Mediterranean Grandeur Cruise

By Sarah Schutt

Monday, May 20 — Embarkation and sailing to Sorrento

Our group of 22 Badger travelers arrived throughout the day in the port city of Civitavecchia, Italy, where they embarked the M/S Nautica, part of the Oceania fleet. From the first moment, the Nautica crew members were friendly, welcoming, personal and accommodating at every turn. The embarkation process was quick and easy, and the crew was informative and reassuring about the upcoming experience. Once aboard, we were immediately struck by the beauty and comfort of the ship. It felt large enough to be well resourced, but small enough to feel personal and accessible. Our first task was to go up to the pool deck for lunch, when we were also fortunate to meet many of our red-clad Badger group. What a view of the sea! We felt ourselves slipping into a state of relaxation and luxury. We were treated to an amazing sunset as we set sail for Sorrento.

Tuesday, May 21 — Sorrento/Pompeii visit

It was nothing short of glorious to wake up moored in the Bay of Naples, with an amazing view of the cliffs and buildings of Sorrento. The sky was clear enough for us to see north to Mount Vesuvius and south to Capri. I could get used to this! We took a scenic bus ride along the coast and inland to Pompeii with an incredibly informative and entertaining guide. On the way, we learned that the original pizza, the Margherita, was invented in Naples in the 1870s as a contest to honor Queen Margherita of Savoy. The basil, tomato and mozzarella cheese represent the three colors of the flag of the unified Italian monarchy — green, red and white.

Most of the day was spent in Pompeii, and that experience is almost indescribable. Hard to decide what is more amazing — the technology and sophistication of the society at the time, or the vast amount of work done to excavate and restore the streets, buildings and artifacts. Our guide was full of information about the culture and daily life in this city, and we all got a great laugh out of some of the more risqué activities and symbols.

Upon our return to Sorrento, we enjoyed walking the narrow, cobblestone streets and shopping for some of the region’s most well-known items, including inlaid wood furniture and housewares, limoncello, leather and glass beads. The views from the clifftop streets were breathtaking. Dinner was at a traditional pizza restaurant in Sorrento that served authentic Margherita pizza. Not sure I’ve ever tasted pizza so good!

Wednesday, May 22 — Positano

Today’s adventures took us to the famed Amalfi Coast, specifically to the town of Positano. We could not figure out how the buildings and homes stay put on those cliffs; they seem to hang suspended in breezy salt air. Rough seas made tendering tricky, but eventually we made it ashore and had quite a leg workout as we climbed the steep, narrow roads. Some were brave enough to tackle the 62 steps to the cathedral. Others were content to enjoy the shops and pick up some very fine linen clothing and ceramics. We all enjoyed the gelato stand before heading back to the Nautica and an evening show with a talented, on-board cast. We also befriended the maître d’, who has friends in Milwaukee and made sure that he gave our Wisconsin group superstar treatment. There are truly Badger fans everywhere!

Thursday, May 23 — Florence and Pisa

Today, some of our group went wine tasting in the hill towns and in Lucca, and all reports were that it was a fantastic adventure. We took the daylong adventure to Florence and Pisa, and because I was in the middle of reading Dan Brown’s latest book, Inferno, I could not wait to see the book’s sites and subjects in person. We were fortunate to have a sunny day, and the mistral winds were calmer inland. Florence is just as beautiful as you may have heard, and more. The place just oozes history, art and culture of the Renaissance and is an aesthetic feast for all the senses. Our guide kept us moving quickly, but was able to share a great deal of information about the artists, politicians and intrigue that have been part of this city’s identity for centuries. I expected to be overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Il Duomo de Firenze — the Dome of Florence), but was surprised by the equally impressive baptistery of San Giovanni in the square out front. We learned that the horizontal stripes of color in the stone are of Byzantine influence. Our walk through the city took us to a spot where shops are situated and have been in business continuously for centuries. This bridge was spared during WWII, the only one in Florence. Our guide made sure that our walk took us by the bronze pig, and we all touched its nose, ensuring a return trip someday. That is definitely a must!

As if that were not enough, we then boarded our bus to set off for more architectural wonders in Pisa. I was surprised that, as we were approaching the city, we could clearly see the cathedral and tower from a distance across agricultural fields. It struck me as surreal. We arrived in the late afternoon when the light was hitting the buildings in the most spectacular way. After the crowds of Florence, it was a welcome treat to wander slowly around the cathedral grounds and appreciate the architecture and artistry up close. We took some fantastic photos and were able to get a wireless signal that allowed us a Facebook post! Too soon it was time to return to the bus. The area leading to the ancient walls and cathedral grounds was full of vendors selling the widest variety of souvenirs I’d seen to date. We marked our visit with some fun Pisa memorabilia.

Friday, May 24 — Corsica

New to this itinerary, we learned, was a stop on the island of Corsica in the city of Ajaccio (pronounced a-jox-ee-o). The rugged terrain of the island was impressive, especially as we learned of the variety of climates in that small space. Herbs grow wild in the woods (the macha), and the aroma permeates the air of Corsica. I was excited to buy an herb mix in the main-square market, at which there was a wide variety of native cheeses, sausages, rustic breads and lots of honey — many yummy things there to enjoy and take home. Ajaccio is the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, so everywhere you look there are statues and plaques that recognize him, including the baptismal font in the little local cathedral. We learned about the invasion-full history of Corsica, and the existence of strong nationalist sentiments. This is someplace where we’d return to learn and experience more.

Saturday, May 25 — Marseille

This morning we docked in Marseille, France, our largest port to date, and you could see and feel the energy and activity. Situated right on shore was the cathedral, which was quite a sight to behold upon waking. Our Badger group went on several different tours, including to Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, the Pope’s Palace and Les Baux. We did the latter and had a terrific visit to the charming city of Avignon. Our walking tour through the palace allowed us access to the private quarters of several centuries’ worth of popes, and everywhere we were struck by the varying styles of art and architecture. Then it was on to Les Baux, a former fortress situated on the top of a very high bluff. This medieval outpost still retains original walls, steps and weaponry. While the heights were dizzying, the display of military strategy and technology was fascinating. The mistral winds made themselves known throughout the day, and we were happy to return to the warmth of the bus and ship.

Sunday, May 26 — St. Tropez

St. Tropez lives up to its reputation of being a jewel of the French Riviera. Our day was simply idyllic, with sunshine and warmth to complement strolling around this favorite spot of the rich and famous. We had free time to traverse the city and walked all the way up to the citadel, which has been converted to a public park. Our walk back down offered amazing views of legendary blue water, white beaches and yachts of all sizes. I think all of the members of our group picked out a favorite vessel, and we speculated about who might be aboard. All of us were on the lookout for celebrities, as the Cannes Film Festival was going on while we were in the French Riviera. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot (or at least didn’t recognize) anyone. St. Tropez was truly a treat.

Monday, May 27 — Cannes area

Well, we missed the Cannes Film Festival by just one day, but our bus ride through Cannes gave a great view of the crews and workers taking down all of the tents. What an extensive event that must be! Some of us stayed in the Cannes area and enjoyed the small train ride among several of the cities. Others of us set off for the ancient, hillside town of St. Paul de Vence. Like many other villages, it was built inside fortress walls, high up on a hill. We learned that people still reside there year-round, and children are bused down the hill to attend school in the village below. Henri Matisse had a home near St. Paul de Vence, and you can see pieces of his art all over, including a mural on the exterior wall of the elementary school! We enjoyed a pleasant time walking the very narrow, stone streets and doing some shopping — hot items were the local, olive oil-based soaps and linens, as well as candies and anise cookies.

Tuesday, May 28 — at sea

Spent the day at sea, cruising south of the French Riviera. The sun was bright and high, but a very strong wind made for chilly lounging on deck. That didn’t stop us, though, because the crew was ready and waiting with blankets so that we could bask in the sun. A highlight of the day was a school of dolphins accompanying the ship and playing in the wake. How often can you watch dolphins over lunch? Being on the ship was a perfect excuse to try a spa treatment and to enjoy the famed desserts at afternoon tea. Evening brought our Wisconsin party and a fabulous group photo on the grand staircase of the Nautica. It was terrific to catch up with each other about trip highlights and to celebrate with each other as our trip was drawing to an end.

Wednesday, May 29 and Thursday, May 30

Throughout the latter part of the trip, we had experienced very strong mistral winds and resulting high seas. Mother Nature impacted the last two days of our itinerary, and as our cruise director said, “There was a lot of motion in the ocean.” We remained flexible and relied on our Go Next guides, Eleni and Zora, as well as the crew of the Nautica to navigate both the waters and the changing schedule. An unexpected stop — which ended up being one of our favorites — was docking in the port of Villefranche (because Monte Carlo was too choppy). We spent the day in that beautiful town. We were the only tourists there, and it made for an authentic, relaxing and very warm and welcoming experience. Their rose gardens are a point of pride, and we were surrounded by enviable blossoms everywhere. We had to get back to the ship early as the seas were getting high, so we cut our visit short… but it was worth it.

After that, we were unable to disembark again due to record high seas, so we will have to save Monte Carlo for our next trip. Even with the unexpected twists and turns, our Badger group remained cheerful, upbeat and flexible — even though there was a little disappointment. Our ports of call exceeded expectations, and while the weather tested the Nautica crew, its members remained outstanding, helpful and friendly through it all. We will definitely travel with Oceania again!