Story and photos by Lynn DeBruin
Just a few months earlier I had sworn that the next time I visited Venice, it’d be with a guy. But here I stood, in arguably the most romantic city in the world, with two girlfriends at my side. Was I crazy? Some would think. But shoulder season travel offered an opportunity too great to pass up.
A friend and I had talked for months about a trip overseas, and late one night I stumbled upon a Priceline deal worth a second look. A seven-night Mediterranean cruise, departing from Venice, with ports of call in Croatia, Turkey and Greece.
When divvied up, the three-person, ocean-view cabin would average just $126 a day. It was a steal, considering all the meals, entertainment and the ports. Granted, it didn’t include gratuities for waiters and housekeepers, nor booze. And we all had to figure out how to get to Venice (that’s another story entirely). But the price proved too good to resist.
I had been to Venice eight years earlier, and despite warnings that it was dilapidated, that the people were rude and the rooms and meals overpriced, we found it beautiful and it proved to be our favorite stopover.
But nothing compared to seeing it from the deck of our Splendor of the Seas cruise ship – just before sunset. The pastel colors of the buildings became even more alive and the below-sea level scene more surreal.
And it seemed to go on forever. We saw side bridges and canals we had never ventured to, grassy parks we never knew existed, and even Lido – across the canal with its quiet neighborhoods and real sand beaches.
As we looked on, the three of us clinked our $8.95 Mai Tais in sheer delight. I thought it couldn’t get any better than this until we arrived in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
We approached the clay tile roofed-walled city early the next morning. Though hit by more than 2,000 bombs and guided missiles during the 1991-1992 war with the Yugoslav Army, it has rebounded nicely and tourism has flourished, as evidenced by the crowded cobblestone streets and packed restaurants – even in late September.
But there was something special about the city – and it wasn’t because I was feeling lucky after a pigeon dropped its load on my shoulder as I leaned into a souvenir shop (ala Under The Tuscan Sun).
It had a way of creating lasting memories.
There was the old man with his wooden mandolin, captivating a toddler in front of The Big Fountain of Onofrio.
There was another man picking grapes in his back yard, seemingly oblivious to the tourists who paid 4 Euros to walk atop the city’s walls.
And there was the view from atop the walls themselves, as hundreds of orange and brown tiled roofs stood out against the Adriatic Sea.
I only wish I could have stayed longer, to walk the entire walled town, to chat longer with the handsome fisherman on the pebbly beach outside the walls, to watch young and old interact around that 15th century circular fountain.
That, indeed, proved to be the downside of cruising. Frankly, on a cruise of that length, there simply is not enough time for exploring, for being a traveler rather than just a tourist, for getting to know the people who live and work in a foreign city.
On the flip side, such a trip is a great primer course for return engagements to individual destinations. I’ve already decided another trip to the Greek Isles is in the future.
One day in crescent-shaped Santorini was simply not enough. Yes, we sampled the sweet wine that is made there, and dined atop the white-washed volcanic cliffs, watching half-a-dozen cruise ships parked in the deep blue waters 1,000 feet below. And I photographed the brilliant blue-domed roofs against an equally brilliant blue sky.
But we weren’t able to relax on a black sand beach or view one of Fira’s magnificent sunsets from the lip of the caldera.
And in Corfu, the northern-most of the Greek Islands in the Ionian Sea off the coast of Albania, our excursion provided little more than drive-bys of pristine, white-sand beaches and secluded coves and less than an hour to explore its vibrant old town.
No, I decided, I definitely would do the two islands together again over a longer period. No doubt will one of my cruise mates, who unfortunately would see the two Grecian ports only from the window of her new room where she was quarantined with an intestinal ailment and fever for two days.
Similarly, I think we all know Turkey has more to offer, even if the fish soup could have been the culprit behind my friend’s illness.
It is there that we walked where Anthony and Cleopatra walked, and toured the ancient amphitheatre that at one time drew 25,000 thousand Romans. But even a three-hour tour, guided by an art history professor intent on educating those he led through the excavated ruins, provided a mere taste of what the country has to offer.
A future itinerary no doubt will include Istanbul as well as the beautiful Turquoise Coast – exotic destinations that have me redoing my bucket list again and again.
Until then, it’s time to work off the extra baggage I brought back – both the beautiful Murano glass jewelry purchased in Italy and the pounds packed on during all those late-night three-course dinners.
A free excursion to Murano – the home of the beautiful glass that dominates the shops in Venice and beyond – proved the perfect end to our cruise.
Glassmaking started here in 1291 when, fearing fire, furnaces and craftsmen were moved off the Venice lagoon to this small cluster of neighboring islands.
Indeed, as we stepped off the water taxi and into the dark recesses of a glassblower’s workshop, we immediately felt the heat of a 2,700-degree blast furnace. It is within this red-hot oven that the finest sand from Fontainbleu, France, is used to create brilliant works of art and jewelry.
We watched as a liquid glass was gathered on the end of a blowpipe, then removed from the furnace and spun to remove any excess. The glass was then pulled, crushed, pinched, ironed, striped, lengthened or cut to achieve the desired effect – whether in a goblet, vase or sculpture.
Many of the vibrant patterns and images are created through the use of glass canes – long rods of glass that are layered with different colors (through various mineral compounds) around a core, then sliced when cool to reveal the same design in cross-section.
The highlight of the tour was seeing the twelve rooms filled with artwork, from gilded goblets that sold for 1,000 Euros apiece to massive sculptures worth two and three times that.
As it turned out, our budget was more in line with the simple heart- and leaf-shaped multicolored pendants, and bracelets filling the display cases.
Just like my previous trip, I found myself wishing I had brought back more of these creations that make perfect stocking stuffers.
Top 10 Travel Tips for Cruising Europe
We sat and laughed as our cruise director reeled off his own top ten list of stupid questions, odd queries such as whether there was fresh or salt water in the toilet bowl and if the workers really did sleep onboard.
But by the time this trip to the Mediterranean had ended, we could only laugh at ourselves for all the mistakes we had made. As learning experiences go, this one was chock full.
- Start with packing. Two small pieces are better than one large one. And backpacks are often better than wheels. This was evident the moment we arrived at Rome’s rail depot and had to change trains. The platforms are 30-40 steps up and down, hardly an easy task with wheeled luggage even in the off-season.
- Don’t rely on the printed list of departure platforms. Just like airport gates, they change. Find an electronic board and check it early and often. Then keep your eyes and ears open. Even if you don’t understand Italian, it’s pretty evident you’re on the wrong platform when you’re the only ones there.
- Book direct trains if possible in Italy. One might pay a little more, but changing can be a nightmare. And if you miss one, don’t expect a refund. We had to pony up another 40 Euros for the next one from Rome to Venice.
- Always bring good walking shoes, even if it means leaving that extra pair of sandals or heels behind. Your feet and podiatrist will thank you.
- Learn the language. You need not be fluent but at least have a few key phrases and words memorized. It makes a difference.
- Shop with a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee, usually 2 to 3 percent. In our case, Capitol One was the best bet.
- Pre-program your smart phone to find free Wifi areas. On board, however, nothing is free, so learn to text message. At 50 cents a text, it’s much cheaper than calling home. Otherwise Skype, where wifi is available, is cheaper yet.
- Water was $5 a bottle on board, so buy it in port and bring it back to keep hydrated. But don’t expect to bring the full bottle of rum or wine back on board for your own happy hour. Usually it must be impounded until the cruise ends. Smaller souvenir bottles, however, were allowed on.
- Book a few excursions to make travel easier, but don’t overdo it. Sometimes the best times are away from the crowds, and tour operators.
- Use those Wet Ones and hand sanitizers religiously. They can make the difference between an enjoyable trip and being quarantined.
Lynn DeBruin is a freelance writer/photographer based in Denver and former sportswriter for the Rocky Mountain News. She is an 8 handicap.