Cruising the Mediterranean with Viking Ocean Cruises Part 1: The Ship

 The Viking Star, docked in Livorno, Italy

The Viking Star, docked in Livorno, Italy

The Viking Star, one of Viking’s fleet of ocean-going vessels, was the perfect ship for my first ocean cruise experience. The Star is relatively small compared to many cruise ships, accommodating just 930 passengers. It was the lure of this small ship experience, along with my previous positive experiences with Viking river cruises, that convinced me to give an ocean cruise a try. The experience did not disappoint!

 Monaco - one of many exciting ports of call on the itinerary.

Monaco - one of many exciting ports of call on the itinerary.

What delighted me most about the cruise? It would be hard to pick one single thing. But the combination of a gorgeous small ship, an itinerary that took me to new places and offered exciting excursions in each, the chance to go “off season” when there were smaller crowds, the adult vibe, and Viking’s outstanding amenities and service all added up to make this cruise memorable. Trying to cover everything about the cruise in one post would make for a very long read, so I’ll start with the ship and follow up in a second post about the itinerary, ports, and excursions.

First, the ship. The Viking Star is floating luxury. Sleek and modern, its beautifully appointed common areas, from lounges to libraries to bars, are visually appealing and offer comfortable and relaxing spaces as well as lively venues for entertainment and socializing. 

 One of many comfortable and quiet public spaces on the Viking Star

One of many comfortable and quiet public spaces on the Viking Star

 Sections of the Bayeux tapestry line the staircase landings 

Sections of the Bayeux tapestry line the staircase landings 

The attention put into selecting art, which is displayed throughout the ship as well as on a huge ever-changing screen in the two-story atrium of the Viking living room (decks 1 and 2), is impressive. Even the staircases have interesting art - a reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry. This provided a good incentive to take the stairs - important considering the availability of excellent food onboard! An audio guide (downloadable onto an iPhone) provided explanations of the art on display. There are also displays of Viking artifacts - from helmets to old iron keys to reproductions of historic Viking ships. Discovering the many art pieces tucked away throughout the ship was part of the fun - a treasure hunt at sea.

 

 Main pool, shown with roof closed  (photo from Viking website)

Main pool, shown with roof closed  (photo from Viking website)

 Explorer's Lounge with panoramic views (photo from Viking website) 

Explorer's Lounge with panoramic views (photo from Viking website) 

The main pool and hot tub, with retractable roof (roof closed during this colder weather, off-season itinerary), was surrounded by chaise lounges - some facing the pool and others facing outward with views of the sea or port. This was a popular area not just for swimming and soaking, but also for reading, napping, and casual dining at the pool bar. At night, it made a good movie venue (complete with popcorn). 

Next door to the pool is the winter garden with its intricate wooden ceiling. This bright and elegant space made the perfect setting for afternoon high tea (served daily from 4 to 5 p.m.). The shared tables also encouraged new friendships and interesting conversations. Most enjoyable was the tea I shared with an 18-year-old man (18 is the minimum age for passengers) and his grandmother. They were delightful tea companions and I enjoyed being part of celebrating his birthday and first trip to Europe. They already have me thinking about how many years it is until my oldest grandchild will be ready for such an adventure.

My favorite “hang-out” spot had to be the two-story Explorer’s lounge at the front of the ship (deck 7). Its comfortable seating, casual food service at Mamsen’s (Norwegian-style waffles, soups, sandwiches, sweets), full bar, and expansive views (especially from the upper story) provided a less hectic spot for breakfast or lunch and a perfect get-away in the afternoons. I even found a quiet spot to do some writing.

 

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The stateroom was also a treat. A last-minute upgrade offer to a “Penthouse Veranda” cabin meant extra space at a reasonable cost, including a seating area with sofa, chair, desk, and mini-fridge complete with a bottle of champagne. There was also a private veranda (every stateroom has one). The rooms were designed to maximize storage while maintaining a beautiful environment. The bathrooms are marvels of efficiency and who doesn't love heated bathroom floors? 

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Also on board are a gift shop and jewelry shop, as well as a spa, hair and nail salon. Appointments are definitely required for the spa. I was too busy exploring the ship and the various ports to shop or schedule a massage so I didn't get a chance to try these out - something to look forward to on a future cruise! I did get to experience the theater,  which is the site of live entertainment (a fabulous group of Catalan gypsy musicians and dancers in Barcelona), movies, TED talks, art and port talks, and daily excursion information. 

I can’t forget to mention the onboard dining. Wow! The Restaurant (largest restaurant on board, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, no reservations needed) was elegant but not too formal. Dress code is "casual elegant" (no jeans or shorts; dresses or slacks and nice tops for women and collared shirts for men). It is large but organized in a way to feel cozy and quiet, making conversation easy. The menu had "classics" available every night (steak, chicken, salmon) as well as nightly specials, many themed to the port of the day (bouillabaisse in Marseille, tapas in Barcelona, risotto in Livorno). There were always meat, fish, and vegetarian options and several choices of appetizer, main dish, and dessert. Pictured below are a few samples: a shrimp cocktail appetizer, a tender roast lamb with flageolets, and a wonder phyllo-wrapped Brie with a cranberry sauce. 

And, in case you are wondering about dessert options, all I can say is that pictures won't do them justice. I think everyone in my party of four agreed that the dessert prize went to the warm chocolate soufflé with Bailey's sauce. But we didn't complain about the chocolate mousse or the berry crostata, all three pictured below.  

 The best waitstaff at sea

The best waitstaff at sea

As for the waitstaff (from all over the world), well, let’s just say my group bonded immediately with the men working at table 104 in The Restaurant. They were amazing - personable, fun, and knowledgeable about the food and wine. And did we ever laugh with them! We looked forward to dinner every night half because the food was amazing and half because we enjoyed the staff so much. How can you not love someone who, when you order a simple piece of cake, tells you that "it would be much better with a scoop of ice cream alongside?" We had reservations one night at Manfredi’s Italian (one of a couple of reservation-required specialty dining venues on board). The food at Manfredi's was good but, truth be told, we missed “our guys” and the wider variety of choices in the main restaurant.

 Norwegian-style waffles for breakfast at the World Cafe (also in Mamsen's)

Norwegian-style waffles for breakfast at the World Cafe (also in Mamsen's)

There is also casual dining (breakfast, lunch, dinner) at the World Cafe. The service is cafeteria style but this was no ordinary cafeteria. There are multiple stations serving baked goods, salads, pastas, meat dishes, fish, local specialties, and fresh chilled shrimp and crab legs. There is even a dinner time sushi bar. The food was great and often included many of the same dishes as the main restaurant but in a more casual atmosphere.  The wines served were quite good too (included at lunch and dinner).

 

 

 A "two-bite" plum tart from the bakery in the World Cafe aboard the Viking Star

A "two-bite" plum tart from the bakery in the World Cafe aboard the Viking Star

The World Cafe turned out to be my favorite place for breakfast and lunch as the choices were varied, the setting comfortable and unfussy, and - oh, did I mention the gelato bar and dessert counter? Luckily the desserts came in miniature portions. Having just one was practically guilt free. 

My overall impression of the Viking Star is that it is a beautiful, well-appointed ship with luxury amenities, an upscale but unfussy vibe, outstanding staff and service, and top-notch dining. The  cruise was a great value as all meals (with wine or beer) were included along with scheduled excursions in each port. More about the itinerary, optional excursions, and ports of call in an upcoming post.

-post by JMB

 

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A pilot boat guides us out of port and into the open waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

A Ligurian Pasta

 A market in Porto Venere, Liguria, selling pesto and trofie along with other local specialties

A market in Porto Venere, Liguria, selling pesto and trofie along with other local specialties

How many pasta shapes can you name? Spaghetti, linguine, tagliatelle, fettucine, farfalle, pici, pappardelle, fusilli, lasagna, and orzo all come to mind - and those are just some of the many solid pasta forms. In Italy, there is a seemingly endless variety of shapes and sizes of pasta. One shape that is found in northern Italy, especially in Liguria, is trofie. I was less familiar with this type of pasta, but recently encountered it at a market in Porto Venere. When I saw it again a few days later in a restaurant in Lucca I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try it. 

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Trofie is a simple eggless pasta, made with just three ingredients - flour, salt, and water. After mixing, a little kneading, and a short rest, the dough is rolled into long thin strands (as if making pici) and then cut into smaller pieces. It's the shaping of these small bits of dough that is key to making trofie. Each small piece is rolled between the palms of the hand in a downward motion, allowing them to fall off the end of the hands (picture a good Ligurian cook doing this in one very quick motion). This gives them their characteristic shape - short thin twists of pasta, a bit thicker in the middle and tapered at the ends.

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Trofie are best when fatto a mano (made by hand). The commercial varieties have a more structured twist to them, and are more dense than the lighter, roughly shaped hand-rolled ones.

In Liguria, it is typical to top trofie with pesto (another local Ligurian specialty). In Lucca, my lunch was trofie with tonno (tuna), fiori di zucca (squash blossoms), pomodoro (tomato) and pan grattato (toasted bread crumbs) .

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It was a light and tasty dish, perfect with a glass of local vino bianco di Montecarlo (white wine from the Montecarlo region). Delizioso!   

I'm looking forward to making some trofie at home in New Mexico  - I think my grandchildren will enjoy trying to hand shape them with me.                                  -post by JMB

 

A Stylish Italian Wedding

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I marvel at the style that Italians have, that timeless "bella figura." Even as day-to-day style has become increasingly casual over the past decade or two, Italians still achieve (seemingly effortlessly) a look that is stylish and classic. And when an occasion calls for dressing up, well, no one does it better. This is true throughout Italy - from grand cities to smaller towns. 

This style was certainly evident at the matrimonio (wedding) that I saw in Italy recently. The large crowd, gathered outside the Church of San Michele in Lucca, was elegant and beautifully dressed. And oh - those hats! The hats were a surprise to me, as hats are something I always associated with the British, but this group of Italian women wore their hats with great style - the hats were as varied as they were beautiful.

The men were just as well dressed, especially the wedding party in gray pinstripped pants and jackets with tails. Even the young boys were fashionable!

And of course the bride was stunning and the groom handsome.  This is, after all, Italy!           

-post by JMB

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Talking Trash, Italian Style

The Italian word spazzatura sounds so much nicer than the English word "trash," which is perhaps just due to the magic of the Italian language. But trash is serious business in Italy and, when renting an apartment here, it's important to understand the Sistema Ambiente (which regulates and collects trash). To complicate matters, the rules and practices vary from region to region and town to town - so the rules in Livorno are likely to be different from the rules in Lucca. It's important to look for an explanation of local requirements in any rental apartment. 

 Keeping these narrow streets trash free is no small task. 

Keeping these narrow streets trash free is no small task. 

The instructions should include how to sort and bag the trash, where to place the trash for pickup, and the days of trash collection. Depending on location, there may be door-to-door pick-up (porta a porta) with specific items collected on assigned days (i.e., paper goods on Tuesdays, organics on Wednesdays) or there may be central pickup from an isola ecologica (loose translation - recycling area). These are found in some neighborhoods and have larger bins (cassonetti) for specific types of trash. In either case, the sorting is key!

Why all the sorting? Well, because Italy has a goal of "rifiuti zero" (no waste). That's a lofty goal; some cities are making huge strides in that direction (Cappanori is a leader, Lucca is on its way), while other cities are still working to adapt to the new strategies. The goal is to recycle everything possible (glass, plastic, paper, aluminum cans) and to compost organic waste. It takes some extra thought and effort to sort and recycle, but it's the right thing to do for the environment!

Here is how it works in Lucca's historic central district. The area inside the walls is divided into two zones, A and B, roughly along Via Fillungo, the main shopping street. The rules are the same in each, but the collection days for some types of trash (papers and boxes)  are different so it's important to know in which zone a particular apartment lies. My apartment this spring was in Zone B, the eastern half of the city and had porta a porta (door to door) collection.

 On trash days, these bags line the streets. Luckily the trash trucks make frequent rounds so the streets are cleared relatively quickly. 

On trash days, these bags line the streets. Luckily the trash trucks make frequent rounds so the streets are cleared relatively quickly. 

 The schedule for trash pickup, with specific types of trash collected on certain days. 

The schedule for trash pickup, with specific types of trash collected on certain days. 

All trash is sorted into four types - most apartments have separate bins for each.

 Separate bins, one each for paper, mixed materials, and non-recyclables on the patio of my apartment.  The fourth bin, for organics or compostables, was in my kitchen.

Separate bins, one each for paper, mixed materials, and non-recyclables on the patio of my apartment.  The fourth bin, for organics or compostables, was in my kitchen.

 Color coded bags for recycling. 

Color coded bags for recycling. 

Carta (paper) is the first of the four types of trash. It includes newspapers, boxes and paper packages (i.e., pasta boxes and paper shopping bags). However, not all paper goes in Carta - used napkins and paper towels go with compostables and plastic-coated papers in non-recyclables. If in doubt, most apartments have a booklet that lists how to sort every type of trash imaginable. Carta can be put out in paper shopping bags, boxes, or clear/white recyclable bags.

Next is multimateriale (mixed materials), which includes glass bottles, tin cans, plastic food containers (be sure to rinse first), aluminum foil, etc. Multimateriale goes in the green bag.

Third is organico. In-sink garbage disposals are uncommon in Italy, so food scraps are a large part of kitchen trash. Collecting these scraps (egg shells, fruit rinds, meat bones, teabags, coffee grounds, etc.) helps to reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste. Used paper towels, napkins, and garden clippings also go in organic waste - all will eventually become compost. Most kitchens have a small container for kitchen waste - be sure to empty this often as it can get smelly in a hurry!

Last is non-riciclabile (non-recyclable) and this is ideally the smallest of the four types of garbage. It includes anything that has no recycle value - toothpaste containers, baby diapers, plastic cutlery, sponges, etc. These go in a gray bag for pickup.

 These small trucks make the rounds and quickly pick up those street side bags of trash. 

These small trucks make the rounds and quickly pick up those street side bags of trash. 

The next step is consulting the schedule of pickup. I'm writing this on a Wednesday, organico day for me. Thursday I can put out my carta and non-riciclabile. Each is left on the street outside my apartment, in its color-coded bag, between 6 and 9:30 am. Small garbage trucks collect the trash bags left along the street. Note that trash bags should never be put out the night before pickup as stray dogs and cats tend to find them and scatter the contents, making a huge mess of the streets. 

 

 

In the apartment I rented last fall, things were a bit different. First, I was in Zone A so the pickup days for paper trash were different. Also, I had a resident's card, which opened the neighborhood recycle center bins, so I could choose to deposit any type of sorted trash on any day. I found this to be the easiest way to take out the trash.

 An isola ecologica, or centralized trash collection station, available to area residents with a key card, which opens the bins.

An isola ecologica, or centralized trash collection station, available to area residents with a key card, which opens the bins.

Trash - not the most picturesque Italian subject -  but important. Not following the rules can get you (or your landlord) a big fine. So be a good visitor and handle your trash like a local!      

-post by JMB

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I love red vespas.  Much prettier than trash!

For further information, including the most current schedule and instructions in English: www.sistemaambientelucca.it