Cruising the Mediterranean
The MSC cruise from Venice, across the Adriatic and beyond, is a memorable experience travel2013
YOU NEVER realise just how far down the tip of Africa we South Africans are until you venture into Europe.
It’s not just the language; the veritable Tower of Babel as French segues into Italian, Greek, Turkish and even Arabic, with a smattering of German and Spanish, but rather the sheer scale and scope of Mediterranean history and its cyclical nature.
It’s also impossible, sitting back in Cape Town surfing Google, to make sense of it, which is why a cruise around the Mediterranean makes so much sense. MSC, best known here for its forays up the east coast from Durban to Portuguese Island, Maputo, Seychelles and beyond, is a past master of the region – after all, its full name is the Mediterranean Shipping Company.
A great example is its scheduled weekly European summer cruise from Venice to Bari, on the Achilles heel of Italy, across the Adriatic to Katakolon in Greece, down and around into the Adriatic, stopping at Izmir and Istanbul in Turkey, then turning back through the Dardanelles for Dubrovnik in Croatia before ending back in Venice.
Forget the beautiful scenery, or the opulent luxury of the ship; the true gem of this cruise lies in the shore excursions.
Just like your trip on board, you can do it the economic way – or you can choose the upmarket version.
There’s nothing stopping you from hopping off in every port, walking into town or hiring a taxi.
But it’s all hard work. It’s also potentially expensive.
More than anything else, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get to see what you set out to see.
MSC has outsourced all its excursions to local guides in each port, all of whom offer permutations ranging from hardcore history to extreme souvenir shopping – and all points in between.
It’s unwise to discard the history in favour of modern attractions. Coming from our own perspective that regards 300 years back as positively antediluvian, going to see the Virgin Mary’s putative last house where she died 12 years after Jesus was crucified, or to see Olympia, where the first athletes came together in a spirit of peace and brotherhood – the DNA of the modern games, 700 years before Christ was born – is breathtaking.
Whether you are a Christian or a sports fan or just a curious tourist, you can’t get this information from looking at the itinerary.
Katakolon is a little port on the west coast of Greece; Olympia is a half-hour bus ride away near the town of Pyrgos. Izmir is Turkey’s third largest city and a major port, Ephesus where St Paul preached is an hour down the road, while Mary’s house is a further 7km atop a mountain guarded by dense forests.
Yes, it is cheaper to do it on your own, just like it’s cheaper to see the world by hitching lifts and backpacking.
But there comes a time, though, to do it properly, to see the world and then head back into the pampered womb of a cruise ship where, as one aficionado put it, you only have to unpack once, irrespective of the number of countries you visit.
There are five guided excursions to Bari ranging from about R550 to R700 for adults, each about four hours in duration.
You can taste olive oil, visit caves, visit the Basilica of St Nicholas (Bari’s patron saint) or even see the set where Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ.
Katakolon has four tours from about R770 to R1 000, all about four hours long. Most involve going to Olympia with a museum trip tacked on, or sampling home-made wine as you watch olive oil being made, or just straightforward shopping.
Izmir has only three tours – you can do Ephesus on its own, the fifth largest city in the Roman Empire in its day, or Ephesus and Mary’s House or St John’s Monastery. It’s good for pilgrims and sightseers alike. There’s a bit of curio shopping as you leave Ephesus itself, and the option of going to a leather factory that makes leather bags and jackets for export for all the big name brands. Expect to pay between R750 and R1 000 an adult for the tour – not a jacket.
Istanbul is one of the big drawcards, with six excursions. You can cruise the Bosphorus in a far smaller vessel, visit Topkapi Palace and go shopping in the Grand Bazaar, visit the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Or do the whole lot plus visit the Ciragan Palace and see how Persian carpets are made (and even buy one of your choice, less 40 percent). Expect to pay from R600 to R2 100 an adult for the deluxe, all-in tour.
Dubrovnik, at seven tours, is one of the most popular stops. The scenery is breathtaking, the people are friendly and, unlike Istanbul, the prices are on the items you want to buy, without having to choose a number out of thin air and haggle for anything from an Aladdin’s lamp to the stall owner’s daughter. The walled city is exquisite; it’s a Unesco heritage site, and you can explore it on foot – or by Segway if you’re feeling adventurous. If you’re feeling fit, you can even bike through the countryside. The best option of all would be to take a bus ride down to Konavle to get stuck into the regional wine, cheese and ham. Within an hour you’ll be singing along to Croatian songs – in fluent Italian. Prices range from R600 to R1 200.
Venice is the biggie. The beautiful northern Italian city is also the cheapest, because you can just negotiate with the river taxis to take you to the romance of St Mark’s Square from the harbour. Or you can elect to go on a ferry at R550 . But what’s Venice without a gondola ride – and a tour at the same time? You can do those for anything between R700 and R1 200. Venice doesn’t need much explaining. It has it all: souvenir opportunities right on the harbour all the way down to St Mark’s Square, cheap pastramis and cold drinks from stalls, to eye-watering hot chocolates on the square in 300year old tea rooms, where Giacomo Casanova might have recovered from his debaucheries of the night before.
SETTING SAIL: The MSC Mediterranean’s weekly summer European cruise starts and finishes in Venice, after taking in historic places such as Greece, Turkey and Croatia.
MAJESTIC: Istanbul’s Blue Mosque is a major attraction.
ANCIENT: The Library of Celsus in Ephesus.