Twelve days spent cruising the Mediterranean on the Nieuw Amsterdam is bliss. Carol Smith shares the highlights at each coastal stop.
Cruising on a floating hotel to some of Europe's renowned cities is a revelation. Each one is distinctly different and most are repositories of history and mystique.
We arrive in Venice several days before the cruise sets sail - the magic of this city needs to be absorbed at leisure. We throw away the tourist map, which has us squinting at the labyrinth of streets. It's easier to walk and follow the signs on corners that point to areas such as San Marco, home to St Mark's Square and the majestic basilica. At the top of St Mark's Campanile we are treated to a magnificent 360-degree panoramic view of the city. We meander through the streets for hours, crossing beautiful bridges, stopping here and there to buy tailored shirts, the best mouth-watering, chewy nougat in Italy, and creamy gelato. The following day we go up and down the Grand Canal on vaporettos with an economical 20 ($28) travel pass that lets us hop on and off for 24 hours (48 hours is 30).
Dubrovnik, Croatia, a survivor of wars and earthquakes, is one of the world's prettiest walled cities. As we walk the charming streets it is hard to work out where the limestone has replaced the craters made by the bombs and shrapnel that damaged it in 1991, when it was attacked by the Yugoslav People's Army after the break-up of Yugoslavia. The Gothic Pile Gate is an impressive entry to the old town - Game of Thrones films in this area - but the highlight is walking the 2km of walls encircling it. We spend hours gazing over terracotta roofs out to sea and getting a great suntan.
After walking to the top of St John's Hill and the fortress, where we see the most stunning views of Kotor, Montenegro, we devour spicy pepperoni and mozzarella pizza near St Tryphon's Cathedral, a large Romanesque building with two towers, before exploring the smallest churches in town. Kotor is a well-preserved maritime town and we find simple pleasure wandering through the maze of alleys that meet to form squares.
Elisabeth (Sissi), the Empress of Austria, loved the Greek island of Corfu. To escape her controlling mother-in-law and husband she had Achilleion Palace built in 1889, about 10km from town. Sissi, who smoked, exercised and vomited a lot, named her summer home after Homer's Achilles, who was her favourite hero. In the delightful garden we admire the famed Dying Achilles statue. This interesting tour is part of a four-hour cruise excursion around Corfu before we are left to explore one of the best preserved, prettiest medieval towns in Greece on our own. We are intrigued to see cricket being played on a pitch in the leafy, elegant main square near the cafes. This, apparently, is the only working sports field anywhere within a Unesco World Heritage Site. The locals embraced the game in 1823 when a cricket match was played in Corfu between officers of the Royal Navy and the British Garrison. Nowadays the island supports 11 teams.
We escape Italy's crazy, chaotic city of Naples, where drivers have one hand on their horns and the other holding a ciggie, and catch a train to Herculaneum. We go by coach up a steep, winding road to the bottom of the Mt Vesuvius crater, passing a fit woman on foot who appears to have "walked her shorts off" - a cheeky Italian fashion. After a vigorous walk up to the volcano's rim, we stare into the bowels of the dangerous beast that destroyed Herculaneum and Pompeii when it erupted in AD79, spewing molten rock and pulverised pumice. When I was 14 I fell down Mt Eden's crater so I'm a little cautious, but I survive the still-active Vesuvius bearing only a coating of ash from trudging its dusty, rocky path. It's a good cardio workout and provides an amazing vista of Naples and the Amalfi Coast from a viewpoint most will never see.
Most tourists travel the road to Rome, but we have been to the Eternal City before. So, after a few elaborate hand gestures and fewer Italian words, a bus driver gives us a free ride to Tarquinia, an ancient Etruscan city about 21 minutes from the port. We are unable to find anywhere selling tickets and you can't buy them on the bus or pay cash. In Tarquinia, we marvel at the frescoed tombs, some from the 7th century BC, which depict daily life and ceremonies. This medieval city is a delight to wander, with bell towers and churches at every turn.
Where do you go when you've seen Florence, Pisa, Lucca and surrounds? Stay put and explore Livorno. This port stop is a little gem, with Medicean canals, beautiful Austrian baroque buildings by the sea, towers and fortresses. There's a bus strike on, but the inexpensive Hop On Hop Off bus is running and we get to ride on a funicular to the top of Montenero (Black Mountain), an inspiration for writers and painters. As well as a stunning lookout, there are a few little shops here, including one where an artisan handmakes torrone (nougat) and nut bars. We eat these moreish sweet treats later along the Terrazza Mascagni, a path by the sea named after composer Pietro Mascagni, who lived here.
There's not enough time to see everything that should be seen on the stunning Cote d'Azur, but we manage to view a lot on a bus ride around the corniche to Nice. We walk the Promenade des Anglais and paddle in the sea before sampling the delights of the old town, including the most incredible lemon meringue tart and salted caramel macarons and poking around the markets.
Back in Monaco, we climb the Rampe Majeure's steps, a historic staircase which provides marvellous harbour views and ends up by the Prince's Palace. Before returning to our liner we loiter around the luxury yachts and parked cars and wonder if people will think we are part of the dressed-down rich and famous set.
A four-hour Marseille highlights tour is an excellent way to become acquainted with this gorgeous French port city, founded by Greek mariners around 600BC. Marseille is colourful and the people are known to be rebellious. In 1660, when Louis XIV built Saint-Jean and Saint-Nicolas, the two amazing forts that flank the old port, he aimed cannons at the town to encourage citizens to pay tax. Highlights for us include seeing the fishers' small houses, Notre-Dame de la Garde, the magnificent Catholic basilica that sits at the top of the hill, and the beautiful villas on the Corniche.
Barcelona's sights, sounds and smells cause sensory overload - and we love it! Christopher Columbus' huge monument (the index finger is half a metre long) welcomes us to the foot of La Rambla, the main thoroughfare. We stumble upon La Boqueria market where stalls of colourful candy and fruit make our eyes pop. It's worth it to wait three-quarters of an hour to be seated at one of the city's hippest tapas bars, Ciudad Condal, where we dine on succulent shrimp morsels, juicy beef, Spanish omelette and mini-hamburger sliders. Sated, we head to Guell Palace to admire architect Antoni Gaudi's enchanting mosaic rooftop chimneys. This modernist genius, Catalonia's favourite son, was unperturbed when repeatedly asked if his most-famous work, La Sagrada Familia, would be finished in his lifetime. "My client is in no hurry," he said. "God has all the time in the world."
Top tip: If you stay for a few days, get a two-day Bus Turistic ticket. It will take you all over this stylish city, which is constantly trying to improve the quality of life for its citizens and tourists.
The writer travelled courtesy of Holland America.