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Few of us us will ever be billionaires, but on the day I sail out of Monaco on the luxury cruise ship Silver Muse, I certainly feel like one. Sun-drenched Monte Carlo, a tumble of petite gardens, opulent hotels and a cream-cake casino, is picture-perfect as our ship glides past gleaming yachts into the open Mediterranean. We might be leaving a serene bubble of extravagance behind, though aboard Silversea's luxurious flagship, a good dollop of it comes with us.
We slide along the coast to Marseille on this first leg, and when I open my cabin's curtains next morning I see a biscuit-baked, rocky coastline. Marseille, founded 2600 years ago, rises up around a superb old port almost enclosed in massive fortifications and crowned by a Neo-Byzantine basilica.
In contrast to Monaco, Marseille has a scruffy, working-class vitality and rich ethnic mix, its streets souk-like in places, its restaurants perfumed with spices and coffee. The harbourfront fish market glitters with silvery scales, and some of this produce ends up in Marseille's most famous culinary invention, the rustic fish stew bouillabaisse. I enjoy a seafood lunch at La Table, three-star Michelin chef Gérald Passédat's bistro lodged on the sunlit roof of the superb Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations.
Overnight, Silver Muse transports us to Barcelona. Tourists cram the city centre but, just a holler from the famously unfinished Sagrada Familia church, it's easy to escape into the quirky Eixample district with its cutting-edge fashion boutiques and eccentric modernist architecture. I also visit the Picasso Museum; the artist spent his youth in Barcelona and his childhood sketches amply demonstrate his precocious talent.
This is the joy of cruising: trouble-free transport and accommodation that provides new destinations each day. Many are best approached by sea, such as Palma de Mallorca, the Spanish island's biggest city, where white apartment blocks sit against serrated mountains on a blue sky. Harbour fortifications and a hilltop castle catch the sun as the ship manoeuvres, swinging Palma's huge seafront cathedral into view.
An excursion into the island's rugged interior, past sheep nibbling on purple flowers, carob and almond groves, and olive trees as gnarled as bonsai, brings me to the former Royal Carthusian Monastery in Valldemossa. Its white-arched corridors lead to austere monks' cells, while in contrast the terraces are an indulgence of perfumed rose bushes and mountain views.
Our next port of call, Trapani, on the north-western tip of Sicily, was founded by the Phoenicians and conquered by a who's who of Mediterranean powers. A castle guards the harbour entrance, while behind it plump church domes bulge over flat-topped houses. From our dock, it's a stroll behind crumbling sea fortifications and into the pastel-painted old town, with its washing-draped balconies and boisterous cafes.
Stopping for lunch in a shaded square, I eat the local speciality, spaghetti alla trápanese, the cold sauce of raw tomato, pesto and flecks of chilli an antidote to the midday heat. Later, I retreat to Trapani's dim churches, which house dusty old bones, gory frescoes and statues of dying saints, a fine contrast to the opulent baroque street facades.
I'm pacing the decks early as we approach the island of Malta and its capital, Valletta, because you don't get arrivals like this every day. Instead of a dull airport highway, you sail into port in the wake of centuries of traders, adventurers and knights.
From the water, Valletta's golden magnificence is showcased. The Knights of St John, who ruled Malta from 1530 to 1798, gave the city its gobsmacking fortifications and splendid architecture. The Grand Harbour is one of the world's best natural anchorages, encased in honey-coloured, Renaissance-era battlements. As the cruise ship docks where galleons once traded, I find myself in yet another land, once again thrilled by my arrival and ready to discover another fine port.
SHIP SHAPE Silversea has numerous cruises in the western Mediterranean, with itineraries differing each season. Among them is an 11-day cruise from Venice to Monte Carlo on Silver Whisper, departing on June 26, which visits Dubrovnik, Valletta and seven Italian ports before finishing in Monte Carlo. SILVERSEA.COM
GET HIGH In the Sicilian port of Trapani, consider a shore excursion to medieval Erice, on an immense crag behind the port town. It has austere architecture, a ruined castle with fabulous coastal views, and is famous for its marzipan. VISITSICILY.INFO
DAY AND KNIGHT The compact city of Valletta is easily accessed from the cruise terminal. Walk its mighty harbour bastions, then retreat into shady streets lined with palaces built by the Knights of St John. Valletta's Catholic co-cathedral, St John's, houses Caravaggio's masterpiece The Beheading of St John the Baptist. VISITMALTA.COM
TUCK IN Castelroc, folded into a corner of the delightful square that flanks Monaco's royal palace, serves sophisticated versions of traditional Monégasque cuisine such as octopus in wine, cod stew and barbagiuan, similar to ravioli. CASTELROCMONACO.COM
LINGER LONGER Before or after your cruise, settle in at Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo, one of Europe's great hotels. It has opulent belle époque décor, access to the Thermes Marins wellness centre, and sumptuous harbour views from many of its guest rooms. HOTELHERMITAGEMONTECARLO.COM
The writer travelled courtesy of Silversea and Visit Monaco.
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