We were never a couple to take a last-minute travel offer. But when we discovered a 12-day Oceania Mediterranean cruise online departing in just three weeks to several ports that had long been on our bucket list, we were interested. Airfare, ground tours and other amenities proved too enticing, and we booked our passage on the Riviera in November 2017.
Before sailing from Barcelona, Spain, we had time to visit Basilica Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), an internationally acclaimed, eccentric architect. Work commenced on his fanciful gothic-inspired church in1882, but completion is not expected until the late 2020s, when the church will accommodate 13,000 people and become the tallest in the world.
In Marseille, France, weather had been pleasant. But after visiting Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, one of the marquee churches of France, the mistral wind began to blow. The gale originates inland and can reach 100-plus miles an hour. With arms intertwined, and walking at a 45-degree angle, it was a struggle to board the bus returning to the Riviera.
Disembarking at Monte Carlo in the Principality of Monaco, we purchased tickets on a “hop on/hop off” bus that followed the winding path of the prestigious Grand Prix Formula One race staged annually since 1929. We got off at the Saint Nicholas Cathedral to visit the grave of American actress Princess Grace.
I had often seen photos of the yachts docked in Monte Carlo harbor, and it was surreal to see the huge private boats up close. Most owners were Russian billionaires or Middle Eastern royalty. For example, we saw the 344-foot Lady Moura mega-yacht owned by Saudi Arabian businessman Nasser Al-Rashid.
At every port, Oceania offered as many as 10 different tours, but twice we made our own arrangements. In Rome, Davide Bolognesi of Roma Experience Tours (Romaexperience.com) whisked us to his small group tour of the Vatican, which included visiting the Sistine Chapel where the College of Cardinals has gathered to elect a new pope since 1492.
Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling, working on it from1508 until1512, returning in his 60s to add his fresco of “The Last Judgment.”
Our guide instructed us where to look for the likeness Michelangelo had painted of himself, and other “secret” images the artist incorporated into his masterpiece.
Expecting a cozy “chapel,” we instead entered into a 132- by 44-foot-wide room, with 68-foot ceilings, crowded with hundreds of people, heads tilted upward. Guards roamed through the crowd proclaiming “silencio,” so later we were startled when told that U2’s guitarist The Edge had performed a live concert in the room in 2016.
At the circular 1555 Pretoria Fountain in Palermo, Sicily, a friendly gentleman with a pleasant smile began speaking to us in Italian. Soon the word "mafia" crept into his narrative, accompanied by a slashing gesture across his throat. This was repeated several times, always followed by a robust "welcome to Palermo" in English. We were never certain what we were being told, but it was comforting to return to the safety of the Riviera.
The three Adriatic Sea ports of Kotor, Montenegro, Koper in Slovenia and Dubrovnik, Croatia, were notable for their exceptionally well-preserved, medieval-walled villages. Narrow cobblestone passageways leading to unexpected courtyards and churches imparted a sensation of being transported back in time 500 years.
The Riviera’s route into Kotor’s harbor was a 17-mile inlet surrounded by mountains, a particularly beautiful sight. We will also remember Kotor for the cat herds roaming inside the walled city, the many shops selling only cat-themed merchandise, and the Cat Museum.
Dubrovnik was notable for the one-plus mile walk along the top of the medieval wall encircling the city, and visits to several Game of Thrones film locations.
In Koper, Ivan Tratnik of Istranka Tours (www.istranka.si) escorted us to Postojna Cave and Predjama Castle. Every hour, miniature trains take 700 people on a journey deep into the 7-mile underground labyrinth and the beginning of an hour walking tour.
The 1570 castle was an engineering marvel, built clinging to the side of a sheer rock cliff. Inside, many rooms had been chiseled into the rock face.
We extended our trip by three days in Venice, where “real life” along the canals was captivating. The waterways were crowded with narrow work boats laden with construction materials and delivery boats the equivalent of Federal Express trucks. The Grand Canal, the main waterway, resembled a six-lane water highway with boats using any lane headed in either direction, and also zig-zagging from one canal side to the other.
I had never thought about Venice at night. But as darkness fell and lights in windows of the palazzos along the canals came on, and the running lights of boats were reflected off the water, a beautiful scene appeared.
Another surprise was discovering that a high tide and rain can flood parts of Venice, including the most popular tourist site, St. Mark’s Square. Portable elevated walkways are put in place to funnel tourists above the water and across the huge plaza.
Oceania advertises its food as “the finest cuisine on the sea,” and the five restaurants on board, which served Asian, French, Italian, steaks and continental cuisine, lived up to the claim. Set menus helped with portion control, except you could order several entrees and desserts if desired.
Romanian Emil Alexandrescu was the Riviera’s food and beverage manager. “Each of the entrées is only repeated after 14 days,” he told me. “Our kitchens are twice the size of most cruise ships to accommodate our variety of food.”
The hard-working, congenial crew was also a memorable highlight. They were always smiling and seemed to thoroughly enjoy their jobs.
Following the final evening’s entertainment, cruise director Peter Roberts from England announced that the crew originated from 50 nations. Then, 300 of the 800 crew members entered to the song “When the Saints Go Marching In,” joining Roberts on stage.
"No matter what your political or religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, we only wish everyone could sail with us to experience what the world could, and should, be like,” he said.
He received a standing ovation.
If you go
Oceania fares vary by itinerary, season, cabin and current promotional offers. Cruise-only prices range from $799 per person in an inside stateroom on a seven-day cruise, to $135,399 for a 180-day Around the World cruise in the Owner's Suite.
More details: oceaniacruises.com/