Sea Freight – Slow Boat To Venice

Probably the most-visited island in the world, Venice is drowning in tourists for a reason – it lives up to every expectation. Craig Osment takes the long and leisurely route from Rome by ship and is not disappointed at the spectacular arrival by sea.

June 24, 2018
Pacific Island Living

Pacific Island Living

June 24, 2018

During numerous visits to Italy, from the shores of Lake Lugarno in the north to the Aeolian islands in the south, we’ve seen almost every location on the tourist map plus a few but Venice has remained elusive for several reasons – including a lost passport on one occasion. So the opportunity to visit this long anticipated island city by ship was too good to pass up.

Cruising is mostly seen as a destination in itself rather than a means of commuting but hey, why not treat the trip, with additional stopovers, as a bonus and then get to enjoy a whole week in Venice at the end of the ocean voyage.

We started with a few days in Rome, which is either my first or second favourite city in the world depending on how recently I’ve been in Paris and found our usual places to eat still up to their consistent standards which is a very European thing, where the restaurants have been around for decades and the food perfected over generations (unlike some places we know). Then it was off to Civitavecchia, Rome’s port city which was a revelation. It’s more than just a port, it’s a seaside resort town and worth a stopover in itself. Here we boarded the Azamara Quest for the 10-night meander down Italy’s west coast, then Malta, Corfu, the Dalmatian coast and finally Venice.

Amalfi Coast

The wonderful thing about already being familiar with the Amalfi coast and Sicily was that we didn’t feel obliged to repeat any of the previous visits to the area’s many must-see landmarks. Naples – done that, Capri, yes, Mount Vesuvius, likewise, Pompeii, that too, Positano, yes, the Greek amphitheater in Taormina, ditto! So that meant at each of these gorgeous ports of call we were able to simply step ashore, find a restaurant for a long lunch or dinner and just watch the passing parade with a bit of shopping and wandering in between times. Then back to our wonderfully comfortable stateroom and a choice of yet more fabulous food aboard, and we only unpacked once (a cliché, I know but true), which meant no luggage to drag in and out of steep coastal villages – perfect!

Fortified and fabulous

Next stop was Valleta, the capital of Malta about 80kms south of Sicily, which hadn’t been on any previous itinerary and was a delight from the moment of arrival in the harbour surrounded by fortified walls of pale ochre limestone with battlements and gun emplacements on guard. Like so many of its Mediterranean neighbours, this densely populated speck (well, archipelago) has ‘enjoyed’ many invading rulers over the centuries right up until 1964 when it achieved independence from its most recent colonists – the British. Again, like its neighbours this cosmopolitan legacy has bequeathed the republic a surfeit of relics, religions (although Catholicism is the state religion these days), monuments, culture and history resulting in a fascinating mix of architecture, cuisine and commerce.

With limited time we stayed on the main island where the most famous tourist attraction has to be St John’s Cathedral which dates from the 16th century and has to be one of the most exuberantly gilded churches in the world. There is hardly a surface which hasn’t been embellished courtesy of the high Baroque tastes of its former parishioners seeking grace and favour. Even the floors are elaborately decorated marble tombs under which lay the remains of 400 Knights of the Order of St John. The main body of the church is lined with nine chapels dedicated to the patron saints of the Order’s langues (an administrative division of the Knights Hospitaller) each of which is dedicated to a different saint or religious event. Quite amazing, regardless of your personal spiritual persuasion.

Moored at the door

Next day was spent at sea making our way around the heel of the Italian boot heading for Corfu in Greece. What’s not to like about a Greek island, although as a port city Corfu town is less like typical Greek island resort locations and more urban but in Greek fashion, relaxed. There are plenty of coastal resort locations on Corfu but again, with limited time, we stuck to town and wandered the parks and squares and medieval lanes soaking up the history with visits to the two Venetian fortresses – officially the ‘old’ (early 15th century) and the ‘new’ (17th century).

Another day another walled city, this time it’s Kotor (in Montenegro) once again the Venetians had a hand in building the walls and fortifications but the approach to Kotor is by no means just another cruise across open ocean. This time it is via a series of loops through what is sometimes called Europe’s southern-most fjord, which is more accurately known as a ria or submerged river canyon and the Bay of Kotor. The effect is similar though as the ship makes its way past steep mountains to which cling small villages with a shoreline fringed with ancient stone buildings and modern apartments, along the way we slide past two perfectly formed small islands, one, Our Lady of the Rocks is in fact an artificial island with a church and museum while the other is Saint George which houses a 12th century monastery and graveyard. This area is now listed as a World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why.

Being officially a ‘small’ ship the Azamara Quest is able to get up close to ports which larger cruise ships can only approach by tender and this is the case in Kotor where we tied up at the gates to the city while a larger boat was busy ferrying passengers by tenders which attract long queues for the return journey, so lucky us! The old town of Kotor in Montenegro is small with a regular population of around 1000 but that must have doubled at least with two cruise ships in port. The town is nestled at the base of a steep mountain, which is dominated by a stone wall which stretches 4.5kms above the city with a church along the way. The main sight in town is the 12th century Cathedral of Saint Tryphon but the narrow lanes are lined with bars and cafés as are the public squares while a lively selection of musical buskers with cellos, saxophones and guitars provide the entertainment. There is also a Cats Museum! They seem to have a ‘thing’ about cats in Kotor.

The next Balkan heritage site is just up the Dalmatian coast and again is protected by fortified walls. This time it’s Dubrovnik which is now part of Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia and has been restored to its former glory after sustaining heavy shelling during the siege of 1991. Arrival here is by tender as the small harbour is nestled right up against the wall with access to the interior by a small arch. The wall varies in thickness but in some places is up to six metres wide with the entire 2km length used by tourists as a walking opportunity and a viewing platform for the old city. The walk is broken up by a series of turrets and towers and has formed the backdrop to a series of movies but most famously for the HBO television series Game of Thrones.

Another way of getting above the city for great views is to take the cable car up Mount Srd but back at sea level just stroll the limestone paved streets and take in the atmosphere, the main drag is Stradun which was originally (in the 13th century) a marshy channel that separated the city but is now prime shopping territory, well, it always was as every building is identical at the street frontage because they all housed a shop from the time they were constructed in the 17th century. Lord Byron, the old silver-tongued poet declared Dubrovnik the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ but what would he know?

And now for … Venice

The arrival could not have been more spectacular, a sunlit morning cruise up the main lagoon past the renowned St Mark’s Square and on to the San Basilio terminal which is just a 15-minute walk from the square and the Gothic Doge’s Palace. This may have been even quicker if a direct route were followed which was something we found to be impossible in the labyrinthine lanes of the Centro Storico but this was also central to the charm of wandering around over the next six days stumbling across the many piazzas, palaces and pizzerias.

Our modest little sanctuary for the duration was the San Clemente Palace Kempinski set on a private 7-hectare island. The hotel (a member of The Leading Hotels of the World) is on the site of a former monastery with a 12th Century church, which sits on the edge of the Venice lagoon alongside a terrace bar, set with lounges, tables, geraniums, a typical Venetian jetty and sweeping views back to the city. This proved the perfect antidote to being buffeted by the 60,000 tourists which teem through the city each day, thus doubling the permanent population. A surplus of adoring tourists is hardly new, they started coming in the 18th century and have been on the increase ever since. To the point where UNESCO has considered adding Venice to its ‘in-danger’ list due to the damage caused by large cruise ships and the vast numbers of people clogging the streets. It’s being loved to death it seems and sinking under the weight of visitors, literally during the seasonal acqua alta or high water.

That said, there was nothing that didn’t live up to expectations in this extraordinary historic city of art, architecture and bridges (400 of them). And in spite of it being a sort of Disneyworld of high culture with prices to match in the obvious places – Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge, you only need to venture a street or two away to find carafes of vino della casa and perfect pizzas for around 20 euro for two. So while an espresso or a Aperol Sprtiz at the Caffè Florian might be twice the price it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed because it’s not every day you get to sit in St Mark’s Square at an outdoor table belonging to a restaurant that was established in 1720, and when you venture inside you can appreciate why, it’s not just the location that adds to the price, the interior is as lavishly decorated as a palazzo.

Considered by many as a ‘living museum’ it is apparent at every turn that the place oozes history from every pore and indeed oozes a few malodorous scents from the more stagnant canals too but that too is part of the charm. Find a canal-side restaurant upwind of the smell and sit there all afternoon watching the glamorous veneered-timber water taxi speedboats and gondolas gliding by as you eat local seafood and pasta and down a Campari or two before checking the interior of another museum or church or handbag retailer.

There’s so much to see and do but almost half of all visitors to the city don’t even stay overnight which means quite a lot of missed opportunities to visit others islands among 118 in the archipelago. The most accessible and obvious being Murano and Burano as well the Lido and Pellestrina. But being Venice, there’s little need to do more than simply walk around and inhale the history and maybe listen to hometown boy Antonio Vivaldi on your headphones. Bellissimo viaggio! •

Travel note: For more information on Azamara Club Cruises see: where you’ll find cruise itineraries plus details on both their small ships, the Azamara Quest and the Azamara Journey both of which carry only 686 guests and are able to moor closer to port than larger cruise ships.

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