When it comes to container ships, The Mediterranean Shipping Company is the world’s largest. It operates 426 ships that sail between every major port in the world.
It was founded in 1970, when Gianluigi Aponte bought a second-hand ship and started shipping stuff from the Mediterranean to Somalia. At one point, they decided that if they could take care of millions of tons of delicate cargo, they could take care of a few delicate passengers and so they started a division that operated tour ships. Their ships cruise the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, South America, Africa, and the Red Sea. The company is still independent and wholly owned by the family. It continues to expand, but not through mergers or acquisitions, they just put the kids to work. I noticed that one of its cruises had an itinerary that matched my interest in the history of Venice.
The cruise starts in Venice, then goes on to the city of Bari on the east coast of Italy. At that point it crosses the Adriatic Sea and visits Montenegro, Greece, Turkey, Malta, Sicily and Rome. The trip ends in Genoa.
During the 5th century, Attila the Hun and his Mongol hordes marched down the coast of Italy destroying everything and everyone in their path. But in fact, there weren’t many Mongols in the horde. The Mongols were mostly an officer corp and the horde was primarily made up of local tribes who thought it was cool to hangout with Attila.
At one point, a group of insightful individuals decided that it was time to get out of the line of fire and they moved to a cluster of nearby islands. Eventually those islands became the city of Venice. The islands had virtually no land for farming, but they were perfectly situated to become a center for trading. As a result, the key to power for Venice was their control of the major ports in the Eastern Mediterranean.
For over 500 years the Republic of Venice fought a running battle with the Greeks and the Turks trying to control the area. They were also in constant competition with Italian city of Genoa, whose citizens where interested in controlling the same trade. This cruise literally traces that history.
The Venetians were famous for building great ships. The high-sided cogs were the bulk carriers of the Venetian trade. Kind of like the container ships of MSC. The Venetian war galleys were low, sleek and fast. And the Bucintoro was the lavish ship of the ruler of Venice.
The MSC cruise division is definitely into “the lavish”. The ship we sailed on was THE MSC DIVINA. You come on board at DECK 5. There’s the reception area, a bar and a Cyber Café with 14 computer stations. The Black Crab is the ship’s main restaurant. It’s split over two decks. The overall style is art deco. DECK 6 is named after Zeus, the most powerful of the Greek gods. The central element on deck 6 is the Piazza del Doge. For hundreds of years, the Doge was the most powerful person in Venice. He was the senior elected official and the head magistrate of Venice. And he was selected because the aristocracy believed that he was the smartest person in Venice. I still can’t get over that idea, selecting the head of your country because you believe he or she was the smartest person in the country. What an outrageous idea.
Deck 6 also has THE SILVER LOUNGE BAR, THE CASINO, AND SEVERAL BOUTIQUES. This is also the floor for the Pantheon Theatre, which can seat over 1,600 guests. They put on seven different shows. Tonight it was Kingdom of the Pharaohs. DECK 7 is named after APOLLO, the Greek god of light and Sun. The entire deck is devoted to eating and drinking. There’s a wine bar and a pizzeria, a TEX MEX, THE BLACK AND WHITE LOUNGE, a coffee area, a jazz bar, There’s a place with live music all night, and THE SPORTS BAR WITH TEN-PIN BOWLING.
Decks 8 through 13 are devoted to staterooms
Deck 14 is named after APHRODITE, the Greek Goddess of love and beauty. Accordingly, Deck 14 is home to the spa and the barbershop. The BARBERSHOP had a vintage barber’s chair and I needed a haircut. Usually when I get my hair cut a scientist from NASA comes along because I’m part of a special study. Apparently, the bald spot on the top of my head is expanding at the exact same rate as our hole in the ozone layer.
MSC also introduced something new to cruising. It’s called The Yacht Club. It’s like a super first class. They built a special private area on the front of the ship that’s only open to club members. They have priority embarkation and debarkation. 24-hour butler service. 24- hour private concierge service. A private lounge, with free drinks, and an afternoon tea service.
A private pool, with a solarium, two hot tubs and a bar. And its own restaurant
Suite number 16007 was designed with the help of Sophia Loren. Rich reds, specially designed lamps and a red carpet were selected by Ms. Loren. Photographs of some of her most famous roles hang on the walls. The dressing table is a replica of the one Ms. Loren uses in her room.
There is also a library where Sophia Loren picked the books. That’s the ship.
Our first port of call was Bari. Bari is an ancient port on the east coast of Italy, a major economic center and a university town. It was home to St. Nicholas, who among other distinctions is my youngest son’s patron saint. So visiting Bari’s Basilica of Saint Nicholas was essential.
The Basilica is rather square and looks more like a castle with fortified towers than a church. Which would make sense, because for many years it was a castle. Originally, the saint’s shrine was in Turkey. When turkey was taken over by the Saracens, it seemed like a good time to move Nicolas’s relics to a more appropriate location. Legend has it that when Nicholas was on his way to Rome he passed through Bari and announced that this was the perfect town for his body to be buried. And on May 9th 1087, his bones were secretly removed and brought here to Bari where a new church was built to house them. It’s similar to the story of how Venice acquired the relics of St. Mark.
The Basilica houses a bishop’s throne which is called a cathedra. If a church has a cathedra it is entitled to be called a cathedral. This one dates back to the 11th century and is considered to be one of the most important sculptural works of the Romanesque period. The crypt has 26 columns with sporting capitals in Byzantine and Romanesque style, and it houses the relics of St. Nicholas.
Bari’s church is particularly unusual in that it is an important pilgrimage destination for both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. While we were filming in the crypt an Orthodox group arrived. They had traveled to Bari with their local priest in order to hold a special service. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of pilgrims coming here from Eastern Europe.
The main feast day for Saint Nicholas is December 6th. And On that day, the clergy of the basilica lower a flask into the tomb to collect a substance that they believe is being radiated from the relics. The substance is called myrrh, which is a gummy resin that leaks from a wound in the bark of a tree. In ancient times it was collected and used to make perfume and medicinally to stop pain, Containers of myrrh from the Church of St. Nicholas in Bari are sent all over the world, and believers have reported various miracles as a result of rubbing it on their body.
The next day we anchored in the harbor of Kotor on the coast of Montenegro. The old port of Kotor is located at the end of a secluded fjord. Actually, it’s not a fjord; it’s a prehistoric submerged river canyon. The area has been inhabited since the 5th century BC. and during the second century BC it was part of the Roman Empire.
When I walked into this square, and saw the church, I saw two numbers – 2009 and 809 and I assumed that a “1” had dropped down from the 809 and they were really talking about “1809” but in fact, there was no “1”. They were celebrating 1200 years – 809 to 2009.
In 1420, the city was taken over by the Republic of Venice. Its walls were fortified and it remained part of the Venetian Republic until 1797, which is why the buildings in the old city look so much like the buildings in Venice. Kotor is surrounded by protective ramparts that descend from the top of Mount of St. Ivan. The walls skirt the two short streams with their movable bridges and embankments. This continuous system of fortifications runs for about 3 miles along the sloping range of hills. Strategically it’s the most important part of the town.
For decades Hungary had ruled the Adriatic coast, but then in the 1300s, the Ottoman Empire began to challenge the small cities along the shore. Cities that had fought against Venetian control for hundreds of years suddenly began to seek theirs protection and Kotor was one of those cities. Control of the Dalmation shoreline was essential to Venetian sea power, but the republic was highly selective as to which cities would receive its protection. The deal had to make economic sense. Venice was always ready to protect a city, it just had to be a place where they could make a buck.
The St. Nicholas Church, on Kotor’s main square was built in 1616. When the Republic of Venice took control of Kotor, they decided to build a new more ambitious church, but it was never completed. Today, the original church and the unfinished building put up by the Venetians are next to each other.
During the 17th and 18th century, Kotor lost its economic lead to the maritime settlements that surrounded it, especially the town of Perast. Perast is just down the coast from Kotor and for hundreds of years it was thought of as the maritime capital of southern Europe. Over the centuries, thousands of sailors settled here. A widely respected nautical school was established.
It became so famous that the Czars of Russia would send their most talented naval officers here Kotor for training. Let’s face it. If you have a choice between spending the winter on a ship in Russia or in the Mediterranean, it’s a no brainer.
Perast's greatest boom occurred during the 18th century when its mariners employed four active shipyards with a fleet of approximately 100 ships deployed throughout the world. The town boasts 240 days of sunshine every year. This wasn’t one of them.
Unlike most towns in this part of the world, Perast is not surrounded by walls. Instead, nine towers protected the town's citizens. The most significant is the Holy Cross Tower. It was built by the Venetians in the 1400s. Because of its unique position at the entrance to the bay few foreign ships could enter the inner fjord without Perast's ancient defenses mounting a response.
The town is also famous for two unusual islands. The island of St. George is intense, dark, inward-looking and considered to be male.
The nearby island, known as Our Lady of the Rock is slender, gay, light-filled and man made. It is considered to have a female nature. Our original plan was to hire a boat and take you out to the island so you could see the church and the island and how it was formed. However the wind was blowing to a point where none of these noble sailors with their hundreds of years of tradition of sailing in rough weather would go out. I swim in stuff thats worse than this.The next day we sailed into the harbor of Marmaris. Marmaris in southwest Turkey is a port city on the Mediterranean. It’s on a part of the coast that is often called the Turkish Riviera. It is the country’s most sophisticated resort.
The town, in one form or another, has been around since the 6th century BC. And it’s had a castle for at least 5,000 years. For centuries it was a small fishing village, but during the 1980s it experienced a construction boom, which resulted in a new shopping area filled with bars and restaurants. However, the town still retains some of its charm as a result of its exceptional location; the rugged mountains provide a magnificent backdrop to the sheltered harbor.
The town has an interesting navel history. During the 1500s, Suleiman the Magnificent kept the Ottoman here. In 1798, Lord Nelson sheltered his entire fleet here on his way to Egypt where he decimated Napoleon’s armada.
During the 300s BC, the town was attacked by Alexander the Great, who was not as great as Catherine the Great, or Peter the Great, but considerably greater than Nixon the Not So Great. The 600 inhabitants of the town quickly realized that they had no chance against the invading force.
So they burned their valuables in the castle and escaped into the hills. Alexander was well aware of the strategic value of the castle and quickly repaired the damaged sections. He also left a few hundred soldiers behind to watch over the place.
Next we stopped in the town of Dalyan. Dalyan is Turkish for "fishing weir". And a fishing weir is something the blocks the free passage of fish in a river. Bass, Mullet and Sea Bream swim upstream from the sea to the nearby lake. The fish spawn there, but when they try to return to the sea they are caught in the weir.
The lake the fish spawn in was formed about 7500 years ago, when the entire eastern part of the Mediterranean was the center of an earthquake zone. Together with its banks and the Dalyan basin the area comprises an environmentally protect region.
Above the river's cliffs are the Lycian tombs that were cut from the rock face about two thousand five hundred years ago. The Lycians where a group of people who lived in this area before the ancient Greeks arrived. They built a series of magnificent monumental tombs that were associated with some form of ancestor worship, but we are not quite sure how their religion worked. Whatever their reasons, the Lycians developed these tombs into a distinct art form. There are over 1000 tombs cut into the soft limestone.
There is one distinct feature of the Lycian tombs that sets them apart from the ancient Greeks. The Greeks placed their dead outside their cities, often on main roads leading into the town. Lycian tombs are usually integrated right into the living areas of the city.
Just across the river is the ancient trading center of Konos. One of the most interest ancient structures in Konos is the wind measuring platform that dates back to 150 BC. It was used to analyze the prevailing winds. Then the streets were laid out so the winds would constantly refresh the air of the city. Smart.
The spectacular Konos city walls were erected during the 4th century BC. They are extra large in relation to the city’s population, probably because the rulers had high expectations of the future as a marine and commercial port. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do.
Next was The Republic of Malta .The Republic of Malta is made up of a group of island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. They are about 50 miles south of the Italian island of Sicily.
For hundreds of thousands of years, Sicily was connected to North Africa by a land bridge. When the last ice age ended about ten thousand years ago, water levels in the Mediterranean Sea rose. The high points on the land bridge became the islands of Malta.
During the 1500s Emperor Charles V give the island of Malta to a military and religious order. These days they are known as the Knights of Malta. The Knights were victorious in a battle with the Ottomans, after which they decided to increase Malta’s fortifications. They also built the new city of Valletta, which was named after their leader Jean de la Valette.
Over the centuries, the Knights of Malta became increasingly unpopular. At one point, the local population encouraged Napoleon to stop in and free them from the Knights. In 1789, Napoleon was on his way to Egypt to begin his attack on North Africa, but in the spirit of unfriendshipness he decided to stop in to Malta for a week and get rid of the Knights.
This was the building he stayed in during that week. And quite a week it was, too. During that single week, he abolished slavery, he set up a system of public education, he started a university, he started building 15 primary schools and he granted the people of Malta all of the rights and freedoms additionally associated with the French Revolution. And in keeping with his personal schedule and the size of his ego, on the 7th day he rested.
On the 8th day he headed off to Egypt. But the French troops he left behind became as unpopular as the old Knights. They were always stealing things from the Maltese churches to help pay for Napoleons expenses in Egypt.
So the Maltese invited the British to free them from the French. The British sent their naval forces and surrounded and blockaded the island and The French surrendered and Malta became part of the British Empire. But they had a very special deal. They said OK you British people, you can protect us but Malta belongs to the people of Malta and you cannot mess about with us. Valetta has something they called Co-Cathedral of St John.
For over 200 years this was the official church of the Knights of Malta and the maintenance and improvement of the church was of great significance to the knights and they regularly donated gifts of the highest quality.
Two of those gifts are of considerable importance. They are paintings by Caravaggio, who is considered to be one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance. He spent 15 months in Malta and completed The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome Writing.
The church became one of Europe's outstanding Baroque buildings.
Trying to find a good place to eat in a town you don’t know is always a challenge. We lucked out with a recommendation from the local tourist board. It is called NENU / The Artisanal Baker. It was built by a local baker with part funding from the European Union. The EU has an organization called the European Regional Development Fund and its job is to help organize and put up some of the money to start businesses that protect historical elements in the community and improve the quality of life for the local residents. We each ordered a different traditional Maltese dish. Ftira is something like a pizza. The dough is thicker. More like a bread. The toppings included fresh tomatoes, onions, Maltese cheese, potatoes, anchovies, olives, and green peppers. Fantastic stuff. There was a fish and garlic soup with side dishes of potatoes and garlic toast. Ravioli filled with a local sheep cheese and topped with tomato sauce. Pork chops smothered in sautéed onions. And an outstanding beef stew.
Well, that’s the first part of our MSC Cruise. In part two, we’ll continue our trip through the Eastern Mediterranean and then back to Italy. I hope you’ll join us. For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.