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As a footman served me a glass of prosecco, I stood beneath the chandeliers in the ballroom where Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon took turns to whirl Claudia Cardinale round the floor in the 1963 film The Leopard.
I was in the baroque Palazzo Gangi in Palermo, enjoying a private tour with the lady of the house, the Principessa.
Our peek into the life of the Sicilian aristocracy came thanks to Voyages To Antiquity, an Oxford-based one-ship company devoted to revealing history through lectures at sea and excursions. Cruises are mostly two weeks long, including hotel nights in cities rich in archaeology.
I joined a 12-night voyage on Aegean Odyssey from Civitavecchia (the port for Rome) to Venice to explore the Amalfi coast, Sicily, Malta and Croatia, stopping in Sorrento, Palermo, Dubrovnik and Split. After dinner, we would gather in the lounge for lectures on Ancient Rome, the Crusades and the history of art.
We had a full day exploring both the cities destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD: Herculaneum and Pompeii. In Pompeii, my group had the thrill of stepping past a No Entry sign to be shown excavation work by one of our onboard experts.
In nearby Sorrento, I went up to the clifftop town above the port. After pottering along the narrow streets, I stepped through the Art Nouveau gateway on Tasso Square into Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria and found the haven of its terrace restaurant. Sampling local food with a glass of white wine while gazing at the Gulf of Naples made for a relaxing day off from self-improvement.
But it was always a pleasure to return to Aegean Odyssey. It was built to carry 570 passengers but later refitted for a maximum of 380, with a large main lounge, a big airy bar, a good library and an observation lounge with wi-fi. My cabin was delightfully roomy.
On our second day in Palermo, I visited the ancient city of Segesta to see the 5th Century BC temple with its splendid columns and a magnificent theatre. As ever, we were accompanied by a team of classical studies graduates, always ready to help adjust our Quietvox receivers (used to hear guides) or chat about the sights.
Time and again, I was impressed by the energy of my fellow passengers, mainly retired folk, whether nipping to Capri or scaling Mount Etna.
The cruise provided for both mind and body: one early morning I managed a stretching class, though I struggled to keep up. A Voyage To Antiquity can be an all- round education.
lVoyages To Antiquity (0845 437 9737, voyagestoantiquity.com), 15 nights from Cannes to Venice, from £2,395pp (about R30 000), sailing on June 9, with dinner and scheduled flights. Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, Sorrento, www.excelsiorvittoria.com. - Mail on Sunday