My husband Dean and I have never found large-ship cruising appealing; we prefer more intimate, personal travel experiences. In 1993, we took our first cruise along Alaska’s Inside Passage from Ketchikan to Juneau on a small ship of about 85 passengers.
There was a long pause (it’s called kids)… and then in 2016, we took a Rhine River Cruise on a Viking longship (about 200 passengers). After that, we were curious about Viking’s “ocean cruise” category so we decided to try it. We signed up for their Iconic Western Mediterranean tour, which started in Civitavecchia, Italy — about 50 miles northwest of Rome — and cruised along the Mediterranean shoreline to Barcelona. We’d been to northeastern Italy on a biking trip and to France along the Rhine, but we hadn’t seen their Mediterranean borders. Monaco and Spain were entirely new to us.
This cruise offered the luxury and service of Viking but a limited passenger count (about 1,000). We liked the fact that the ship sailed overnight, so no “all-day sailing” days. Plus, there was just something idyllic about a Mediterranean cruise.
Here are some of the things I loved about it.
1. Watching Ships In Livorno Harbor
Livorno is the springboard to Pisa, Florence, and Tuscany. We’re hearty Minnesotans, so mid-November temperatures of 60s felt great to us. Because other passengers found it cold, we often had the ship’s spacious deck to ourselves. From the deck, we could see freighters at work along with fishermen on shore and mountains in the distance, covered in white marble (Carrara quarries are nearby.) It was fascinating to observe 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 toured San Gimignano, a small, walled Tuscan village known for medieval architecture and old churches with artistic frescos.
Then, onto San Donato — a fatorria, or farm — for lunch. The owner spoke to us about the farm’s vineyards, meats, and olives, and said she is happiest when her guests fully enjoy the buffet. We complied, feasting on meats, cheeses, honey, spelt 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 Baptistry
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 overrated, but I liked seeing this icon.
The highlight for me was the Baptistry, where great timing meant we saw what they call a guardian stand behind a statue, cup her hands, and sing/chant in Italian. It reverberated to the domed ceiling and filled the space. What a sound!
Pro Tip: “Follow the lollipop.” On a walking tour, Viking guides use a red, numbered, round sign (fondly called a lollipop) to help passengers locate the right tour group.
4. Infinity Pool
Monte Carlo, Monaco
A pinnacle experience for us was lounging in the infinity pool on the deck of the ship off the coast of Monaco. Once again, the deck was deserted except for us and a mother-daughter pair, soaking in these spectacular views. What a life!
5. Walking Tour Of Monte Carlo
Monte Carlo, Monaco
This was the only port where we anchored in the harbor and shuttled in small boats, called tenders, to shore. Our 90-minute walking tour included sculptured gardens, medieval churches, the Prince’s Palace, and stunning views of the Maritime Alps, ending with free time in the city square. This is a gorgeous place.
6. Walking Tour Of Marseille
Marseille is rich in history, with two 17th-century fortresses reigning over the harbor called Old Port. One of the most striking sights on our bus tour was the popular Notre-Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard), a Catholic Basilica set high on a hill. I loved how our guide emphasized that people in Marseille pride themselves on doing things their own way. She’d say something rather outlandish and then say, “That’s how we do it in Marseille!”
7. The Grande Roue De Marseille
I loved seeing the Ferris wheel called The 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 décor, household items, hand-crafted candles, spices, scarves, and jewelry at the Marseille Christmas market. They also had a kiddie area with statues of Santa and reindeer.
Pro Tip: The market had controlled access with armed officers, a normal precaution due to terrorist attacks at European markets at the time. For us, it was benign: we walked through a body scanner and an officer checked my purse.
9. Parc National Des Calanques Boat Tour
We paid extra for an excursion and toured Cassis, the gateway to Calanques National Park. Cassis is a quaint little fishing village, complete with a hilltop castle overlooking the harbor. The calanques are “rock fingers” jutting off the coastline for miles. Our boat tour explored the inlets, interesting and ragged along the water. Beneath the rocks, hidden from our 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 category of “you win some, you lose some,” we “won” in Sète. It’s my favorite example of waking up to a panoramic scene. Rooms facing the docked side of the ship saw streets and industry, but our stateroom was on the right side this time. Since we had sailed overnight, in the morning I opened the drapes of our stateroom to the jaw-dropping curve of the city, the harbor, and the mountains — beauty everywhere.
11. Walking Tour Of Sète
Sète earned the nickname “Venice of the Mediterranean” because of canals that link the Mediterranean to an enclosed saltwater lagoon. It has the largest fishing fleet on the French Mediterranean and is famous for seafood. As we finished our tour, I loved seeing industry in action: two fishermen fixing their nets at the end of another day.
12. Basilica De La Sagrada Familia
The highlight of the walking tour of Barcelona 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 go inside. Our guide was well-versed in the exterior exquisite detail — it was a feast for the eyes.
13. The Beautiful, Well-Appointed Ship
If you’ve toured with Viking, you know their ships are beautiful. We loved our stateroom, the atrium, and the dining areas. So much function, design, décor, and so many little touches everywhere.
14. The Delicious Food And Daily Gelato
The food on the ship was over the top. Every kind and variety was available, including international flavors, great seafood, and gelato made daily on the ship. Free wine and beer were offered with lunch and dinner.
Do walking excursions offset calories consumed? No, not even close.
Bonus: The Pyrenees On The Flight Home
The cruise ended but the delights did not. As we left Barcelona, we flew over the Pyrenees Mountains, which form a natural border between France and Spain. I’ve heard of them, but I’d never been to this part of the world. What a surprise to look out the plane and see these majestic mountains.
There’s a lot to love about this cruise. I didn’t even touch on the topics of live violin and piano players in the ship’s atrium, the theater shows (Beatles, anyone?), trivia, the fascinating people we met, or the myriad of quiet places on the ship to settle in with coffee and a good book or conversation.
The Mediterranean is breathtaking, and these destinations showcase her beauty all along the way. When you go, I’m sure you’ll find many things to love about this iconic Western Mediterranean cruise.