Okay, I’ll come right out and say it: I heart Italy. So when a flier came my way announcing a sale on a two-week cruise from Rome to Venice, I plunked down my money in a nanosecond—and I don’t even like cruises.
Here’s what tipped the scale: The Aegean Odyssey, a new, 350-passenger ship, would be an adroit David to the loutish Goliaths that muscle into many a harbor. Airfare, regional meals, wine with dinner, crew tips and shore excursions all were included in the price. No single supplement, either. Bonus: The Smithsonian, sponsoring the offer, would act as a group of 35, with our own bus and guide. The other passengers, with whom we’d mingle were Australians, Canadians and Brits, carbonating the brew.
Boring? Not a chance, from watching the ports’ pilots vault from tug to ship; lazing in the saltwater pool; shoveling in pizza and pasta lunchtimes (oh, and gelato), then osso buco, salmon and the like at dinner; absorbing lecturers’ previews; evening melodies by a Romanian trio; and—what am I forgetting? Oh yeah, Italy.
Rome excels simply at being Rome. “Ciao, bella!” I was greeted by a gent—either blind or a hopeless liar—as I set out to wander its streets, paying homage to its Top Hits: the Forum, the Pantheon, the Colisseum; the usual coin in the Trevi Fountain (it’s worked every time); speechless at St. Peter’s; spaghetti carbonara at the Piazza Navona; a walk along the Tiber. And tomorrow, Corsica.
A rainbow guides us into the harbor. We board a tram to scale the island’s limestone cliffs guarding Bonifacio, a citadel from the Middle Ages—nonetheless, plundered by every passer-by, from pirates to the Foreign Legion, despite drawbridges and formidable town gates. Yes, Napoleon slept here, and today two tongues still mingle, both”Bonjour” and “Buon giorno.”
Next, we glide south to Sardinia. Nova, the island’s first settlement in 800 B.C., lay undiscovered until 1952. It’s an open-air museum of Roman baths, patrician houses with intricate mosaic floors, columned temples and an enormous half-circle theater. On our return, the rugged hillside gave way to a lagoon where flamingoes balanced.
Next up, Sicily, the biggest island of the sea. We sailed from town to town, mooring first near Segesta, settled in the 5th century B.C. by exiled Trojans. Normans arrived in 1040, led by a Viking king. Next, Arabs, then Bourbons, then Garibaldi, leader of Italy’s fight for Independence—and, somewhere along the way, the Greeks, who erected what’s possibly the world’s most perfect temple—its 38 pure, Doric columns rising in solitary majesty atop an isolated mountain.
Palermo, a sprawling, traffic-tangled city, is redeemed by pockets of its Medieval Golden Age. Crusader King Roger embraced the island’s diverse cultures in his splendid Palatine Chapel, melding graceful Arabic arches etched in geometric forms with Byzantine mosaics of somber-eyed saints. Yes, all that glitters is indeed gold. In sharp contrast, a mosque-turned-hermit’s chapel nearby, stately in its simplicity, bears faded frescoes of Peter, Paul and Jesus.
A visit to a rival cathedral, erected to (literally) outshine Roger’s, is an exercise in bait-and-switch as its austere exterior gives way to an interior that out-blings the king’s.
Just when you think Sicily can’t get any better, it does. We round the coast to Taormina, “the most beautiful town of Sicily,” declares our guide, who knows what she’s talking about. From its hillside perch, the view of the sparkling sea below is worth the climb. But wait! Over there! It’s Mount Etna, pregnant with the next eruption.
In between, voluptuous Taormina is an operetta set, exuberant with Baroque churches, a spider-web of shops and trattorias and sudden explosions into sun-drenched squares. To drive it over the top, it even boasts a grand Greek amphitheater of its own.
South of Sicily looms another island kingdom, Malta. Miniscule, yes, but it packs a powerful punch, for it lies smack in the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Messina, its ancient walled capitol, reveals another skein of meandering alleys, meant to foil invaders, wandering from its main square, anchored (of course) by a grand cathedral.
Valletta, the “new” capitol, founded in 1566 by the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John, boasts its own cathedral, grandiose and gaudy. Outside, a squat statue of Queen Victoria and squadrons of red telephone booths remind us that the last occupiers, before independence, were the Brits. No twisted alleys here—rather, a grand grid plan so armies could properly march. Yet despite Churchill and FDR convening for the Treaty of Malta, its air remains deliciously Italian, as we discovered over pasta with Maltese rabbit ragu.
A day at sea led us to “the pearl of the Adriatic’ (at least, in Byron’s view)—Dubrovnik. Other, less poetically gifted, deem it “a gem of a walled town.” Clamber past those towering gates and walk atop it, peering down at its signature red-tiled rooftops shielding streets of polished stone.
After another day weaving between the green islands that glorify Croatia’s coastline, we anchor at Split, a vacation paradise ever since Emperor Diocletian called it quits in Rome and built himself a MOA-sized palace. Within its walls today nestles everything from medieval churches to open-air markets and modern boutiques.
Best for last: Venice, “La Serenissima,” which is called by gushing locals the prettiest city on earth. All hands on deck for our arrival at dawn as we glide down the fabled Grand Canal, past frilly Renaissance palazzos. At this hour, the canals were empty—ours alone. Serenissima, indeed. We tour the Doge’s Palace, symbol of civic pride when Venice ruled this hunk of the world, whose halls sport a Titian here, a Tintoretto there, a Veronese around the corner–then the Bridge of Sighs, a one-way street to the dungeon (only Casanova ever escaped). Then we’re set loose to wander the city’s 178 canals.
We reassembled for a private evening tour of that icon of Venice, St. Mark’s Cathedral; then a canal ride under the magical glimmer of a full moon. Talk about grand finales!
For a gay old time (yes, you’re very welcome aboard), visit Smithsonian Journeys at www.SmithsonianJourneys.org (877-338-8687).
Gay info at www.patroc.it.com/rome
The city isn’t as open as the movies lead you to believe (blame the Pope). Throughout Italy, you’ll need an Arcigay UNO CARD for admittance to cruise bars, saunas, etc. (purchase at first venue).
No particular boys’ town in Rome; clubs sprinkled throughout.
New: annual summer festival with movies, theater, music, parties; see www.gayvillage.it
Visit www.gayvenice.com for bars & clubs (four listed).