This review includes information on our August 10, 2021, “Malta & Adriatic Jewels” cruise on the Viking Sea. Although we have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 since February, 2021, we had not anticipated cruising safely until 2022. We especially had not considered cruising from Malta as it is so difficult to get there from our home airport, Raleigh/Durham (RDU). However, at the beginning of July, Viking announced its "Welcome Back" cruises for fully-vaccinated passengers (and crew). The booking promotion (MED6-Free US Air) included airfare from RDU and a nonstop charter on Lufthansa from Newark (EWR) to Malta (MLA). Given the extensive health and safety precautions that Viking has in place, the Viking Risk-Free Guarantee, the nonstop flight, and the four new ports for us (Split, Zadar, Ŝibenik, Gozo), we decided to take the chance and book this cruise.
We had cruised once before with Viking (“Danube Waltz,” Viking Vilhjalm, 2017), so we received a $200 pp Past Passenger discount. In addition, we had a large (125%) credit voucher from our canceled 2020 "Rhine Getaway." Applying that credit to this cruise, we were able to book a Deluxe Veranda (V6) stateroom, buy the Silver Spirits drink package, and prepay gratuities. We also booked four walking tours (included) and ten optional tours; that used up almost all of our credit (use it or lose it) and gave us a morning and afternoon excursion in each port. Before the cruise, we made reservations for each of the specialty restaurants (Manfredi’s and Chef’s Table) and for the main dining room (The Restaurant) on the remaining nights.
CRUISE ITINERARY: MALTA & ADRIATIC JEWELS (10 DAYS)
Our first excursion was the 4-hour “Mdina & Mosta Tour;” this was rated moderate and required about 0.9 mile of walking. The first tour stop was at the Mdina Glass factory, where an artisan was shaping glass bars into animals (no glass blowing demonstration because of COVID-19). There was time to shop here and brief shopping opportunities later at the Mosta Church and the Cathedral for those who wished to indulge in that activity.
The next stop was at the Mosta Church, which is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The church was modeled after the Pantheon in Rome and has one of the world’s largest unsupported domes. In WWII, the dome was pierced by a bomb (which miraculously did not explode) during Mass; the damaged section of the ceiling was repaired, but not repainted, and a replica of the bomb is kept in the sacristy. There were lots of special statues and decorations in and around the church in preparation for the big Feast of the Assumption on August 15, which would involve processions and fireworks (a very big thing in Malta).
Then we were off to the former capital of Malta, Mdina (www.planetware.com/i/map/M/mdina-map.jpg), the first of many walled cities we would visit on this trip. Before we crossed a stone bridge to enter the city, our guide pointed out the medieval entrance, which is now walled up. Then we passed through the Baroque Main Gate, guarded by a pair of stone lions; the rear of the gate bears a relief of the patron saints of Malta: St. Publius, St. Agatha, and St. Paul. We passed the Palazzo Vilhena, formerly the Magisterial Palace of Justice and now the Natural History Museum. As we strolled along the narrow streets, our guide pointed out typical architectural features of Maltese houses, such as the colorful wooden enclosed balconies and the low wrought iron gates in front of the recessed main doors. There are also artisans practicing traditional crafts, like gilding.
Next we toured St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral; according to tradition it stands on the site where the Roman governor, Publius (later St. Publius), met St. Paul following his shipwreck on Malta. The ceiling frescoes depict the life of St. Paul and the floor features polychrome marble tombstones and memorials, much like the floor of St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta. There are number of important paintings by Mattia Preti including the altarpiece, “The Conversion of St. Paul on the Way to Damascus,” and above that, “St. Paul's Shipwreck.” However, the Cathedral’s most prized possession is in the Chapel of the Sacrament: a 14th-century Byzantine icon of the Madonna. Our guide pointed out a curiosity, a window in one of the chapels through which the Bishop could view the Mass from his Palace.
Across the square from the Cathedral is the 13th-century Palazzo Santa Sofia, believed to be the oldest surviving building in the city. A little farther down the street, we visited the Carmelite Church (Church of the Annunciation), which is considered one of the most important Maltese Baroque churches. Continuing along, we viewed the patio of the Palazzo Falson, now the Museum of Fine Art and Antiquities, a 13th-century Sicilian-Norman style palazzo.
Finally we reached Bastion Square, where we could ascend to the parapets; there is a viewpoint with panoramic views of the countryside. Our guide pointed out the official car of the President of Malta, parked outside a gelato shop. A restaurant on the square is housed in an old Arab townhouse, with some walls of Arab origin and some rooms dating back to the Norman era. As we exited the city through the Greeks Gate, we passed the Il-Foss tal-Imdina, restored gardens set in the old moat. Returning to the ship, we saw that the MSC Seashore, on her maiden voyage, was also in port today.
After lunch, we departed on another 4-hour tour, “Birgu by Boat & Foot,” which was rated moderate and required about 2 miles of walking. We started by walking a half-mile from the ship to the boats that would ferry us across the spectacular Grand Harbour to the Three Cities area, named for the fortified cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua. A dgħajsa is a small traditional water taxi that looks like a simplified Venetian gondola with a sunshade and an outboard motor; it only holds 4-5 people in addition to the pilot.
When the Knights Hospitaller came to Malta from Rhodes, Vittoriosa was called Birgu. The Knights moved the capital of the country from Mdina to Birgu to take advantage of the natural harbor there. Following the Great Siege of 1565, Birgu was renamed Vittoriosa; a few years later, the new capital, Valletta was built across the harbor. [Note: The history of Malta is deeply entangled with that of the Knights Hospitaller, formally the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. Your visit here will be greatly enriched if you learn some of that history before your arrival.]
Once everyone had made it to the other side of the harbor near the Maritime Museum, our guide took us past the Freedom Monument (commemorating the withdrawal of British troops in 1879) and past one of Malta’s most historic surviving churches, St. Lawrence Church (closed due to siesta). The ground was littered with debris left by fireworks celebrating St. Lawrence’s feast day yesterday. As we walked around, we passed many of the auberges, which formerly were the headquarters for each group of Knights who spoke a common language (langue), and other buildings associated with the Knights. We also visited the restored Inquisitor’s Palace, complete with torture chamber, prison cells, and a gift shop. Finally, we re-boarded a dgħajsa for an unnarrated harbor tour, passing such sights as the medieval Fort St. Angelo and other fortifications on both sides of the harbor, before returning to the ship.
On disembarkation day, Viking got us out of our cabins and onto buses for an included panoramic “Sightseeing Tour of Valletta.” They were trying to relieve congestion at the airport by staggering check-in for the charter flight to Newark. We first drove under the city walls along the Grand Harbour, around the tip of the peninsula, and along both sides of the Maramxett Harbour. We had good views of Fort Manoel, on Manoel Island in the middle of the harbor. As we drove around Maramxett Harbour, we passed through multiple resort areas and by marinas full of luzzijiet and other boats; there were also good views of the Valletta walls and fortifications. After that, we drove north along the scenic coast road; near Is-Salina, there were salt pans set up by the Knights. We turned inland and had a photo op of the Mosta Church dome. We drove through village after village, trying to kill time. When we passed through Paola, we were surprised to see that the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (prehistoric underground cemetery), which we had tried to visit in 2012, is located in the middle of the downtown area. This tour seemed to take much longer than the allotted two hours.
When we visited Kotor in 2012, we climbed up to the St. John/St. Ivan/San Giovanni Fortress for great views. The hike up to the fortress (853 feet above sea level) involves climbing approximately 1,350 steep, uneven steps. The climb would be even more exhausting today with the expected high temperature of 93°F and the views would be somewhat obscured by the smoke. Nevertheless, during our walking tour today, we saw a number of intrepid people wending their way up the many switchbacks.
After our climb in 2012, we did a DIY walking tour. The ship’s walking tour today did not cover as many sights as we did in 2012, but it would have been a decent introduction to Kotor for those who had not been here before. Also, it was slated to visit the small Maritime Museum, which we were not able to visit last time. Our local guide was quite informative, but really seemed to be suffering in the heat. Despite the pandemic, Kotor seemed to be full of European tourists. Everyone is ready to get out. Carefully we hope.
The 1.5-hour included “Walking Tour of Kotor” was rated moderate and required 1.1 miles of walking. The tour started just outside the main gate to the Old City, the West Gate (Sea Gate). Above the gate is a relief of the Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of the Venetian Republic. There is a Tourist Information Office right outside the Sea Gate, where I picked up a free map. We went through the Sea Gate into Kotor's main square, Trg od Oruzja (Arms Square), the location of the Town Clock Tower and the “Pillar of Shame,” where miscreants were subjected to public humiliation (considered worse than corporal punishment at the time).
We walked down the street by the Town Hall to Trg od Brašna (Flour Square), where you can see the Pima Palace and several other former palaces of Kotor’s most powerful families. From there, we walked to St. Tryphon’s Square, site of Kotor’s most famous attraction, St. Tryphon Basilica-Cathedral (Sveti Tripuna). The church itself is an example of Romanesque architecture, but the mismatched bell towers (added after an earthquake) are Baroque. Each tour group had to wait for the previous one to exit before entering in order to maintain social distance. Inside, an ornate marble canopy, supported by red marble columns and topped with a gold-winged angel, sits over the main altar. The silver and gold altarpiece depicts many saints, including St. Tryphon, who holds a model of the city of Kotor. Next to the altar are the partial remains of an early fresco of the Crucifixion.
From there we proceeded to Pjaća od Muzejo (Museum Square), the location of the Maritime Museum (housed in the Grgurina Palace), which showcases Kotor's rich maritime history. Again, tour groups had to enter one at a time to avoid crowding. Although the museum is small, there are a number of fascinating exhibits including ship models, nautical instruments, weapons, and national costumes. A map of the maze of waterways leading from the Adriatic to the Bay of Kotor clearly shows why the city was so easy to fortify against an attack by sea.
After exiting the museum, we continued west, passing a small courtyard that contains the Karampana, Kotor’s only public well; this wrought iron contraption looks a bit like a small oil rig. We entered St. Luke’s Square, dominated by the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas (Sveti Nikola); the much smaller Basilica of St. Luke (Sveti Luka) is on the opposite corner. At one time Sveti Luka was shared by the Catholic and Orthodox communities, with each having its own altar.
We passed the Franciscan Monastery of St. Claire on our way back to the main square, where our guide pointed out more of the surrounding buildings. In addition to more palaces, it is home to the City Theatre and a Venetian Arsenal (with the lion of St. Mark on the side). That was the end of the formal tour.
There was no time to tender back to the ship between tours, so John and I climbed up to the Kampana Tower and walked part of the town walls above the Skurda River. We descended and continued to the North Gate (River Gate). We went out through the River Gate and across the arched bridge over the river to get some nice photos of the city walls and the fortress on the mountainside above us.
We returned to the port to wait for our 5.5-hour “Highlights of Montenegro” tour. This tour was rated as moderate and did not involve a lot of walking. There were some trees for shade while we were waiting and a convenient free toilet near the port gates in the Luka Kota (Port of Kotor) building, off the alley on the town side.
Mount Lovćen (5,738 ft) towers high above Kotor. The deep shade of the densely-forested mountain inspired the country’s name, Montenegro (Black Mountain). The tour bus took us up over 3,650 feet on a windy road (Serpentina) with 25 numbered switchbacks that connects Kotor with the Lovćen National Park. This road is not only steep and curvy, but it is also narrow—there were traffic jams in several places, where oncoming vehicles had to back up so that the bus could negotiate a turn. As the road climbs the slopes of Mount Lovćen, there are spectacular views of Kotor Bay and the surrounding area as far as the Adriatic coast. Near the top, our guide pointed out a section of the road near the bottom that is shaped like the letter “M”, supposedly to honor Montenegro’s Queen Milena. It was cooler and not so smoky in the mountains; the forested scenery was lovely.
We stopped at a taverna in Njeguši for some local wine, bread, cheese, and Lovćen prosciutto. This small village was the birthplace of the Montenegrin royal family, the House of Petrović-Njegoš. One of the country’s most influential leaders was the 19th-century Prince-Bishop Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, who laid the foundation for the modern Montenegrin state. Often known simply as Njegoš, he is also revered for his poetry. We would later see (from a distance) his mausoleum perched atop the second-highest peak of Mount Lovćen.
The next stop was the historic capital of the Kingdom of Montenegro, Cetinje. There are four units of the National Museum of Montenegro here and a fifth in Njeguši. The tour visited the palace of Montenegro’s first and only king, Nikola I Petrović-Njegoš, who ruled from 1910-1918. The bright-red museum (no photos allowed) is quite small and modest by European standards—more of a large home than a palace. The museum is full of period furniture and antiques, weapons, awards and decorations, uniforms, and other items belonging to King Nikola, Queen Milena, and their two unmarried daughters. The collection includes portraits of the royal couple and they are buried in a small chapel not far from the museum. Five of their nine daughters married princes or kings, giving Nikola the nickname "the father-in-law of Europe."
We exited from the museum into the Royal Court Garden and walked the short distance back to the bus parking area. There are restrooms there, but those who did not have 0.50€ were forced to pay $1 to relieve themselves before the long drive back to the ship; the taverna was the only other toilet break. One of our group of 19 got lost somehow between here and the palace; our guide had to go searching for her while we all sat on the bus for 15 minutes. We finally returned to Kotor via a different (far less twisty route) along the Adriatic coast, passing through several resort areas.
John and I had visited Dubrovnik in 2008 with our son and DIL. We all walked the city walls (in the rain) and afterwards John and I took a DIY walking tour of the old city. Today we again took a walking tour on the walls. The 2.75 hour “Dubrovnik’s Fortification: A City Wall Walk” was rated demanding; although the walking is only about 1.5 miles, there are a lot of uneven steps. The pace of the tour was pretty slow, but several people had to drop out along the way.
The walking tour starts and ends at the Pile Gate. The bus route to the starting point went around the landward perimeter of the Old Town, giving us good views of the walls, parts of which date from the 13th century. Once at the Pile Gate, we crossed a stone bridge to the outer gate, a semicircular Renaissance tower embellished with a statue of the city’s patron saint, St. Blaise (Sveti Vlaho), holding a model of the city. We would see the saint’s image frequently during our walk and our guide commented that Vlaho is still a very popular boy’s name in this area. We went down a ramp, through the inner, Gothic-style gate, and onto the main Street, the Stradun. The inner gate also features a statue of St. Blaise, sculpted in the 20th century.
Our guide gave us tickets and we climbed up to the top of the monumental stone ramparts. We were not required to remain with the group, but I thought it would be interesting to hear the guide’s commentary. The city walls (www.dubrovnik-travel.net/wp-content/uploads/map-dubrovnik-city-walls1a.jpg) are walked counter-clockwise; there is another entrance/exit at the Ploče Gate at the other end of the Stradun. The main features of the walls are the various forts, towers, and bastions. From the walls, we could view Lokrum Island, a popular day trip from Dubrovnik, and two forts, Fort St. Lawrence at Pile and Fort Revelin at Ploče, that are separated from the ramparts. There are even some bars and restaurants on the wall or on the narrow rocky shoreline under the wall (reached through holes in the wall). All along, we had great views of the tiled roofs, narrow streets, and church bell towers. We eventually reached Fort St. John, on the southeastern side of the old harbor. In the past, a chain could be raised from Fort St. John to the St. Luke Bastion on the opposite side, which would prevent ships from entering the harbor.
We continued around the landward side of the Old Town to the Minčeta Fortress, a large circular tower in the northwestern corner, at the highest point of the ramparts. Those of us who chose to climb to the terrace of the tower were rewarded with outstanding views of the red-tiled roofs in the foreground and the sparkling blue Adriatic in background. When we entered at the Pile Gate, our guide had pointed out a map that shows the buildings damaged and destroyed in the siege of 1991-1992, during the Croatian War of Independence. The bombardment came from nearby Mount Srđ just to the north. The city is much better restored now than in 2008, probably due to “Game of Thrones” filming here. Our guide said some people call it “King’s Landing” and don’t believe Dubrovnik is a real city.
The bus meeting place was in Brsalje Square, a leafy park just outside the Pile Gate. On one side there is a low balustrade overlooking a small marina. Don’t miss this spot for terrific photos of the sea with Fort St. Lawrence to the right and the Bokar Fortress to the left. There is also an interesting fountain in the park, featuring a nymph and a satyr.
The 4.25-hour “Croatian Delight: Wine Tasting” is rated moderate, but very little walking is involved; maybe the idea is to be moderate in consuming the wine. We drove south along the coast from Dubrovnik, stopping at a viewpoint for a great panorama of the Old Town and Lokrum Island. Our guide explained that the island is popularly thought to be cursed by the Benedictine monks who were evicted from their monastery in 1799 so that the island could be used for private purposes. Since then, the legend goes, anyone who has tried to possess the island has met with a bad end—assassination, drowning, suicide, bankruptcy. Even now, as a popular recreational area, no one is allowed to stay on the island overnight.
We continued down the coast through the Župa Dubrovačka, a string of several picturesque villages and resorts, popularly known as the “Croatian Riviera.” Our goal was the Konvale Valley, nestled between Sniježnica Mountain and the Adriatic Sea. We turned inland near the Dubrovnik airport and drove along the mountain side of the valley, en route to two small family wineries.
The Niko Karaman Winery (www.malvasija-karaman.com), in the village of Pridvorje, is so small that it doesn’t have an actual cellar; the winery produces only 20,000 bottles a year. We tasted their dry white wine and sweet desert wine (2007 Prošek), both made from Malvasija Dubrovacka. Our hostess, the DIL of the owner, also served us padišpanj, a local traditional sponge cake. Karaman wines have won a number of gold medals in the World of Malvasia international competition. Those awards are displayed in the tasting room, whose wine-colored walls, stone floors, and wooden beams are meant to evoke a country-style parlor. The wines were made in a rustic style and were enjoyable.
We continued circumnavigating the Konavle Valley to Komaji, site of the Crvik Vineyards and Winery (www.crvik-wine.com/?lang=en) on the seaward side of the valley. Our host was Petar, the fourth-generation winemaker; later Andro Crvik, Petar’s father and the head of the winery, stopped by to say hello. This is a much larger operation than Karaman and produces wines from a number of grape varieties. Their wine production has outpaced their grape production, so they also subcontract grapes from selected growers. Like Karaman, their wines have won many national and international awards. We tasted their 2019 Tezoro, a white wine made from Malvasija Dubrovacka; 2018 Negromant, a red made from Merlot; and 2017 Pomet, a red made from Plavac Mali. The wines here represented a more international style than the previous winery. They were quite good but could have been made anywhere even though they used some local grapes. Those were accompanied by a plate of local cheese and olives.
In the morning we took a 5-hour tour, “Hvar Island by RIB,” through the scenic islands off the Dalmatian coast. This is rated demanding, not because there is a lot of walking, but because the boat ride could be bumpy and aggravate back problems or induce seasickness. It takes about an hour for the trip to Hvar (visithvar.hr), a resort island about 20 miles offshore of Split. Today the sea was fairly calm and no one in our group seemed to have any problems with the ride. Hvar is notable for being frequented by movie stars and their yachts.
As we approached Hvar Town (www.hvarinfo.com/hvar/map-of-hvar-town.htm), we had great views of the town and of the Fortica (fortress) perched above it. We disembarked at the end of the Riva (waterfront promenade) away from the town center. The Riva is lined with ferries on one side and hotels, bars, restaurants, and cafés on the other. As we walked towards town, our guide pointed out the Riva Hotel, where we would meet later for a snack. Most of the sights of Hvar Town are clustered around the Town Square, which is actually a rectangle stretching from the Arsenal on the west end to St. Stephan’s Cathedral on the east. The Arsenal was used to built and repair galleys; it now houses an art gallery. The Arsenal’s upper level is home to one of the oldest public theaters in Europe. Across the square from the Arsenal are the Loggia and Clock Tower from the Venetian era; those are now part of the Palace Hotel. After this extremely brief guided tour, we were given an hour of free time.
While many in our group chose to shop, John and I hiked up 328 ft (100 m) to the Fortica, also known as Tvrđava Španjola (Spanish Fort), above the town. We climbed up by way of the street to the right of the Loggia, Kroz Grodu, past the Benedictine convent. Kroz Grodu is more a long, steep flight of stairs than a street. When it ended at Ul. Higijeničkog Društva, we could see a sign leading to the Fortica.
There are a number of paths up to the Fortica leading through the Dr. Josip Avelini Park and Mediterranean Herb Garden. Besides herbs, the park is full of pines, cacti, and agave; the air was alive with the hum of cicadas. The path to the main entrance is paved and marked with red arrows, but we took several side paths to reach different viewpoints beneath the walls of the fort. This is clearly a Venetian fortification: Lions of St. Mark are carved over every entrance. When we reached the main entrance, we could not go inside because the local currency (kuna) is needed—no euros or credit cards accepted. However, there is not much inside to see and from the base of the walls the views of Hvar Town, the harbor, and the nearby Pakleni Islands are breathtaking.
On the way back down, we checked out a small chapel (locked); this was clearly dedicated to the Virgin Mary, because the words “Zdravo Marijo” (Hail Mary) were inscribed above the entrance door. I later learned that this is Crkva Gospe od Kruvenice (Church of Our Lady of Kruvenica).
We returned to town to see a few more sights before we had to rejoin the group. We walked along the waterfront to the west, trying to get views of the bell tower of the ruined Church of St. Mark. Hvar is known for its lavender fields and the waterfront was lined with vendors selling all sorts of sachets, oils, and other souvenirs made from lavender. Mass was going on in the Cathedral, so we could only view it from the outside. There were good views from the Arsenal terrace though. After our free time, the group assembled at the Riva Hotel for chocolate lava cake and cappuccino before the boat ride back to Split.
In the afternoon, we had the included 2-hour “Split Walking Tour.” This tour is rated moderate; the total walking was about 2.2 miles. We walked from the ship, along the harbor, through the crowded bus station, and along the Split Riva.
Old Town Split (visitsplit.com) is unique because people built their houses on and inside the ruins of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s 4th-century retirement Palace. We stopped across the street from the Bronze Gate, which originally opened directly onto the sea and led to the private quarters of the Emperor and his family. We could see the original stone walls of the Palace extending above the tops of the shops and one of the original corner towers. Our guide stopped at a big map showing a plan of the original Palace and at the 3D model that shows the city as it is today.
The entry to this part of the city is by walking through the Bronze Gate, down into the cellars of the Palace, along a passage filled with vendors, and up the other side. When the residents of nearby Salona took refuge in the Palace ruins from the invading Slavs in the 7th century, they could not live in the cellars because they were too damp (being below sea level). Instead they threw their rubbish there, which eventually filled the cellars and preserved the layout of the above-ground part of the palace. When the cellars were discovered and excavated in the 20th century, they were a substantial archaeological find. We visited some parts of the cavernous cellars that are now open as a museum.
We emerged from the cellars into the Peristyle, the center of the Palace, which is a square surrounded by monumental columns and arches. The St. Dominus Cathedral and bell tower stand on the east side of the square; an Egyptian sphinx sits under an arch in front of the Cathedral. The Cathedral was originally Diocletian’s mausoleum; it was converted into a church after the Fall of Rome. We made a quick detour to an open courtyard next to the Cathedral to see the remains of Roman mosaic tile floors.
We climbed up to the Prothyrum balcony overlooking the square, where Diocletian would receive the obeisance of his subjects. Behind the Prothyrum is the Vestibul, which was the entrance into Diocletian’s personal living quarters. Features of the Vesitbul include four big niches, which once held statues of the four rulers (tetrarchs) of the Roman Empire after Diocletian’s retirement. A dome once covered the hole in the ceiling, which was originally covered with frescoes and mosaics.
Our guide was very informative but somewhat repetitive as she kept talking about Diocletian’s persecution of the early Christians and how the tables were turned when his mausoleum was converted into a church that was named for a bishop whom he had martyred. John and I finally got tired of standing in one spot listening to history we already knew, so we went off on our own to explore using the walking tour I had printed out from the internet (visitsplit.com/clients/1/downloads/5rjbi3ly7b4fo5m.pdf?lang=en).
We headed down the street opposite the Cathedral that leads to the Temple of Jupiter, now the Cathedral's Baptistery; there is a headless sphinx at its entrance. A narrow lane next to the Temple, Pusti Me Proc (Let Me Pass), is alleged to be the narrowest street in the world.
Returning to the Peristyle, we walked to the Silver Gate and exited to have a look at the well-preserved eastern wall of the Palace. From here, we walked along several narrow streets to return to the main north-south street through the Palace; here we turned north to reach the Golden Gate. This gate was the main entrance to the Palace and was heavily fortified and decorated.
Continuing around the streets on the north and west sides of the Palace, we passed several churches built on the walls in former guardhouses. When we reached the western gate of the Palace, the Iron Gate, we walked through it and out into People’s Square. From there, we had a good look up at the magnificent 14th-century 24-hour clock. Satisfied that we had seen the main sights of the Palace, we retraced our steps down through the cellars and back to the ship.
Our ship was docked at Zadar's new port at Gazenica, which is quite a distance from the Old Town. We would have to take a bus there later this afternoon for our walking tour. The ship proved a shuttle for those who wished to explore on their own.
This morning we got a good workout on the 5-hour “Paklenica National Park Hike.” This tour is rated demanding and should only be attempted by those who get regular exercise and have no mobility issues. Although this would vary according to the stamina of each tour group, our hike covered a total of 4.2 miles. It started at about 430 feet elevation and climbed quickly (in less than 0.5 mile) to 900 feet; then it dropped before rising to about 1,050 feet.
The beautiful Paklenica National Park (www.np-paklenica.hr/en/) covers almost 40 square miles of rugged mountain peaks and picturesque canyons. There are two entrances at the mouth of two spectacular gorges: Velika Paklenica Canyon and Mala Paklenica Canyon. Our destination was the more developed Velika Paklenica, but we could see the wilder Mala Paklenica in the distance as we drove along. Right at the entrance of the park are some traditional stone buildings, typical of this region.
We had two guides for the hike, one of whom was an extra in GOT playing a slave liberated by Daenerys. They distributed water bottles and sack lunches before we headed off up the canyon along the dry Velika Paklenica stream. The canyon is one of the most popular mountaineering spots in Croatia and we passed several climbers making their way up the steep walls. Five of our group of 13 gave out around the first mile, but the rest of us made the full hike. We got farther than the turnoffs to Anića Kuka peak (over 984 ft or 300 m) and the Manita Peć show cave, but John and I were somewhat disappointed that we did not make it all the way to the Lugarnica Foresters House (2.5 miles or 4 km from the parking lot). However, there was only so much that we could do in the limited time we had and the spectacular scenery did not disappoint.
Midway through the hike, we descended to the stream, which now had some water in it and some small cascades, to enjoy our sack lunch of a salami sandwich and a nectarine. We could each descend the trail at our own pace, so John and I got back to the starting point with time to visit the Visitor Center, “Underground Secrets of Paklenica.” Those underground bunkers were built in the early 1950s as a place for the dictator Tito to hide out in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. It was really great to stretch our legs and have a couple of hours outside in the fresh air without the masks!
This afternoon we did yet another walking tour of an old walled city. John had made a list of the major sights and I was able to pick up a decent map (ontheworldmap.com/croatia/city/zadar/zadar-tourist-map-max.jpg) of the Old Town at the cruise terminal this morning, so we could duck out again if we got another guide who droned on. However, this guide was really good and kept moving; she was determined to tell us everything about Zadar!
The included 2.5-hour “Walking Tour of Zadar” is rated moderate and required 2.1 miles of walking. The Old Town is on a peninsula, with the main portion of the remaining walls stretching along the north side. The bus skirted those, passing the Sea Gate, which contains part of a Roman arch and is adorned with a relief of St. Mark's lion on the side facing the sea.
We were dropped off at the tip of the peninsula, near two modern art installations. The “Greeting to the Sun” is a circular array of solar panels, 72 feet in diameter. The movement of people on the panels during the day is reproduced in a light display at night. The other installation is musical. Water and wind enter holes in the bottom steps of the 230-foot long “Sea Organ.” The sounds enter resonating chambers under the steps and emerge through holes in the top steps.
We continued along the Riva, turning inland at the remains of the Roman Forum. Built between the 1st century BC and the 3rd century AD, this area was a central market and public area. On the east side are the foundations of shops and on the west side are the remains of the Capitolium, which was an important temple consecrated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. The remains of altars, with reliefs of mythical figures, are found in this area and also a Corinthian column that was repurposed in the Middle Ages as the city’s Pillar of Shame. The north end of the Forum is dominated by the cylindrical Church of St. Donatus, one of the best-preserved pre-Romanesque churches in the world. The church was deconsecrated over 200 years ago and now hosts concerts and recitals.
We walked past St. Elias's Church, Zadar’s Orthodox church, to the Romanesque Cathedral of St. Anastasia. The relief over the main entrance depicts the Virgin and Child flanked by two of the city’s four patron saints: St. Chrysogonus and St. Anastasia. Inside, we viewed St. Anastasia’s stone sarcophagus, the impressive wood-carved choir, and two rose windows: the lower one in Romanesque style and the upper one in Gothic style. The free standing bell tower dates from the 15th century.
Circling back to the Benedictine Convent of St. Mary, we visited the Permanent Exhibition of Religious Art, popularly called the Gold and Silver of Zadar. This a glittering collection of chalices, crucifixes, tapestries, and reliquaries, which date from the 8th to the 18th centuries (no photos allowed).
We continued walking through the town and at one spot could see the remains of the three successive walls—Roman, medieval, Venetian—built to protect the city. We finally reached the most important and impressive of the city's four remaining gates: the Land Gate. This imposing structure resembles a classical triumphal arch with three entrances. Decorations include reliefs of St. Chrysogonus on horseback and the winged lion of St. Mark. The gate was formerly entered via a drawbridge above the moat; the moat is now a small-boat harbor. Nearby sights include the five-sided Captain’s Tower, a Corinthian column relocated from the Forum, and the Five Wells Square. The square gets its name from the five ornamental wellheads of a large underground drinking water cistern, built by the Venetians in the 16th century to help the city withstand Turkish sieges.
We ended our tour by walking back to the waterfront along the main east-west street. This street passes the orange and white Church of St. Simeon, another of the city’s patron saints (the fourth is St. Zoilo), where his remains are housed in a silver casket. Also on this route are two late Renaissance style buildings: the City Sentinel, with a large central clock tower, and the City Lodge, the former courthouse. As we exited the city, we passed a small park near Three Wells Square, the site of the Church of Our Lady of Health. Nearby is the Small Arsenal, part of Zadar’s medieval fortress. We got back to the ship at exactly the all aboard time.
We started off the day with the 1.75-hour included “Šibenik Promenade” tour, which was rated moderate and included about 1.9 miles of walking. John had printed out a map of the Old Town (ontheworldmap.com/croatia/city/sibenik/sibenik-tourist-map.jpg), but frankly it is so small that it would be difficult to get lost. From the ship, we walked along the Promenade to the Old City; there were swans in the harbor. We turned inland at Grasdski Park, passing the Church and Monastery of St. Francis. The focal point of the park is a modern statue of the founder of the city, Croatian King Petar Krešimir IV. We then passed through Roberto de Visiani park with a fountain dedicated to that Croatian botanist. From this park, we had views of two of the city’s three hilltop fortresses and the Cathedral’s bell tower.
Šibenik was once a walled city, but the walls were eventually demolished and used for building materials. Along one side of the square is the public library, which incorporates part of a buttressed 16th-century bastion. This section of wall contains a relief of St. Michael the Archangel (one of the city’s patron saints) slaying a dragon.
The guide took us along Ul. Zagrebačka to a colorful directional signpost advertising the Croatian Travel Festival, which is held annually in Šibenik. Down one side street, we could glimpse the Church of the Holy Spirit (Crkva sv. Duh), with a beautiful stone facade featuring a stunning Baroque-style rosette. We continued on to the Church of St. John the Baptist, which has a picturesque exterior staircase leading to an upper story. The relief above the side doorway shows St. John being venerated by monks.
In order to reduce the need to climb stairs on the way to the Cathedral, we took a side street to Trg Palih Šibenskih Boraca (Square of Fallen Šibenik Fighters). At the square, our guide pointed out one of the Nikola Tesla street lamps; in 1895, Šibenik became the first city in the world to have electric street lighting using Tesla’s alternating current. Nearby are two stone dog bowls built into the base of buildings; one is carved with “Amor d. Cani” (love of dogs). People today still leave food and water in these bowls for the local dogs. Although several of our guides mentioned the famous Dalmatians, we did not see even one of those dogs on any of the tours.
Now on Ul. Kralja Tomislava, we passed the Gothic Church of St. Barbara, with its unusual 24-hour clock and statue of St. Nicholas; the church is now a small museum. We finally reached Trg Republice (Republic Square), with the City Loggia and the Šibenik Cathedral. A statue of the Cathedral’s builder, Juraj Damatinac (George the Dalmatian), stands in the square.
There are a lot of churches in Šibenik, but the main one is the Renaissance Cathedral of St. James. The Cathedral is built entirely of stone with no mortar and has extensive elaborate carvings. The bronze doors depict scenes from the Old Testament and have shrapnel holes from the War of Croatian Independence. Above the entry is a statue of St. Michael slaying the Devil; on either side of the doors are carvings of Adam and Eve trying to cover themselves with fig leaves. Along the exterior of the apse are 71 realistic carved heads—possibly portraits of actual 15th-century townspeople.
The baptistery inside the church looks small but can hold 40 people because of its clever design. One of Damatinac’s favorite motifs was leaves and there are clusters of them at about shoulder height on each column in the baptistery. They were once a kind of musical instrument—each leaf sounded a different note when tapped. Over the years, the leaves have been so damaged that this is no longer true.
At the end of the tour, we had free time and could return to the ship on our own. We decided to climb about 100 feet up the stairs to the left of the Loggia and visit one of the town’s three hilltop forts, Fort St. Michael. Fortunately the Fort accepted credit cards. Admission included an audio guide that was not the best, but there were some helpful descriptive panels scattered about. As usual, we mainly came for the great views over the town and of the St. Anthony Channel out to the sea. It was not hard to find the way back to the ship; we simply had to climb down to Republic Square and follow the waterfront back to the dock.
In the afternoon, we took the 3.5-hour tour to “The Krka Waterfalls & Town of Skradin.” This tour is rated moderate, with about 2.1 miles of walking and a climb at the end of about 200 feet in 0.5 mile. The tour to the Krka Waterfalls National Park (www.np-krka.hr/en/) was offered from several ports, but this one involved the shortest bus ride. The park covers almost 27,000 acres, so we could only see one section: the Skradinski Buk waterfalls.
This part of the park features a 1.6 mile circuit of boardwalks and paths (www.np-krka.hr/upload/stranice/2014/08/2014-08-01/45/skradinskibukzabrana2.pdf) around a series of 17 small falls over travertine terraces. At their widest point, the cascades span 328 feet across, tumbling a total of 150 feet along a 1,312-foot stretch of the Krka River. A number of people in our group had to remain at the overlooks near the starting point because making the circuit requires climbing up 200 steps at the end. We had the choice of sticking with the rest of the group or going it alone, so we set off by ourselves.
The topography is very interesting—the river is quite wide and shallow as it spreads out over the terraces. The are a number of overlooks to get good views and there is a long footbridge in front of the widest section of the falls. The park was very crowded, so it took time to wait for all the selfies before getting our chance for a good look. Our guide had told us earlier that it used to be even more crowded before swimming in the falls and pools was forbidden. Although the falls individually are not very high, the overall effect is very attractive and we were glad we had the opportunity to visit this popular sight.
[Note: We really didn’t pay any attention to the Jaruga Hydroelectric Power Plant during our visit. However, it was built to Tesla’s design and is the second oldest hydroelectric power plant in the world. It was the source of the electricity for Šibenik’s 1895 street lights.]
After visiting the national park, we made a totally unnecessary stop in the tiny village of Skradin. There is a pretty marina, a clock tower, and the Baroque Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which has an 18th-century pipe organ. For some inexplicable reason, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is alleged to have named this as his favorite vacation spot.
This morning the 3-hour tour of “Prehistoric Ggantija” basically took us all over the island, viewing many churches and fortifications along the way. All roads go through the capital, Victoria, so we kept passing through that city on the way to each sight. First we went to view the steep limestone cliffs in the resort town of Xlendi, on the southwest side of the island. Xlendi Bay has a sandy beach and is a popular swimming, snorkeling, and diving spot. We could also view the Xlendi Tower, a small watchtower built by the Knights Hospitaller that dates to 1650; it is the oldest of the four surviving watchtowers on Gozo. Notice I said view—we were not allowed off the bus at any of the photo stops except the last one.
As we drove around to the next photo stop, we passed an aqueduct from the British period and some quarries for the honey-colored coralline limestone, which is seen throughout the country. Fungus Island, in Dwejra Bay, was important for the Knights of Malta due to a sought-after medicinal plant that only grows there. Nearby is the Inland Sea, a saltwater lagoon linked to the Mediterranean through a narrow natural arch. The lagoon was probably formed from a limestone sea cave when its roof collapsed; it is a popular site for diving and boat tours. Nearby is another of the surviving coastal watchtowers, the Dwejra Tower. Then it was back through Victoria and on to Xagħra, with the guide pointing out some sights along the way, such as the Xagħra
Parish Church and the Ta’ Kola Windmill.
Eventually, we got to the actual focus of this tour—the Ggantija Temple Complex (www.visitmalta.com/en/a/info/ggantijatemples/) in Xagħra. This tour was rated moderate, although there is not much walking and it is mostly downhill: enter through the Interpretation Center and exit through the gift ship. The Interpretation Center was the most crowded tourist spot we visited on any of our tours. It was packed with people (fortunately almost all wearing masks) as the tour guides jockeyed for position to enlighten us about the history of the temples and the various artifacts on display.
Finally we got to go outside and see the temples themselves. These megalithic temples are between 5,000 and 6,000 years old—older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids—and are thought to be the oldest freestanding structures in the world. The site contains the ruins of two temples enclosed by a perimeter wall; here we could not only walk around the perimeter wall, but also enter the temples. Each temple contains five apses connected by a central corridor. They are constructed from massive coralline limestone blocks, with some exceeding 15 feet in length and weighing over 50 tons. The size of the blocks gave rise to the legend that the site was built by a race of giants (ġganti).These are incredibly impressive ruins!
Before returning to the ship, we made a brief stop at Belvedere Point (Belle Vedere, near Qala), about a mile above the harbor. We were permitted to exit the bus for panoramic views of our ship anchored in Mgarr Bay and of the islands of Comino and Malta beyond.
In the afternoon, we did a 3-hour walking tour of “Gozo’s Citadel & Victoria.” This moderate tour required 1.4 miles of walking and the elevation change from the bus drop-off to the top of Citadel was about 110 feet over 2/3 of a mile. There is a small elevator at the entrance of the Citadel, but it does not go all the way to the top of the ramparts.
The bus dropped us off on the west side of the lower town, near the Don Bosco Oratory. We walked along the narrow winding streets of the lower town to St. George’s Square, where we visited the Baroque St. George's Basilica. This church is known as the "Marble Basilica," because the interior is covered with marble inlays and columns. The twin towers each have a clock face: one displays the hour and the other the minutes.
From here, we walked to Independence Square, just outside the Citadel. This is the main square and there were the usual vendors selling souvenirs and local products, such as cookies, fruit preserves, and wine. Our guide pointed out jars of Maltese dried cheese (gbejniet). This is made by salting the cheese, air drying it, soaking it in vinegar, and finally storing it in a vinegar/olive oil mixture; the cheese ends up looking like mottled brown rocks.
Next we climbed to the Citadel (Cittadella), sitting high on a promontory at the historic center of Victoria. The Citadel was sacked by the Ottoman Turks in 1551, but the Knights Hospitaller rebuilt the fortifications and the Citadel became a refuge for the local population from marauding bands of raiders. Eventually, the houses fell into ruins and only the outline of their walls remains; now only a few families live inside the Citadel. Restoration of the Citadel began in 2008 and is ongoing. The award-winning Visitors’ Center, which we did not visit, houses an audiovisual presentation about the history of the site. We didn’t visit the Baroque Cathedral of the Assumption either. The Cathedral does not have a dome, but there is a trompe l'oeil painting on the ceiling above the nave that simulates one.
We climbed higher to one of the bastions and walked along sections of the ramparts. As usual, we enjoyed getting to the higher levels of the fortifications for terrific views—we could see to all sides of the island, dotted with the domes and bell towers of the many parish churches, and to the neighboring islands of Comino and Malta. There are also a number of museums in the Citadel, but we did not visit any of those.
Gozo has a strong music tradition and there are music festivals held throughout the year. Victoria even has two opera houses, Astra and Aurora, which are owned by rival band clubs. Both of these opera houses are on the same street and we passed the Astra on our way to the Aurora. We paused at the Aurora’s bar for some refreshment: bottled water, Pepsi, or Kinnie. Kinnie is a brownish, tart soft drink made from bitter oranges and wormwood; it is Malta's favorite non-alcoholic beverage. It doesn’t taste any worse than Pepsi. From here, we walked back through the shade of the Rundle Gardens to reboard the bus.