Steve Aldridge explores abseiling firemen and a genius/madman
Glad to be back onboard a Viking Ship again, this time we explored its Iconic Western Mediterranean offering. This eight day voyage took us to four different countries and on a journey through some of the most beautiful and historic places in the Western Mediterranean. Travelling in January, the aim was to enjoy these famous destinations but avoid the summer crowds which is much better for over 50s on a cruise.
The Viking Star immediately felt like home, similar to its sister ships that we’ve travelled on before. She provided us with all the amenities and comforts of a luxury hotel, that came along with us. The Star features two pools, a spa, a fitness center, and a sun deck with panoramic views. There were also several delicious dining options on board, including the main dining room, which serves international cuisine, and the World Cafe, which offers a more casual dining experience (our favourite).
Exploring the former Italian capital on a bright sunny day was a delight. We started with a trek uphill to Piazzale Michelangelo for great views over the city. Here we could see the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, with Brunelleschi’s classic Dome. Also the Ponte Vecchio, the medieval bridge over the Arno River, with buildings (mainly shops now) built on the bridge.
We wandered into the city’s often small & cobbled streets for many examples of amazing Renaissance architecture. Churches, manors and plazas abound, perhaps none more so than at Piazza della Signoria. The Palazzo Vecchio (City Hall) and a replica of Michelangelo’s David normally hold the tourist’s gaze, but on our visit, firemen abseiling from the high arches (charity event) seemed to steal the show.
Such is the notoriety of the Leaning tower of Pisa that it was a bit of a shock to find that there are two other magnificent buildings on the site, each with their own little lean (albeit nowhere near as significant). Up close to the bell tower it is quite a distinct and somewhat unnerving lean, plus we noticed that it had a banana like shape. The architects are trying to use engineering to balance out the subsidence. The Cathedral, Baptistry and tower all utilise the eye-catching white Carrara marble, sourced locally, which was also used for Michelangelo’s David, Florence’s Basilica and Marble Arch.
Tip: Pre booking for timed slots to each of the buildings is essential. Tickets to enter the Duomo (Cathedral) are free but still need a pre-booked timed slot.
At just a square mile it is the world’s second smallest country but “home” to some of the richest and most famous individuals, plus the host to arguably the most historic and difficult motor racing event – The Monaco Formula One Grand Prix. Sat on pole position the engine revved, a gear was selected…GO…and our coach trundled around that part of the road circuit. We were content to brave the liquid sunshine to see the jewels of the Grimaldi family’s city, with frequent homages to the late (and much loved) American actress who became Princess Grace upon marrying Prince Rainier III.
Real sunshine returned for our visit to France’s second oldest city. We enjoyed wandering around its beautiful Vieux Port (old port) dominated by the two 17th century fortresses at the entrance. The Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde, sits high on the hill overlooking the city but we were more taken with the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure. Its huge dimensions are similar to those of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and allows it to accommodate up to 3,000 people.
We took a great stroll along the waterfront with people playing beach volleyball, whilst further down the waves crashed ferociously into the sea wall. Offshore we could see Chateau d’If, France’s version of Alcatraz. It’s said that The Man in the Iron Mask was incarcerated here but this is largely thought to be a myth.
Montpellier University was founded in 1160 and is one of the oldest in the world. Our guide focussed our tour on the Place de la Comédie where the stately buildings surrounding it reflects the power and the wealth of the bourgeoise of the 1800s. The elegant Three Graces fountain and the Opera House where the icing on this neoclassical “cake”. We followed that up with an interesting and informative wander of the smaller streets of the city to discover the more unusual and quirkier aspects of the city. Our guides encyclopaedic knowledge was simply amazing.
Our time here was focused on the creative architectural works of Antoni Gaudí. “I do not know if we have awarded this degree to a madman or to a genius; only time will tell.” A famous quote that sums up people’s attitudes to his work. We visited La Sagrada Família and were rewarded with remarkable views of its towering, distinctive exterior. Construction began in 1882 and is scheduled for completion in 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death (albeit that nobody believes it will actually be completed by then). Inside is astonishing, you have to see for yourself. We also took in some of his finest work in the city including Park Güell, a 50 acre site declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
An unforgettable experience, enhanced by Viking’s exceptional customer service ethic. Judging by how busy some of the key places were, I’m glad we came to enjoy them off season, perfect for the over 50s traveller.
Steve thanks Viking Cruises for their support on this voyage.
Call Viking on 020 8780 7900 for information on cruises in the Mediterranean, throughout the year.