01 of 09
The MSC Splendida sails seven-day cruises of the Western Mediterranean almost year-round. This fascinating port-intensive itinerary visits seven cities, five countries, and two continents, making it particularly attractive for those who would like just a taste of different regional cultures. Passengers can board in any of the European ports of call, which makes the embarkation/disembarkation process smoother and also the cruise more enticing to travelers.
This flexible boarding option is attractive for at least three reasons. Passengers can select the embarkation port (1) closest to their home, (2) with the cheapest airfare, or (3) where they would most like to extend their cruise vacation. Whatever the reason, it's a plus for travelers.
I sailed on the MSC Splendida in October 2009, and we visited the following ports:
- Barcelona, Spain (embarkation)
- La Goulette, Tunisia (near Tunis)
- La Valletta, Malta
- Messina, Sicily
- Civitavecchia, Italy (near Rome)
- Genoa, Italy
- Marseille, France
- Barcelona, Spain (disembarkation)
We boarded the MSC Splendida in Barcelona. Since the ship sails in the early afternoon, boarding is earlier in the day than for many cruises. The lines were short for most passengers, but non-existent for us since we were staying in the MSC Yacht Club VIP area. Having a butler greet us in the cruise terminal and personally escorting us and our luggage to the cabin was only the first of many such pamperings we experienced over the week.
Join me on a cruise of the western Mediterranean on the MSC Splendida.Continue to 2 of 9 below.
02 of 09
Day in Barcelona Before MSC Splendida Cruise
Barcelona is one of the most popular cruise ship ports in the Mediterranean, and the reputation is well-deserved. I've visited Barcelona several times, but my friend had not, so we spent a day and a half and and two nights exploring the city before our MSC Splendida cruise.
We arrived in Barcelona in the early evening and checked in at the Hotel Regina, which is just a block from the Placa Catalunya and La Rambla. It was a nice place to stay, included a full breakfast, and was in an excellent location. Since Barcelona is a city where everyone stays up late, we had time to enjoy a drink in a sidewalk cafe and a short walk around La Rambla before turning in.
One of the easiest ways to tour a city for the first time is to ride a hop-on, hop-off bus. In Barcelona, it's called the Bus Turistic, and it has two main routes--red and blue. We were able to buy Bus Turistic tickets at the hotel. It cost us 4 euros at the hotel to buy a bus package, but we then saved 6 euros on our bus tour at the bus stop -- 21 euros without the hotel package and 15 euros with. Every little euro helps.
We got good seats on the double-decker bus before 10 am outside and upstairs on the bus, so we rode the whole red route (almost 2 hours) without stopping, and got off at Casa Batllo, one of the architect Gaudi-designed houses that is a UNESCO world heritage site. Before touring the home, we ate a snack at a sidewalk tapas bar/cafe and listened to an excellent street entertainer from West Africa who was singing "easy listening music". I love the atmosphere of a cosmopolitan city like Barcelona!
After our snack, we walked across the street to the Gaudi-designed home, which was built for the Batllo family in the early 1900's, and had an enjoyable tour (with headphones). The fee was expensive (13.5 euros with our bus discount), but it was fascinating to see this amazing piece of Gaudi's work. There wasn't a straight wall in the place, and the windows, walls, and ceiling were all whimsical and interesting.
After touring the Casa Batllo, we rode the red route bus to La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's famous unfinished church. Needless to say, not much has been done since I had visited there a few months before. They've been working on this masterpiece for over 100 years, and it may be another 25 before it is finished since they are only using donations. It's definitely one "must see" in Barcelona.Continue to 3 of 9 below.
03 of 09
Touring Barcelona and Boarding the MSC Splendida
Juanda and I hopped on the Barcelona blue bus this time and rode the route past the Olympic stadium and down by the port and beaches. There were several cruise ships and ferries in port, including the Norwegian Gem and the Celebrity Century.
We got off the blue bus in the old town area (Bari Gotic) and walked up La Rambla back to the hotel, stopping for a glass of white wine at the Zurich Cafe near our hotel. We then walked to a nice tapas bar recommended by the hotel for dinner. It was excellent, but the outdoor ambiance and people-watching were even better.
The next morning we walked to the marvelous market La Boqueria on La Rambla, only to find it closed for a national holiday. So, we hopped in a taxi and rode to another Gaudi-designed area named Parc Guell. It's one of my favorites in Barcelona, and I always like to take friends there. Gaudi's designs and use of ceramics and tile transfer readily to the outdoors. There were many visitors at Parc Guell, and Juanda and I wandered around for about 30 minutes before taking a taxi back to the hotel.
We checked out of the hotel at around 11:15 am and were on the ship before noon. As we entered the check in area with our bags, two very proper and staid young men, both dressed in morning coats met us and called us by name. We quickly learned that it was the head butler Hary and our primary butler Jeanneau, both from Madagascar. They walked us to the check in line (no waiting), and Hary escorted us to the cabin (deck 15 #15034) while Jeanneau took care of the luggage. We really felt like Princesses!
Only 600 passengers of the 3900 passengers boarded in Barcelona, and only 6 for the MSC Yacht Club area where we were staying, so it was probably easy for Hary and Jeanneau to recognize us. Still, it was flattering to be called by name.
Juanda and I explored the cabin, unpacked, and drank a bottle of Prosecco, which was already iced down. Sure made unpacking more fun! We went to Top Sail Lounge in the MSC Yacht Club for lunch and were the only ones there since our fellow Yacht Club members were still off touring Barcelona. All portions were tiny and perfect for lunch.
After lunch, we visited the spa and booked a massage for Juanda and a facial for me. The spa was gorgeous. That evening, we dined in the special MSC Yacht Club section of Villa Verde, one of the two main restaurants. Since we were the only English passengers in the Yacht Club, we had a table for two by the window--a perfect location. Juanda had fish for dinner and I had lamb chops, and the food was very good. After dinner, we went to the show, which we enjoyed immensely. The show was lively, and the numerous languages spoken on this multi-national ship didn't matter. One thing you had to get used to on this ship -- all announcements at the shows or otherwise were made in 5 languages -- Italian, German, English, Spanish, and French. Thankfully, the announcements were rare.Continue to 4 of 9 below.
04 of 09
A Day in Africa - La Goulette and Tunis, Tunisia
One of the highlights of this MSC Splendida itinerary was a day in Tunisia. Many times travelers forget that north Africa is also on the Mediterranean. The MSC Splendida was at sea our first morning on the ship, sailing on towards Tunis. Juanda and I booked a private tour, which was a good choice since the city was very crowded and the larger tours didn't get as much in. Our guide Tajet had gotten his PhD in England in psycholinguistics, and he teaches at a university in Tunis and guides on the side.
We started with the most famous museum in Tunis, the Bardo National Museum. The museum has the world's largest collection of Roman mosaics. These ancient mosaics from all over Tunisia and north Africa were cut up into large pieces and moved to the museum. Most dated from the 1st to 4th century AD, and were quite remarkable. Interestingly, the mosaics from the 4th century were not as intricate and skilled as those from the 3rd. Evidently, the Roman Christian conquerors at the time forced the artisans were to omit pagan gods and symbols from their work. These artisans did not like the government controlling the subjects of their work, so they intentionally made the mosaics with figures sized inappropriately and the artwork looking like a beginner did it. Even an untrained eye like mine could tell the mosaics from the 4th century were not as intricate and beautiful as those from earlier periods. The Romans occupied much of north Africa, with Carthage (near Tunis), being one of the most important Roman cities.
After touring the museum, we drove into the heart of the city to visit the Medina (the old city). I was glad Juanda got to experience a real souk (enclosed shopping area with hundreds of shops), which looked remarkably like those in Marrakech and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. We visited a rug shop where we got a great view of the city from the roof.
Next, we drove into the countryside to visit Sidi Bou Said, a lovely village with whitewashed houses and blue shutters. Sidi Bou Said looked a little like Greece, but not quite as nice. Many tour buses were there, and there were numerous tents set up selling souvenirs. Near the village were some of the Carthaginian ruins and the remains of a huge Roman aqueduct system.
There is also an American Cemetery from World War II near Tunis. Tarek had the driver stop and I made a couple of photos. Many soldiers died in North Africa during the War and were buried in this well-maintained area. It was a fast four hours, and we were back on the ship before we knew it.
That night for dinner, we had reservations at L'Olivio, the Mediterranean specialty restaurant. It was excellent, and the menu included dishes from 14 countries bordering the Mediterranean. After dinner, we went to the show, which was even better (to me) than the night before. It featured more singing and dancing and no gymnastics. The next day we would be on the island of Malta.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Malta - Crossroads of the Mediterranean
We woke up the next morning just in time to watch the views as we sailed into the harbor at Valletta, Malta. After eating a light breakfast in our special Yacht Club area, we had an 8:45 shore excursion that included a tour of the ancient capital of Malta called Mdina and a tour of the current capital of Malta, which is Valletta. Our tour was in English and was with some of the other 100 English-speaking passengers on the ship.
Archaeologists have found Maltese remains of a civilization from 5,000 years ago, which is older than the Great Pyramids of Egypt or Stonehenge in England. These ancient sites are summarized in the archeological museum in Valletta, which we didn't have time to visit. Our tours were mainly of the old towns and two main cathedrals. The one in Mdina was re-built in the early 1700's after the old one was destroyed by an earthquake. The cathedral in Valletta is most famous for its eight naves, one dedicated to each of the languages spoken around the Mediterranean. It is also famous for its two paintings done by the Italian artist Caravaggio. One is about the beheading of John the Baptist, and the second is St. Jerome. Caravaggio lived in Malta for a few years after being exiled from Italy as a criminal.
We also walked through old town Valletta and visited the gardens overlooking the harbor. We came back to the ship about 1 pm and ate lunch in the a la carte Tex Mex restaurant. After a relaxing afternoon on the ship, we joined two women from Michigan for a drink in the Aft Lounge, a lovely bar on the stern of the ship.
Juanda and I had dinner in the Yacht Club area of Villa Verde before going to the casino and contributing a few euros to the slot machines. The show was (again) excellent, with a quirky art theme. With five languages being used throughout the ship plus a few others), comedians or those who have to speak (like a ventriloquist) just don't work, so MSC relies on musical, gymnastic, and variety acts. The entertainment works well and was enjoyed by everyone.Continue to 6 of 9 below.
06 of 09
Taormina, Sicily - Shore Excursion from Messina
Our luck with the good weather ran out in Sicily. We woke to gloomy skies and by the time we left the ship for the drive to Taormina, it was raining. It was a shame, because Taormina is a lovely Sicilian hill town overlooking the Mediterranean. The bus ride along the coast took about an hour from Messina.
Just two weeks before we were in Sicily, the island experienced major mud slides near Messina, killing at least 29 people. Since it had only been a couple of weeks since the disaster, we saw many remnants such as cars, homes, and roads still covered with mud. Our guide said the motorway we drove on had been impassable for several days. Very sad. Messina was completely destroyed (over 90 percent) by an earthquake in 1908, and the allies dropped thousands of bombs on the city in 1943. The very narrow Strait of Messina, separating Sicily from the mainland of Italy, has long been sought by military forces, including the Romans.
We arrived in Taormina about 9:30 and had to take small shuttle buses from the parking lot into the town. With many buses there and about 50 per bus, this took a while, although they did line us up by bus. It probably seemed longer since we were standing in the rain. (Our bus needed 3 mini-buses to ride the 5 or so minutes into town.)
Our guide took us to the ancient Greco-Roman open theater in Taormina, but after a few minutes of traipsing around in the rain, we split off from the group and went to a cafe and had a hot chocolate. It was too rainy to explore the quaint town thoroughly, which was sad.
The group met back up at 11:30 and repeated the mini-bus shuttle back to the parking lot while it still rained. While we were in Taormina, other passengers went to the Mt. Etna volcano or took a Messina city tour.
We were back at the ship for lunch, and then sat up in the Yacht Club Topsail observation lounge and watched the rain. We passed very close to the volcanic island of Stromboli, but it wasn't erupting like when I last saw it in 2006. The top of the volcano was covered in clouds, giving it a very eerie appearance.
We met some new friends for drinks and another excellent dinner at L'Olivo. The four of us went to the "gala" farewell show at 9:30. Although we were not disembarking the next day, many passengers were. The show was excellent, with various variety acts, including a hula hoop girl, juggler, and a guy who did shadow hand puppets. (It sounds hokey, but he was excellent.) His figures were very sophisticated, and he even had one smoking a cigarette and singing. You had to be there. All the entertainers from the whole week got together for the finale with the singers performing "Time to Say Goodbye", which is one of my favorites and a perfect cruise farewell song. The animators who were so good with the puppets and black light at one of the earlier shows did a farewell in all five languages -- very touching.Continue to 7 of 9 below.
07 of 09
Civitavecchia and Rome
The good thing about the MSC Splendida's seven-day western Mediterranean itinerary is that the ship visits a new port each day. The bad thing about the MSC Splendida's seven-day western Mediterranean itinerary is that the ship doesn't have a full sea day. There's a half-day at sea in the morning between Barcelona and La Goulette and a half-day at sea between Messina and Civitavecchia, but neither of these allow passengers time to just relax and explore this beautiful ship.
Since Juanda and I had both been to Rome before, we decided to make that day our "sea day". We were lavishly spoiled in the spa, followed by a quiet day on the ship. It was fun and rejuvenating.
While we were being lazy, most of the other passengers on the ship either took a shore excursion from Civitavecchia into Rome on a bus or rode the train into the city on their own. The MSC Splendida offers the same Rome excursions I've seen and enjoyed on other ships. The Rome shore excursions all start with a 1.5 hour ride into Rome. Most were full day tours that included a selection of all the wonderful sights of Rome. Participants just need to choose which ones appeal to them. The sights include the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Vatican City, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, and the Forum.
Those who choose to do Rome "on their own" can either ride a bus or the train. The MSC Splendida did not sail for Genoa until 7 pm, allowing everyone a full day to see as much (or as little) as they liked in Rome.
About 1500 passengers disembarked/embarked in Rome, so we had some new faces on the ship that night. The next day we would be in Genoa, in the Liguria region of Italy.Continue to 8 of 9 below.
08 of 09
The next day the MSC Splendida docked in Genoa, Italy, arriving early in the morning. Juanda and I did a walking tour of the old town. This was the first "official" dual language (English and German) tour we were on. It seemed almost excruciatingly slow - having to wait on the guide to provide her spiel twice at each stop. In general, MSC's tour prices were very reasonable, but the groups were way too large, especially for walking tours. Having more participants on each tour certainly keeps the prices down, but at some point many people would be willing to pay more.
We first boarded a tour boat right at the ship and rode around the harbor along with our shipmates of all nationalities who were taking the city walking tour. There must have been about 200 (or more) on the small boat. We rode past the Marrioti shipyard where this ship (and others) were built before docking next to the large Genoa Aquarium. The walking tour was quite interesting (except for the German language part - and they probably felt the same way). We walked slightly uphill from the harbor a couple of blocks into the pedestrian area and went inside the black and white striped cathedral, which is home to a bomb from World War II that ripped through the roof of the church and never exploded. We also passed by many palaces and were surprised to see the statue in front of the opera house clad in a pink scarf honoring breast cancer awareness month. The large fountain outside the opera house was filled with pink water spraying into the air. Nice touch.
Our last stop on the tour was along Garibaldi Street, the furthest point from the harbor. This street is lined with beautiful old palazzos. Genoa was once a very rich city. One palazzo is now the city hall, and we saw several bridal pairs strolling down Garibaldi from their Saturday weddings at the city hall.
We went inside Palazzo Rosso, which is now a museum and home to several paintings by the Flemish (Dutch) masters. We saw a half dozen by Van Dyke, including some portraits and religious paintings. Leaving Palazzo Rosso, we walked back towards the Aquarium, and had about 45 minutes of free time. It was very sunny again, but cool and in the 60s, so Juanda and I stopped for a hot chocolate at a sidewalk cafe.
The boat ride back to the ship only took about 5 minutes since the ship was docked nearby. We were back on the ship shortly after 1 pm and ate a leisurely lunch with our books at our table in Villa Verde. The rest of the afternoon I napped and worked on my photos and cruise travel journal and Juanda took her book to the Topsail Observation Lounge. We also participated in the mandatory life boat drill, a little odd for our next to last day on the ship, but understandable since Genoa has the most passengers boarding.
The next day would be our last port of call, Marseille, and our fifth country in six days, France.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09
The MSC Splendida docked about 8 am in Marseille, and Juanda and I took a a morning tour of the city. Many of our fellow passengers chose to go to either Avignon or Aix-en-Provence for full day tours. Both sounded excellent, but we really enjoyed seeing a small part of the city of Marseille.
We rode mostly on the bus, riding along the Corniche road that hugs the cliff and follows the coastline. We did stop for photos of the islands looming in the harbor near the city. One of the islands, Chateau d'If, has a large fortress built in the 16th century. It is the setting Alexander Dumas chose for the prison in the famous book, the "Count of Monte Cristo".
We also stopped at the Basilica Our Lady of the Guard (Notre Dame de la Garde), which sits on a hill overlooking this second largest city of France. The bus had quite a time navigating the narrow, winding road that wound its way to the top of the hill. After we stepped off the bus, we still had 130+ steps to the elevator and then three levels up in it, so we got our workout and had great views of the city. The site has been used as a place of worship since 1214 and the cathedral was built in 1864. The inside of the church is filled with beautiful mosaics. The church still has bullet holes left over from World War II attacks.
Leaving the Cathedral, we rode through the old town and did a short photo stop at Longchamp Palace, which was built to celebrate the connection of the Provence Canal to Marseille. It's quite a waterworks.
Our last stop was at the handicraft market along the harbor. Although it was Sunday, the market was open and had lots of souvenirs available. We both enjoyed the city tour, returning just in time for lunch.
That afternoon and evening we packed and enjoyed our last evening on the ship.
So many times disembarkation is rushed and frustrating as passengers "hurry up and wait" to go ashore. However, the next morning, our butler and his assistant escorted us and our luggage off the ship in Barcelona to a waiting taxi. We didn't even have to put the luggage outside the cabin the night before. It couldn't have been easier, and was a happy ending to a marvelous cruise of the western Mediterranean on the MSC Splendida. A big plus for the cruise was staying in the MSC Yacht Club -- it was fabulous.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.