For a number of good reasons, cruising is a favorite mode of travel for my partner Melinda (Mel) and me. We relish the idea of unpacking just once — and leaving the logistics, and the cooking, to someone else. Best of all, cruising offers an effective and efficient means of feeding our history habit.
We are heavy-duty history buffs, agreeing with writer and historian Will Durant, who once said, ”Most of us spend too much time on the last 24 hours and too little on the last 6,000 years.” With this in mind, you’ll understand our enthusiasm as we boarded Viking Ocean Cruises’ new Viking Sea in Barcelona last February for a 14-day “Grand Mediterranean” voyage.
Almost completely enclosed by land and bordered by Europe, Africa, Asia Minor and the Levant, the Med is a vast intercontinental sea of almost a million square miles. As the most important route for merchants and travelers of ancient times, the history of the region is crucial to understanding the origins and development of much of the world.
We had always assumed that the earliest seagoing civilizations — Egyptian and Hittite — emerged in the Mediterranean region sometime in the 5th to 4th millennium, followed by a mix of Mycenaeans, Persians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. A recent report in the Journal of Archaeological Science, however, notes than stone tools left behind some 100,000 years ago by Neanderthal sailors have been found on the islands of Crete and Cypress.
Clearly, history is subject to revision and as President Harry S. Truman once observed, “There is nothing new in the world except the history we do not know.”
Our two-week itinerary — virtually circling the western Med — led us to many of the region’s most notable historic sites, including some we definitely did not know.
As things turned out, we couldn’t have made a better choice of vessels than Viking Sea. Although Norwegian-owned Viking is best known for its river cruises, its expansion into ocean cruising has been very successful with the introduction of three identical 930-passenger ships — Viking Star, Viking Sea and Viking Sky — since 2015. By 2020, the fleet will expand to six vessels. Smaller than most cruise ships, these Viking vessels can access ports that big cruisers can’t — and a lighter passenger load makes for a more intimate cruise experience and less waiting in queues.
Already the line is receiving rave reviews. Most notably, Viking was named the #1 Ocean Cruise Line by Travel & Leisure readers in the magazine’s 2016 World’s Best Awards, knocking out luxury-line Crystal Cruises from its 20-year run in that position.
The sleek, 745-foot all-balcony, all-adult Viking Sea is a marvel of Scandinavian design — spare, flawlessly crafted and functional — set off by a soothing decor rich with rare woods, muted fabrics, glass and brass. Paintings, sculptures, textiles and photos by prominent Nordic artists are displayed throughout the ship.
A series of airy public rooms emanate from the welcoming Living Room, a soaring three-story atrium area that blends the luxurious feel of a chic European hotel with the relaxing informality of a country club. We found the layout of Viking Sea so intuitive that we had the vessel pretty well sorted out after our first day onboard. Here’s a brief description of the ship’s most important public areas and facilities.
— Two swimming pools — one is indoors, with a retractable roof, the other is an infinity pool cantilevered off the stern of the ship.
— The striking Wintergarden, a Scandinavian-style conservatory where afternoon tea (along with decadent desserts) is served daily.
— The two-story Explorer’s Lounge at the bow of the vessel that features a lively bar and gourmet Norwegian deli (think gravlax or Swedish pancakes). The lounge also is home to the ship’s resident pianist, guitarist and classical trio.
— A multi-purpose theater with high-tech curtains and lighting where a talented cast of eight singers and dancers stage a variety of creative productions.
— Torshaven, a cabaret lounge that fills up nightly for after-dinner drinks and music.
— The LivNordic Spa, where guests can indulge (at no charge) in a spacious thalassotherapy pool, a steam room, sauna and a snow grotto — a chamber where snow actually falls from the ceiling and builds up on the floor. A fitness center and a massage, hair and nail salon round out the features of this popular facility.
Dining is a distinct pleasure at any and all of Viking Sea’s restaurants. The main dining room, simply named The Restaurant, offers open seating anytime between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. There are two specialty restaurants (no extra cost but with reservations required) — Manfredi’s, serving classic Italian, and the Chef’s Table, featuring five-course “tasting” menus with wine pairings — as well as the buffet-style World Cafe and the Pool Grill — famous for its juicy burgers. In addition to the many dining options, room service is available around the clock.
We shared a deluxe veranda stateroom measuring a snug 270 square feet and representative of the majority of the ship’s cabins. Penthouse verandas and two categories of suites make up the remaining accommodations. All staterooms feature a veranda (balcony), writing desk, HD flat-screen TV, mini-fridge and coffee maker
Our crew — hailing from around the world — numbered about 450 and they were happy and helpful at all times and obviously well trained at their jobs. Every one of them that we encountered spoke English. We couldn’t have hoped for better service.
Much of what we liked most about our voyage were things that Viking doesn’t do. For example, there’s no casino gaming. They do not have photographers nor do they sell photos. They do not have art auctions. They do not promote salon services or products in their shops. They do not have passengers under the age of 18. And there are all of the things they don’t charge extra for: Wi-Fi throughout the ship, wine and beer at lunch and dinner, specialty coffees, soft drinks, juices and bottled water, dining in the two specialty restaurants, use of spa facilities, and one complimentary shore excursion at each port.
Viking’s itineraries, excursions, lectures and seminars are aimed at enrichment, designed to help guests immerse themselves in the history, culture and cuisine of each destination. This approach to cruising compelled us to book our Med cruise — along with a port-intensive itinerary that visits seven countries in Europe and Africa, with calls at Barcelona, Toulon, Monte Carlo, Ajaccio (Corsica), Florence/Pisa, Rome, Valletta (Malta), Tunis, Cagliari (Sardinia), Algiers and Valencia. It was an itinerary that would more than satisfy our hunger for history.
Our voyage got underway in Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city and capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia. We skipped Viking’s excursion, choosing to explore afoot. As most visitors do, we rambled along Las Ramblas, the city’s famous milelong pedestrian way, absorbing the sights, scents and flavors of the sprawling Las Boqueria Market along the way. Later we visited a couple of masterpieces from the famed architect Antoni Gaudi — the towering La Sagrada Familia Cathedral and the glamorous 1888 mansion Palau Guell.
Cruising northeast along the coast of France, our first port of call was Toulon, an attractive little seaside city on the doorstep of Provence. Here we hopped aboard a coach for an included panoramic drive around and about the city. Then we spent the rest of the day wandering the waterfront promenade and yet another colorful marketplace where the daily harvests of neighboring Provence — artisan cheese, fruits and veggies of all kinds, aromatic lavender and herbs — were on bountiful display.
Day four found us docking in Monte Carlo, in the heart of the tiny Principality of Monaco — just as the sun began to rise over this most sparkling gem of the French Riviera. As an exclusive enclave of the rich and famous, it can seem a bit snooty to the typical visitor. But that could just be envy showing, as most of us only wish we had the means to take up residence in a cliffside villa here — with a garage for both the Rolls and the Ferrari.
We worked here with an excellent local guide, Jean-Marc Ferrie (firstname.lastname@example.org). He’s a soft-spoken gent born and raised in Monaco and a fellow not at all affected by the surrounding bling. Together we climbed up from the harbor to Monte Carlo’s medieval quarter perched atop an escarpment known as “The Rock,” to peruse the elegant Prince’s Palace — home since 1297 to the Grimaldi Family — and the fairy tale setting where American actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly presided with Prince Rainier III. Later, Jean-Marc led us to St. Nicholas Cathedral to view the burial vaults of the royal family.
At our next stop, Ajaccio, Corsica, we joined another included Viking excursion, a panoramic tour of Napoleon’s birthplace and its immediate surroundings. We went from one Napoleonic monument to the next and then trundled out along a condo-lined corniche to the Sanguinaires Islands for a look at a string of remarkably well-preserved 16th century Genovese observation towers. Back in Ajaccio, we visited the Baroque cathedral where Napoleon was christened and Casa Bonaparte, his ancestral home.
We docked next at Livorno, the port serving Florence and Pisa, Italy, where we opted to join an included tour to Pisa. It had been many years since we’d visited the famed Square of Miracles, so it was good once again to explore this marble-clad UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adorned with Byzantine mosaics, the interior of the cathedral seemed even more breathtaking than we remembered. The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa is still leaning, of course, as it has for its entire seven-century existence, but not as much as when we last saw it. Work has taken place in recent years to stabilize the old bell tower, reducing its lean to an angle of 4 degrees.
Following a short run from Livorno down to Civitavecchia, the unpronounceable port for Rome, we tied up for a two-day stay in the Eternal City. If one had never visited Rome, two days wouldn’t scratch the surface, but we’d explored its ancient buildings and monuments a number of times and so we opted to visit an historic site we’d long wanted to see — the Etruscan necropolises of Tarquinia.
Dating from the 7th to the 2nd centuries B.C., the numerous tombs with their decorative frescos chronicle the development of the Etruscan culture that thrived here well before the rise of the Roman Empire. Our four-hour optional excursion ($89 pp) allowed plenty of time to check out tombs that have been excavated at the Monterozzi Necropolis site. The tour concluded in the city of Tarquinia with a visit to the 15th century Palazzo Vitelleschi, whose galleries and cloistered courtyard display an extensive collection of sarcophagi and other artifacts recovered from the tombs.
Following the only day at sea on our two-week voyage (we slept in until mid-morning), Viking Sea docked beneath the honey-colored limestone walls of the St. Peter & Paul Bastion in Valletta, Malta.
They say Malta is the crossroads of the Mediterranean. If that’s the case, we can’t but wonder how we managed to miss it in spite of our many visits to the region. Travelers through the ages didn’t miss it, however, with occupiers of this strategic archipelago through the centuries including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Knights of St. John, French and British.
But it was the Knights of St. John who founded Valletta, and we wanted to learn more about the soldiers of fortune who built this magnificent fortress city — a UNESCO World Heritage City — that is often described as a masterpiece of the Baroque.
Having just a day to spend in Valletta, we decided in advance of the voyage to arrange a guide. With the able assistance of the Malta Tourism Authority we linked up with veteran local guide Nick Ripard (email@example.com) for a fast-paced walking tour.
Nick knows his stuff. As he showed us around the Auberge de Castille, an opulent Baroque palace that once served as home to the Castilian contingent of the Knights of the Order of St. John, he contends that the knights were not as noble and charitable as sometimes portrayed. “For the most part,” he said, “the knights, the majority of whom were lesser sons of European royalty, were far more greedy, vainglorious and self-aggrandizing than they were charitable.” Another myth exposed.
Having visited an inordinate number of cathedrals and churches, we weren’t all that enthusiastic to see the St. John’s Co-Cathedral — but Nick insisted we’d be knocked out by its grandeur. And we were. It is Baroque gone berserk. Its marble floor is inlaid with the tombs of about 400 knights and officers of the order, and its gilded walls display world famous masterpieces by Caravaggio and Mattia Preti.
Sailing south now, bound for Tunis, we appreciated that this was the point where Viking’s itinerary really began breaking the Med cruise mold. North African destinations typically don’t show up on the Mediterranean menus of most major cruise lines. For us, Tunis turned out to be the big winner as best destination on this voyage.
At last, we were able to fulfill a longtime bucket list wish — to stroll through the centuries at Carthage. The scattered ruins of both Phoenician and Roman periods were as remarkable as we imagined — but Tunis had some other surprises in store for us.
We elected to join the optional “Best of Tunis” excursion ($114.00 pp) that led off with a stop at the Bardo National Museum where a fantastic collection of mosaics (said to be the best in the world) and other artifacts from Carthage are beautifully displayed in a 15th century palace. A living museum of sorts was next as we probed the city’s mazelike medina or souk — a bargainer’s paradise where some tour members claimed to have scored good deals on leather bags and gold jewelry. A cross-city coach trip led us next to Moorish-inspired Sidi Bou Said, a hilltop artists’ colony (and a popular haven for tourists) strikingly attired in blue and white. It reminded us of climbing the cobbled steps of Mykonos or Santorini.
On the heels of our brilliant day in Tunisia, the call next day at Cagliari, Sardinia, was a letdown. Our included tour failed to inspire, although we did glimpse some bright pink flamingoes in the salty lagoons that flank the city. We wandered through the Castello District with its Roman amphitheater and the Cathedral of St. Mary that houses some important artistic and historic treasures from the 13th-14th centuries. Otherwise, we thought the city was boring.
Back to Africa, our call on Day 13 involved a rare cruise ship visit to Algiers, the capital and main port of Algeria. Security here was intense. From the moment we disembarked we were surrounded by policemen and soldiers and all tours were escorted by motorcycle cops and military vehicles. We couldn’t tell whether authorities were protecting us from the Algerian citizenry — or visa versa. At any rate it was a little tense and unnerving. No doubt Algeria is home to some nasty terrorists — but as is so often the case in such situations, the locals we met were very friendly and welcoming.
We selected an optional tour, “Tipaza and the Mausoleum of Mauretania” ($179 pp), excited at the opportunity to see the well-preserved seaside Roman ruins at Tipaza, about 35 miles southwest of Algiers, and the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania, a 130-foot high circular stone funerary monument that stands in total isolation on a hilltop near Tipaza.
Suffering from the poor maintenance, the mausoleum is beginning to crumble. Nonetheless, it has survived largely intact since the 3rd century B.C. — built by the King of Mauretania Juba II and his wife, Queen Cleopatra Selene II, daughter of Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and Roman Gen. Marc Antony. There’s much more to see at the sprawling Tipaza complex. An ancient Phoenician trading port conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century B.C., it became one of Rome’s most strategic bases in Africa. Among the ruins are a public fountain, a Roman Theatre, and an array of onetime villas overlooking a wave-lapped cove — premium waterfront property of the day, no doubt.
The unusually fine weather (for February) that had favored us throughout the voyage graced our final day in Valencia, Spain, with brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the mid 60s.
Steeped in 2,000 years of history and culture, Valencia boasts one of Europe’s largest and best-preserved Old Town neighborhoods — a diverse medley of cultural monuments, ancient buildings and broad plazas. With so much to see and do, we were grateful that the local tourist office was able to arrange a guide, Vito Ivanisic (firstname.lastname@example.org), to show us around.
Vito got us off to a jaw-dropping start with a visit to Valencia’s modern side for a look at the futuristic City of Arts & Sciences, a colossal cultural and entertainment complex that includes a science museum, opera house, IMAX cinema and Europe’s largest aquarium. It is the design of local architect Santiago Calatrava — but so bold and visionary that one might imagine it arrived here from outer space.
The contrast between old and new could not have been more evident as we made our way into Old Town where we walked among the marble columns of the lavish Trading Hall at Lonja de la Seda — the Gothic Silk Exchange — a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a symbol of Valencia’s trading power and prominence during the Renaissance.
Modern for its time, the marvelous iron and glass Art Nouveau-style 1914 Mercado Central is Spain’s largest market. It covers 86,000 square feet and houses nearly a thousand vendors. We strolled among the stalls and enjoyed an obligatory sampling of paella, the centuries old rice dish that was invented in Valencia and remains the city’s culinary calling card.
Vito, who turned out to be an exceptional guide, had another tasty Spanish tradition in mind for lunch, leading us next to Colmado La Lola, a classy tapas bar opposite the cathedral where owner Jesus Villanueva proceeded to regale us for nearly two hours with a seemingly endless array of local specialties including Iberian ham and cheeses — and tapas concocted with oysters, cockles, octopus, smoked eel and (OMG!), sea urchin and sea nettles.
It was a wonderful taste of Spain — and a fitting finale to our epic Mediterranean voyage.
(For cruise fares and additional information, contact Viking Ocean Cruises, 877-523-0549, www.vikingcruises.com.)
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