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Holland America’s Mediterranean

The Mediterranean, the world’s largest inland sea, is encircled by Europe, Asia, and Africa. This sundrenched playground of the rich and famous has been the passageway for commerce, explorations, cultural exchange and conflict from ancient times.

There is no more comfortable way to experience the fascinating ports of this area than by cruise ship. Unpack once, and return after each day’s exciting adventures to your floating resort, and relax as you travel to the next destination.

We sailed on the 5 star vista-class Oosterdam (OH-ster-dam), one of Holland America’s largest and most luxurious, yet surprisingly affordable, ships. Holland America was voted “best overall cruise value” by World Ocean and Cruise Liner Society.

Waterford crystal world globe in Atrium of the Oosterdam
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Waterford crystal world globe in Atrium of the Oosterdam

The Oosterdam retains much of the graciousness of the rest of the fleet and features larger rooms, most with ocean views and private verandas. Even the glass exterior elevators have panoramic views of the sea. Dining options range from the more intimate premium restaurant, Pinnacle Grill and the elegant, two-tiered Vista Dining Room, to poolside burgers at the Terrace Grill. For lunch we often opted for variety of the Lido buffet.

With our port lecturer’s practical tips and the maps Holland America provided, it was easy to make the most of our days ashore, whether with a tour or independently. Last-minute advice was available portside.

Onboard, so much to choose from by day -— games, fitness classes, golf simulation, or pampering at afternoon tea or the luxurious Greenhouse Spa. For news or information, we headed for the state-of-the-art Internet Café or beautifully furnished library. There are three promenade decks.

Flamenco Show aboard the Oosterdam
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Flamenco Show aboard the Oosterdam

At night—entertainment it’s showtime in the three-deck show lounge. While cruising off the coast of Spain we enjoyed a traditional Flamenco Show—music and dances with names like Seguirillas, Bulerias, Fandangos.

There’s also dancing, a movie theater, piano bar, sports bar, casino, disco, karaoke…

Holland America offers a range of shore excursions, from overviews by motorcoach to helicopter explorations. It’s a good idea to reserve your excursions before leaving for your trip since the most popular ones may sell out.

Our Western Mediterranean cruise began in Rome, center of the empire that once controlled the entire area, and sailed westward to Lisbon, capital of Portugal, whose 15th and 16th century navigators helped build an overseas empire.

We visited Italy, Spain, Monaco, Malta, France and Portugal — places where history books come alive. Our days were filled with glorious scenery, charming villages, and stunning coastlines, creating a climate of romance. We strolled old and winding village streets, feasted our eyes on some of the world’s finest art and architecture, and sipped cappuccino at sidewalk cafes.

It would be impossible to choose a favorite port, but two of the most popular are Barcelona and Florence. If you visit, you might want to choose a few of these highlights for your excursions.

Barcelona

In Barcelona, the lively capital of the Catalonian region of Spain, there are things you simply must do, and many reasons to return.

You must stroll the lively grand boulevard, Las Ramblas, which extends from the port to Plaça de Cataluña in the heart of the city. You’ll find artists, street performers, bird and flower stalls, cafes, churches, shops and markets, like the colorful Mercat de Sant Josep. El Cortes Ingles department store at Plaça de Catalunya remains open in the afternoon when others close and has a cafeteria on the ninth floor with a terrific view.

Wander the narrow crooked alleyways of 12th and 13th century architecture in the Gothic Quarter. Take a break at a café or tapas bar. Visit the Santa Maria del Mar Church, one of the finest examples of Catalonian Gothic. The Picasso Museum on Calle Montcada is in two Gothic palaces.

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
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La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Love them or not, you must experience at least one of Gaudi’s creations. La Sagrada Familia (Church of the Sacred Family) is best known and considered his masterpiece. Begun in 1882, it remains unfinished. Or stop at Palau Güell, just off Las Ramblas, to see a Gaudi Art Nouveau interior and an unforgettable rooftop.

Whimsical Güell Park was developed as a real estate venture for Gaudi’s friend, Count Güell. Sixty houses, a grand plaza, and market below were planned, but only two houses were actually built. Now owned by the city, it is a unique public park. You’ll see an unusual array of mosaics, including the crowd-pleasing dragon fountain.

Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera, Barcelona, Spain
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Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera, Barcelona, Spain

Passeig de Gracia, widest avenue in Barcelona, is lined with designer shops in Modernist buildings by prominent architects, including Gaudi. Visit La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mira, with its undulating façade and bizarre rooftop and chimneys. Casa Battló, done in ceramics and glass mosaics, is now a museum and just four blocks away.

Museo d’Art de Catalunya (Catalonian Art Museum, Montjuic, Barcelona, Spain
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Museo d’Art de Catalunya (Catalonian Art Museum, Montjuic, Barcelona, Spain

Montjuïc is the hill with illuminated fountains, museums, and gardens, an amusement park, and site of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. For the best collection of Catalan art, visit the Museo d’Art de Catalunya (Catalonian Art Museum). Fundació Joan Miro features the surrealism of this Catalonian artist, who, like Gaudi and Picasso, was part of the Catalan Art Nouveau movement known as Modernisme.

You may want to ride through the countryside to the dramatic rock formations and steep cliffs of the Montserrat Mountains, site of spiritual pilgrimages. See the Basilica and La Moreneta, the Black Madonna, at the Monastery, an 11th century Benedictine Abbey also known for its boys’ choir.

Livorno/ Florence

Livorno, Italy’s second largest port, has terrific seafood, but the world-famous art, architecture, churches, and culture are a 1 ½ hour motorcoach ride away in fashionable Florence, cradle of the Renaissance.

The wealthy Medici family of bankers ruled Florence for almost 300 years. Their patronage of the arts supported such notables as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and the essence of this city of trade and culture remains today.

Stroll Medieval Florence between Piazza della Signoria and Duomo, and stroll along the Arno River to the Ponte Vecchio. Florence’s oldest and most famous bridge has been home to gold and silver shops since 1593 when Cosimo de Medici I ousted the butchers who had been there over 150 years. Look up to see the Medici’s private passageway connecting Pitti and Uffizi Palaces.

Savor some of the world’s finest art and architecture, browse elegant shops, and delight in the ambience as you sample regional specialties with Chianti at a trattoria or stroll with a cone of gelato. Bargain at San Lorenzo, the largest market, for the sights, sounds and scents of everyday Florentine life.

Avoid lines by taking an organized tour or arriving early to see Michelangelo’s David and works by Botticelli at the Galleria Dell’Accademia. Too long a wait? Piazza della Signoria has a replica of David, the ideal Renaissance man.

The less crowded Bargello Museum, a former jail and torture chamber behind the Palazzo Vecchio, showcases some of the best Tuscan sculpture–such highlights as Donatello’s David, early works by Michelangelo, and Medici artifacts.

Continue on to the architecture of the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square). Inspired by the dome of the Pantheon, Brunelleschi won a design competition for this landmark, built without scaffolding. The dome dominates the skyline, and some say this cathedral with a grand and ornate exterior of red, green, and white marble and modest interior was built inside out. Climb nearly 500 steps for a spectacular city view.

Gates of Paradise on the Baptistry, Florence, Italy
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Gates of Paradise on the Baptistry, Florence, Italy

detail. Gates of Paradise on the Baptistry, Florence, Italy
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detail. Gates of Paradise on the Baptistry, Florence, Italy

The 21-year-old Florentine goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti’s design was chosen for the north doors of the Baptistry. Ghiberti went on to create the east doors facing Duomo, the famed gilded bronze Gates of Paradise, completed 10 years before he died.

courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
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courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

People flock from around the world to Galleria Degli Uffizi, in a restored 16th century palazzo (palace), to see some of the finest art of the Renaissance. Best known for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, it contains the work of Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael, to name a few. Lines can be long, so book a tour or reserve a ticket in advance, and allow plenty of time for this treasure.

The Gothic Santa Croce Church, with Giotto frescoes, the legendary crucifix and other carvings by Donatello, art by Brunelleschi– is best known for the tombs of such famous Florentines as Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli. This is the area of leather schools and some of the best gelato in town.

Perhaps you’d prefer to contemplate gravity in nearby…

Pisa

Galileo taught in this university town and achieved fame by dropping objects off Pisa Campanile, the Leaning Tower, challenging Aristotle’s position that speed is proportional to weight. At Piazza del Duomo, check the alignment of the white marble Romanesque Cathedral and baptistery. Stalls along the square sell a wide range of goods and souvenirs, including, of course, countless versions of miniature towers.

We sailed just 2606 miles, about the distance from New York City to Los Angeles, but our journey had taken us back in time and to a greater appreciation of the cultural uniqueness and diversity of this region. We had experienced some of the best of what the world has been and of what it continues to be.

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