While Santorini and Venice will always be atop of most Mediterranean bucket lists, this spectacular part of the world is also home to some hidden gems, and you can visit them from the comfort of a luxury cruise ship
A much-loved cruise destination for Aussie travellers (especially in our winter) is the “Med”, as we call it. There are so many cruises to choose from, however, in large, medium, small and even sailing ships, that making a decision about which cruise line and voyage to go with is tough. And while plenty of famous destinations are always on offer, there are also itineraries that take you to a number of places that aren’t overrun with jostling crowds.
My voyage on the Mediterranean is with Azamara, who has carefully curated an itinerary featuring some new ports of call as well as a couple of those traditional Mediterranean must-sees. The Jewels of the Med voyage sails from Venice and arrives 10 days later in Istanbul, and I’m onboard Azamara Onward, a veritable small floating boutique hotel, which means the ship can mostly dock right “in town” at the port jetty without having to use tenders, as the big ships need to.
This cruise proves to me, once again, that you can enjoy the most remarkable standard of luxury and cuisine at sea without the sometimes rather formal approach found on some cruise lines. It seems Azamara had the Australian market in mind when they designed their ships and the service, the entertainment and the culinary offerings in particular. The only downside is that you may have to visit your tailor back home, to deal with your more expansive take on life!
From Venice to Istria and Corfu, here are the 10 Jewels you’ll discover on this voyage of discovery:
What more can you say about this unique place in Europe’s history? I’ve been there before but it never loses its special charm, even when tourists flock there in the summer season. This time I am visiting in early October, which is the right time to avoid the crowds and the heat, to say nothing of the costs. Venice can be rather expensive in peak season, but from previous experience I prefer to stay in small surrounding villages like Malcontenta where there’s the Hotel Palladio, small village eateries, and you can easily reach the main city by bus or water taxi in 30 minutes. While a stay in Venice is not included in your cruise fare, it goes without saying it is worth returning to this utterly unique city for a weekend, if you can.
Koper, Istria, Slovenia
What an unexpected find, a sparkling jewel of the Med. A port city of about 25,000, Koper has a long history of rule by the Venetians and Italian is the second language, with the border just five kiolometres away. We dock right at the Old Town and join a walking tour to see the historical highlights, museums and churches. Koper has an easy-going attitude, loves hosting the limited number of tourists who visit, and has some interesting boutiques, craft shops, bars and cafes. We strike it lucky on our day ashore with a wine and food festival going full bore, too, and even receive free entry tickets – not that anyone needs more food after an Azamara breakfast…
Rovinj, Istria, Croatia
Rovinj is an off-the-beaten-cruise-port stay for just six hours, again with Italian influence from its Venetian history, good for a walking tour and a decent coffee. There’s a Baroque cathedral, a bell tower with 192 steps for the fittest and a well curated heritage museum. With 13 beaches close by, Rovinj is a water sports destination for Croatians and other Europeans in the know. The crystal clear Med water is extremely inviting and many of our cohort are tempted, even in early October. I secretly hope the Azamara chefs stock up here with some famous Istrian truffles and wines.
The impact of arrival in this much-loved Dalmatian jewel can’t be overstated. Before you loom the massive fortress and walls encircling the Old Town, and in a small ship like Onward we are able to moor a short tender ride to its epicentre at the harbour. While it’s a very touristy place with all the usual bars and restaurants to greet you, the main attractions of the walls walk (two kilometres around, a steep climb up stairs to get there, but worth it), the fortress, the cathedral with art by Titian, the palaces, monastery, maritime museum and the old synagogue (still in use) are close at hand. Then there’s a cable car up to the panoramic views from Srd Hill. With a 9pm departure we are able to stay ashore and enjoy the bar and nightlife scene, plus an exclusive AzaMazing performance of songs and dances of the region from a very talented troupe combining traditional dance with tap routines, which is quite extraordinary.
Our stay in Corfu is also short – just seven hours, but still enough time to take a leisurely stroll through the old town. With its narrow alleyways revealing a Byzantine cathedral, old churches and many tavernas, we stop for a power-packed Greek coffee with authentic, honey-drenched baklava, which is delectable. There are also tours available to explore the verdant Ionian countryside with its many villages and beaches. In its history, the island has “hosted” many invaders apart from Byzantines…Venetians, French, Russian and British. Corfu is one to file away in your bucket for a future visit, including longer stays on nearby beautiful Ionian islands like Paxos, where the movie Maestro in Blue was filmed.
Argostoli, Kefalonia, Greece
Since a major earthquake hit Argostoli in 1953, the city has been mostly rebuilt and is an attractive walking destination with plenty of cafes, tavernas, the Botanic Gardens and the excellent Korgialenio Historical and Art Museum. However, the best part of the island is its beaches, so a short taxi ride takes us to Makrys Gialos for a swim in the turquoise water, still warm in October. There is also an excursion to famous Drogarati Cave and Melissani Lake here, and while I don’t opt for this excursion, I hear it is well worth the strenuous effort.
Gythion, Peloponnese, Greece
Known as ‘Land of the Gods’, Gythion is another unexpected little jewel, the site of ancient Sparta and now a sleepy fishing port. There are two major shore excursions here, both listed as strenuous, to other medieval sites such as the fortress of Monemvasia or the archaeological wonders of Mystras, a city lost in time. Alternatively, I find time for a complete chill-out along the seafront and go crazy trying and buying Kalamata olives… luckily permitted by Australian Customs!
This is the “big bopper” of Greek Islands tourism, and big is certainly true as the crowds file into the island. Our Captain had warned us that no less than eight cruise ships would arrive at various times on the same day as us, so we knew what to expect. Because this island is so popular, all ships must moor offshore and the tenders are operated by the local authorities, keeping control over landings. The town of Fira is at the top of a huge cliff, accessible by a cable car (with a long queue to wait up to 45 minutes) or a donkey-back ride (yes, really) or walk up the steep winding slope. Once at Fira, you can evade the jumble of souvenir shops and take a really pleasant, paved walkway along the cliffs, with breathtaking panoramic views over the ocean and little cafes and restaurants in abundance. I find a good one fittingly called Volkan on the Rocks.
If you haven’t been to Santorini before, a good solution to avoid crowds is to take an Azamara excursion departing from a less crowded part of the shore, and choose one of a number of inland tours, hikes or a Bronze Age city Akrotiri, which I’d thoroughly recommend.
Here, we cosy up to the dock and disembark with ease, ready to board a tour bus to a winery in the hills. I am expecting something like Queensland’s Granite Belt, but this is completely different countryside, and so is the Urla winery, which is modern and huge. Anyone with an interest in wine will be simply gobsmacked by the sheer scale of the place, which produces about half a million bottles a year. Is it good? Well, that’s subjective and depends on your palette, but the one I personally enjoy is Vourla, a red blend of native Bougazkere, Shiraz, Cab Sav and Merlot: well aged and overall, a delicious drop.
As we glide through the rippled waters of the Bosphorus, the waterway that divides Asia from Europe, I wonder about the many civilisations that have passed this way as Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Crusaders, Germans and others were attempting to conquer the fabled city once known as Constantinople.
What’s left to write about this lively, charming, beehive of a city? If you’re a newcomer, you’ll want to stay longer because there’s so much to see and experience, and luckily Azamara offers a bonus overnight stay on the ship with an extra day in port and many tours to choose from, giving you the opportunity to do just this. The cathedral-turned- mosque-turned museum Hagia Sofia and the brilliant blue of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque are must-dos, as are the Grand Bazaar and the vast Roman cistern under the city.
I can’t help revisiting an old haunt from the 1960s: the Pudding Shop café, which was once the epicentre of the hippie trail and featured in the movie Midnight Express, and the beer and food are still very good.