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Viking cruise review: The Med without the crowds

Author: John Wilmott

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On a memorable Viking journey, John Wilmott discovers the joys of seeing Europe’s best-loved locations at their quietest

Imagine exploring some of the treasures of the Mediterranean – Pisa’s unique Field of Miracles, glamorous Monte Carlo, the soaring spires of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. Now imagine making all the usual crowds disappear.

Winter is not the time of year usually associated with a cruise in the Mediterranean but, trust me, the absence of the usual throngs at the most popular sights is not the only advantage.

Viking’s festive cruises on Europe’s great rivers have been deservedly popular for quite a few years but recently the company has extended its Christmas and ‘quiet season’ journeys to include several Mediterranean options too.

Being just a two or three-hour flight away, the Med is a tempting proposition if the Caribbean seems a little too far or if your time is limited to just a week.

OK, it won’t be as hot, but I sailed across the Mediterranean on a Viking ocean ship just days after Christmas, and far from shivering in the drizzle on deck, I joined other guests in shorts and T-shirts enjoying pleasant sunshine around the outdoor infinity pool.

Maybe I was lucky with the weather but what also struck me was the quality of the light. The lower sun and crystal air combined to reveal shorelines in sparkling clarity, with no heat haze to fuzz my photographs.

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At each destination I went ashore to discover architectural and cultural delights, usually finding my own guided group to be one of the very few signs of tourist activity. It was rewarding to view the facades of grand old buildings and their interior treasures without jostling for position among the hordes.

However, if you travel over the Christmas and New Year period, you’ll also notice a festive spirit both on board your Viking ship and in the destinations, where decorated trees and street lights enliven the historic streets.

I would certainly recommend Viking’s Iconic Western Mediterranean itinerary for a winter getaway. This eight-day journey from Rome to Barcelona (or vice- versa) takes in an admirably varied range of destinations.

The first stop is an overnight stay in Livorno, which serves both the Tuscan gems of Pisa and Florence, and it quickly brings home the advantages of off-season travel. Pisa’s Field of Miracles – where the Leaning Tower resides – is normally crammed with selfie-taking tourists from all over the world.

In winter a welcome peace descends on the cathedral, baptistry and tower, all gleaming in the low sun.

The gothic Duomo. Credit: Viator.

The same can be said of Florence’s magnificent Duomo, and I would suggest climbing the hill across the famed Ponte Vecchio over the river for a supreme view.

While Monte Carlo, the next port, is perhaps one of those places that benefits from the buzz generated by humans, it is still fulfilling to walk around the iconic Casino Square and the superyachts in the marina feeling more like a local than a tourist.

Monaco city, the higher part of this little principality, is a fine contrast, with history outweighing the glitz of its neighbour – and it’s included on the tour.

On the same excursion, my group took in the splendid English Promenade along the waterfront in Nice, and the wonderful hilltop village of Èze, hovering above the Côte d’Azur. This medieval jewel boasts tiny stone alleys and staircases dotted with boutiques and gift shops, and as a destination it’s utterly charming.

Barcelona is a great city to explore. Credit: Shutterstock

A particularly memorable trip for me, though, was from the port of Sète to Carcassonne, our last call in France. This walled citadel is two hours’ drive away but well worth the journey.

Inside its mighty fortifications, I could almost feel the silence in the sleepier parts, which a few months later would again be humming with the exclamations of impressed visitors.

Our ship then sailed on to Barcelona, where we made the most of another overnight stay. In winter, you will find the likes of Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell far more manageable, while the architect’s greatest marvel, the Sagrada Familia basilica, sees much shorter queues to view its recently completed – and visually stunning – interior.

But what’s it like on board ship in midwinter? With so much floor-to- ceiling glazing, you can appreciate the ocean and coastal views from a Viking ship without having to brave the elements if the weather does turn chilly.

Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant serves up Italian cuisine. Credit: Viking

The Explorers’ Lounge is one of the best places to relax between ports, with huge, forward-facing windows and a cocktail bar at hand.

With its retractable roof, the ship’s main pool is available year- round, plus there’s the lovely, free- to-use hydrotherapy pool in the spa.

Top-class venues such as the Torshavn nightspot, Manfredi’s Italian restaurant and Wintergarden offer a warm welcome at any time of year, and there are plenty of spots to curl up with something good from the ship’s extensive library.

Viking has extended its choice of festive and winter ocean voyages, and if the central part of the Mediterranean captures your interest, take a look at the eight-day Journey to Antiquities.

As the name suggests, there are opportunities to discover monuments such as ancient Pompeii, the Greek theatre at Taormina in Sicily, Crete’s Palace of Knossos and 3,000-year-old Ephesus in Turkey.

At the conclusion, an overnight stay in Athens gives you the chance to see the Acropolis or take a longer trip to Delphi, home of the Oracle.

Mediterranean cruise: Istanbul in Turkey boasts richly decorated great mosques and bustling Grand Bazaar. Credit: Shutterstock

In a similar vein, Viking’s Ancient Mediterranean Treasures itinerary will be making its debut next year, with a Christmas sailing included in the schedule.

Beginning with two days in Istanbul, this cruise will appeal to history aficionados, with chances to discover Troy, Ephesus and the inspiring old city of Lindos on Rhodes, as well as Knossos and the key sights of Athens.

Again the choice of excursions is exemplary, and as well as a complimentary tour in every port – a Viking hallmark – the list includes culinary experiences, craft workshops and trips to rarely visited treasures.

A festive or off-season Med cruise is not just great value, it’s also the perfect way to break up the gloomy British winter. And when you view all those photos on your return, you’ll realise only one thing was missing from your holiday – crowds of people.

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