Day 1: Split, Croatia
The ship docks right next to the town and is walking distance to Diocletes Palace, the ancient palace-fortress built by the Roman emperor in the 4th century AD. The old town is built in and around the walls of the palace and is typically Mediterranean, with narrow alleyways in between high limestone walls.
Tick off another UNESCO World Heritage site - the count is now at 7. We climbed the bell tower (aka the staircase of death) and admired the view of the city. In hindsight we should have spent EUR20 for the all-in-one ticket which would have got us into the tower, cathedral, temple and crypt. We had an amazing lunch in a small restaurant tucked into a tiny courtyard, with fresh fish bought from the market we had seen earlier that day. Dessert was a delicious Crotian cake - a choux pastry delight with chocolate sauce and ice cream. The waitress had taught herself brilliant English "by watching TV and listening to music." Washing hangs overhead between the buildings but at one street boots and handbags are hung out to 'dry'. It brought a smile to everyone's face.
As we paused outside a tiny chapel and lamented it was closed, a couple approached - he was British and she was New Zealand.
"Excuse me are you Australian?"
"Do you know what happened in the rugby?"
"Lions 24, All Blacks 21."
The British man was so happy he hugged the Navigator and could barely stop himself from bouncing up and down in glee. His New Zealand wife was the grand daughter of an All Black. We were so taken aback by the husband's response we forgot to ask who her grandfather was. She was less impressed by the result.
Day 2: Sea day
The sea day is an ocean-going version of the home day. Accordingly there is nothing to report except some much needed sleep.
Day 3: Chania, Crete
We were originally scheduled for Santorini and Mykonos but high winds forced a reschedule. Both these ports require a tender and it would have been too dangerous to disembark passengers. We were rescheduled to Chania (pronounced "Har-nee-ya"). Some of our table companions were extremely disappointed because they had choosen this cruise specifically for Santorini and Mykonos. On the other hand we are delighted because we had previously visited both Santorini and Mykonos. Crete is a new destination for us, as is Katakolon (Olympia) tomorrow.
Due to the reschedule we did not know what to do and so booked a tour off the boat. This is unusual for us as we prefer to make our own plans but when in Crete, do as the Romans do. No... wait, that's not how it goes. Anyway, our tour took as to a 16th century monastery up in the hills which was beautiful. The icons and the embroidered gowns and robes were spectacular. In the 1860s when the Turks came through Crete, the monastery was under siege for two days. Rather then give themselves over to the harems, the women and the remaining abbot blew themselves up and pretty much destroyed the place. That's a sacrifice.
After the monastery the tour went to the nearby town of Rethimno, which had a beautiful old town alongside a Venetian harbour and lighthouse. We wandered again through narrow alleyways admiring the Venetian loggia, fountain and the buildings. Houses here are a mixture of Venetian architecture on the ground floor and Turkish architecture on the second floor, reflecting how the town has been overrun through time. In some places vines and bougainvilleas grow overhead, keeping the walkways wonderfully cool. At one place we saw a bougainvillea with pink AND white flowers growing from the same stem. We sampled more amazing street food - this time a spinach and cheese pie (baked the size of a pizza and cut similarly) with the thinnest puff pastry layered through the ingredients and also baklava with the most delicate pastry.
Day 4: Katakolon & Olympia
Katakolon is a tiny fishing village on the Ionian Sea but with a dock big enough for three cruise ships. Ancient Olympia is 36 kilometres away, so we boarded the bus organised by the ship. However we could have caught the local bus or even a tram which travels the entire distance had we known in advance we would be visiting here.
Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. The ancient complex is spectacular and it is very easy to envision the gymnasium where the athletes trained, the buildings of the officials, the priests, the treasuries (apparently like embassies) and all the various temples. The stone blocks surrounding the Temple of Zeus were enormous. We went through the arch and into the stadium where the vast grassy banks are reported to hold up to 45,000 people. We guess that you lost your spot if you had to do the pie run.
The temperature was above 30 degrees today, so we took refuge in the air-conditioned Archaeological Museum. It holds artefacts from Ancient, Classical and Roman times which were recovered from the site, including a statue of Hermes (said to be the model for Michaelangelo's David) and Nike. There were some impressive statues of Roman Emperors as well as bronze shield covers and tiny sacrifice trinkets of clay, ivory and bronze. These were thrown into the fire at the foot of the ivory statue of Zeus as a dedication.
Today was another amazing experience which we were lucky to receive, thanks to the revised schedule. We have always wanted to go to Olympia and so feel very blessed by the luck of weather to have had the opportunity
Day 5: Dubrovnik
This afternoon we arrived at the utterly beguiling medieval city of Dubrovnik. We were very pleased with ourselves for navigating the public bus from the cruise terminal to the old town. We were here three years ago and did the main tourist activities of the cable car and the city walls, so this time we explored the back alleys and side streets. It was hot again today so staying in the alleys was an easy way to keep cool. We saw friends from the ship coming down from the walls nearly suffering from heatstroke.
After lunch we walked around from the old port to a swimming area with easy access to the water from the rocks. The (initially cold) water was so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. Then we met the most charming Fox Terrier dog, who just wanted someone to jump into the water with him. He ran back and forth across the stone wall, whimpering at anyone who stood near the edge. When he found someone, he stood between their legs and then 1-2-3, they would jump in together. The Navigator could not resist. After a minute to get the dogs attention, they both stood on the edge of the wall. Ready? In we went. Then the little dog swam around to the swimout, had a shake and then was off to find someone else to join in the fun.
Last of all we climbed the point just outside the old town to go into the fort but alas there was an entry fee and we did not have enough Croatian Kuna. However we did have a spectacular view of the old town with its handsome stone walls. Instead we had gelato to use up the last of our currency.
The sail out of Dubrovnik is wonderful. The suns sets as we glide passed fortified islands, monasteries converted to lighthouses and even a pod of dolphins.
We have decided (as well as some of our fellow travellers) that Dubrovnik needs at least three days to visit. This way one can get fully immersed in the town and experience everything. Frankly, Croatia as a country needs a proper visit. It is a wonderful country, not least because of the way it has recovered from the war of only 20 years ago.
Day 7: Ancona
Ancona is a city and seaport in the Marche region of Italy, about 300 kilometres south of Venice. The city is one of the main ports on the Adriatic Sea, especially for passenger traffic. The port dates back to Roman times.
We had no expectations about Ancona as we knew nothing about it. However we were pleasantly surprised. The town has a rich collection of churches, monuments and buildings dating back to the 10th & 11th century, as well as some Roman cisterns and theatre. The tourist centre is also highly organised (another surprise given this is Italy), with maps detailed walking routes to the key sights.
We climbed the hill to the Duomo, a massive domed building with commanding views over the city. This building is built on the foundations of a 2nd century Temple of Venus. This was turned into a church in the 5th century. It was rebuilt in the 10th century, expanded in the 12th century, renovated in the 19th century, nearly destroyed by bombing in WWII and an earthquake in 1972. This just demonstrates property is all about location, location, location.
We rested in the cool interior, had our moments with God and then scuttled out of the crypt when we saw the skeletal remains of the martyr Saint Cyriacus. The cathedral is named after him (Cathedral of San Ciriaco). We made our way down the hill and then wandered through the shopping district in the centre of town.
The temperature nudged 34 degrees today so it was our hottest day so far. We returned to the ship to rest. As mentioned, Ancona is a busy port. We saw this giant car ferry arrive and disgorge an extraordinary volume of vehicles. Big trucks kept coming off the boat for an hour. Then for another two hours it loaded truck after truck, from oil tankers to container trucks to car carrying trucks, as well as cars and campervans. All of these vehicles were off to Patras in Greece, a journey of 23 hours.
We stood on deck for the sail away and witnessed another wonderful sunset.
The MSC Sinfonia was a bit of a contradiction. The cabin was comfortable and the ship is quite nicely fitted out. The itinerary was great, especially (for us) with the replacement of Santorini and Mykonos for Crete and Olympia. Unfortunately MSC broke our suitcase on embarkation and even though they compensated us for a replacement, it was a hassle we could have done without. There were also noisy Italian young adults who disturbed us EVERY night at about 3am in the morning. They were so bad one night we had to ring Security, who came eventually and made them disperse. There was a bottle of Spumante and chocolate covered strawberries as an apology.
Our main complaint was the food. We were expecting Italian awesomeness but instead got plain and basic food. We did not look forward to dinner each night which was disappointing. We had first sitting and always felt we were being rushed out of the restaurant each night. Apart from the cabin staff, we also felt the service standard was poor. A particular example was the bar service. It took the Navigator 20 minutes to get served but when the Navigatrix went up the bar she was served within 5 minutes. So we adjusted... but it was not the level of service we have experienced on other cruise lines. Our South African friends even had to relinquish their passports, which meant a recovery procedure *every* day when they went ashore. It was never really explained to them why this was required. it was just was.
Accordingly, we will not cruise with MSC again and that was the consensus of many other passengers with whom we spoke.