One of the things I enjoy most as blog editor is learning how our lecturers always seem to bring something new back from their trips. Many of our guest lecturers have travelled to the Mediterranean as part of their work many times, but we always seem to be able to give them a new memory or experience.
They are, after all, experts in the various classical subjects but it always warms me when I read wonderful descriptions like those that follow from Nicholas Barber. I do hope you enjoy his experiences of the literal highs and lows of his trip.
“What a multitude of happy memories – the outstanding shore excursions, the smiling efficiency of the crew, sailing at first light into Valetta and Venice, relaxing drinks with new friends by the Lido bar, the concerts and Alison’s recitations, the lectures (James Morwood on the Normans in Sicily, Ili Nagy on ancient temples, Eric Lindgren on the oceanography of the Mediterranean), the comfort of our cabin, the Mediterranean sun on our backs, … so many highlights. On the plane home from Venice my wife was sure that our Aegean Odyssey cruise had been our best holiday ever.
Amid the many highlights two in particular stand out. One was literally high, the town of Erice in Sicily.
From the port in Trapani our bus took us up a series of hairpin bends to reach the medieval town, perched on its pinnacle nearly 2500 feet above sea level. The town itself was charming – early Gothic church and bell-tower, ancient monasteries and wobbly houses, and cobbled streets which led up through the old square to a craggy double citadel which seemed to grow out of the vertiginous cliffs. In the plain far below, little figures could be made out working the fields under the blazing sun. So there we were like Olympian gods, just as Homer described them in the Odyssey, looking down on the toils of men. Unforgettable!
The sea itself was on two sides to the north and west, Mediterranean blue in the afternoon sun, and there, little more than a speck, was our ship safely moored in sickle-shaped Trapani. To the north Monte Cofano stood out, a triangular peak falling almost sheer into the sea. From it we suddenly noticed a wisp of afternoon mist drifting inland. Soon it developed into a white cloud threading its way across the fields below our parapet. My lasting memory of Erice’s citadel is of seeming to float on a tide of cotton wool, clear sunlit skies above, looking across at Monte Cofano pushing its head through the mist like Bali Hai in South Pacific. We seemed to be on the proverbial Cloud Nine.
Our other great highlight was physically low, in fact sometimes literally below sea level though fortunately not on this occasion. It was Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. As an experience it was the highest. The clever people at Voyages to Antiquity had somehow arranged for all the passengers to make an evening visit and have the whole Basilica to ourselves – an exclusive in one of the world’s top dozen buildings of all time.
Following dinner on the ship we boarded water buses for Saint Mark’s Square, and in the dusk we sailed past the twinkling lights of some of Venice’s great churches and palazzi. Our guides led us in our groups to the Basilica’s side door. Our first stops were in the loggias to admire the astonishing ceiling mosaics in the mini-domes behind the great west door, all beautifully lit, each telling a story from the Old Testament (including a memorable depiction of a drunken Noah), the figures contrasting with the gold of the background mosaics. And then through the inner doors into the main nave with its five mighty domes. Wow, mosaics everywhere, hardly a surface uncovered. Our guide again helped us ‘read’ the stories, this time from the New Testament. She also explained the craftsmanship of the luminous gilding; the many thousands of golden tesserae were glass and to prevent the gold leaf peeling off each mosaic comprised two pieces of glass with the gold leaf laminated between them. She then had us sit down in the nave and as we waited for the other groups, I again reflected on how we had the whole place to ourselves and wondered by what magic Voyages to Antiquity had managed to give us such a privileged treat.
Suddenly we were plunged into darkness. All the lights had been turned off. Our eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom and we could just discern the huge mass of the building and its soaring domes. After a while, far above us, a single light came on. It was high in the dome above the altar, illuminating Christ Pantocrator seated in glory. The reds and blues and blacks of his figure stood out against the brilliant gilding of the background mosaics and the sepulchral gloom of the nave. Then two more lights came on, illuminating the disciples and gospel-writers. Then another light, and another, and another. We held our breath as the full panoply of figures and stories emerged from the darkness to left and right and above. I was reminded of Keats’s sonnet ‘Much have I travelled in the realms of gold’. The atmosphere was numinous.
As we returned to the Aegean Odyssey we were on a high, a high at sea level. Thank you, Voyages to Antiquity, for making such a rare experience possible. And thank you for the whole voyage.”
Nicholas Barber CBE is an Oxford classicist who made his career in the shipping industry where he became Chief Executive of Ocean Group plc. He recently retired from Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum where he was Chairman for eight years during the museum’s mould-breaking rebuilding and redisplay project. Before that, 1993-2003, he was a Trustee of the British Museum where his roles included chairing the BM’s Public Policy Committee, trading company, and Friends. In the 1980s he lived on Merseyside where he was a Trustee of National Museums Liverpool and a member of the Council of Liverpool University.
In 1963, after graduating from Wadham College, Oxford, he was appointed a lecturer at Marlboro College in Vermont, USA where he had the task of inaugurating Marlboro’s Classics department. He holds an honorary degree from Marlboro, is a Foundation Fellow of Wadham, and in 2010 was appointed a Distinguished Friend of Oxford.
Related posts:Syria Part 3 (Video day and a superb choice of tours for guests)
Catherine’s First Hand Experience Shows Why Voyages to Antiquity is so Special
Cruise Travel Magazine profile Voyages to Antiquity