A cruise on board MSC Preziosa is the perfect way to experience the staggering beauty of Istanbul and the glorious Adriatic coast, says Oliver Hughes
We’re standing in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest markets in the world. Up to 400,000 visitors come here every day, and surrounded by the hubbub of haggling it feels as though they’re all with us right now. We’ve been let loose by our guide to explore as many of the 3,000 shops as two hours will allow, and we keep a tight hold of our wallets – less from a fear of pickpockets, more out of a need to fight the desire to spend any more lira on Turkish delight and baklava.
Out in the sun-baked streets, the looming sillhouettes of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are still clearly visible, and if we peer down the street just right, we can make out the glittering brilliance of the Bosphorous in the distance.
Our cruise on board MSC Preziosa had taken us from Venice, along the Adriatic coast, to Izmir; our final stop was Dubrovnik. But nothing came close to Istanbul. MSC offers many different types of excursion to the ‘Queen of Cities’, including walking tours, boat trips, and full guided days with lunch. We’ve opted for the latter, and while it’s not nearly enough, it’s a great way to see the main sights without the queues: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace.
The shrine of Topkapi Palace is a particular highlight, with its fantastic holy relics, including the keys to the Kaaba in Mecca, the Prophet’s beard, John the Baptist’s arm and a piece of his skull, and a staff purported to have belonged to Moses. You genuinely feel as though you are living and breathing history.
My girlfriend Lucy and I chose this trip because we liked the idea of being on an Italian cruise line to visit some of Europe’s greatest destinations. MSC Preziosa is a family-focused ship, with great activities for kids of all ages, including a huge water slide, a water park (and some quieter pools for parents), an amusement arcade and disco nights for kids only. But for couples, the ship offers plenty of spaces to hide away, including the Top 18 club. There’s also a 4D cinema, mini golf, bowling and Formula One simulator. Lucy spent a few hours in the Aurea Spa, where you can have treatments based around jewels (‘preziosa’ means precious in Italian), and returned to our very comfortable stateroom suitably pampered.
Of the restaurants on board, the speciality Galaxy Lounge is by far and away the best; food in the other restaurants is plentiful, and the service is stellar – there’s a huge complement of staff eager to help provide whatever you desire.
That doesn’t mean the rest of the itinerary is anything to be sniffed at, of course. Venice is a fabulous city to start and finish a cruise in and nothing quite compares to the view from top deck as you sail along the Grand Canal, towering above most of the buildings in the city, the Adriatic glittering in the distance.
Then there’s Bari, Italy, a medieval city once ruled by Normans (the same ones that came to Britain in 1066) which has since developed into a gorgeous traditional Italian city. Those looking for culture won’t be disappointed – it’s quintessentially Italian.
In Greece we called at the lovely town of Katakolon, close to the port of ancient Olympia, where the Olympic Games were first held and the former site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (the Statue of Zeus at Olympia). You can book an excursion via coach (it takes an hour to get there and back) – there is a train but it takes 45 minutes each way.
Alternatively, Katakolon itself has many beaches, shops, museums and cafés. It’s also a great place to simply relax and enjoy the sea, which is exactly what we decided to do. By contrast Izmir is a bustling metropolis – the third largest city in Turkey after Istanbul and Ankara – and an unexpected treat, filled with bustling markets, traffic jams and people. You can chill out in the waterfront restaurants, do some shopping in the markets or high streets, bask in some culture in the museums, or enjoy a walk in the enormous public gardens.
Our final port of call was the walled city of Dubrovnik in Croatia. It’s absolutely beautiful, right on the water, and a short shuttle bus into the city takes you straight to the Old Town, where you can enjoy the sights. Many scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed in Dubrovnik, the castle there being the basis for the Red Keep in King’s Landing. Time there is sadly restricted but it’s a wonderful end to the itinerary.
This cruise offers something for everyone: history buffs, beach lovers, families and couples alike. As we arrived back at Venice, we had to fight the urge to stay hidden on board so we could do it all over again.
For more information visit msccruises.co.uk or call 0203 426 3010.
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