A western Mediterranean voyage, visiting Spain, France, Italy & Tunisia
A few years ago the scene would have been very different, with plumes of smoke and ash billowing up into the atmosphere, but today Mount Etna was majestic and calm. A Greek amphitheatre, still regularly used for concerts, overlooks the nearby town of Taormina and offers one of the best views of this legendary, active volcano. It is a panorama that takes in many of the aquamarine coves along the coast; the rooftops of the village; as well as the lush vineyards and orchards at the base of the peak. The vista is breath-taking, framed by pines and saturated with an extraordinary palette of ocean and sky blues.
Since the late eighties I’ve wanted to visit this place. Not for the upscale boutiques and designer shops that line the historic streets of this walled town; nor for the delicious, thirst-quenching homemade ‘granita di limone’ Italian sorbet ice, sold on street corners. Instead it was more to make a small pilgrimage to the pebbly sandy beaches and turquoise waters of this photogenic eastern coastline, where Luc Besson had filmed one of his cult movies.
It is undeniably a stunning part of Sicily. Despite the regular influx of visitors, this small town is still a place where local farmers sell fruit and vegetables from vintage PIaggio Ape scooter vans; youngsters dart amongst the traffic on noisy motorbikes; and fishermen bring ashore the island’s favourite catches of octopus, sardines and tuna.
My morning had started with an authentic Segafredo espresso macchiato, presented in an diminutive red cup, served in the aptly name L’Espresso bar, an art deco retro chic coffee house with plenty of Italian panache. Yet this wasn’t on land, but instead on deck seven of the elegant ocean liner, the MSC Splendida.
I had just arrived in the island’s port of Messina, not as an independent traveller, but instead as a cruise passenger. This was the fifth day of a week-long Mediterranean cruise with the independently-owned MSC cruise line. Each summer MSC vessels, including the huge MSC Splendida, offer guests an insight into the culture, sights and flavours of the western Mediterranean.
I had quickly found my ‘sea legs’ and come to love my time aboard this vast floating resort. I had reservations at first, thinking I would feel overwhelmed by the size of the vessel (it is well over 300 metres long, with 13 public decks and further upper pool and sun decks), or the number of people aboard (the vessel is home to over 3,000 guests and 1,300 crew) yet it was relaxing and enjoyable. I normally travel independently, avoiding group tourism yet travelling on a cruise I realised allowed to some degree, the best of both worlds.
Each morning, one can pull back the curtains, open the glass cabin doors onto the private terrace balcony and catch a glimpse of a different city, a new port. We travelled as we slept, the ship cutting through the calm, big blue Mediterranean, with almost imperceptible movement.
After breakfast in bed or in one of the large al a carte dining rooms.
And then the day was yours; to discover or simply to sit in a street café and watch the world pass-by.
From boarding in Barcelona, and a night at sea, our first port of call on our voyage of the western Mediterranean was France’s second city, Marseille. MSC offered excursions to the nearby Provençal city of Aix-en-Provence and the fishing village of Cassis; but I decided to go it alone and explore. One of the benefits of cruising in Europe is that the destinations are so easy to discover at your own pace.
Marseille may not have the glamour or style of her neighbours a little further east on the Côte d’Azur, but she more than makes up for it with genuine soul. This gritty city is refreshingly uncontrived and is full of surprises.
Here I took my morning coffee, a classic café noisette, on a terrace in the tiny ‘Place Marie de Anges’, in the old ‘Panier’ district, at a rickety wooden table, decorated with lavender in a small metal bucket. The adjacent rue du refuge is an odd mix of inner city old town and a burgeoning arts scene.
Old workshops are now small art galleries, and I spent time chatting with ‘atelier galleries’ owner Catherine, learning about the city’s cultural and economic renaissance.
Dinner & Dancing
Dinner has served with Italian flair on-board. The multiple course meals, served in the formal dining rooms exceeded expectations, with almost all dished prepared freshly. In addition to the wine list, there is also a Sommelier selection including international vintages and organic Italian wines. In fact, one doesn’t have to eat each night in your allocated dining room. There are speciality restaurants such as the themed ‘Santa Fe’ venue that serves US steaks, Tex Mex dishes and great margaritas. There is room service dining too, as well as the 24 hour buffets.
During the voyage, I ventured up to deck 14 to check out the buffet – the presentation was excellent, but of course this is one of the few places on the ship where you realise you are travelling with a lot of other people. The buffet restaurant was busy, but the food surprisingly good; just as well I maintained my commitment to run in the gym on-board for 30 minutes every day!
Night-time is when a cruise ship becomes special; with a vibrancy and atmosphere that reminds you that this is a fun vacation. The lively Aft Lounge as well as the rooftop disco club and bar are for the lively party animals, whilst the cocktail bars, Piano bar, and cigar lounge provided venues for those looking for a mellower atmosphere. Also, each evening a different show is performed twice in the cavernous theatre, a themed spectacle based on dance and music.
Later, in Genoa I had time to savour a flavour of this often overlooked port, the largest in Italy. The almond cake treats ‘Amaretti di Voltaggio’ must be tried, so stop by Pasticceria Liquoeria Marescotti di Cavo, in via Fossatello, for an authentic experience and chat to owner Linda who will tell you more about the city.
Or have your coffee personalised by Alesandro Osemont, owner of Bar Delle Vigne, near the cathedral. He has quietly become a city institution, creating art and humour with his designs on the milk froth of your coffee.
The old quarter has many ornate palaces to discover and plenty of artisan food, sweets and gift stores to keep you busy.
Of course the ship stops in Genoa to allow guests to visit the celebrity favourite, Portofino, a short boat trip or car journey from the port.
On-board MSC has tried to recreate some of that Portofino exclusivity with ‘The Yacht Club’, a boutique hotel within the cruise liner. Located at the privileged front of the ship, it has exclusive cabins, a private lounge bar where one can take English afternoon tea served by a butler; and also a dedicated high-end, speciality restaurant ‘L’Olivo’, serving dishes from the Mediterranean and North Africa. All-in-all, as a Yacht Club guest you feel like a movie star relaxing on the Italian Riviera. I have to admit to being seduced by the luxurious ambiance!
In Naples we were greeted by the sight of Mount Vesuvius, and a visit to the ancient city of Pompeii was a requisite.
I opted to take the MSC Cruceros excursion to the city, as time was short and I wasn’t willing to miss anything, including the boat! An air-conditioned bus with guide whisked us down the ‘autostrada’ to Pompeii and the marvels of this preserved community, destroyed by toxic volcanic gas and buried beneath ash and pumice in 79 AD.
Considering that MSC is an Italian line, I guess it’s understandable that the cruise had three stops in Italy, but it was the last port of call, Tunis that I was also excited to visit.
I am fascinated by North African culture, architecture and food, and I’d never before visited Tunisia. As the ship docked, the sound of musicians filled the air. La Goulette port was taking our arrival quite seriously, with a full roll out of its tourist welcome paraphernalia, including a band and camals!
We avoided the over-priced cabs waiting by the port and walked down towards the town and soon found a tout that was offering a cab at a good price. So we designed our own itinerary to see the best of Tunis, including:
The downtown area (where evidence of the Arab Spring was still clear); the souks (quite disappointing to be fair with far too many tacky products for sale);
the impressive ruins of Carthage;
and also the picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said.
Sidi Bou Said was a fishing village, but now presents itself much like an open air museum and tourist theme park. However we managed to get to the village very early in the morning, before the day trippers had arrived and the formal cruise line tours had begun to fill the narrow streets, so the village really had a wonderful atmosphere.
But probably my most lasting memory will be those extraordinarily clear waters lapping the shoreline at Taormina, where Luc Besson had filmed so many of the scenes for ‘Le Grande Bleu’.
I was hosted by MSC (excluding excursions and expenses) but this has not influenced by piece. I remain independent in my opinion of the cruise line and can say I had an excellent experience.
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