CIVITAVECCHIA, ITALY - It was mid-day when we started out from Rome in the direction of this seaside town, which serves as the Eternal City’s port.
Dozens of cruise ships, ferry boats and cargo ships bobbed in the harbor as we approached Civitavecchia’s busy dock, looking for the Silversea cruise ship that would take us on our 12-day Mediterranean voyage.
Because most people are in a rush to get out to sea, they don’t have much time to explore ancient Civitavecchia, built in 2 AD by Trajan, the Roman emperor of the day. That’s too bad because the city features a number of historic Italian icons, the most impressive of which is its arsenal, built by Bernini and whose final construction was overseen by Michelangelo in the early 1500s.
But its wonders would have to wait for our next visit – we only had a few hours to sign up and board the Silver Shadow, the smallest but most impressive cruise ship in port that day.
Silversea, it must be mentioned, is the highest-ranking cruise line in the world – the annual winner of top awards from travel and lifestyle magazines. Its ships are smaller, which allows them to squeeze into shallow ports, of which the Mediterranean has many, and their size inspires more intimate journeys. Service aboard is second to none and the dining facilities allow for romantic one-on-one moments as opposed to those cafeteria-style gatherings offered on much larger ships.
Silversea is also the most organized cruise line in the world – in a matter of minutes we were led to our spacious 700 square foot cabin that came complete with a dining room, bedroom – with king-sized bed - and living room, featuring all the electronic toys needed to keep one entertained between dockings. There are no inside cabins on the Silver Shadow so every room comes with a marvelous view.
Left: A Med cruise introduces you to the historic wonders of France and Italy. Middle: Towns that make up the Cinque Terre are colourful and unique. Right: Walking paths along the Italian coast invite lots of traffic.
Our first dining experience on the Silver Shadow surpassed our expectations and we quickly knew this was going to be one voyage that wouldn’t be hard to digest. After dinner and a nightcap, we slipped under our Egyptian cotton sheets and fell asleep to the gentle hum of the engines.
Sometime during the night the Silver Shadow quietly slipped out of port and we awoke to a warm, salty sea breeze blowing through our open patio door.
Keeping to its “intimate” theme, Silversea cruises offer passengers the option, at no extra cost, of in-cabin dining. So, we decided to order breakfast just so we could stay wrapped in our lush terrycloth robes a few minutes longer. A short time later, the kitchen staff arrived with a breakfast of eggs and bacon and rolls and freshly-squeezed orange juice and a large pot of coffee – all piping hot.
After breakfast, we headed for the upper deck for a morning of lounging under the comforting Mediterranean sun. Our first day was spent at sea, headed for the historic port city of Portovenere, a place so enchanting that it inspired Lord Byron to write some of his best works when he lived there.
As the ship sliced through the azure sea, the captain pointed out some significant landmarks – the historic island of Montecristo and Elba, where Napoleon was exiled to for a brief time, and Corsica, where he was born.
The rest of our first day was filled with more scrumptious meals, a workout in the Silver Shadow’s well-equipped gym and a spa session – a lava rock treatment that contributed to one of the best night’s sleeps we’d had in months.
Through the early morning sun on Day Two, Portovenere came into view. The isolated little fishing village looked like it been painted on the horizon. Colorful small boats were anchored in a harbor dominated by the ruins of a 13th century church and a miniature castle that sat perched atop a rocky cliff overlooking the town.
While still a fishing village, the locals hook more tourists these days. Because this is the gateway to the famed Cinque Terre, many cruise ships dock here and the townsfolk make a nice living selling them food, drink and souvenirs.
We had little time to explore Portovenere, though - a small boat was waiting to take us on a tour of the five picture-perfect towns that make up the Cinque Terre (Five Lands) that this region has become so famous for.
The five towns - Corniglia, Vernazza, Manarola, Riomaggiore (the prettiest and most photographed) and Monterosso - have become tourist favorites over the years, thanks mostly for their romantic settings. These are places we all dream about living in some day – most visitors can be overheard saying “if I ever win a lottery, this is the place ...”
And a lottery winning is what’s needed to buy a home in this region. Even a day visit can set you back a few extra euros. But the towns and their colorful characters, narrow streets, artist studios and some of the best restaurants in all of Italy, make them priceless. The fact the towns can only be accessed by boat, train or by hiking along narrow paths, just adds to their allure.
Each of the five towns offers something different but it was Monterosso, our last stop, that everyone on our excursion boat seemed to like most. Unlike tourist-filled Riomaggiore, Monterosso had that lived-in feel about it – right down to the clothes hanging outside shuttered windows and wives screaming at their husbands. Oh, it was so very Italian.
We all had tales to tell about our day’s visiting the Cinque Terre when we arrived back at the Silver Shadow, and lots of “one of a kind” souvenirs to show – although many looked like duplicates of each other.
We elected to watch some old movies – the Silver Shadow has an extensive video library and each cabin comes equipped with state-of-the-art equipment – before retiring for the night so we could be well rested for our next port of call, Portofino, the highlight of the trip.
The picturesque town and its fabled harbor have been featured in many movies and most cruise ships plying the Mediterranean make Portifino a must stop on their itinerary. Trust us, it doesn’t disappoint.
It seemed the entire ship took shore leave to soak up the ambience of this fairytale town, where the rich and famous come to live in million dollar terracotta “cottages” with the billion dollar views. The harbor is crammed with expensive yachts and the dock is lined with designer shops where if you have to ask the price, you’re advised not to enter.
A pleasant day of exploring the town, which requires some strenuous climbs up steep streets to get the best views of the surrounding brilliance, passed quickly. But the memory of sipping wine on the perched terrace of the town’s famed Splendido Hotel, overlooking the majestic harbor, still lingers today, months after our visit.
The Silver Shadow continued its trek northward, making stops in Livorno – Italy’s second largest seaport – and the French port of St. Tropez before anchoring at our final destination, Barcelona.
It was at Livorno where we joined a shore excursion to fabulous Florence, where we over indulged in all the great art and history that city serves up. One day is not enough to absorb everything Florence has to offer but the short visit did inspire us to return on a later trip – one where we spent four days fascinated by the cities’ churches and museums where Michelangelo’s artistry is on display.
St. Tropez is one of those French Rivera towns that is exclusive to the jet set crowd. Even the taxi drivers look wealthy in St. Tropez. The shops are jammed with designer goodies and its harbor is filled with yachts with scantily clad maidens sunning on deck. The outdoor cafes offer the best value when it comes to dining options and the local food market is fascinating. But most people retreat to the ship well before the time allotted because this is one place that’s too surreal to really enjoy.
Not so Barcelona. The only thing we didn’t like about this Spanish masterpiece - where we fell in love with the tapis bars and hated the Gaudi sculptures - was this is where we had to say farewell to the Silver Shadow.
Our first cruise with Silversea was not our last – the Med voyage inspired us to take another later to South America with the upscale line, where your fare covers everything, including gratuities. Even though we wanted to reward those who looked after us so well at the end of the Med voyage, the crew refused to accept our offerings.
That’s what makes sailing aboard Silversea’s fleet so enjoyable. Our first cruise certainly had a silver lining, thanks to Silversea.
Silversea offers many specials to exotic ports. Some sales can save you up to 50 per cent off the regular price. Go to www.silversea.com to find out more.