The flavours of the Mediterranean are created by history and landscape – on a cruise you get the chances to try so many delicious local specialities. Our Renaissance and Rivieras cruise with Voyages to Antiquity and Titan Travel took us the islands of the Mediterranean and Renaissance cities of Italy, each with their own local dishes to enjoy. While we had excellent food on board the Aegean Odyssey, it was a pleasure to try some of the local specialities of the places we visited, from mytle gelato in Sardinia to ricotta canolli in Florence, pecorino cheese in Sardinia to the flavoursome charcuterie of Corsica. If you’re visiting some of these ports, here are my recommendation on the local food specialities to try and where to find them.
Where and what to eat in Olbia, Sardinia
In days gone by Sardinia was under constant threat of attack from the sea, so traditionally people moved inland away from the coast for protection. Not surprisingly it’s the meat dishes and charcuterie that are the favourites, although these days seafood is popular in coastal resorts. Sheep are reared in the mountains, both for meat and for the local percorino cheese that is used in many dishes, or eaten as a snack with the wafer-like pane carasau bread. You may also see local pasta such as fregula looking like pearls of cous cous, or Malloreddus shaped like an open shell to catch the pasta sauce.
Myrtle bushes grow wild in Sardinia and the tiny black berries are used to flavour liquers and deserts – look out for them as an ice cream flavour which tastes a little like blackcurrant. On Corso Umberto I we enjoyed the gelato artigianale (which is typically made on the premises rather than being bought in) and the wide choice of flavours including myrtle at Gelateria Smeralda (Corso Umberto I, 124) and GAP (Corso Umberto I, 81).
Read my article on How to eat well in Sardinia
Where to buy your foodies souvenirs
We enjoyed browsing in Abbà (Corso Umberto I, 93) which sells a delightful variety of Sardinian food products and handicrafts, including myrtle flavoured liqueurs, honey, Torron nougat as well as pretty cushions with traditional embroidery and other souvenirs. We also stopped for coffee at Anticas Licanzias (Via Olbia 42), a small cafe tucked down the side street near the Church of St Paul the Apostle. We ordered a snack of pane carasau with some local sausage and pecorino, as well as some prettily decorated biscuits with our coffee. Inside they have a selection of wine, honey, local cakes and other specialities to take away.
Visiting Olbia on a cruise
From the port where we docked on our Voyages to Antiquity cruise, it’s a 5 minute drive to the Museo del Mare where the cruise port shuttle will drop you off, then an easy walk up Corso Umberto I through the old part of town. There are plenty of shops and cafes along this street, but don’t forget to also explore the alleyways and squares on either side of this main street.
Where and what to eat in Bonifacio, Corsica
Like the neighbouring island of Sardinia, the people of Corsica were forced to settle inland due to constant raids, as invaders from the sea sought to control the shipping routes of the Mediterranean. The herbs of the Maquis, such as thyme, oregano, basil and mint are widely used in the cuisine and honey is produced, with different flavours depending on the time of year and the plants in flower around the hives. Chestnut or Chataigne from the forests was used to make a poor man’s flour, which you’ll see in pancakes and cakes made of chestnut flour as well as the chestnut polenta served with rich, meat stews.
Corsica is especially known for the high quality of its charcuterie, from the pigs that are reared free-range in the forests, enabling them to eat chestnuts and other woodland delicacies. As a result, the meat and sausages are especially flavoursome and you’ll also find plenty of local cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Where to buy your foodie souvenirs in Bonifacio
As we walked up Rue des Bocche heading for the Bastion, we came across a local deli L’Oriu di Chera (27 Rue Longue) that specialises in Corsican produce, with a very tempting selection of sausages and cheeses as well as wine, preserves and canistrelli biscuits which are served with coffee. They also offer tasting platters of local sausages and cheeses for €15 which the owner prepared for us with great care and we ate sitting outside the shop, washed down with a cold Corsican beer. Sometimes the simple things are the best!
Where to stop for coffee in Bonifacio
There are plenty of cafes in the heart of the old town on Rue Fred Scamaroni, close to the tourist office, but we preferred to take a short walk away from this crowded area towards the Bastion de l’Etendard. Around the Church of Sainte Marie Majeure are pretty cafes in the narrow lanes as well as close to the exit of the Bastion where you can sip your cool drink with some lovely sea views.
Visiting Bonifacio on a cruise
As the port is small, we were transferred by tender from Aegean Odyssey into Bonifacio, which took us to the sheltered port area from which we could look up to the old walled town at the top of the cliff. Walk to one end of the port and you’ll find a tourist train (cost around €7 return) that will take you up to the top, although for anyone reasonably fit the 10 minute walk up the steep winding path and into the old quarter is not too difficult.
Read my article on 10 things to expect when you cruise with Voyages to Antiquity
Where and what to eat on Elba
On Elba you’ll find many of the same flavours as the neighbouring islands of Sardinia and Corsica, with chestnuts growing wild and ground into flour, honey flavoured by the rosemary and chestnut blossom. Being so close to the Italian mainland, the cuisine has a more Tuscan flavour with plentiful seafood, olive oil and full bodied local wines. The local Aleatico red wine was said to be a favourite of Napolen who was exiled here in 1814 and liqueurs such as limoncino are made with local citrus fruit.
Look out for the local speciality of Schiaccia Briaca, which literally means drunken cake. It is made with pine nuts and dried fruit, laced with sweet Aleatico wine that gives it a rosy red colour, and was originally made for sailors to take on long voyages.
Where to stop for coffee on Elba
Our cruise ship Aegean Odyssey was moored in the port of Portoferraio, the main town of Elba and we found plenty of pleasant cafes and restaurants around the port from where you can admire the yachts, or in the piazza through the arch in the thick city walls. You can also take your pick of the many bars and restaurants in Plazza della Repubblica, a couple of streets back from the port and close to the town hall, where Napoleon stayed on his first night on Elba.
We also visited Porto Arruro, where there are several shady cafes in the main square overlooking the sea, as well as a couple of fish restaurants built out on jetties over the water. Although they were quiet in the morning when we visited, I imagine they come to life in the evening buzzing with Italian families on holiday.
Visiting Elba on a cruise
On our Voyages to Antiquity cruise, the Aegean Odyssey was moored close to the port, a short walk through the city walls into the old town. Your cruise excursion is likely to take you to visit Napoleon’s villa, for fascinating insights into his stay on Elba, and afterwards I visited the Medici Fortress on my own for views over the town and port. Our visit to Porto Azzuro was also included in our cruise excursion, but if you’re travelling independently it’s a 20 minute drive from Porto Ferraio and as Elba is shaped like a fish, you’ll drive over the fish’s back.
Where and what to eat in Lucca
Lucca was one of my favourites of all the places that we visited on our Renaissance and Riviera cruise. It has a charming old walled town where cars are restricted, so everyone cycles, reminding me of a university town like Cambridge transported to the sunshine. You can walk right around the top of the walls on a broad path and there are countless attractive churches, narrow streets and shady cafes to explore. We loved our coffee stop inside the Roman Amphitheatre, which retains its circular shape but looks nothing like the ruins of the Coliseum, since it has been turned into homes and shops by the resourceful people of Lucca.
Local specialities to look out for include the Buccellato sweet bread that’s studded with raisins and flavoured with aniseed, traditionally carried home from the baker after mass on Sunday. We saw it in several shops and bought a loaf from Forno a Vapore Amedeo Giusti (Via Santa Lucia 18/20) where they have a great selection of local breads and pastries, perfect to buy a snack.
Another lunchtime treat was the cecina or chickpea pizza from Pizzaria da Felice (Via Buia 12) where chickpea flour is mixed with oil and seasoning, then cooked in a large round pan, for you to buy a slice. You’ll probably see other dishes and flatbreads that include chickpea flour which has been used here since Roman times and is part of the peasant cuisine. At Pizzeria da Felice they also serve other pizza too and there’s some seating in the shop, but of course you can buy a slice to take away and eat atop the old city walls.
Where to buy your foodie souvenirs in Lucca
To shop for edible souvenirs, take a look at Antica Bodega di Prospero (Via Santa Luchia 13), an Aladdin’s cave of local produce with shelves groaning from the preserves, bottles and local olive oil, sacks of dried beans on the floor for you to use in your hearty Tuscan soups. At the back there’s a small seating area where you can order a plate of charcuterie and cheeses together with a glass of Tuscan red wine and enjoy the old fashioned atmosphere.
Visiting Lucca on a cruise
The closest port to Lucca is Livorno, where we docked with Aegean Odyssey and from there it’s a 40 minute drive to Lucca. Lucca is often combined in a cruise excursion with Pisa (30 mins from Livorno) and we visited both in one day since they are just 20 mins drive apart.
Read my article on 10 things to expect when you cruise with Voyages to Antiquity
Where and what to eat in Florence
Set among the rolling Tuscan Hills where wine and olive oil are produced in abundance, foodies will be spoiled for choice in Florence. You’ll find pizza and pasta of course and for sweet mid-morning treats the try the ricotta filled cannoli or small cantucci biscuits that are dipped into coffee for a mid morning snack.
On our walking tour of Florence we had some free time for lunch, just enough to head to one of my favourite places in Florence, the Mercato di San Lorenzo, widely known as the Mercato Centrale. Bypassing all the stalls near the market selling leather goods and souvenirs, we entered the ground floor of the covered market, which is a great place to buy foodie souvenirs. If you’d like to try the Florentine speciality of tripe or lampredotto, head for Da Nerbone stand where they serve it hot in a roll and there’s always a crowd at lunchtime. Otherwise I just enjoy walking around the ground floor to see the beautiful ripe peaches and melons or the fresh fish counters with all kinds of seafood.
Read my article about 10 delicious things to eat in Florence
Where to eat lunch in Florence
Once in the Mercato Central look for the escalators that take you to the upper level of the market where you’ll find a restaurant hall that’s one of my favourite places to eat in Florence at lunchtime or in the evening. There’s open seating in the centre of the hall and one of the waiters will come to take your drinks order, but for food you can choose to go to any of the food stands around the side of the hall. There’s pasta and pizza freshly cooked to order but plenty of other options such as sandwiches, seafood, vegetarian dishes or even the Bistecca all Fiorentina, a thick T-bone steak that’s quickly seared on either side then cut in juicy red slices to share among friends.
My favourite stand is the one selling everything with truffles, where I chose a plate of antipasti with bruschetta, a creamy oozing mozzarella and prosciutto all covered with a generous shaving of truffles. If you don’t have time to walk to the Mercato Centrale, I can also recommend for a delicious sandwich from La Prosciutteria (Via dei Neri, 54) which is very close to the Palazzo Vecchio and sells filled panini with prosciutto, cheese and other fillings to take away or eat in (if you can find a table). For those who enjoy old school ambiance and glamour, the coffee and cakes are delicious at both Cafe Rivoire (Piazza della Signoria) and Caffe Gilli (Piazza della Republica). Of course you’ll pay for the prime position and chance to people watch, unless you do like the locals and stand with your coffee at the bar, in which case the price is lower.
There’s always Gelato!
You’ll be spoilt for choice of gelato as you walk around Florence, but if you want to eat like a local, avoid the places that have brightly coloured gelato piled into high peaks that are aimed at tourists. You need to look out for the places selling Gelato Artigianale, which is made ‘Artizan style’ on the premises using fresh ingredients and avoiding artificial flavourings and preservatives. It is often served from covered metal containers, so you need to choose from the flavours listed on a board rather than by sight. One of my favourite gelateria that we visited on this cruise was just across the Ponte Vecchio on the south side of the river at La Strega Nocciola (Via de’ Bardi, 51).
Visiting Florence on a cruise
Cruise ships such as Aegean Odyssey typically stop at the port of Livorno, offering excursions with a 1 hr 30 mins drive by coach to Florence. One day in Florence is certainly not enough to see this beautiful Renaissance city, but still you can enjoy the atmosphere, art and history and make a plan to come back for a longer visit of a few days to see it at leisure.
Eating on board our Voyages to Antiquity cruise
The atmosphere on board our Renaissance and Rivieras cruise with Voyages to Antiquity and Titan Travel was very relaxed, but the food was always excellent and beautifully presented. Our favourite place to start the day was the Terrace Cafe where we could help ourself to fresh fruit, muesli and other healthy breakfast options to eat al fresco with a view of the sea or port. There was a great choice for everyone, so if bacon and eggs or a freshly cooked omlette is your thing, that was available too from the hot station.
At dinner we sometimes tried the Marco Polo restaurant with a menu and waiter service, but as the weather was so beautiful during our cruise, my preference was normally to eat on the Terrace Cafe where we could still choose from the menu or the buffet depending on what took our fancy. On our day at sea there was a spicy selection of delicious curries on the buffet and on other evenings we always enjoyed the menu choices, with everything beautifully presented. I swear they must have someone in the kitchen who just spends all their time carving fruit into pretty table decorations and containers!
The thing I love about a cruise is that not only do you have delicious food on board, but in the places you visit there’s endless variety in the local cuisine. Every place we visited seemed to have a special cake or sweet treat and I love the connection to place and culture that you can make through the food. Even places that are geographically close may have different cuisine as a result of their history and landscape. I hope that this taste of the Mediterranean will help you discover some new and delicious flavours on your next cruise.
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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.