There was a time when I thought I didn't like cruises. Melissa changed all that. Now, in my newly found wisdom, I can report that there are cruises and then there are cruises.
In 1960 I went on my first cruise, but we didn't use that word. Those were the days of liners not cruise ships and we "went by sea" or "made the passage" rather than cruised. Back then people got on ships because they wanted to go somewhere, not because they wanted a waterbound overeating festival.
We sailed from Vancouver to Sydney and when we got off the entire world had changed: Christmas by the pool, school uniforms, a lemon tree in the backyard. 20 years later I went on the same route and noticed that the ship was populated by folks who were more keen on playing Bingo en route than on ever arriving. An era had ended, and I held a grudge.
I once had a very nice cruise on the Felix Dzerjinksi from Sydney to Auckland. Mr. Dzerjinksi was the founder of the KGB, a fact I learned only as I watched his four story statue being demolished on TV.
Aboard the Felix I drank black vodka and Soviet champagne, ate mystery meat meals and became a big hit with the crew when they discovered my passing familiarity with the Russian language. I was able to understand the question "Do you like lusty women?" without referring to a dictionary. But the days of cheap Soviet liners plying international waters in search of hard currency are gone.
My most recent cruise was a week of understated luxury, effortlessly sailing from Venice to Athens. In better times we would have stopped at Split and Dubrovnik, instead we hugged the Italian coast and spent days in two Italian towns I had never heard of, then crossed over to the famous sites of Delphi, Olympia and Athens.
Let's not enumerate my prejudices against cruises (some cruises), I definitely have nothing against good food served whenever you want, and what's not to like about seeing the view from the window of your suite change everyday while your suitcases lie empty and uncarried in the bottom of a closet. I almost got used to room service that changes that towels three times a day.
Melissa, by the way, was the cabin attendant who brought those fresh towels, and she was every bit as proper and fresh-faced an English girl as the image the name evokes. She brought ice for our ice bucket, placed chocolates on the pillow, and found vases for the wild flowers we picked in Greece. The international crew and Italian officers were gracious hosts.
But this is putting the stern before the bow as it were. That anyone would like the cruise at all is a big compliment to our time on the ship, coming as it did after a visit to Venice - any activity which follows a visit to that city must suffer by comparison. Is Venice just another travel cliché (like the clichés about cruises)? No, it's not.
Venice was established in the 5th and 6th centuries on sandy mounds in a salt marsh in the hopes that the natural barriers would keep out the marauding barbarian hordes who were picking the bones of the fallen Roman Empire. As a city and as a well-organized society Venice worked so well that within a few centuries the city-state subdued not only the Italian mainland, but much of the Mediterranean, including all the places in Greece we would visit on the cruise. With fewer natural advantages than Inuvik this former marsh dominated much of the civilized world, and got rich doing it.
The wealth of the Venetian Empire was brought home to create a treasure trove in a uniquely Venetian style. The hometowns of other empires Rome, London, even Athens to a lesser extent, are made of big heavy buildings built to impress. But in Venice such weighty monuments would have sunk beneath the lagoon with a satisfied slurp. Venice pioneered a new way to impress visitors and to reward its citizenry for their dominance of the world: beauty and taste.
The Venice we see today is a city built by sailors. The average Venetian palace occupies less surface area (you can't really say "land" when talking about Venice) than your average suburban city lot. It stands cheek by jowl and cornice by eave with its neighbour. A Venetian Palace impresses with it's own special style, but in a society which thrived on co-operation and solidarity, no palace would dare to dominate. Instead Venetian palaces were built to harmonize, and they still do.
We had only one day to spend in Venice (a mistake) so we were compelled to get up very early in the morning (a fortunate necessity) to get out and see as much of the city as we could.
The morning light coming across the lagoon, illuminating from all directions and prying up underneath to lift the silver morning haze - that sight alone was worth the entire trip. It was as if there was too much light, as if all the light at the end of its eight minute journey from the sun was piling up onto the Venetian morning at the end of the trip, slipping and tumbling onto the cobbled streets and squares and rising as a cloud of light into the city.
Cruising down the Grand Canal on the vaporetto with the sun rising on the port side, after a few turns on the canal the sun rising on the starboard side - what can I say: magic? a jewel caught in time? After passing by Byron's house on the Grand Canal I remembered that centuries of poets have struggled to come up with new descriptions of Venice to defy the cliché. My strongest original thought was that I must have done something right in life to have those few morning hours with Venice.
Of course vaporettos don't really cruise. They're the little boats that go up, down and all around the canals like busses. They're not stately, they're not unpleasant and, what's a rarity in Venice, they're not expensive. Real people really do take them to work. Vaporettos have the same magnificent views as those gondolas in which the gondoliers sing to the self-conscious tourists.
As the sun climbed in the sky, the shadows grew a little less flattering to this aging city and we returned to our hotel for breakfast.
We were staying at the Cipriani, a 5 minute ride on a beautiful mahogany private hotel launch from San Marco Square. The hotel is in a setting that is like a country resort with a close up view of Venice.
By some mistake or fate, we were given the Presidential Suite: Ron and Nancy had slept in that bed, it was gorgeous. This was a problem. With just 28 hours in Venice how could we enjoy the vast suite, great views of the lagoon from the drawing room, views of the Campanile from the bedroom, a jacuzzi which might seat four, a private entrance to the Olympic-size swimming pool, etc. and still see enough of Venice?
Tearing ourselves away from such lavishness, we opted for breakfast on the restaurant terrace. More silver light was splashing across the view of the lagoon like so many skipping stones. Someone with a great eye had designed breakfast: the buffet was laid out in the shade of the trees on coloured glass serving plates (Venetian glass of course). Imagine slices of blood oranges covering a shallow green glass bowl about two feet in diameter. A large pot of tea in a Limoges tea pot of the hotel's own design arrived at our table about 90 seconds after I asked for it. In the category of Best Spot On Earth To Have Breakfast I nominate the terrace of the Cipriani.
Even though I knew what Ron and Nancy's room cost I was thinking of staying on for a few weeks. How could the cruise match this?
When the time came to surrender ourselves to the ship we made sure that we were as sated with walking and voporettoing around Venice as possible. We found our little 100 passenger ship, the Renaissance VI, in the shadow of two 1,500 passenger leviathans. The bigger ships looked more like horizontal office towers than a sea-going vessels. I remembered why I thought I didn't like cruises.
But the little boat on which we would spend the next week felt more like a private yacht. We slipped out of Venice under cover of darkness and woke up in Ancona, a little Italian seaport.
It was Sunday afternoon and Ancona was deserted. Even in the cathedral on top of the hill, the preserved and displayed bodies of saints looked as if they wanted to be somewhere else. Waves of cheers washed over the town, I knew they weren't cheering to welcome the handful of visitors on our boat, there was a soccer game going on at the city stadium and almost every townsperson was at it. We heard their cheers as we wandered around their ancient little city, we heard them as we sailed into the sunset.
The next morning, out the same window from which we'd already seen Venice and Ancona, Monopoli appeared. It had nothing in common with its namesake board game, just a nice little town with an ancient harbour and some fishermen fixing nets. For me the highlights were a few photogenic dinghies, a sign on a women's clothing store announcing "Mondo Bimbo" which got me an elbow in the ribs from my companion for my impolitic chuckling, and a house on the old harbour with a Venetian-style balcony.
We felt no pressure to take it all in, it was nice just to walk around and go aboard for an afternoon's nap. It takes one a while to settle down after seeing Venice. The perfect normalcy of Ancona and Monopoli was charming and welcome after the doomed splendour of Venice.
When the boat sailed just before the cocktail hour, about 200 Monopolites gathered on the dock to watch us go. Our last view of Italy was of fishing boats pulled onto the harbour beach, our impromptu send-off party continuing on the dock, and a range of green hills receding behind them into the night.
Let's deal with this issue of the newly wed and the nearly dead who are supposed to populate cruises. They didn't show up for this trip. Some of the people were really interesting. As much as the service, the large cabins, the views, and the food, it was the chance to get to know some fellow-travellers by seeing them throughout the week made the cruise worthwhile. My companion and I were not newly weds, but there's no denying that being all at sea with someone gives you the chance to get to know and appreciate that someone to whose company you might have become accustomed.
And the others on the ship were interesting too: we had a pair of ladies from Texas who spoke less delicately than the Texas Rangers and lived only to play blackjack, a travel agent who was deep into travel-speak "This product goes up very well against our high end properties", three ladies from Milwalkee who made it clear that they'd rather be joined at dinner by the couple of good-looking men they had noticed earlier join their table than by us (the men obliged but seemed to be on their own honeymoon). And we met two people who may end up being lifelong friends: a very brilliant and equally cheerful woman from New York who had been travelling the world since she was able to walk but was still eager to see more of it and her 86-year old mother, a former opera singer who has the guileful and innocent smile of a 12 year old girl.
This 86 year old adolescent declined my invitation for a ride on the motorcycle I rented in Greece, but the four of us did a lot of things together: talked, ate of course, talked, sipped champagne with the wind in our hair as we passed from the Adriatic to the Aegean on the Corinth Canal, played the slot machines, talked some more, had cocktails with the captain, and amused ourselves with that time-honoured cruise ship pastime: speculation about the other passengers.
Everything on board was as it should have been: the company of other passengers when you wanted it, cabins and public rooms big enough to get away from them when you didn't. Videos to borrow, a decent little library, a few exercise machines, there was no time for all the diversions that were supplied.
Unfortunately, the shore excursions were less of a feature. The Greek guide gave new meaning to the word "pedantic". The joy and the very accessible aesthetics of the classical sites was buried beneath a torrent of forgettable data. However, Olympia, the site of the original Olymipc games and Delphi, home of the oracle, have suffered worse onslaughts over the last two thousand years and survived.
To avoid the group tour I hired a motorcycle and went into Olympia on my own while my companion went off with the restaurant manager in search of Greek cheeses and olives. I looked into the stone face of Apollo while she looked into jars of Kalamata olives.
At Delphi we avoided the convoys of tour busses by taking the public bus from the port to the hillside site of the temples, stadium and museum. In ancient times supplicants from far and wide sailed up to the same port and hiked up the slopes to consult with the oracle and leave tokens of appreciation.
Only relatively small ships can go through the Corinth Canal. The ancient Greeks had a plan to dig out the .... kilometres between the Aegean Sea and the Gulf of Corinth to avoid the long run around the Peloponnese Penninsula, but they only got as far as installing a system of rollers which served as a sort of conveyor system. Nero, the Roman Emperor, started excavation for a canal in 67 BC and got as far as scratching out a big trench. After his death, interest in the project sort of fiddled away.
The Corinth Canal which we passed through is just 100 years old this year. We sipped champagne on the foredeck as our ship sliced through the Greek countryside. We were happy to be pampered 20th century tourists rather than rowers in the Athenian navy.
Once in the Aegean we headed for Santorini, that tiny island whose spectacular harbour is a volcanic crater. In the morning we got our first glimpse of the town. It looked like a ledge of snow or ice clinging to the cliffs far above the sea. Choosing donkeys over the funicular for the ride up, we had lots of opportunity to admire the increasing view as the donkeys ambled, protested, chewed, sniffed the on-coming donkeys and kept us alert by walking on the edge of the slippery path.
The town was filled with colour-coordinated tourists from the four large cruise ships which shared the harbour. Our tiny ship was lost among them.
The full moon rose, the sun set and all was well with the world as we sailed out of Santorini for Pireaus. Despite the prospect of being in Athens, knowing that we were on the last night of the cruise made us feel reluctant to greet the next day. The sea, which had been absolutely placid all week, kicked up a storm which lasted through the night. The stabilizers were working well but we bounced around a bit that night.
I love a bit of active water, but I was concerned for the comfort of my 86 year old friend. I shouldn't have been. The next morning she beamed a smile and, within earshot of several startled-looking passengers said to me with enthusiasm "Wasn't that wonderful last night?"
We left our boat in Piraeus, the port of Athens for millennia, and rejoined the stream of land-locked travellers. In ancient times, all visitors and travel were across the seas on which we had so comfortably travelled. The afterglow of a week of luxury and new-found familiarity with historic waterways stayed with us for the time we spent in Greece.
We walked over the sacred stones of Athens, we saw the legacies of the days when our concepts of civilization were forming, we even managed to have another great meal with our friends from the ship.
The morning after the ship dropped us in Piraeus it re-traced its course and returned to Venice, a few passengers stayed on for the return trip. You have to be a pretty dull traveller not to be thrilled about being in Greece, but more than once during the following week I thought about where "my boat" would be and envied the folks who were enjoying Melissa's fresh towels and the floating gentility of it all.