Travel: Cruising into a Greek Odyssey

MSC Magnifica docked in Katakolon.
MSC Magnifica docked in Katakolon.

The old adage “You’re welcomed aboard as a passenger but you’ll leave as cargo”, has never been truer than my experience on a recent luxury cruise out of Venice aboard the five-star MSC Magnifica.

As the week went on, my trousers appeared to have shrunk a couple of inches which I blamed on the air-conditioning. However my wife laid the blame squarely on all those six-course dinners. In fact the aforementioned garments became so difficult to do up, that I prayed to Neptune that my zipper would hold everything in place until the final day!

Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games

Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games

When it comes to the sailing, I confess I’m a cruise virgin, a first-time passenger and a newcomer to the over-indulgence and unashamed luxury that a top cruise company like MSC – www.msccruises.com – has to offer.

Okay, in the past I’ve enjoyed holidays on both the River Rhine and the Nile, but in celebration of my 69th birthday – my wife quickly reminded me it was also our 46th wedding anniversary! – we arranged a cruise after putting aside my pre-conceived ideas of it being ‘a floating holiday camp’.

It was the chance meeting with MSC Cruises’ delightful PR Executive Rose Darby at a recent travel exhibition which led me to give it a try and, not wishing to risk a lengthy voyage, I was able to opt for an eight-day round trip out of Venice aboard the company’s 2010 Musica-class flagship, MSC Magnifica.

Choosing an easyJet flight in and out of London-Gatwick to coincided with the ship’s docking times in Italy, we visited two other countries and were able to take in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Parthenon and Olympia in Greece before calling in at Dubrovnik, Croatia’s Pearl of the Adriatic, on the return leg of the journey.

St Marks Square and the Doge's Palace

St Marks Square and the Doge's Palace

After an easy 25 minute coach transfer to the ship from Venice’s Marco Polo Airport – the flight took just 1 hour 40 minutes – seeing MSC Magnifica for the first time was quite breathtaking… it’s absolutely enormous!

With 16 towering decks, the ship can carry up to 3,223 passengers, has a crew of around 1,000, is 293 metres long while it stood more than 32 metres in height.

Checking into one of the 779 spacious air-conditioned balcony cabins on ‘Ischia’ Deck 11, cabin number 11061 had a super comfortable king-sized bed, an interactive tv, smart en suite, mini bar and a safe while we were looked after by an attentive Filipino named ‘George’.

The first thing you notice on board is the cleanliness. It all looked brand new with every nook and cranny having been polished to within an inch of its life. However I must mention actually getting on board in Venice as that was a slightly different story and for some passengers, it was pandemonium.

Flags at the Olympic Stadium in Athens

Flags at the Olympic Stadium in Athens

There must have been at least 1,500 passengers queuing inside (and outside) the Piazzale Roma cruise terminal buildings, all hoping to get through security as quickly as possible after having their photos taken.

Having checked in, you collect your MSC Cruise Card – they’re key to the whole cruise experience – while company officials were busy trying to sell extra packages for alcoholic drinks and beverages, beauty and spa treatments and all manner of other things you might not have been aware of.

Once on board you needed to get your bearings rather quickly as there are five gourmet restaurants – the one on Deck 13 is open 20 hours a day – in addition to 12 bars and lounges on different decks, there are five clubs for children of differing ages plus a magnificent casino.

Meanwhile there’s an outdoor swimming pool, another smaller one inside with a retractable glass roof, four large whirlpools, a solarium, a jogging track, ten-pin bowling alley, a 4D cinema, a tennis court and mini golf plus a superbly equipped gymnasium.

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik

With sparkling mirrors and bright LED lights absolutely everywhere – including the ship’s many lifts – it was the 1,200-seat theatre which simply blew me away. It was one of the finest I’ve ever seen while the evening shows, although only lasting around 30-40 minutes, were beautifully arranged and cleverly choreographed. In fact they were along the lines of Cirque du Soleil for as many as 20 nationalities were aboard which meant that explanations in different languages were not necessary.

The theatrical company’s interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats called ‘Sophisticats’ and a clever version of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter called ‘The Young Master’ were both played to packed audiences and received deserved standing ovations.

With the compulsory emergency lifejacket drill behind us at 4pm on Saturday, 14 May, we set sail from Venice and arrived some 17 hours and 320 nautical miles later in the interesting Adriatic coastal city of Bari.

Some guests opted for guided excursions whereas we chose the mile long stroll from the ship into the Italian city’s centre and on to the historic medieval Ben Vecchia quarter. Walking through attractive narrow streets and pretty alleyways, we visited the impressive 11th Century St Nicholas Basilica before strolling past Bari’s imposing Norman castle located close to the docks.

It would have been possible to have an extended excursion to see the Sassi Caves, the impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site used by many film directors including Mel Gibson in the ‘The Passion of the Christ’. Another trip went to the village of Alberobello located in the ‘heel of Italy’ although everyone had to be back on board by 4.30pm as we were off once again.

Sailing south, we headed towards the Greek port of Katakolon for a mid-morning arrival after having been advised to put our watches forward one hour as we had crossed a second time zone.

Parthenon

Parthenon

Once a tiny Ionian Sea fishing village, the port of Katakolon is actually located in the Gulf of Kyparissia. It has also quadrupled in size over the past few years and it can now accommodate the largest cruise ships in its deep water harbour and, with one of Greece’s most visited sights just 30 minutes away by coach, everyone poured onto the dockside from the ship like lemmings

Katakolon is known as the ‘Gateway to Olympia’, the ancient Greeks congregating there every four years before travelling to the Temple of Zeus to take part in the sacred contests which today forms the basis of the modern Olympic Games.

Unlike today’s 400-metre long Olympic oval tracks, the ancient Greeks ran to a distant marker and then ran back over and over again depending on it being either a sprint of a distance race. Amazingly the stadium itself held 40,000 spectators while much of the huge historical site – including the gymnasium and hippodrome – were uncovered by German archaeologists during the mid to late 19th Century.

Among the ruins is the exact spot where the modern Olympic flame is now lit every four years, this year’s torch having been ignited by the sun’s rays in April before it set off on a countrywide tour of Brazil. It will finally arrive back in Rio de Janeiro for the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games on Friday, 5 August.

Judging by the way my girth was growing after all those wonderful meals, I felt I could become a contestant in the alternative Olympics… for eating!

Unfortunately there was a problem on returning to the ship as the 20 or so coaches all seemed to arrive at the same time – and that meant massive queues as the passengers had to go through the security procedure once more before getting back on board.

The following day we strolled along the key side on the picturesque Cyclades island of Mykonos in the Aegean Sea, MSC Magnifica having docked at 7.30am on Tuesday morning. Known to the Greeks as the ‘windy island’, Mykonos lived up to its reputation although the pretty whitewashed houses and tourist in the town provided plenty of shelter.

With a resident population of just over 10,000, Mykonos is one of the most popular and glamorous Greek isles and is known for its non-stop party atmosphere and its sandy beaches.

Once again there were several optional excursions but we decided on a lazy day and looked forward instead to an early start the following morning when we would sail into the massive Piraeus harbour – easily the largest in the Mediterranean – before visiting Greece’s capital city Athens and to climb the Acropolis to visit the Parthenon.

Unfortunately as Wednesday, 18 May was International Museums & Culture Day in the city known as the ‘Cradle of Western Civilisation’, all the historic sites were free to enter and that meant even greater queues along with many thousands of schoolchildren who arrived in their droves.

It was bad enough for the coach driver who tried his best to steer his way through the heavy traffic from the port of Piraeus to the foot of the 150 metre high Acropolis hill which rises above the city and on which the Parthenon stands.

But getting down from the top of the hill was far worse for the visitors as the temperature climbed into the high 20s while descending those ultra-slippery marble steps. It was total chaos! In fact the only way to get people back safely to the coach park was to prevent all the others from going up!

The Parthenon itself is a huge temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena and it’s truly magnificent. It was built between 447 and 432 BC… but judging by all the heavy scaffolding and cranes, I do wonder if the Athenians are planning to rebuild the whole thing.

They’ve rebuilt and restored so many of their other classical monuments, as well as the Parthenon’s columns, that you begin to wonder if this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site will start to look like a film set. I recall that Cliff Richard didn’t have the same problems we encountered in the 1963 film ‘Summer Holiday’ as he sang The Next Time!.

Despite Athens’ streets appearing to be in a state of traffic gridlock, we still had time for a little sightseeing although not quite enough to visit the Archeological Museum. But we did manage to fight our way back to Piraeus and were soon sailing away once more, this time heading the 585 nautical miles between the Greek capital and Dubrovnik, home to a true UNESCO city that’s surrounded by tall towers, bastions and fortifications along its 1,940 metre long city wall.

Before reaching Dubrovnik, the whole of Thursday was spent at sea and with our watches now turned back an hour to Italian time, we finally docked in the pretty Croatia port and, for my wife and I, we reminisced about our last visit which has been exactly 25 years earlier.

Having twice holidayed in the former Yugoslavia in Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s era, it was in May 1991 that we hired a little Renault 4 and drove all the way from our holiday hotel in Makarska down to what is now Montenegro and the Albania border.

We then drove back along the beautiful winding coastal road into what is now Slovenia and almost up to the Italian border. Along the way, we also visited the Krka Waterfalls and the city of Mostar with its famous old bridge which was blown up just days after we left. We also visited the city of Sarajevo, now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina while also calling in at Međugorje, the religious site which is now on the Catholic pilgrimage trail.

We also spent a great day in Dubrovnik and with the Balkans War just days away, we walked around the city’s walls and saw just two other people… but on last week’s visit, it was ‘nose to tail’ with tourists on the walls so we didn’t bother.

One thing that really hasn’t changed are those screaming sound of thousands of swifts which fly high above Dubrovnik’s marbled streets on scimitar-shaped wings but this once wonderful historic city has simply become a tourist magnet. Every other house seemed to have been turned into a cafe or a shop selling items which tourists purchase as souvenirs but which usually get thrown away a few weeks later or are left in a drawer out of sight!

Leaving Dubrovnik at 3pm, we relaxed over the final 315 nautical mile leg of the journey which saw us return to Venice by 9am on Saturday morning. However the views from MSC Magnifica’s top deck overlooking this wonderful Italian city were truly spectacular in the early morning sunshine, the railings being lined two or three deep as cameras snapped merrily as we passed close by St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and the entrance to the Grand Canal.

However one young couple who we came across on three different excursions certainly must have a very unusual set of pictures for they only took ‘selfies’. In fact so close to the camera lens were they, that all you could see on playback were images of their faces, all those historical sites being totally hidden from view. Crazy!

Disembarkation was very well arranged – unlike the hassle of getting on board eight days earlier – while transfer coaches soon whisked us back to Venice airport well ahead of the return flight to Gatwick.

On the plus side, MSC Magnifica is an amazing ship; we enjoyed excellent meals, drinks and entertainment while there was plenty of live music to dance to. The staff were extremely helpful and attentive while the cabin and ship’s decor are absolutely immaculate. It was a surprise however to see so many schoolchildren on board in British term time but overall they were very well behave… unlike many of the parents!

On the minus side, the behaviour and manners displayed by some guests at both the buffet breakfast and lunch times was a sheer disgrace. Pushing, shoving and grabbing, they snatched and piled so much food on their plates that much of it was simply wasted, so much so that even the waiters were left shaking their heads in disbelief.

I was also told prior to the cruise that the dress code at the two Gala dinners was either a dinner suit or tuxedo for men and cocktail or smart dresses for the ladies. Sadly barely ten per cent of passengers bothered to adhere to it, many seeming to think a clean tee-shirt and a different pair of jeans was fine. I’m far from being a snob, but when one passenger turned up wearing baggy shorts and flip-flops, it was really embarrassing!

Another gripe in this day and age is paying silly money on board for WiFi which hardly ever worked – three levels were offered up to around €40 for the week – yet almost every dockside cafe offered it for free as long as you bought a drink. One wag suggested that MSC must have learned how to charge for ‘extras’ from Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary!

CRUISE FACT FILE

Alan Wooding an his wife Jo were guests of MSC Cruises (Mediterranean Shipping Company), a Swiss-registered, Italian-owned company. MSC is the world’s largest private cruise company with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland and offices in 45 countries. MSC is also the world’s second biggest global container shipping company while it has 15 cruise ships currently operating worldwide with several new vessels currently under construction.

The MSC Magnifica is registered in Panama has 16 decks (13 for guests), can carry 3,223 passengers in 1,259 cabins, 16 being for disabled passengers. It has a maximum speed of 22.90 knots but cruises at an average of 18 knots. There are five gourmet restaurants, 12 bars and lounges and facilities for children of all ages, a casino, a gymnasium plus a luxury spa and well-bring centre.

The return easyJet flight from London Gatwick to Venice’s Marco Polo Airport cost £181 while the starting price for the Adriatic cruise from Italy to Greece and Croatia was £499 for an inside cabin and £649 for a balcony cabin. A drinks package costs £20 (€26) per person per night while there is also an onboard €9 service charge per person per night. Other packages – Bella, Fantastica or Aurea – give guests varying degrees of cabin choice, spa and wellbeing treatments, priority boarding and gourmet buffet.

Excursions, which can be booked before you sail, cost between €45 and €70 although in Bari, Mykonos and Athens it was easy to use local transport or simply walk into town. We also booked a three-excursion deal to Olympia, Athens and Dubrovnik at a discounted €162.

Many thanks to Rose Darby of MSC Cruises Ltd, Queens House, 55/56 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3LJ – www.msccruises.com – for arranging the holiday.