I agree with writer and historian Will Durant, who once said, "Most of us spend too much time on the last 24 hours and too little on the last 6,000 years." I also like the ease of cruising: I unpack once and leave the logistics, and cooking, to someone else. So I was excited to be boarding, with my partner, Viking Ocean Cruises' new Viking Sea in Barcelona last February for a 14-day "Grand Mediterranean" voyage.
Almost completely enclosed by land and bordered by Europe, Africa, Asia Minor and the Levant, the Med is a vast sea of almost a million square miles. As the most important route for merchants and travelers of ancient times, the history of the region is crucial to understanding the origins and development of much of the world.
I had always assumed that the earliest seagoing civilizations — Egyptian and Hittite — emerged in the Mediterranean region sometime in the fifth to fourth millennium. A recent report in the Journal of Archaeological Science, however, notes that stone tools left behind some 100,000 years ago by Neanderthal sailors have been found on the islands of Crete and Cypress.
Clearly, history is subject to revision.
Our two-week itinerary — circling the western Med — led us to many of the region's most notable historic sites.
Viking's itineraries, excursions, lectures and seminars are designed to help guests immerse themselves in the history, culture and cuisine of each destination. We visited seven countries in Europe and Africa, with an itinerary that would more than satisfy our hunger for history.
Our voyage got underway in Barcelona. We skipped Viking's excursion, choosing to explore afoot, taking in such sights as milelong pedestrian walkway Las Ramblas and masterpieces of the famed architect Antoni Gaudi.
Cruising northeast along the coast of France, our first port of call was Toulon, an attractive seaside city on the doorstep of Provence. Here we hopped aboard a coach for a panoramic drive around the city, included in our fare. Then we spent the rest of the day wandering the waterfront promenade and a colorful marketplace where the daily harvests of neighboring Provence — artisan cheese, fruits and veggies, aromatic lavender and herbs — were on bountiful display.
Day 4 found us docking in Monte Carlo, in the heart of the tiny Principality of Monaco just as the sun began to rise over this sparkling gem of the French Riviera. We worked here with an excellent local guide, Jean-Marc Ferrie. Together we climbed up from the harbor to Monte Carlo's medieval quarter, perched atop an escarpment known as "The Rock," to peruse the elegant Prince's Palace — home since 1297 to the Grimaldi Family — and the fairy tale setting where American actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly presided with Prince Rainier III. Later, Jean-Marc led us to St. Nicholas Cathedral to view the royal family's burial vaults.
At our next stop, Ajaccio, Corsica, we joined another Viking excursion that came free of charge, a panoramic tour of Napoleon's birthplace and its immediate surroundings. We went from one Napoleonic monument to the next and then trundled out along a condo-lined corniche to the Sanguinaires Islands for a look at a string of remarkably well preserved 16th-century Genovese observation towers. Back in Ajaccio, we visited the Baroque cathedral where Napoleon was christened and Casa Bonaparte, his ancestral home.
We docked next at Livorno, the port serving Florence and Pisa, Italy, where we opted to join an included tour to Pisa.
After Livorno, we tied up for a two-day stay at Civitavecchia, the port for Rome. Two days would only scratch the surface of Rome, but we'd explored its ancient buildings and monuments before, so we opted to visit a historic site we'd long wanted to see, the Etruscan necropolises of Tarquinia.
Dating from the seventh to the second centuries B.C., the numerous tombs with their decorative frescos chronicle the development of the Etruscan culture that thrived here well before the rise of the Roman Empire. Our four-hour optional excursion ($89 per person) allowed plenty of time to check out tombs that have been excavated at the Monterozzi Necropolis site. The tour concluded in the city of Tarquinia with a visit to the 15th-century Palazzo Vitelleschi, whose galleries and cloistered courtyard display a collection of sarcophagi and other artifacts recovered from the tombs.
Following the only day at sea on our two-week voyage, Viking Sea docked beneath the honey-colored limestone walls of the St. Peter & Paul Bastion in Valletta, Malta.
The Knights of St. John founded Valletta, and we wanted to learn more about the soldiers of fortune who built this magnificent fortress city — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — that is often described as a masterpiece of the Baroque.
Before our voyage, we had arranged to meet local guide Nick Ripard (bit.ly/2hO0gRQ) for a fast-paced walking tour.
As he showed us around the Auberge de Castille, an opulent Baroque palace that once served as home to the Castilian contingent of the Knights of the Order of St. John, he contended that the knights were not as noble and charitable as sometimes portrayed. "For the most part," he said, "the knights, the majority of whom were lesser sons of European royalty, were far more greedy, vainglorious and self-aggrandizing than they were charitable." Another myth exposed.
Our next stop was Tunis, Tunisia, a destination that set Viking's itinerary apart; North African destinations aren't usual ports of call for most major cruise lines. For us, Tunis turned out to be the best destination on this voyage.
At last, we were able to fulfill a longtime bucket list wish — to stroll through the centuries at Carthage. The scattered ruins of both Phoenician and Roman periods were as remarkable as we imagined, but Tunis had some other surprises in store for us.
Our "Best of Tunis" excursion ($114 per person) led off with a stop at the Bardo National Museum, where a fantastic collection of mosaics and other artifacts from Carthage are beautifully displayed in a 15th-century palace. A living museum of sorts was next as we probed the city's mazelike medina or souk. A cross-city coach trip led us next to Moorish-inspired Sidi Bou Said, a hilltop artists' colony strikingly attired in blue and white.
The next day we stopped at Cagliari, Sardinia — then it was back to Africa.
Our call on Day 13 involved a rare cruise ship visit to Algiers, the capital and main port of Algeria. From the moment we disembarked we were surrounded by policemen and soldiers, and all tours were escorted by motorcycle cops and military vehicles. We selected an optional tour, "Tipaza and the Mausoleum of Mauretania" ($179), excited at the opportunity to see the well preserved seaside Roman ruins at the important trading port of Tipaza, about 35 miles southwest of Algiers, and the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania, a 130-foot-high circular stone funerary monument that stands on a hilltop near Tipaza.
Suffering from poor maintenance, the mausoleum is beginning to crumble. Nonetheless, it has survived largely intact since the third century B.C. — built by the King of Mauretania Juba II and his wife, Queen Cleopatra Selene II, daughter of Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and Roman general Marc Antony.
The unusually fine weather (for February) that had favored us throughout the voyage graced our final day in Valencia, Spain, with brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the mid-60s.
Steeped in 2,000 years of history and culture, Valencia was a fitting finale to our epic Mediterranean voyage.