Eastern Mediterranean Cruise
MSC Orchestra

Sunday 5th June 2016

We were up at 4am and by 10am UK time we had landed in Venice!

The transfer to the ship (MSC Orchestra) went smoothly and checking in at the cruise terminal was about the best we’ve ever had, with no waiting around at all. As usual, we went straight to lunch in the buffet, enjoying the lovely view across the sun-bathed, rust-red rooftops towards St Mark’s Square in the distance. We then spent a very pleasant hour reading and dozing on sun-beds while we waiting for our cabin to be ready.

Just before the 5pm (local time) sailaway came the usual lifeboat drill, but a little earlier we’d gone to a talk on tomorrow’s port of call, Bari. There were very few people present. Gill filled in a form for a prize draw, and to our surprise she won! The prize? Two half price excursions. Now we’ll HAVE to go ashore somewhere ;o)

For the sailaway I brought two Bellinis back to our cabin. They were really excellent and only €5 each, so we’ll be doing that again. Alcohol pricing on board is really very inexpensive – the wine that we had for dinner was only €5 a glass, so buying an ‘alcohol package’ didn’t really appeal.

The show in the main theatre was aimed at an Italian audience, it seemed, and they greeted it enthusiastically. It was based on Batman and Gotham City, and was basically an excuse for a bunch of dancers dressed up as Batman and his adversaries to prance around aimlessly, with a few excellent acrobats thrown in for good measure.

The Cruise Director is French, and like others in his role on Italian ships he speaks four other languages fluently. He gabbles a bit because he has to say everything five times, and slips from one language to another without drawing breath, which makes it a difficult to spot when he’s moved to English!

We had dinner in the main restaurant where we shared a table with two English women, one on only her second cruise and the other on her first. We went straight back from the table to our cabin as we were now exhausted.

Sunday 5th June 2016
Bari

The ship didn’t arrive at Bari until 10.30am, so we had a leisurely start to our day.

Rather than go for the hurly-burly of the buffet we opted instead to have breakfast in the main restaurant with its starched white tablecloths and nice cutlery. We then found a relatively (!) quiet corner of the upper deck where we could read and enjoy a gloriously sunny morning.

Once the ship was cleared at 11am for passengers to disembark everything became a bit more restful, and at lunchtime the buffet was nice and quiet. After lunch we took the ship’s shuttle bus into town and walked into Vecchia Bari, the Old Town. There are three ancient churches in its narrow, winding streets and we visited two of them, San Nicola and San Sabino. The former is the last resting place (allegedly) of the remains of THE St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus. In the crypt you can visit his very elaborate tomb, so I can now tell children that Father Christmas is officially dead ;o)

The crypt of San Sabinio contains the excavated remains of much earlier churches, including some amazing mosaic floors from the 600s. The very fact that we could view these mosaics and the original foundations of previous buildings is due to a major archaeological project a couple of decades ago that cleared away the human remains and debris that had accumulated there over the centuries. It was well worth €1 each to visit!

Back on board we had a stroke of luck. We found a beautifully quiet area high up at the stern of the ship that was bathed in afternoon sunlight as we sailed away towards Greece. We had cocktails as we read and relaxed, Gill with another Bellini and me with a Caipirinha. Well, that was what I ordered, but the bar had run out of Cachasa (Brazilian sugar cane spirit) and substituted (a lot of) Vodka, making it a Caipiroska. Mmmmm! I’ll be having that again!

The show tonight was better than usual, with a soprano and a tenor belting out Italian favourites, with a version of Freddie Mercury’s ‘Barcelona’ bringing back memories, for me at least.

As we turn in we’re putting our clocks forward an hour to Greek time. Tomorrow we’ll be in Katakolon, but not intending to leave the ship; instead we’re planning an exceptionally lazy day.

Tueday 7th June 2016
Katakolon

Given that this was intended to be a ‘Fly and flop’ break we had no intention of leaving the ship in Katakolon. The only ‘attraction’ in the area was the site of the original Olympic games, and by the look of it the place is pretty much just a few stones lying around.

So, we spent the entire day on deck, reading. It was Gala Evening, so most people were dressed up for dinner. The pre-dinner show featured the usual parade of the ship’s senior officers, and by the sound of it the captain himself speaks four languages with at least some fluency. He read from a script when he did the German version, and I reckon it was all written our phonetically for him as there were some dodgy pronunciations :o)

Wednesday 8th June 2016
Santorini

Santorini is the remains of a volcano that exploded long ago, leaving a series of fragments in the form of islands. Gill had visited before, but I’d always been curious about the place, so we decided to go ashore.
We had a late breakfast, by which time the crowds had been and gone, presumably because many passengers were taking organised excursions that set off first. Santorini has no port, so ‘Orchestra’ had to moor off-shore and tender its passengers across. By the time we went to catch a tender the crowds had gone and we got ashore quite quickly.

Once ashore you have limited choices; to walk all the way up the snaking path to the top, or to take the cable car – oooh, scary! Unfortunately, the cable car queue was immense, and there was absolutely no way we were walking up. You can hire a donkey, but it just seems cruel to burden one like that. So, Gill found a third option; go by sea!

We took a ‘speedboat’ and then a coach to Oia in the north of the main island, where we had an hour to walk about before driving back to the top end of the cable car. The weather was gorgeous and showed off the white buildings with their striking blue paint to their very best. Our plans took a knock when we saw the queue for the cable car – possibly more than a quarter of a mile long! So, we walked down.

It was far more strenuous than we’d banked on, with donkeys overtaking from time to time and with us having to step carefully to avoid the manure! But the views downwards and out to sea were breathtaking. We were so exhausted when we returned to the ship that we had a brief lunch and then slept for over an hour.

We’re now heading for Athens where, once again, we won’t disembark.

Thursday 9th June 2016
Athens

Really not much to say about today.

We had a late breakfast to allow all of the excursions to get away. The weather was gorgeous and we virtually had the ship to ourselves. Yesterday Gill found a quiet corner high up at the stern of the ship with room for only about 20 sunbeds. Today we bagged our spot there and pretty much spent the day there, apart from me fetching cold drinks and then both of us having lunch in the deserted buffet.

We’re getting a LOT of reading done!

Friday 10th June 2016
Corfu

We had a relatively early breakfast in a fairly quiet buffet, and then headed for yesterday’s quiet place. The ship didn’t dock until midday, and with dark clouds gathering overhead plus the rumbles of thunder we retreated to our cabin.

We didn’t get lunch until getting on for 2pm, and the buffet and upper decks were uncannily quiet. We took a transfer bus into Corfu town and walked around for a while in glorious sunshine, enjoying the easy pace of life. Gill was shopping for olive oil body butter in one shop and the proprietor gave her two crystalised Kumquats as a ‘thank you’. We ate them immediately, and we enjoyed them so much that we went back into the shop and bought some more. One thing led to another, and by the time we left she’d also bought a bottle of Kumquat Liqueur and a bottle of Kumquat Cream!

The ship is due to sail at 6pm (4pm UK) so by 4.30pm we were back on board to put our feet up and freshen up for the evening. We’re in Kotor in Montenegro tomorrow and we’ve actually arranged an excursion!

Saturday 11th June 2016
Kotor

We had to set an alarm for 6am to make sure that we’d had breakfast and were ready for our excursion at 7am.

Kotor lies at the furthest end of a series of what look like fjords but, apparently, are old river valleys that were flooded following ancient earthquakes. We were having breakfast as the ‘Orchestra’ was anchoring in front of Kotor, and the weather looked very overcast. As we ‘checked in’ for our excursion we were, ominously, given plastic capes. By the time we were getting into the tender the rain was bucketing down, and everyone was feverishly getting their capes on ready for exiting the tender. We had a short walk to our coach, and by the time we reached it our feet were soaked and uncovered clothing was pretty wet.

The guide apologised for the weather and said that yesterday it had been sunny and dry. We then set off on the ‘Kotor and Montenegro Villages’ tour. It was a half hour’s drive out of Kotor into the Luŝtica Peninsular heading for the property of the Stoikovic family where we were to be entertained with ‘a tasty snack of smoked ham, cheese, bread and red wine’. On arrival we were offered glasses of the local equivalent of Grappa and a glass of water to take the taste away ;o)

The Stoikovich family have been making olive oil on the site for the past 400 years, and we were shown the ancient stone vat in which the olives were crushed, stones and all, by a donkey walking around it, dragging a heavy stone wheel over them. The resultant paste was put into baskets that were put into another vat with a heavy weight on top to press out the oil. Nowadays they use modern machinery to do this.

We ate our snack to the accompaniment of a couple of locals playing their guitars and singing Montenegran folk songs. As we left Gill bought a couple of bottles of Stoikovich olive oil.

Our coach party  consisted of both English and German speakers, and we had a local guide for each language. Their command of the two languages was really impressive and yet again made us aware how poor the British are at foreign languages. Even waiters and cabin stewards on the ship from all over the world, from Indonesia to Peru, seem to be able to communicate in at least English, French and Italian as well as their own languages. If they can do it I’m sure that we can too!

Montenegro as an independent state is only ten years old. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, after the civil war it was part of Serbia, and broke away in 2006 following a plebiscite. Its total population is only 620,000 and tourism is its biggest industry. Mining and minerals come second, with bauxite their main product. However, China is dumping cheap aluminium, which is leading to severe difficulties for Montenegro’s economy.

We drove all the way back into Kotor for guided walk around the town. The rain had stopped on the drive out to the Stoikovic estate and we’d even had a bit of sunshine, but as we started the walking tour the rain came down in torrents again. It fell so hard that pavements flooded and drains were overwhelmed. The guide suggested that we wait under cover for ten minutes, but it soon became apparent that people were giving up and leaving. Eventually, just half a dozen of us set off with him for a quick tour of the ancient walled city. It was a shame that the weather wasn’t at least dry, because Kotor is a pretty little place, rather like a smaller, more compact version of Croatia’s Dubrovnik just up the coast.

After the end of the walk we went back and visited some of the churches that we’d passed. We were back on board by midday and went straight for lunch in the buffet. The sun was out again as we left Kotor and we went back on deck for an hour or so.

After dinner, we said farewell to our dining companions, Sharon and Jacquie, who have been excellent company all week. They’re both about 50 and enjoy going to the disco or bars after the evening meal. Initially, we suspected that they might have wished for younger, more active people to share a table with, but they were infectiously light-hearted and optimistic and we quickly hit it off with them.

Sunday 12th June

We’re leaving our luggage in safe storage and spending a few hours exploring Venice. We’ll be back here at the end of the month, so we’re going to take a look at the hotel that Gill has booked for us.

We’ve had a lovely, restful cruise, and we’ve seen some new places. Now it’s back home again … for a while!