I just got back from “the trip of a lifetime.” Another one. This time, it was an ocean cruise calling on ports in the Mediterranean for eleven days in a row from Rome to Barcelona. If you’re prone to drooling with envy, let me tell you how it went, first. I have done over 100 days on ocean liners. Sometimes, I am an incredibly slow learner.
This was an “amazing deal,” offered by a travel agency that gets clients via pitches to the mailing lists of college alumni associations. I jumped on it because it offered two-for-one fares (and a dear friend and fellow alum was interested). Other goodies were free airfare, and six free shore excursions. Those ARE nice enticements. But I forgot to be sure I understood why I wanted to go at all. Turns out this was not the best way to do what I was I thought I wanted to do. And it turns out also, that what I thought I wanted to do wasn’t really what works for me at all.
I have done a lot of world travel, but little of it has been in Europe. That was always “for later–when we need to do the easy things.” That was naive. If you want a travel contact sport, try touring famous sites in Europe. The situation in the Sistine chapel has zero room for awe as the Vatican police bark “Keep moving. Keep moving!” from the second you walk in. (I actually got a better feel for the art from a traveling digital version that had been mounted on the walls and ceiling of our local former armory last year.) The truth is rude on this. Going to see this stuff in person is NOT going to be a highlight unless you are good with doing it in the middle of a crowd and without the chance to stop and LOOK. My experience was the same at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem 20 years ago. Like I said, I am sometimes a slow learner.
The “romance” of a Mediterranean cruise has stuck with me over time, even though I am no longer married to the man who so loves to be on the water. This ship appealed because it is small (684 passengers, which is about 20% of what you experience on the newest and best of the ocean liners). I liked the idea that it had a port of call every day, something I enjoyed river cruising last year.
I just plain had it all wrong. Ocean cruising is best when both sea days and port days are part of it. The whole notion of being on a floating luxury hotel has to be part of how you see it. And you need to like the idea of being in the middle of a crowd. Pretty much all the time, unless you take the time to do a formal meal instead of the buffets.
Wherever we toured, there were a LOT of people trying to see the same things. That’s just how it goes when several cruise ships are in port the same day and they bring thousands of tourists with them.
I finally got to experience the kind of travel I enjoy on the 10th day of a 13-day trip. I booked a tour that went to somewhere out of the way: Carcassone, a walled city in the south of France. The tour guide knew his stuff and spoke English well enough that I wasn’t doing an ongoing translation in my head to figure out what had just been said. And it was about a very different topic–military architecture. (I didn’t even start to process how problematic seeing the extravagance of all the Catholic churches was for me until after I got home.)
We had free time in the little town after the tour. I sat down in a cafe for some lunch and promptly made friends with a couple from Wales at the next table. It was then that it hit me: I had pretty much missed the fun I typically have on travel adventures because I’d been in the middle of a herd. My best travel memories are times in cafes, watching the locals, sipping a glass of local wine, sampling their version of food, and being open to what’s happening right there, right then.
So…what I thought I needed was to see some of the most important sights along the Mediterranean. I chose the wrong method for that. (Some friends on a Rick Steves tour of Italy in the same time frame had a much more successful experience: much smaller groups; more intense focus on an area instead of just “the big deal site”; tour guides who spoke the tour clients’ language well.)
But that’s not what I enjoy about traveling. I need to just experience the place. No famous churches, fountains or plazas required.
All is not lost, of course. Now I know I can wisely delete ocean cruising from my future. I suck at sunbathing, can only do so many buffets, and do not enjoy herds–except maybe buffalo in Yellowstone or Custer State Park, South Dakota.
I also learned this time around, that if I want to learn about these sites, a good documentary will do a much better job. They film when there aren’t a gazillion people trying to see the same thing. They get the shots that let you really SEE it. To “be there” is not the romance it seemed to be. This is very good to know.
Of course, if all you’re after is to say you went to those famous sites and to brag about being on a Mediterranean cruise, then a 2-for-1, free airfare, 6-free-shore-excursions ocean cruise might be just the ticket.