by Alilaguna boat from San Marco quay to the cruise terminal.
There I was given my room key card and told it was important to keep it with me. After finding my cabin (called a stateroom) and while waiting for my luggage I explored the ship.
Virtually the first room I came across was the casino where a staff member comically looked at his watch and joked “it’s a bit early”.
I walked through various bars, theatres and dining rooms. The ship is lavishly decorated with art works in communal rooms, hallways and lift areas. Most importantly I found the Crow’s Nest, a viewing area at the top of the ship, and from there watched as MV Oosterdam hitched her skirts and swept past Venice — two imperious grande dames trying to upstage each other.
That surely has to be one of the great, unforgettable sights — Venice as viewed from the height of a moving, stately, skyscraper.
Day 2: Split, Croatia
When you look at the ship from the outside, it seems huge. I have a photo of it taken from hills above Sarande, Albania, squatting in front of the city like a giant’s shoe left behind in the bay. But the ship very quickly doesn’t feel huge on the inside.
That’s probably because you soon settle into familiar patterns as you work out how to get what you want from the cruise experience. You get used to taking the lift to one of the dining rooms, or the stairs to the level three deck to pace around the ship or to the meeting room for day tours.
It’s your home for the length of the cruise. You unpack once and have the run of the place. Most of the travel is done while you’re sleeping — you wake up to a new port.
There’s a general space and freedom that doesn’t exist on smaller, more intimate bus tours where you’re thrust together with a bunch of strangers for good or not so good. Here you float in and out of areas and conversations. There’s room to sidestep moaners or others who appear from passing comments too travel-worn or jaded to drink in the fun. Or you can have nice chats and just move on.
For me, the port stops and what to do there were the priority: A lot of what went on aboard was just wallpaper. There are live bands and performers, games, movies, a fitness centre, pools, talks. With this mode of travel you can take whatever approach suits. I’d come back from day tours and see people blobbed out on poolside deck chairs with books or crosswords or propped on bar stools.
On the observation deck on the 10th floor, you could lie back on leather loungers with foot rests and watch the ship plough through the water at the front. You could count your blessings, contemplate your navel, or more likely, catch up on your emails.
The stop in Split ended up being a bit of a disappointment — nly because of how the day tour I was on was organised. It was supposed to start with a walking tour through Split’s lovely Old Town of white walls, red roofs and purple bougainvillea.
It features a visit to Diocletian’s Palace cellars which doubled as dungeons on Game of Thrones. Other highlights were the Cathedral of St Duje, believed to be the oldest cathedral in the world, and the Temple of Jupiter. Then we were supposed to visit a mountain town called Omis for lunch at a historic water mill.
Unfortunately, the tour was conducted in reverse order which, for me at least, sapped the energy and purpose out of it. You’re keen to get out and see these sights and instead you’re made to wait. By the time the tour got to the Old Town it was also hot and busy.
Day 3: Dubrovnik, Croatia
The old walls of Dubrovnik are what you’d expect of a medieval fortress jutting out to sea: thick, imposing, with large turrets and military slits.
Looking over the city you see a forest of terracotta tiles with the water beyond.
In the tow you walk through an ancient gate, along streets with caramel-coloured buildings and age-weathered stone steps, by houses with green shutters and pretty lamps. A tortoiseshell cat dozes in a narrow side lane. The Dominican monastery is a calm, lovely site of ornate walls, surrounding a garden, with a museum of religious artwork.
The day tour of historic Dubrovnik started early, was interesting all the way and over in a concise two hours which left loads of time for walking on the walls. Just as it was getting hot and the crowds were building, I could get the bus back to the ship.
Day 4: Sarande, Albania
When the ship left Dubrovnik, I watched as a local port official loosened the holding ropes. Firstly, the furthest away rope was slackened and released from the dock. It was sucked into the ship like a vacuum cleaner’s connection cord.
He returned to his car, got out a yellow hard hat, and turned to the two ropes closest to the boat. The lines were slackened, the ropes freed to the sea and sent back to the ship. We were under way.
There can’t be too many better sights than the ribbon of sunlight stretching away on the sea.
Walking on the level 3 deck, a whiff of fresh paint in the air, it was hard to tell the ship was moving, except when its progress was measured against stationary objects, like islands. At dusk there was a pink glow on the horizon and mist towards the front of Oosterdam. The waves by the ship were incredibly silky smooth and hypnotic. At the time I thought this must be typical, but it wasn’t.
In the morning we were taken ashore in tenders. Sarande, near Corfu, doesn’t yet have a cruise port but it it has a lovely waterfront, nice boulevard and hot weather. As a former communist, developing country, Albania is about 20 years away from where it could be as a tourist destination. Regular cruise ship visits could help.
Blue Eye National Park is a relaxing spot. The natural spring has a deep blue centre with turquoise and green edges.
Sarande is built over a Roman town and there are ruins of an ancient synagogue. Above the town, Lekuresi Castle offers great views of the area. The old town of Gjirokastra has a fortress, an old bazaar quarter, 17th century Turkish baths and the Mecite Mosque.
Day 5: Katakolon (Olympia, Greece)
At Olympia, morning light passes through the leaves of old trees to fall among very old stone that relates to truly ancient history. Birthplace of the Olympic Games in 776BC, it is a unique and impressive site, given extra depth by the treasures on display in related museums.
The centrepiece is the Temple of Zeus. Round remnants of mighty columns lie piled on the ground like grey, crumbled tractor wheels. But there’s one huge column still upright to give a sense of scale.
The three-pronged ruins of the Philippeion are also impressive.
At one point the tour group sits on square and round blocks as we listen to the guide. She points out the games continued for more than 1100 years. The strength of the tradition was because it became part of religious life — a pilgrimage. Gods and heroes were the first sportsmen. Participation made you a better human being, it was thought.
There was no elaborate stadium at Olympia, the guide said, because that would have shown hubris and been an offence to the gods. Finds are housed in the Olympia Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Ancient Olympic Games.
At the Archaeological Museum there’s a wonderful collection of small animal statues. There are shields, helmets and other armour. Also, beautifully decorated vases.
A highlight is a series of sculptures from the Temple of Zeus with the theme of a chariot race, including horses called Pelops’ quadriga.
The centrepiece of the museum is a gleaming smooth marble statue, Hermes of Praxiteles.
Day 6: Chania, Crete (Greece)
We berth at the Nato port of Souda on the Greek island of Crete.
Nearby city of Chania — the “c” is silent — is a pretty place to wander around in. Its background is fascinating as well. As with other stops on the cruise, invaders have left their marks on the architecture: Roman, Venetian, Turkish.
There’s lush green vegetation and bright flowers. Vines and creepers drape over garden arches and carports.
The former capital of Crete has a Venetian quarter which includes a pretty horseshoe harbour with a 16th century lighthouse. On this day the sea is choppy and water slaps the wide walking area.
Part of the old city walls remain. There are both modern and quaint lanes around the city. We pass a black and tan dog with a dyed red hairdo. A market has bread, herbs, olive oil products, cheeses, fish and other goods.
Greece has been through tough times. Graffiti is noticeable. We walk down one street where an entire row of shops is in ruins.
The guide mentions the Greek Orthodox Church is not tailing off in Crete like churches in other countries. The reason? It is entwined with social ties in the community. She says these ties have been hugely important in helping people during the economic upheaval of the past decade.
Day 7: At sea
As we left Olympia, Captain Michiel Willems had announced a change to our itinerary.
Instead of travelling to Mykonos after Chania, we would go to Catania, Sicily, because a major storm was due to hit southern Greece and the captain wanted to avoid strong winds and high waves from the “medicane” or Mediterranean cyclone. As it was, just travelling to and away from Chania produced the roughest seas of the voyage. It’s good to know (I guess) that you can feel the roll on a ship this size.
The sea is at its most exhilarating and intimidating.
Wandering around deck three to get exercise and looking at the sea became one of my favourite things about being on board.
At the back of the boat, turquoise water and foam churned by the ship mixes with darker blues. On the sides, the wind whistles away the wave caps like steam from a surfacing whale’s blowhole.
Sunrise and sunset seem so intense at sea. You see flames on a distant hill, basic and primal. Perhaps it is the light reflected on the water or the lack of buildings and trees to dilute the impact.
Day 8: Catania, Sicily (Italy)
At Catania, a large mural featuring a pair of sinister eyes greets you at the port. It immediately has me
thinking about the Mafia, the Godfather and “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”.
On the other side of the ship, Mt Etna is a dark blue triangle beyond the city. I’d decided to visit the hillside village of Taormina by day tour and it turns out to be one of the highlights of the cruise.
Day tours tend to label any exercise involving some step-climbing as “strenuous”. This one, I thought, might justify it. But there is a lift where the tour bus parks which takes you up to the village street level. Then it is a stroll through the streets to a spectacular Greco-Roman theatre and views over the bay below.
Taormina reminds me a bit of Siena. It’s very pretty, with lots of greenery and cream, caramel and rose-coloured buildings.
Two men sit on a bench and keep an eye on their fruit cart as tourists stream past. A woman tends to her display of fruit, vegetables, herbs and bottles in a side lane. Brightly-painted pots and art work fill other narrow lanes.
There’s a Medieval church, the Duomo di Taormina, and Corvaja Palace, which dates to the 10th century.
Days 9-10: Valletta and Victoria, Malta
If Venice is a great city to sail away from, Valletta is a special place to arrive by sea.
The beautiful walled city appears white from a distance. Closer in, the stone has a sandy colour. Later in the afternoon sun, the sandstone glows.
In the morning light, the ship passes a small lighthouse. A basilica dome — red with white lines — stands out on the skyline. The thick walls rise from great slabs of rock in the water. Small watchtowers bulge at corners along the walls.
Valletta was a British military base for a long time and lost many buildings during World War II during air raids. Cannons are fired at midday from the upper Barrakka gardens to mark the sacrifices of war.
The gardens are a great spot for views of the city and harbour.
Valletta is famous for the knights of Malta, the order of St John, and the cathedral in the centre of the city is spectacular with gold leaf decoration, paintings and the knights’ tombs.
Malta’s old capital Mdina, a quiet ancient walled town, is worth a visit.
The following day we sailed to Victoria, the main town on Gozo, a 67 sq km Maltese island.
It’s a much quieter place than Valletta but has a has a medieval citadel, a basilica, and beaches along with the ancient ruins of Ggantija and the rock-cut Salt Pans.
Day 11: Palermo, Sicily (Italy)
I decided to go on a day tour called “Palermo on your own” where your bus makes three stops and you have a set time to look around.
There was no official guide, but the assistant had a nice line in dry humour with “traffic is a bigger danger than the Mafia” and “it’s called the New Gate. It’s not new”.
Monreale, an outer suburb, is known for its Norman cathedral.
The streets are attractive with yellow and white buildings, and flower and vegetable stalls spilling on to the footpaths.
Palermo Cathedral dominates the city centre, a melting pot of styles and history, including Norman, Arabic, Byzantine, Baroque and Gothic.
Tourists wander around the front, exposed to the hot sun. Down the street, the Porta Nuova — — the previously mentioned New Gate — is a 16th-century archway that’s an entrance to the pedestrian area and features striking turbaned and bearded Ottoman figures.
Further along, is Quattro Canti (the Four Corners): Baroque, curved facades that mark the crossing of ancient roads. Nearby is the Fontana Pretoria, nicknamed the “fountain of shame” because of all the nude statues.
The third stop for the day is a change of pace. Mondello Beach is small, quiet and only 30 minutes away. The bus drives back through a nature reserve, formerly royal hunting grounds.
Day 12: Naples, Italy
It was tempting to re-visit Pompeii during the stop in Naples, but I decided instead to see her sister city in volcanic woe, Herculaneum.
Pompeii is one of those experiences that leaves a vivid imprint in your brain. For me it’s a short film of moments, drenched in sunshine, and clear as though I’d been there yesterday. Herculaneum is different, a more subdued place that was overcast and wet on the day I went. But there was a lot to see.
On the ground, Mt Vesuvius looked quite a long way from the town of about 5000 people it destroyed with hot mud in 79AD. You walk down to the level of the Roman town from the modern day and face one of the saddest scenes: the skeletons of people who could not get out.
An excavated hull is on display but quite a few boats were used to ferry goods away rather than people, the guide said.
There are well-preserved buildings with decorated walls and mosaics on the floors. One striking mosaic shows dolphins and an octopus.
Lead pipes for water and sewage could be seen along a street. There were shop areas with benches of bright, different-coloured stones. Naples can be a gateway to other nearby areas. Day tours of Mt Vesuvius, Capri, Amalfi, Positano, Ischia and Sorrento are run from the city.
Our ship pulled in to the nearest port to Rome — Civitavecchia — and the end of the cruise.
The 12 days had given a taste of each stop — you’re visiting only for hours, not even a day. But it does give you impressions and adds knowledge. For instance, Sicily looks like a place that would be good to spend more time in.
Apart from the great sights and cruise experience, I’m left thinking about how geography and closeness to the sea made these countries what they are. There are so many different cultures in their make-up and varied invading rulers in their history who also left behind memories in their architecture.
Multiculturalism is built into their DNA even as more new arrivals add to it.
‘s Adriatic Dream cruise departs on various dates through June to August.
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