Sail away - and take the excursions

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iol travel 09 jan ct ESC classic cruising mediterranean pic SUPPLIED Venice, Italy, where you can take the gondola ride along the canals and visit St Mark's Square, is the setting for Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice.

The beauty of cruising, as one aficionado put it, is that you only have to unpack once – irrespective of the number of countries you visit.

A great example is the scheduled MSC weekly European summer cruise from Venice to Bari, on the Achilles heel of Italy, across the Adriatic to Katakolon in Greece, down and around into the Aegean, stopping at Izmir and Istanbul in Turkey, then turning back through the Adriatic for Dubrovnik in Croatia before ending back in Venice.

Forget the beautiful scenery and the opulent luxury of the ship; the true gem of this cruise lies in the shore excursions.

MSC has outsourced all its excursions to local guides in each port, all of whom offer permutations ranging from hardcore history to extreme souvenir hunting.

Some of your choices? Going to see the Virgin Mary’s putative last house where she died 12 years after Jesus was crucified, or to see Olympia, where the first athletes came together in a spirit of peace and brotherhood – the DNA of the modern games, 700 years before Christ was born – is breathtaking.

* Katakolon (Greece) has four tours from about R770 to R1 000, all about four hours long. Most involve going to Olympia with a museum trip tacked on, or sampling home-made wine as you watch olive oil being made, or just straightforward shopping.

iol travel 09 jan ct ESC classic cruising mediterranean pic1 The Blue Mosque in the city of Istanbul, Turkey. Other breathtaking sites are the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. SUPPLIED

* Izmir has only three tours – you can do Ephesus on its own, the fifth largest city in the Roman Empire in its day, or Ephesus and Mary’s House or St John’s Monastery.

It’s good for pilgrims and sightseers alike. There’s the option of going to a leather factory that makes bags and jackets for export for all the big-name brands.

Expect to pay between R750 and R1 000 an adult for the tour.

* Istanbul is one of the big drawcards, with six excursions.

You can cruise the Bosphorus, visit Topkapi Palace, go shopping in the Grand Bazaar, and visit the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.

Or do the whole lot, plus visit the Ciragan Palace and see how carpets are made (and even buy one of your choice, 40 percent less).

Expect to pay from R600 to R2 100 an adult for the deluxe, all-in tour.

* Dubrovnik, with seven tours, is one of the most popular stops.

The scenery is breathtaking, the people friendly.

The walled city is exquisite; it’s a Unesco heritage site, and you can explore it on foot or by Segway if you’re feeling adventurous.

If you’re feeling fit, you can even bike through the countryside.

Prices range from R600 to R1 200.

* Venice is the biggie. But what’s Venice without a gondola ride and a tour at the same time? You can do those for anything between R700 and R1 200.

Venice has it all: souvenir opportunities on the harbour, all the way to St Mark’s Square, cheap pastramis and drinks from stalls, to hot chocolate on the square in 300-year-old tea rooms, where Giacomo Casanova might have recovered from his debaucheries. – Cape Times


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