Thursday, October 31, 2013

October 30th – Malta’s Three Cities

Malta may only be a tiny island, but it packs a hell of a lot of history and beautiful sights into its small area. Just sailing into Valletta's massive Grand Harbour is a great introduction to Malta's history – the huge walls and fortifications, their golden stones glinting in the sun, a reminder of the epic battles and sieges that this town has witnessed.

I went a tour that took us away from the major set pieces of Valletta itself, over to the other side of the harbour, to the "Three Cities" of Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa. This is where the Knights of St John set up their first base when they arrived in 1530, and so, this part of town contains some of their oldest buildings in its atmospheric streets.

After the Knights had repelled the Turks in the Great Siege of 1565, they set up a new (even grander) town in Valletta, across the harbour; and this side of the harbour has been a bit of a backwater ever since. The British did concentrate their naval base on this side of the harbour too, but after they left in the 1960s, all those grand buildings began to deteriorate.

These days, the Three Cities are slowly being gentrified, and those historic streets are great to explore, away from the tourist hordes who tend to concentrate around Valletta's star attractions. After a very pleasant walking tour, we took to the water as we climbed into the traditional little ferry boats that used to shuttle across the harbour, as we did a tour around the Grand Harbour – the harbour was at its most picturesque in the morning sun, and it's certainly a different experience to being on a cruise ship - we were dwarfed next to the Silver Spirit.

Our tour ended with a visit to the beautiful little fishing village of Marsaxlokk – its sun-drenched harbour bobbing with colourful old fishing boats, and its waterfront cafes just perfect for a seafood lunch.

Another day blessed by unseasonably warm weather – long may it continue.

October 29th – At Sea With a Lovely Sunset

This cruise is a culinary cruise, which meant that there were tastings and cooking demonstrations all around the ship (in addition to some excellent Destination Lectures!); so a lovely day at sea was rounded off by a spectacular sunset over the glassy Mediterranean, with a couple of porpoises jumping away in the distance.

Great food, good entertainment, wonderful views – this is what cruising's all about.

October 28th – Oyster Tasting in Dubrovnik

When there's a lot of cruise ships in, Dubrovnik can become a bit overwhelmed with tourists – its historic streets chock-a-block with tour groups. Which was why, with 5 ships in today, it was a good idea to join a tour out of town that took us along the beautiful Croatian coastline to sample some of the wonderful food and wine they produce here.

We first went to a traditional farm where they showed us how olive oil was produced in the old days – a cute white horse driving the stone press that ground the olives, before a couple of us were roped in to powering the final press of the ground olives. This incredibly labour-intensive ancient press was still in use right up until the 1990s, and the farmer told us how glad he was to now use the mechanised press in the village co-operative instead, even if he did prefer the taste of the old style olive oil.

By 10.30am, we were tasting his home-produced olive oil, ham and cheese and drinking wine, which rather set the tone for the rest of the day – a day of culinary indulgence. We then drove onto the medieval city of Ston (appropriately enough, its ancient buildings and amazing city walls that snaked up the mountainside were all made out of grey stone); and here, we got a chance to taste the freshest of fresh mussels and oysters. We took a boat out to the oyster beds in the tranquil bay, and they fished out a rope of oysters and mussels, picked the largest ones, opened them up, and served them straight up for us.

Eating raw shellfish can be a bit of a worry, but when they have literally come straight out of the water, that must be as safe as it gets – and as tasty as it gets too, they were creamy and delicious. After a plateful of these fresh oysters on the boat, it turned out that this was just the hors d'oevres, as we went straight to a local restaurant, to eat yet more oysters (fried this time), plus seafood risotto and pasta, washed down with more wine.

In spite of vowing that I'd never eat again, somehow I still managed a big meal in the evening – cruising does stretch the stomach.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

October 27th – A Unique Urban Landscape in Split

Split is a remarkable place to visit. The setting is lovely – the sun glints off its marble buildings with the cloud covered mountains as a dramatic backdrop; while its lovely palm-fringed waterfront, lined with lively cafes, always makes it a great place to go for a stroll. But, what makes Split unique, is that the city has all grown out an Ancient Roman imperial palace.

Unlike other Roman sites where the remains of its ancient wonders lie in ruins or under the ground, here that ancient palace is still very much a part of the fabric of the city, and is easily recognisable in its buildings and its street layout. Back in the 3rd century AD, the Emperor Diocletian decided that he wanted to retire from the stresses and strains of being Rome's supreme leader, and so he headed back to the land of his birth to build a palatial retirement home here in Split. The magnificent palace he built was surrounded by tall walls, covered in marble, and decorated with columns from Greece and sphinxes from Egypt – all of which still are visible on the streets of modern Split.

That so much survives is down to the fact that, after the Fall of the Roman Empire, ordinary people immediately moved into the palace complex, changed its buildings into houses and shops, converted its temples into churches, and recycled its columns in their new additions to the city. So, unlike my other favourite Roman sites - Pompeii, Ephesus or Leptis Magna - this is a living, breathing city, where the old Roman elements are just everyday parts of the urban infrastructure.

After exploring this amazing Roman relic that doubles as a vibrant city, we decided that we hadn't done enough walking for the day, so we foolishly trekked up the green Marjan Hill behind the city, to get the best views over Split's wonderful natural setting. Fortunately, after a couple of days of autumn in Venice and Koper, the sun has returned now that we're heading south, but this did mean that it was sweaty going climbing up the steep hill, although the views more than compensated for it.

Another great day in another fascinating city.

October 26th – Exploring Slovenia’s Venetian History

You'd have thought that three days' trekking around the mean streets of Venice would have satiated our desire to see Winged Lions, Venetian Campanile, and all things Venetian; however, our stay in Koper in Slovenia, gave us a chance to explore yet more Venetian heritage. That's because, for most of its history, Slovenia's tiny stretch of coastline was dominated by Italian influences – it was a Roman province for 3 centuries, it was a part of the Venetian Empire for 5 centuries, and it was a part of Italy between the Two World Wars. In fact, right up until 1945, most of Koper's residents were ethnic Italian, and even now, the city is officially bi-lingual.

It's not often that you get to explore a country's entire coastline in the space of a morning, but seeing as Slovenia has only 29 miles of coast, we were able to get the bus up and down most of its length, with time to stop off and explore 3 attractive little towns. Plus, the great thing about Slovenia is that it has just about the best infrastructure of all the former Eastern bloc countries, so its roads are great, its towns are clean and well organised, and its buses are super punctual.

From Koper (known as Capodistria to Italians), we caught the bus to the beautiful little town of Piran (Pirano) – a little Venetian gem wedged onto a peninsula on the Adriatic pointing out to Venice. The town was so gorgeous that Tracy was only off the bus for 3 minutes before she uttered the words, "I could live here", although her enthusiasm was slightly tempered by how deathly quiet the place was (very different to how lively it gets in the summer months).

Our next stop was Izola (Isola), which wasn't quite as picture-perfect as Piran, but had a bit more life going on – its bric-a-brac market seemed to be full of ex-Yugoslavian military uniforms and equipment, which would have been useful if we'd been going to a Balkan War-themed fancy dress party, but not very tempting otherwise.

Finally we got back to Koper, which with 25,000 people is the largest town on the coast, even if there wasn't much evidence of its population on the streets, seeing as all the shops shut on a Saturday afternoon. Nevertheless, it's quite an attractive place considering that it's a busy working port, and it had all the Venetian elements to tick off – tall campanile, elegant loggia, impressive palazzo, and pizza restaurants everywhere.

On an autumnal day, we probably didn't see this coastline at its best, but our putative road trip plans for next year are now under review – we may be coming back to Slovenia sooner than we thought!

Friday, October 25, 2013

October 23rd to 25th – Three Magnificent Days in Venice

Sailing into Venice's Lagoon and approaching the city by sea has got to be one of the great arrivals in travel. As you approach the city, it slowly uncloaks itself from the haze, and the bell towers and domes of its magnificent buildings come into focus.

This slow, atmospheric approach presents a few problems to the Destination Lecturer who's up on the bridge giving a narration over the ship's tannoy, explaining what we're seeing. At the start, it's all so serene that you're having to think up things to say, but once you're on the approach to St Mark's there's so many amazing sights to point out, left side, right side and up ahead, that you're struggling to keep up with them all.

If it was slightly exhausting for me, giving this running commentary, then this set the pattern for the next three days – at the end of each day exploring this treasure trove of a city, our feet were absolutely killing us, as we covered virtually every square inch of La Serinissima.

After some amazing weather for most of this cruise, autumn has finally caught up with us, so it was a bit cooler for the first couple of days, and then the whole city was shrouded in dense fog for much of our third day (this made those narrow alleyways and quiet canals even more atmospheric). Actually, our trip here was pretty well-timed, because the Venice Biennale was going on, which meant that in addition to the main pavilions, there were lots of exhibitions going on all around the city – many of them in old palazzi turned over to the different countries participating. Not only did this mean we got a chance to see some thought-provoking art (plus some pretty weird and wacky stuff too), but we also got to poke around some interesting buildings that are normally shut to the public. The added bonus was the majority of them had toilets for the weak-bladdered tourist to duck into.

Over these last three days, we must have visited more churches than the holiest pilgrim, seen more art than the keenest art critic, seen more canal scenes than Canaletto, and bumped into more nationalities than the doorman at the United Nations – but, the city was never less than breathtaking, and its sights never less than fascinating.

Venice is unique. What an amazing city to visit.