Cruis­ing the Mediter­ranean

The MSC cruise from Venice, across the Adri­atic and be­yond, is a mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence travel2013

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - KEVIN RITCHIE

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.

PIC­TURE: AP

AN­CIENT: The Li­brary of Cel­sus in Eph­e­sus.

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