April 23, 2014

Sailing the Splendid Med

The dazzling Costa Serena calls at alluring ports in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Croatia

By Elizabeth Armstrong

Vacations Magazine: Sailing the Splendid Med
Turkish Culture and Tourism

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"Namaste," said the smiling Samsara Spa attendant as she clasped her hands together and bowed. Turning to a silver urn behind her, she filled a cast-iron pot with hot water and green tea leaves and set it before me. After one more bow, she left, leaving me with my thoughts in the airy, Japanese-style teahouse aboard the Costa Serena.

"Namaste" is a traditional South Asian greeting that roughly translates as "I honor the spirit within you, which is akin to the spirit that resides within me." All treatments at Samsara Spa end with this charming tea ceremony, and they start with another ritual, called a cleansing of the spirit. In a small alcove, the therapist gently massages the guest's feet in a silver bowl filled with warm water and smooth rocks.

Samsara Spa is the 23,000-square-foot, two-deck nirvana aboard the 3,780-guest Costa Serena, which debuted in 2007. The Asian-inspired facility specializes in Ayurvedic therapies from India. Signature treatments include the collagen marine facial, the seaweed massage (a balm for aching muscles), and the shirobhyanga, which starts with a drizzle of warm oil on the hands, forearms, feet and back.

The spa has several relaxing sanctuaries. Quiet your mind in the Temple of Peace meditation lounge, outfitted with beds and large floor pillows. Purify your body amid the aromatic steams and mists of the Tridosha Sanctuary, based on the concept of the Turkish bath. Or, feel stress melt away in the warm, bubbling waters of the thalassotherapy pool.

Avid spa fans can book one of the 87 staterooms or 12 suites that offer direct access to the Samsara Spa via a private elevator. These pampered guests receive two complimentary treatments, two fitness classes, a wellness consultation with a spa expert and access to the wet areas, solarium and relaxation area.

I was aboard the Costa Serena for a weeklong Mediterranean cruise last October. It set sail from Venice amid the 6 o'clock chimes of church bells, and glided through the Giudecca Canal. Passengers crowded against the rails in a festive mood, looking upon the city's red-tile roofs, the campanile of St. Mark's Basilica, and Venetians on their passeggiata -- the ritual early evening stroll.

It seemed fitting that our cruise would start and end in the city of water, where some 400 bridges cross a network of canals. Venice was once a powerful maritime republic, and today, gondolas, ferries and water taxis transport goods and people.

It's well worth it to spend a night in Venice before or after your cruise. Stroll to the city's heart, Piazza San Marco, which is ruled by fearless pigeons that will perch on the outstretched arms of anyone willing to stand still for a few moments. Look up to view the excellent gilded mosaics along the facade of St. Mark's, or stand in line to see the even finer examples inside. Or, head for one of the outdoor cafes around the square -- such as the venerable Caffe Florian -- where you can order a pricey cup of cappuccino and settle in for some prime people-watching.

The next day we pulled into Bari. It's the second largest city in southern Italy, but the old town retains a villagelike ambience. Freshly laundered clothes air outside windows, and street carts display fruits and vegetables for sale. Mopeds race down the narrow lanes, old men sit outside the shops chatting in cool, shaded alleys, and grandmotherly types survey the scene from their windows.

From the Bari pier, one can walk to the forbidding, trapezoidal bastion known as Castello Svevo, and then to the church that was built to house the remains of St. Nicholas. That's the St. Nick, the model for Santa Claus -- sailors brought his body to Bari from Lycia, now part of Turkey, in 1087.

The next morning I stepped onto my cabin's balcony to see the low, mist-shrouded hills of the Peloponnese coast. The Costa Serena was arriving at Katakolon, a picturesque Greek fishing village. Like many visitors to Katakolon, I had intended to join a shore excursion to the ruins of Olympia. But those plans were dashed the day before, when it was announced that a national strike would shut down much of the country's operations, including the archaeological site. As it happens, this turned out to be a serendipitous event, because my languorous day in Katakolon turned out to be one of the loveliest times of my trip.

I meandered along the few shopping streets, where the local specialties for sale included olive oil soaps, natural sponges, pillowy halva candy and cinnamon liqueur. There are a number of jewelry shops here, too, most specializing in silver and gold. Look for the one owned by Carolyn Walden Giatras, off Latsi Street.

Giatras is an American journalist who married a Greek man 20 years ago and moved to Katakolon. Her shelves and cases are filled with unique, eye-catching pieces made of beads and semiprecious stones, as well as rings created through the process of glyptography, the ancient Greek art of engraving on gemstones.

Giatras recommended I try the waterfront Karouso's for lunch. For just under $10, I got an order of souvlaki (grilled pork) with crispy fries and tzatziki, a combination of thick yogurt, cucumbers, garlic and herbs. The restaurant has cornered the market on atmosphere, with its cheery, painted blue chairs and tables bedecked with blue-checked cloths. Midway through my meal, a troupe of local entertainers descended on the restaurant and quickly drew a crowd of customers into their circle of dancers.

The next two days of the cruise were spent in Turkey, first at Izmir, a city on the Aegean Sea. It serves as a gateway to the Greek and Roman ruins at Ephesus, about 55 miles south.

I signed up for an excursion to Ephesus, with a stop at what is thought to be the last home of the Virgin Mary. The route took us through an arid landscape, then past groves of citrus trees as we climbed a hill to the site of Mary's house. A reconstruction now stands on the ruins discovered by a French priest in 1881. Parts of the structure date to the seventh century, but the foundations are much older, dating to the first century.

Mary's home is a popular point for pilgrimages, and a nun quickly ushers visitors through the tiny, austere place. It takes no more than 30 seconds to pass through the home. The spring that runs underneath is said to have healing properties, and you can bottle some of the water at one of three fountains. Nearby is a prayer wall covered in ribbons and strips of paper bearing hopes, wishes and pleas.

Walk through Ephesus, and you can still picture the bustling, ancient city that was home to about 250,000 people. The Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, once stood here, but it was destroyed long ago.

A road paved in marble slabs leads to the Celsus Library, impressive for its two-tiered, columned facade. The massive amphitheater could hold 44,000 spectators. Look in any direction and you'll see broken columns, carved stones strewn about the grass, and perhaps a cat sunning on a hunk of marble.

Be prepared for the gauntlet of aggressive souvenir salesmen near the entrance to Ephesus, and be wary of vendors who want to sell you "antique" coins. If you wish, you can pay a euro to have your picture taken with a camel. (Though the Turkish lira is the country's official currency, euros are accepted by vendors at Ephesus.)

Early the next morning, the Costa Serena docked at Istanbul, a city that has long fascinated me. It was formerly known as Constantinople, and before that, Byzantium. It's been ruled by three empires -- Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman -- and is the only city in the world to sit on two continents, Europe and Asia. The two sides are linked by suspension bridges that span the Bosphorus Canal. Today, Istanbul is a bustling, contemporary metropolis that maintains deep ties to its past.

I wanted to see as much of it as possible, so I signed up for the "Super Istanbul" shore excursion, led by an excellent guide named Yildiz. We got an early start, leaving the ship at 8 a.m. for an all-day tour.

We headed for the sights of the old city, crossing the Galata Bridge where dozens of fishermen congregated. "I call them the most stupid fishermen in Istanbul," said the sardonic Yildiz, citing the sewage, trash and muck that lay at the bottom of the canal.

She told us that mosques number in the thousands in this city of nearly 13 million residents, where Muslims comprise the largest religious group. We were on our way to the most famous, the Blue Mosque, whose six minarets spike the sky.

Shoes must be removed before entering the cavernous space, which is topped by a great dome. Calligraphy and stained-glass windows adorn the interior, and intricate tiles depict motifs of carnations, roses, tulips and cypress trees. On Fridays, up to 10,000 people worship here, many kneeling outside the mosque on straw mats.

We walked to the Hagia Sofia, or Ayasofya, which was first a church, then a mosque and now a museum. It's an outstanding example of Byzantine architecture, with soaring marble pillars, mosaics and arched windows that let in a hazy light.

James Bond fans might recognize the Basilica Cistern, featured in the film "From Russia With Love." The dark, murky underground reservoir dates to around A.D. 500. Tidy rows of columns support the ceiling, and the plink-plink-plink of dripping water echoes through the chamber.

Carpet-weaving is a national art in Turkey, and the rugs are prized for their detailed craftsmanship and high density of knots. We stopped at a store to see samples and learn how the carpets are made. As we sipped apple tea, the proprietor unfurled rug after rug, each more spectacular than the last. Later, we were set loose in the busy Grand Bazaar, where merchants in the alleys and covered shopping hall sell jewelry, carpets, tea sets and leather goods.

After lunch at the waterfront Ciragan Palace, now a luxurious hotel, we drove to Topkapi Palace, once the home of Ottoman sultans. It's a vast complex, and you can visit the kitchens, which were equipped to feed the 5,000 people who lived here, and the royal library, a tranquil, high-ceilinged room with blue tilework and cushioned seating. Exhibit halls display thrones, ceremonial uniforms, jewels and the famous Topkapi Dagger, with three walnut-sized emeralds embedded in its hilt.

Before returning to Venice, we made one last stop -- at Dubrovnik, a jewel on Croatia's Dalmatian Coast. It's easy to take in the sights of the old town on foot, and there are few immediately visible signs of the shelling that rocked this beautiful city during the Balkan conflict 18 years ago.

Today, a restored Dubrovnik positively gleams, from the polished flagstones of its broad, pedestrian-only avenue to the Venetian-influenced architecture. Steep alleys of steps branch off the main strip, begging for further exploration. At the top of one of these stone staircases I spotted a reminder of the 1991-1992 siege, a city map that showed spots damaged by artillery. The corresponding legend contained sobering phrases like "burned-down building," "roof damaged by shrapnel" and "direct hit on the pavement."

Attractions in Dubrovnik include the home of Marin Drzic, a 16th-century playwright; the Rector's Palace, now a museum of local history and culture; and the 11th-century St. Nichola's Church. The city is surrounded by stone ramparts, and the top of the walls afford sweeping views of the city and sea. For a sweet treat, pick up bags of the candied almonds and orange peels produced here.

Between exploring these enchanting ports, I experienced Italian-style cruising aboard the lovely Costa Serena. The ship's decor reflects themes of Roman and Greek mythology, and every now and then you'll come across a touch of whimsy, such as the gods and goddesses perched on clouds in the soaring atrium.

Guests in the special Samsara Spa cabins dine at the intimate, open-seating Ristorante Samsara, where the service is attentive and the menu lists low-calorie and low-fat items. During my week on board, the fare included beef carpaccio with spring salad leaves and a touch of Gorgonzola, tuna tartar with pine nuts and wasabi cream, and sturgeon with lemon, parsley and grilled vegetables. There were pasta dishes every night, like fusilli with crab and green beans or bucatini with hearty meat ragout. If they wish, Samsara guests can order from the main dining room menus as well.

Club Bacco is the ship's reservations-only restaurant, tucked away on the 11th deck. It focuses on Italian specialties, and there's an extra charge to dine there. There also are expansive buffets and casual grills. Juventas Caffe quickly became my favorite spot for late-afternoon reading over a mug of thick, rich hot chocolate flavored with coconut, mint, hazelnut or even a little bit of chili heat. You can also order a tipple of liqueur served in a chocolate cup, or select a few treats to be dunked in the chocolate fountain.

Costa Cruises is Europe's leading cruise line, and its ships, which fly the flag of Italy, draw most of their passengers from the continent. Many of them are Italians. The onboard currency in the Med is the euro, and shipboard announcements are made in multiple languages, including English.

During a week of traveling with a boatload of Italians, I saw that they are a high-spirited crowd. They were loving and indulgent toward their children, and kids and grown-ups alike would hit the dance floor at the Apollo Lounge, the main late-night hangout. I liked to sit at the bar there and watch the bartenders scramble to set out dozens of tiny cups behind the counter, in anticipation of the Italians that would soon descend and demand their post-dinner espressos.

At first, I found myself caught off guard by the sometimes boisterous nature of my European shipmates. But as the week wore on, I found their exuberance to be infectious. In the spirit of namaste, I honored the love of life that dwelled within them, knowing that the same resided within me.

Information: The Costa Serena sails seven-day cruises of the Mediterranean from Venice. Vacations To Go offers deeply discounted rates for these voyages, starting at $549 per person this summer and $589 per person in the fall. To learn more, visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962.


The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in May/June 2009. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.


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