My husband Dean and I have never found cruising on large ships appealing; we prefer more intimate and personal travel experiences. In 1993, we took our first cruise along the Alaskan Inside Passage from Ketchikan to Juneau on a small ship of approximately 85 passengers.
There was a long break (it’s called children)… then in 2016 we did a cruise on the Rhine on a Viking longship (about 200 passengers). After that, we were curious about Viking’s “ocean cruise” category, so we decided to give it a try. We signed up for their iconic Western Mediterranean tour, which started in Civitavecchia, Italy – about 50 miles northwest of Rome – and sailed along the Mediterranean coastline to Barcelona. We had been to northeast Italy on a bike trip and to France along the Rhine, but hadn’t seen their Mediterranean borders. Monaco and Spain were completely new to us.
This cruise offered the luxury and service of Viking but a limited number of passengers (about 1,000). We liked that the ship sailed overnight, so no ‘sailing all day’ days. Plus, there was just something idyllic about a Mediterranean cruise.
Here are some of the things I liked about it.
1. Watch the ships in the port of Livorno
Livorno is the springboard to Pisa, Florence and Tuscany. We are hearty Minnesotans, so the mid-November temperatures of 60 did us good. Because other passengers thought it was cold, we often had the spacious deck of the ship to ourselves. From the deck we could see freighters at work as well as fishermen ashore and mountains in the distance covered in white marble (Carrara quarries are nearby.) It was fascinating to watch it all.
I don’t know the story behind these sightings, but it’s not every day you see a Looney Tunes ship with Tweety Bird and Sylvester painted on it. We also saw superhero and Batman ships.
2. A day in Tuscany
San Gimignano, Italy
We purchased an optional excursion called “A Day in Tuscany”. After a 90 minute bus ride, we visited San Gimignano, a small fortified Tuscan village known for its medieval architecture and old churches with artistic frescoes.
Then, on San Donato — a fatorriaWhere Closed for lunch. The owner told us about the farm’s vines, meats, and olives, and said she’s happiest when her guests take full advantage of the buffet. We complied, feasting on meats, cheeses, honey, spelled and green salads, olives, peppers, wine-marinated onions, crusty breads, and red and white wine. I could eat like this all day, every day.
Pro tip: Be sure to check the physical requirements of Viking’s excursions, available on the trip page and sorted by day and port.
3. The Baptistery
Viking included a walking tour of the Square of Miracles including the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Cathedral and the Baptistery. Some think the Leaning Tower of Pisa is overstated, but I liked seeing this icon.
The highlight for me was the Baptistery, where good timing meant we saw what they call a guardian stand behind a statue, cup his hands and sing/sing in Italian. It echoed off the domed ceiling and filled the space. What sound !
Pro tip: “Follow the lollipop.” On a walking tour, Viking guides use a numbered red round sign (affectionately called a lollipop) to help passengers locate the correct tour group.
4. Infinity pool
Monte Carlo, Monaco
A peak experience for us was lounging in the infinity pool on the deck of the ship off Monaco. Once again the deck was deserted except for us and a mother-daughter couple, enjoying these spectacular views. What a life!
5. Walking tour of Monte Carlo
Monte Carlo, Monaco
It was the only port where we anchored in the harbor and shuttled in small boats, called dinghies, to shore. Our 90-minute walking tour included sculpted gardens, medieval churches, the Prince’s Palace, and stunning views of the Maritime Alps, ending with free time in the town square. It’s a beautiful place.
6. Marseille walking tour
Marseille is rich in history, with two 17th century fortresses ruling over the port called Vieux-Port. One of the most striking sights on our bus tour was the popular Notre-Dame de la Garde, a hilltop Catholic basilica. I loved how our guide pointed out that Marseille people take pride in doing things their own way. She said something quite eccentric and said: “That’s how we do it in Marseille!”
7. The Big Wheel Of Marseille
I loved seeing the Ferris wheel called La Grande Roue de Marseille – unforgettable and distinctive! It opened to the public in 2009 and added so much charm to the cityscape.
8. Marseille Christmas Market
In our free time, we enjoyed browsing carved figurines, unique decor, household items, handmade candles, spices, scarves and jewelry at the Marseille Christmas Market. They also had a kids area with statues of Santa and reindeer.
Pro tip: The market had controlled access with armed officers, a normal precaution due to terrorist attacks in European markets at the time. For us, it was benign: we went through a body scanner and an agent checked my purse.
9. Boat trip in the Calanques National Park
We paid extra for an excursion and visited Cassis, the gateway to the Calanques National Park. Cassis is a picturesque little fishing village, with a perched castle overlooking the port. The creeks are “fingers of rock” protruding from the coast for miles. Our boat trip explored the coves, interesting and ragged along the water. Under the rocks, hidden from view, the guide told us there were caves and underground rivers.
Pro tip: The castle overlooking Cassis is a hotel, and you can book one of their suites.
10. Panoramic Views Of Sète
In the “you win, you lose” category, we “won” in Sète. This is my favorite example of waking up with a panoramic scene. Rooms facing the moored side of the ship saw streets and industry, but our cabin was on the starboard side this time. As we had sailed overnight, in the morning I opened our cabin curtains to the breathtaking curve of the city, harbor and mountains – beauty everywhere.
11. Walking tour of Sète
Sète has earned the nickname “Venice of the Mediterranean” because of the canals that connect the Mediterranean to an enclosed saltwater lagoon. It has the largest fishing fleet in the French Mediterranean and is renowned for its seafood. At the end of our visit, I loved seeing the industry in action: two fishermen mending their nets at the end of a another day.
12. Sagrada Familia Basilica
The highlight of the Barcelona walking tour was the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family). Local Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí designed this beauty. When we were there it was under construction so we walked around it but couldn’t get inside. Our guide was well acquainted with the exquisite exterior details – it was a feast for the eyes.
13. The Beautiful Well-appointed Ship
If you’ve traveled with Viking, you know their ships are magnificent. We loved our cabin, the atrium and the dining areas. So many functions, design, decor and so many thoughtful touches throughout.
14. Delicious food and daily ice cream
The food on the boat was top notch. All kinds and varieties were available, including international flavors, excellent seafood and ice cream prepared daily on the ship. Complimentary wine and beer were offered with lunch and dinner.
Do the walking tours compensate for the calories consumed? No, not even close.
Bonus: The Pyrenees on the return flight
The cruise ended but the delights did not. Leaving Barcelona, we flew over the Pyrenees, which form a natural border between France and Spain. I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been to that part of the world. What a surprise to look at the plane and see these majestic mountains.
There’s a lot to love about this cruise. I haven’t even touched on the topics of the live violinists and pianists in the ship’s atrium, the theater performances (Beatles, anyone?), the trivia, the fascinating people we met, or the myriad of ‘quiet places on the ship to settle down with a coffee and a good book or a chat.
The Mediterranean is breathtaking and these destinations showcase its beauty all along the way. When you go, I’m sure you’ll find plenty to love about this iconic Western Mediterranean cruise.