Mediterranean Ancient and Modern
Mediterranean Cruise Three countries and two dozen communities covering 3,000 kilometers of sea and land travel, all in seven days, made up our tour of the Eastern Mediterranean in June 2013. Our journey took us from Barcelona to Naples, then on to Civitavecchia, Livorno, Marseilles, Palma and back to Barcelona. At each port of call, we joined fellow travelers for day trips into various countryside locations. Local guides provided endless and often hilarious insight into the culture and geography of the many villages we stopped at or passed by. Inevitably, we sampled local foods and the wines and liqueurs available along the way, each one a new favourite.
Our Mediterranean journey started in Barcelona where we met up with the Norwegian Epic. Two days of exploration showed us a vibrantly modern city with hints of past glory. Barcelona is a collection of wild architecture, most designed, or inspired, by the architect Antoni Gaudí. The crowning glory of Gaudi’s vision is the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família a large Roman Catholic church in the heart of the city. The metropolitan area is home to some 5 million people. Football is the local passion and the city boasts a major training centre and a winning team.
Language here is either Spanish or more commonly, Catalan, although English is widely spoken as well owing to Barcelona’s prominence as a tourism magnet. Hopping on, and off, one of the tourist buses took us through the heart of Barcelona, giving us an overview of places to return to on foot.
Our floating hotel, the Norwegian Epic... more than enough luxury, and an excellent way to get from place to place in style and comfort. The hot tub on the aft deck was a welcome place to relax after each dayâ€™s exploration and a place to meet new friends and share tall tales. The entertainment venues and the many restaurants and cafeterias rounded out the experience.
Praianoâ€”Amalfi Coast 9
After a day at sea, we made port in Naples and boarded a bus for a tour of the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii. The roads are narrow and winding and traffic is brisk, not for the feint of heart. We wound through a picturesque landscape dotted with lush vegetation, tall cliffs and the old towns we came to discover.
Each turn in the road provided a new sight, artists “laboratorios,” flower shops, farmers selling their produce and people walking or riding along on their Vespas. The Amalfi Coast region was devastated in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Nestled along the sea-side, the town Amalfi lies at the mouth of a deep ravine, at the foot of Monte Cerreto, surrounded by dramatic cliffs and coastal scenery. Amalfi was, inn ancient times, the capital of the maritime republic known as the Duchy of Amalfi, an important trading power in the Mediterranean between 839 and around 1200. In the early 20th century, Amalfi was a popular holiday destination for the British upper class and aristocracy. and is today an important tourist destination together with other towns along the coast,
Vietri sul Mare ("Vietri on the Sea") is a popular tourist destination because it is a convenient place to start the Amalfi Coast drive. It is the last or first town on the Amalfi Coast, inhabitants like to call it â€œThe First Pearl of the Amalfi,â€? claiming that the Amalfi begins at Vietri, which is just west of Salerno. Vietri is the origin of dishes, flowerpots, vases and tiles found in restaurants, hotels and homes throughout the Amalfi area.
Moving on to Pompeii, we stopped first at the Cellini Cameo Laboratoy where we met “Sweetipie” one of Cellini’s master cameo carvers. This delightful gentleman showed us how cameos are made from shells harvested in the area. Since 1960, Cellini has been producing high quality cameos for local sale and export. As a matter of course, some cameos were purchased, a memento of our time spent with Sweetiepie.
Pompeii was an ancient Roman town-city near modern Naples. Along with Herculaneum and many villas in the surrounding area, Pompeii was buried under 4 to 6 meters of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Researchers believe that the town was founded in the seventh or sixth century BC and was captured by the Romans in 80 BC. By the time of its destruction, 160 years later, its population was believed to be approximately 20,000. The city boasted a complex water system, an amphitheatre, gymnasium and a port. Strolling along the streets and poking into open buildings gave us a glimpse into life in the old city before it was engulfed by ash, freezing it for centuries until it was uncovered in modern times.
Making port in Civitavecchia we boarded a bus for Rome, the ancient and modern city. The mix of modern, old and truly ancient architecture is a backdrop to the brisk pace in the streets of the city. Locals can be picked out from tourists, the former walk, the latter gawk.
We spent most of our time in the Centro Storico di Roma, an area filled with a tangle of narrow streets, lined by Roman classical and Baroque architecture styles.
Shops, cafes and monuments are found at every turn. Streets wide enough for one vehicle seem to accommodate twoâ€Ś in opposite directions and still cope with the throng of pedestrians and the ever present Vespas. Following tradition, we threw three coins in the Trevi Fountain, an act that, in legend, calls for a return to Rome.
The Trevi Fountain 25
Rome is a living museum, the ancient ruins of the Roman Empire, ancient arches, carved columns and old stone walls can be seen in juxtaposition with the more modern architecture of the Baroque period with its domed and canted roofs.
The Colosseum, one of the focal points of old Rome, is an architectural tour de force. Built of concrete and stone, it was the largest amphitheatre of the Roman Empire, and is considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering. The structure remains as the worldâ€™s largest amphitheatre. The Roman emperor Vespasian commissioned the building in 70 AD with completion 10 years later. Some alterations and additions were made by his successors up to about 100 AD. At its peak, the amphitheatre could hold up to 80,000 spectators. Catacombs beneath main floor held prisoners, gladiators and performers. In Christian times, the building was used by Popes and various religious orders to hold ceremonies.
Our visit to Rome was rounded out with a visit to The Vatican, the Holy See, the seat of the Pope and the central government of the Roman Catholic Church. We arrived on a Wednesday, the day the Pope has a public audience with the people, several hundred thousand people, explaining the riot of chairs in the square outside St. Peterâ€™s Basilica. The Basilica is an ornately decorated open space, just managing to cope with the crush of visitors.
The pitched roof of the Sistine Chapel (above) is the site of the conclave of cardinals held for the election of a new pope. During conclave, a special chimney is installed to allow white or black smoke to emerge signaling the results of each vote.
St. Peter’s Square (at left) is a massive gathering place where people congregate for special occasions of the church. At the centre of the square is a four-thousandyear-old Egyptian obelisk, Tuscan colonnades, four columns deep, embrace visitors in "the maternal arms of Mother Church.“
The Swiss Guard, in their ceremonial uniforms keep watch over the Vatican portals. Other members of the Guard patrol the grounds in plain clothes and provide security and protective services for the Pope and Cardinals as they go about the business of the church.
Our next stop was at Livorno where we set off for the Cinque Terre to the north east of the city of La Spezia. The Cinque Terre or Five Lands is a group of villages nestled into the cliffs of the Italian Riviera. The five villages, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and have UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Over the centuries, the people of the Cinque Terre have built terraces into the hillsides up to the rugged cliffs which frame the villages. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages together and to the outside world as the villages are not accessible by road. The villages of the Cinque Terre were hit by torrential rains which caused floods and mudslides in October 2011. Nine people were killed by the floods, and damage to the villages, particularly Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, was extensive. Our visit included four of the five villages owing to the path being washed out between Manarola and Corniglia.
The Cinque Terre grew from two towns in the 11th century to the five known today. Oddly, when the isolation of the villages was broken by the advent of a rail link, the economy of the area declined with many people choosing to work outside the Five Lands and to eventually emigrate. Tourism, starting in the 1970â€™s has brought the villages back to prominence. Locals park their boats along the main streets, wheeling them down to the harbours to a winch system that lowers them to the water, an ingenious solution to the realities of cliff-side habitation.
Manarola di Cinque Terre 39
Rivers cascade through the villages requiring bridges to carry pedestrians from on side to the other. Villagers farm the hillside terraces and fish the local waters while welcoming tourists to their midst. The relative lack of land, itâ€™s all vertical, necessitates multi-storied buildings. Balconies provide outdoor living space for residents and add a charming break to otherwise flat surfaces.
Building perched precariously on hilltops and cascading down the hillsides give the villages of the Cinque Terre a picture postcard feeling. Typical of many of the villages we have visited, laundry day adds extra colour to the scene. No hanging of dirty laundry here.
Fishing gear arranged outside a shop tells us that harvesting the sea is still an important part of village life in the Five Lands as it has been for centuries.
Appearing in an upper window, this lady welcomed us as we strolled through down her street.
Given its location on the Mediterranean, seafood is a focal point in the local cuisine. Anchovies of Monterosso are a local specialty. Taking time out from our wanderings, we sampled the local wine and olives cultivated on the terraced hillsides of the region.
Local shops and cafes can be found tucked into the multicoloured buildings in the villages. Local harbours are alive with the hustle and bustle of boaters coming and going on their business.
Like children anywhere these two were curious about the groups of tourists passing by, probably trying to figure out who all the people were and why they wandered about looking lost and amazed.
Cinque Terre is a gem in the rugged landscape of this part of the Mediterranean coast. The Five Lands exceeded our expectations. From the hilltop setting of Mararola to the Riviera seaside of Monterosso al Mare the region remains a highlight on our journey.
Another night on the ship brought us to the Port of Marseilles. Heading out into the country side with our guide, we visited several towns as we made our way into Provence. Our first stop was Lourmarin, a charming town with cafes, shops selling local cheeses and entertainment. Walking through the streets of Lourmarin gave us a sense of why someone would want to spend a year in Provence.
Moving on to Roussillon, we encountered the land of ochre, the pigment containing clay of the region. Ochre colours from yellow to deep rusty red adorn the buildings of the town. We stopped here for lunch and for wine. The local vintage of rosĂŠ is particularly drinkable, so we drank a litre, maybe a bit more. Local shops sell a wide selection of ochre pigments for artists to blend into oil paints. The Roussillon region was once part of the Catalan region of Spain, possibly explaining the residentâ€™s laid back pace of life. Many military conflicts between France and Spain resulted in the region being ceded to France in 1659.
Our next stop was the hilltop village of Gordes. As a counterpoint to Roussillon, Gordes is a town of stone. Architecturally, Gordes is a mix of ancient and Renaissance. The village was a Roman rest point on the road from Rome to points further north. Badly damaged during the second world war the village was left with many houses being destroyed by both sides in the conflict. After the war and a period of restoration, the village started to attract artists like Marc Chagall and Jean Deyrolle who discovered the village in 1947. Many other artists joined them and the village became a well know artistsâ€™ commune.
Our last port of call was the island of Majorca, a jewel in the Mediterranean Sea. Moving out along island roads, we came to Port d’ Andratx, a beautiful coastal town. The many yachts in the bay and the villas on the point gave proof that the town attracts the rich and famous. We walked the streets of Port d’ Andratx, finding shops and many cafes with something for every taste. Like many old Mediterranean towns, colour was prominent.
Following the road north and inland, we came to La Granja Museum, a charming and slightly chaotic collection of history of island life. At one point in our tour of the museum, we were treated to a sampling of local wines, a little sweet, but delicious none-the-less.
The day we visited La Granja, included viewing a local rally, engines revving and tires squealing were the order of the day.
The city of Palma, home to approximately a half million Majorcans is a mix of Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Baroque, and modern architecture. Street s are narrow and winding with many shops and eateries along the way. Palma Cathedral, built in the 13th and 14th centuries with its flying buttresses and soaring spires is the eye catching centerpiece of the city.
From Palma Majorca, we sailed back to Barcelona to embark on an exploration of Portugal, Spain, and Paris. We owe thanks to Norwegian Cruise Lines for the luxurious transportation and to the many local guides who graciously educated us about their beautiful regions. Someday we will return. 59
Copyright 2013 - John Nicklin Mediterraneanâ€”Ancient Beauty