Italy Cruise: Hidden Treasures from Florence to Venice, Aug 19-30, 2019

Italy Cruise: Hidden Treasures from Florence to Venice, Aug 19-30, 2019
August 2019

Sunday, August 18: Arrive Florence Italy

We all converged on the city of Florence from distant reaches of the planet for the same reason: to embark on an expedition to experience the culture, history, and landscapes of Italy. With land borders only in the north (shared with France, Austria, Slovenia, and Switzerland), Italy's extensive coastline is perfectly suited for exploring by ship; and we look forward to doing just that on-board the beautiful MS Le Bougainville.

We met at the beautiful Westin Excelsior Hotel, situated on Piazza Ognissanti, perched right on the north bank of the Arno River, which dissects the city of Florence. After settling into our rooms, we wandered the bustling streets, which were lined by leather shops and wine bars. Some of us walked further afield to admire the river from Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone arch bridge noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common. The present tenants are jewellers and art dealers, though originally the spaces were occupied by butchers.

In the evening, we all met for a welcome cocktail party, during which we mingled over champagne and canapés, and met some of the A&K expedition team members who would be with us throughout our voyage. After Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira went over the logistics for our time here in Florence, we headed off to watch the sunset and feast on Tuscan delights at one of the many quaint sidewalk cafes. We then headed off to bed in anticipation of our first day of exploration of the magnificent city of Florence.

Monday, August 19: Heart of the Renaissance 

We awoke well-rested as the morning sunlight reflected off the earth-tone buildings that line the placid Arno River. After a relaxing breakfast, we gathered our headsets and our belongings for the day and set out on various tours to explore Florence.

Some of us drove out into the countryside to go on an expedition with two truffle hunters and their wonderful dogs. After a brief introduction to these mysterious fruiting bodies of subterranean fungi (translation: mushrooms), we headed out into the field to follow the dogs as they followed their incredible noses. We wandered through a beautiful forest as the dogs successfully detected and unearthed a number of truffles.

We then gathered together for a delicious lunch consisting of everything truffle; including truffle honey, truffle on eggs, truffle pasta, and even an ice-cream desert with truffle. The only parts of the meal that were without truffle were probably the wine and the ice cubes.

Others of us drove up a beautiful hillside overlooking the city of Florence, with all its towers and steeples visible below us. There we visited Church of San Miniato al Monte, often described as one of the finest Romanesque structures in Tuscany. From there, we strolled down to a coffee shop where we snacked on delicious pastries.

Back in the city, we visited the Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral), the city's most iconic landmark. We admired the pink, green and white marble façade before visiting the museum where we saw Michelangelo’s stunning La Pietà, sculpted when he was almost 80. After a delicious lunch including prosciutto and melon, we admired the bronze statues around Piazza Della Signoria.

Others visited the historic Officina del Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, a pharmacy dating back to the Dominican friars of 1221. We admired its fragrances, dried botanicals, alcoholic elixirs, and medicines made from plants. From there, we visited Piazza Strosi before relaxing at a café over an espresso. We then explored Palazzo Vecchio, which for a time served as the Medici family’s primary residence.

After freshening up back at the hotel, we drove out through vineyards and olive groves to the spectacular Artimino Villa, perched high on a hilltop out in the Tuscan countryside. There we mingled out on the grounds over cocktails, watching an impressive flag-throwing performance as the sun began to set. Inside the expansive villa, we feasted on a delicious gala dinner, topped off by a recital performed by three tenors from the Florence Opera. It was the perfect finale to a very enjoyable day.

Tuesday, August 20: Tuscan Treasures

This morning after breakfast, we checked out of our beautiful Florence hotel, on its little square on the Arno River, and set out for a day of exploration of Tuscany. Some of us chose to spend the day immersed in the art of Florence, starting our day at the Uffizi Gallery, home to an assembly of masterpieces including paintings dating back to the Middle Ages through the early 18th century. Located adjacent to Piazza della Signoria in the historic centre of Florence, Uffizi is one of the largest, best-known, and most-visited museums in the world. At Uffizi, we admired such classic artworks as Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Caravaggio's Medusa.

We then visited Galleria dell’Accademia, which was founded in 1563 as the first school established in Europe specifically to teach drawing, painting, and sculpture. Best known as the home of Michelangelo's sculpture David, it also houses a large collection of paintings by Florentine artists, mostly from the period 1300–1600.

Others of us headed off to the charming city of Lucca, famous for its intact Renaissance-era city walls. Initially built as a defensive rampart, the walls now function as a pedestrian and bicycle promenade, also very popular with picnickers. We strolled the narrow cobblestone streets, including Via Fillungo with its mix of shoe stores and food boutiques, the latter of which filled the air with the delicious aromas of coffee, truffle, and pesto.

We admired Saint Michael's Church, a Roman Catholic basilica church built over an ancient Roman forum. We also wandered through Piazza Anfiteatro, an urban square that follows the elliptical shape of the former second century Roman Amphitheater. At its peak, the theatre had 18 rows of seats and housed 10,000 spectators; it's now lined with outdoor cafés spilling out into the piazza.

Some of us opted to visit the city of Pisa, home to the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. We took a trolley ride to the pedestrian historic centre, where we visited the Square of Miracles, recognized as an important centre of European medieval art and one of the finest architectural complexes in the world. There we visited the Cathedral, and some of us made the trip to the top of the Leaning Tower. The tower began to lean even during its construction in the 12th century, due to the soft ground which could not properly support the structure's weight.

Late in the afternoon, we all arrived at the dock from our various excursions and were warmly greeted aboard Le Bougainville by the ship’s crew. We got ourselves settled in onboard, before gathering in the theatre for a safety briefing. Before dinner, Cruise Director Paul Carter gave us an overview of the ship, and the A&K lecturers told stories about themselves and their passion for this fascinating part of the world.

Following a relaxing dinner on our new home-away-from-home, some of us gathered in the main lounge for a cocktail, while others headed off to bed for a good night’s sleep.

Wednesday, August 21: Mountains French Isle

This morning at sunrise, Le Bougainville pulled alongside the pier in the port city of Bastia, on the French island of Corsica. The impressive mountainous interior of the island was visible off the port side of the ship, looming high above the city.

Getting an early start to beat the heat, some of us drove to the top of the mountain looming above Bastia. From this spectacular rocky vantage point, we looked out over the Mediterranean Sea on one side of the island, and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the other. We hiked through maquis, the low Mediterranean scrub dominated by heaths and arbutus, with a sprinkling of wild oregano, lavender, and other wonderfully perfumed herbs. Further along, we reached a stone house used centuries ago during the process of transferring snow from the high mountains down to the port of Bastia to make ice.

The rest of us set off to explore Bastia itself, starting in the lower area near what is called the new port (or "port de commerce"). In the main square, we admired the surrounding architecture as swifts swarmed back and forth overhead. One of the statues in the square showed a mother sending her young son off to war. During both World Wars, this was, unfortunately, a common phenomenon; and generations of Corsicans were lost, upending what was then a largely agricultural society.

We wandered the narrow streets, exploring several beautiful churches along the way. At the central market square, we learned about the importance of Corsica's endemic wildflowers, found nowhere else in the world, in the production of the island's unique honey. We then passed through the city's old port (or "Vieux Port"), full of fishing boats and pleasure boats, and lined with restaurants and cafes.

Walking uphill, we arrived at the walls of the Citadel, constructed in the 15th century by Genoese governors to protect the land (and people) below. Inside we encountered a maze of narrow, winding alleyways. In a large church, we enjoyed a magical performance of traditional Corsican polyphonic singing. We got chills down our spines as the beautiful tones reverberated off the high domed ceiling.

Following the performance, we explored the Citadel's museum before heading to the roof for an al-fresco lunch with delicious local wine and small plates. The view down over the old and new ports was stunning. Afterward, many of us sampled the renowned local Cap Corse aperitif at the Mattei shop. The drink gets its name from Louis Napoleon Mattei who in 1872 established this company at the base of the Cap Corse peninsula.

Back on the ship, we watched a spectacular sunset on the back deck during Captain Thomas McCandless' welcome aboard cocktail party, where we mingled over champagne and were introduced to some of the ship’s officers. This was followed by a festive dinner and a nightcap in the bar.

Thursday, August 22: The Eternal City

Early this morning, Captain Thomas McCandless maneuvered Le Bougainville into the port of Civitavecchia. After a hearty breakfast, we boarded coaches for the trip into Rome, in the company of our excellent local guides for the day.

Upon arrival, we fanned out to see various aspects of this extremely culture-rich city. Those of us wanting an intimate experience crossed the Tiber river to a part of the city called the Trastevere (translation: "across the Tiber") district.  We strolled through the historic cobbled streets on our way to lunch at a wonderful restaurant where the proprietor stuffed us full of pasta before proudly showing us photographs of celebrities who had visited his restaurant over the past 50 years, including a young Muhammad Ali.

Suitably fortified, we visited one of the best-kept secrets of Rome, the Villa Farnesina. Completed in 1510 for Agostino Chigi, treasurer to Pope Julius II, every surface is painted with frescoes by Raphael, Michelangelo, and other Renaissance masters. The ceiling featured extravagant allegorical scenes, and, by the end of our visit, we had sore necks from looking up.

Others of us had a culinary focus for the day and made our first stop at Campo di Fiori market, where we explored stalls featuring local produce and tiny shops proudly selling cured meats, baked goods, liqueurs, and oils. After some sampling, we made our way to a cooking school where we donned aprons and began making lunch preparations.

The chefs shared secrets and tips to create delicious spinach cavatelli; and a simple but flavourful sauce of red onions, garlic, and fresh cherry tomatoes topped with a parmesan crisp. Once all was ready, we toasted our efforts with a refreshingly chilled Prosecco and settled in to enjoy the fruits of our labour.

Others went on a walking tour that focused on some of Rome's most important squares and fountains. At Piazza Navonna, we admired the Fountain of the Four Rivers (from 1651) with its Egyptian-styled obelisk at the top. We then visited the Pantheon, one of the best-preserved of all Ancient Roman buildings. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon's dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome.

Before lunch at a cool and quiet restaurant where the pizza and pasta were equally delicious, we stopped at the largest Baroque fountain in Rome, Trevi Fountain. This fountain marks the endpoint of one of the aqueducts that supplied water to ancient Rome. Our final stop was Palazzo Colonna, a palatial block of buildings that have belonged to the prominent Colonna family for over twenty generations. 

Others of us passed under the gaze of marbled statues as we made our first steps into Vatican City, the independent city-state surrounded by the city of Rome. Within these walls, we toured the religious and cultural sites of the Vatican museum, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, featuring some of the world's most famous artworks. 

We also visited the Jewish ghetto, the oldest Jewish community in all of Europe. Though currently, a lovely enclave of restaurants, churches, synagogues & shops, this neighbourhood witnessed one of the most heart-wrenching episodes of Nazi occupation during WWII. We walked by the brass cobblestones, engraved with the memorials of these victims of the Holocaust, a haunting reminder of this very dark time in history.

Our final stop was the ruins of the theatre of Marcellus, an ancient open-air theatre built in the late years of the Roman Republic, where locals & visitors could gather to watch various performances of song & dance. 

Friday, August 23: Afternoon at Sea

We awoke to open ocean in all directions this morning, with calm conditions and sunny skies the order of the day. Some of us were up early for a stretching class up on the top deck, while others took the liberty of having a bit of a lie-in after our busy day in Rome yesterday.

Following a coffee out on the deck and a leisurely breakfast, we jointed Bishop Richard Chartres in the theatre for his presentation, "Around Italy: An Aperitif". Italy, as we know it, was only established in 1871. Bishop Chartres discussed some of the happenings that influenced its establishment, as well as how the discovery of the new world influenced the thinking and mindset of the people.

After some time on deck scanning the sea surface for dolphins, we then returned to the theatre for Simon Rickard's talk, "Black diamonds: All about the enigmatic truffle". Simon explained the biology of this mysterious group of mushrooms, their propensity for growing around the roots of various tree species, and how the dispersal of the next generation is accomplished by attracting animals that eat the fungus.

Before lunch, the solo travellers among us gathered for a get together with some of the expedition staff up in the Observation Bar. And after lunch, some of us met with photo coach Richard Harker to learn more about what our cameras (and smartphones) can do for us.

During the mid-afternoon, we gathered out on the deck with champagne for our approach to the Aeolian Islands and, more specifically, the island of Stromboli. One of the world's most active volcanoes, we could see eruptions every few minutes, with plumes of smoke rising above what is called Sciara del Fuoco, or “the stream of fire.” Occasionally rocks tumbled down the steep volcanic scree slope, sending up clouds of fine ash as they bounced down towards the sea.

Stromboli is said to have been the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien's Mount Doom, the continuously erupting volcano in Middle Earth where Frodo is sent to destroy the ring. As Le Bougainville passed closely along the flank of the volcano, we could hear loud and powerful bellows from the core of the mountain, and suddenly Tolkien's inspiration seemed perfectly fitting.

During the late afternoon, Luca Zavagno gathered us back in the theatre for the final enrichment lecture of the day, "The "Sign of Three': Sicily between the Byzantines, the Arabs, and the Normans". Luca spoke about how Sicily has long been a crossroads of civilizations, and therefore a hotspot of conflict; but also, a place where the art, architecture, and language all show influences from these various rich cultures

After a briefing about tomorrow's activities from Suzana, we had an early dinner before boarding tenders ashore for the island of Lipari, the largest of the Aeolian Islands. We went ashore in the town of the same name, explored the shopping streets, or wandered up to the citadel, which was very peaceful and beautifully lit at night. As tomorrow is the Festival of the Patron Saint Bartholomew, the town was alive with families out enjoying the beautiful summer evening.

The lights of Le Bougainville were warm and welcoming as we arrived back by tender at the marina of our lovely ship.

Saturday, August 24: Palermo

This morning we arrived in Palermo, the capital city of the island of Sicily, located on the island's northwest coast. Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, is separated by a stretch of only 1.9 miles of water (the Sea of Messina) from mainland Italy. We awoke with anticipation of our exploration of the island over the next two days.

Some of us set off into the Sicilian countryside, passing impressive limestone outcrops in the mountains, and olive groves and vineyards in the valleys. We stopped at small café overlooking the stunning coastline below and sipped our espressos with views of the Tyrhennian Sea stretching out before us. 

Further up the mountain, we arrived at the historic town of Erice, a fairy-tale hilltop town of narrow cobblestone streets, wrought-iron balconies, and shops specializing in ceramic tiles and woven rugs. We sipped an Aperol spritz at a café or did some shopping before regathering at a famous pastry shop owned and operated by a woman named Maria Grammatico. Maria greeted us there and shared some delicious pastries with us, which we washed down with a local fortified wine called Marsala. After lunch in the company of two very sleepy dogs, we explored the archaeological site of Segesta, with its magnificent Doric temple built around 420 BCE.

Others spent the day with Duchess Tomasi, whose father-in-law was the world-famous author of the novel, The Leopard. She hosted us for the most wonderful authentic Sicilian cooking experience at her fabulous 18th century Palazzo by the sea. She took us first to the market, shopping for ingredients with the help of two English students she is hosting for the summer. After gathering the last touches from her garden, we set off to make our lunch. Then we all sat down and were welcomed by white-clothed servers who presented the meal to us in a gorgeous setting. Many of us purchased mezzaluna herb-chopping knives for ourselves after having the chance to become well-practiced with one while helping to prepare this delicious lunch.

Some spent the day exploring the heart of the city of Palermo. We enjoyed a behind-the-scenes look at Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy, renowned for its perfect acoustics. It was the fourth-largest opera house in Europe at the time of its construction after those in London, Paris, and Vienna. From there we visited a local café where we sampled granita, a semi-frozen dessert made from sugar, water, and various flavourings. Served with a brioche, the granita was mixed with ingredients ranging from pistachio to lemon to coffee; and it proved to be the perfect refreshing snack on a Sicilian summer day.

We also visited La Martorana, a cathedral on Piazza Bellini, which is part of a diocese in Palermo that includes the Albanian communities here. The church is renowned for its spectacular interior, which is dominated by a series of 12th-century mosaics executed by Byzantine craftsmen. We admired the intricate artwork and took in the general grandeur of the place.

Following the tour, some of us explored Palermo on our own on foot, stopping at one of the many inviting restaurants for lunch.

Sunday, August 25: Taormina

Under a clear blue sky, 'Le Bougainville' dropped anchor just off of the resort town of Giardini Naxos. During the morning, the sky was dominated by the spectacular summit of Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano on the European continent, topping out at nearly 11,000 feet! This mountain, the tallest in Italy outside of the Alps, spewed out a constant stream of steam high above the rest of the landscape.  

Some of us boarded 4x4 vehicles to head up and explore the volcano itself. We stopped at a café with a sweeping vista, where bicyclists and motorcyclists took a break from their scenic ride on the volcano's lower slopes. From there we 'off-roaded' it up higher to do a walk on the lava flow set down during the 1991-1993 eruption, an eruption that lasted an incredible 473 days.

We then donned helmets and climbed down into an old lava tube, formed when lava cooled on the surface, but a stream of molten lava kept flowing underground. We hiked through birch forest up onto a cinder cone, when a torrential downpour arrived to greet us. A beautiful thunderstorm came through while we were at lunch as well. Once the power went out in our little wooden restaurant tucked in the pine forest, we celebrated our adventure by sipping a local amaro, between trips to the restroom to enjoy the warm air from the hand drier.

Others of us skirted the base of Mama Etna, as locals call her, en route to the handsome city of Catania. Walking along the wide boulevards, which were reconstructed after the catastrophic eruption of 1693, we saw magnificent examples of Sicilian baroque architecture, including the cathedral dedicated to Catania’s patron saint, Agatha.

Sitting at a cafe in the cathedral square, we sampled granitas and pastries made of Sicilian produce (almonds, pistachios, lemons, and wild strawberries), as well as Sicily’s famous ricotta-filled cannoli. Traveling well into the farmland beyond the city, we came to Il Biviere, a farm owned by an offshoot of the Borghese family. We were treated to lunch inside the family villa, which was filled with antiques and art, before strolling around the lush gardens to enjoy the collection of palms and 'Mediterranean climate' plants from around the world.

Some of us visited Taormina, perched high above the first Greek colony established in Southern Italy (Giardini Naxos, where our ship docked). Taormina is a city boasting more than two millennia of history. From the marble seats of its wonderful Greek-Roman Theatre, we admired the mesmerizing beauty of Mount Etna erupting in the distance, just as people have for several thousand years. We walked over the very same streets that the people of many civilizations have throughout history, admiring the Byzantine icon of the Virgin watching over one of the gates, as well as the Norman palaces and Aragonese churches.

In the evening, we donned our smart evening wear for a gala dinner in the garden of a stunning Sicilian villa called Castello Degli Schiavi. Live music accompanied our delicious dinner, as we admired the building and grounds that served as one of the set locations for the movie The Godfather. 

Monday, August 26: At Sea

We slept like logs last night, in anticipation of a relaxing day at sea as Captain Thomas McCandless manoeuvres 'Le Bougainville' around the heel of the "boot" of Italy. Some of us were motivated to get up for an early morning Pilates class out on the deck, while others determined their time was best spent along the ship's railing taking in vistas of the expansive Ionian Sea around us. 

Following a leisurely breakfast, we joined Rich Pagen in the theatre for the first enrichment lecture of the day, "Dwarf elephant herds and vigilant migrating birds: The land and sea realms of the Mediterranean". Rich shared some fascinating natural history stories from the region, including a bird of prey (Eleonora's falcon) that nests on islands during autumn migration, taking advantage of exhausted songbirds attempting to make the long journey south across the open water of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a fascinating look at how geography and biology have impacted the development of culture in the region.

After a break for a cup of tea, we returned to The Theatre for Lord Richard Chartres' talk, "Frederick II: Stupor Mundi". Lord Chartres focused his attention on Frederick II, a 12th century Emperor nicknamed the Stupor Mundi (the Wonder of the World). This nickname was not only because he was the legitimate heir of two royal dynasties (the Norman and the Hohenstaufen), but also for his ability to interact with different cultures (Arabs and Byzantines).

After sharing stories about our time in Sicily over lunch, some of us passed the afternoon with a book out on the deck, while others let the gently rolling sea rock us to sleep for a bit of a nap. Then Simon Rickard gathered us together for his presentation, "Grape, olive, fig, and lemon: The journeys of four of Italy's favourite plants". From the development of various citrus varieties by hybridizing existing species in different combinations to the explanation of the amazing (and unlikely) pollination relationship between figs and fig wasps, Simon gave a fascinating introduction to some fruits that have been central in Mediterranean culture. 

Following the lecture, we had to choose between two somewhat opposing activities: snacking at afternoon tea or joining an Aqua Fit class in the pool on the back deck. Either way, we made our way afterward to Richard Harker's photography lecture entitled, "What Italian artists teach us about composition". Using examples from classic paintings from the region, Richard spoke about some of the classic rules of composition, but also encouraged us to break those rules when we felt it was better to do so.

After a recap consisting of Luca Zavagno’s overview of the role played by Byzantine politics, culture and religion in Medieval Italy, and Rich Pagen's highlights from yesterday's rainstorm expedition up Mt. Etna, we enjoyed a delicious dinner on-board. This was followed by an amazing song and dance performance in The Theatre, called "Magic golden musicals". Following the show, we enjoyed a digestif in one of the bars before heading off to bed to rest up for our first stop on Italy's east coast tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 27: Manfredonia

This morning, the ship came alongside the dock in the port city of Manfredonia, from where we set off in various directions to explore this area around the spur of Italy's 'boot'. Some of us drove out through olive groves and native Mediterranean vegetation to reach Castel del Monte, a 13th-century citadel and castle situated on a hill. The site is protected as a World Heritage Site, and it appears on the Italian version of the one-cent Euro coin.

We boarded a public bus from the parking area for a very short 'get to know your neighbour' ride up to the castle grounds. We explored the interior, quickly recognizing that the fortress is an octagonal prism, with an octagonal tower at each corner. We were impressed by the distinct marble columns, coral and grey; as well as the advanced plumbing system, which used rainwater for the toilets and bathrooms of the fortress.

Others of us headed up the mountainside into Gargano National Park, starting our hikes from the Abbey of Santa Maria di Pulsano, founded in the late 6th century on the ruins of an ancient pagan temple. We hiked down a steep trail cut into the limestone rock, which had cables and handholds making the climb down much easier than it would have otherwise been. We reached the tiny hermitage of St. Nicholas, in a wide cave that opens to the east. Inside was a small stone altar, several large Greek crosses carved into the walls, and several beautiful but deteriorating frescos.

We also hiked along a wide track with spectacular views down into the eroded valley below us. In the company of a very friendly kitten, we watched wall lizards scatter across the limestone cliff, and came across an assortment of interesting insects ranging from perfectly camouflaged grasshoppers to orb-web spiders awaiting the arrival of their next meal into their carefully maintained web.

Others visited the beautiful Sanctuary of Monte Sant'Angelo, an important pilgrimage site since the early Middle Ages. After a 45-minute scenic drive through the countryside filled with thousands of olive trees, we arrived in the hilltop of Monte Sant'Angelo. A short walk through the gorgeous white-washed town brought us to the oldest shrine in Western Europe, dedicated to the archangel Michael. We joined a short mass in the cave-like chapel and then did a bit more of a walking tour before enjoying some free time, during which we bought local almonds and dried pasta.

Back on the ship, we enjoyed a relaxing lunch while Captain Thomas McCandless brought the ship close to the amazing limestone cliffs up the coast north of the city of Manfredonia. Uplifted by geologic forces and subsequently eroded by rain and the action of the sea, these sea cliffs are a whitish-grey colour, which contrasts beautifully with the greens of the shrubby vegetation.

We then joined Bishop Richard Chartres in the theatre for his presentation, "La Serenissima: Venice and her empire". Richard discussed the one-thousand years of history of the ‘Most Serene” Republic of Venice. Founded by refugees from Atilla’s invasions of northern Italy in the 4th century, La Serenissima was forced to surrender to Napoleon in 1797.

After a break, Luca Zavagno gathered us back in the theatre for his talk, "The Crusade that never was". Luca introduced the audience to a Medieval painting (The Flagellation of Piero della Francesca) that held the secret of a 15th century Crusade that never took place.

In the evening, we had a lively Q&A discussion at recap, followed by a wonderful dinner prepared by the galley team, led by Executive Chef Florent Delfortrie.

Wednesday, August 28: Ancona

Under early morning light, we lingered at the ship's railing with a cup of coffee watching our approach to the dock in Ancona, an important port city on the Adriatic coast.

Some of us embarked on a very pleasant one hour drive up the coast to the magnificent Villa Imperiale. Surrounded by a typical Italian garden and 100 acres of land, this villa has two hidden gardens on different levels and has been restored by the Castelbarco Albani family to its original glory. We then stopped at the quaint port town of Senigallia, located at the mouth of the River Misa. After an iced coffee at a local patisserie, we explored the town including stopping in at a local fair that was taking place.

Others headed up into the interior to visit the medieval walled city of Urbino, perched on a high sloping hilltop. After an elevator ride up to the top of the city walls, we strolled towards the central square, Piazza della Repubblica, a great place to nurse an aperitivo or coffee and feel the town's pulse. From there we walked up to Palazzo Ducale, one of the most interesting architectural and artistic examples of the Italian Renaissance. It's a monument to how one man, Duca Federico da Montefeltro, brought the Renaissance to his small town.

There we admired such works of art as Portrait of a Young Woman by Raphael, who was born here in Urbino; and Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca, much admired for its early use of linear perspective. We then explored the lanes and shops, stopping at a café to sample a flaky flatbread called crescia, washed down with a glass of the locally produced sparkling wine.

A journey inland to the rolling hills behind Ancona brought some of us to the quaint medieval walled village of Corinaldo. We stopped briefly for an espresso, enjoyed while standing at the bar, and a paparazzi photo opportunity, before carrying on to Marotti Campi winery. Fourth-generation owner Lorenzo showed us the rare heirloom Lacrima and Verdicchio grape varieties growing in his family’s vineyard and then talked us through tasting four different wines made from them. The wines were accompanied by delicious food prepared by his mother, making for a thoroughly convivial excursion.

Back on board the ship, we enjoyed lunch out on deck as the ship's lines were dropped, and the Captain pointed 'Le Bougainville' in the direction of Venice. We then met Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira for a briefing about our plans for tomorrow's arrival in Venice. Cruise Director Paul Carter followed with a summary of the details for disembarkation the following day. Later in the afternoon, we joined Luca Zavagno in The Theatre for the final enrichment lecture of the trip, "Byzantium after Byzantium: Venice and the Fourth Crusade".

In the evening, we all donned our Sunday best for Captain Thomas McCandless' farewell cocktail party. We shared stories from the day over cocktails, and soon the captain stepped up to the microphone to welcome us to the party. Then, Cruise Director Paul Carter introduced us to so many of the ship’s crew that the stage was overflowing. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to see many of the faces that have contributed so much to our enjoyable experience on-board 'Le Bougainville'. 

Thursday, August 29: Venice

During early morning light, we watched from the ship's railing as 'Le Bougainville' slowly cruised past Piazza San Marco, its golden streetlights contrasting with the dark blue-sky overhead. The Campanile, the bell tower of Saint Mark's Basilica, towered over the rest of the buildings around it, making it one of the most recognizable landmarks in Venice.

The historical centre of Venice is situated on a group of 118 small islands that are separated by canals and linked by over 400 bridges, a fact that has resulted in one of Venice's nicknames being "the City of Bridges". The city was historically the capital of the Republic of Venice, a major financial and maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and a staging area for the Crusades.

After making our final preparations for the day, we set out to explore this magical city, some of us on foot, others by boat. Some of us spent the morning practicing our rowing skills in the most hands-on of ways, under the tutelage of an experienced gondolier and racer. She trained us all in the Venetian style of rowing, and we had a great time trying not to splash each other too much with the paddles! We then set off on a gondola ride through the quiet and atmospheric canals of the city.

Others visited some of the main sites of Venice in our lovely water taxi, which allowed us to appreciate the city from water level. We stopped at the impressive Rialto Bridge, the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal. Originally a pontoon bridge built in 1181, the Rialto Bridge is a quintessential landmark, easily recognized by all the shops perched along its length. It was magical to arrive by small boat to Piazza San Marco, the central heart of the city and the only square in Venice referred to as a 'piazza' (the others are called 'piazzales' or 'campos'). Piazza San Marco is the lowest point in the city, and therefore the first to flood during the highest high tides.

Some of us spent the day strolling the quaint lanes and off-the-beaten-track alleyways of Venice, stopping in at the Frari Church, with its two large and important altarpieces by Titian, the Assumption of the Virgin on the high altar and the Pesaro Madonna. At Scuola Grande di San Rocco (named after the Catholic saint regarded as a protector against plague), we admired some of the finest works by the artist Tintoretto.

After lunch, we took in the interior of St. Mark's Basilica, where there are more than 85,000 square feet of mosaics, enough to cover over 1.5 American football fields! The mosaics were done over 8 centuries, and the building is often called the Church of Gold because many of those mosaics are made of gold! We then visited Doge's Palace, admiring Tintoretto's painting Paradise, which fills the entire wall behind the seats of the Doge and the highest officials. Its dimensions of 22 x 7 meters rank it as the world's largest oil-painting.

Some of us set off for a scenic boat trip north to Mazzorbo Island, home of a winery and vineyard that specialize in a limited-production white wine made from a white grape variety called Dorana. Enclosed by ancient walls and towered over by a 13th-century bell tower, the winery was gorgeous, and the golden-hued wine (so-coloured due to the juice being kept in contact with the skins) was delicious. We enjoyed learning the history of the estate, as well as the process by which they produce this delicious wine.

Back on the ship, we watched a wonderful retrospective slide show, made up of photos taken by the Expedition Staff and compiled by Photo Coach Richard Harker. The photos were amazing, and our experiences here seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.

Friday, August 30: Venice

We awoke this morning quietly alongside the dock in Venice and, after breakfast, disembarked 'Le Bougainville', our home for the past ten days. Some of us were spending a few more days here in the City of Bridges, while others headed off to the airport for flights home. We have reached the end of our exploration of Italy with Abercrombie & Kent. The final days of this journey have been dominated by reflection on all we have seen and experienced, and celebration of the new friends we have shared this wonderful adventure with.