Tuesday & Wednesday, May 31 & June 1, 2016 - Valletta, Malta / Embark Island Sky
Welcome to Malta, the honey-hued and history-steeped island sitting at the crossroads of the Mediterranean! After checking in with Cruise Director Lynne Greig and into the Grand Hotel Excelsior, we scattered to enjoy the amenities of the hotel’s coastal location or walked into the walled city of Valletta. Evening found us assembling for a Welcome Reception where we met new friends and old among our fellow travelers; we also met our Expedition Leader, Michael Moore, who introduced our expedition staff. After a wonderful buffet and briefing, most of us had a relatively early night.
The following morning, we entered the recently restored main gate of this UNESCO World Heritage Site on foot. Dividing into smaller groups we set off on visits to the National Museum of Archaeology and the Co-Cathedral of St. John. 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. This is one of the oldest structures on Malta and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the visitor center we enjoyed a 4D multimedia presentation, as well as feeling and smelling the millennia that saw the creation and abandonment of the site. It provided a sound basis to understand and appreciate a site that was 1,000 years old when construction started at Stonehenge.
After a lunch of regional specialties, we had time for a photo stop in the picturesque fishing town of Marsaxlokk. Known for its colorfully painted boats, it was also the site of the Ottoman invasion of 1565. Winding back through the countryside we soon reached the Port of Valletta and embarked the Island Sky, our home for the expedition. After settling in our cabins and the necessary safety drill, we gathered for a more formal introduction to our staff. Michael, soon known to all as MiMo, provided a briefing for our upcoming adventures. Almost everyone was on deck to watch our departure from this fortified rock as the sun did its best to cast a rosy glow on the golden sandstone.
Thursday, June 2 - Agrigento, Sicily, Italy / Licata
Sicily is known as the Island of the Sun and certainly lived up to its billing—many of us were on deck early to watch the sun bathe the historic and still industrious Port of Empedocle. We departed first for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Valley of the Temples; something of a misnomer since they are actually perched along a ridge. We started at the top with the classically beautiful 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, which provided vistas of Sicilian landscape to the base of the ridge. This was followed by a visit to 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.
En route to Licata, the site of the American landing in Sicily in World War II, we stopped at the beautiful Mandrova Estate for a true Sicilian lunch—Ron gave the cannoli 10/10!—complemented by the award-winning olive oil for which it is known. Afterwards we toured the facility and learned about the processing of their olives as well as of the almonds they also harvest. Most of us couldn’t resist at least a small bottle of one of their superior oils.
After a tour of Licata by bus, we boarded our ship to join Captain Henrik Karlsson and his welcome cocktail party and dinner.
Friday, June 3 - Syracuse
We arrived early, enjoying a spectacular sunrise over the city, as we berthed close to 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, Syracuse drew the luminaries of its day including Livy, Archimedes, and Plato. We explored both a Greek theater and a Roman amphitheater; the former is huge and still used to stage Greek tragedies in the summer. We spied the column that once supported the ceiling of a massive quarry and entered the remaining portion, the cave-like Ear of Dionysius with its exceptional double echo. From here we visited the Museo Archaeologico Paolo Orsi to wander the many galleries dedicated to archaeology, ancient art, and Greek Theater, as well as an excellent coin and jewelry collection.
After lunch ashore or aboard, we used the Italian siesta period to avoid the heat of the day and hear a presentation by our Maritime Archaeologist, Hector Williams, entitled Goddesses, Whores, Vampires, and Archaeologists. We then joined Ellen McIlvaine over tea to explore future adventures on offer.
In the late afternoon, many of us set off for a walking tour of Ortygia. We visited the ruins of the 6th-century BC Temple of Apollo and 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. Many of us wandered this eminently walkable town on our own, and visited the Piazza Archimede. We ended our formal tour at the sacred Fontana Aretusa; this freshwater spring was the ancient city’s main source of water and part of the reason the site was settled.
After recap, our scheduled late departure permitted the opportunity to dine in one of the many tempting cafés and restaurants nearby, before we steamed northward to Catania.
Saturday, June 4 - Catania, Sicily / Morgantina
Beautiful Catania, facing the Ionian Sea between Messina and Syracuse, was founded in the 8th century BC and is now the second largest city in Sicily. First, we visited its justifiably famous fish market and adjacent fruit, cheese, and vegetable markets, along with the main piazza. At the entrance to the market, the subterranean River Amenanus was evident in a large and generously flowing fountain—and then we had choices to make. Some of us couldn’t resist a trip up Mt. Etna, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, active only the previous week. Others chose to see the breathtaking mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina, as well as the large archaeological park at Morgantina.
Sicilians consider Etna a “good” volcano, as it generally gives plenty of warning and the eruptions do comparatively little damage. This said, it destroyed Catania in 1169 and did significant damage in 1669. Those heading up Etna returned with tales of riding a cable car to board 4-wheel drive vehicles, and hiking around in winds that required the securing of some of our lighter guests (Beanie!). Upon descent, a traditional Sicilian luncheon was enjoyed near the Crateri Silvestri before a leisurely return to the Island Sky.
For those at the Villa, it was not just the number of mosaics but the extremely high quality and diversity of subject matter that was so remarkable. Virtually every room used mosaics as if they were carpets in stone including decorative borders and fringes. After a lovely lunch in Piazza Amerina, we drove into the agricultural heart of Sicily and walked through the wild flowers of the archaeological park to the theater and one of the central commercial areas before returning to the ship. In the evening there was time to return to Catania for dinner or a little extra exploration before we weighed anchor for Albania.
Sunday, June 5 - At Sea / Saranda, Albania
After a leisurely breakfast, we joined Ron for his presentation, Food Culture of the Mediterranean, followed by Susan Langley’s discussion on, Beneath the Wine Dark Sea, Underwater Archaeology in Malta, Sicily, and the Adriatic. Almost everyone lunched on the Lido Deck, taking advantage of the sunny weather before we joined Allan Langdale for his lecture on Basilicas and Baptisteries at Butrint. After a special Farewell to Italy Tea, we joined Pepper Trail for, Vengeful Eagles and Lusty Swans: Birds in Mediterranean Mythology.
On such a day, we just had to do something special and Zegrahm hosted a colorful Adriatic Sunset Cocktail Party on the Observation Deck that made it difficult to dine indoors. Even better news was that the sea conditions were so good, we arrived early in Albania and had the opportunity to walk the seafront in the resort town of Saranda.
Monday, June 6 - Butrint
This morning we headed straight to the ancient city of Butrint, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. We wound our way through the small Greek theater, past the public baths to the early Christian baptistery with its extensive mosaics, well covered in sand for protection, and to the large basilica where we were able to see a small area of the mosaic floor. Flocks of jays were heard and spotted by some, as well as gray herons and little egrets. 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 look over Lake Butrint before we reached the summit and spent time in the museum.
Before returning to the ship, we climbed a winding road above town to enjoy a spectacular view from Lekuresi Castle. The castle was built by Sultan Suleymani in the 15th - 16th centuries as part of his campaign to conquer Corfu, visible across a channel only two miles wide. The stop also provided an opportunity to examine some of the mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers that dot the countryside. Within its walls we were greeted in the courtyard garden by musicians and dancers who encouraged us to join them. Indoors were tables laden with regional snacks and we were treated to traditional music, song, and dance. We weighed anchor for Montenegro, revelling in our morning fun.
In the afternoon, Hector treated us to a presentation, Ali Pasha, The Demon Lion of the Balkans. After tea with Ellen we joined Rich Pagen for his discussion of Dwarf Elephant Herds and Vigilant Migrating Birds, The Land and Sea Realms of the Mediterranean. Mimo encouraged us to be up early for the spectacular entrance to Kotor, before we enjoyed a terrific Filipino Dinner with entertainment by the extremely talented crew.
Tuesday, June 7 - Kotor, Montenegro / Dubrovnik, Croatia
As we left the narrow opening into the extensive Bay of Kotor, many of us came on deck to view the two tiny islands on which are situated, respectively, the Benedictine Monastery of St. George and Our Lady of the Rock Church. We first enjoyed a morning tour of the walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Entering through the Venetian Sea Gate, we wound our way through the labyrinth of narrow streets punctuated by courtyards and squares boasting churches, museums, cafes, and shops. We visited St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, a highlight of which is its gilded silver altar screen and architecture, as well as the Maritime Museum, housed in an 18th-century palace that celebrates the town’s proud naval heritage. Some of us traveled to the nearby town of Perast to catch a local boat to visit Our Lady of the Rock Church—and we were not disappointed!—then headed to the town museum housed in the former Naval Academy.
Those of us wishing a bird’s-eye-view of Kotor ascended the 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 Lustica Peninsula for wonderful scenery culminating in a visit to the Moric Family Organic Olive Farm for olive oil tasting. Greeted by co-owner Ilija Moric and his friendly little donkey, we were served local pastries with honey and a shot of killer grappa. Proceeding to the small processing building, he explained the strict requirements for organic farming and production, before we explored the family home and fieldstone tasting cellar.
Back aboard, we convened for a fantastic barbecue lunch and soon joined Ron for his entertaining presentation, Village Life in the Balkans, followed by Susan’s lecture on Beekeeping in the Adriatic, Past and Present. Our lecture series ended in time for us to be on deck for our approach to Dubrovnik, not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but considered one of the most beautiful walled cities in the world. Mimo set up local transfers into the city after the recap and briefing, and even obtained permission for us to use that most fun of all expedition tools, our Zodiacs, for tomorrow.
Wednesday, June 8 - Dubrovnik / Cavtat
This morning we boarded tenders to the walls of Dubrovnik and climbed to the Ploce Gate to take buses to the village of Cavtat. The water was so clear we could see damselfish called chromis feed on plankton in the water column. Those of us not climbing to the hilltop cemetery for the view and a mausoleum, 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 with small farming communities, and arrived at a restored grist mill where we were greeted with an assortment of local brandies and candied treats. After a demonstration of the mill mechanisms, we followed the Ljuta River upward to see a restored fulling mill in operation, and enjoyed a snack of local bread, cheese, ham and wine. Most of us chose to walk to a nearby restaurant set on outdoor platforms along the river and had a leisurely lunch.
At the iconic circular Onofrio Fountain, we climbed the walls to enjoy stunning seaward vistas, a view over the city, and even glimpses into the yards and lives of its residents. We continued to the maritime museum perched high in the walls between the Old Port and the sea, then descended to visit the 17th-century Cathedral of Assumption of the Virgin, where we viewed the treasury of reliquaries and a noted Titian painting. We finished 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.
Many of us returned to the ship for recap and briefing, only to head back to Dubrovnik to dinner via Zodiacs. A few birders made it to nearby Lokrum Island, a UNESCO-protected national park, while the ship’s hotel staff set up a treat for those remaining on board—petit fours and a local dessert wine, and our pianist performing.
Thursday, June 9 - Korçula Island / Split
One of the joys of Korçula is that its port can only be accessed by small ships; it is easily walkable and considered one of the most beautiful towns in Dalmatia. Weaving through streets and lanes lined with architectural styles from the 14th and 15th centuries, we were able to view the house where residents believe Marco Polo was born. The City Museum is housed in a 16th-century mansion and houses artifacts reflecting a broad range of the area’s history. We ended our walking tour with the Cathedral of St. Mark and the Museum of Icons including gold, silver, and wooden Byzantine icon paintings.
Back aboard, Allan provided a great introduction to Split with his presentation, The Palace of Diocletian at Split. Later we joined John for, Geology of the Fabled Adriatic: Limestones, Volcanoes, and Karst, which “rocked.”
While most of us set off to explore the amazing city of Split, Croatia’s second largest city, some of us elected to go first to the nearby Meštrović Gallery and strolled literally blocks along just a portion of the façade of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace. Reaching one of the entry points, we were able to explore the warren of rooms that comprises the basement level of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Fans of Ivan Meštrović started at the gallery that was his summer home from 1931-1939. 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, putting into perspective the sculptures we would see throughout Split, including the iconic Gregory of Nin, whose toe is polished by passersby touching it for luck. Returning to Split we enjoyed a tour of the palace and city, as well as a Klapa performance before dispersing for individual exploration or to find a venue for dinner ashore.
Friday, June 10 - Sibenik
Approaching Sibenik, we were up early to see the Venetian Fortress of St. Nikola at the entrance to the channel but masked, intentionally says Allan, by the island to the south. Refusing to let a drizzly morning dampen our spirits, we walked from the ship into the heart of town through curving streets and open squares dating to the 15th and 16th centuries. 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, George the Dalmatian. The Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered the crowning glory of the Dalmatian coast.
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 the last falls where we hiked 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 including one constructed for the visit of Emperor Franz Leopold, 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. The remains of this plant are in the park and several of us decided to climb down to view them. Once we were all assembled at the top we rejoined our buses and returned to the ship for lunch as we made our way toward La Serenissima—Venice.
Pepper offered a fascinating final presentation, Fighting Crime with Feathers: The Casebook of a Forensic Ornithologist, and at tea, Susan and the ship’s hotel staff offered An Adriatic Honey Tasting of 10 different honeys she collected along the way during our voyage. Very soon it was time for the captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner.
Saturday, June 11 - Venice, Italy / Disembark
This morning we had to say “Arrivederci” to one another as our paths diverged; many of us headed to the airport, others into Venice, and still others for different points. The ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites behind us (11, if we count Venice) were an intellectual banquet, as were many little jewels less internationally recognized, and the innumerable wonderful meals providing much fodder for thought and pleasure, as we made our respective journeys onward.
I have wandered all my life,
and I have also travelled;
the difference between the two
being this, that we wander for
distraction, but we travel for
French-Born English Writer