Cruising in style with my mum around Italy and neighbouring countries is not the kind of cruising I am accustomed to. Although it is very enjoyable to be so indulgent and pampered.
We set off the day before we were expected onboard the Azamara Quest which was departing from the port of Civitavecchia near Rome on April 25th. I drove down to Heathrow where we had booked into the Thistle Hotel relatively close to Terminal 5.
The hotel was fine, except it did not have an elevator, which meant we had to remain on the ground floor. My mother is quite healthy for a 90 year old, however her mobility is very compromised. She uses a walker but cannot walk more than about 50 meters without needing to rest (she says her legs stop working). I discovered very quickly that we had been very optimistic about her abilities to deal with airport and travel in general. Managing my aging mum and suitcases etc was a strain, add to that the stress of getting up at 3:45am to get to Heathrow for a 7:00 pm flight, the beginning of the journey was not fun. The hotel stay included long term parking and a ride in a pod. The hotel had a pod station, which meant we could climb inside these driverless two- three person electric vehicles that speed down a track to the entrance of Terminal 5. Check out it on the Heathrow Terminal 5 website.
Terminal 5 is huge, which means there are long distances between the entrance and check in. Needless to say at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am there was no help available so Lilian struggled the 200m to the check-in desk and was then taken in a wheelchair to the plane. Our flight was fine but BA gives nothing away these days – not even water. We arrived at Rome airport and had to wait for the lift as the plane had landed in an area a bus ride away from the terminal and Mum could not manage the stairs. We received a lot of assistance in deplaning then went through passport control (the UK is not in Schengen). Rome was a bit chaotic but eventually we caught the bus that took us to the port of Civitavecchia arriving around 2:00pm Rome time, and hoping our bags were with us.
Once onboard we went to our cabin – big luggage was to follow and enjoyed the view, cleaned up and went for lunch in the self-serve dinning room on Deck 9. Lunch came with wine and my mum thought it was a welcome aboard drink. Then we discovered to our delight that my mother had booked us on an ‘all-inclusive’ cruise which meant that drinks etc and gratuities were included in the cost of the cruise. After a great lunch and a glass of wine we had a well-deserved nap in our comfy beds. At 6:00 the ship sailed and we got ready for dinner.
At little exploration revealed a lovely ship, beautiful carpets (I wanted to roll them up and take them home) several tastefully decorated lounges and sitting spaces, a cabaret/theatre, a large pool deck with lots of sun beds (a bit of an issue with many cruisers), a gorgeous observation deck and lounge, very comfortable chairs and sofas, a few dining areas, a Spa and exercise deck (not included) and even a couple of small shops selling jewelry, toiletries and a few clothes.
There were a number of eating areas, on board including a self serve restaurant, coffee shop, patio and a formal dining room and two specialty restaurants. The food everywhere was brilliant – too good really but the portions were reasonably small for meals with up to 4 courses.
The ship carried about 690 passengers and 350 crew. Other ship statistics include that is it 181 meters long and about 29 meters width with a cruising speed of 18.5 knots. We traveled about 1420 nautical miles on our trip and had one sea day – which was very restful. As ships go, the Azamara Quest has lovely lines and felt (like the Marco Polo) a real ship rather than a floating apartment building like many of the larger cruise ships. It’s size was a major attraction to many of the passengers who were about 35% American (at least 40 from the Pacific North West), 30% Brits, 15% Australian and quite a few Canadians plus a few passengers from non- English speaking countries. Our route was an extension for some passengers of a cruise that had left Barcelona seven days before.
SORRENTO AND POMPEII
Our first stop was Sorrento and a visit to the ancient preserved city of Pompeii. I took a tour, that is where many of the cruise companies really make money, which was led by a very knowledge, bi-lingual guide. To try and describe the wonders of this Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24th 79AD is a task beyond my humble skills. I will say however – like the pyramids of Egypt, Pompeii is a must see on your bucket list. I thought I knew something about Romans – I even studied Roman Britain when I was at University in the UK, but Pompeii blew my socks off.
The sophistication and organization of the Roman civilization was humbling. We, in the twenty-first century, think we are so clever because we have internet, cars etc, but in Pompeii almost two thousand years ago they had hot food ‘to go’ from the local shops, organized government, temples, public hot baths, well kept legal brothels, a broad based economy focused in minerals and manufactured goods, a social hierarchy, theatre, stringent laws regarding conduct and water and sewer systems.
Pompeii street shop serving hot take-away food
Murals Stone bed
Pompeii was hidden from human sight for almost 1700 years until it was discovered under the 18 ft of ash. Since it’s discovery in 1748, it has been extensively explored, become an archaeologist’s paradise and of course is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition to the mind-blowing Roman artifacts there was an exhibition by a Polish sculptor who had developed over a hundred Romanesque/Classical metal pieces that were exhibited within the ancient city. They added a new dimension to this amazing place with its streets, street drinking water fountains and houses. The Romans were a most amazing civilization as soldiers, engineers, thinkers, lawyers, writers, etc . My only complaint was that we women were not highly regarded . Women were ancillary at best, usually servile and suffered under Classical world misogyny (the Ancient Greeks were just as bad).
Modern sculptures in the ancient city
I left Pompeii (I did not have time to visit the sister site of Herculaneum nor the volcano Vesuvius) feeling like I just attend a Roman history course and was thirsting for more.
We drove back to Sorrento – lovely holiday town and took the tender back to the ship. The area is known for its lemons and other citrus and when I see lemons and I mean lemons the size of cantaloupe melons. Sorrento is a little town at the top of the cliff there is a narrow road that goes down to waters edge, but I took the elevator for one euro. I did not have time to visit the island of Capri, but have heard it has mystical qualities. After Pompeii and Sorrento it was back to the Azamara, my mum and a gin and tonic with lemon.
Lemons the size of grapefruit
The next day we were due to arrive in Amalfi, however choppy waters meant that we were redirected to Salerno. An Italian tourist town just down the coast. It was not as good for my mum who decided to get off the ship and go walk about. Took a cab to town but town was a large pedestrian area with cobblestone.
She tried really hard to negotiate the cobblestones with her walker, but eventually we gave up and made our way with lots of stops down to the water to walk along the sea walk back to the boat. Another bad idea as the traffic had a one way system so we could not hail a cab and the one kilometer walk took us over an hour and twenty minutes with stops (every 50 meters). Poor mum was done in – once we arrived at the boat she had a well deserved rest and delicious dinner before we set off to our next port of call on Taormina in Sicily.
Coming into Salerno
The G7 meeting was in Taormina – a tiny town in the middle of Sicily. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and its location at the toe of mainland Italy has made it a place of strategic interest. That has resulted in a variety of conquering civilizations dating back to the Ancient Greeks, but including the Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish and of course the Italians shaping the culture and history of this island of 5 million people.
There is a lovely amphitheatre in the middle of Taormina that was built by the Greeks in the 3rd Century BCE, used by the Romans and still used today for concerts. The location on the top of a hill also gives an amazing view of Mount Etna. At 10,800 it is highest and most active volcano in Europe. I had a walking tour of the town and was impressed by its character and charm.
Greek Theatre in Taormina
City gate in Taormina
Our next port of call was Valletta on the tiny but densely populated island of Malta. It is a place my mother had visited many times, her brother was in the Royal Navy in Malta during World War II. It was not a great day in Malta, my 90 year old mother and I were mislead by the touts at the cruise ship terminal (passengers are such easy pickings) and ended up in a horse and buggy ride. Needless to say it was a bone shaker so we stopped it at a location where the driver told us we could catch a tour bus.
St Barbara’s church Valletta
After waiting for over an hour I thought better of it and we got on the city bus. It took into the pedestrian area of the city, which was under considerable renovation. New buildings, clean buildings banners etc all adorned the centre of this small city. But again we had the walking problem so we did not do far. In fact after a cup of coffee and a purchase of a paper I put my mum into a taxi back to the ship. The taxi driver stiffed her for €10 while I was off dealing getting our money back from the ticket touts – with the help of the local tourist office.
It was a shame as Valletta is a UNSECO world heritage site, and has a noble history dating back to 1566, when it was founded by the Knights of St John, after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. This Baroque city was the healing centre for the armies fighting the Turks. The success of the famous hospital in Valletta was attributed to the use of silver vessels that prevented the spread of infection and disease. The Second World War ravaged parts of the city and nearly starved the people to death during in the fight for this huge strategic harbour. Today there was lots of renovation and rebuilding going on. Valetta was getting dressed up and the yellow white limestone (the building material of choice) was enhanced by colourful banners and painted windows and balconies.
The evening in Valetta was a bit more successful. The cruise had arranged a concert in the Sacred Infirmary of the Knights of Malta – very close to the ship. The lovely interior of the building and incredible voices of the singers made for a lovely evening concert. Luckily mum and I did not feel we had missed that much in our failed tour of Malta as it was a place we had visited.
We had a sea day, which for most passengers was a welcome rest from visiting historic sites and soaking up local culture. Unfortunately the weather did not completely co-operate, the sky was blue and sunny but a cool wind reduced the competition for sun-beds as we enjoyed temperatures of around18C. It was a chance for people to do laundry – the guest self-service laundry on board was a popular meeting place. It was a time to relax, read, shop, go to the spa, prepare some emails, chat with other passengers and get ready for another hour of time change as we sailed into Corfu.
View of Corfu
The beautiful Greek island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea is a green lush place and a contrast to the dry karst scenary of the more southerly parts of Greece. It was my birthday and my mum and I had booked an island bus tour. The tour began early – around 8:30am as we got on the bus that took us up the tiny winding roads to some beautiful viewpoints. Martin and I had visited Corfu in 2010 when we charted a sailing yacht with our friends from Germany, Brigitte and Peter, and sailed to the tiny islands of Paxos and Antipaxos.
The guide was a lot of fun and asked if anyone had a birthday that day, yours truly was the only one so the whole bus sang Happy Birthday to me.
May 1 is a huge holiday in most of the world (certainly not the US or Canada) so the roads were quiet as we found ourselves at the top of a hill looking over the Ionian Sea and listening to the myths of ancient Greece. The local bakery was open though and we were able to enjoy a coffee and a piece of persimmon pie – mmmmm delish; tangy orange taste dripping in honey (Happy birthday to me).
The tour of the north part of the island took about four hours and dropped me off in Corfu town. I was looking for WIFI as I was not prepared to pay 20USD per hour on the Azamara – much of which would be trying to get a connection! A wander around the familiar downtown core and a glass of wine to celebrate (and use the restaurant’s WIFI) gave me a chance to talk to Martin. My mum went back to the ship with tour so I felt I could leave her in the capable hands of the tour operators.
Corfu is lovely – I am now an avid fan of the BBC series “The Durrells of Corfu ‘ about the life of this famous literary family when they lived on the island in the early 1950’s. The island has a population of about 110,000, very agriculturally based plus a large tourist economy. Corfu became a part of Greece in 1864, prior to that it was run by the British – who introduced olives and cricket (which is now the national sport). It was, at one time run by the French, but mostly by the Venetians. Prince Philip (husband of Queen Elizabeth) was born there in 1920, but it’s most famous resident was Empress Elizabeth of Austria who built the Achilleion Palace. So if you ever get a chance it is a must see.
My return to the Azamara was a lovely surprise- the room attendant had decorated the room with Happy Birthday banners, balloons, cards from the crew and discounts from the spa. At dinner there was a birthday cake and another chorus. Quite a lovely and unexpected birthday.
Our next day was the most spectacular of all. We cruised from Corfu to Montenegro though the Gulf of Kotor to the city of Kotor. The captain had told the passengers that it was worth getting up early (6:30 am) and experiencing the ride down the ria ( drowned river valley) to the city. He did not tell a lie, it was jaw-droppingly beautiful. My camera could not really capture the awesome view, the lake and the small walled city of Kotor. When we docked I took a walk around the old city, some brave souls took a hike with captain up the mountain side (1300 steps) to the church at the top of the hill.
Azamara in Kotor
Later I picked up my mum and wheel chair and took her around the city centre, where we visited some local Orthodox and Catholic churches. It was a delightful example of Venetian city, that was later dominated by the Hapsburg Empire and then it became of a part of Yugoslavia. After 1990 it became a part of the independent nation of Montenegro, and was declared a UNESCO heritage site.
Greek Orthodox Church Kotor
We left the Gulf of Kotor with a great ‘sail away’ party – everyone dressed in white ( as much white as you could muster) music, dancing and of course drinking as we were on an ‘all-inclusive” cruise. It was great party – my mum was there for a short while. After I saw her back to the stateroom, I returned to the dance floor and boogied for a few hours with some Canadian women ( from Halifax) that I met in a conga-line. It was a super party, one I was ready for.
White night party
As with many of the Balkan locations, its troubled history has given way to a profitable tourist trade that has quieted the dogs of war between these nations. Our next stop was once a place of war but is now a heritage jewel in the Adriatic Sea. Dubrovnik is in Croatia, it is a beautiful walled city on the coast. Dubrovnik is another city that was once of a part of Yugoslavia – a country created in 1929, and disbanded in 1990 after the death of the dictator Tito. The years of war that followed in the Balkans included the bombing of this ancient city, which has since been restored. It is another UNESCO heritage site full of thousand year old fountains, marble squares and churches surrounded by a thirteenth century walls. Today though it’s spoiled by the visits of thousands of cruise ship passengers (including yours truly) soaking up the ancient and modern history of this fortress city.
I was in Dubrovnik about five years ago and enjoyed its building and walls early in the morning before the cruise ship passengers arrive and now here I was being brought to this ancient city on a tender. However the thriving tourist economy provides extensive employment for residents.
City Walls of Dubrovnik
There is a debate raging about the true cost of the cruise economy – Azamara was a smallish ship today many cruise ships accommodate three to five thousand people plus crew ( usually on the basis of a 2 to 1. Venice was our last port of call and the place where the cruise business has become most contentious. A little article I read in the Guardian brought it home to me, as we sail into the port of Venice through the Canal di San Marco and the Canal della Guidecca looking down the Grand Canal passed so many of the famous landmarks of this truly beautiful city. Of course Venice is another UNESCO site but is the massive tourist presence (which as been the case for a couple of centuries) damaging the site itself. Is the golden egg actually killing the goose? This article has some thought provoking questions.
Regardless I was gobsmacked by Venice. The views from deck 9 and 10 on the Azamara were spectacular. If they are going to ban cruise ships I am glad I got to see the city from this vantage point. Seeing the canal system from above was a delight and we had a whole day before having to disembark from the ship.
Lilian had been to Venice a few times so she was happy to stay on board, it is not a wheel chair friendly city and we were required to walk 300m just to leave the port. So I set off alone with a city map walking to the local water bus stop, buying a one day waterbus ticket and a small guidebook.
It was a thrill to walk into St Marks square despite the crowds, although I opted to keep walking, as the queues to get into the Cathedral, the Doge’s palace and the churches were so long that I could not waste the time waiting. I had already decided to return to this remarkable place before I got off the ship.
The waterbus was a great mode of transport to see the city – but time was the enemy so I concentrated on walking the alley ways and tiny streets, hoping not to get lost but getting lost anyway. The weather however was not my friend as it started to rain (which meant purchasing a cheap umbrella) and wondering around just soaking up the rain and the lovely atmosphere. I cannot tell you of the great civilization that ruled the Adriatic Sea and the history of this beautiful city. Enough to say it is a whole University course just to explore the life and times of Venice.
Did I mention the food on the Azamara – it was really too good – far too good. Every evening we had the choice of about 5 entrees most of which would have taken me hours to prepare. Cruises are known for the super food – so I cut out bread and desserts but that was not enough to prevent the expanding waistline.
The day we disembarked in Venice started early – we had breakfast at 7:00 and were out of our room before 8. As mum received care/ assistance we had a special bus to take us to the airport. Needless to say we arrived 4 hours before the flight, but the wheelchair we used allowed us to have a look at the airport inside of security. We eventually boarded the plane and took off back to London Heathrow – Terminal 5. This place is so big that we had to take a train from the landing location of the plane to passport control. Mum was ferried on a golf cart to the arrivals lounge – we went through electronic passport control, picked up our bags and went back to the pod. We had a lovely young Sikh porter who wheeled the chair and helped us with luggage.
The pod took us back to the hotel and the car. We had a cup of tea to fortify us for the M25 (London orbital motorway) on a Friday afternoon at rush hour. Stressful is an unrated term when it comes to the M25, however we made a successful transition from the M25 to the M1 to the A1/M – but it took ages. We arrived back at my mums place around 9:00pm (10:00 pm Venice time), so had been travelling for fourteen hours. It had been a long long day and I was really tired after all the driving and hefting of cases etc but we made it and had had a wonderful experience.
As cruises go, I would recommend the Azamara Quest, lovely friendly ship (everyone on board seemed to know my mother as the oldest person on board), charming captain (Carl Smith from the Isle of Man UK) and an interesting route around Italy (Tyrrhenian, Ionian and Adriatic parts of the Mediterranean Sea). Cruises are but a taster, in this case a tantalizing taste of what Italy and its near neighbours have to offer. It pulled me in because, as in the immortal words of Arnie Schwarzenegger, I’ll be back.
Next up – back to DIY (do it yourself) cruising in France.