It’s just gone six in the morning, and a fair number of the MSC Splendida’s 4000-odd passengers are up, stifling yawns beneath skies streaked with the pinks and purples of a new day.
Word had evidently spread through the ship the night before that this was worth getting up for, and there’s no disappointment. The gentle drift into the old port of Valetta, Malta’s sandstone capital guarded by quaint old forts and rising hills, is breathtaking and ultimately proves the pick of the seven ports we docked in during a week discovering - and falling hopelessly, helplessly in love with - the Mediterranean.
Having spent one thoroughly enjoyable (and unashamedly hedonistic) night on the Sinfonia in port in Durban to herald last year’s new cruise season, and quickly acquired a taste for luxury life at sea as a result, it didn’t take long for a more substantial voyage to take shape. The only challenge was where.
The Caribbean is a little distant for South Africans with a tight schedule (and a fear of being surrounded by large, loud Americans in suffocating numbers), so the Mediterranean is an obvious alternative. But even then there’s plenty to toy with.
Greek island hopping, Adriatic adventures, exploring the Aegean; a lengthy (and hugely enjoyable) debate, but in the end a simple western Mediterranean route was settled upon: Barcelona, Tunis, Malta, Sicily, Roma, Genoa and Marseilles, before ending up back in the Catalan capital.
A touch of regret
Barcelona is a destination in itself; one of Europe’s most intoxicating cities.
A late afternoon stroll down Las Ramblas, stopping for sangria and grande cerveza and drifting through the shuffling crowds, is as delightfully lazy a pastime as Spain offers. Gazing up at the unfinished majesty of La Familia, Gaudi’s mad architectural misadventure, strolling through the constant buzz of the port and its surrounds, finding a seafood restaurant to overindulge in at leisure. Of all the cities I’ve spent time in, Barcelona is the one I’d return to quickest.
A touch of regret, then, in sailing out on a warm blue-skied Monday morning, but any remorse was more than offset by the destinations in store. Starting with the most exotic - but ultimately the most disappointing.
Tunis was my maiden taste of north Africa, but the charm suggested by Casablanca and Egypt wasn’t in store. Instead, a visit to the distinctly underwhelming remains of Carthage, tramping about some meagre ruins with tourist hordes, followed by running the gauntlet that is Tunis’s market district.
Invasive salesmen clearly in cahoots with our supposedly independent tour guide (who just happened to know the price of everything in the stores we were corralled into) made for an experience reminiscent of the markets of Port Louis in Mauritius. Coupled with drizzle and grey skies over this plain and unappealing city, Tunis was quickly marked down as a once-off destination.
And perhaps that added to the allure of Malta the following morning, the delightful antithesis of the Tunisian capital. From the 1950’s orange British buses that look like animated caricatures from the movie Cars, to the unhurried feel of the narrow streets and shuttered windows, Valetta is delightful.
History runs richly through a city guarded by old cannons and fortified ramparts, intertwined with palm trees and the serene Barakka Gardens, and innumerable churches - including St. John’s Cathedral, which dates back to the Knights of Malta.
Ornate and opulent with its stain glass, the cathedral is home to a collection of Caravaggios… a throwback to the time the Italian artist and scoundrel spent on the island after fleeing Italy, having murdered a man in a bar brawl.
South African surprise in Malta
Nothing nearly so alarming seems remotely possible in Valetta, or indeed Malta as a whole; half an hour in a bus to another smaller town, Mdina, ‘the silent town’, and it was more sedate streets and old churches, and one particular highlight for holidaying South Africans.
At the end of a maze of narrow passages, we stumbled upon a wine bar offering simple Mediterranean fare, surprisingly drinkable Maltese wine and - to our amazement - a Simonsig chenin blanc and a Klein Zalze merlot; Stellenbosch wines somehow finding their way to a hidden corner of the Mediterranean.
From one island to another, and the first of three stops in Italy. Messina, on Sicily’s north coast, is pleasant but unremarkable; head inland to the village Taormina, however, and the island gets decidedly more interesting. Passing the village ‘The Godfather’ was filmed in (a reminder of the mafia territory you’re in), Taormina sits atop a hill looking down over stretches of blue ocean, and has as its defining feature an ancient Graeco-Roman amphitheatre that’s in partial ruin. It’s still maintained, though, and hosts regular open-air concerts; under the stars with the ocean as a backdrop, it must make for a most arresting venue.
Taormina also provided our first pizza in Italy, a simple margarita with thick slices of sausage - lighter in base than what we’re used to, and while not blindingly better than anything you’d find at Borusso’s in Cape Town or Trabella in Johannesburg, it was pizza eaten in Italian, which equates to Guinness drunk in Dublin for authenticity to relish. And it was markedly better than the second Italian pizza: a large, oily slice of cheese and dough at a tourist trap across the road from the Coliseum.
Page 2: Setting sail for Civitavecchia