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Mediterranean ports review

SmarterTravel

Now that I’m back on dry land in my home continent, here’s my review of the seven ports-of-call on the ms Westerdam’s western Mediterranean itinerary.

Monte Carlo

The best part about Monte Carlo was the view from our ship. Nestled between rocky cliffs and the Mediterranean, this city is stunningly beautiful. I took the Nice and Eze tour (dubbed the “nice and easy” tour), which got mixed reviews. On the one hand, the drive through the corniches (mountain roads) along the French Riviera offered beautiful scenery, but we really only had 50 minutes in each town, which certainly was not enough time to get a feel for Nice.

My recommendation for Monte Carlo would be to skip the tour and spend your time in the museums, gardens, and casino of Monte Carlo. If you do want to see the French Riviera, book an all-day tour.

Livorno

Livorno is a town only cruisers have heard of. It’s the closest port to Florence, Pisa, Lucca, and other parts of Tuscany, but not much happens in Livorno itself.

I took the “Taste of Tuscany” tour, which was my favorite excursion on the whole trip. We spent the morning in Lucca (with both guided and free time), had a two-hour lunch of fresh Italian food paired with wines, and a short tour of a nearby villa with lovely frescoes and gardens. Fellow cruisers who went to Florence or Florence and Pisa reported insane crowds and hectic days.

Barcelona

Any remotely independent travelers can feel confident in skipping the ship’s excursions in Barcelona. A quick bus ride takes you from the port to the bottom of Las Ramblas. From there, you can wander through the old city, take the metro to Gaudi’s architectural achievements or the Passeig de Gracia shopping district, or board the hop-on-hop-off bus to tour the city’s highlights.

A note on dining: A phrasebook can be very helpful when you go to a restaurant without an English menu. I studied Spanish for many years and still couldn’t decipher many of the menu items.

Palma de Mallorca

The city of Palma de Mallorca is pretty compact, so again I skipped the tour here. Biking tours seemed popular, but I saw some of the bikers unhappily dodging car traffic on city streets, so ask where you’ll be biking before you sign up.

A $10 shuttle ticket bought at the purser’s desk got me transportation from the port to the main cathedral area. I visited the cathedral, which has some Gaudi additions, then strolled the narrow winding streets of the old Roman area. Shops line the main drag, and I even stumbled on a free modern art museum. Be sure to try the local almond cakes and ensaimadas (round cakes that are the island’s specialty).

Tunis

On our cruise of 1,893 people, 1,300 to 1,400 of them signed up for tours in Tunisia. Unless you’re very comfortable haggling for taxi rides and navigating Middle Eastern and African cultures, I’d also suggest a tour.

I took the all-day “Best of Tunis” tour. It’s a good overview tour, even though I wondered if I was getting only the tourist view of the area. The tour began in the Bardo Museum, famous for Roman mosaics, and continued to the old town of Tunis to shop in the souk. It’s important to note that once you know when and where to meet the bus, you can ditch the rug demonstration and shop on your own.

The second half of the tour brought us to the ruins of Carthage’s Roman baths. Almost more impressive than the ruins themselves are the beautiful views of the water and mountains behind. The last stop was Sidi Bou Said, a seaside town where all the buildings are white with bright blue trim and the vendors sold essentially the same items I saw in the souk.

Photographers, please note that you’ll need to cough up a dollar or euro in order to take pictures at the Bardo Museum or in Carthage.

Palermo

In Sicily, I signed up for the Cefalu tour. It’s a cute town, but much of the tour was devoted to waiting for people and receiving careful instructions about where to meet.

My travel companion ventured into Palermo, and spent a lot of time getting lost, so perhaps the hop-on-hop-off bus would be a good choice here. The Vucceria markets are a good destination for visitors looking to experience an open-air market. Sicilians love their sweets so be sure to purchase a pastry or gelato before returning to the ship.

Naples

If you’ve never been to Pompeii, I recommend signing up for one of the ship’s Pompeii tours. You get two hours in Pompeii with a guide, who can explain what life was like before the fatal volcanic eruption. The only downside is the forced stop at the cameo factory. You can visit Pompeii on your own, but you’ll need to take a cab or train and then hire a guide once you arrive.

I tried to explore Naples by foot after the tour returned, and discovered some amazing pizza (Naples is the place for pizza in Italy). Crossing streets on foot in Naples puts your life in jeopardy, and other travelers raved about the hop on/hop off tour, so perhaps that’s a better way to get around. Should the National Archeological Museum be open when you’re there, it’s a must—many of Pompeii’s frescoes and treasures were moved here. Another popular destination from Naples is the Isle of Capri, though on my cruise, the seas were too rough and all the tours got canceled.

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