Passages of history
In the shadows of empires from Venice to Athens
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