Cruising The Mediterranean Sea For 12 Days
One of the most enjoyable and cost-efficient ways of seeing many of the highlights of southern Europe is on Mediterranean cruises.
I used Rome as my pre- and post-cruise base not only because it's one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the world to explore for a few days, but because it's a relaxing 80-minute train ride to the port town of Civitavecchia, where many cruise ships dock.
The Carnival Freedom was my ship of choice, particularly for its itinerary, but also for its food and recreation options, choice of bars and other amenities.
The first stop was the Italian city of Naples, from which we took a 30-minute train ride to the ruins of Pompeii, which was home to 30,000 people before it was brought to a halt after the 79 AD eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius volcano. You can easily spend the whole day wandering around the 45 hectares that have been excavated since the site was discovered in 1748.
A day at sea was followed by a day in a city I'd never been to before but instantly became one of my favourites: Dubrovnik, Croatia. The best way to take it all in is by walking around the top of the 1,940 metres of walls — including bastions, casemates, towers and detached forts — that enclose the old part of the city. The walls were built from the ninth to 14th centuries, are up to 25 metres in height, and offer breathtaking views of both the old buildings in the interior (some of which have been rebuilt after a 1978 earthquake and shelling from the 1992 civil war that broke up the former Yugoslavia) and the sea.
Dubrovnik is across the Adriatic Sea from the world's most renowned city of canals: Venice, Italy. The Freedom docked there overnight, allowing two days to explore all of the nooks and crannies of the difficult-to-navigate (especially at night) but romantic city. I'd previously visited Venice in the summer, but preferred it this second time in mid-October. It's not as hot, there are fewer tourists to deal with and the canals don't smell as bad.
Another day at sea took us to the Italian island of Sicily, which is southwest of the boot-shaped country's toe. The ship docked in Messina, which I walked around for about an hour. But a scenic hour-long train ride took me to the picturesque hilltop town of Taormina, about 200 metres above sea level. I first visited the Greek Theatre, parts of which date as far back as the third century B.C. You can see Europe's highest active volcano, Mount Etna, from there on a clear day. The rest of my time was spent strolling around the quaint town, where parts of The Godfather was filmed.
It was time to hit the open sea for another day before we arrived in another one of my favourite cities: Barcelona, Spain. The incredible Antonio Gaudi architecture is enough of a draw, but the city's other subtle charms will draw you in and make you want to return. I've been there three times and would have no objections to a fourth visit.
The Freedom was supposed to dock in Monte Carlo, which I'd been to before, but rain and rough seas made that impossible. We went to the Italian city of Genoa instead. Aside from knowing that Christopher Columbus was from there, I had little knowledge of Genoa and no desire to go there. But it has three walking routes — Medieval, Renaissance and Marina — and we took them all. There's lots of history and beautiful architecture to take in, and I now have no problems recommending Genoa.
Our next port was the Italian coastal city of Livorno. There's little to see there, so we took a 20-minute train ride to Pisa. It was a 20-minute walk from the station to the city's most notable structure, the infamous leaning tower. The surrounding cathedrals at the site were also worthwhile, but the rest of the city lacks much character so we returned to the train station and continued our journey with an hour-long ride to Florence.
The Duomo is one of the most spectacular buildings I've ever seen, and it helped put Florence in perspective for me as a great city, even without seeing the art masterpieces in its numerous museums and galleries. There was lots of other stunning architecture to take in during the four hours we got to spend in Florence before returning on the train back to Livorno.
The 12-day cruise returned to where it started, Civitavecchia, and from there it was back to enjoy the wonders of Rome for two more days.