Statue in Herculaneum
photo by Susan J. Young
On my recent Voyages to Antiquity cruise, a five-night segment of a regular Aegean Odyssey cruise from Rome to Palermo, Italy, I booked three of the line’s shore excursions. One perk of this destination-focused line is that most shore trips are included within the cruise fare.
Following are my impressions of a full-day trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum; a half-day tour to Paestum; and a half-day tour to Palermo’s Norman sites. Plus, I also took an optional tour to a private palazzo in Palermo.
At Sorrento, Voyages to Antiquity offered a choice of three separate “included” tours – a full day to Pompeii and Herculaneum; a half day to Pompeii; and a full day to Pompeii and the Naples Archaeological Museum.
You get the point. It’s all about the ruins. And the line’s guests I spoke to onboard seemed to love that focus.
Photos by Susan J. Young
I eagerly booked the full day Pompeii and Herculaneum tour as I’d been to Pompeii many times but never to Herculaneum. Both Roman cities were destroyed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD. Both were forgotten over time and then re-discovered and excavated by archaeologists over the past few centuries.
They’ve also been re-discovered by mainstream tourists in a big way, particularly Pompeii. Traveling to Europe in August and heading to any major tourist attraction is a recipe for a crowd. August is the peak vacation season for Europeans.
But after we boarded our motorcoach in Sorrento bound for Pompeii, our guide informed us there were already some 7,000 travelers at Pompeii that morning. Talk about tour groups stumbling over each other? Tour company and cruise line officials deserve a “thumbs up” for identifying a challenging situation and adapting.
As Herculaneum is less visited, the firm switched the timing of the site visits. So we set out for Herculaneum, rather than the scheduled morning visit to Pompeii. When we arrived at Herculaneum, the parking lot was fairly empty.
After buying our tickets, the guide distributed a booklet with a site map to everyone. One pet peeve of mine is that most guides on cruise line operated excursions don’t provide the tour goers with the same materials given to individual guests entering an attraction. I was pleased to see that wasn’t the case here.
Soon our eager band of adventurers was headed to ancient Herculaneum, first by walking down a long slope and then over a footbridge. The guide stopped at one point to offer a big-picture overview as we peered across the ruins and wondered about the people who once lived here and the way they conducted their daily lives.
I’ve been to Pompeii many times. So seeing Herculaneum was something new for me. Your clients who love ruins will enjoy the contrasts. While Pompeii was a commercial center, Herculaneum was a wealthier resort town and home to many lavish villas.
At Herculaneum, volcanic pyroclastic flows filled the interior of the town’s structures. The mud hardened and preserved the integrity of the buildings. Most of Herculaneum’s structures still have roofs. In contrast, nearly all roofs at Pompeii collapsed under tons of ash.
Not all of ancient Herculaneum has been excavated. Modern civilization rings the site. But there is still much for your clients to see. Advise your clients that Herculaneum is much more compact than Pompeii, so if they visit both, they’ll have different experiences.
We toured Herculaneum extensively during a two-hour visit. We traipsed in and out of the separate men’s and women’s baths and explored several grand houses – one with a lush interior courtyard of greenery. We stopped at fountains, walked on ancient roads, and enjoyed the commentary from our guide over the Quietvox audio system provided to all tour guests by Voyages to Antiquity.
It’s important to eyeball the ancient structures for small discoveries; I delighted in spotting such small gems as an impressive inlaid marble floor and a well-preserved mosaic. My personal favorite was the “Neptune and Amphitrite” wall mosaic in House Number 22.
Once the tour was over, it was a quick, uphill walk back to the coach. As I wanted to buy a more extensive English guidebook to Herculaneum, I raced for the small grouping of souvenir shops near the parking lot, quickly bought a guide and headed to the bus. Tell clients who wish to do the same thing to be quick.
There was no time allotted for shopping on our tour of Herculaneum, as again, the focus is on seeing the sites. Our guide went searching for someone gone no more than a few minutes, and she got back on the bus, noting she was “most sorry” and “duly chastised.”
After a short drive to Pompeii, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant near the site. I must say this meal was one of the best group dining experiences I’ve ever had on a tour. Instead of seating us at ubiquitous long tables as is often the case on a tour, we sat at individual tables.
This was no one-plate lunch. We dined on multiple courses including soup, salad, gnocchi, an entrée and dessert, accompanied by bottled water, wine and coffee. The cuisine was high-quality. Best of all, the lunch including the wine was included in the tour, which was, in turn, a part of the guest’s cruise fare.
After lunch, our merry band of adventurers set off to explore Pompeii. The jet lag felled me that day, and since I’ve done the Pompeii tour four or so times, I opted to sit at a local café at Pompeii with a friend and simply people watch. Our guide was very accommodating in telling us where to be at a particular time, and alas, he returned for us as promised.
Fellow guests who took the Pompeii part of the tour liked it immensely but also noted the pace of the walking tour was quite rapid – with no stops. The guide just kept moving. But people seemed very happy with the tour overall.
Agropoli is a small, picturesque seaside town of about 20,000 located south of the Amalfi Coast in the province of Salerno, Italy. Fishing boats line the harbor. Sunbathers frequent a small beach adjacent to the pier.
And while the spot seems a sleepy backwater of Italy, it wasn’t so on September 9, 1943. Near here U.S. troops landed in the Allied invasion of Italy. A memorial to fallen heroes is in the works, our guide noted.
Despite the port’s appeal on many fronts, though, Aegean Odyssey calls at this port for one reason – Paestum, a UNESCO World Heritage site of spectacular Greek temples and some Roman ruins.
I’ve peered at many ancient sites over the year. Some, like Palmyra in the Syrian desert and Angkor in the Cambodian jungle, are absolutely stunning. For many of my fellow tour goers, Paestum was well up their list of top ancient draws.
Founded around the end of the seventh century BC, Paestum was originally colonized by Greeks from Sybaris. Originally it was called Poseidonia, in honor of the Greek god Poseidon. It later became the Roman city of Paestum in 273 BC and prospered during the Roman Imperial period.
Photos by Susan J. Young
Abandoned during the Middle Ages, the ruins became noticed by outsiders following the re-discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum during the 18th century. As our motorcoach headed to a parking area, we spotted one section of fifth century walls.
It’s fun to be on a motorcoach when people who love ancient sites get their first glimpse of the so-called “prize.” People (myself included) “oohed” and “aahed” over the walls and we hadn’t even arrived at the site!.
The coach dropped us off at one point, and we departed later from another lot. So if your clients visit Paestum, remind them to pay attention when the guide tells them where the coach will be parked at the end of the tour.
Unlike Pompeii and Herculaneum where guests constantly are stepping up and into homes and down onto streets and back up onto sidewalks, the walking tour of Paestum is much easier. Surfaces are uneven at points, but it’s a flat walk most of the way.
The Greek temples at Paestum are simply breathtaking. Two are located side by side, making for a dramatic visual effect and superb photo opportunities for visitors. The Temple of Neptune dates from the fifth century BC, and the Basilica is even older. Visitors may not climb on the temples, which are cordoned off.
That said, you can get very close to the massive columns, which appear perfectly proportioned and placed. Tour goers then walk through the Forum of Paestum, dating from the third Century BC. Along the way to the Temple of Ceres at the far end of the site are low-level foundations of homes and public buildings, as well as ruins of an amphitheater.
At times, I found some shade amid the ruins. But a small umbrella, borrowed from a friend, came in handy during long stretches of walking with no shade.
I loved my audio system provided by the line as I could stray from the group and enjoy the sites without the crowd – yet still hear the commentary.
The tour also visited the excellent National Archaeological Museum of Paestum to the east of the site. The museum houses Greek and Roman artifacts from Paestum and environs. Your clients will peruse sculptures, temple friezes, amphoras and vases. The Roman Room boasts a significant collection of 647 Roman coins.
Most notable, though, is the tomb artwork from the 4th and 5th centuries BC. Dating to 470 BC, the Tomb of the Diver is the only painted tomb of the area to survive from the Greek era.
When Aegean Odyssey docked at Sicily, the ship stayed overnight, providing guests with plenty of port time and many "included" tour options. Some guests booked Palermo tours one day and then excursions to Monreale or Segesta the next day.
Photos by Susan J. Young
Unfortunately, I had one day in Palermo, and then I was heading home. So I opted for one of the line’s included tours -- The Palatine Chapel and Cathedral Tour.
“Yes, I know, more churches in Europe,” I muttered to myself as we approached the Norman Palace where the chapel is housed. “Why did I book this, as I’ve seen hundreds over the years?”
That’s why it was priceless to watch the reactions of our group of seasoned travelers, all of whom have also toured a slew of European religious sites.
Simply put, the newly restored Palatine Chapel, built in 1130, is the most gorgeous chapel or religious site I’ve ever seen, hands down. And I’d have to include the Vatican and a host of other top-notch religious structures in that assessment. Fielding a combination of Byzantine, Latin and Moorish styles, it’s filled with splendid mosaics of Biblical scenes.
One after one, members of our group entered the chapel, and the words “wow” repeated were over and over again. “This is incredible,” one person said. “Unbelievable,” uttered another, gazing upward.
Certainly, travel doesn’t get better then when a visitor sets foot in a place he or she has never been and feels the absolute rush of something truly special. This was one of those moments for me.
The mosaics in the Palatine Chapel are comprised of enamel and gold-leaf tiles inserted between panes of transparent glass. Visually, that effect heightens the brilliance of the colors. The room simply “pops” and shimmers with the gold effect.
The guide for our Voyages to Antiquity tour gave an excellent talk about the history of the chapel, and extensively described its features and Biblical scenes. If your clients sail to Palermo, this is a must-see site, in my opinion.
After we left the chapel, our guide led us on a short walk to a 12th Century Norman-era church with Arabic domes, known as San Giovanni degli Eremiti. We toured the spartan cloister and an interior courtyard and garden. The simplicity of this serene facility was a strong contrast to the vibrancy and intensity of sights at the Palatine Chapel.
Then it was on to the Palermo Cathedral, a stellar example of Norman architecture; the interior styling, though, is Baroque. Our tour of Palermo also included a drive through a bit of the city – giving travelers a snapshot look at some of the major sites including two major theaters and the Pretoria Fountain.
While the line offered an “included” walking tour of Palermo in the afternoon, frankly, I’d seen enough. Others who took that tour, though, thought it very good.
That said, I did take one optional Palermo tour, a special visit to the Palazzo Gangi, offered by the line at $55 per person. Palermo has a number of aristocratic residences and this one is a stunner.
In the 18th century, the Princes Gangi decided to remodel the family’s 15th century ancestral palace. The task continues today under the auspices of Princess Carine Vanni Mantegna, who is funding the effort herself. Her representative told us she wants to assure the restoration is carried out to her standards. Thus, she hasn’t asked for government help with what clearly is a pricey undertaking.
Usually, no more than two or three guests are allowed to tour through this privately-owned palazzo. We were told our tour was one of the first, if not the first, permitted with a larger group. After a climb up a stairway, a representative of the Princess met us and guided us through the facility – room by room.
This particularly palazzo is noted for its Sicilian Baroque ballroom decorated with Murano chandeliers, gold fittings and fancy mirrors. The ballroom was the setting for a nearly hour-long scene in the 1963 movie, “The Leopard.” In addition, during the 1800s composer Richard Wagner reportedly wrote the opening bars of his opera Parsifal here.
We admired the magnificent tapestries, antique furniture, opulent furnishings and family artifacts. Despite the opulence, this palazzo felt more intimate than most. Family photos graced several rooms. At the conclusion of the tour, we were treated to local treats and glasses of juice or wine.
Looking back, the “included” shore excursions I took in three separate ports on Voyages to Antiquity were excellent. Most were included within the cruise fare. And the optional tour to the palazzo was something unique and reasonably priced.
All in all, I felt Voyages to Antiquity delivered the goods with its shoreside product. Those who seek to stroll through ancient sites and delve into the history and culture of past civilizations will find much to love in this line’s shore offerings.
Note: Part one of this story reviews the nitty-gritty components of the line’s shoreside experience, including our opinions about shore bookings, documents, tenders, motorcoaches, guides and so on. For a glimpse at the onboard product on Aegean Odyssey, check out the August 30 edition of Travel Agent magazine.