The beauty of a Mediterranean cruise is that every day brings something new. One day you are basking on a sun-drenched beach, and the next you are navigating your way through the crowded, cobblestone streets of a medieval city.
A recent trip aboard the MS Oosterdam, notable for the stunning Waterford globe suspended above the ship’s three-story atrium, began in Venice, Italy, and ended in Barcelona, Spain. But along the way it made two stops that illustrate the spectrum of experiences to be had on a Mediterranean cruise.
Located on the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik, Croatia, offers many charms, but the main attraction is Old Town, a walled city that dates to the 13th century. From atop the wall, a birds-eye view offers a beguiling vista of medieval architecture inside and charming villas capped by red-tiled roofs outside. It’s such a tranquil scene it’s hard to believe that less than 20 years ago, Old Town was all but decimated by the Yugoslav army after Croatia declared its independence. Fortunately, the historic churches, sculptures and monasteries of this UNESCO World Heritage Site have been fully restored to their former glory.
After a morning spent exploring the city, our land excursion headed to the Konavle countryside for lunch at a private Croatian residence. The Niko Glavic family has opened a portion of its home to tourists, and they greeted us with brandy and locally grown figs. After we were seated on long benches at picnic-style tables, servers in traditional costumes piled pork sausages and potato salad onto our plates.
The Glavic family has produced olive oil for centuries. After lunch we were shown an old-fashioned olive press that was used before factory production became the norm. The olives were placed in large rope bags and crushed by a stone to extract the oil. Judging from the salad dressing at lunch, this family has perfected its craft.
If Dubrovnik is a city that has risen triumphantly from the ashes of tragedy, Pompeii is a city preserved by it. This once-thriving Roman city slept for almost 2,000 years under layers of volcanic ash spewed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Ironically, the city’s violent demise kept it alive. While there is still much to discover, many of the mysteries of this ancient civilization have been revealed because the cataclysmic volcanic eruption that annihilated the city also froze it in time.
Exploring the ruins of temples, homes, shops and the ever-popular brothels with their erotic frescoes shines a light on what everyday life was like for those residing in this seaside town in the Campanian region.
Many visitors are drawn to eerie plaster casts of victims buried alive by scorching ash and pumice. Some reveal remarkable details of clothing and jewelry, providing clues about the social status of the deceased.
A Pompeii highlight is the forum, the heart of public life in the Roman world, which in ancient times was surrounded by municipal buildings and temples. One of the key structures here was the basilica, the seat of the judicial system and a center for politics and business. Built in the late second century B.C., it covers almost 16,000 square feet and was the largest building in the city. Roaming through the enormous stumps of the columns is like strolling through a forest of razed giant sequoias, but those with active imaginations and a good guide will have no trouble visualizing the building’s former grandeur.
Of course, the thrill of a cruise doesn’t end with its ports of call. There is plenty to entertain guests during days at sea. The Greenhouse Spa and Salon is a first-class full-service spa featuring a soothing hydrotherapy pool ideal for working out any stiffness or soreness from trekking around. Be sure to book your spa treatment the day you board the ship, or, better yet, when you book the cruise. Keep in mind that sea days are busy spa days. And foodies will want to sign up early for cooking classes with celebrity chefs at the Culinary Arts Center hosted by Food & Wine magazine. A recent tour featured instruction by “Iron Chef” competitor Lee Hillson.