Pas­sages of his­tory

In the shad­ows of em­pires from Venice to Athens

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - ADAM McCULLOCH

A cruise from Venice to Athens aboard the new Vik­ing Sea is a les­son in the frailty of even the great­est em­pires. For 1000 years the Vene­tian em­pire stretched be­yond the reaches of our nine-day itin­er­ary (which takes in Italy, Slove­nia, Croa­tia, Mon­tene­gro and Greece) all the way to Turkey. Then, in a few short decades, the em­pire dis­solved back into the Adri­atic.

From the air, the Vene­tian swamps seem an un­likely place from which a world su­per­power was born. As the Ro­man em­pire de­te­ri­o­rated into chaos in the late 700s, a hardy band of swamp dwellers fled to the is­lands, built stilt houses and in­vented gon­do­las. Stand­ing in St Mark’s Square, as my wife and I do now, it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary to think that such a grand city was built on sticks in mud.

The Pi­azza San Marco teems with life, throngs of tourists feed­ing (and flee­ing from) pi­geons. It’s close to magic hour so we join the frenzy of cam­era-tot­ing tourists crowd­ing curved bridges in search of the per­fect gon­do­laat-sun­set shot. Had we planned in ad­vance we would have ar­rived a few days ear­lier and am­bled around the island of Mu­rano, one of our favourite haunts, to re­plen­ish our sup­ply of glass Christ­mas or­na­ments. But not to­day, and as the sun turns the Grand Canal into a river of gold, I snap a few shots and we dash back to our ship.

Vik­ing Sea, chris­tened last May, is the se­cond ves­sel in the Vik­ing Ocean Cruises fleet; Vik­ing is best known for its Euro­pean river cruises and bears the per­son­al­ity of its Nor­we­gian-born owner, Torstein Ha­gen, who loves Scan­di­na­vian de­sign — as shown by the stylish mod­ernist fur­ni­ture and art in­clud­ing an orig­i­nal Ed­vard Munch — but hates casi­nos, so in­stead of poker ta­bles there are well-stocked li­braries. The 930-pas­sen­ger ship for­bids chil­dren, a rar­ity for a big cruise line. I raise a toast to Ha­gen, a man af­ter my own heart, and set­tle into the cosy Ex­plor­ers’ Lounge, tucked in the stern. Jet­lag soon gets the bet­ter of us, so we re­tire to our state­room as the ship sets sail and en­joy all the com­forts of lux­ury ac­com­mo­da­tion, in­clud­ing the deca­dence of heated bath­room floors.

I have a detox mas­sage sched­uled for the fol­low­ing morn­ing, which proves to be a vig­or­ous wake-up call of dry-brush­ing fol­lowed by cup­ping, the same tech­nique used by Olympic swim­mers to al­le­vi­ate mus­cle sore­ness. Through­out, I swear I hear a deep keen­ing, em­a­nat­ing from the ship’s hull. So af­ter break­fast waf­fles at Mam­sen’s restau­rant — made us­ing Ha­gen’s mother’s de­li­cious recipe — we fol­low the sound down the gang­plank and into the old town of Zadar, Croa­tia.

The Fran­cis­can Monastery and the re­mains of a Ro­man Fo­rum speak to an an­cient im­por­tance that dates back to the stone age, but the strange sound is not of an­cient ori­gin. It’s em­a­nat­ing from be­neath our feet. Built into the sea wall is a sculp­ture called Sea Or­gan by artist Nikola Ba­sic. Waves en­ter a res­onat­ing cham­ber turn­ing the sea wall into a gi­ant mu­si­cal in­stru­ment. Peo­ple gather around the wa­ter­front to lis­ten, cap­ti­vated. Even­tu­ally we tear our­selves away.

On board Vik­ing Sea, din­ing op­tions may be fewer than the mega-ships but more than com­pen­sate when it comes to qual­ity. The ubiq­ui­tous cruise buf­fet is el­e­vated sev­eral notches at the World Cafe, which dishes up a global menu so pas­sen­gers can sam­ple beef welling­ton, sushi and ge­lato in the same sit­ting.

The high-end eater­ies (which book out early) are The Chef’s Ta­ble, The Kitchen Ta­ble and Man­fredi’s and, as with all Vik­ing ships, tip­ping is in­cluded. We head to The Restau­rant (an easy name to re­mem­ber) where to­day’s menu starts with exquisitely poached sal­mon and fin­ishes with an or­ange Grand Marnier souf­fle which, our waiter in­forms us, will be de­liv­ered to our ta­ble a max­i­mum of 15 sec­onds af­ter it leaves the oven. His sprint is suc­cess­ful and the souf­fle is de­li­cious.

Cruise ships have a (not en­tirely un­de­served) rep­u­ta­tion for glacially slow dis­em­barka­tion. Not so on Vik­ing Sea. We rarely need to board a ten­der boat to shore and in­stead sim­ply scoot down the gang­plank into wait­ing coaches. That’s how we get to Ljubl­jana, the charm­ing baroque cap­i­tal of Slove­nia made more charm­ing by virtue of the fact that a kids’ marathon — a pint-size 200m dash — has just been run. The streets are fre­netic with hy­per­ac­tive tots, buskers and bal­loon-sell­ers with enough in­ven­tory to reach the moon, or at very least the other side of the river. We cross by way of a bridge guarded by four im­pres­sive art nou­veau dragons. They rep­re­sent the beast that Ja­son and the Arg­onauts had slain here, af­ter steal­ing the Golden Fleece.

In Ljubl­jana, Greek myths take on a more re­al­is­tic air. For in­stance, the mu­seum con­tains the world’s old­est wheel, a sim­ple wooden disc that dates back to 3350BC, a full mil­len­nium be­fore An­cient Greece. By then, Ja­son’s path to Ljubl­jana was al­ready well trod­den.

We fol­low that same path back to the ship in time for cock­tail hour and dis­cuss our forth­com­ing itin­er­ary. Next stop is Dubrovnik and, much as we both love the cob­ble­stoned streets and vi­brant cafe life, we are equally in­trigued by Mostar, a river city in Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina that suf­fered hor­ri­bly dur­ing the Yu­gosla­vian war.

As we ap­proach, it’s clear the scars are still fresh and, ini­tially, we are taken aback by the bombed-out build­ings and bul­let holes. We walk through the old town as our guide ex­plains that as much as 80 per cent of the city was de­stroyed, in­clud­ing the 600-year-old bridge over the Neretva River. It has since been care­fully re­built us­ing an­cient stone­ma­sonry tech­niques and pro­vides a dra­matic stage from which burly men leap 30m into the wa­ter.

It’s a stark re­minder that, at many points along this jour­ney, even beau­ti­ful ports such as Ko­tor, where we dock the next day, have en­dured their fair share of strife. Af­ter all, walled ci­ties have walls for a rea­son. Ko­tor’s beauty is un­par­al­leled. We ap­proach by way of a sub­merged river val­ley with tall cliffs that dwarf the ship. A switch­back trail leads to a monastery promis­ing fan­tas­tic views, so we skit­tle through the back­streets, climb­ing ever higher un­til, breath­less, we reach the over­look.

We spend the af­ter­noon sooth­ing our aching bones in the ship’s stern-mounted Jacuzzi tub. Both this and the hori­zon pool have be­come pop­u­lar places for sun­down­ers but they’re not the only pools. The main one, mid­ship, is sur­rounded by sun-loungers and fea­tures a win­ter gar­den where a string quar­tet plays and wait­ers serve dainty af­ter­noon tea and pe­tits-four. In the LivNordic Spa there’s also a well­ness cir­cuit com­plete with a wet and dry sauna, an­other Jacuzzi, ice room and a strangely pop­u­lar ice bucket-chal­lenge-style shower.

When we reach Corfu, we are sur­prised that it has none of the ex­pected white­washed homes of the Greek is­lands. In fact, as our coach crawls through the moun­tain­ous ram­parts and into the old town, it be­gins to feel strangely fa­mil­iar.

Ar­chi­tec­turally, it is Venice with­out the canals, which makes sense when you con­sider that for 600 years this was Venice’s south­ern bas­tion to pro­tect it against the Ot­toman Em­pire. It’s a con­trast to San­torini, where we dock the next day, the penul­ti­mate port be­fore Athens and our jour­ney’s end. Whereas Corfu is flat and lush with forests, San­torini’s lu­nar land­scape is glazed with white­washed homes, a tra­di­tion in­tro­duced in the 1950s to pro­mote tourism.

Stand­ing on the main street of Thea, the cres­cent of a vast, bru­tal caldera rim en­cir­cles the ship, which ap­pears no big­ger than a bath toy, moored near a still-smok­ing island. It’s an ac­tive re­minder of the Mi­noan erup­tion that de­stroyed much of San­torini in the bronze age. This wasn’t just any erup­tion. This was the big one, and among the largest vol­canic erup­tions in recorded his­tory. The once-tow­er­ing cone-shaped island ex­ploded, turned to dust, and was blown 35km into the up­per at­mos­phere.

In the Adri­atic, some em­pires crum­ble. Oth­ers van­ish in­stantly in a puff of smoke.

Adam McCulloch was a guest of Vik­ing Ocean Cruises.

Vik­ing Sea in Venice, above; Ex­plor­ers’ Lounge, top right; Man­fredi’s Ital­ian restau­rant, cen­tre right; Deluxe Veranda Suite, right; main pool, be­low

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