Wednesday, April 14, 2010 - Valletta, Malta: After our individual arrivals we made our own way to the comfortable Grand Hotel Excelsior just outside the walls of the city of Valletta situated on the northeastern coast of the island. In the afternoon many of us set out to explore the ancient city while some rested after the long journey to the Mediterranean. In the evening we enjoyed a welcome cocktail party and dinner.
Thursday, April 15, 2010 - Valletta / Embark Island Sky: Today was reserved for a full-day excursion in Malta. We left the hotel for a panoramic drive through the center of the island towards Mdina, the old capital. This is a wonderfully preserved town and we wandered around the quiet streets admiring the lovely colors of pale yellow local limestone that had weathered over the centuries. We visited the cathedral in St. Paul’s Square and admired the beauties inside the church, including the vividly colored gravestones where church dignitaries are buried. We proceeded to the important megalithic religious temple of Hagar Qim, built between 3500 and 3000 B.C. We then took a short trip to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk for a delicious Maltese lunch in a local restaurant.
In the afternoon we explored Malta’s current capital, Valletta,and took a scenic walk including a visit to the beautiful Barracca Gardens to enjoy panoramic views of the Grand Harbor. We also visited the Co-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, whose centerpiece is a beautiful and poignant painting by Caravaggio; the National Museum of Archaeology housed in what was once one of the knightly auberges; and took a scenic drive around the bastions of Valletta and past the fort of St. Elmo, the defense of which was pivotal in the great siege of 1565 when the island was attacked by the Ottoman Turks, who were eventually driven off. Our tour ended at the pier to board our ship, Island Sky, which was moored at a spectacular location in the Grand Harbor itself.
Friday, April 16 - Syracuse, Sicily, Italy: We arrived at Syracuse early in the morning and after breakfast disembarked to explore the town. The first part of our tour was to the underground basilica of St. John where we saw the extensive catacombs, noting the different sized tombs according to the age of the person interred inside. We then went to the famous Greek Theater with a remarkable cave that served as a sound box for the actors, amplifying their voices so that they could be clearly heard by the audience. We returned to the ship and the hardy went on a walking tour to the local Cathedral of the Virgin Mary. This cathedral is remarkable since it had been a pagan temple, an Orthodox Church, and then a Roman Catholic Church. Others visited the famous Archaeological Museum of Syracuse where they admired the wonderful collection of Greek artifacts and models of the Greek Temples that so adorned the town in the centuries before Christ.
In the afternoon our lecture program commenced with Peter Zika speaking on Sex and the Single Flower. He was followed by Allan Langdale whose topic was Archaeology and Architecture at Butrint, Albania. In the evening we had the captain’s reception and welcome dinner—a wonderful end to the day.
Saturday, April 17 - Saranda, Albania / Butrint: Our lecture program continued with Hector Williams speaking on Ali Pasha of Ioannina: Albanian War Lord or Balkan Hero?, followed by Olga Stone’s presentation Heracles, Psyche and Others: Myths and Legends in Art. Her topic was illustrated not only with visual images, but also with a piano music performance.
During lunch we docked at the little port of Saranda in southern Albania and we were delighted to be the only cruise ship in the harbor. The main attraction of the region is the ancient ruins of Butrint about 15 miles down the coast. Originally a Greek settlement, it fell under the Romans and then under the Byzantines. It was the seat of an Orthodox bishop in the 10th century and then was occupied by the Venetians followed by the Ottoman Turks who controlled it until 1913. The site was a kaleidoscope of different styles—many, such as the 6th-century Orthodox baptistery and the contemporary Basilica, were very well preserved. The ruins are set on a charming peninsula in lovely green woods.
On the way back to Saranda we ascended the precipitous hill leading to Lekuresi Castle where we admired panoramic views, enjoyed cocktails, and listened to music presented by a string trio. Descending the hill into the town we visited the site of the ancient synagogue of Saranda, now just foundations, and reached our ship in good time for an evening recap. This was the first recap of our trip and we appreciated the efforts of our lecturers in bringing the day’s events to life.
Sunday, April 18 - Durres / Tirana: Today we split into two groups for our visit to Albania. Those with archaeological interests visited an important site near the port of Durres where there was an early amphitheater which houses an 8th-century Byzantine Chapel. The second group went straight to Tirana for an extended visit to the National Museum to learn about the complex history of the country, followed by a walk along the main boulevard towards the restaurant, where both groups reconvened. In addition to a delicious meal, we all enjoyed a vibrant folkloric performance. We then visited the hilltop town of Kruja where the highlight was the castle of the national hero, Scanderbeg. Within the fortress was an informative ethnographical museum while outside the gates was a superb bazaar. We then headed back to the ship for a recap and dinner. After dinner Olga presented a piano recital entitled Sounds of Italy in which she played, to great acclaim, pieces by Liszt, Scarlatti, Rachmaninov, and Sidney Smith.
Monday, April 19 - Kotor, Montenegro / Dubrovnik, Croatia: Early in the morning we entered the deep inlet of the Adriatic Sea upon which Kotor is situated. For centuries, until 1797, this was a Venetian stronghold and the secure and sheltered anchorages made it an important maritime center. We divided ourselves into two groups and the larger of these took a walking tour of the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Highlights were St. Tryphon’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic), St Luke’s Church (Orthodox), and the Maritime Museum. The tour concluded for the hardy with an ascent to the old castle overlooking the town where we enjoyed sensational views. The smaller group took a trip up the coast to visit the small village of Perast. Here they boarded a boat for the short passage to a small, man-made island and the tiny Church of Our Lady of the Rock.
We sailed for Dubrovnik soon after lunch and our lecture program continued in the afternoon with Susan Langley speaking on Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Piracy and Underwater Archaeology in the Adriatic. She was followed by Allan whose topic was the Palace of Diocletian at Split. We enjoyed a ‘Sailing to Croatia’ cocktail party which was shortly followed by our arrival in Dubrovnik. Some opted for a late evening stroll around this fascinating town.
Tuesday, April 20 - Dubrovnik: Today was devoted to exploring the old city of Dubrovnik and the adjacent countryside. We arrived within the walls at an early hour and had a guided walk around the highlights. We visited the Dominican Monastery, which still functions with four monks in residence, and the cathedral which is the third on the site, the first two having been destroyed by earthquakes. We then took a walk around the walls that surround the city. We were all amazed at how well the buildings damaged in the hostilities of the early 1990s had been repaired and at the cleanliness of the entire city. It was obvious that the inhabitants took great pride in their World Heritage Site home.
In the afternoon some of us returned to Dubrovnik to continue enjoying this delightful city while others set off on a visit to the small seaside village of Cavtat, featuring an ancient Franciscan church from the 15th century and a large cemetery. Then, we drove to the Konavle Valley where we visited a functioning, but antique, mill situated in beautiful countryside. Here we enjoyed some local delicacies and the one that made the most profound impression on many of us was the fierce, local walnut brandy!
A second group paid a visit to Bosnia-Herzogovina, the border of which is only a very few miles from Dubrovnik. After crossing both borders we arrived at the town Trednije and visited two churches—a completely new church and monastery that had been built as a replica of an ancient one in Kossovo, followed by a 4th-century one originally built by the Emperor Constantine which contained portions of the true cross first identified by St. Helena, Constantine’s mother. Then we descended into a wine cellar where we sampled two of the local wines with a glass of the local brandy. Thus fortified we returned to the ship. In the evening we had the traditional recap followed by an excellent Island Sky dinner.
Wednesday, April 21 - Korcula Island / Split: We awoke to find the Island Sky tied up seemingly in the middle of the little town of Korcula. We disembarked and had an early morning walking tour of this old and extremely well-preserved settlement. We admired the layout of the streets designed to prevent the ingress of cold east winds while permitting that of the warmer ones from the west. Highlights included a visit to the House of the Brotherhood of All Saints, and to the adjacent Church where we enjoyed an a capella concert presented by four excellent local singers.
We re-embarked and during the passage to Split, our next destination, we continued our lecture program. First, Ian Stone spoke on Diocletian’s Legacy and after a delicious barbeqeue lunch, Susan addressed the question To Bee or Not To Bee?, a survey of ancient bee keeping. In the afternoon we again divided ourselves into two groups. The first set off on a detailed exploration of Diocletian’s Palace at Split while the second went to visit the ancient city of Salona in which Diocletian had been born.
Thursday, April 22 - Sibenik: Today we visited Krka National Park with the Krka River, famous in Croatia for its spectacular waterfalls. A short drive took us to the park. One group descended into the valley to walk through some lovely river-side scenery and then boarded a boat for a short voyage along it. The second group admired the scenery from a viewpoint specially constructed for Emperor Franz Leopold soon after the territory had become Austrian early in the 19th century. This group also visited the mill that has been powered by the river for several hundred years.
On return to Sibenik, we found time for a visit to the 15th-century Cathedral of St. Jacob. This tribute to the skills of several architects and master masons features a set of 71 heads, carved in limestone, of ordinary citizens around the outside of the apse. One is alleged to be that of one of the architects, George the Dalmatian, himself. A small group ascended to the Fort of St. Ann, overlooking the town.
We sailed soon after lunch and our lecture program continued in the afternoon. Ian spoke on The Gorgeous East: Venice and its Empire. Olga also spoke shortly on Venice in the period of its decline. The presentation concluded with Ian reading a poem by Browning entitled Tocatta of Galuppi while Olga played Adagio by Galuppi. The day ended with the captain’s farewell reception and dinner.
Friday, April 23 - Venice, Italy: And so we arrived at the fabled city of Venice. Most of us were awake early and on deck for our spectacular passage into the city, sailing past the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Square. After breakfast we set off on our first excursion to the Doge’s Palace where we marveled at the attractive architecture and the opulent interior design, followed by the Accademia Art Gallery with its beautiful Renaissance period art. Our visits were interspersed with several short journeys by motor boat which made us appreciate the essential maritime transport used in the city.
After lunch most of us took another boat for a visit to Murano Island where we saw a glass-blowing demonstration by a master craftsman. We then visited the Romanesque church of San Donato. Others visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art where they inspected the stunning collection. We all returned to the ship for our final evening aboard the Island Sky and to prepare for our journeys home the next day or for extended independent exploration in Venice and beyond.