But a day is just enough to see a little of the city that’s influenced so much of modern civilisation, and to breathe in the history of Italy’s capital. The Coliseum is hypnotic when it first comes into view, and once inside the magnitude of the ancient stadium is staggering. The artefacts in the corridors are a vivid illustration of times when it was gladiators, not tourists craning for better photo opportunities, who did battle here.
Much of Rome was missed, including the underground aqueducts part of another tour option for the day (and one the historian in me so nearly opted for), but coins were duly tossed into the Trevi fountain, which local lore means I’ll return to Rome, and so the aqueducts will be visited then. As will the Pope, hopefully: he wasn’t around on the Friday we were in town, despite the presence of terribly important South African visitors.
But even without its defining citizen, the Vatican City is an extraordinary place to visit. The size of St. Peter’s Square makes envisioning it packed with people unnerving; there’s also the familiarity of one of modern culture’s iconic locations that adds to the awe for the first-time visitor.
The heathen in heaven
But it’s St. Peter’s Basilica that’s the real star turn, a cavernous temple bedecked in artwork, with beautiful ceilings and structures, and a sense of calm and serenity unusual for a building so immense. Catholic or otherwise (and I’m an established heathen), it’s impossible not to feel moved by a visit to so holy and wondrous a place.
A different type of worship plays out further up the west coast of Italy: from Genoa, our penultimate stop, we took a bus to Santa Margherita Ligure, and from there a ferry to Portofino, summer playground of Italy’s elite.
Both Gabbana and Dolce have summer homes here, as does Giorgio Armani, and there’s a Riviera feel to the place with moored yachts and mansions behind trees. The walk to the top of the hill above the village offered some of the best views we had all week, and in mid-summer (as opposed to our autumnal visit), you’d imagine all roads in Italy no longer lead to Rome.
The final port we docked in should have been Marseilles, but the workers in the port were all on strike, and so the harbour was closed. A pity, as I’d wanted to see the city, and already had a tour to Aix-en-Provence booked.
Quiet Sundays in the home of Cezanne
But that’s where we headed after docking in Villefrance-sur-Mer further along the coast. And while Marseilles was missed, Aix was the ideal spot to conclude the Mediterranean week.
Sunday mornings in the former home of French post-impressionist Paul Cezanne are quiet and low tempo, even when a busload of tourists is decanted in the heart of the old town, and the stroll through the streets was almost eerie in its solitude.
But by mid-morning the local markets had set up, and for the gastronome, local markets in the south of France make for glorious opportunities to pick and taste amongst the cheeses, truffles, sausages and other produce on offer.
The only sadness is not being able to bring any of it home; an authentic croque monsieur with a glass of local red in Les Deux Garçons (supposedly Cezanne’s favourite café), and a couple of scarves at a last market before the bus back to the cruise, and both Aix-en-Provence, and our fleeting tours of new places, had ended almost before they’d started.
That each visit is so brief is the major downside of exploring a region via a cruise ship, but in one week we covered an extraordinary breadth of the Mediterranean, found out what we did and didn’t like, and thanks to colourful, often eccentric local guides, learnt as much about a town or city as you could hope to in just a few hours.
Rome will be re-visited, and one day I’ll be back to Malta with an eye open for South African wine in unlikely places. And cruise ships will be returned to just as eagerly. Norwegian fjords, Alaska, even the Caribbean - there’ll be the occasional Tunis, perhaps, but from this evidence, far more Maltas.
Dan travelled on the MSC Splendida. Daily excursions ranged from €50-130 per person; four to five excursion options per day, with guides in assorted languages available. Visit www.msccruises.com.