Deborah Stone unpeels the layers of Italy and Spain’s ancient history on a Holland America Line Mediterranean mini-cruise on board Nieuw Statendam.
There’s a deliciously warm coastal breeze as I stand on the top of Cartagena’s castle hill as part of my Holland America Line Mediterranean cruise, and as I look at the landmarks around me it feels as though I’ve travelled through time.
There’s Concepción Castle, rebuilt by the Moors in the 13th century, looking over the town and out to sea. From within the fortress walls I can see a huge Roman amphitheatre. To the front is the natural harbour, a major target during the Spanish Civil War. And there’s a glimpse of modern buildings on the outskirts of town, where most of the people working in the city live.
Since the Spanish government set about making Cartagena a major tourist destination in the early 2000s, it has sprung to life with superb museums but also laid-back side-streets dotted with lively tapas bars and pavement cafés.
It’s almost always sunny, even in December, when Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam called there on its inaugural voyage. The latest addition to the cruise line’s 15-strong fleet was on its way to Fort Lauderdale for a winter of Caribbean cruises. The ship is back in Europe now and after a series of northern itineraries will be cruising the Mediterranean until October before undertaking a near identical transatlantic crossing back to Florida.
Our Holland America Line Mediterranean cruise started when we sailed out of Civitavecchia, around an hour’s drive from Rome, where there are fishing boats in the old harbour just before you reach the main port guarded by Fort Michelangelo which was built in the 1500s to scare off pirates.
After a quick check-in at the new and much-improved cruise terminal, there was time for a stroll past the castle and a half-hour whizz through the small archaeology museum, where some of the Roman statues are extraordinarily well-preserved.
But if I ever return to Civitavecchia I’ll be heading for the old part of town that backs onto the museum near pedestrianised Corso Centocelle, where ancient ruins can be seen under glass in the pavement.
Back on board I’m impressed by the quirky modern art that fills the walls and brightens the time waiting for lifts to arrive – especially the glass-like reproduction of Michelangelo’s David statue holding a mobile phone.
For dinner I’m booked into the speciality restaurant Rudi’s Sel de Mer, where I’m knocked out by the fruits de mer starter for two followed by delicious Bouillabaisse Marseillaise. I’m told the first night is a good time to book this à la carte restaurant, before everybody realises it’s there.
Then it’s off to BB King’s Blues Club for an hour of superb blues and soul from musicians selected at the original club back in Memphis. Authentic music is a trademark of HAL’s excellent evening entertainment, which includes classical musicians from New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center and emerging rock bands approved by Rolling Stone magazine.
Our first stop is Cartagena, with a rich history dating back to 228BC involving Carthaginians from North Africa, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Byzantines, Moors and Spanish kings – but all we need to know is that it’s stuffed full of ancient buildings hidden away among the elaborate Art Nouveau and late 19th century buildings of the once-wealthy city.
Cartagena has been a major Spanish naval base for centuries and our local guide, Alfonso, takes us along the wall that looks out over the harbour and its cluster of bars and restaurants on the open square immediately in front of our ship.
He’s passionate about his home town and although he says little about the horrors of the civil war – it was virtually the last city to fall to fascist air attacks – he explains how the 2008 recession stopped tourist investment in its tracks, although not before some excellent museums were opened.
These include the Roman Theatre Museum, which tells the story of Carthago Nova (New Cartagena), as the Romans called it, and has artefacts discovered when the 6,000-seater amphitheatre was excavated from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.
Although it was always suspected the amphitheatre was there, it was only rediscovered when knocking down abandoned buildings to regenerate the area. Similarly, the abandoned bull ring on the other side of town is almost certainly built on another Roman amphitheatre.
As Alfonso leads us down a cobbled street he tells us there is much more beneath our feet still to be discovered. We pass Cartagena’s Roman forum, which now has a boardwalk for visitors to get close to its thermal baths and colonnaded courtyard.
You have to pay to get inside the Roman Forum Molinete, although you can catch a free glimpse from outside, but just a few blocks away there’s an excavated Roman street in a park on the way to the Punic Wall museum.
The museum is over a section of wall built by Carthaginians in around 227BC but, as impressive as it is, the remains of a Christian crypt from the 13th century inside the museum – rediscovered during excavation of the wall – makes a bigger impression thanks to a couple of skulls and 800-year-old skeleton paintings.
There’s no time to visit the Roman house and a building where Emperor Augustus was worshipped once you factor in coffee on the pedestrianised main street, Plaza del Ayuntamiento. The Civil War Shelter Museum will have to wait until next time, too.
That night we eat at Canaletto, the pop-up speciality restaurant on deck nine near the buffet. At only $15 for top-of-the-range Italian food, beautifully presented with olives and bread sticks, focaccia, flavoured butter and dips, it’s a special treat that won’t bust the holiday budget.
Tonight there’s opera singing on the World Stage, soul at BB King’s Blues Club and duelling pianos at Billboard Onboard. I’m amazed by the pop song repertoire of the two pianists, who take requests after 10.30pm, and know every tune and all the words.
But I pass on dancing at BB King’s because we’re arriving in Málaga the next day and I’m keen to explore the town where Picasso was born. It’s better known as the gateway to Costa del Sol package holidays, but the old town is a world away from high-rise apartment blocks and busy beaches.
Our first stop is another Moorish castle on a hill, surrounded by gardens running down to the Alcazaba – a fortified palace which houses the Museum of Málaga.
Then we’re dropped off near Plaza de la Merced, where Picasso was born in an elegant 1860s-built block of town houses, with some now home to Casa Natal Picasso museum. We follow our guide down narrow streets past churches and medieval buildings that include the Picasso Museum in the 16th-century Buenavista Palace.
This maze of streets is full of small family-run shops, bars, cafés and restaurants, with a huge cathedral at its heart. It’s similar to but much smaller than Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, the city where Picasso later lived, and truly a pleasant surprise.
On my last morning on board I enjoy a delicious breakfast in the Grand Dutch Café. My taste of cruising with Holland America Line on stunning Nieuw Statendam has been short but certainly sweet, and left an excellent impression.
Holland America Line’s 14-day Passage To America, departing 27 October 2019, from £949pp based on two sharing, leaves Civitavecchia for Cartagena, Málaga, Cádiz, the Azores and Fort Lauderdale. For more information or to book, visit hollandamerica.com.
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