Whenever someone suggested that I do something well beyond my means financially, I used to joke, “if I had that kind of money I wouldn’t be sitting here—I’d be cruising the Mediterranean.”
Earlier this year, my mother called my bluff. “How much would it cost to cruise the Mediterranean?” she asked. I looked it up and found that a one-week cruise on the Mediterranean wasn’t for billionaires only, after all. It wasn’t cheap, but it was manageable. Three of us—me, my mother and my sister—shared a comfortable balcony cabin for less than $2,000 each after the assorted fees, including trip insurance. Airfare from Atlanta to Rome, where the cruise originated, was approximately an additional $1,000. It’s not bad considering that one sleeps, eats and finds a vast array of high-quality entertainment on the ship.
We chose the dates based on when the itinerary we wanted was available and to coincide with my and my mother’s back-to-back birthdays. We landed in Rome the morning on Aug. 25, my birthday—how cool is that? The dates turned out to be a good choice weather wise, too. Europe is well north of the southern United States so late August going into early September was pleasantly warm, not hot and sticky.
I was a bit concerned about what life on the ship would be like. I had never taken a cruise that originated anyplace other than the United States—and “ciao,” “buongiorno” and “arrivederci” are about the limits of my Italian. This was never an issue. We were assigned an English-speaking cabin steward. At meals, the maître d’ asked each group how many were in the party and which language they preferred. (After a couple of days, he remembered.) We were escorted to a table where the wait staff spoke English and given a menu in English.
The system’s not foolproof. We once requested through the ship’s online system four tickets for an English-speaking tour and eight tickets for a tour in Italian were delivered to our cabin, but we were able to make the exchange fairly painlessly.
One of the neatest features on the ship was its interactive signs. One simply touches the appropriate language—there’s a choice of English, Italian, French, Spanish, German and Portuguese—and the entire sign changes to that language. Sometimes for mischief, I would change a sign to Portuguese as I passed it.
The ports of call were all different and each fun in its own way. We docked for between eight and 12 hours at five ports—Genoa, Italy; Cannes, France; Barcelona, Spain; Palma, Majorca and Valencia, Spain. Each day, our Royal Caribbean ship featured dishes that reflected our stop for the day, so we were able to sample such dishes as Spanish paella without paying for food a second time.
At an additional cost, there were tours—from the adventurous to the easy-going—available at each stop. In consideration of the average age of our group, not quite 68, we took some of the less demanding bus tours. It was convenient that the countries we visited were all part of the European Union and use euros; we only had to exchange money once at each end.
Here are some highlights:
Now Italy’s sixth largest city and largest seaport, Genoa was once an independent city-state. In fact, that was its status when its most famous citizen, Christopher Columbus, was born there. The United States may have lost much of its enthusiasm for Columbus, but Genoa is still quite proud of him.
Among the places we visited are the Piazza De Ferrari, the city’s main square where the ancient and modern city meet, anchored by its famous magnificent fountain. On the square is the approximately 750-year-old Palace of the Doges, which was restored in 1992 in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ initial voyage. A nearby house is said to be Columbus’ birthplace.
From there, we sailed to Cannes, playground of the world’s well to do and home of the famous film festival. Our visit to Cannes was spent on the palm-lined waterfront avenue Promenade de la Croisette. On one side is a strip of the French Riviera, where people famously sunbathe wearing very little; on the other is a row of tony restaurants, cafés and boutiques. Amid the shops selling pricy clothing and jewelry we were able to find shops with souvenirs closer to our price range.
In Barcelona, we continued what seemed to be turning into the official Christopher Columbus tour of Europe. Barcelona is the city from which the explorer sailed under the sponsorship of Queen Isabella. In downtown Barcelona, directions are often given in relationship to the 24-foot statue of Columbus that sits atop a 131-foot Corinthian column. Build around the time of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyages, the statue features an outstretched finger, supposedly pointing the way to the New World; but as our guide explained, if one actually traveled in the direction the statue is pointing, one would be going back toward Italy, not toward North America.
The tour also included what no trip to Spain would be complete without—a flamenco show. The show included not only wonderful examples of the flamboyant rhythmic dancing associated with southern Spain, but amazing circus-type acrobatic performances.
The little island of Majorca sitting in the Mediterranean Sea is officially part of Spain, but there is much evidence of others who have controlled it over the centuries from the Romans to the Arabs to the Moors. Palma is the island’s capital and home to more than half its population. We took a bus tour that allowed us to walk around some amazing 14th century structures, including the splendid Royal Palace of La Almudaina and Bellver Castle, the first circular castle in Europe.
By our last stop, only my older sister and I were up for leaving the ship. We took a shuttle from the dock to downtown, where we did a little exploring and shopping on our own—happily she speaks Spanish. We learned that we missed by one day La Tomatina, the annual festival in nearby Bunol at which for one hour thousands of people wallop one another with thousands of ripe tomatoes. OK, we probably would have decided to skip that anyway.