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2-week Mediterranean voyage covers 7 countries in Europe and Africa

A view of Monte Carlo from Fort Antoine.

DAVE G. HOUSER/TNS

By DAVE G. HOUSER | TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE Published: June 15, 2017

My partner, Melinda, and I are heavy-duty history buffs, agreeing with writer and historian Will Durant, who once said, “Most of us spend too much time on the last 24 hours and too little on the last 6,000 years.”

So you’ll understand our enthusiasm as we boarded Viking Ocean Cruises’ new Viking Sea in Barcelona in February for a 14-day “Grand Mediterranean” voyage.

Almost completely enclosed by land and bordered by Europe, Africa, Asia Minor and the Levant, the Med is a vast intercontinental sea of almost a million square miles. As the most important route for merchants and travelers of ancient times, the history of the region is crucial to understanding the origins and development of much of the world.

Our two-week itinerary — virtually circling the western Med — led us to many of the region’s most notable historic sites.

On the Viking Sea, we shared a deluxe veranda stateroom measuring a snug 270 square feet and representative of the majority of the ship’s cabins. Penthouse verandas and two categories of suites make up the remaining accommodations.

Our cruise offered a port-intensive itinerary that visits seven countries in Europe and Africa, with calls at Barcelona, Toulon, Monte Carlo, Ajaccio (Corsica), Florence/Pisa, Rome, Valletta (Malta), Tunis, Cagliari (Sardinia), Algiers and Valencia. It was an itinerary that would more than satisfy our hunger for history.

Our voyage got underway in Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city and capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia. As most visitors do, we rambled along Las Ramblas, the city’s famous mile-long pedestrian way, absorbing the sights, scents and flavors of the sprawling Las Boqueria Market along the way. Later we visited a couple of masterpieces from the famed architect Antoni Gaudi, the towering La Sagrada Familia Cathedral and the glamorous 1888 mansion Palau Guell.

Cruising northeast along the coast of France, our first port of call was Toulon, an attractive little seaside city on the doorstep of Provence. Here we hopped aboard a coach for a panoramic drive around the city. Then we spent the rest of the day wandering the waterfront promenade and yet another colorful marketplace where the daily harvests of neighboring Provence — artisan cheese, fruits and veggies, aromatic lavender and herbs — were on bountiful display.

Day four found us docking in Monte Carlo, in the heart of the tiny Principality of Monaco — just as the sun began to rise over this most sparkling gem of the French Riviera. We worked with an excellent local guide, Jean-Marc Ferrie, a soft-spoken gent born and raised in Monaco and not at all affected by the surrounding bling. Together we climbed up from the harbor to Monte Carlo’s medieval quarter perched atop an escarpment known as “The Rock” to peruse the elegant Prince’s Palace — home since 1297 to the Grimaldi Family — and the fairy tale setting where American actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly presided with Prince Rainier III. Later, Jean-Marc led us to St. Nicholas Cathedral to view the burial vaults of the royal family.

At our next stop, Ajaccio, Corsica, we joined a panoramic tour of Napoleon’s birthplace and its immediate surroundings. We went from one Napoleonic monument to the next and then trundled along a condo-lined corniche to the Sanguinaires Islands for a look at a string of remarkably well-preserved 16th-century Genovese observation towers. Back in Ajaccio, we visited the Baroque cathedral where Napoleon was christened and Casa Bonaparte, his ancestral home.

We docked next at Livorno, the port serving Florence and Pisa, Italy, where we joined an included tour to Pisa. It had been many years since we’d visited the famed Square of Miracles, so it was good once again to explore this marble-clad UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adorned with Byzantine mosaics, the interior of the cathedral seemed even more breathtaking than we remembered. The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa is still leaning, of course, but not as much as when we last saw it. Work has taken place in recent years to stabilize the old bell tower, reducing its lean to an angle of 4 degrees.

Following a short run from Livorno to Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, we tied up for a two-day stay in the Eternal City. If one had never visited Rome, two days wouldn’t be enough, but we’d explored its ancient buildings and monuments a number of times. So we opted to visit a historic site we’d long wanted to see, the Etruscan necropolises of Tarquinia.

Dating from the seventh to the second centuries B.C., the numerous tombs with their decorative frescoes chronicle the development of the Etruscan culture that thrived well before the rise of the Roman Empire. Our four-hour optional excursion ($89) allowed time to check out tombs that have been excavated at the Monterozzi Necropolis site. The tour ended in the city of Tarquinia with a visit to the 15th-century Palazzo Vitelleschi, whose galleries and cloistered courtyard display an extensive collection of sarcophagi and other artifacts recovered from the tombs.

Following the only day at sea on our two-week voyage, the ship docked beneath the honey-colored limestone walls of the St. Peter & Paul Bastion in Valletta, Malta. They say Malta is the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Occupiers of this strategic archipelago through the centuries have included the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Knights of St. John, French and British.

But it was the Knights of St. John who founded Valletta. We wanted to learn more about the soldiers of fortune who built this magnificent fortress city that is often described as a masterpiece of the Baroque.

Having just a day to spend in Valletta, we arranged a guide. With the able assistance of the Malta Tourism Authority, we linked up with veteran local guide Nick Ripard for a fast-paced walking tour.

As he showed us around the Auberge de Castille, an opulent Baroque palace that once served as home to the Castilian contingent of the Knights of the Order of St. John, he contended that the knights were not as noble and charitable as often portrayed. “For the most part,” he said, “the knights, the majority of whom were lesser sons of European royalty, were far more greedy, vainglorious and self-aggrandizing than they were charitable.”

Another myth exposed.

Sailing south, bound for Tunis, we appreciated that this was the point where Viking’s itinerary really began breaking the Med cruise mold. North African destinations typically don’t show up on the Mediterranean menus of most major cruise lines.

At last, we were able to fulfill a longtime bucket-list wish — to stroll through the centuries at Carthage. The scattered ruins of both Phoenician and Roman periods were as remarkable as we imagined, but Tunis had some other surprises in store for us.

We elected to join the optional “Best of Tunis” excursion ($114) that led off with a stop at the Bardo National Museum, where a fantastic collection of mosaics and other artifacts from Carthage are beautifully displayed in a 15th-century palace. A living museum of sorts was next as we probed the city’s mazelike medina or souk — a bargainer’s paradise where some tour members claimed to have scored good deals on leather bags and gold jewelry. A cross-city coach trip led us next to Moorish-inspired Sidi Bou Said, a hilltop artists’ colony strikingly attired in blue and white.

On the heels of our brilliant day in Tunisia, the call next day at Cagliari, Sardinia, was a letdown. The tour failed to inspire, although we did glimpse some bright pink flamingoes in the salty lagoons that flank the city. We wandered through the Castello District with its Roman amphitheater and the Cathedral of St. Mary that houses some important artistic and historic treasures from the 13th-14th centuries. Otherwise, we thought the city was boring.

Back to Africa, our call on Day 13 involved a visit to Algiers, the capital and main port of Algeria. Security here was intense. From the moment we disembarked we were surrounded by policemen and soldiers, and all tours were escorted by motorcycle cops and military vehicles. We couldn’t tell whether authorities were protecting us from the Algerian citizenry — or visa versa. No doubt Algeria is home to some terrorists, but as is so often the case when traveling, the locals we met were very friendly.

We chose an optional tour, “Tipaza and the Mausoleum of Mauretania” ($179), excited to see the well-preserved seaside Roman ruins at Tipaza, about 35 miles southwest of Algiers, and the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania, a 130-foot-high circular stone funerary monument that stands in total isolation on a hilltop near Tipaza.

Suffering from the poor maintenance, the mausoleum is beginning to crumble. Nonetheless, it has survived largely intact since the third century B.C. — built by the King of Mauretania Juba II and his wife, Queen Cleopatra Selene II, daughter of Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and Roman Gen. Marc Antony.

There’s much more to see at the sprawling Tipaza complex. An ancient Phoenician trading port conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century B.C., it became one of Rome’s most strategic bases in Africa. Among the ruins are a public fountain, a Roman theater and an array of one-time villas overlooking a cove — premium waterfront property of the day, no doubt.

The unusually fine weather (for February) that had favored us throughout the voyage graced our final day in Valencia, Spain, with brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the mid 60s.

Steeped in 2,000 years of history and culture, Valencia boasts one of Europe’s largest and best-preserved Old Town neighborhoods — a diverse medley of cultural monuments, ancient buildings and broad plazas. With so much to see and do, we were grateful that the local tourist office was able to arrange a guide, Vito Ivanisic to show us around.

Vito got us off to a jaw-dropping start with a visit to Valencia’s modern side for a look at the futuristic City of Arts & Sciences, a colossal cultural and entertainment complex that includes a science museum, opera house, IMAX cinema and Europe’s largest aquarium. It is the design of local architect Santiago Calatrava — but so bold and visionary that one might imagine it arrived here from outer space.

The contrast between old and new could not have been more evident as we made our way into Old Town, where we walked among the marble columns of the lavish Trading Hall at Lonja de la Seda — the Gothic Silk Exchange — a symbol of Valencia’s trading power and prominence during the Renaissance.

Modern for its time, the marvelous iron and glass Art Nouveau-style 1914 Mercado Central is Spain’s largest market. It covers 86,000 square feet and houses nearly a thousand vendors.

Vito, who turned out to be an exceptional guide, had a tasty Spanish tradition in mind for lunch, leading us next to Colmado La Lola, a classy tapas bar opposite the cathedral where owner Jesus Villanueva proceeded to regale us for nearly two hours with a seemingly endless array of local specialties including Iberian ham and cheeses and tapas concocted with oysters, cockles, octopus, smoked eel, sea urchin and sea nettles.

It was a wonderful taste of Spain — and a fitting finale to our epic Mediterranean voyage.

Situated just off Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain, Palau Guell is a glamorous mansion designed in 1886-1888 by the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. The palace's rooftop terrace is an Art Nouveau fantasyland, with its nearly 20 chimneys artfully decorated with tile and stained glass.
DAVE G. HOUSER/TNS

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