Cruising the Mediterranean Part 2: Ports of Call

Eight days, five ports of call along the coast of Spain, France, and Italy - that was the itinerary for my Quiet Season Iconic Western Mediterranean Cruise with Viking Ocean Cruises.

 The Viking Star, docked in Monaco's busy harbor

The Viking Star, docked in Monaco's busy harbor

 Viking Iconic Western Mediterranean Ports of Call (note: some cruises stop in St. Tropez rather than Montpellier)

Viking Iconic Western Mediterranean Ports of Call (note: some cruises stop in St. Tropez rather than Montpellier)

I chose this cruise because it took me to places I’d never been and had an interest in exploring, such as Barcelona where the cruise began. It also included places I was unlikely to visit on my own but thought would be fun to experience as part of a larger trip, Monte Carlo for example. Even better - the cruise ended in Italy, which was perfect as I was headed to Lucca afterward. Because it was off-season, or "quiet season" as Viking calls it, the price was lower than during the busy warmer months - a definite plus. The small ship (930 passengers) appealed to me as did the idea of a week of extreme spoiling at the hands of the Viking staff (see Part I of this post for a review of the ship, on-board amenities, and cuisine). I also had learned on previous trips that a cruise is even more fun with a group of friends, and I had several friends who wanted to do this particular itinerary. With all of these factors in mind, the Viking Iconic Western Mediterranean was an ideal choice. I booked the trip a year in advance, so I had plenty of time to research the destinations and daydream about the cruise. In the end, the experience  was even better than my daydreams.

 Barcelona Cathedral

Barcelona Cathedral

The cruise began in Barcelona*. Embarking around 1 p.m., just in time for lunch on board, I spent the first afternoon and evening exploring the ship, settling into to a spacious stateroom, enjoying the views out to the open sea, and meeting up with friends. After dinner on board, there was an evening performance by a Gypsy Flamenco troupe in the ship’s theater. The music and dancing were energetic, fun, and reflected a unique aspect of local culture. We all agreed it was a great start!

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The following day, the first full day of the cruise, included activities in Barcelona as well as several optional excursions (optional excursions have an added cost). I had arrived in Barcelona a few days early, so I skipped the included “Panoramic Barcelona” tour and instead opted for a half-day trip to Montserrat* followed by a relaxing afternoon and evening on board.

There were a variety of other possible excursions offered on this day, including more in-depth explorations of Barcelona, with a focus on architecture (Gaudi!), art, or local crafts and culture.

 

 

The next day, I woke up in France - the port of Marseille to be exact. There is something wonderful about going to sleep in one place and waking up in a completely different country. I spent a busy morning in Marseille on the included tour of the Old Port area. After a brief introduction to Marseille, there was plenty of time for independent exploration and watching the activities and boats in the small harbor.

 Marseille's Old Port

Marseille's Old Port

After lunch on board, it was off to Aix-en-Provence for an afternoon strolling the Cours Mirabeau and the surrounding small streets and back lanes. Aix is a lovely, graceful village with a tree-lined main street, pretty squares, lovely fountains, churches, interesting architecture, and shops full of local products - scented soaps, perfumes, bundles of lavender. I was immediately captivated by this beautiful village – definitely a place I’d like to return to for a longer stay.  

After a chilly and damp, but wonderful, afternoon in Aix and an evening on board ship (oh, the dining options!) we cruised overnight toward St. Tropez. Off-season cruises always risk some less-than-ideal weather, and in St. Tropez the rain and winds created seas too rough to launch the tender boats that ferry passengers to shore. The captain decided to skip St. Tropez and head straight to Monaco where tender boats are not needed. Arriving in Monaco is breathtaking – a beautiful harbor filled with gorgeous yachts, buildings marching straight up the steep hillside and, on this day, a rare snowfall. My cabin had a perfect view of the harbor, perfect for watching the docking process from the balcony. I also enjoyed watching the cold, snowy weather from the comfort of the boat and took the opportunity to spend an afternoon mostly on board, taking high tea in the ship’s winter garden. Was I ever feeling spoiled!

 Arriving in Monaco, the view from my stateroom balcony.  WOW !

Arriving in Monaco, the view from my stateroom balcony.  WOW !

The next day, still chilly but without the wind or snow, was perfect for exploring Monaco.  The included tour took us through the beautiful seaside garden, past the Oceanographic Museum, and to the Prince's Palace just in time for the changing of the guard (once daily at 11:55 a.m.). After that we spent an afternoon on our own exploring this small but very interesting town, with plenty of time to visit the museum, wander the area around the Prince's Palace, return to the garden, or shop.  There were a variety of optional excursions, including to the casino and even a coastal helicopter ride.  I had not expected to like Monaco so much – I had pictured just glitzy casinos, jewels, and expensive shopping – and I was happy to find so much simple beauty here in walks along the seaside cliffs, views of both the large and smaller harbors, and the gardens.

I went to sleep that night knowing that I would wake up the next morning in Italy, the final cruise destination. The port of call in Italy was Livorno, where the ship remained for two days  Livorno is a big port, popular with cruise lines for its proximity to Florence and Pisa and half-day visits to both cities were included excursions.

 Along a canal in the "Little Venice" area of Livorno

Along a canal in the "Little Venice" area of Livorno

Optional excursions included themed visits in these cities (for example, focused on art or architecture) as well as trips to the Tuscan countryside for cooking or wine tasting, to the Carrera marble quarries, to Torre del Lago where Puccini lived and composed, and to San Gimignano, the famous city of towers.  I choose to skip the included tours in favor of a full day visit to San Gimignano* with a wine tasting lunch on a family-run agriturismo. The drive to San Gimignano, through a snow-covered Tuscany, was a highlight for me. The second day in port I explored Livorno on my own and spent time on board ship relaxing by the pool and enjoying a final afternoon tea. Overnight we sailed to Civitavecchia, near Rome, where the cruise ended. And then I was off to the train station and headed to my stay in Lucca.

 San Gimignano, Italy

San Gimignano, Italy

I enjoyed this off-season cruise. The weather was sometimes cold and wet, but with warm clothing and an umbrella that didn’t prevent enjoying every port and excursion. There were no crowds, a real benefit of low season travel. The lower quiet season pricing made this an affordable adventure. The itinerary and included excursions were well chosen by Viking, the guides in each place were enthusiastic and knowledgeable locals, and the optional excursions were reasonably priced (my optional excursions cost a total of $287 and included Montserrat, San Gimignano, and Aix-en-Provence)  The on-board experience was amazing. I continue to be a big fan of Viking Cruises for their service, value, amenities, and thoughtful itineraries.  

With a $200 past passenger discount awaiting me, the only question now is where to go next! 

-post by JMB 

Note: I was a paying passenger on this cruise and am not affiliated  with Viking Cruises. 

* More about San Gimignano, Montserrat, and Barcelona can be found in these previous posts  : 

https://www.twopartsitaly.com/blog/2018/4/3/san-gimignano-a-medieval-town-of-towers

https://www.twopartsitaly.com/blog/2018/3/6/montserrat-spain

https://www.twopartsitaly.com/blog/2018/2/23/barcelona