Cruising the Mediterranean: Fortifications & Volcanoes

The Placa, Dubrovnik’s main pedestrian promenade

Through a series of fortunate events, I ended up sailing on a Royal Caribbean cruise a couple weeks ago, departing from Venice with stops in the port cities of Dubrovnik, Croatia; Kusadasi, Turkey; Santorini and Corfu, Greece. It was the first cruise I’d ever been on, and thus, it was the worst (and best) cruise of my life. The sunsets were beautiful, the lox & bagels delicious (my first since leaving the US), and the ship rocked at a frequency of 1/10 hz for only one night (the frequency most prone to causing seasickness). The week was so fabulous, I almost stopped pining for internet access.

Dubrovnik was the first stop on the itinerary, a prominent seaport at the southern end of Croatia. Nicknamed the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” the city-state managed to remain autonomous and thrive while fending off the interests of the Ottoman and Venetian empires. In the end though, Napoleon’s armies conquered Dubrovnik and it eventually became part of Croatia. Today, you can see the historical influences in the city’s grand Venetian palaces, marble squares and Baroque churches. The Old Town portion of the city is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The best way to get an overview of Dubrovnik’s offerings is to walk the city walls, or gradske zidine. You will pass through the walls at Pila Gate, where a wooden drawbridge spans a dry moat. Grab a ticket at the nearby tourism office (admission is 70 kuna, or €10) and climb up the stairs to walk over the 1,940 meters of walls. The walls were constructed mostly between the 12th and 17th centuries, and are considered to be one of the greatest fortification systems of the Middle Ages, having never been breached by an invading army in that period. They reach a height of about 25 meters and were once armed with 120 cannons.

Better yet, you will have a fine view of the sea from the walls. The azure waters of the Adriatic are stunning, and the rocky cliffs are reminiscent of Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coast. As you look out, you will see all manner of sea kayaks, rickety fishing boats and colossal cruise ships. Don’t forget to duck your head into one of the many guard towers that line the walls.

Santorini is considered to be one of the most beautiful of the Greek islands, and is famed for its capital of Fira, located on a cliff 270 m above sea level. To get there, you can either take the cable car, climb the 600+ steps or ride a donkey to the top. Be warned that on a hot summer day, the donkeys can smell quite pungent. Once there, you will be treated to the sight of whitewashed homes, sunny terraces and bottles of ouzo.

The island’s geological origins are even more interesting, as modern Santorini is the remains of a volcano that erupted and blew off its top in about 1450 BC. The Minoan eruption, as it is known, left a large water-filled caldera and produced a tsunami estimated to be 250 m high which destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete. This eruption may have been the origin for the legend of Atlantis. The area is still volcanically active today, with the last small eruption taking place in 1950.

We took a ferry to Nea Kameni, the deserted island in the center of the Santorini lagoon. You can climb the gravel paths to the top of the volcanic crater, about 130 m above sea level. Be sure to bring comfortable walking shoes since the path is very rocky and somewhat steep at times. The landscape here is filled with hardened lava and nose-wrinkling sulfur vents, set against the backdrop of the brilliant Mediterranean Sea. The island itself is barren and supports virtually no plant life. If it hadn’t been so hot, it might have been like walking on the moon. At the summit, you can walk around the caldera rim and cautiously press your hands against the steam vents.

Afterwards, we took a detour to Palaia Kameni, where you can take a dip in the natural sulfur hot springs. Although the water looks unappealingly muddy, it is actually quite refreshing to bathe in the 33 C waters. Supposedly the sulfur and minerals will take ten years off your skin! The waters are too shallow for boats to dock, so you have to jump from the boat and swim about 50 m in the open sea to get to the springs. Also, as you approach the shore, there are a lot of hidden rocky shoals. But don’t worry, if you cut yourself like I did, the mineral waters will soothe your scrapes soon enough.

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