The Fabled Adriatic

2015 The Fabled Adriatic Field Report

Susan Langley|October 19, 2015|Field Report

For more information on our 2016 Fabled Adriatic expedition, visit our trip page

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 - Dubrovnik, Croatia: Welcome to Croatia! After checking into the Valamar Lacroma Dubrovnik Hotel, we checked in with Cruise Director Kelsey Simmons before setting off to enjoy the amenities of the hotel’s coastal location or to explore the Old City of Dubrovnik. Evening found us enjoying a welcome wine reception on an outdoor terrace overlooking the fabled Adriatic, and meeting new friends and old among our fellow travelers. At dinner, Expedition Leader Lia Oprea introduced the staff members before briefing us for the exciting days ahead in Dubrovnik.

Thursday, September 3 - Dubrovnik: Waking to a sparkling morning, we began our day with a classic view of the 1,300-year-old town that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. We divided into groups at the iconic circular Onofrio Fountain and many of us opted to walk the walls to enjoy stunning seaward vistas and a view over the city. Here, our first wildlife sighting occurred when a lizard was spotted, lapping up dried-up sugary drinks at one of the cafés along the way. Those of us not wall-walking enjoyed a stroll through the Old City with our local guide who explained the history of the various buildings and monuments.

At the 17th-century Cathedral of Assumption of the Virgin, we were able to view the treasury of reliquaries and a noted Titian painting before we continued to the tiny but interesting maritime museum perched high in the walls between the Old Port and the sea. Here, we bumped into the wall-walkers, who continued through town to tour the city at ground level. The rest of us strolled to the Old Port to see the sites of former shipyard buildings, now mostly housing tempting seafood restaurants. We finished our morning with a visit to the Dominican Monastery, which still functions despite having only four monks remaining, and viewed its treasure trove of 15th- and 16th-century paintings, icons, and jewelry. Everyone convened in the courtyard of the Klarisa Restaurant for a buffet of regional specialties. With the afternoon at leisure, most of us stayed within the walls to explore, shop, and dine into the evening.

September 4 - Dubrovnik / Cavtat / Embark Variety Voyager: Morning found us overlooking the city on our way to the much smaller town of Cavtat, the vacation ideal of Croatians. Some of us explored small artisan’s shops, or lolled in seaside cafés enjoying the quiet and onshore breeze. From here, we headed into the countryside through a broad fertile valley and through small farming communities to arrive at a restored grist mill where we were greeted with an assortment of local brandies including cherry, loquat, and grappa, as well as lemonade and cider, candied almonds, and delicious chewy figs. After a demonstration of the mill mechanisms, we followed the millstream upward to see a restored mill in operation; we then retraced our steps along the shady boardwalk to a pavilion where fresh bread, cheese, and ham awaited us with olives, pickles, and local wines. Rich Pagen led a walk farther upstream for those wishing to spend a little more time in the cool green of the woods, and looked for aquatic invertebrates such as caddisfly larvae.

Most of us chose to walk to the nearby Vinica Monković restaurant, set on outdoor platforms along the stream, and had a delicious leisurely lunch. Later, a local tender took us to the Variety Voyager, anchored off the Old Port in the lee of Lokrum Island, a UNESCO-protected national park. We were soon settled in our cabins and met Captain Andreas Sifniotis who introduced his officers and ship’s staff. Soon we were on deck to enjoy the breeze while we watched Dubrovnik fade astern.

Saturday, September 5 - Sibenik / Krka National Park: Approaching Sibenik, we passed small flocks of black-headed gulls and even spotted a few dolphins. We refused to let a rainy morning dampen our spirits and walked from the ship into the heart of town through curving streets and open squares dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. As there was a mass at the Cathedral of St. James, we admired the exterior architecture, including the frieze of 71 heads that are vivid character studies of ordinary 15th-century citizens, one possibly being the architect himself.

Boarding our buses, we headed to Krka National Park named for the river flowing through it over numerous spectacular waterfalls and cascades. Those feeling energetic embarked on small boats that deposited us at the base of swimmable falls, before hiking to the boardwalks and historic structures at the top. The rest of us rode to the upper level and walked through the park to outlook points, then toured the multi-mill complex, housing reconstructed milling activities, traditional crafts, souvenirs, and an exhibit on the history of hydraulic power plants in the country.

Once we were all assembled at the top, we rejoined our buses for lunch just outside the park boundary. Back in Sibenik there was leisure time to visit the cathedral, shop at a local Renaissance Fair, and generally wander through town. Back onboard, Allan Langdale prepared us for tomorrow’s adventure with his lecture, The Palace of Diocletian at Split. At our recap and briefing, Ron Wixman provided an overview of The Yugoslav War, and answered our myriad questions about this complex event. After these presentations, many of us elected to dine ashore before the Variety Voyager turned its bow toward our next destination.

Sunday, September 6 - Split / Hvar Island: We began our morning with a scenic drive to the Meštrović Gallery. Formerly the home of Ivan Meštrović, the artist and sculptor donated it to the city when he retired following World War II. The peaceful gardens and sun-washed view of the sea made it clear why he had chosen this location, and the sculptures and other examples of his work were beautifully displayed. They helped put in perspective the sculpture we saw yesterday, and provided a base for those we would continue to see around Split; including the iconic Gregory of Nin, whose toe is polished by passersby touching it for luck.

Returning to the heart of Croatia’s second largest city, we strolled a few blocks along the façade of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace, built between 295-305 A.D. Reaching one of the entry points, we were able to explore the warren of rooms that comprise the basement level of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. After touring the area and finding our bearings, we set off for individual exploration, before strolling along the waterfront to return to our ship.

In Hvar, it was impossible to miss the island’s fame for lavender production as it wafted from sachets, soaps, oils, creams, and honey derived from the blooms. To visit the Cathedral of St. Stephen, we crossed the main square of the same name, which is one of the largest old squares in Dalmatia. Climbing up the steeply stepped streets, we reached the Benedictine Monastery museum where the nuns living there have recreated rooms from a Renaissance period house, and are famous for their production of fine lace from the fibers of agave plants. At this point, we divided between those feeling the need for exercise who continued up the staircase streets to the 16th-century Španjol Citadel crowning the mountain above, and those who strolled through the pretty town and later rode buses to the peak. Once there, we were treated to fresh fruit, ice cream, and libations, as well as spectacular vistas of the sea and our ship below. Back on board, we scurried to prepare for the captain’s welcome cocktail party and dinner.

Monday, September 7 - Kotor, Montenegro: Sailing into the narrow opening to the extensive Bay of Kotor, many of us came on deck to view two tiny islands that are home to the Benedictine Monastery of St. George and Our Lady of the Rock Church. The latter sits on an artificial island created in the 15th century, allegedly by mariners grateful for surviving a storm. Some of us decided to travel to the nearby town of Perast to catch a local boat to visit the church and then St. Nicholas in the town proper. Those of us wishing for a bird’s eye view of Kotor and surrounding area ascended 1,350 steps to the fortifications 3,937 feet above the town on Mount St. Ivan, joined by swirling crag martins and house martins at the top. Still others boarded buses for a trip across the adjacent peninsula for wonderful scenery culminating in a visit to the Moric Family Organic Olive Farm for an olive oil tasting. In the tasting cellar we learned the proper way to taste and assess olive oil, especially for freshness, and then enjoyed a lunch comprised of organic foods from the farm. Back in Kotor, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, we all convened onboard to compare notes on our various activities with our fellow travelers. Our historian, Roger Crowley, then presented The Venetian Adriatic.

Those of us touring Kotor entered through the Venetian Sea Gate and wound our way through the labyrinth of narrow streets punctuated by courtyards and squares boasting churches, museums, cafés, and shops. We visited the Maritime Museum, housed in an 18th-century palace, as well as St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, the highlight of which was its gilded silver altar screen and interesting architecture. After the formal tour, many of us couldn’t resist the opportunity to explore on our own.

As the Variety Voyager retraced our way down the bay to the Adriatic, we joined Lia and the staff for a recap before dinner. Later, we made our way to the Ocean Deck for an Albanian Dance Party to celebrate our ports for the next two days.

Tuesday, September 8 - Durres, Albania / Tirana / Kruje: Another glorious morning found us headed inland to Albania’s capital city of Tirana. Efforts to overcome its Communist legacy and subsequent economic woes have resulted in recent projects to create squares and parks throughout the city, and the people are unswervingly cheerful and optimistic. The national museum still sports a Communist-era mosaic over the front entry, but the exhibits include interesting and candid views of recent history in addition to stunning icons and excellent ethnographic, historic, and prehistoric materials. Winding upward into the mountains, we enjoyed a delicious lunch of local specialties at the Bardhi Restaurant where we were entertained by traditionally-garbed dancers and musicians. We were delighted when Ron joined in demonstrating one of his many talents.

After lunch, we approached the stronghold of Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg—Kruje. The museum dedicated to him rises from within the castle walls, more a shrine than actual museum. Immediately adjacent to it is an endearing ethnographic museum that portrays the early 19th-century farmstead of an affluent Ottoman family, and includes beehives, an olive press, felting mill, iron forge, and ceramic kiln, as well as comfortable upper quarters featuring a small hammam (bath). Afterward there was time to visit the superb bazaar on cobbled streets lined with shops selling everything from modern souvenirs to high quality local textiles and antiques.

Returning to Durres, many of us visited the 2nd-century AD amphitheater capable of seating 15,000 spectators, as well as a small Byzantine chapel with well-preserved mosaics, and the archaeological museum with its impressive collection of Hellenistic and Roman artifacts.

Wednesday, September 9 - Saranda / Butrint / Porto Palermo: Passing through the resort town of Saranda, we headed straight to the fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint. Settled long before the Greeks arrived in the 6th century BC, this compact city’s prosperity continued through Roman and Byzantine occupations, all of which are reflected in the charming ruins. We wound our way through the small Greek theater, past the public bath complex to the early Christian baptistery with its extensive mosaics, to the large basilica where we were able to see a small area of the mosaic floor. From here, the trail climbed gently to the top of the hill skirting massively built Cyclopean walls with the famous gate surmounted with the relief of a lion killing a bull. Viewpoints allowed us to overlook Lake Butrint before we reached the summit and spent time in the small museum. On the way back to Saranda we bypassed the town to enjoy a spectacular view over the harbor from Lekuresi Castle. The castle was built by the Sultan Suleymani in the 15th-16th centuries as part of his campaign to conquer Corfu, visible across a channel only two miles wide. Within its walls, we enjoyed the courtyard garden and were greeted with regional snacks and a duet providing local and classical music. Winding our way back down the hairpin turns to Saranda, some of us chose to walk back to the Variety Voyager through town before we all enjoyed a Greek barbecue lunch.

Not too far north, we reaped the benefits of a small expedition vessel when our ship was able to slip into tiny Puerto Palermo. Some accompanying rain obligingly stopped in time for us to make our way to a restored castle of Ali Pasha. On the rooftop, a flautist played Albanian tunes flanked by traditionally dressed young women. They sang and performed some dances that were so engaging that many of us joined in, along with visiting Albanian tourists!

Thursday, September 10 - At Sea: This morning Susan Langley presented Beneath the Wine Dark Sea: Underwater Archaeology in the Adriatic, Sicily, and Malta, followed by Rich discussing, Dwarf Elephant Herds and Vigilant Migrating Birds: The Land and Sea Realms of the Mediterranean. The afternoon found us watching The Sicilian Girl, then we enjoyed an ice cream social, before joining Ron for Food Culture of the Mediterranean. Our MIT members joined Steve McAlister for their obligatory Toast to “the Tute” before we all gathered for our briefing about tomorrow’s adventures in Sicily.

Friday, September 11 - Syracuse, Sicily, Italy / Ortygia: We arrived early enjoying a spectacular sunrise over the city as we berthed by the bridge to the lovely island of Ortygia. We headed straight to the Neapolis Archaeological Park, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Considered by Cicero to be the most beautiful city in the ancient world, rivaling even Athens, Syracuse drew the luminaries of its day including Livy, Archimedes, and Plato. Settled by colonists from Corinth, it reached its zenith in the 4th century BC. Vestiges of its glory days are evident in the massive Altar of Hieron II. There are both a Greek theater and a Roman amphitheater; the former is huge and still used to stage Greek tragedies in the summer. From here we visited the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi to wander the many galleries dedicated to archaeology, ancient art, and Greek Theater as well as an excellent coin and jewelry collection. A few of us took the time to pop across the street for a photo or brief visit to the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime (Shrine of Our Lady of Tears) with its striking architecture in the form of a large tear drop. After lunch ashore or aboard, we used the Italian siesta period to avoid the heat of the day and listened to Allan’s presentation, The Greek Temples of Sicily, as preparation for tomorrow’s visit to Agrigento.

In the late afternoon, many of us set off for a walking tour of charming Ortygia. This island was the original Greek settlement and we visited the ruins of the 6th-century BC Temple of Apollo as we strolled through the picturesque lanes. Emerging in the central plaza, the Piazza Del Duomo, we were able to see the cathedral that only thinly disguises the former Temple of Athena which first occupied the site, incorporating the Doric columns into the walls. Many of us opted to wander the town on our own and were able to visit the Piazza Archimede with its 19th-century fountain featuring the goddess Artemis and surrounded by what were once private palazzos and now mostly businesses. Returning back through the streets for photos and a little last-minute shopping, we joined Susan for an opportunity to taste six diverse honeys she assembled during our travels, and for a recap and briefing before dinner.

Saturday, September 12 - Agrigento: We arose early and joined Roger for his presentation, Malta: Fortress and Holy Island, to provide us with valuable background for our final port of call tomorrow. Sicily is known as the “Island of the Sun” and true to its name, the sun soon burned off the morning clouds and provided a golden day. We set off for the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Valley of the Temples; something of a misnomer since they are actually perched along a ridge. We started at the top with the Temple of Hera and descended with stops at the Temples of Concord, Hercules, and Olympian Zeus, the largest Doric temple of Greek Antiquity; a veritable archaeological banquet. The temples are largely intact and impressive in size, scale, and number. In addition, we followed the remains of the massive city wall pocked with rock-cut tombs to the Mandrova Estate for a true Sicilian lunch, complemented by the award-winning olive oil for which it is known. After lunch we toured the facility and learned more about their processing of olives as well as almonds. Returning toward the port, we stopped at the Museum of Santa Nicola which houses many of the pieces from the temples of Agrigento as well as other important archaeological sites in the region. However, soon we had to depart to board our ship to join Captain Andreas Sifniotis for his farewell cocktail party and dinner.

Sunday, September 13 - Valletta, Malta: Almost everyone was on deck to watch our approach to this fortified rock as the sun cast a rosy glow on the honey-colored sandstone for which the island was named. We entered the recently restored main gate of this UNESCO World Heritage Site on foot, and regarded the new avant-garde exhibition center with general approval. As it was Sunday, we studied the exterior of the Co-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist which was closed for services—a few of us managed a peek inside with others determined to return later in the day. The best orientation to the prehistory of this land is the National Museum of Archaeology, which is housed on one of the former knightly auberges. It includes, among other artifacts, the exquisite Sleeping Lady, the fertility figure from the third millennium BC excavated at Ħal-Saflieni. The Grand Master’s Palace kept our heads turning; from the walls and ceilings painted with historic figures and heraldry to the stone marquetry underfoot. We were fortunate to be in the city as it commemorated the 450th anniversary of its survival of the Siege of 1565, and we were able to view a special exhibition in the Palace. Another delightful surprise was leaving the Palace to the sound of a brass band and discovering a procession underway in front of us. One of the brothers was very helpful, telling us it was the Procession of the Cross commemorating the anniversary of the discovery of the True Cross.

Making our way back out of the city we headed into the countryside. Winding our way through a patchwork of small farms separated by dry stone walls, we reached the megalithic site of Ħaġar Qim. These are the oldest structures on Malta and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A multimedia presentation and the archaeological museum provided a sound basis to understand and appreciate a site that was already 1,000 years old when construction started at Stonehenge.

Reaching the center of the island, we enjoyed a large lunch of Maltese specialties in Mosta at the Ta’ Marija Restaurant. Back in Valletta, those who wished to explore a few more layers of this history-rich city accompanied Susan, Roger, and Allan to the Lascaris War Rooms deep in the rock beneath the walls, from which both the invasion of Sicily and the defense of Malta were planned and implemented. Returning to the ship we watched Rich’s slideshow of our adventures. We fancied that the fireworks across the harbor were for us, although they may have been for the same commemoration as today’s procession.

Monday, September 14 - Valletta / Home: Those of us without early flights were able to enjoy a few more hours in this golden city to visit St. John’s Co-Cathedral and ornate chapels that resulted from competing Knights, their towns, and families, or write a few final postcards over a morning coffee in a shady square.



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