|Published Jan/Feb 2007
Visiting highlights of the Mediterranean via Holland America's 10-day "Roman Empire" cruise.
Two thousand years ago, Rome ruled the world. It was the most complex and innovative civilization of its time. At its peak, the Roman Empire stretched from England to North Africa and the Persian Gulf. One of every four people on earth was under Roman rule. It was a time of autocratic rulers, slaves and a rigid social order that predetermined one's quality of life.
I traveled the path of this vast and diverse empire through the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greek Isles aboard Holland America's ms Noordam on its 10-day cruise, "Roman Empire." But before embarking on the journey, I explored the Eternal City that once ruled this remarkable civilization. Today, Rome is a fascinating blend of artistic and archeological masterpieces, classic ruins, churches, piazzas and modern metropolitan marvels. Though Rome is worthy of a lengthy visit, there are several must-sees during a short stopover.
The Coliseum remains one of the great and imposing symbols of eternal Rome. Completed in A.D. 80, it stands four stories high and once seated 50,000 spectators. Visitors can still view the complex passageways that lifted gladiators and wild animals to center stage from the rooms below.
The Holy See, or Vatican City, is home to a few hundred actual citizens, but thousands pour through St. Peter's Square for a glimpse of some of the world's most impressive collections of art and antiquities on display in the Vatican's museums, St. Peter's Basilica and, of course, the Sistine Chapel.
Of all the marvelous ancient buildings, only the Pantheon (All the Gods) remains intact and is considered one of the archeological wonders of the world, with its perfectly concrete cast dome, the largest of its kind designed before the 20th century. The structure is a tribute to the great architects of the era.
For a bit of good luck, stop by the Trevi Fountain, made famous by the film, “Three Coins in the Fountain.” It is Rome's largest fountain, and legend has it that good luck will come if coins are tossed with the right hand over the left shoulder into the water.
Boarding the ship
We traveled the short distance to Civitavecchia, the port near Rome, to board the ship ms Noordam and begin our epic voyage. Cruising is a great way to experience several destinations in a fairly short time. You unpack once, are treated to great dining, spectacular entertainment and, best of all, world-class pampering. Each port brings with it a new landscape, country and culture.
A medieval wonder
Dubrovnik, Croatia, is located on the southern Adriatic coast and is considered one of the most picturesque cities in Europe, with 80-foot-high medieval walls, red-tiled roofs and marble streets. The wall surrounding Old Town is one of the city's most entertaining and remarkable features. The fortress was originally built in the 7th century to protect residents from invasion. Today, these walls create one of the most beautiful walks in the world. For a small fee, stairs lead you to the top to stroll the circumference of the city, some 6,350 feet in all.
The views are spectacular and overlook the town's ancient cathedrals, winding alleyways and cobbled streets. After all that walking, stop in at one of the local cafés that line the streets and harbor for a tasty respite. Fresh seafood is abundant and is creatively used in Mediterranean and traditional Croatian dishes.
Corfu, one of the Ionian Islands, is nestled off the west side of the Greek mainland. This small island is covered with more than 3 million evergreen olive trees, which are watered by winter rains. Corfu, even during the hot dry summers, remains one of the greenest of the Mediterranean islands.
This mountainous island is one of Greece's most popular destinations, with traditional villages, long golden sandy beaches, impressive fortresses and Byzantine churches. Some of the most dramatic views of the coastline can be seen from the whitewashed Paleokastritsa's Monastery, located on a rocky bluff on the northern end of the island. The monastery, founded in 1226, is set amidst a bevy of courtyards, shady archways and restful gardens.
Back in Corfu town, colorful Zorba dancers entertained while we lunched on local favorites. The town is filled with quaint shops featuring olive oils and soaps, wine and local crafts-perfect gifts for those back home.
The small fishing village of Katakolon is your gateway to the mystical site of Ancient Olympia. The first Olympics were held in 776 B.C. in honor of Olympian Zeus. Athletes from all over the Greek world would compete every four years in events such as sprinting, javelin throwing and chariot racing.
The nearly 3,000-year-old site is a fascinating make-up of ruins, including the original stadium, temples, winners' platforms and starting line. The most imposing monument during the games was the Temple of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today, only the ruins of the temple remain.
Santorini is one of the most dramatic islands in the world, with white-washed homes that seemingly cling to rugged cliffs, all overlooking a striking blue sea. The stunning shoreline is made even more spectacular by its famous black lava beaches.
We visited Megalochori, one of the largest villages in Santorini. Hundreds of sugar-cube houses and churches are topped by brilliant blue domes. As you stroll through the twists and turns of narrow alleyways, each corner yields a new and more incredible view. The most remarkable wonder of Santorini is that it exceeds all picture-postcard expectations.
Tiny shops, cafés, art galleries and wineries grace the island. There's a limitless bounty of great things to do, but we chose to spend the afternoon soaking up sun in Perissa, one of Santorini's best beaches. Crystal clear water and smooth black sand-signs of the volcanic activity of the island-create a dark, seemingly endless coastline. The backdrop, which protects bathers from the Aegean winds, is the mountain of Profitis Ilias.
Rental beach chairs are perfect for a lazy afternoon, and beachside cafés deliver snacks and cold drinks right to your cabana.
The rugged cliffs pose another dilemma-getting back down to the bottom. Cars and buses navigate the narrow streets to get around the island. But many visitors choose to take the gondola up and down the ridge. Hearty visitors, like me, do it the old fashioned way-on donkeys.
For years, donkeys were the primary mode of transportation to make the trek from bottom to top and back down again. Herders, many of whom are second- and third-generation, lead visitors on this rather bumpy journey over well-worn paths.
Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey
One of Turkey's main holiday resorts, Kusadasi also is close to a number of ancient historical sites, including Ephesus, one of the best-preserved classical cities on the Mediterranean. It gives you a true feel for what life was like in Roman times. Ephesus was once the second-largest city in the Roman Empire and its Temple of Artemis is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
To get there, you'll need to take a tour or hire a local driver, but its well worth the effort. The extensive ruins present a well-planned city and include the great theater, library, gymnasium, baths, public toilets, housing and tourism center-an ancient version of today's shopping mall. Thousands lived in the city, and merchants lined the streets in small shops leading up to the city square. Sidewalks were paved with marble and mosaic tiles, and the intricate designs are still beautiful after 2,000 years. Several areas of the site are now under restoration.
You'll be ready to cool off, as the ruins, mainly unshaded, can be hot. Head back to Kusadasi for some great food and shopping. Turkey is known for its beautiful handcrafted rugs, and several shops offer tours. Holland America will provide you with a list of recommended retailers that allows you to shop with confidence for quality and price.
Other great gifts can be found in Kusadasi, from Mediterranean-style clothing to excellent coffees, teas, dried dates and handmade copper teapots. Try the Turkish coffee; it provides a significant punch.
Have your camera ready as the ship sails into the walled capital city of Valletta to capture the dramatic views of the coastline. Founded by the Knights of Saint John in the mid-1500s, Malta is considered a baroque masterpiece. Valletta's buildings remain much as they were 400 years ago.
We hired a local cabbie for the day, and he drove us around this beautiful island, pausing at the edge of sheer cliffs to let us enjoy the matchless views. A brief stop at a village yielded a surprising treat-glass blowing and a crystal shop. As a collector of holiday ornaments, I found some great treasures.
In Valletta, you'll come across intriguing historical sites at every corner. Its grid of narrow streets houses some of Europe's finest churches, palaces and cultural treasures. One of the most lavish architectural landmarks is John's Co-Cathedral, which contains one of Europe's most impressive and famous artworks, Caravaggio's “Beheading of St. John the Baptist.”
Sandy Klim is editor in chief for Going Places magazine that’s based in Tampa, Fla.
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