One check-in, four bucket-list European countries… Karla Courtney makes up for some missed time while sailing the Mediterranean.
It's early evening in Barcelona. The light is honey-gold, the €2 cups of wine are surprisingly smooth and the paper cone of salty chorizo and crispy breadsticks is going down like it was prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.
I’m just finishing Viking’s eight-day Iconic Western Mediterranean cruise, which departs from Civitavecchia, an hour north-west of Italy’s capital, Rome, stops in Monaco and France and ends in Spain. I’m travelling with one of my oldest friends, both of us belatedly celebrating our 40th birthdays. We’ve toured the cyprus-lined hills of Tuscany and walked along colourful promenades on the French Riviera. Now, here we are on top of a mountain at Tibidabo Amusement Park, riding a Ferris wheel as we buzz over views of the city and Mediterranean Sea. My friend raises the cup we snuck on. “Salud!” It’s a delicious toast to nearly two years of missed milestones.
When we first toyed with the idea of spending days at sea with strangers on a ship, it didn’t seem like the balm we needed. Busy tours. Buffet meals. Chasing down PCR tests in every new country. But the experience that awaited us was an entirely effortless one.
We arrive at Civitavecchia Port to a large, quiet hall lined with small, numbered tents. “Go on to 10,” says the white-gloved attendant with a smile big enough that I can detect it even behind his mask. It’s time for our first COVID screening – a process that takes around 15 minutes from sample to results, with tea, coffee and comfortable seats to pass the time. Before leaving home, we were required to upload proof of vaccination to the VeriFLY app and we show it again at check-in, along with the negative results we got at home and negative results we’ve just received on site.
Another attendant hands us lanyards with small, circular contact-tracing devices to wear when we’re on the ship (a system used to trace the contacts of any passenger cases) and reminds us to connect to the free on-board wi-fi and download the official Viking Voyager app to view our itinerary and make or change any reservations for dinner and shore excursions.
In under half an hour, with all formalities complete, we’re in our airy stateroom, opening our welcome bottle of champagne and raising a glass on our private veranda.
The ship, Viking Sky, is pure Scandinavian chic with a refined yet cosy vibe: comfy white recliners with woolly throws lined up along floor-to-ceiling windows and simulated fireplaces by open seating areas – even next to the hot pool in The Nordic Spa, where there’s also a Snow Grotto (yes, a small room filled with snow), sauna, cold bucket shower and cold water plunge pool, all in line with Nordic bathing rituals.
And then there’s The Wintergarden – a glass-ceilinged lounge overlooking the main pool and decorated with a canopy of wooden tree sculptures. We put on our best dresses and head here for afternoon tea. A pianist, whose repertoire ranges from Rachmaninoff to Radiohead, greets us as we sit down to a three-tiered centrepiece stacked with delicate sandwiches and pastries. Bathing in the 2pm sun, we nibble, sip, tap our heels and natter about everything from high-school memories to where we should eat in Marseille.
Between the spa, next-level snacking and the seven restaurants on board – the main dining venue, aptly named The Restaurant, has a rotating, destination-inspired menu; in France, we enjoyed lobster thermidor and in Italy it’s fresh fettuccine with saffron cream and crab – we have two small daily tasks. We must complete a health survey on our TV (a short series of yes/no questions about symptoms) and have a COVID PCR test, which is processed in an on-board laboratory. After that, our days are filled with lazing on lounge chairs, massages, turning pages, drinking Mimosas and making our way onto land to explore.
At each port there’s a free excursion, typically a tour of the local area with transport to and from the ship, and a selection of paid excursions with speciality activities, such as tastings at vineyards or tapas restaurants or visiting a medieval castle. You can reacquaint yourself with the icons: marvel at the lofty, forestlike interior of La Sagrada Familia or play a few hands at the tables in the glitzy Casino de Monte-Carlo. And you can discover unexpected delights. At Sète, a port city in the south-east of France known for its canals and sandy beaches, a passionate guide gives us a tour of a fresh food market as he dances and plays traditional music on a flute.
When we arrive in Livorno, the main port of Tuscany, we opt for some epic postcard moments: the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Florence. If the weather is the only measure of the day, it’s dreadful: overcast, cold with a near constant drizzle. But by any other metric it feels like magic; we’re too blissfully present to care about a bit of rain and wind. We shop along cobblestoned streets, cross the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) and spend nearly 30 minutes standing in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, with its statues of David, Hercules and Neptune, admiring a scale and style of ornate art and architecture unlike anything else in the world.
As the sky darkens, we find a café on a side street. There are just a few tables inside, along a thin corridor next to a bar, where we order a caffè and a biscuit and sit quietly waiting on our stools. Streetlights illuminate the characterful buildings against the deepnavy sky and the puddles on the ground shimmer. We listen to the patter of rain and the music of the beautiful Italian language as two locals chat. The café owner puts two small, white porcelain cups down in front of us and smiles. We take a sip of water and stir the crema into the dark liquid. “Salute.”