ABOUT THIS BLOG
Voyages to Antiquity is a specialist cruise company focusing on the history and culture of the Mediterranean.
Our beautiful ship, The Aegean Odyssey, takes just 350 guests to key heritage sites across the Aegean, Adriatic & Mediterranean.
This blog is written by the staff, passengers and expert lecturers who sail aboard the ship.
We hope you enjoy your journey with us.
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Category Archives: Cruises
Enrichment cruising covers a wide variety of topics from history and archaeology to art and sculpture. We are well known for our cultural cruises visiting amazing sites like Pompeii and Ephesus, as well as little known treasures which may be less familiar. When we were planning our Far East programme nearly two years ago, we knew that nature would also play an important part in these magical cruises.
The wonderful blog below is from Ray Hale, a wildlife expert who joined us in December. He has captured some of the iconic images we have come to expect from Far Eastern travel, like the face image from the Bayon Temples at Angkor.. Sit back and relax as Ray takes you travelling.
“When I was invited by Voyages to Antiquity to be a guest lecturer on their mid-sized cruise liner “The Aegean Odyssey” during their Singapore to Bangkok cruise in December 2012 I was of course delighted, but at the same time I admit to feeling a little apprehensive. I have lectured too many organisations and institutes both here in the UK and in the Far East but usually have the opportunity to get to know my audience.
Whether it be a Women’s Institute in a Village Hall in the wilds of West Sussex, a Camera club keen to hear my thoughts on apertures and F stops or a group of students keen (or otherwise) to expand their knowledge on their way to a degree, I try to pitch at the right level. When I sat down to research the company I discovered that it had previously specialised in tours of the Mediterranean and that the Far East was a departure from their normal tours. Voyages to Antiquity are intrinsically a cruise company that specialises in cultural trips for retired or semi retired passengers from all walks of life. They concentrate on the art, the culture and the civilisations of their destinations and whist I enjoy all of these things I am by choice a Natural Historian not a connoisseur of the arts. I am more at home in the jungle at midnight up to my knees in mud and leeches usually with a camera in one hand and a torch in the other. Cruise lecturing seemed to be a world away from my usual outings. What should I talk about? Would they like or to that matter even understand me, as whilst I am immensely proud of my Midlands heritage I am at times also conscious of my rather broad “brummy” accent.
Then there was of course the etiquette required on board ship. Having consulted a number of friends who had travelled on such trips before, I was apprehensive as to the dress code on board. Dinner jackets? Black ties? It was all very daunting. So, conscious of this was I that I decided to contact the company to ensure they were aware of my field of expertise. My fear was allayed after a very pleasant meeting with Ann Carr in London and an assurance that my skills were exactly what the company was looking for. At ease I returned to the South Coast to prepare my lectures and begin planning the trip. Christmas must be a particularly difficult time to acquire lecturers as I would imagine that people have family and plans. My wife and I are fortunate in this respect as our extended families are spread far and wide and with no children we normally spend Christmas at home with our two cats. The idea of escaping the cold and miserable wet weather in the United Kingdom appealed to us both and as we have a wonderful lady who looks after our cats during our frequent trips away we felt that the opportunity was not to be missed.
Time passed and we began in earnest preparing for the cruise. All too quickly 2012 seemed to disappear and we found ourselves about to depart for Singapore on a cold, wet and windy December morning. I had settled on four lectures that I felt would fit in nicely with the cruise itinerary. I would begin with the story of Sir James Brooke, The first White Rajah of Sarawak and although this particular cruise was not visiting Sarawak, it was visiting Brunei and Sabah and at the time when Brooke ruled over 30,000 headhunting Dyaks, Sarawak was still part of the Sultanate of Brunei.
My second lecture would tell the story of Alfred Russel Wallace, possibly the most famous man that no one has ever heard of. He was a great English naturalist that had travelled extensively in the Far east , he had written an excellent book on the area and without whom Charles Darwin might never have published his groundbreaking Theory of Evolution. I have always enjoyed history and whilst the history of a particular region interests me, what really fascinates me is the history of the people that shape an area. I always seem to settle on the underdogs of history. The nearly men, those individuals that stood in the shadows of others and often faded in to the mists of time without so much as mention in a fourth year history lesson. Brooke and Wallace are just two such men. Both deserve to be remembered and honoured but both have been overshadowed by the deeds of others. In Brooke’s case – by Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, and in Wallace’s case, of course, by Charles Darwin.
For my remaining two lectures I would choose the effect that man has had on the ever decreasing rainforest of the region and in particular the fast disappearing wildlife of Borneo. My final lecture would see me return to yet another “underdog”. The Orang-utan. If ever there was a creature that deserves our respect and help then surely this gentle of all the primates is such a beast. Hunted to near extinction in the 19th Century and then evicted from its natural habitat in the 20th Century by man’s devastation of its home, this near relative of man has been pushed to the edge of extinction. My lecture aimed to introduce the passengers to these beautiful giants and hopefully inspire them to look closer at the efforts to save them from oblivion.
My lectures prepared and honed to my satisfaction, we began our trip. A trip that would take us first to Singapore and then to the Sultanate of Brunei.
Then to the Malaysian state of Sabah, before travelling to Vietnam where we would visit the magnificent Hai Duc Pagoda of Nha Trang.
We would arrive at Bangkok, the vibrant never sleeping city of Thailand. A city that exudes charisma and one that the casual visitor will fall in love with in a breath. Finally we would end our journey with a visit to the unbelievable temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The written word cannot begin to describe these monuments to the past. I would stand dumbstruck before the carved faces of the Bayon temples and open-mouthed at the sunset at Angkor Wat. It was my reason for coming to Cambodia and it will be the reason I will return one day.
In the following blog I hope to take you on our journey and by doing so inspire you to make the trip yourselves for there are wonders to behold in the East. I fell in love with the East so, so many years ago and it is an affair that continues today. I hope it will continue for many more years to come and that you too may find such a love.”
Ray’s full blog is on his own website http://thenaturallywildcompany.co.uk »
RAY HALE – AUTHOR & WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER
Having spent many years in the Private Sector as an Industrial Health and Safety consultant, Ray has finally had the opportunity to follow his passion.
He is now a wildlife lecturer, author, photographer and naturalist. He enjoys sharing his experiences so much that he now leads groups of naturalists, researchers and eco-tourists into the rainforests of Borneo in search of endangered wildlife. He gives illustrated lectures around the United Kingdom and has been invited to lecture on Malaysian wildlife by a number of organisations within Sabah.
His subjects include Rainforest Conservation, Saving Endangered Species, The History of Sabah, Rajah Brooke and the Head Hunters of Borneo. Although he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife in general, his main field of study has always been centred around arachnids and he is a recognised World authority on the large so called “bird eating tarantulas” as well as the large number of species of spiders of the United Kingdom. He belongs to a number of organisations including the British Arachnological Society and the British Tarantula Society of which he is a council member.
He has written a number of articles on arachnology and in 1998 he published the book “An Introduction to the Spiders of the Genus Haplopelma: A Study of the Tarantulas of South East Asia”. He is currently writing a field guide to the spiders of Malaysia. He has had a number of his photographs published in entomological and arachnological journals.
Now based in Sussex, he regularly runs courses for the Sussex Wildlife Trust, contributes regularly to radio and TV programmes as a consultant and undertakes entomological habitat surveys for landowners and local authorities. His studies have taken him to many destinations around the World which have given him the opportunity to share his enthusiasm for nature and conservation with adult education classes, industry personnel and students alike. Over the last twenty years he has delivered many presentations to events and audiences. He is passionate about reconnecting people with nature and the conservation of the Worlds endangered species all of which infuse his wildlife lectures.
Back in the summer, Dr Michael Higgins joined us on Aegean Odyssey. Those readers who view our blog regularly will know that we like to ask our guest lecturers to recount their journey and its highlights. For Michael, it was Mycenae, the archaeological site located 90km south west of Athens and whose name was given to the period of Greek history for 1600-1100BC.
“THE LIGHT OF GREECE” is really a classic Aegean cruise, visiting so many wonderful places in Greece and Turkey. What I like about cruising is waking up each morning in the same bed, but in a new place. The ship ran very smoothly, and I was very impressed how Alison and her team coped with unexpected changes of plans.
One of my favourite places in Greece is Mycenae. The wild setting and compact site makes it easier to imagine what it must have been like in antiquity. I also have fond memories of tortoises crawling amongst the ruins, but I had not been there for twenty years and was not sure if it had changed. I was so pleased when our bus pulled up and I realised that we were the first on the site.
The entrance to the site must be one of the best in Greece.
The walls beside the path to the gate were clearly designed to impress – the great blocks of decorative conglomerate are replaced by an unimpressive, but functional, grey limestone just around the corner. Then I went on through the wonderful Lion Gate, almost unchanged in over 3200 years, if you neglect the lions’ heads.
Inside, the first thing that you see is the mysterious grave-circle which yielded so much gold. And then up onto the top of the site with clear views of the whole valley. No tortoises this time on the site, but lots of flowers for early May.
I went to the other end to explore the cistern that goes down 50 feet under the walls – but I could not coax much light out of my camera and so had to remember it from my last visit.
I finished the tour at the Museum – what a gem, even if they do not have the best pieces. I had another reason to visit the museum – my father excavated here before I was born and I wanted to see if I could find him in any of the excavation photos on display. I had no luck – next time I must ask if I can see their archives.
About Michael Higgins
Michael’s interest in the Mediterranean started with a cruise at age 16 and continued as a geology student on many backpacking trips during his degree at Cambridge. In 1974 he set off from the UK to Canada for his PhD at McGill University and has worked there ever since, except for research sabbaticals overseas.
His co-authored book, A Geological Companion to Greece and the Aegean, explores the geology of archaeological sites, including aspects such as bedrock, building materials, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
His current book project is on geology and the ancient wonders of the world. He recently joined us on our Light of Greece cruise, where we visited the sites of two of the ancient wonders: The Colossus of Rhodes, and The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
Wall Street Journal shows how Voyages to Antiquity brings a new angle to multi-generational cruising
Earlier this month we were delighted to discover that we had been included in the Wall Street Journal’s Top 10 holiday choices for multi-generational families. As one of the world’s leading newspapers we were obviously very proud to be included.
The term ‘Multi-generational’ travel is quite a new term, but reflects the way in which people are getting older but still want to travel, often with their extended family which may include teenagers or young children.
The story includes ten different interesting/enriching/educational trips to take children or grandchildren. The piece features our Light of Greece itinerary, one of our most popular cruises which includes mainland Greece, the Islands and Turkey.
Kyle McCarthy, editor of the Family Travel Forum, sailed on the Aegean Odyssey in April and suggests that this is a great cruise for grandparents to take teenagers.
Canon Anne Davison recently joined us for our Crusaders Cruise from Rome to Cyprus. For Anne it was a re-introduction to many of the sights she has experienced through her career. Many of our guests were experiencing it for the first time. Please read Anne’s thoughts on how the history buffs and novices come together on a Voyages to Antiquity Cruise.
“I’ve just been on the Aegean Odyssey travelling from Rome to Limassol in Cyprus. The itinerary included many jewels of the Mediterranean such as Sicily, Tunisia, Malta, Crete, Rhodes and Turkey. I have travelled to these islands and to Turkey on many occasions before, but I always find that each visit offers a new experience.
These experiences are like a two-sided coin. First, I have my own personal encounter with the country and sites visited, when I may discover something entirely new or deepen my understanding of the people and place. And second, I have the opportunity to share these experiences with fellow passengers. Neither side of the coin is more important than the other. When I enjoy a particular destination I want to share this with others. And equally my interaction with other passengers stimulates my own interest and desire to learn more.
On this particular cruise I was speaking on the theme of the Crusades. During the Middle Ages most of the places that we visited on this trip had also been visited by the crusaders on their hazardous journeys to and from the Holy Land or Egypt.
It is difficult to pick out a favourite destination but if I were pushed, it would be the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus; Rhodes – because of the legacy of the Knights of St John, and Cyprus – because of its association with one of my favourite characters, Richard the Lionheart, Coeur de Lion.
Perhaps the most fulfilling experience for me as a Guest Lecturer, is when, having given a talk and visited a particular place, passengers may say to me “it was so helpful to have your talk because it helped to put what we have seen into context”. If the talk comes after the visit then passengers may already have their questions. Either way, the two sides of the coin come together resulting in, for me, a very special experience.”
CANON DR ANNE DAVISON, Historian of Comparative Religion
Anne has had a life-long interest in history and the religions of the world. This led to studying both topics for her first Degree and later for her Doctorate. She spent several years living in Africa and other overseas countries and this experience added to her interest in different cultures.
For many years she was Adviser in Inter Religious Relations for the Church of England. She was also Vice Moderator of the World Council of Churches in Geneva and has sat on numerous advisory bodies for Inter Religious Relations both overseas and in the United Kingdom. She is currently Visiting Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University.
For several years Anne co-organised a Youth Exchange Programme for young Jews, Christians and Muslims between Jerusalem and East London and in recognition of her work in inter-religious relations was made a Lay Canon of Chelmsford Cathedral. She has also led numerous pilgrimages to Israel and Lebanon. She still travels widely and lectures regularly on cruise ships. Anne also gives illustrated talks around the United Kingdom.
In the fourth installment of her diary, Catherine continues with her recent cruise around the Mediterranean, with the last stops along the Neapolitan Riviera. Reading through this blog, we loved her comment about how her cruise brought back the feelings felt when she first explored history at university.
This is the final installment of Catherine’s daily diary, a beautiful insight into her cruise and the amazing places Voyages to Antiquity visit. We hope you have enjoyed her travels as much as we have.
Wednesday, 7 September – Agropoli, Italy
Over breakfast we watched as the Aegean Odyssey entered the harbor where this small port is located. This is to be our gateway to Italy’s Campania and Paestum. Here, in a beautiful natural setting, is an important colony of Magna Graecia and a major city of classic times. We licked hazelnut gelato and admired the near-perfect preservation of the site’s Greek temples to Hera, Neptune and Athena, which date from between 530 and 460BC. There are also many fascinating Roman remains, including a forum and amphitheater that was cut in half by a road project (the civil engineer responsible was subsequently jailed).
I think what moved us most were the tomb frescoes on display in the site’s excellent museum. These rare examples of Greek painting, said to have been discovered by a local artichoke farmer in 1969, managed to survive the centuries thanks to the moisture in the air. They detail a banquet of male lovers, a diver soaring off a cliff into the afterlife, and the haunting image of a person being guided by music into the netherworld.
You might think everything would be anti-climatic after seeing Stromboli erupt last night, but I have three words for this afternoon: the Amalfi Coast. We uncorked a bottle of champagne and nibbled on tea cakes as the Aegean Odyssey wound along this stunning coast. It felt as if we were in hailing distance of the picturesque cliff-side towns, and we savored a true up-close feeling without the dizzying drive.
We sailed around Capri and then headed into the harbor of Castellammare di Stabia outside Sorrento. This small town in the Gulf of Naples is our alternate dock, as waters in Sorrento are too rough for tendering. While off the tourist path, Castelammare puts us closer to Pompeii and Herculaneum, two sites we’ll visit tomorrow, both destroyed by Mount Vesuvius, but each preserved quite differently.
Friday, 8 September – Pompeii and Herculaneum
This morning started with an Italian strike. In Palermo there had been a nationwide protest against austerity measures which halted taxi and bus transportation, but fortunately not private tours. Today was “Antiquity on Strike” with the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum closed for the better part of the morning. Would they or would they not open? It was fun watching Gino, our good-looking guide, and Pasquale, his driver, dream up replacement activities for their group of seasoned–therefore more flexible than they knew–travelers. We wound through the streets of Naples admiring the towers and the construction that recently unearthed three Roman vessels. Apparently at that point all construction activity ceased. We paused for a waterfront cappuccino–always an excellent idea when in Naples.
We arrived to find the gates of Herculaneum still closed. Not a problem for Voyages to Antiquity guests. We had a Cambridge professor, Dr. Mary Beard, with us, and this noted author gathered us all together for a special treat: an impromptu lecture before the (temporarily) closed gates of Herculaneum. I love how the past bubbles to life in her books, notably Pompeii: the Life of a Roman Town. Now this delightful don was “prepping” us for Herculaneum. The site was preserved by a flow of lava, mud and rain from Vesuvius (unlike Pompeii which was covered in ash).
So when the gates to the site eventually opened, we were fortified with new insights as we set about exploring. We admired the petrified wood doorways so amazingly preserved, the superb mosaics in the atriums, and — in the House of the Deer– it was easy to imagine a Roman host leading dinner guests to the terrace for after-dinner drinks that included a panoramic view of the Bay of Naples. I paused in a bath beneath a clerestory window where you could still spot fragments of Roman glass, sure sign of a wealthy home. I had a vision of the residents basking in the rays of the sun captured in one of the world’s first windowpanes.
By the time we reached the site at Pompeii we noted more and more bodies. Eight gigantic ships had anchored in Naples and their occupants had all descended upon Pompeii, or so it seemed. Together we all wound through the House of the Faun, patted the phallus talisman for good luck, and, at Pompeii’s brothel, speculated about the frescoes depicting the specialties available.
There was plenty to talk about that evening, when we met for our final dinner aboard — and tonight’s is extra special, as we are invited to sit at the Captain’s table! The feast began with smoked salmon and Serrano ham, continued to tortellini, steak, and an airy hazelnut confection that had us all demanding the chef to come in and take his bows. It didn’t take much coaxing to try the cheese plate, too. Especially as it includes a delicately flavored Sicilian cheese that has been one of my many discoveries this voyage. To top it off, Jerry presented me with a pair of silver earrings inset with bits of Roman glass that I’d been admiring in the ship’s boutique.
Then it was off to pack with a heavy heart, but the satisfaction of a voyage well done. I had a wonderful classics professor who made the ancient Greeks so diverting, I felt a kind of joy every time I attended a lecture.
I had that feeling, once again, aboard the Aegean Odyssey.
In the third installment of her diary, Catherine continues with her recent cruise around the Mediterranean, with a few days exploring Sicily. The diary highlights the many tours and places that Catherine visited on her 14 night voyage and there is no better way to explore this enchanting and historical island.
Saturday, 3 September – Agrigento, Sicily
A sanctuary of Chthonic Divinities, a Doric temple of Concord, and a crumbled temple to Zeus that was once four times the size of the Parthenon, even Christian catacombs and wall tombs – all this awaited us in the Valley of the Temples, the showpiece of this southwestern Sicilian port. Enzo was our guide to Akragas, as the Greeks called this ancient city of Magna Graecia. Though called the Valley of the Temples, the site is actually set on a high ridge with that unerring Greek instinct for property with stunning sea views.
En route we learned that the Akragas name derives from a kind of crab found in the two local rivers. Beside one of the rivers stands the remains of a temple to Asklepios, where patients took the healing water treatment, no doubt similar to the one we learned about in Epidaurus. The city itself, said to have a population of 200,000 in antiquity, thrived in Roman times as well. It is easy to imagine Cicero coming here, as he did, to dig up “the goods” on a corrupt local politician he was prosecuting in a legal case. The temple zone at Akragas is particularly impressive with one to Hera, another to Hercules and another, perhaps the most impressive of all, dedicated to an unidentified deity, called Concordia.
We walked the sacred path, passing Christian burial sites carved in the ancient city walls, a labyrinth of underground catacombs, and an immense Atlas statue that once held up the weight of a temple roof on its shoulders, until an earthquake shook it down – or was it those pesky Carthaginians who burnt the place in 406 BC?
Jerry and I pondered this mystery as we each sipped a spine grande (large draft) of Sicily’s excellent Nasturo Azurro beer and relaxed under the almond trees where an old woman supervised the work of three even-older men sassed her in Sicilian as they beat the trees and shook down a harvest of bitter almonds. (Which reminds me, I must get some of the area’s famous marzipan.) Late last night this treat materialized just as the last set of jazz was winding up in the Charleston Lounge, wheeled in on a cart heaped with goodies.
Following our morning amid the temples, the Aegean Odyssey sailed for Trapani at noon, hugging the Sicilian coastline as she headed northwest. To put Malta in perspective I attended a lecture by the Medievalist, Dr. Nigel Ramsay, on the Knights Templar and Knights of St. John held in the Ambassador Lounge. The presentation was delivered in the Ambassador lounge, surrounded by windows that granted views of the passing coast. I learned of the economies behind the Crusaders’ successes and failures as I sipped a Mediterranean Breeze, the drink of the day, an indulgent blend of rum with orange and pineapple juices, creme de banana and pina colada mix.
When we docked in Trapani this evening, I couldn’t resist disembarking for an after-dinner stroll through the old town with its baroque churches, winding streets and tempting shops. There’s much to do tomorrow, and plenty of time thanks to our overnight stay and midnight sailing tomorrow. What a great place to be.
Sunday, 4 September – Trapani, Sicily
Bright and early, a drive takes us from port through rolling hillside to Segesta, site of a 5th-century BC Doric temple said to be built by the Elyminians, a native people of Sicily whose members are thought to include refugees from Troy. The tufta limestone of which the temple is constructed has stood up through the centuries and at one point, in a stroke of civic PR, the entire temple was painted bright gold to convince Athens that Segesta was wealthy even though the community was having financial difficulties at the time. How–contemporary. And how that golden temple must have “popped” – set on a steep slope surrounded by pine trees and backed by a dramatic ravine where a river once rushed. I wonder if the Athenians fell for it?
On a neighboring hill we visited the site’s beautiful Greek theater with vistas of Trapani Bay. Sublime views seem to have been a prerequisite for Greek theaters. We discussed this over lunch on the terrace, where I couldn’t resist the stuffed eggplant, crispy pizza wedges and a plate of stilton and brie accompanied by a tiny crisp pear.
Jerry doesn’t like heights, but he agreed, the hilltop town of Erice which we visited in the afternoon was worth it. The trip there was gasp-inducing as our bus wound slowly up the steep, steep hill to the grey stone village at the very top. Here we entered the town’s thick Norman walls – our guide pointed out letters from the Phoenician alphabet carved in their surface– and wandered narrow medieval streets of stone polished by centuries. The sober walls of Chiesa Matrice, the main church, hid an interior embroidered in the styles of subsequent centuries. Still, the fine bones of the original structure showed beautifully in the two side chapels. Even though this church is described as Norman, our guide says its history dates back to the Phoenicians, and it was built in the 14th century with stones from a temple to Venus.
Erice is a town made for people who like to walk and browse. The shops near the main cathedral are especially tempting with almond pastries (a specialty) and pastel-tinted marzipans shaped like peaches, pears, tomatoes, watermelons, everything imaginable. At every turn, narrow alleys open on another square – and another church, and as it was Sunday so the bells were ringing.
We wandered the length of the town to arrive at the best of all: Pepoli Castle and Tower with their Norman window slits where archers once stood and splendiferous, dizzying vistas of the Egadi Islands, the Tyrrhenian Sea and all the surrounding area as viewed from 2,500 feet above the sea. Surely we were suspended in heaven? “In winter it is very misty and can get quite cold in Erice, but is very quiet.” Our guide offered as consolation on our drive back. Still sounds like heaven.
Monday, 5 September – Palermo, Sicily
Over breakfast on deck we regarded Monte Pellegrino, the rocky sentinel soaring above the harbor. “Well, at least you won’t have to go to the top of that,” I assured Jerry, remembering the breathtaking drive to Erice. Palermo is Sicily’s big city, the island’s capital since the days of the Arabs. Today we mean to explore the remains of more splendid times.
The mount I regarded over melon and coffee is where Rosalie, the sainted daughter of the Duke of Sinebaldo lived in a cave. When the city was being ravaged by the Plague, her remains were discovered and the Plague miraculously retreated, rather like the lava at Etna when confronted with the effigies of the Virgin. That is one miracle. The other is how our coach driver, Pietro, made it out of town in Sicilian rush hour traffic to Monreale, where yet another miracle awaited: the Byzantine mosaics of the grand Norman cathedral and the splendid arabesques of the adjoining Benedictine cloisters where hundreds of double columns culminate in unique capitals that each tell an individual story.
When we entered the cathedral, we were unprepared for the glory of walls covered in 24 carat gold leaf tiles depicting scenes from the Bible and lives of the saints. It is one thing to see the image of Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of All) in art history books, quite another to stand beneath its splendor. I was sure that sort of awe was what King William II intended when he started the cathedral built in 1172, though I don’t suppose he’d have approved of my insouciant licking of a walnut gelato cone after my visit. Jerry fretted if the artists were paid. They were, we were told. William wanted to create a showcase and hired any master artisans he could get. He had good relations with the local Arabs, whose hand can be seen in the exquisite abstract mosaics. So they were paid. But, as always with history, new questions arose: he wanted to learn if they were fairly reimbursed for such art?
This morning’s traffic moved so slowly we had excellent views of Palermo’s monuments en route to Monreale, but this afternoon we will see it all even closer and enjoy a walking tour, than cap it off with an exclusive event at the privately-owned Palazzo Gangi. The palazzo was the opulent setting for the ballroom scene in Visconti’s film The Leopard, which is being screened tonight on the ship.
When we sailed into the harbor this morning and I glimpsed the shrine atop Monte Pellegrino, perhaps my first thought was “Well, at least Jerry won’t have to ascend that height.” (He was still smarting from the steep drive to Erice). I should have known that our afternoon walking tour would start with a drive to the top of the mount, another twisty, panoramic journey that thrilled the photographers. Things evened out when we got back down to earth and drove through Palermo’s tiny seaside suburbs to the city’s bustling piazzas. We visited the church of Santa Caterina, a baroque masterpiece dedicated to the saint killed on the wheel.
Then we strolled further past the impressive Opera House to a small square made famous by the War of the Sicilan Vespers. This is home to one of the city’s most lovely Rococo palazzos, the Palazzo Gangi, in the process of being lovingly restored by its owner, the Principessa Carine Vanni Mantegna. As guests, we were greeted warmly and given a tour of an interior that steadily grows more impressive. We passed through the Suicide Room (so-called for the paintings detailing such famous suicides as Cleopatra clasping her asp), the Red Room, the Blue Room, the Dining Room and, then–oh, wonders–the ballroom with its Murano glass chandelier, the leopards painted on the tile floor, the tiny adjoining rooms with a secret staircase to, as it was put “the room of love.” Later we sipped French champagne and nibbled on a dizzing array of Sicilan sweets from cannoli to marzipan as we wandered from the gilded rooms to mingle on the beautiful terrace. Sweet.
Tuesday 6 September- Winding through the Aeolian (Liparian) Islands to Stromboli
Alicudi Island lies outside our window and the volcanic isle of Stromboli lies ahead, timed for a 9:15 PM visit, where we will drift in the waters and hope to witness some activity, which will certainly be dramatic against the night sky. I have my fingers crossed. Captain Roland Andersson announces the schedule as we relaxed in our Deluxe Oceanview stateroom. Tonight is the Captain’s soiree, so we’re putting the finishing touches on another remarkable day in Palermo.
Last evening we enjoyed an exclusive peek into the privately-owned Palazzo Gangi, where–as guests of the Principessa Carine Vanni Mantegna–we were given a guided tour that included the wonderful ballroom seen in the film, The Leopard, along with champagne and Sicilian sweets on the patio overlooking the square made famous by the War of the Sicilian Vespers.
This morning we walked through kapok and carob trees to view the Palatine Chapel. Our guide regaled us with tidbits, such as the fact that the Arabs once used the carob seed to weigh gold, hence the word carat. Little could prepare us for the sight when we stepped into the chapel with its gold-leaf mosaics, hierarchical saint’s images and grand Christ Pantocrator presiding over them all. For me, the chapel was a condensed, more intense version of the utter magnificence we had viewed the day before in the Cathedral at Monreale.
Following the Palatine Chapel, we wandered through the austere stone arches of a mosque converted to a church, then visited the city’s cathedral where the exterior boasts an impressive Romanesque/Norman/Arab fusion of styles and a 19th-century interior. Then, negotiating the madness of Sicilian traffic, our driver Guiseppe delivered us to the port. A dip in the pool, a stretch in the sun on the plentiful teak deck chairs, and then it was time for cocktails with Captain Roland, a delicious dinner of flavorful Palermo swordfish and then – wonder of wonders–a full half-hour of volcanic eruptions as we glided in the bay before Mount Stromboli, gasping as it shot molten lava into the air and grand red streams cascaded down its sides. Actually, two areas on the volcano began to erupt at the same time. All this plus moonlight on water and champagne. Heaven. To sip champagne, think of the gold of the Palatine Chapel and see the red of Stromboli erupt against a velvety Sicilian night sky.
In the second installment of her diary, Catherine continues with her recent cruise around the Mediterranean. The diary highlights the many tours and places that Catherine visited on her 14 night voyage.
September 1, 2011 Ortygia (Syracuse) Sicily
Last night, on my walk around deck (I was hoping to see some lava, which I am told is magma before it erupts, pouring forth from Mount Etna). As I stood at the railing peering out in the darkness, I struck up a conversation with an Oxford lecturer whose specialty is theatres of antiquity. After hearing me rhapsodize about those at Taormina and Epidaurus, he warned me “Wait till you see Syracuse.” Today we did.
This morning we toured the archaeological zone of Neapolis, the ancient Magna Graecia settlement. The theater is indeed sublime, carved out of solid marble – at least the lower area – with a gorgeous view of the Bay of Syracuse. As I walked amid the marble paths in my sensible, but what I thought were fashionable walking sandals, I noted Lucia, our guide, had towering fashionista wedges. “Style first” seems to be a cardinal rule with Italian guides, male or female. “Oh, they’ve got everyone beat when it comes to style,” agreed Jerry. (more…)
Last month, Catherine Wolff and her husband Jerry asked if we would like to see her diary from the 26 August cruise, ‘Sicily is the key to everything’. This delightful daily journal shows what Catherine enjoyed both on the Aegean Odyssey and ashore during her cruise.
Catherine’s love of travel has taken her to all seven continents, with journal in hand. She first discovered a passion for cruising when she sailed aboard the Marco Polo from Kenya to the Seychelles. She and her husband, Jerry, live in Florida, USA and we are delighted that over the next couple of weeks she will be sharing her experience with us.
Part 1 – Athens, Greece to Taormina and Naxos, Sicily
August 28, 2011 Aboard Aegean Odyssey at Piraeus
The shadow of a gull drifts over the teak deck. Mosaics of dancing dolphins surround the hot tub. Jerry and I are aboard and exploring the Aegean Odyssey for the first time. It is in the hot tub that we originally planned to relax and watch the retreating shoreline when the ship sailed out of Piraeus, but I have found us an even more irresistible nook, on a ship that seems to have many such “sweet” spots. We make our place in a cozy sofa in the open-air Lido Lounge with its sweeping views of the pool, the harbor and the sea and quickly struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger who noticed my copy of Herodotus.
From the second we arrived at the terminal in Piraeus and saw the ship’s dazzling tapered white hull we were impressed with her elegance. For her size, she is remarkably airy and roomy aboard with lots of light colors and touches of Aegean blue mixed with a bit of Pompeian red just like in the ancient frescoes. Chris, our cabin steward, helped us settle in and now we relax, the rigors of unpacking (though just once) behind us. I sip a chilled white Greek wine and nibble on a sandwich as we rest at port in Piraeus. We’ve already passed muster at the passenger drill. Later the ship’s staff will welcome us and outline the adventures into antiquity that await us on our “Key to Sicily” cruise. Right now, we savor the moment. Somewhere music is playing. We are aboard and casting off, what a wonderful feeling this is.
Aug. 29, 2011 Nauplia, Greece
When I opened the shades this morning I gazed out on a Venetian castle rising from an islet in Nauplia’s Old Harbour. This is Bourtzi and a lovely welcome as we glide into the harbor of this charming Venetian town with its narrow streets, graceful mansions and backdrop of the Arcadian Mountains. Our destination this morning is Mycenae, a place that puts Athens 5th-century Acropolis in perspective. Mycenae has ruins dating back to 16th century BC, along with stories of infidelity, incest and murder that would resonate with any 21st-century soap-opera aficionado. We entered the beehive Tomb of Atreus (also called the treasury of Atreus because the tomb became a treasury after it was looted) featuring an astonishing portal and conical ceiling where bats roost, then proceeded to his son’s residence, Agamemnon’s Palace, with its Cyclopean boulders.
We walked through the Lions Gate to view the remains of this ancient palace and city, the legendary site of so much tragedy. . , before returning to the ship for an al fresco lunch of Greek tapas served in the shadow of Palamidi, the town’s Venetian fortress.
The adventures continue this afternoon on our excursion to Epidaurus. Just last week one of my favorite actors, Kevin Spacey, performed as Richard III in this 14,000-seat theatre. What a magical event that–or any performance, say, Maria Callas singing Medea in 1962–must have been. The theatre tiers are carved into a hill ringed with pine, olive and pistachio trees. Here the great Greek dramatists staged their plays, and drama itself evolved. Much is made of the theatre’s marvelous acoustics “You can hear a pin drop from the highest tiers.” Well, maybe younger ears are capable of such a feat, but from the highest tier I couldn’t even hear a Euro drop, though I certainly could hear dialogue. The marvel, to me, was how sound, such as clapping, seemed to be amplified, to surround you. An audience could be swept up in the drama, by the very design of the theatre. Imagine watching Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in such a setting.
A doctor among our group was visiting Epidaurus because it was devoted to the gods of healing. I believe that’s how the town got the money to build the theatre. We walked amid the excavations of a massive sanctuary devoted to Asklepios, which in its time must have been a sort of super-spa. There were temples, of course, but also buildings for the sick and their family members to stay, to eat, and to purify themselves. I was struck that the treatment involved sleeping beside healing waters so a god could appear in a dream to cure the patient or indicate the steps to be taken. Even in the 6th century BC, the healers knew the value of water therapy. I like mine aboard a ship.
Later we wondered the narrow streets of Nauplia where Venetian-style mansions and the former homes of wealthy sea captains now hold tempting shops with everything from Greek honey to local fashion. Chatting with Alison Lewin, the ship’s lovely Cruise Coordinator, I learned that she, too, has a weakness for shopping and often finds real treasures at a tiny shop called Fallen Angel, famous for its sundresses. We were detoured when our guide mentioned gelato and told us where to get the best in the world: at Antica Gelateria di Roma behind the Grande Bretagne Hotel. As we strolled along the seaside promenade sampling their special chocolate hazelnut flavor we knew he was right, though it is going to be fun comparing gelato in Sicily. Now we get ready for dinner as the Aegean Odyssey glides slowly out to sea, away from the Peloponnese — and a night of lectures, music and champagne begins. Tomorrow’s a day at sea, and we need it!
Aug.30, 2011 At sea
Today I’ll try to find my favorite deck on the Aegean Odyssey, a ship with many hidey-holes and wonderful, sweeping stern vistas and a nice wide-deck feel. The seas as we travel between Greece and Sicily are calm, smooth and everything the Mediterranean should be. I woke early for yoga with Clara on the Lido deck aft and did the Salute to the Sun as it rose from the waters of the bluing sky. “Don’t forget the Pilates class tomorrow,” she reminded me. Still not totally abandoned to decadence, I nodded. Now, as I sit aft beside the Lido Deck hot tub, I savor the soft breezes stretched out on one of the cushioned teak lounge chairs that are so liberally sprinkled around the decks. Over the teak-topped railings the sea and sun shimmer endlessly. Behind me, four dancing mosaic dolphins attend the bubbling hot tub.
Breakfast and dinner were al fresco at the Terrace Grill/Cafe where the wonderful manager, Alfredo, seems to know what I want before I know it myself. Maybe that comes with his being from Sorrento. “Ah, you’ll love the red snapper…the pasta…the gelato.”
This morning I attended a fascinating lecture on Magna Graecia, the Greek colonization in Italy and Sicily in the 7th and 8th centuries BC. I wasn’t about to miss a lecture by Dr. Gillian Shepherd, who catches you up in her love of antiquity and doesn’t let go. Still, I was glad the Ambassador Lounge has plenty of windows so you don’t miss the scenery as you enjoy the lecture.
This evening is Captain Roland Andersson’s Cocktail Party. Captain Roland was at the helm when we cruised Antarctica some few years back, and he is as handsome, knowledgeable and Swedish as ever. At his party we discovered another captain we’d sailed with was aboard with his lovely wife. We were thrilled to hear that they were about to become grandparents again. We got into a conversation about Cleopatra with a couple from Australia, and somehow that evolved into a hilarious comparison of snakes in Queensland and South Florida.
You might think all the champagne at the Captain’s party would put a dint in our appetites, but Jerry and I lingered over seafood cocktails, mushroom risotto and Bananas Foster, then solicited the attentions of the cheese trolley to try a small wedge of that delicious Sicilian cheese, with maybe some brie, accompanied by walnuts and marzipan. Now, a bit of night music as we prepare for tomorrow in Taormina on Sicily’s northeast coast. And there’s more–an excursion to Mount Etna, which just a few weeks ago threw up lavish spumes of lava. Something to contemplate over after-dinner drinks.
August 31, 2011 Naxos (Taormina)
Any vacation worth its salt usually has a “bucket list”: see Taormina, try Sicilian pistachio honey, explore Mount Etna. And though I’ve done all three, I find myself creating a new bucket list: “see a performance in the Greek theatre at Taormina” is big on that list. Naxos, the original Greek colony on Sicily, is our port. From there, we drove uphill to the cliff-top jewel that is Taormina. Every inch of this town is designed to delight the eye: the centuries-old piazzas with plashing fountains “the only one still working is the oldest” our guide remarked wryly, referring to one multi-fountained squares. The gelato store with its mounds of jewel-colored ices was located right beside a street so narrow that one of our group remarked “If you wanted to take that street, you’d have to forego the gelato.” There are wonderful glimpses of history at every turn. Even amid the summer throngs, Taormina was a delight. And then there was the Greek theatre with its crumbling Roman proscenium. At a recent performance crowds were treated to opera in this spectacular setting overlooking the Ionian Sea, and as a bonus witnessed Mount Etna erupting.
Etna was to be our afternoon adventure, so we tore ourselves away from Taormina and returned to the ship for lunch al fresco in the Terrace Cafe. As recently as a few days ago, Etna erupted, so we wondered what might lay in wait for us on a visit to Crateri Silvestri, a group of five craters named after the vulcanologist. The European papers reported that Etna had sent up lava several hundred feet high, and it had looked impressive against the backdrop of the basilica in Zafferana. Today we were told we were perfectly safe walking the perimeters and descending into the crater. These would no longer erupt. Any such drama would be elsewhere. So we descended into the black lunar landscape and later sipped Sicilian beer in a nearby restaurant where the owner pointed out his window that had been “kissed” by the lava (the owner supposedly threw cold water at the oncoming lava and it stopped just short of his window). There are other tales of villages carrying out effigies of the Virgin and the lava flow miraculously stopping, but there are also tales of faith-based recklessness. Later we strolled along the sunset waterfront of Naxos and watched the beach-goers calling it a day. We had time to remain in town and dine, but the ship’s menu tonight offered lime grilled tuna steaks, along with much, much wine.
Come back soon for the next installment………
Back home in wintery Sydney, my thoughts return to the start of the Voyages to Antiquity cruise to Sicily, Malta and the Sorrentine Peninsula in May this year. If I listen carefully I might just be able to hear the strains of a Noel Coward classic drifting out from the Charleston Lounge, where Stacey’s piano and the string trio entertained us each evening.
Here on Deck 6 at the stern of the ship we ate delicious food in the casually elegant Terrace Cafe, the dining venue of choice for many of the passengers in such perfect weather. As the coastline recedes I reflect that I am indeed fortunate to be on board this elegant mid-size ship the MV Aegean Odyssey, as one of the lecturers. The ship is beautifully appointed and all the lectures take place in the splendid Ambassador Lounge.
Each day of our cruise was a delight and an adventure. Excursions were always of great interest and meticulously planned with staff members always on hand. We began in the lovely seaside town of Nauplia, named for one of the Argonauts, the son of the sea god Poseidon. Here we visited the world famous heritage sites of Epidaurus and Mycenae with its famous Lion Gate. I was particularly impressed to have a personal Quietvox receiver, which made it so much easier to hear our excellent guides.
From the Peloponnese we sailed to Sicily and the glorious town of Taormina, then on to Syracuse. Here I had the great good fortune to see a wonderful collection of ancient jewellery in the Archaeological Museum. Before visiting the fabulous and well-preserved Greek temples in Agrigento’s Valle dei Templi, Segesta and Selinunte, we sailed to Malta where we explored the ancient town of Mdina and the capital Valletta. Here in St John’s cathedral is Caravaggio’s famous masterpiece “The Beheading of St John”.
One of the many highlights of the cruise was a visit in Palermo to the splendid Palazzo Gangi. Here we were taken into the vanished world of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the Prince of Salina who wrote his posthumous masterpiece “The Leopard” at the time of Italy’s Risorgimento. This beautiful private residence with its Baroque ballroom, belongs now to the Principessa Carine Vanni Mantegna and her husband. On each visit the Principessa personally conducts a private tour of the Palazzo for guests of Voyages to Antiquity, followed by champagne and canapés.
This really was a marvelous cruise and I hope to be back on Aegean Odyssey again sometime soon.
Dr MONICA M. JACKSON
The University of Sydney
Monica M. Jackson is a Research Associate in the Department of Archaeology and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, London. She received her B.A. in Ancient History and Anthropology from the University of Queensland and her PhD in Classical Archaeology from The University of Sydney. Her particular area of research is ancient Hellenistic jewellery as archaeological evidence. Her published thesis Hellenistic Gold Eros Jewellery: Technique, Style and Chronology, published by British Archaeological Reports in 2006 is considered the authoritative work in this area.
Monica has presented papers at prestigious venues both in Australia and overseas. Topics include jewellery and the luxury arts, issues concerning cultural heritage, as well as ancient Greek and Near Eastern art, history and religion. She has been involved in The University of Sydney archaeological excavations in Greece, Cyprus and further east. Her research has necessitated extensive travels through South Italy, Turkey, the Republic of Georgia and Bulgaria.
Disembarking the ship in the extensive port area of Palermo we were joined by our local guide Giorgio. Voyages to Antiquity uses a range of local specialists as well as experts who sail with Aegean Odyssey to answer questions onboard prior to the destination port.
Georgio started off our journey by joking about the crazy traffic within the city as we wound our way through a sea of cars to the Palatine Chapel, one of the must-see sights of this unique Italian city.
Palermo, Sicily’s capital since the Arab conquest a thousand years ago, is always a busy city. As it was almost Easter weekend, traffic was at its peak. The chapel itself was stunning. The main aim of the elaborate gold mosaic was to teach those who could not read many hundreds of years ago the stories of the Bible. All of our guests were in awe of the level of detail in the chapel, finding endless details to see and photograph, supplemented by a thorough commentary from Giorgio.
From here, we walked around the corner to what appeared to be a very non-descript building. This in fact turned out to be the entrance to the grounds of La Chiesa dei Giovanni degli Ermiti. Set in a refreshingly lush garden, this small Romanesque church is the complete opposite of the Palatine Chapel in its simplicity.
Our walking tour continued to Palermo’s Cathedral, where a service was taking place and from here we set off towards the Palazzo Gangi – an additional optional tour which is extremely popular with our guests. The Palazzo Gangi is a private residence belonging to the Principessa Carine Vanni Mantegna. On each visit to Palermo, the Princess gives our guests a personal private tour of the Palazzo and all those who joined us were pleased that she stayed to share champagne and nibbles.
Following a quick lunch on Aegean Odyssey, we then left for the afternoon tour to Monreale Cathedral. For those who had been impressed by the Palatine Chapel, the Monreale Cathedral simply blew them away!
Our guide, obviously used to the sheer shock on entrance, gave us a chance to overcome the awe slightly before giving us a detailed and interesting account of the church and its mosaics. We then had a chance to wander around the adjoining cloister and the nearby shops before heading back to the ship for a well deserved dinner.
Note: Palermo is just one of up to seven stops which Aegean Odyssey will make on any cruise which includes Sicily.