On cruise control in the Mediterranean

Photo: a couple stand on a bridge in Florence, Italy
Teresa and I pose on the iconic covered bridge over the Arno River. The shot does not do justice to the other-worldly beauty of Florence.

When the idea of taking a Mediterranean cruise came up, I thought it was a good, leisurely option for seeing as many European cities and countries without being shuttled between hotel and airport, with reliable living quarters and food, and a high degree of security. Twelve days, five countries, and two days at sea to relax and recover. And you do need to recoup because the one-day visits (really just six to ten hours) to each city means that you keep a frantic pace. It is not immediately evident that the places you want to see are not in the seaport, but inland. Florence, Rome, Naples and Athens all require a minimum of 40 minutes or more to get to the tourist sights.  We had great weather, sunny and barely a drop of rain, but that meant we were outdoors a lot, sweating and panting.

My days of backpacking through foreign lands are long ended. I dread the thought of being thrown into a setting in which I don’t know the language or the culture and stick out like a hapless gringo wandering through a street market. Because most of my past travels have been in Latin America or Spain, I’ve been used to speaking the native language and breaking the stereotype of the “ugly American.”

False expectations

Photo: man writing at table
One of the rare moments when I could sit down and write what we were experiencing.

I thought I would have lots of time to write in my travel journal, review my photos and read through the backlog of my Kindle books. After all, I was a writer headed for a Paris café. Instead, as the resident cultural scout, I found myself reading Rick Steves’ Mediterranean Cruise Ports to research and plan what we would be doing in our next stop. Because urgency compressed our exposure to a few hours, I felt as if we were being spoon-fed each city, each country, without having a chance to dig deeper, wider, more curiously. But I kept telling myself that just walking through Rome or Istanbul even the pre-packaged tourist circuits, was a privilege,  a banquet on its own, so open my senses.

Because of the “all-you-can-eat” buffets for breakfast and dinner on the Norwegian Cruise Line’s  Spirit, I soon noticed that I needed to fit in some cardio work at the fitness center to burn off all the carbohydrates. By the end of the trip, I lost about eight pounds, part from pounding the pavement and part from a couple of bouts of dysentery. I should note that in both Rome and Venice we were encouraged  (in Steves‘  book and by local residents) to drink the potable water from fountains and taps, a point of local pride.

Food was not the only thing that was filling me up: cultural saturation, at times, seemed overwhelming. Beauty-laden museums, Baroque churches, bustling marketplaces and throbbing public transport fill the senses with ancient vibes and contemporary thrills. There came a point when I could not absorb another Tintoretto painting of saints and angels shimmering under the arches of a cathedral. I just wanted to chill out. I had tapped into all my reserves of resilience and energy; all my spare memory cells were overflowing. I needed time, space and comfort to process all the experiences, and I was not going to find them while on the road.

I never got to write in my journal as much as I had hoped, and even then, I was playing catch-up, describing what had happened a couple of days before, never the gut reaction to turning a corner and being bowled over by the postcard setting of Venice canals and sunlight. But thanks to modern technology, we have plenty of memories, photos taken by Nikon, Samsung smart phones and Apple iPads. I can go back to those shots to pick up the internal narrative.

On our last days in Paris, I realized that I had not set aside adequate time for meditation or pranayama. No yoga classes; I did not pack a travel mat. I did do my restorative yoga in the evenings, but that was out of necessity because my muscles were quivering from the exertion of the day and I needed to soothe down to get to sleep.   For the most part, however, I was always leaning forward, senses on hyper-alert to all the signals of life, moving towards the final flight home.