If you enjoy delving into the history and culture of the places you visit, then a Mediterranean cruise with Voyages to Antiquity may be a perfect combination of relaxation and enrichment. Our cruise arranged through Titan Travel took us to the islands of the Mediterranean; Sardinia, Corsica and Elba, before we arrived on the Italian mainland at Livorno, our base for visiting the Renaissance cities of Lucca, Pisa and Florence. For a culture lover like me it was an ideal way to dip into centuries of history and learn something new, while returning each night to the Aegean Odyssey with every comfort on board. If you’re considering a Mediterranean cruise, here are some of the highlights for culture lovers to enjoy;
Olbia – the Old Town, Romaneque churches and Archaeology Museum
The first port of call on our Renaissance and Rivieras cruise was Olbia in Sardinia, prized by the Romans for its sheltered deepwater bay. Leading up from the old port area is Corso Umberto I, the main pedestrian street through the old town, painted in ice cream shades of apricot, lemon and vanilla. If your cruise includes a walking tour of the old town, this is probably where you’ll end up, with no shortage of pleasant squares, cafes and gelateria to relax before it’s time to return to your cruise ship.
Our tour was included in our cruise with Voyages to Antiquity and took us to Chiesa di San Simplicio, which was built in the 11th century and originally sat outside the city walls. It is decorated on the outside with simple Romanesque arches and a later bell tower that was added in the 18th century when Olbia was under Spanish rule. The church holds the relics of St Simplicius, after whom the church is named – he was the first bishop of Olbia and was apparently martyred on this spot. There was a wedding being held in the church so we could not go inside, but enjoyed watching the bridal party as they gathered in front of the church.
Later in the day we visited the archaeology museum which is in the old port area at the bottom of Corso Umberto I, an impressive modern building with a light and airy atrium. We enjoyed looking at all the figures dressed in traditional Sardinian costume, with many variations of vibrant colours and embroidery, each from a different village or region of the island.
On the ground floor was a climate controlled room containing remains of local of Roman galleons that were uncovered in the port area during building work. They were merchant ships, with broad bows that would have plenty of space to carry amphora full of wines and olive oil, as well as sacks of grain and other goods. Upstairs in the museums we found displays of lamps, urns, jewellery and other objects from daily life, with a model of how the town would have looked in Roman times surrounded by city walls and a large temple in front of the port.
Bonifacio – the King of Aragon’s staircase and Bastion de L’Etendard
At our next port of call in Corsica, the old town of Bonifacio perched high on the cliff top. We took the tender into the small port area, then walked up the winding path to the walled town at the top. The atmosphere of Bonifacio had a feel of the stylish Cote d’Azur, with boutiques selling striped cotton cushions and elegant straw bags. We wandered through the narrow old streets and up to the terrace beside Eglise St Dominique, where the smell of cotton lavender and other aromatic plants of the Maquis greeted us.
Nearby was the King of Aragon’s staircase, with 187 stone steps cut into the side of the cliff descending to sea level. Despite the heat I decided to give it a try, climbing down the steep and narrow staircase with a firm grip on the handrail. The staircase was built by monks to give easy access to the well at the bottom of the hill, although a legend later grew up that it was carved during a single night during the seige of the town by King Alfonso V in 1421. Once at the bottom the views of the turquoise mottled sea were beautiful, although needless to say my legs were aching the next day.
Bonifacio’s history seems to be defined by siege and walking to the opposite end of the old town we reached the Bastion de L’Etendard that had been built up by the Genoese in the 13th century to defend the town. Walking around the walls of this fortification, we had a bird’s eye view over the port on one side and the rocky swimming places on the other. Inside the bastion were cool chambers hewn from the rock with information about the many sieges that the town had undergone. As we returned to the ship by tender we looked back up at the cliffs and felt sorry for those invaders of the past who had to try to storm Bonifacio – no easy feat!
Elba – Napoleon at Villa dei Mulini and the Medici Fortress
The next Mediterranean island we visited on our cruise was Elba, known for its most famous resident, the Emperor Napoleon, who spent a year on the island in exile from 1814 to 1815. The island of Elba lies close to the coast of Tuscany and in the 16th century the Medicis built a huge fortress above the main town of Portoferraio, to enable them to control the sea trading routes and stamp down on piracy.
Our walking tour of Portoferraio took us up through the town to Villa dei Mulini, the villa where Napoleon spent his year on the island. The exiled Emperor undoubtedly bagged the best spot on the island, a villa built by the Medicis with views over the sea, formal gardens and access to its own private beach where he swam daily. As nominal ruler of the island, he did much to improve its roads and infrastructure and was joined by his sister Paolena Borghese, who played hostess to the nobility on the island with parties and theatrical performances. Although none of Napoleon’s own furniture remains, the villa is furnished in the style of the period and we enjoyed learning about Napoleon’s life on Elba, when he studied and read books from his library, taking a daily swim from the private beach.
Later that afternoon, I climbed up to the Medici Fortress, built in 1548 by Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The fortress has two entrances, one close to the port at the bottom of the hill, the other at the top, close to Napoleon’s villa. There’s a small museum area in the main buildings at the top, with paintings and models telling the history of the fortress. The biggest attraction, however, is the view from the ramparts, overlooking the red rooftops of Portoferraio and the old port, which is full of small fishing and pleasure boats. From the top of the hill, the path winds down through the fortifications with grassy terraces where you could enjoy a picnic or take in the views stretching in all directions.
Back near the ship we enjoyed a walk around the old port, since our ship the Aegean Odyssey was moored just around the corner (one of the benefits of small ship cruising!) There are lots of little cafes around the harbour and it’s a prime place to spot super-yachts and boats from all over the world, as well as wander through the archways between the houses and into the old streets behind.
Lucca – a walled Renaissance city with a Roman amphitheatre
Having cruised around the islands of the Mediterranean, our ship Aegean Odyssey docked on the Italian mainland at Livorno, which we were to use as a base for visiting the Renaissance cities of Lucca, Pisa and Florence. The people of Lucca are immensely proud that they have never been invaded or conquered by the Florentines remaining free and independent – the old rivalries of the city states are not easily forgotten. Entering through the imposing gate of the old walled city, we could see how the city walls, made of compacted earth and stone, had helped to deter anyone from attacking the city. In 1805, however Lucca was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte, who installed his sister Eliza as Princess of Lucca and she made the city walls into a pleasant promenade and garden, which are still used today for walking and cycling.
Another stop on our walking tour was the Cathedral of San Martino, created in Gothic style in the 14th century, with ornately carved columns and facade. Inside the cathedral is a shrine containing the precious relic of Lucca, a wooden cross said to be carved by Jesus’s disciple Nicodemus, which made the cathedral a stopping point for pilgrims who were walking the Via Francigena to Rome.
An ideal lunch or coffee stop in Lucca is the Roman amphitheatre, which is less like the colliseum of Rome and more of a collection of houses, workshops and cafes that have grown up over the original amphitheatre. When built in Roman times it stood outside the original city walls of Lucca, so that if there was any fighting after the entertainments, the gates could be shut to keep trouble out of the city.
There are many old palazzos as you walk around Lucca, but you may not be aware of them as the custom was to keep any show of wealth behind a plain wall. The modesty did not extend to the medieval towers of Lucca, which were built around the city by noble families as a show of wealth and prestige. Now only a few of the 130 medieval towers remain, with the best known being the Torre Guinigi which has a garden of oak trees growing at its top.
Pisa – that Leaning Tower
From Lucca our tour took us by coach to Pisa, in medieval times one of the busiest ports in Europe. Over the centuries the delta of the River Arno silted up and Pisa was left further and further from the sea, its trading power waning. The soft silt of the delta gives a clue to the why the campanile of the cathedral in Pisa started to lean, making it today one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy – a.k.a The Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The Piazza dei Miracoli, as the area around the Duomo is known, was built on marshy ground, close the edge of the lagoon that existed from ancient times. When the bell tower was built in 1174, it was already starting to lean by the time the third storey had been completed. Although everyone, from the original builders to Mussolini tried to correct the lean, no-one has succeeded, although the last few years have seen extensive work to stabilise the structure and ensure that the leaning does not get any worse.
In front of the Duomo is cathedral is the Baptistry, which is beautifully decorated with a red tiled dome. Until a Christian was baptised, they were not allowed to enter the cathedral, so the Baptistry was used for the ceremony that marked their passage into the the Christian church. Between the inner and outer wall of the Baptistry are stairways which lead up to a gallery known as the Matroneo, where ladies would attend mass, segregated from the rest of the congregation.
The cathedral itself is relatively plain inside, since a fire in 1595 destroyed most of the tapestry like mosaic floor and original frescoes. For most visitors, the fun of visiting Pisa is to take a picture “holding up” the leaning tower. Like many of Italy’s top tourist attractions, the area around the Piazza dei Miracle is always crowded, so you may have to wait your turn to get the perfect “Leaning tower of Pisa shot”. One of the benefits of visiting as part of a guided tour with our cruise was that although we had a relatively short time, we were able to visit the Cathedral and Baptistry without any delays and had an excellent local guide to explain the history and stories of the places we visited.
Florence – the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio and Santa Croce
The final stop on our cruise, before the Aegean Odyssey reached the French Riviera, was Florence – I had visited last year but very much enjoyed seeing it again. The walking tour for our day in Florence took us around most of the main sites, such as the Duomo, Baptistry and the Campanile.
The Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is ornately decorated with coloured marble on the outside but relatively plain inside. It is best known for its famous dome, which was a masterpiece of engineering by Brunelleschi, as well as the campanile which was designed by Giotto.
We also visited the Piazza della Signoria, with Palazzo Vecchio, former home of the Medici family and the David statue, copy of the original that can be seen in the Academia. The Ponte Vecchio is also a must-see – the arcades of jewellery shops were originally butcher’s shops until the Medici rulers decided that they were creating too much smell and nuisance, by throwing their waste into the river.
Our final stop in Florence was the beautiful church of Santa Croce, where we visited some of the tombs of Florence’s famous names, such as Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galileo and Rossini. The church had a peaceful arcaded courtyard and chapel to one side, which was a tranquil respite from the hot day and the crowds of Florence.
Who will enjoy a Voyages to Antiquity cruise?
As you might have gathered I love to delve into the history and culture of the places I visit, and if you are also a culture lover, you’ll probably also enjoy a cruise with Voyages to Antiquity. Our Renaissance and Rivieras cruise cruise booked through Titan Travel was well suited to 50+ travellers who enjoy exploring new destinations and discovering the history and culture of the places they visit.
Entertainment on board was fairly low key and relaxed, but there were plenty of opportunities for cultural enrichment such as a well stocked library and expert guest lecturers to speak about the history, archaeology and geology of the places we’d be visiting.
The other guests on our Mediterranean cruise tended to be well educated retired travellers, mainly from the UK with a few from the US, Canada and Australia. Most were in their 60s and 70s with some younger passengers who were accompanying older relatives. We thoroughly enjoyed our cruise and would certainly recommend it to those looking for an enriching travel experience.
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Book your cruise with Titan Travel and Voyages to Antiquity
You can book your cruise with Voyages to Antiquity through Titan Travel who specialise in luxury holidays, escorted tours and cruises. When you book through Titan Travel you enjoy their VIP door-to-door travel service which is included in your holiday, to transfer from your home to your departure airport and back in one of Titan’s own vehicles.
Voyages to Antiquity cruises are on board the classically elegant Aegean Odyssey, which offers passengers every comfort at sea, with a relaxed atmosphere and the high levels of service. Carrying an average of 350 passengers, Aegean Odyssey’s ideal size is perfectly suited for coastal cruising to the small inlets of the Mediterranean that larger ships cannot reach, offering a unique combination of ocean and river cruising.
Heather and Guy travelled on Voyages to Antiquity’s Renaissance and Rivieras Cruise through Titan Travel, on a 13 day cruise from Rome to Nice, similar cruises around £2500 per person. The Voyages to Antiquity cruise includes all meals on board, wine with evening meals, daily excursions, gratuities and airport transfers.
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