Mediterranean splendour
A view of Valletta, the capital city of Malta, from MSC Divina. Picture: William Yeoman

Even before I asked our Arab Vin Diesel of a taxi driver to remove his Gauloise cigarettes from the passenger seat I knew he was in a bad mood.

So it came as no surprise that for 10 terrifying minutes, with a steady stream of abuse floating like a demented descant over the thumping Middle Eastern techno, he flung his taxi through narrow gaps in traffic and hurled it down even narrower laneways in a wild display of aggression and bravado.

I loved every minute of it.

"What a perfect introduction to Marseilles," I said, quite in earnest, after we were safely deposited at the Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port hotel. The two breathless journalists who had been in fear of their lives in the back seat disagreed.

Previously, we had enjoyed a picturesque train journey from Nice after an Emirates flight from Australia. Soon we would be witnessing the christening by screen legend Sophia Loren of Italian-owned MSC Cruises' latest addition to its now 12-strong fleet, the 139,400-tonne, 333m, nearly 4000-passenger MSC Divina, before climbing on board to visit Civitavecchia, Rome, Messina, Taormina, Valletta, Mdina, Dubrovnik and Venice.

Looking back, it seems like a dream. But for 12 days that dream was our reality. Even the surreal decor of MSC Divina's numerous bars and lounges wove itself effortlessly into the fabric of our daily life, while the blue majesty of the Mediterranean and the history, topography and architecture of our various ports of call broke in upon our actual dreams so that one could no longer distinguish dream from reality.

Then there was the companionship. "You've become my family now," one journalist was moved to say - an indication of the intimacy that had so quickly sprung up between the members of our small party.

Nevertheless, I was often driven to act the solitary flaneur, whether onboard or ashore, and, camera and notebook in hand, follow fate wherever she led.

As I was that first morning in Marseilles, when I awoke before dawn and ventured as far from our hotel as I dared as the roseate light rescued the stern forts and the Sainte Marie lighthouse of the old port from the darkness.

Later that day, a tour guide showed us various sights of interest, including the islands of the Frioul Archipelago sparkling in the bay and the basilica of Notre-Dame de La Garde watching over the people of Marseilles before we were again able to explore France's oldest city at our leisure.

I even managed to find a gift for my wife in the form of a soap set from a shop in Marseille.

"Where are you from," asked the owner.

"Western Australia," I replied.

"Ah, good surfing!"

Music, it seems, isn't the only universal language.

Whether legendary French actor Gerard Depardieu was drunk on Baudelaire or burgundy or both as he delivered a rambling, ornate (even by French standards) tribute as part of French-built Divina's christening ceremony the following evening remains a topic for debate.

The Captens Aerobatic Display Team, the Breitling Jet Team, the folk group La Poulido de Gemo, classical violinist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Maxim Vengerov and Italian singer, pianist and composer Paolo Conte were, however, on hand to properly entertain the hundreds of dignitaries, the ship's officers, journalists and other invited guests. Not to mention Sophia Loren herself, godmother to MSC Cruises' entire fleet and in whose honour Divina was named, exuding style and elegance as she cut the ribbon attached to a champagne bottle, which was then free to swing against the starboard side of the massive ship's hull.

The following day the Divina set sail on her maiden voyage, the first port of call, Civitavecchia, where, after what seemed like an eternal wait, the ship disgorged its passengers who then filed on to buses waiting to take them to the Eternal City.

Once in St Peter's Square, a kind of madness came upon me and I determined to cover as much ground as I could in the few hours I had.

But the teeming rain, the melodious, incongruous birdsong, the stray cats moving among the ancient ruins and black-clad clergy moving serenely among the multitudes of tourists so distracted me that I had to turn back before even reaching the Colosseum.

At least I was able to enjoy the Pantheon's cavernous interior and watch the rain fall through its gaping oculus and dwell on the beauty of its exterior as I ate lunch at one of the many restaurants in the Piazza della Rotonda.

About 1.30 the following afternoon we sailed into Messina's sickle-shaped port, in the north-east of Sicily, dominated by the statue of the Madonna della Lettera standing atop the fort tower at the end of the Punta San Salvatore.

But the main focus of our shore excursion was the beautiful town of Taormina, founded on the side of Mt Tauro in 392BC.

The bus journey from Messina, which took us close to Mt Etna, was one thing but nothing could prepare us for the medieval charm of the town or the superb ruins of the Greco-Roman theatre, which commands spectacular views of the coast and surrounding countryside and is still used for performances.

Next morning I recalled the decayed splendour of the theatre as I stood rapt before the classical yet overtly theatrical lighting and composition of Caravaggio's largest painting (361cm x 520cm), the Beheading of St John the Baptist. It is considered to be his masterpiece and one of two paintings by the baroque master which hang in the oratory of St John's Co-Cathedral in picturesque Valletta, on the island of Malta.

I spent a good two hours wandering the city's streets, noting the architecture's variegated patina, itself a study in history-laden light and shade.

But it was the aforementioned decor of some of Divina's 20 lounges and bars - which, together with the rest of the ship, I was able to explore more fully during our day at sea ahead of arriving in Dubrovnik early the following morning - that more strongly brought to mind Caravaggio's mastery of chiaroscuro.

One of the most surprising things about going on a cruise for the first time, especially on a ship of this scale, is that despite the thousands of fellow voyagers who crowded the Pantheon Theatre, Galaxy Disco, Manitou and Calumet buffets (actually very good despite the execrable coffee), Black Crab and Villa Rossa restaurants, various themed restaurants, casino and Venice-inspired Piazza del Doge (wonderful coffee and Italian dolci), one can always find a quiet, secluded corner in which to read, write or enjoy intimate conversation.

Such are the Black and White, Jazz and La Luna bars and lounges, the latter of which became our drinking hole of choice before dinner each night.

This was despite the Daliesque sculptures such as an enormous red lipstick and a giant bunch of fountain pens gathered together like branches of a tree. Very Italian.

One can even hear a Beethoven sonata or Chopin waltz played on a grand piano near the bases of the Swarovski crystal-studded staircases (each step costs about $30,000) which link the three-deck atrium.

The pools and jacuzzis formed one of the ship's most delightful features, providing you wake up early enough to avoid the sun-seeking, deckchair-hogging Germanic hordes. I'm part-German so I think I can get away with saying that.

Despite being ravaged by earthquake and war, the city of Dubrovnik in Dalmatia, Croatia, is one of the gems of the Adriatic.

Unfortunately we had all too little time to spend there and, as with Rome, I rapidly traversed the old city, leaving no time to explore new Dubrovnik, which also has much to offer the sightseer.

I marvelled at its ancient churches, monasteries, fountains and cobblestone streets, and, as in Rome, its many cats.

After our final night on board, we sailed up Venice's Grand Canal to the main port before travelling back towards St Mark's in a water taxi.

As this was the only location on the cruise that I had previously visited, I was able to move more confidently about the city and yet, as one invariably does, I still managed to get lost in the maze of canals and laneways that open out into piazzas or lead to financial destruction courtesy of the many purveyors of fine clothing and jewellery who ply their trade.

Which was fine, as we had only a couple of hours before having to make our way by water taxi to Marco Polo airport and thence home, and gaining entry to any of Venice's magnificent cathedrals, churches or palazzos simply wasn't an option.

It was in the Dubai business lounge that the members of our little family took their leave to catch their respective flights back to Australia; it was in the Dubai lounge, too, that I began to wake from the dream.

And if I was once the last person who would ever have considered going on a cruise of any kind, I am now, it is safe to say, a convert.

·William Yeoman travelled to Europe courtesy of MSC Cruises, Emirates, Rail Europe and Sofitel Luxury Hotels.


  • fact file *

·Seven-night East Mediterranean return cruises on board MSC Divina start from $939 per person, twin-share from Venice, calling at Bari, Katakolon (for Olympia), Izmir, Istanbul and Dubrovnik. Balcony cabins start at $2259pp, twin-share. For full details of this and other MSC cruises including those visiting Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Montenegro, Croatia, Malta and Morocco, go to msccruises.com.au and call 1300 028 502.

·With Barcelona and Lisbon recently added to its ever-expanding European network, Emirates now flies to more than 120 destinations over six continents. Every seat features wide-screen entertainment with a choice of more than 1200 channels and phone, SMS and email capability. For details, visit emirates.com/au.

·The five-star Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port hotel features marine-inspired decor and commands superb views of the old port. Features include the Les Trois Forts gourmet restaurant, the Le Carre lounge bar and the So SPA. It has 134 rooms (24 with balconies), two suites and an apartment. Bathrooms are fitted with double tubs or hydro-massage showers. Prices start at about $300 per night for a classic room with double bed.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save