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