Deborah Stone discovers a wealth of classical destinations on a Swan Hellenic cruise around the Adriatic
A turtle dodged out of sight in the brackish water under the footbridge leading to the ruins of a town founded by exiles after the fall of Troy.
We stood in the shade of trees left to run riot around a 2,500-year-old Greek amphitheatre. Nearby were the remains of a Roman palace with its mosaic floors still intact and, further along, an early Christian church.
We were at the Albanian Unesco heritage site Butrint, one of the least spoilt classical ruins, and although many on Swan Hellenic’s Minerva had signed up for the trip, we had this archaeologist’s paradise to ourselves.
Classical history has been the basis of Swan Hellenic’s Eastern Mediterranean cruises since its first itinerary in 1954, sailing around the Greek Islands to places now familiar to most of us: Corfu, Rhodes and Santorini.
Sixty years later there are so many more options, including the dazzling Italian treasure house of Ravenna, with its Roman mosaics in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the tomb of medieval poet Dante; or the Roman port of Brindisi, where the inner medieval sector has Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s castle.
By the time you get to Croatia, Montenegro and Albania in the Adriatic arm of the Med, you really feel you are exploring. Back in 1954 Croatia was part of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, but now Dubrovnik is one of the most popular ports of calls.
While I was waiting in the queue for the tender to take us ashore a chatty fellow passenger recommended the Dominican Monastery Museum, the cathedral’s treasury and the Franciscan Monastery Museum, which has one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe. But I was determined to walk the 13th century old town walls.
There you can see over the terracotta roofs into secret gardens, and out across the turquoise sea to Lokrum Island, a national park with a botanic garden.
Every now and then the wall widens to small piazzas with a few souvenir shops and bars, which are tempting as the temperature rises. There were squeals of laughter coming from the two bars below, out of sight on the rocks next to the sea, and the occasional thud as someone jumped into the water to cool off.
Back on board Minerva I joined the other passengers on deck to watch the sun go down sitting on the back deck with a gin and tonic from the adjoining Wheeler Bar, where the wicker chairs and potted palms give it a slightly colonial or country house feel.
But the 350-capacity ship is anything but old-fashioned. Refurbished in 2012 it now has a promenade all round the ship, extra outdoor seating and the new Orpheus Lounge, which serves as an observation lounge on sea days and a music venue at night.
This is in addition to the main Darwin Lounge, where there are day lectures and evening entertainment; from quizzes to, in our case, an operatic trio.
I was happy to spend the evening in the Swan Restaurant, where the tables were covered in crisp white cloths and where we ate duck, chicken and foie gras terrine with black cherry chutney, and shoulder of lamb with apricot and raisin stuffing.
Puddings included chocolate mud cake and peach melba, and there was always ice cream as well as diabetic and gluten-free desserts. And cheese, of course.
But although the food and entertainment are important, cruises for me are all about seeing something different every day, and the tiny medieval walled city of Kotor in Montenegro really blew me away.
At lease one excursion a day is included in the Swan Hellenic packages, and the guide for our Kotor tour was a lovely local girl with excellent English, who led us through the handsome series of piazzas linked by narrow streets that are more like alleyways.
Kotor, which became a Unesco World Heritage site when it was rebuilt after the 1979 earthquake, is full of churches – both Catholic and Orthodox Christian – so it has two Christmases, two Easters and lots of festivals in February and in the summer.
There are several palaces in the old town but only the Grgurina Palace, now the Maritime Museum, retains its 18th century layout because the rest have been divided into flats.
After the tour I paid three euros to walk up the path beside the city wall which leads to Our Lady of Health shrine, a small church about 20 minutes’ walk up the hill which towers above the city.
Most of the country is mountainous – Montenegro means ‘black mountain’ – and it’s quite a steep climb up to the shrine. The walk carries on up to a castle, but I persuaded myself the view over the roofs to the fjord-like Bay of Kotor, where our ship was docked, wouldn’t be any better further up.
As I carefully picked my way back down I could hear the faint melody of a flautist playing Bolero – only slightly more surreal than the woman who offered me a sip of her home-made plum brandy – šljiva – from an old lemonade bottle in the market near the main gate.
There are no EU health and safety rules here, although they have adopted the euro, so she filled the bottle’s lid so I could taste it, and I left with seven euros for the brandy plus another two for a string of figs.
As we sailed away from Kotor, though, we were heading for the biggest adventure of the cruise: Albania.
It was a first for most of us on board, our enthusiastic young guide telling us Minerva was the biggest ship to have docked at Saranda. There’s no cruise terminal here, but the large forecourt indicates the Albanians’ plans.
A drive through the Soviet-style old town past the ancient wall revealed scores of hotels and new apartment blocks – many for sale – and the further south we went the more unfinished they were; “mushrooms after rain” our guide
Following the coast we saw Corfu in the Ionian Sea, then suddenly the huge Lake Butrint appeared – 10 miles long and wide – and finally Butrint itself.
It has been a Greek settlement, Roman city and small Bishopric, but the largely intact Venetian tower and romantic ruins of an Ottoman castle reveal how strategically important it once was.
It is also an important wildlife haven and Albania’s first national park, which will hopefully protect it from the rampant commercialism in the new part of Saranda. Those with a yearning for exploration should book a cabin on a cruise to these unspoiled remains of the Greek and Roman empires, before it’s too late.
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