La bella sig­nora

Ital­ian screen god­dess Sophia Loren launches the Med’s lat­est lux­ury liner

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

IT is early evening in the lovely French port of Mar­seilles, with its sun-warmed stone build­ings and en­cir­cling hills. The breeze is salted, the sky is charged with gold and Ger­ard Depar­dieu is look­ing like a moun­tain­ous un­made bed.

On a tem­po­rary stage on the har­bour­side dock be­side the about-to-launch MSC Div­ina, the French ac­tor and ‘‘cruise am­bas­sador’’ is strid­ing about in a seersucker blazer, ges­tur­ing to­wards the big white liner and all but throw­ing it kisses. He is tak­ing MSC Cruises’ motto of ‘‘Med with pas­sion’’ very much to heart.

One mo­ment he ap­pears to be quot­ing Baude­laire’s po­etry, the next he’s invit­ing a comely maiden from the au­di­ence to help him read from the flimsy pages he’s wav­ing aloft.

‘‘Le soleil, le soleil!’’ he cries as the fad­ing early-summer sun­shine casts a glow over his script, across the sea of up­turned faces and into the ur­gent flicker-flash of in­ter­na­tional press cam­eras.

For a long while it seems as if Depar­dieu will never leave the stage, will not let go of the waist of his new script as­sis­tant, and MSC Div­ina could just fail to be launched. There is a dra­matic pause . . . ‘ ‘ We are not mere tourists,’’ he booms, ‘‘but les voyageurs!’’ And then, as if on springs, an of­fi­cial from MSC pops up from the front row to lead the clap­ping.

At last, Depar­dieu takes a bow and de­parts.

The now portly ac­tor ( and en­thu­si­as­tic wine­maker) is pos­sessed of a calami­tous charm and he re­ceives a ro­bust round of ap­plause from the au­di­ence, many of whom can’t un­der­stand his hy­brid French and English. Even those who do seem puz­zled.

Depar­dieu is one of the warmup acts, as it were, for Sophia Loren, the so-called god­mother of all MSC Cruises’ new-builds. This lat­est ship, the 12th in the Ital­ianowned com­pany’s fleet, has been specif­i­cally named in her hon­our — Div­ina, the di­vine, the heav­enly. Loren is Ital­ian act­ing roy­alty and, at 77, just as much a mir­a­cle of struc­tural en­gi­neer­ing as her name­sake liner.

But wait, for like any great star, she must be given time to make a grand en­trance, and so we gath­ered guests sit ex­pec­tantly in tiers of grand­stand-like seat­ing through an aerial bal­let by ‘‘le jet team’’ of seven stunt planes that swoop like gi­ant swal­lows sewing loops in the gath­er­ing dusk.

A tra­di­tion­ally at­tired Proven­cal folk­loric group, La Poulido de Gemo, en­ter­tains us with lit­tle skip­ping dances and ges­tures that may or may not have some­thing to do with gath­er­ing laven­der or pulling pota­toes.

In a mo­ment of sur­re­al­is­tic syn­ergy, Div­ina’s sis­ter ship Fan­ta­sia sud­denly sails past with a great bel­low­ing of its horn and snap­ping of wind-caught pen­nants. As Con te Par­tiro swells from the loud­speak­ers, we rise as one and cheer and cry and shout, ‘‘Bravo! Bravo!’’

The leg­endary gravel-voiced Ital­ian j azz muso and com­poser Paolo Conte ap­pears on pi­ano singing . . . ‘‘It’s won­der­ful, it’s won­der­ful, it’s won­der­ful . . . good luck, my babe, it’s won­der­ful, it’s won­der­ful, it’s won­der­ful, I dream of you . . . chips, chips, du-du-du-du . . .’’

Clas­si­cal vi­o­lin­ist and UNICEF am­bas­sador Maxim Vengerov is won­der­ful, too, performing a lively solo on his Stradi­var­ius of Fer­di­nand the Bull, and then the MSC Div­ina en­ter­tain­ment troupe ap­pears, its mem­bers dressed as rogu­ish pi­rates. There are tum­ble turns and high leaps, the sud­den for­ma­tion of a 14-per­son pyra­mid and other as­sorted ath­letic ac­com­plish­ments. I rather think I see a saucy mer­maid or two in the mix.

The se­nior crew of MSC Div­ina march into the arena in full white re­galia and line up on stage. At last, here’s Sophia Loren, stat­uesque in a glit­ter­ing Valentino gown, on the arm of cap­tain Gi­u­liano Bossi and the ef­fort­lessly suave MSC pres­i­dent Gian­luigi Aponte. It is in­deed a star-wor­thy en­trance and, af­ter a short speech, she pulls the rib­bon on a pul­ley that causes the jer­oboam of cham­pagne to smash against MSC Div­ina’s hull amid show­ers of con­fetti, erupt­ing foun­tains and fire­works.

Loren is pre­sented with red roses; the crowd swoons. (Ear­lier, MSC’s CEO Pierfrancesco Vago told me the bot­tles used for his com­pany’s launches are scored by a team of ex­pert di­a­mond cut­ters to en­sure they break.)

There is noth­ing quite as emo­tional as a ship launch Ital­ian style, par­tic­u­larly at a time when fall­out from last Jan­uary’s Costa Con­cor­dia dis­as­ter has tar­nished the im­age of the Mediter­ranean cruise in­dus­try.

The fam­ily- owned, Genoabased MSC, how­ever, has an­other liner, Preziosa, be­ing built at a cost of about mil­lion and due to launch in March 2013, and an am­bi­tious ex­pan­sion pro­gram in place. The com­pany is think­ing big — the 333m, 18-deck MSC Div­ina is one of its three ‘‘Fan­ta­sia class’’ lin­ers and can carry more than 4000 pas­sen­gers in 1751 cab­ins; it has four pools, seven restaurants and even a bowl­ing al­ley and a Ba­li­nese spa with such won­ders as a Hi­malayan salt crys­tal bed.

When Preziosa comes on line, Vago says the com­pany will of­fer more than 40,000 berths for pas­sen­gers in the Med and other pop­u­lar cruise re­gions.

MSC Cruises is proud of its health and safety cre­den­tials, with a near- ob­ses­sive re­gard for clean­li­ness, and holds the in­dus­try’s high­est pos­si­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. (Later, a visit to the gleam­ing gal­ley and snowy white wilder­ness of the laun­dry re­veals hand­wash­ing sta­tions ev­ery 11m, where crew must lather up for at least 20 sec­onds a go, and a con­tam­i­na­tion fa­cil­ity where the tow­els and bed­ding of any­one taken ill on board are washed by staff wear­ing pro­tec­tive cloth­ing.)

But for now we file up the gang­ways for a gala din­ner pre­pared by French chef Christian Con­stant. There are medal­lions of spiny lob­ster, John Dory-filled ravi­oli, Mediter­ranean seabass with al­monds and a mille-feuille with half- salted but­ter caramel.

But where’s the


The new MSC Div­ina sails out of Mar­seille on its maiden voy­age; be­low, cap­tain Gi­u­liano Bossi, Sophia Loren and com­pany pres­i­dent Gian­luigi Aponte at the launch on May 26

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